Y Cyfarfod Llawn
The Assembly met by video-conference at 13:32 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome, all, to this Senedd Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This is a Plenary meeting held by video-conference in accordance with the Standing Orders of the National Assembly for Wales, and it constitutes proceedings of the Assembly for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Having consulted with the Business Committee, some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today’s Plenary meeting and these are noted on our agenda. The meeting will be broadcast live and the Record of Proceedings will be published as usual. I wish to remind Members that all Standing Orders relating to order and the organisation of business in Plenary apply to this meeting.
The first item, therefore, this afternoon is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the First Minister to make that statement.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are no changes to this week’s agenda. Draft business for the next three sitting weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the papers available to Members electronically.
I thank the First Minister. The next item is a statement by the First Minister on coronavirus. I call on the First Minister to make the statement.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. Today, I will provide Members with an update on the work that’s being driven forward across Wales in response to coronavirus. Every part of Welsh Government, local government, the health service, the emergency services, the voluntary sector and business are part of this gargantuan effort. Everyone is working together to prepare services and to support businesses and the vulnerable. Every individual in Wales is making an important contribution through following the advice to stay at home. This is already making a difference. We must persevere for everyone’s benefit.
Llywydd, near the start of my statement this week, I want to begin by sending my best wishes to the Prime Minister following his admission to intensive care for treatment for coronavirus. I wish also to wish our colleague Alun Davies a speedy recovery following his treatment in hospital this week. I know that we will all be wishing them both well.
Llywydd, my aim in these weekly statements is to provide Members with an account of the most recent and significant developments across Wales since our last Plenary meeting. Over the course of the last week, the Welsh Government has taken further action to protect people's health, to strengthen our NHS, and to support businesses as we continue to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Today, we are approaching the end of the initial three-week period of the stay-at-home rules. I want to again place on record my thanks to people throughout Wales for the solidarity that has been shown in complying with these vitally necessary restrictions. All of this is making a difference—the actions every one of us is taking to limit contact with others and to stay at home and to work from home wherever possible—all of that is helping to slow down the spread of the virus and to protect the most vulnerable.
But, because of the time lag between these measures coming into effect and seeing their results, we know that things will still get worse before they get better. More people will fall ill, more people will need to be admitted to hospital, and more families across Wales will face the heartbreak of losing somebody they love.
The latest figures show a further 291 cases in Wales, bringing the overall confirmed total to 3,790—although we know that the true number of cases will be higher. Very sadly, the total number of deaths now stands at 212, each one of those an individual, each one whose absence we now mourn.
Yesterday, just after midnight, an amendment to those stay-at-home rules came into force, extending the social distancing duty to all workplaces. This means that all workplaces that remain open in Wales must take all reasonable steps to maintain a 2m distance between people to reduce the spread of coronavirus. The workforce is the greatest asset in any workplace, and these regulations underline the obligation to safeguard the health and well-being of those workers through all reasonable measures.
Llywydd, this week has seen a set of developments in our health and social care services, from returning doctors and carers to the creation of field hospitals. In relation to testing, we have seen the development of drive-in testing centres in Wales and testing for social care staff. As our capacity to do more tests increases, we will roll that out to more people and professional groups, including the police and prison staff, as set out in our national testing plan for Wales published this week.
Llywydd, ensuring health and social care staff have the right personal protective equipment to do their job is a top priority for the Welsh Government. Last week, new UK-wide PPE guidance was issued, and this has simplified where PPE should be used and also extended its use. The new guidance will increase the drawdown from our stocks of PPE. To date, we have issued more than eight million additional items from our pandemic stocks to the NHS and to local authorities, and that's over and above the supplies that are normally held by the NHS itself.
We are working with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to ensure an ongoing supply of PPE, but we have also asked Welsh businesses to switch their normal production lines to make PPE for Wales, and we've had a tremendous response from Welsh companies so far. Amongst others, the Royal Mint and the Rototherm Group are making face visors and shields that will be worn by health staff, and a gin distillery, In The Welsh Wind, is making World Health Organization-approved hand sanitisers.
In turning to the economy, I’m pleased to be able to update Members about the progress we have made, with much thanks to our colleagues in local government, in supporting small businesses during the pandemic. In the 10 days since our grant scheme for those smaller businesses was opened, our local authorities have made more than 17,700 awards and paid out £229 million. That figure is rising daily, and I really do want to extend my thanks to our local authority colleagues for the help that they have provided in assuring that this help reaches those who need it most. In the last week, we also confirmed support for Cardiff Airport, and will announce further details about the £500 million economic resilience fund next week.
Llywydd, I am very grateful to you and the Business Committee for agreeing that these Plenary sessions can be used for priority legislation. The Welsh Government continues, for example, to identify key European legislation that will need to be brought before the Senedd.
Llywydd, I want to end by looking ahead. The three weeks of stay-at-home restrictions provided for in legislation, and which we have all faced, are due to end next week. I must be plain with all Members: these restrictions will not end then. We will not throw away the gains we have made and the lives we can save by abandoning our efforts just as they begin to bear fruit.
Since we last met, I have discussed this matter with the First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland, with the Secretary of State for Health in the UK Government, and today with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for Wales. There is more work to do in reviewing the regulations and in receiving the most up to date scientific and medical advice; the precise nature of what will follow the current regime will be agreed over the coming days.
But I must leave Welsh citizens in no doubt: the efforts we are all making are not yet over. They will not be over next week. Before the restrictions can be lifted and the return to normality begins, there is more for us all to do. I thank every one of those thousands and thousands of people in Wales who make their contribution every day and who will go on doing so over the days ahead. Together, we are making a real difference, we are protecting our national health service and, together, we are saving lives.
I want to reiterate my huge thanks to all front line essential workers who continue to do a fantastic job in keeping us all safe. Can I also convey my condolences to those who have lost loved ones during this pandemic? Like you, First Minister, I send my best wishes to the Prime Minister and to Alun Davies, and I wish them a speedy recovery.
Now, First Minister, over the weekend, the newly elected leader of the UK Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, made it clear that his party will engage constructively with the UK Government, not oppose for opposition's sake, and not score party political points or make impossible demands. Therefore, can I reiterate that sentiment and say that my colleagues and I will do all that we can to continue to work constructively throughout this period?
He also made it clear that scrutiny is important. And so, in the spirit of that sentiment, I think it's fair to ask why, of all of the issues currently facing the people of Wales, the Welsh Government is continuing to press ahead with the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill today, at a time when, quite frankly, any and all Government resources should be dedicated to tackling the impact of coronavirus on our communities? I hope, First Minister, that you'll reflect on that.
Now, also over the weekend, the health Minister made it clear that, while he could not be 100 per cent confident the NHS would cope, he felt that all that could be done was being done. However, like other Members I'm sure, I'm continuing to receive correspondence from anxious and worried constituents who feel that there are still people delivering important front-line services that do not have adequate personal protective equipment. For example, I'm aware that some patients have been denied access to emergency dental treatment due to the lack of protective equipment that's currently available. I know you've made reference in your statement today that an additional eight million pieces of equipment have been distributed, but can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to identify any gaps in the provision of PPE, and what further work is being done to expedite the delivery of this equipment of key workers at this time?
Now, I understand that Wales currently has the capacity to administer around 1,100 tests a day with the aim of reaching 5,000 tests a day in a few weeks before hitting up to 9,000 tests a day by the end of April. Given the increased pressure on the NHS due to coronavirus, it's vital that the number of tests administered is now accelerating so that the public can be confident that levels of testing are as high as practically possible. Perhaps you could, therefore, tell us if that's still the case, and whether the Welsh Government is still on track to reach 9,000 tests by the end of the month.
Now, the Welsh Government has also made it clear that it's diversifying the range of people it's working with in order to increase its capacity, and I understand that there has been some dialogue with universities about the role they can play in helping deliver additional capacity at this time. Therefore, can you tell us a bit more about the discussions that are taking place with universities, and indeed other institutions and organisations, about the role that they could play in supporting the NHS and helping to increase Wales's current capacity and resources?
Llywydd, I thank Paul Davies for those questions, and I want to thank him for his continuing engagement in the effort that we are making. I completely agree with him that it's entirely cross-party and cross-Government.
I'm very glad that we have been able to continue with scrutiny here in Wales. It's a very important part of that scrutiny that key elements in our legislative programme can be brought forward and can be scrutinised by the Assembly. I think that's a very proper use of our time. We are in work; we're expecting other people in Wales to be in work, and part of our work as a legislature is to put essential legislation on to the statute book here in Wales. That is why I'm very glad that we will be able to debate the local government Bill; it is very important to all local authorities and to 16 and 17-year-olds here in Wales that that Bill makes progress and is able to reach the statute book. The Welsh Government is clear: we will only bring in front of the Senedd during this period those pieces of legislation that we think are vital to the commitments that we have made to people in Wales and that are necessary to make our statute book coherent. I think an integral part of what a legislature does is to deal with that priority legislation, and I'm very glad that we are able to do that this afternoon.
Of course I hear what Paul Davies says about PPE and all of us as Assembly Members will have heard directly from individuals who are fearful of being put in a position through the necessary work that they are doing in which they may be exposed to risk. We've already released, as Paul Davies recognised, 8 million pieces of PPE from our pandemic stores, and that will continue to rise over the days ahead. I expect it to be nearly 11 million by the time we get over this weekend.
Can I be clear that there are no current gaps in the supplies we hold? We have sufficient supplies at this point. Where there have been some bottlenecks is just in getting the supplies to the people who need it, and that's because this is an enormous effort—far beyond everything that we've ever needed to do before. Not only are we supplying hospitals, but we are supplying dental surgeries, GP surgeries, care homes, local authorities themselves, and an enormous effort is going on to try to make sure that those supplies reach the people who need them.
There is a dedicated helpline and e-mail address for places that feel that they don't have what they need and then, there's a system in place to try and make sure that we get those people what they require as fast as possible. Our ability to replenish those stores is very important indeed, and for that, we rely primarily on the UK-wide procurement effort that is going on. I spoke with Matt Hancock yesterday and received assurances that Welsh stocks will be replenished from that central source, and I'm very grateful for that assurance as we do our best to ramp up the ability to get supplies from indigenous Welsh suppliers as well.
We are accelerating the number of tests that we are able to provide in Wales and the testing centre in Cardiff City stadium is now up; it was working very successfully yesterday afternoon. It will be seeing 200 people today. It will allow us to test more social care workers and then to extend testing to police, prison officers and other front-line workers.
As to diversification, we are indeed in discussions with universities. We're very grateful to them for releasing their stocks of PPE into the system for use by the NHS and, of course, we're discussing matters with laboratory staff to see how we might be able to use their capacity to accelerate the number of tests that we can carry out in Wales.
First Minister, as the Easter holidays approach us, it is absolutely critical that the Welsh Government redoubles its public messaging to make crystal clear that people must stay at home. Sadly, we are continuing to see and hear reports of people not adhering to the Government advice and whilst the police have some powers now to fine those going against Government guidance, there still appears to be a problem with the enforcement of the stay-at-home rule. I know that both the UK Government and the Welsh Government are considering further measures if this activity continues to take place, so perhaps you could tell us a bit more about the discussions that are taking place on this specific issue and the types of further measures that are actually being considered.
I know in my own constituency as well as other areas, there are still holiday home owners travelling to their second homes rather than staying at home, and whilst I welcome the steps that the Welsh Government has already taken to close caravan parks and other holiday parks, clearly more now needs to be done. Therefore, what more is the Welsh Government doing to prohibit the travel of second home owners to holiday hotspots here in Wales?
Whilst families are forced to spend more and more time inside their own homes, it's crucial that they have access to the very latest information and guidance both online and offline. Clearly, more needs to be done to support communities that are still living with substandard broadband provision so that those living in those areas can have access to important educational resources, financial applications, and, of course, the latest health and Government guidance. Therefore, can you provide an update on the Welsh Government's work to ensure that all households are able to have access to a decent broadband service at this time?
And finally, Llywydd, there are still some very real concerns for many people unable to access business support, especially start-up businesses, and many people feel that they've fallen through the gaps in terms of the support on offer, by both the UK and Welsh Governments—for example, companies like hauliers and agency workers like supply teachers and others. Therefore, given the circumstances and the desperate need to ensure that those who need support have access to it, can you tell us what review of Government support the Welsh Government is looking at to identify gaps in the packages that are available, and what further work is the Welsh Government doing to get those who currently fall between the gaps access to business support?
Well, again, Llywydd, I thank Paul Davies for those questions. Can I join him in reinforcing the message that we have sent over the last two weekends and want to send again in the clearest possible terms? In advance of the Easter weekend, the stay-at-home advice means you; it's not advice to somebody else, for somebody else to follow, it's advice for every one of us and every one of us is under an obligation to follow that advice. And a journey to a second home is not an essential journey, and where the police in Wales stop people who are doing that, they will take enforcement action against them.
Now, we have a call with the chief constables prior to the weekend and immediately after the weekend to make sure that they are geared up for the very important work that we are asking them to do and then to receive a report from them on how they discharged their responsibilities. On Monday of this week, the reports from all four chief constables were that while there had been incidents right across Wales, they were sporadic rather than organised, they did not, in the view of the chief constables, represent affraying of the astonishing levels of observance that Welsh citizens have shown to the obligations that we all face, and that, where they had come across incidents, the powers that they currently have—including road blocks, for example, as well as fines—that repertoire of enforcement actions was still sufficient for them to be able to deal with the infringements they saw. And I once again made it clear in those discussions with chief constables that, if that view were to change and their advice to the Welsh Government was that they needed a strengthened repertoire of enforcement actions, we will not hesitate to do that. At this point, their advice to us was that what they currently have is sufficient to meet the challenges that they face and I will be guided by that advice.
Even in these really very difficult times, work does go on to try to strengthen broadband where it is not as good as we would like it to be and I recognise the context in which Paul Davies set out why that is particularly important. I don't have with me the detail of the additional work that's going on, but I'm happy to supply that, of course. As to business support, I think there are two roles that the Welsh Government fulfils. One is that, because we are a participant, every day, in sub-groups of the COBRA system, we are able to convey directly to UK Government Ministers the gaps in the provision that people are finding as the very welcome measures that the UK Government put in place are rolled out in practice. It's not a criticism at all to suggest that as ideas move from being on paper to being delivered on the ground some glitches will emerge in the way that those things are happening.
Our direct face-to-face contact gives us an opportunity to put those points on behalf of Welsh businesses directly to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who chairs some of these meetings, and directly to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, who chairs some of these meetings. That's something that we're very pleased to do—to be a direct voice for Welsh businesses in helping the UK Government to improve the practical delivery of the schemes it has put in place.
Next week, when we make announcements on the remaining £400 million of business support that we intend to make in Wales, focusing that help on gaps in help that is otherwise already available has been a key test for us in shaping that package. We do it in discussions with others—the Confederation of British Industry, the Federation of Small Businesses and so on. Challenging as it is, given the scale of need out there, our aim is to focus that £400 million in the way that Paul Davies suggested, so that its impact lands in those places where other forms of help are not currently available.
May I endorse what the First Minister said and extend our best wishes to the UK Prime Minister, and to everyone else who is unwell at the moment? I hope that Alun Davies also makes a speedy recovery. May I also thank you, First Minister, for the opportunity to be briefed this morning by the lead officials leading the response to this crisis?
If we turn to PPE, you recognised, First Minister, that PPE is, obviously, a concern. The Royal College of Nursing say that they have repeatedly asked the Welsh Government to share the distribution schedule for PPE so that they can reassure their members. Can you give a commitment today that that will now happen? And can you say by what date all of the front-line staff that you have identified as needing PPE will receive it in the quantities required?
Because of the bottlenecks in PPE that you referred to, some public bodies—Carmarthenshire County Council, for example—are beginning to procure directly from China themselves. What steps are you taking, as a Government, as a complement to the UK-wide approach that you referred to, to procure additional resources internationally? In particular, what approaches have you made, either directly as Ministers or officials, to the Chinese Government and to Chinese suppliers, where, of course, the majority of sources reside?
International experience suggests that earlier intervention can keep the unwell out of hospital and aid recovery. Physicians in Italy, for example, suggest that early oxygen therapy and pulse oximeters delivered at the homes of the mildly ill would limit hospitalisation. Will you confirm whether or not you are actively looking at such a new treatment regime?
If I could turn to ventilators, I think between those we currently have and those that are on order we have just over 1,000 invasive ventilators, I believe, that will be available to us. When will we know whether that supply—that projected supply—will be enough to meet the current projected peak demand?
On 12 March, the policy of widespread community testing was discontinued. Professor Anthony Costello, professor of global health at University College London and a former director of the World Health Organization, says that case detection, tracking and isolation will get the epidemic down much quicker. Are you going to adopt this approach of testing, tracing and isolation in Wales?
And finally, following your confirmation that Roche were the company involved in the collapsed deal, will you now publish the agreement that existed between the Welsh Government and the company? If you're unwilling to do so now, will you at least commit today to do so at the earliest possible opportunity, once a semblance of normality has returned? And in terms of the numbers of tests now, would it be possible for us to have daily figures for the number of tests, as happens in Scotland, for example, so we can track progress towards the figure of 9,000, I believe—perhaps you could confirm that—of daily tests that you're aiming to achieve by the end of this month?
I thank Adam Price for those questions and for his opening remarks.
In relation to PPE and the distribution schedule, the chief medical officer has a weekly meeting with the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges; the Royal College of Nursing is, I'm sure, represented there and I'm sure the chief medical officer would be very happy to discuss whether a distribution schedule is an useful tool for members of royal colleges. Our own shared services organisation procures on behalf of Wales. In addition to the supplies we get through the new UK arrangements, we've always been able to secure our own supplies. And in general, my advice to local authorities and others is that it is better to be part of that national effort, although I understand that many organisations have their own suppliers and some long-standing arrangements that they are able to draw on. But we are lucky to have NHS shared services here in Wales—a national organisation with a very good reputation and a very skilled workforce, who are working hard to secure PPE, including from overseas, including contacts in China as well.
Adam asked me a couple of questions, Llywydd, about clinical matters, and my answer can only ever be that I have to be guided by the best clinical advice that I have. So, our clinicians will of course be looking at international evidence of early intervention, and whether there are regimes we should adopt here in Wales. They are far better placed than me to make that assessment, and where our clinicians believe that there are new things that can be done, and that they will be clinical effective in responding to the coronavirus, then of course we will support them in their efforts. The same has to be said as far as our approach to testing, tracking and isolation. The regime we have is the regime recommended to us by the four chief medical officers of the United Kingdom. If there comes a point where their advice to Government is that we need to move in a new direction in relation to testing, then you can be sure the Welsh Government will take their advice. There's no such thing as uncontested advice. We know that there are many different views amongst clinicians and academics and other experts. What Government can't do, what Ministers in the Welsh Government can't to, is to pick and choose between those competing voices. We have to rely on the most senior and authoritative voices that we have, and those are the four chief medical officers that work together very closely to advise all four Governments across the United Kingdom. It's their advice we rely on, and their advice that I continue to take.
As far as ventilators, our concern is—. It's a very good question. Vaughan Gething published on 5 April a detailed statement setting out existing capacity, invasive, non-invasive, the store that is on order, the number of ventilators that have already arrived in Wales. What we then have to do, as I know that Adam Price understands, is we have to match that capacity to the curve of the disease, and because we are not yet completely sure when that peak will be, a precise answer to the 'Have we got enough?' question remains a bit in the balance. What I think we can say with confidence is that the actions we have all taken in recent weeks have suppressed the curve to a point where we can have a much greater degree of confidence that the additional supplies we have of ventilators will match the current pattern of illness much more closely than would have been the case a month ago when we had fewer ventilators in the system and a very different pattern of disease in front of us.
Llywydd, as far as Roche is concerned, I've answered questions on that for about 10 days now, and I've really nothing further to add this afternoon to what I've already said on the record.
Just on the issue of contact tracing, testing and tracing, where there is, obviously, a range of views and a difference of opinion amongst scientists, epidemiologists and public health experts, given that the demographics of Wales are different—and, indeed, Ministers have referred to this—would it be possible for the Welsh Government to commission its own independent modelling, or ask SAGE and the various sub-committees to conduct specific modelling on the issue of whether we in Wales, as we come out of the lockdown, should adopt this policy, the South Korean policy of testing and tracing?
In relation to PPE, can I just say we've been contacted today by one despairing care home owner, who is trying to order PPE from the leading supplier for care homes in the UK only to be told that these supplies were given to them for distribution by Public Health England, and as such they had to be reserved for English-based homes only? Could you make urgent enquiries, First Minister, to verify if that is correct?
And also, in relation to the economic situation that was referred to earlier, it's obviously concerning to learn that the £100 million business loan scheme by the Development Bank of Wales is now fully subscribed after one week? Can you say when and how you plan to extend it?
And finally, in relation to the Easter bank holiday weekend and sending out the right signal, as I'm sure you as First Minister will do, do you think it would be useful for the UK Government, as you have done, to announce, in advance of the weekend, that they were extending the lockdown rather than waiting for the three weeks to be up effectively next Tuesday, so that that would send the strongest possible signal that this is a national emergency, it's not a national holiday?
Llywydd, I thank Adam Price for those important questions. He's right, of course, about the range of views. We have a Welsh representative on SAGE, we have our own chief medical officer. They distil the advice and give bespoke advice for Wales, and that includes some specific modelling that they are able to do, and I will raise with them the specific question that Adam Price has raised about modelling in a contact-tracing area to see whether different advice would come for Wales. Up until now, that hasn't been the case, but we shouldn't stop asking the question, I agree.
On PPE, there is a UK procurement, the product of that gets divided out to Wales, to Northern Ireland, to Scotland and England, and it's then for us to onwardly transmit that to people who need it. If there is someone who is anxious about not getting what they need, they should use the dedicated helpline that's available to them. That way they will get the right answer in the quickest possible way.
On the DBW point, I'm absolutely struck by the signal it sends about the level of distress in the economy. The Development Bank of Wales would normally get about 500 applications a year for the sort of funds that were set aside a week or so ago; they had 1,100 applications in a single week for that £100 million. The good news—and, again, I want to just pay tribute to the staff of the bank, because within three days, they were making the first decisions, and by the end of last week, the first moneys were in the hands of Welsh businesses. The challenge for Welsh Government now is to see whether there's anything more we can do to augment that fund. As Members listening can, I'm sure, understand, there are calls for funding from absolutely every aspect of Welsh life in this crisis, and a finite amount of money from which to meet all those calls. The Welsh Government is squeezing money out of every pocket we can find to try to dedicate to meeting those most urgent needs, and we will be doing that again in the Development Bank of Wales context.
Finally, on Adam Price's point about a concerted UK message in advance of this weekend, that was the purpose of my discussions with the First Ministers of Scotland and Northern Ireland earlier, to try to get a common message. I think we are all agreed that, as I said in my introductory statement, there is no prospect at all that the measures we are all having to observe will come to an end at the end of this three-week period. They will be continuing in Wales next week. I believe they will be continuing elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and if we could get that single message in a concerted, united way out across the United Kingdom, that would, of course, give it additional force and strength.
Thank you for your statement, First Minister. I would like to send my condolences to the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19, my best wishes also to the Prime Minister, our colleague Alun Davies, and, indeed, all those battling this disease at this moment; and my thanks to all who are involved in the fight against the disease: health workers and social care staff, shop workers, delivery drivers, prison officers, and thousands of volunteers, from dog walkers helping the vulnerable to those designing and manufacturing face shields. As the disease continues to wreak havoc throughout Wales, we know no community or person is safe, but we also know that some people still believe that coronavirus only attacks the very old or the very sick. So, my first question here is: will you ensure the Welsh Government message, moving forward, is far stronger?
Technically, we know that the elderly and those with underlying health issues are more at risk, but, at present, our hospitals are filled with people who are under the age of 60, and we also know that young children, very young children, have died through coronavirus with no underlying health issues.
I'm also concerned that not everyone who is particularly prone to this disease is being shielded, and I have been contacted by an NHS worker who flagged up the fact that motor neurone disease has not been included on the extremely vulnerable list in Wales, and measures have been taken in England and Northern Ireland to ensure that those with motor neurone disease are shielded, but there is no such mechanism in Wales. So, First Minister, will you ensure that motor neurone disease sufferers are shielded from this disease?
First Minister, will you also update the public health messaging to reaffirm that the only way people can avoid catching this disease is to avoid contact with others, unless absolutely essential? Already, some people are calling for the relaxation of some of the measures, and some are still failing to follow public health advice. We all want to return to our normal lifestyles as soon as possible, but, in reality, this is not likely to be for some time yet, and this message has to be reinforced. I ask if the Welsh Government is looking to put stronger mitigation measures in place.
First Minister, you have introduced new laws to ensure businesses comply with social distancing guidance, and I welcome the move. However, I am concerned that 'reasonable measures' is vastly open to interpretation. First Minister, why has your stance on this softened from when you first touted the measures before the weekend, and can you outline the scientific evidence that informed your decision-making process? I accept not everyone will have the luxury of staying 2m apart, but those who do not should have the best protection available to shield them from this virus.
First Minister, what steps are you taking to ensure Wales has a constant supply of PPE, especially respirators, given the move by the US to seize supplies manufactured by US firms and destined for other nations? Therefore, do the Welsh Government and UK Government have adequate supplies of non-US vital equipment? The US have enacted wartime legislation to prevent US companies exporting material and equipment needed to fight the virus. One company has developed testing that returns results within five minutes as opposed to five hours, but it's strictly restricted to the US. Faster, more reliable testing will help combat this disease so much sooner. First Minister, are you aware of any discussions with the US Government about securing the technology for use in the UK?
First Minister, efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic are being severely hampered by misinformation being spread on social media. Across the UK, mobile phone base stations are being destroyed in arson attacks because of conspiracy theories that are being spread about the role of 5G in this outbreak. Vaccines are also being blamed as the real cause of death across the globe. So, the longer this misinformation is allowed to spread, the greater the risk to our critical infrastructure, and the flow of data is as important to the fight against the disease as is the flow of medicines and equipment. First Minister, what discussions have you had with the US Government and social media companies about the best way to combat misinformation, and also what discussions have you had with the mobile operators about the best way of securing and protecting our vital mobile infrastructure? Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch, Caroline. I thought you set out very convincingly at the start of what you said that huge range of individuals and occupations who are engaged in the collective effort we're making here in Wales. We rightly focus on healthcare workers and social care workers, but the effort goes well beyond that, and you set that out at the start of your contribution.
Briefly, to run through some of those questions, there is a small minority of people who somehow believe that coronavirus doesn't mean them, but it's a virus that is no respecter of people or of places, and we just have to go on reminding them, and some of the difficult examples that they will have seen of individuals surely will convince them that this is not a virus that reserves itself for the elderly or for people with underlying health conditions. Anybody can get it and anybody can get it very badly.
The motor neurone disease point has been raised this morning with the chief medical officer here in Wales, and he is carrying out a piece of work immediately to see if there's anything further we need to do on that. Of course, I agree with what Caroline Jones said—that the best way to preserve yourself is to avoid contact with other people. But I do have the most enormous sympathy for people who find themselves confined to home in circumstances that are even more challenging for them than they would be for others—if you are looking after somebody with dementia, for example, who's no longer able to go out in the way that they could before; if you have a child with autism, whose life depends upon routine and regularity and being able to go to places where they know people and where life is predictable, and suddenly life is not predictable at all, and you're having to deal with all of that as well as everything you have to do yourself. So, of course I agree with what Caroline Jones said about people sticking to the rules, remaining at home, but I do think that all of us, our hearts would go out, wouldn't they, to people who are having to cope with all of that in circumstances that will be so very challenging.
On businesses and reasonable measures, we put that in there because the more we discuss this with business organisations in Wales, the more apparent it becomes the huge range of different sorts of businesses there are in Wales, and workplace settings. The huge majority of businesses in Wales already are enormously thoughtful about their workforce—as I said in my opening statement, their most important asset—are already doing everything, but we wanted to use the force of law behind the advice that has been there all along, and to bear down on that minority of businesses where people say to us—I'm sure they say to you—when they write to us as individual Members, 'I've got to go to work but I don't feel safe when I'm there', and the change in the law in Wales is designed to be on the side of those people.
We're in a global competition for PPE. As a Welsh Government, we've had no direct discussions with the US Government, but we are sure that those discussions will be happening at a UK level.
And just finally to say I completely recognise the point that Caroline Jones made about misinformation. That is no respecter of national boundaries, and it requires an international effort to try to make sure that we bear down on it wherever we see it. The positive advice, though, is to rely on trusted sources of advice and, here in Wales, the Public Health Wales website, the Welsh Government website, the NHS Wales websites—those are places you can go knowing that the advice you get is the product of people who know what they're talking about. Rely on that and don't get drawn into those other sources of information that we know are designed to throw people down the wrong track.
It's been a number of weeks now since Aneurin Bevan University Health Board has been a hotspot. From the statistics, we know that Newport has the highest confirmed cases in Wales per 100,000 of population. The announcement on the weekend of 7,000 critical beds is welcome, with the addition of field hospitals. In this, Aneurin Bevan health board will see the smallest numerical increase in critical beds across all Welsh health boards. With the Royal Gwent Hospital in my constituency under pressure, can you assure me that the plans are in place to ensure that support is available for Newport and Gwent patients to have access to beds, especially as we're ahead of other parts of Wales and the UK at the moment?
And, secondly, we know that carers of all ages who are living with loved ones who are self-isolating or shielding are under a great deal of pressure in these times. Many are not able to have access to the respite services that they usually have, and some are shielding with loved ones who are at the end of their life. Specifically, young carers often rely on the direct support they receive at school, and young carers are more likely to feel isolated, lonely and overburdened. What more can the Welsh Government do to ensure that our carers of all ages are not forgotten?
Llywydd, I thank Jayne for both of those questions. Of course, there are additional beds coming on stream in the Gwent area, particularly with the acceleration into use of the Grange Hospital, which will not be a field hospital, but which will be a fully-blown and equipped hospital. But the general point I want to make is that, when we talk about the NHS, the 'N' really means something in this sort of crisis. It is a national health service, in which mutual aid and a sense of a resource in common really matters. So, the fact that there are beds being provided in Cardiff does not mean that they cannot be used for people in neighbouring areas where the need is greatest. The Cardiff City Stadium new testing facility was first used with social care staff from Gwent, because the need to provide tests to that community was the most urgent. So, we have a national health service in which we expect that those people whose needs are the most urgent will get the help that they need, and that will absolutely apply for the people of Newport and the people of Gwent.
Jayne makes such an important point about carers. I tried to refer to it indirectly in my answer to Caroline Jones about people who remain at home in even more difficult circumstances than others. Young carers are vulnerable in their own way. That's why we've kept schools open in Wales, and those people who have caring responsibilities at such a young age, who need some respite during the day, then the youth service and our education service are alert to that. And I hope that they will be able to go on finding some help, in those really difficult circumstances, from services that are still there, still available to them, and ready and willing to help.
We've now had questions from all of the political groups. I want to be able to call as many Members as possible, if we can have succinct questions from Members from now on. And please can you seek to not repeat issues that have already been asked and answered. And if I could say to the First Minister as well, please do not feel obliged to repeat an answer you've already given to previous questions. Jack Sargeant.
Thank you, Llywydd. If I may start by saying my best wishes to the Prime Minister and Alun Davies and all those who are suffering as well.
The issues I want to bring up with you directly, First Minister, are those of the self-employed. Now, the self-employed and I do welcome plans that are in place for their support. However, I am concerned about the time it will take for those avenues to be accessed. So, what can the Welsh Government do to urge the UK Government to bring forward this support for the self-employed and also to seek assurances for those who have recently become self-employed so that they will also qualify for this support?
And my second question, First Minister, relates to vulnerable people, and those who are in self-isolation who require priority delivery slots when shopping. Does the Welsh Government have any plans to work with supermarkets across Wales to help them get priority, and, if so, when are we likely to expect this to be in practice? Thank you.
Thank you to Jack Sargeant. It’s very good to see you, Jack, after these weeks.
On the self-employed, it is a matter of concern that that help will not become available until June, and Jack is absolutely right—there is a big gap for people who didn't have returns, tax returns, that they were able to supply for 2019. I said earlier, Llywydd, that we are able to put these points directly to the UK Ministers responsible. There'll be further opportunities to do that and I'll make sure that we continue to report the concerns that Assembly Members have.
Lesley will, I’m sure, give a fuller answer in relation to vulnerable people and food. Just to be clear, across the United Kingdom, the priority slots that supermarkets are able to offer are for the shielded group, not the vulnerable group, which is much bigger than that. We concluded data agreements with supermarkets in Wales this week. That's really important—we can't release people's personal data to supermarkets without proper safeguards in place. All the data were supplied to three of the eight supermarkets yesterday. The rest of them will get it today. That means they will be able to schedule home deliveries for people in the shielded group here in Wales and we expect that to begin this week.
First Minister, last week, there was an announcement made about field hospitals in north Wales, which obviously was very welcome indeed. But some of my constituents have pointed out to me that the number of beds in north Wales in these field hospitals is fewer than those that are planned for individual cities in the south, including Cardiff and Swansea, and they feel very much that the region may not be getting its fair share of these beds and the resources that are needed to equip them. What assurances can you provide to my constituents and others in north Wales that we are getting the appropriate resources that we need?
Another issue that we have up here in north Wales is in relation to the seasonal nature of the tourism industry, and, as a result of that, of course, there are many seasonal workers who would not have been employed by 28 February and who are, therefore, not entitled to qualify for the coronavirus job-retention scheme. Given, obviously, the significance of the tourism industry to Wales, is this something that you have identified already as a Welsh Government, and, if so, what sort of action might you be able to take in order to plug this particular gap in that scheme so that people can get the support that they need and that they rely on very much in terms of their family income?
And, just finally, one issue in relation to tuition fees, if I may, for students. Obviously, many students have been sent back home by their universities—they are now doing their courses online rather than actually being able to study in lecture theatres and in laboratories. Some students are saying that paying £9,000 per year does not represent value for money, given the current situation, and I wonder what consideration the Welsh Government has actually given to looking at reducing the tuition fees for this year, and perhaps also, looking into the next year, the additional support that might be available to help students with those costs. I think I'd be grateful for answers on those three questions. Thank you.
Llywydd, I thank Darren for all three questions. Field hospital capacity in Wales is a developing picture. Vaughan's statement of 5 April was the position on that day. We continue to work with all local health boards to make sure that they have the resources that they will need. The field hospital in Cardiff will serve a population far greater than Cardiff itself. As I suggested in my answer to Jayne Bryant, it's a resource available to that wider population. But, of course, we continue to work hard with Betsi Cadwaladr and staff there to make sure that the 837 beds, I think it was, that Vaughan announced on 5 April—if more are needed then more will be planned and provided.
It's a very good point that Darren makes on the tourism industry. Can I thank all those many tourism businesses who have put their facilities at the disposal of the coronavirus outbreak? Sometimes they are physical facilities, sometimes in encouraging their staff to take up places in care roles, because, as they say, these are very often people who are used to dealing with members of the public, they have that basic interpersonal set of skills that are really important in the care sector, and when that sector is under pressure then people who would otherwise have been working in tourism being willing to help out, I really want to recognise the efforts that have been made.
The gap in the job retention scheme is a gap that only the UK Government can plug. But I will be very happy—. And I'm sure Darren probably has more details than he was able to convey in his question, but if he wanted to pass those to me, I'm very happy indeed to make sure that that point is conveyed to people who are responsible for the scheme.
And, as far as tuition fees are concerned, our universities, like every other organisation, are under huge pressure, because they have lost income and they are anxious about the recruitment of students from elsewhere in the world and what will happen in September. But Kirsty Williams remains in very close discussion, both with them and the National Union of Students, to make sure that we hear all sides of that story and see how we can make sure that students themselves don't feel that they are being short-changed at the moment, and that, when education resumes again, if there is a need for some additional help for those people to catch up on studies that they may have lost out on, that we're absolutely aware of that.
First Minister, we heard yesterday that several members of staff in the Aneurin Bevan health board had received the wrong test results. Could you please indicate whether they've been re-tested and how long it'll take for all NHS and care staff to be tested with accurate results?
And related to that, the level of anxiety and trauma suffered by these members of staff and all front-line staff is considerable. By failing to provide PPE and testing, do you agree that what the Government is effectively doing is the equivalent of asking soldiers to go to war but to bring their own kitchen knives instead of weapons? And unlike soldiers, they don't have care and respite time, so they're having to take their own fear back home with them, because they're afraid they'll infect their own families. So, do you agree that, as well as the immediate steps of ensuring PPE and testing are available to all, in the future there'll need to be far more consideration of the welfare of NHS and care staff, including counselling for trauma? What are you doing now to ensure that's available and that the welfare of staff is paramount?
Well, Llywydd, I don't agree with the caricature of the position in Wales that Delyth Jewell offered. It is true that a very small number of staff in Aneurin Bevan were given the wrong test results, and that's very regrettable, but it was identified very quickly. And all of those people have been since provided with direct contact by Public Health Wales, who've investigated that no harm actually resulted from that small number of test results. I Bitterly regret the anxiety that that will have caused to those individuals, but that is a very small part of a bigger picture in which everything that can be done is being done to protect the well-being of people who are at the front line, both through PPE and by extended testing. We started testing NHS staff in Wales ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom. Our percentages of testing of staff are still ahead of other places. We want to do more, which is why we are bringing more tests online, and that is to recognise, of course, the astonishing bravery and commitment of people who provide help to other people in the most challenging of circumstances.
Where I do agree with Delyth Jewell is that this will leave an aftermath. It will leave an aftermath in the lives of people who are facing things and making decisions they never expected to be faced with, and sometimes having to do that very early on in their careers. I'm very struck at the number of people who are returning to work in the NHS, that one of the things that motivates them, after retirement, to come back in is to be able to offer their experience and their lifetime of dealing with huge difficulties, to put that at the disposal of young NHS staff, to be able to stand alongside them, to be able to offer some of that advice and guidance and a shoulder to lean on during these hard times. I think that's a very generous offer that those people are making. We'll have to systematise that as we come out the other side of coronavirus because some of these things will live on for a long time after it in the lives of people who've been on the front line.
First Minister, can I first of all thank you for your efforts and your Ministers and, indeed, your officials over the course of the last few weeks, and also extend that thanks to those in Government outside Wales as well? It's a hugely difficult situation. The Prime Minister, I'm sure, has our best wishes, and my old friend and colleague Alun Davies has already been mentioned, and I add to all that's been said about him. I also know what it's like to receive advice that's not always uniform, that sometimes is not wholly in agreement with other sets of advice, and how difficult it can be to choose which advice to follow.
Two things from me. In my constituency of Bridgend, I have the town of Porthcawl. Porthcawl, of course, is a large tourist destination, very busy usually at Easter time. If you go down Danygraig hill, such are the times we live in, you'll see a sign that says 'Welcome to Porthcawl' and then a few yards down the road a sign that says 'Please turn back and go home', and rightly so, given the situation we find ourselves in. First Minister, would you join me in begging people—if that is the right word—to stay home this weekend, not to travel in the usual fashion to places like Porthcawl, in order to make sure that people in that town and beyond are properly protected from the spread of the virus? Of course, we all hope that people, as they have been, will obey the advice they have been given. There are still instances where I've seen small groups of younger people—four or five usually—congregating together, and that will need to be dealt with. But there are, of course, many of us who are there providing support for older relatives, and if there is a need to increase the restrictions that we have at the moment in future, could I ask you to make sure that that doesn’t adversely affect those of us who are in that situation?
The second point, very quickly from me then, is this: I've noticed by going to various different food shops that different approaches are taken by different shops. It's pretty universal now, actually, that you have to wait outside until it is your turn to go in. There's spacing inside the supermarkets and a particular one-way system for going around the supermarket or the shop, but in some shops, trolleys and baskets are sanitized before being made available to a customer and are sanitized when they are returned. In other shops that isn't happening at all. Where should supermarkets and food shops go for advice, in terms of best practice, when it comes to protecting their customers to the level that they and their customers would expect? Diolch, Llywydd.
Diolch, Llywydd, and thank you very much to Carwyn Jones for those questions and for just allowing me to say very briefly that the pressures of coronavirus are felt in every part of our lives, including in the Welsh Government. I am in Cathays Park today. There is a tiny number of people here compared to the normal number you would see working physically in the Welsh Government. They are people working very long hours, making some very challenging decisions, and I'm immensely grateful to the huge efforts that they are making to enable us to put in place a whole range of things that Members have been asking me about this afternoon.
The message to people thinking of going to Porthcawl or other places over the weekend is, 'Just don’t do it. Go outside, by all means, but stay local to where you live, stay away from other people and don’t think that this is the right moment to pose a risk to yourselves and a risk to others by doing things that you know are outside the guidelines that we are all required to abide by.'
If there is a need for increased enforcement, if that day comes and the police advise us of it, we will pursue that with them. I hope it won’t be advice that says we have to clamp down even further on the very limited opportunities that people have to be outside their own homes. It would be a great, great shame if the actions of just a few people were to place those restrictions on the very many people who are working so hard to do the right thing already.
As far as food shops are concerned, Lesley will be answering questions after me and she’ll have heard what the former First Minister has said. I know that she meets weekly with the food industry and the retailers here in Wales every Monday. It’s a forum in which those sorts of issues of common standards and common practices can be explored. I completely agree with what Carwyn Jones said that you can already see in some aspects that sort of standardisation beginning to happen, but there are other examples of the sort that he raised that I know can be discussed there.
Two final questions, and the first by Mark Isherwood.
What policy or guidance has the Welsh Government issued regarding provision for critical workers to access educational childcare settings for their children? A number of contacts have been made with me, by or on behalf of critical NHS staff living in Flintshire, who have been told that both parents have to be critical workers to qualify, one of whom has had to stay at home rather than join a clinical team, another is living apart from her children and husband in accommodation provided by Glyndŵr University in order to access her shifts at Wrexham Maelor.
Finally, how do you respond to the call by TCC, Trefnu Cymunedol Cymru—Together Creating Communities—Wrexham-based but representing a coalition of community bodies, regarding provision of free school meals for eligible pupils during the crisis? They’re asking for cash to be provided directly to parents or carers so that they can freely purchase food for their families where they believe the grab-and-go systems are forcing the poorest families to take unnecessary risks. The voucher scheme in England doesn’t include all supermarket chains and they’re concerned the voucher scheme in Wales may mean that supermarkets are not accessible for all families in receipt of free school meals, and they believe the provision of cash allows for shopping to be done at local shops, supporting social distancing by reducing the need to travel to supermarkets.
I thank Mark Isherwood for both of those important points. In relation to childcare and critical workers, on 6 April Julie Morgan issued a statement explaining how we are changing the childcare offer here in Wales. We’re closing it to new applicants in the current circumstances and we are allowing the money that would have been needed for those previous applicants to be diverted to make sure that childcare can be available at no cost to children of critical workers from the age of nought to five. The detail is set out in the statement. If there are questions beyond the statement that Members have, then I know that Julie will be very pleased to try and respond to them.
On cash for free school meals, well, of course I agree entirely with that principle. I would rather the families had the money they needed to be able to provide food for their children. The right way to do it is through child benefits. The UK Government should agree that in these circumstances they will put an extra amount of money in the child benefit that goes with the child that lands in those families that need it the most and would allow them to do it.
In Wales, we will move to a system where a sum will be provided through vouchers. There will be a BACS transfer of money from the Welsh Government to those families where that is feasible. Personally, I continue to believe that there will be a need for some residual direct provision. We know that there are some families whose circumstances are so difficult and where parents struggle so much with other issues in their lives that we could not be absolutely confident that money going into that household would find its way into food for children. For some very vulnerable children, I think there may still be the need for some residual system in which we can be confident that food itself is being provided, so that those children can be sure of being able to eat.
Finally, Mick Antoniw.
I want to ask you a little bit about enforcement of the social distancing legislation in the workplace, and I suppose in doing so also put on record the tremendous work that our trade unions are actually doing in contributing to that. The efforts with the branches, the union representatives, the safety representatives, working alongside their employers, their businesses, I think are making a very, very significant contribution to that safety. And it's indicative, I think, that most of the enquiries that we are getting about workers who are concerned about their workplace safety are really coming from workplaces that don't have trade unions. Perhaps there's a lesson there for the future.
But in terms of the enforcement, it's very clear that this is not a matter for the police; they've said themselves that they are not competent to deal with workplace safety matters. One of the concerns I have is the role the Health and Safety Executive has been able to play—not so much the people working for the Health and Safety Executive, but of course it is an organisation that has been massively underfunded over the years. I would have thought that the Health and Safety Executive would be playing a key role in workplace safety.
This isn't a devolved body, but clearly it has a very important role. It has incredible enforcement powers, it has investigation powers, it has all sorts of advice powers and, in fact, prosecution powers. So, my first question would be: what engagement have you actually had with the UK Government and/or with the Health and Safety Executive in order to ensure that they maximise their input into this really important role of enforcement of social distancing within the workplace and in general with regard to workplace safety?
The second question I'd just like to ask about is this—it's been commented on a little bit in the media over the weekend—and that is: we will collectively get through this crisis, and I've been wondering what your thoughts are on, when we do get through this crisis, that we have a complete new evaluation of the importance of our NHS, of our public sector workers, and the investment in those services.
I know, if I was ill, I wouldn't want a hedge fund manager sat by my bedside looking after me. It's given us a completely new evaluation of our public sector, and we've really got to start valuing them, not just in terms of, of course, we clap them in the evening, and we say nice things, but in the future we're going to have to start looking at a real calibration of what is important in our society. Perhaps the first step for Welsh Government would be something like the social partnership legislation that is being proposed. I wonder what your thoughts are about what preparations are necessary for the, I think, economic difficulties that we are going to face when we are eventually through this pandemic.
Llywydd, I thank Mick for both those questions. On enforcement, he's right, the Health and Safety Executive has very important responsibilities, but a decade into austerity its ability to discharge those responsibilities has been really compromised. It just doesn't have the resources to do the job it's asked to do. We hope it will make its contribution in Wales.
Generally, I hope that the 2m rule won't rely in the end on enforcement. I hope it will be self-policing. I hope that it will send that message to employers of the importance that they must attach to the health and well-being of their employees. The best policing of it will be by the people in the workplace. They will be the eyes and ears of this arrangement. There are enforcement rules within the regulations. People can be fined and so on. I met the TUC general council in Wales earlier this week—virtually, in the way we are now—and I know that trade unions will be the eyes and ears of the workforce in the workplace. I hope it won't come to enforcement, I hope people will recognise the obligation that most other employers have already recognised to put the health and well-being of their employees at the top of the list, and our regulations just reinforce that.
I'm allergic to the phrase that I hear and read occasionally of, 'When everything gets back to normal', because I think the crisis tells us we don't want to just go back to what was normal before. Surely, we recognise that the only way that we are getting through this whole experience together is by collective and co-operative effort rather than by competition between one another.
I think it also tells us that, when we are absolutely up against it in this way, the people who we rely on to get us all through it are not very highly paid people who worry about whether their bonuses and their dividends will be safe during the crisis. We rely on the people who collect our bins, who look after our elderly people, who are the brave people who do the jobs in health and social care, and the many others that Caroline Jones mentioned in her introduction. I don't want to go back to a world in which those people just return to the obscurity of our priorities and other people just pick up from where they left off. There are real lessons for us all to learn from this experience. It's never too early, I think, to begin to be thinking about that.
I thank the First Minister. Apologies to the nine Members whom I was unfortunately unable to call.
The next item is a statement by the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs on the response to coronavirus. I call on the Minister to make the statement—Lesley Griffiths.
Diolch, Llywydd. We are facing a global pandemic, the like of which we have not seen before. This is an extremely worrying time for all families across Wales, including those in our rural, coastal and farming communities. My thoughts go out to all who are affected.
Before and since my planned oral statement of 24 March, which was postponed by agreement of the Business Committee, my officials and I have been working hard to engage with and support those working in our food sectors, on safeguarding our environment, and on ensuring critical infrastructure and infection control continue to operate for the people of Wales.
On 16 March, I hosted a round-table meeting bringing together the views of Wales's farmers, fishers, foresters and food and drink producers. This proved crucial for planning and tackling the immediate challenges across my portfolio. Since then, I've been working to ensure continuity of food supplies, working closely with the UK Government, the UK retailer forum, the food contingency emergency liaison group and the Food and Drink Wales Industry Board, amongst others.
In addition, I have been working with the agricultural resilience group—I met them last week and there is another round-table discussion next week. My officials are in daily contact with stakeholders. The intelligence and outputs from the ARG are feeding into Welsh Government thinking on how best to deal with the impact of the escalating measures to manage the COVID-19 outbreak.
I can assure Members that retailers and supply chains are meeting the challenge. Our food stores are being restocked irrespective of their location. I want to sincerely thank the retail workforce for their hard work.
More than 85,000 people in Wales have been sent a letter by the Chief Medical Officer for Wales because they have a specific pre-existing, long-term health condition, which means they are at a very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus due to a serious underlying health issue. They've been asked to undertake a series of shielding measures, including staying at home for 12 weeks.
On 3 April, I joined the Minister for Housing and Local Government in announcing the delivery of the first food boxes to the doorsteps of eligible people who cannot rely on family or friends to help them. The Welsh Government has made £15 million available for the direct delivery food scheme. The food boxes, which people request from their local authority, provide essential foods in packages and tins for one person who is shielding for one week. In addition, we have now agreed with supermarkets that they will prioritise online home delivery orders for people who are shielding in Wales.
Farmers are, of course, at the very heart of our food chains and our environmental resilience, even more so during this global pandemic, and it's vital they have our support. On 1 April, I announced farmers now have an extra month to submit their single application form, with the deadline extended to 15 June. In response to concerns about crop diversification requirements following the recent flooding and the added pressure of the coronavirus situation, I also confirmed that Welsh Government is removing the requirements completely for BPS 2020. Furthermore, an additional £5.5 million has been allocated to the BPS and Glastir 2019 support scheme, which reopened on 1 April to support those 800 contracts or claimants who've not received a payment. Farmers will be able to apply for support through the scheme to alleviate potential cash-flow problems.
Tackling agricultural pollution is a priority, and I will be publishing draft regulations on the Welsh Government website, which I am minded to introduce once the crisis comes to an end. As we recover from the current crisis, we must do all we can to prevent damage being done to our fragile ecosystems and to help nature flourish.
We also need to remember that, throughout this difficult time, our critical workers are working incredibly hard around the clock in challenging circumstances to keep us and our animals safe. This includes staff in Natural Resources Wales, Animal and Plant Health Agency, local authorities, water companies, as well as timber, oil, gas and electricity workers maintaining power to our hospitals, homes and industries. Our vets are crucial in ensuring animal health and welfare and dealing with reports of suspected animal diseases.
Controlling the spread of TB remains important, but testing will only continue if it can be done safely. Cattle movement restrictions will be applied for overdue TB tests, but keepers will no longer be referred for cross-compliance penalties. Where a pre-movement test is required, animals may only be traded if they have all been tested by a vet and shown to be negative. The result of all tests must be reported to APHA and guidance on TB testing is being reviewed and updated daily.
Fishers are a vital part of our food chains and our coastal communities, and it is vital they too have our support during these difficult times. As a result of the coronavirus crisis, the shellfish trade to Europe, which is more than 90 per cent of Welsh seafood exports, has collapsed and trade within the UK has practically stopped. We are, therefore, working hard to finalise a hardship grant for eligible Welsh licence vessel owners to support the viability of the Welsh seafood sector.
Finally, Llywydd, Members will be aware COP26 has had to be postponed. However, our response to the climate emergency will continue. This Government remains committed to achieving our emissions reduction targets and producing our next low carbon delivery plan as scheduled.
So, as my colleague Ken Skates said last week, we must work together with compassion, with urgency and with care to get through the significant challenges we face and to come out the other side. Diolch.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement this afternoon. I am a little disappointed it's taken this long to bring a statement forward from you—8 April—considering the length of time that we’ve been dealing with this crisis.
I join you in supporting the front-line workers who work either at the supermarket shelves, on the supermarket floor, or right the way through the processing sector back to the primary producers in the farms across Wales, and also the enforcement agencies, such as NRW, who do so much to protect our environment in these difficult circumstances.
Can you confirm, Minister, whether farmers will be able to access money attached to the economic resilience fund? There is some doubt about that at the moment, and I think some clarity on that would be greatly appreciated. Because, to date, no money has been able to be sourced by farmers who have faced market fluctuations—massively impacted by, obviously, the closure of the serving sector in particular.
The dairy sector: at least 25 per cent of the dairy sector is vulnerable at the moment in Wales. We've seen 15 per cent cuts in meat prices. Also, when you look across at the lamb prices—54p a kilo loss there of income. So, some assurance that they will be able to access the resilience funding would be greatly appreciated.
Could you also confirm that it would be your intention to bring forward the basic payment window to October for payment? I understand that's in your gift and, obviously, cash into businesses is a vital consideration, and the earlier that money can be brought forward, the better.
Could you also confirm that the loan payment scheme that you've enacted over the last two years—to make those payments where payments are unable to be made because of inspections et cetera—would be available this year and that the modulation, the 15 per cent modulation that you moved from pillar 1 into pillar 2, will be ring fenced for the agricultural sector under the rural development plan?
You've touched in your statement around the support for the fisheries sector, and you rightly identify the collapse in the marketing opportunities, especially in the shellfish market. You highlighted that a support package is being put together; could you give us an indication of when we might see that support package—what sort of timeline you're working to?
When it comes to supermarkets, we've had reports over the weekend that, obviously, Polish meat has been on the shelves in many supermarkets, in particular Asda and Sainsbury's. I've had confirmation today of Sainsbury's saying that that was very much a one-off because of market conditions. Can you confirm, from your discussions with supermarkets, that they are committed to purchasing and buying local produce, because it seems an anomaly to me that the taxpayer is supporting many supermarkets through various initiatives, and yet, they're undermining market conditions by importing such products onto the domestic market?
Could you also confirm that all supermarkets—. I think I heard correctly the First Minister confirm this, but I just want confirmation that all shielded persons—it's not vulnerable persons, but shielded persons—who appear on the Government list, have now been passed to the supermarkets that operate in Wales and these slots will be available to those individuals if they wish to enact them? There was a little bit of confusion over who is the lead Minister in this particular area, because I understand the local government Minister this morning was saying that she has had extensive discussions with supermarkets in this particular area. Could you confirm whether it is yourself or the local government Minister who is the lead Minister for this particular area?
And when it comes to rights of way, at the moment, there is discretion, as I understand it, as to which rights of way are being shut in the countryside, and this is causing considerable concern to some areas. What discussions is your department having with local authorities to understand that there's a uniform approach across Wales, so as to alleviate any confrontation that might happen where some people might think a right of way is open and others think it is closed because of the coronavirus regulations?
Could you also confirm how inspections have been undertaken on farms across Wales? And, do force majeure rules apply to such inspections because of the unique circumstances we find ourselves in?
My final point: you have highlighted about NVZs and your desire to publish those regulations on the website. Do you not think, with the market collapsing through produce coming off farms, the uncertainty that is currently existing within the environment across Wales, that now is not the time to heap more regulations onto an industry that is in turmoil? We all accept that one pollution incident is one too many, but to actually now proceed to publish these regulations when they cannot be fully debated and discussed and support measures understood, if, indeed, support measures were to come forward, is a completely wrong action on behalf of you and your department? I'd implore you to wait until normal conditions are in place so that these regulations could be tested and debated in the Senedd rather than published on a website that the Welsh Government promotes. Thank you.
Thank you, Andrew, for the list of questions. So, there's been a huge amount of work done from right across my portfolio, and whilst this is the first opportunity to be able to make a statement in the Senedd, I hope that—. I've been inundated with written Assembly questions and correspondence, and my department has sought to answer as quickly as possible.
You ask, firstly, around whether farmers can access funding from the economic resilience fund. I suppose there are two areas here: I think if farmers have diversified, so, for instance, if they've got a glamping business within, they certainly can. However, around normal agriculture activity, I think we need to look at a bespoke package in relation to that. So, that is an ongoing piece of work at the moment, to see if we need to look at what's on offer within the resilience fund, or whether we do need a bespoke package. Normally, we would look at a bespoke package.
Dairy is clearly a major issue, and, again, there’s significant work being done around that. Recently, I think it was on Monday, I wrote to the Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the UK Government, George Eustice, emphasising the need for us all to collaborate as Governments to use the powers available that we have at the moment to protect the agri-food supply chain. So, we’ve been working very closely around dairy. I have at least one or two discussions a week with the Secretary of State, and, clearly, the impact of the realignment of the supply chain is having, particularly on dairy, is significant. I think it was probably one of the first things to impact when the food service sector also collapsed very early.
Around BPS, that is something I will monitor—whether we need to do it in October, whether we need to do the loan scheme again. As you said, we’ve done it for two years now. I still haven’t had a commitment from the UK Government around the 15 per cent modulation; we’re still awaiting that.
The timescale for fisheries, I hope this week—. Certainly, last week, I had a discussion with the Welsh Fishermen's Association, with Jim Evans, and, again, we’re working to the timescale of this week.
You raised the issue around Polish beef, and that was raised with me by the NFU last week and at my regular weekly meeting with DEFRA and the Scottish and Northern Ireland Government with the retailers—it was raised there also. You are right: both Asda and Sainsbury’s have said that it is a one-off, because they had such a demand for mince particularly at the start of the pandemic when I think people were panic buying much more than they are—well, I don’t think panic buying is happening now in the way that we saw initially.
The need for them to support our producers is something I’ve spoken about with every major supermarket myself. One of the concerns that were raised with me very early on was that perhaps some supermarkets were looking at rationalising their products, and it could be the small Welsh producer that’s affected. I heard of one example of that. I took it up directly with the supermarket and it was reversed, for which I’m grateful. So, I think all supermarkets recognise that we need to promote and support Welsh food producers where we can.
In relation to the supermarkets and the shielded list, I lead on this area; however, I do work very closely with Julie James, the Minister for local government and also with Vaughan Gething, and the three of us meet twice a week and have continued to do that around supermarkets. So, you did hear the First Minister right. It’s been a significant piece of work to do this with the supermarkets, because data protection is very important, and I wasn’t prepared to just release data without going through all the hoops that we had to do. So, my understanding is that data contracts with all eight major supermarkets will have been completed by today, and those slots will be protected for the shielded group. You make a very good point that I want to reiterate: that it’s not the vulnerable group, it’s the shielded group. So, as you heard me saying in my statement, about 85,000 letters have gone out; those are the shielded group, and so, for those people, those priority online slots will be made available. Both Sainsbury’s and Tesco told me on Monday that they have about 100,000 of those slots right across the UK.
There has been quite a lot of noise, I think, around vulnerable people, and I absolutely appreciate that, but if you look, we think, across the UK, there are about 15 million people who would be classed as vulnerable in the way that we’re talking about, so the supermarkets just could not cope, obviously, with that number of online shopping slots. So, it was most important to ensure that we have those online priority slots for the shielded people, and that’s what we’ve done.
You ask about rights of way, that’s obviously an area that Hannah Blythyn leads on, and as you rightly point out, it is local authorities that have the powers to close those footpaths and I know that the Deputy Minister is working with local authorities in that area.
I think it’s really important to clarify that, all I have done today is say that we will put the draft regulations on the Welsh Government website. They are not being introduced. As you say, we cannot accept agriculture pollution at the level we’ve seen. We've had a spike recently—you may have seen the press release that came from Natural Resources Wales—we've seen a spike over the last few weeks. Agricultural pollution is not something that most farmers would ever allow on their farms, so those following good practice will not see any major change as a result of those regulations. The information in those regulations has been seen by many people and I felt it important to share that information. You'll be aware of the UKCCC report, and I had to publish, I would say, by the autumn. I did commit to publishing and introducing the regulations by Easter; I am not doing that, all I'm doing is publishing the draft regulations, and there will be plenty of time to debate those in the Senedd.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I would also wish to pay tribute to all of those working within the food sector to ensure that the food does reach us, from farm to fork, as they say, and we appreciate their efforts, of course. But Minister, I have to express some disappointment about your statement, because we've heard virtually nothing new. What we've had, to all intents and purposes, is a rehash of previous announcements you've made.
The only new thing you've announced, to all intents and purposes, is the announcement that you made on the draft NVZ regulations. You will be aware that this is one of the most contentious issues that you have been grappling with for 12 months and more, and it's a cause of great concern and anxiety to the sector. So why did you choose now to make such an announcement, with large parts of the sector on their knees, as we've heard? I fear it will be seen as being antagonistic, hard-hearted and cruel. I still don't understand the rationale as to why now. I understand that it's a draft, and it won't come into force, but the perception out there will leave people scratching their heads at a time when we should all be focused on the work that needs to be done. Because there is huge pressure, as you know, on the sector in the current climate.
You've said nothing about business support in your statement. You did expand upon it in response to a question, but there has been no clarity over many weeks as to whether farmers would be able to access some sort of business aid package. There has been confusion as to whether people qualify for what has already been announced, and today for the first time, we heard a suggestion that you are considering some bespoke scheme. I would have appreciated hearing reference to something akin to that before today.
As we've heard, there have been calls to ensure that we can ring-fence 15 per cent of the [Inaudible.] as a top-up of BPS. There have also been calls in terms of dairy, for you to consider paying a standard per-litre price to farmers who have to dispose of their milk. I also hear a number of voices calling for the over-production of milk to be taken out of the market, if possible by encouraging and supporting milk processors to produce more cheese and to put some of that into storage. So, there are a number of possible options, but I've heard nothing from you as to which of these you are considering. If you are considering any of them, I would have hoped that we would have received some of that information today.
I do note that you said a few words about TB testing in your statement. Of course, the reality is that more and more farmers will have to self-isolate. There will be fewer and fewer vets available to carry out these tests, and therefore as time progresses, there will be more and more farms that will have to be locked down. So, what consideration are you giving to some sort of concession based on risk? Clearly, we don't want to spread TB, but neither do we want to spread COVID-19 by forcing people to have people coming in to carry out tests on their farms. I'm not hearing from you how you're going to strike the right balance there.
You are right in saying that the fisheries sector needs support. Yes, they have been waiting to hear from you. We know, for example, that fishers in Ireland now receive €350 per week from the Government. In France it's €300 a week, and fishers in Scotland will receive 50 per cent of their annual average earnings for at least the next three months. So can you explain what kind of plan you are putting in place? Is it along those lines? Just so we can have a better idea than what we have heard to date.
I am aware that the Deputy Minister for local government is responsible for public footpaths and rights of way, but this is something that is of course a concern for many agricultural families and farming families. Of course, I wouldn't argue that every public footpath should be closed, but there are some constituents who have contacted me and they have vulnerable people living in their homes—people who are at the highest risk if they were to be infected by COVID-19—and there are public footpaths passing their homes or crossing their land close to their homes. So, couldn't you ensure that there is an element introduced where there are similar cases that could be dealt with in a more consistent way across Wales, rather than the way that we've heard, which is quite random and ad hoc at the moment? Thank you.
Diolch, Llyr, for those questions. You started with the draft regulations, and you will appreciate it's not been antagonistic at all; I had committed to publishing those regulations before the Easter recess. I don't know where we are going to be in relation to COVID-19 as the year progresses, and as I said in my answer to Andrew R.T. Davies, you'll be aware of the UKCCC report, the land-use report, and what referred to the need for us to do—. We would have been the only country in the UK that hadn't done that. And I know that Llyr always wants to associate himself with action that we take on climate change, and this is a really tough decision—I appreciate that—but I am not doing anything at the moment to be antagonistic, and I can absolutely assure you we are all focused on the work at hand in my department.
However, that information that I will publish in draft regulations has been in the hands of many people already. For the sake of transparency, I believe it's right that that information is out there. There's been lots of misinformation, I think, and I think it's only right that the regulations are published in draft and that everyone, not just a few people, have access to that.
Around business support, as you said, I mentioned to Andrew R.T. Davies about what farmers would be able to apply for within the current scheme—the work around looking at what we can pull out of that scheme, if you like, and whether there needs to be a bespoke package. And certainly, my discussions with the farming unions—I think they've always had a bespoke scheme, so that was the reason for looking at that. But that work is ongoing and obviously needs to done with pace.
In relation to dairy, it is important that we work across all Government, and I mentioned that I have written to George Eustice—I have not received a response yet—but dairy is obviously discussed with stakeholders. I mentioned in my statement that I attended—remotely, of course—the agricultural resilience group. There's also the dairy focus group. So, I'm not excluding any options, and you did come up with some suggestions, and I'm very happy to look at any options going forward to help the dairy sector.
In relation to TB, I think everyone accepts that we need to continue to do TB testing at the current time. However, it can only be done if vets think it can be done safely in accordance with the current COVID-19 public health advice. So, until further advice, keepers will not be referred to the relevant paying agency for overdue TB tests if they or the vet advise that the test could not be completed. And you're quite right, we may see farmers self-isolating and they wouldn't want people to come onto their farm, and we absolutely accept that, and that is the reason why. But we do, I think, at the moment have to continue where possible to do TB testing. Certainly, officials have participated in numerous meetings with the other UK administrations to determine an agreed position on the current advice with regard to TB testing. I reiterate: it should only continue providing all involved can maintain adequate self-isolating and social distancing requirements.
In relation to fisheries, as I say, we're working up a hardship scheme that I hope—. It's Wednesday now; I hope to be able to publish what we're going to come forward with for the fishers. It's incredibly important that we support them because, as I mentioned in my statement, we've seen a complete collapse of their market.
I think that was all the questions. Thank you.
Good afternoon, Minister. Thank you for your statement. Obviously you'll know that the farming community is particularly worried about the impact of disruption to the supply chains. This can have a significant impact on the ability of farmers to get their products to the marketplace, which, of course, impacts on the farmers' overall income. Farmers representatives are thus asking for the economic resilience fund, announced in December of last year—and here I echo a little bit of Andrew R.T.'s comments—to be ring-fenced for distribution to farm businesses. Could the Minister inform us as to whether this measure is or will be implemented? I'm sure you'll agree with me, Minister, that British farmers are amongst the most innovative and effective and efficient in the world, but they need the funds to carry on delivering in the magnificent way they have so far.
Secondly, Minister, one of the great concerns of the farming community is the increase in the number of people using public footpaths, as referred to by Llyr earlier, some of which come close to their homesteads, which, in turn, increases their exposure to coronavirus. Whilst we, in the Brexit Party, would not support the closure of footpaths, which some farmers are asking for, we would ask the Welsh Government to initiate a campaign highlighting the countryside code, which is often being flaunted by some of those accessing farmland. This is particularly evident with people not keeping dogs under control and this aspect is obviously extremely worrying for farmers, given that the lambing season is in full swing. So, again, will the Government commit to a campaign outlining the key aspects of the countryside code?
Thank you, David Rowlands, for those two questions. I'm not quite sure if you were talking of the 15 per cent modulation. If you were, as I said to Andrew R.T. Davies, we still haven't had assurance from the UK Treasury that we will be receiving that money, and I think I answered the questions around the economic resilience fund to both Andrew and Llyr. I absolutely agree with you that Welsh farmers are innovative and they certainly do need our support and we will be working on what we can do to help, having looked at the economic resilience fund and also a bespoke package.
In relation to your second point, I'm certainly very happy to promote anything that protects the countryside in the way that you referred. Hannah Blythyn is the lead Minister on public footpaths and I know she has been doing a great deal of work with local authorities. Specifically about public footpaths on farmland, I think the public rights of network—as you say, we wouldn't want to see them closed. They're very important, particularly at this time when we are encouraging people to go out once a day to exercise et cetera. But I think we need to make sure that farmers are happy with the access on their lands. Certainly, again, I did discuss this with one of the farming unions last week, and they were at pains to tell me, really, that most public footpaths on farmland don't go close to their houses and have the infrastructure—so, if you think of stiles, for instance, or kissing gates—that farmers don't use. But, clearly, I'm very happy to look at things on a case-by-case basis. Llyr has actually spoken to me before about a particular incident, which he's just raised again. But at the current time there are certainly no plans to close footpaths across farmland, but, as I say, Hannah Blythyn is the lead Minister in relation to footpaths.
Thank you very much, Minister, for your statement. I note that you say that you have had assurances from the supermarkets that they will prioritise online home delivery orders to those who are shielded. I have today had two e-mails from shielded families who are not getting that service from the supermarkets and are being told that they're still waiting for a list of those who are shielded before they will do that. It seems to be their response is inadequate already. If somebody is telling them they are shielded they should be prioritising deliveries to those people, pending being able to double-check that that is the case. So, I'd like a bit more detail, really, on how we are ensuring that supermarkets are stepping up to the plate on this important issue, because otherwise, clearly, we've got to ensure other arrangements are available to keep them safe if they don't have family or trusted neighbours locally to do it for them.
Secondly, there's already been a very significant spike in the wholesale prices of vegetables and fruit. So, several things arise from that. One is, it seems to me that it is the role of Government to mobilise a land army of people to enable horticultural production to be massively ramped up, as it is inevitable that supplies are going to be interrupted from abroad, because this pandemic is a global one.
I and a group of other Members wrote to you separately earlier this week about the role that garden centres could play in both enabling people to grow their own vegetables and fruit, but also to improve their well-being, both physically and mentally, whilst they are confined to their homes, and those people who have the privilege of having a garden ought to have a bit more time to enable them to do that. So, is there any information you can give on how we can, at the very least, ensure that the plants currently not being sold in garden centres that have closed can be made available, possibly through schools, so that they can be planted, as we simply can't lose that produce?
And thirdly, I would make a plea on behalf of those children who have no access to outdoor play at home: it is absolutely vital for them that our public parks are kept open, otherwise there will be very serious consequences, both for their well-being, but also in particular if they are living in very overcrowded conditions—the parks are a place where they can go to to escape the tensions that are no doubt occurring at home.
I thank Jenny Rathbone for those questions. So, in relation to the shielded list of people and supermarkets, you will have heard me say in an earlier answer that the data contracts have been signed this week. This has been a significant piece of work, and I have to say, I've been very impressed with the way the supermarkets have wanted to engage with us on this issue. I think some supermarkets have looked at their own data available. So, I suppose if you've got a loyalty card, you know the profile of your shoppers. So, some supermarkets have been a little bit more proactive in doing that. But, clearly, they've also been restricted in the number of shopping slots they've got. I think online shopping amounts to a small-ish percentage of the way people usually shop. So, to ramp it up in the way they have I think has been pretty impressive.
So, by the close of play today, all eight major supermarkets will have had that data list. As I say, I wanted to be absolutely sure that we weren't sharing data that we shouldn't be sharing. Maybe other countries are being a bit more lenient, but I have been really keen that we have to have all the i's dotted and the t's crossed in relation to sharing that data. So, anybody who's now on that shielded list who wants online shopping to be delivered to their home should be able to access that.
In relation to garden centres, obviously they have to remain closed. I know that that will be kept under review, but at the current time they have to remain closed. But I know a lot of them have diversified to online. I've got a seed company—it's a social enterprise one—in my own constituency that is doing incredible work online and has had to take on more employees because they have been inundated. So, I think we can see that people are much more keen now to grow their own fruit and vegetables, and that's to be welcomed.
Around the workers who normally come to pick fruit and veg—obviously, in Wales, horticulture is a very small part of the agricultural sector. It's about 1 per cent. But, again, in my weekly meetings with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary of State and my counterparts in Scotland and Northern Ireland, this is something that we're having to look at, because, clearly, there is going to be an impact on the number of people who we normally have coming to Wales to help us.
And it's not just around food and drink; we normally have sheep shearers that come over from Australia and New Zealand, so there's a whole issue around agricultural workers and the—. We're going to see a significant drop in numbers and we need to look at other ways of encouraging people to do those jobs this year.
I absolutely agree with you around public parks. I think the First Minister alluded to the tensions and the difficulties that people will be getting from having to socially distance, and I can think of nothing worse than not being able to take your children out into open space every day. So, again, public parks aren't in my portfolio, but I'll certainly ensure that right across Government that message goes ahead.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. As you know, I have been inundated with enquiries from constituents who have been struggling to access online shopping. Those are shielded constituents and constituents who are vulnerable as well. There's been a very widespread perception that shoppers in Wales have been disadvantaged as opposed to those in England. So, I think my first question is whether you would acknowledge that there's been a communication issue here that Welsh Government needs to urgently address with shoppers in Wales.
I hear what you're saying about the supermarkets having the shielded data now. I spoke to the head of public affairs at Sainsbury's myself yesterday, and they told me that they had indeed received the shielded data now, but my constituents today are still getting e-mails off Sainsbury's telling them that this is still a work in progress and that they can't register, and that is just not acceptable and needs to be resolved as a matter of urgency so that the people who must shield can shield. Food parcels are all well and good, but most people want to get their own shopping in and see to themselves, and we need to resolve that urgently.
You referred to the group that you're in with Julie James and Vaughan Gething. I'm also concerned because I'm still getting constituents who are on the shielded list but haven't received a shielded letter, and not all GPs are taking the same approach to shielded patients, so there's an issue there about people being able to actually unlock that support in the first place. So, I'd like to ask you to raise that with Julie James and with Vaughan Gething so that we have got a consistent approach to the shielded across Wales.
And then my final point relates to vulnerable people more generally, because that is actually a huge group that is outside the shielded group. I've been contacted by people with sight problems and other vulnerable people who've always shopped online and now can't get an online shopping slot. So, I'd like to ask you what you think the solution is for those people, because I don't think it's realistic for local government to be able to take food to all these people—or volunteers—and I would like to see the Welsh Government really working proactively with supermarkets to really boost that online capacity. I know it's a challenge, but, if we can boost online capacity, that will also help the social distancing, with fewer people going shopping in the first place. So, I'd like to ask you what your plans are, going forward, to work proactively as a Government with the supermarkets to really boost that online capacity so that it can meet the needs not just of the shielded but of the vulnerable in Wales, which is a much bigger group. Thank you.
Thank you, Lynne, for those questions. I should start by saying that people in Wales have not been disadvantaged. My understanding is there was only—. On Monday, there was only one supermarket that had got the data from England. So, it was one supermarket on Monday. We had three supermarkets on Monday who had our data. We'd signed the data contracts on Monday. So, as far as I'm aware, we were actually ahead, not behind. So, certainly, they haven't been disadvantaged.
You mentioned that some people on the shielded list—and I, too, am getting a lot of constituency casework around this—they haven't received the letters. It's from people who think they should be on the shielded list. I will certainly take the point up with Vaughan Gething, but my understanding is, if people can contact their GP, they should be able to find out then if they are on the list and when they will get their letter, but, again, I would think that, by today, everyone on that shielded list should have had their letter, but I will certainly raise it at my next meeting with Vaughan and Julie James.
You mentioned also, in the first question, around some of your constituents still getting e-mails saying it was work in progress. I agree that's not acceptable. As you yourself said, Sainsbury's informed you that they have now had the data, so I think they need to make sure that their websites are up to date and I will go off from this statement and I will make sure that officials contact all eight supermarkets to make sure that information is there, because there's nothing more frustrating than going on a website and you haven't got the correct information.
Your question around vulnerable people is a really important one, and I sort of alluded to it a bit earlier—that we think, across the UK, there are probably about 15 million vulnerable people; the people that you referred to, people with sight difficulties, for instance. But, equally, whilst I have worked very proactively with the supermarkets, they are not able to boost their online slots in the way that I think some people are expecting them to do. They're also coping with—. Some of the supermarkets have got 20 per cent of their staff self-isolating. They can't just buy a fleet of vans. A lot of them have managed to increase their online slots, some of them significantly. There's one supermarket—that's Morrisons—they have a huge amount of online shopping activity and they've managed to boost their slots in a way that the others haven't been able to. However, both Tesco and Sainsbury's have now got 100,000 slots that they are keeping for that priority group, for that shielded group.
I think you're right about the food parcels. They are there for people who are on the shielded list that have absolutely nobody to bring food to them. I'm really pleased and I'd really like to pay tribute to my officials in the food division who have done an incredible job to get those food parcels out so quickly. And all 22 local authorities: I thank them very much, because they're our partner in this. There's now a very robust system in place, very quickly, to get those food parcels out. But it's not for everybody, and some people won't be eligible for them. Some people won't want them, and they will want to continue that online shopping, but I think, realistically, the supermarkets are doing all they can, and are continuing to do all they can. When I dialled into the retailer meeting on Monday that DEFRA organised—again, I think most of the supermarkets have taken extra staff on to be able to cope with the ones that are self-isolating and are unwell, but I am very happy to continue to work very proactively with the supermarkets to try and do all I can.
Good afternoon, Minister. If I can just, on today's statement—the mention of the 85,000 slots for the shielded list, and it really is to endorse the comments by Lynne Neagle AM. This, of course, is based on advice from the CMO in Wales, where he did state that everyone would have received their letters by Monday, 6 April. Well, certainly in Aberconwy, I'm still being contacted very regularly as regards people who not only believe they should be shielded, they actually have quite serious medical complaints. One example is somebody with severe respiratory problems, whereby they are just currently on the urgent waiting list for a double lung transplant. Now, when they've gone back to their GP, the GP has made it quite clear and said they've had no guidance, they don't know anything about this portal that apparently exists to GPs, and they've been told, 'Oh, come back another day, or contact us another day, and speak to a receptionist, but I don't know anything about it.' And I've had a number of constituents who have medically recorded serious complaints and would ordinarily, because of the medical records they hold, be considered as shielded. So, if you could speak to the health secretary to ensure that you can then add them, because, clearly, we'll pursue them on behalf of our constituents, but I hope there is some scope there for you to add them to your shielded list.
Now, clearly, Aberconwy has a fantastic food and drink sector, and, like all businesses, because of COVID-19, it is struggling. Some of them are having to dispose of food—it's been touched on by our dairy farmers having to dispose of milk. So, I'd like to know what quick action you can put in place to support our dairy farmers.
Also, another question I have: in light of the new Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, which came into force yesterday, will you clarify, Minister, what the Welsh Government regards as reasonable measures to be undertaken by those such as butchers, those who are now providing a very vital role in delivering food, food producers and delivery companies? What are those reasonable measures to be undertaken by those businesses attempting to meet the need to ensure that a distance of 2m is maintained between persons on their premises? Because some companies have said to me, 'We're going to have to halve the number of people if we strictly adhere to those rules. Can we have some guidance whereby, if we're not necessarily meeting the 2m rule, some preventative guidance can be put in place?' Because it's just not feasible, currently, for them to downsize their staff capacity—then they won't be able to fulfil that obligation to deliver or, indeed, to process food.
Another question I have: as you may be aware, vineyards in Wales are classified as farming activities, therefore not liable for business rates, so they don't have a rateable value. What support would be in place for them? Will they be able to tap into the economic resilience fund?
Question three: our farmers play a crucial role in feeding our nation, but some may be negatively—well, I think they all are now—affected by the dramatic falls in farm-gate prices as a consequence of changes to consumer buying patterns and the closure of some food service sector outlets. Will they be able to have some financial support and when?
My final question, Minister: concerns have been raised with me regarding the food boxes that are being distributed. I'm aware of where people are discarding some of this food, because it's not to their liking, sadly, but, more importantly, people have dietary requirements and, indeed, food allergies. So, what considerations have been put in place in the making-up of these boxes to take into account those with specific dietary requirements and, indeed, food allergies? Thank you.
Thank you, Janet, for that list of questions. Around the shielded group of people, I think the majority of your questions were around people not getting the letters, and I'll certainly raise it with the health Minister. I have already raised it with the health Minister—I said in an earlier answer that I've had constituents contact me. But I think the nub of your question was around, 'Will we be able to then add people to the shielded list?', and, absolutely, we will be able to—I can give you that assurance.
Clearly, many of our food and drink producers have had a severe impact from COVID-19, like the economy, obviously, in general. Certainly, I've heard of many businesses that donated—particularly restaurants and around the food service sector—food in the beginning, when these measures came in. Vineyards—I haven't had anything specifically about vineyards. I am very aware of the one in your constituency. But, certainly, my understanding is they would be able to access the support from the economic crisis fund.
You raise a very important point about food boxes, because, you can imagine, to get those food boxes out as quickly as possible we used the same two companies that DEFRA had used as well, because they were there and ready to go, and it was easier for us to get the procurement measures in relation to getting that food out. So, dietary requirements weren't considered, because, for those of you who don't know, a typical box has a range of items—it has long-life milk, it has tinned produce, it has pasta, it has toilet roll, breakfast cereal. The contents are very clearly labelled.
But one thing I was very keen—well, there were two things I was really keen to do. We've done this, initially, for 12 weeks, but, equally, I would like to see more fruit and veg, if at all possible, going in those boxes. So, that’s something that we’re looking at right now. The first food box went out last Thursday, so I'm not sure if we're still in week one or if we're now going into week two in relation to those food delivery boxes, but certainly by week three, I wanted to look at being able to put some fresh food, fresh fruit and vegetables, into those boxes. So, hopefully, within the next—obviously next week is deemed as recess, hopefully when we come back we will be able to do that. We also need to look at the dietary requirements, and particularly if people have got a health condition that they need to have that. So, it provides essential food for people, but I—. You know, it's great to see those boxes arriving on people's doorsteps. It's very hard to have a one-size-fits-all solution, but I'm sure the Member will appreciate that it was a very immediate need to get that food out.
Three quick questions to finish this agenda item. Helen Mary Jones first.
Diolch, Llywydd. I'm grateful to the Minister for her statement, and I echo what everybody else has said about how important the work that everybody in our food sector is doing, from farms to our shops to the shop workers, and I know that's very stressful for some of them.
With regard to the supermarket provision, I'm very pleased to hear what the Minister's had to say now that all the lists should have been made available, and I was relieved to hear her say to Janet Finch-Saunders that we will be able to add people to those lists. It was mentioned, for example, in the First Minister's statement about people with motor neurone disease who seem to have been missed altogether. Can I ask the Minister what would be the best way for us to proceed, as Members, if we are receiving representations—as Lynne Neagle has, and I have, and many of us—from constituents who are still being told as customers of supermarkets that they can't use the slots or that they haven't got the right information? Would it be advisable for us to write to the Minister, or would she prefer us to take this matter up directly with the supermarkets, because, as so often—I'm sure the Minister will acknowledge—we can get things right nationally, but in terms of them actually working at a local level for people, the intelligence that comes to us as elected Members is very important?
With regard to the food box provision, I absolutely understand what the Minister says about just needing to get this out of the door quickly and I know that it's been an absolute lifeline for some of my constituents. The Minister referred to local authorities as a key partner in all of this. I wonder if, as the scheme goes on, she could envisage them paying a larger role in the procurement—with the resources coming with that, of course—because that might be an opportunity. She mentions having more fresh food in those boxes, it might also be an opportunity if we involve local authorities to be able to support local food supply chains. So, I wonder if she’d give that some further consideration as things move forward.
On a different matter, I'm sure the Minister will agree with me that animal sanctuaries play a really important role in animal welfare in Wales, and, of course, those sanctuaries are all run on a voluntary basis. I have had a number of representations from sanctuaries in my region who are pointing out that, of course, their fundraising all depends on social activities, on their shops—all things that have had to come to an end. I wonder if the Minister today can commit to, if she hasn't already, giving some consideration to what support might be able to be made available to them, because, of course, the food is still needed for the animals and there may be a need for veterinary care and to pay for that.
And, just finally, I've received representations suggesting to me that some of the current business support doesn't work very well for tourism businesses—many of which, of course, may be farm diversifications. So, for example, if you're a caravan park you won't be receiving any income, but you won't be able to furlough your staff necessarily because you'll still need them to be cutting the grass, doing the maintenance. I realise this is predominantly a matter for Ken Skates's portfolio, but I wonder if I can ask the Minister today to have some further discussions with Ken Skates with a view to ensuring that we have business support packages available that will actually work for these rural businesses, which, of course, I'm sure the Minister will agree are very important.
Thank you, Helen Mary, and certainly, picking up that last point, I will raise that with Ken Skates around the business support. Your other specific questions, then. I think you're right about our retail workforce; they have worked incredibly hard. We saw that huge rise in people stockpiling and that now has levelled off. Certainly, in my discussions I've had with the supermarkets, they've made that very clear that that initial peak has now passed and they are able to stock their shelves so that people—. Our very hard-working NHS staff, who were turning up at 5 o'clock in their local supermarket as usual to buy milk and bread and couldn't do that, that's now passed, and you should now be able to shop in a normal way. I'm very pleased that supermarkets have also had those protected slots for our NHS workers, who absolutely needed them, and also for the elderly in the beginning, but that now obviously has changed, and also the social care sector. I think many supermarkets have ensured they've had those protected slots for social care workers as well.
I do think there was an inconsistency, also, around—and this would have led, as well, to our retail workers finding it stressful—protection for themselves. So, for those of us that go to supermarkets, we will see now that most of the supermarkets have screens in place, and, again, all the supermarkets assured me that, by the end of last week, those screens would be in place.
Around the food boxes, I hear what Helen Mary says about local authorities, but I think we've asked a huge amount of our local authorities, and I'm really grateful for the work that they've done. As I say, we've got a very robust system in place. All 22 local authorities are signed up to the food box delivery scheme. Every day, I receive the latest numbers of how many food packages have gone out in each local authority every day. I think in Merthyr Tydfil it was over 400, up until yesterday. In some local authorities, it is not so much, but everybody is signed up to it now, which I think is really important.
Around the fresh fruit and vegetables, I mentioned in my earlier answer that we've committed to these boxes for 12 weeks, but throughout those 12 weeks, we can look at ensuring there are more fruit and vegetables in those boxes, for instance. At the end of 12 weeks, maybe we could look at using Welsh producers, because I'm really keen to be able to do that.
The point you raise about animal sanctuaries, and clearly for a lot of charities, they have seen, probably, an end to their fundraising and also their trading activity, if they run a shop, for instance. This sits within the portfolio of Jane Hutt, and I know she's been having discussions around support for charities. This morning, the First Minister invited Ruth Marks to update us about the work that the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and the local voluntary council sector partnerships have been doing about this. But, again, I'll raise this point with Jane Hutt.
I'm not going to repeat all those things that people have asked, except for on footpaths. When you set out the regulation, there was also a 28-day review period. So, I ask the Minister when she is going to make an announcement, having carried out that review, because in two weeks' time that will need to be the case.
I do want to ask about how we're going to manage getting the crops in the ground, and whether you've had ongoing discussions about the workers' availability, because it's very clear that people who might find themselves out of work might welcome the opportunity to help here. Any update that you might have on that would be more than welcome.
But I also want to ask a question that has been asked, and that's about garden centres and nurseries, and, coupled with that, I suppose all the other downturns in businesses. So, there's a wider question here about how, as a Government and a business support community more generally, we're helping people not to just diversify in what they do, but to diversify in how they sell what they're doing and how we support them going forward. I think there's a clear case here for investment in whatever means those are, whether it's training, whether it's technology, or whatever it is, to help businesses who have expanded, who are operating normally through the current set-up, but need to move online to just be self-sustaining in times like this situation now, and it's very much focused our minds, I suppose, to modernise the businesses. Thank you.
Thank you, Joyce. In relation to the footpaths and the 28-day period, that will be for Hannah Blythyn to review, and I will ensure she's aware of your question.
I think the point you raise about crops in the ground is very important, and I referred before to the thousands of people who come—you know, seasonal agricultural workers—and clearly that's a very big issue. It's not just about the horticultural part of agriculture; it's the other people who come and help us in sheep shearing, for instance. That's another area that's been raised. So, I meet weekly with the Secretary of State for DEFRA and devolved administration counterparts, and agricultural workers also come up in a sort of cross-Government—I can't think what it's called now. I think it's the ministerial inter-governmental group. I've twice attended that UK Government group—that's a meeting chaired by Michael Gove—where the agricultural work sector and workforce has come up on the agenda. So it's clearly something that we're going to have to look at. As you said, there are people who may be furloughed at the moment, so one of the questions I've been asking is: if you have a furloughed worker who's currently getting paid and then wants to do additional work in agriculture, it's important that the funding they're receiving, will that change? Because clearly people would want to make sure that they protect their earnings.
In relation to garden centres, I mentioned that a few of them are now selling online. I'm not sure if they've had specific business support from Ken Skates's portfolio, but I'm sure there is advice there that we could share with them in order to be able to do that.
Before I move to the next question, Llywydd, I just realised that I didn't answer Janet Finch-Saunders around the 2m rule. Clearly, for food businesses—certainly, meat processors raised their concerns with me last week, which I made representations about. But I'm sure you will appreciate that all workplaces have a role in stopping the spread of coronavirus, and they are taking a proportionate approach. We would hope that all such places were taking a proportionate approach, and I know that many businesses have halved—not halved the number of workers, but made sure that the space is bigger. In some areas, you can't do it. So, for instance, a dentist could never be 2m away from a patient, and I think that's a very good example of a reasonable measure.
The Minister will appreciate that for Mid and West Wales in particular seasonal businesses are vitally important to the economy, and this is particularly true in rural areas as well. Inevitably, the bulk of their season's income is now under threat, and it's very possible that some businesses will earn nothing during the spring or the summer. That poses very severe threats for what comes after this crisis is over, and we need to do some forward planning, therefore, about the cashflow situation that might arise in the autumn and in the winter. In this respect, although businesses have been getting a lot of help from Government, such as the job retention scheme, where 80 per cent of the costs of a furloughed employee are paid, nevertheless, businesses still have to pay that 20 per cent figure, and as Helen Mary Jones pointed out in relation to security costs and maintenance costs, they continue throughout this crisis even though there's no income coming in. So I wonder if the Minister can tell me what thought is being given to what follows in the immediate prospect after the summer to help these businesses get through the winter and back onto an even keel, because clearly it's going to take 12 months, 18 months, maybe two years to get over the problems that have been caused in the last few weeks.
Thank you. I think you make a very important point, that this is not going to right itself very quickly. This is going to be an ongoing issue for so many businesses to work for. You are quite right: there's been significant support from Welsh Government for our businesses. I'm sure the Minister, Ken Skates, is looking at this and what else will be needed. So certainly for my own portfolio, I mentioned that I will be announcing support for fisheries, for instance. I don't know how long it's going to be before the market is back up and boats can go out to sea. So, clearly, as I'm looking at that scheme, I need to look at it not just in the here and now, but in the longer term too. But, I think we all have to accept that this is going to take a long time to get over. I thought the First Minister made a really important point about not wanting to go back to normal; I think we've seen a level of collaboration and co-operation that we haven't seen before.
Thank you to the Minister.
In accordance with Standing Order 12.24 and 12.40, unless a Member objects, the motions for the general principles and the financial resolution of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill will be grouped for debate and for voting. There are no objections. I see no objections. We will do that.
Before we move on to that debate, I will suspend proceedings now for 15 minutes.
Plenary was suspended at 16:01.
The Assembly reconvened at 16:15, with the Llywydd in the Chair.
The next item, therefore, is the debate on the general principles and the financial resolution of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, and I call on the Minister for Housing and Local Government to move the motion—Julie James.
Motion NDM7307—Julie James
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with Standing Order 26.11:
Agrees to the general principles of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill.
Motion NDM7308—Rebecca Evans
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, for the purposes of any provisions resulting from the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, agrees to any increase in expenditure of a kind referred to in Standing Order 26.69, arising in consequence of the Bill.
Diolch, Llywydd. I'm very pleased to open this debate on the general principles and financial resolution of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, which I introduced in November. It is most definitely true that this debate is taking place in unprecedented times, and I am grateful to Members for recognising that, whilst there are significant challenges at the moment, we must always have an eye to the future.
I am grateful to John Griffiths, Llyr Gruffydd, Mick Antoniw and the members of their respective committees for their thorough and constructive approach to scrutiny of the Bill and their subsequent reports and recommendations. I wrote to all three committees on 23 March setting out my thoughts in response to their comments and recommendations. I will not, therefore, attempt to address each of the almost 60 recommendations in the time we have this afternoon, but I will reflect on Members' comments if and when we move towards Stage 2.
When introducing the Bill, I said the provisions had been subject to extensive consultation. This is acknowledged by the committees. I am very grateful to all the stakeholders who have contributed and worked with us over the years on developing the proposals in the Bill. This includes the members of the working group on local government and the subsequent sub-group of the partnership council who have shaped the Bill and are helping to co-produce the guidance and regulatory arrangements created by the Bill. I am also grateful to the organisations and individuals who provided oral and written evidence during this scrutiny stage.
The Bill contains provisions to enable electoral reform and establishes a new governance framework for local government. I am pleased that stakeholders are generally supportive of the Bill's provisions, as are the committees. I am, therefore, delighted that the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee recommended that the Senedd agrees the general principles of the Bill.
Turning then to the detail of the Bill, I am pleased the majority of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee's members supported the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and foreign citizens legally resident in Wales. I am also pleased the committee supports our view that each principal council is best placed to decide for themselves which voting system better suits the needs of their local people and communities.
I note all the committee's views on the proposed Stage 2 amendments that would allow prisoners and young people in custody from Wales serving sentences of less than four years to vote in local government elections in Wales. I will not repeat the reasons for introducing provisions on prisoner voting at Stage 2, but rest assured I have carefully considered all the points made by the committees on these provisions. Unfortunately, Llywydd, I've had to take the decision, as part of the Welsh Government's wider consideration of its legislative programme at the start of our planning for coping with the grave circumstances we are in, not to commit any future official resource to this proposed Stage 2 amendment.
Llywydd, Members, I am sure, will be aware that today's debate will, if the motion is passed, allow us to continue to include future work on the Bill in our planning for matters that we will want to be ready to progress once the crisis that we now face has passed. I know many Members support the Bill and its policy objectives, and passing this motion today will allow us to plan future resources to work on those shared policy objectives.
Turning then to the non-election parts of the Bill, local government have been calling for a general power of competence for many years. The Welsh Government will continue to work closely with local government and stakeholders to identify where additional powers or flexibilities have been helpful to them in achieving their objectives.
I accept the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee's recommendations regarding the duty to encourage participation in decision making in connected bodies. I therefore intend to bring forward an amendment removing the concept of connected authorities at Stage 2.
I acknowledge the Finance Committee's concerns, based on those of local government, around the cost and practicalities of the broadcasting provisions. I think we share a common interest in making the provisions work in the most sensible and pragmatic way. A working group has been established with the WLGA to consider these issues and to identify how best the regulation-making power these provisions contains can be used to exclude certain council meetings from the requirement to broadcast.
I accept the committee's recommendation 19 in relation to the poor performance management of chief executives, and the Welsh Government is working with Solace and ALACE on a revised approach.
The committee makes a number of recommendations in relation to job sharing. I am committed to enabling flexible arrangements where possible within a principal council, and we are continuing to work with partners to consider the implications of expansion in this area and what action and guidance might be required.
Corporate joint committees will provide local authorities in Wales with a consistent mechanism established in statute for regional collaboration. I welcome the committee's comments on our proposals. As highlighted in the Finance Committee's report, I am happy to commit to providing full and robust regulatory impact assessments for each piece of subordinate legislation made as a result of this Bill. This is the best place to assess their specific costs and benefits.
I welcome the degree of consensus amongst those giving evidence on the need for and appropriateness of the provisions in the Bill that will introduce a new system for improving performance and governance based on self-assessment and peer review. As recommended by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, I intend to bring forward an amendment to include a provision in the Bill that clarifies the timing of a self-assessment report.
I'm also pleased to announce today that I have published guidance: a prospectus for the voluntary merger of principal councils in Wales. The guidance was prepared by the working group on local government. It provides practical advice on the core issues that will need to be addressed as part of developing any proposal for a voluntary merger.
We have been working closely with the Welsh Local Government Association, local authorities and advice services to improve all aspects of council tax collection and the management of arrears. This work, which is focused on prevention, will continue.
The Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee have made a number of recommendations about the proposed procedures for the exercise of subordinate legislative and other delegated powers in the Bill. It has not been possible for me to accept all of the committee's recommendations in full, and I set out my reason in my written response to the committee's report.
I note and accept in principle the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee's recommendation 32. I have committed to using the guidance on performance and governance in the Bill to highlight the importance of housing considerations in the discharge of local authority functions as an example of where councils should be striving to do better and not just meeting minimum requirements. This will ensure the provision of housing is considered alongside the range of powers and duties that councils have as part of a wider corporate assessment of the overall performance of the council, rather than in isolation.
In conclusion, this Bill provides the powers and tools local government have been asking for. It will enable them to deliver modern, accessible, high-quality public services for and with the communities that they serve. I do urge Members to agree the general principles and the financial resolution of the Bill today. Diolch, Llywydd.
Diolch. Before I call the next speaker, can I say that I am aware that Neil McEvoy was live broadcasting on Facebook during the proceedings? I have my phone to hand, and I was able to watch it, although not hear it. That is in direct contravention to my instruction at the start, and in contravention to our Standing Orders. I have asked for you to be removed from this meeting of the Assembly, and you will not be called during this debate.
Mark Isherwood—I'm sorry, I need to call the Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee first, John Griffiths.
Diolch, Llywydd. I'm very pleased to be able to contribute to today's debate as Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, and I'd like to thank all those who gave evidence to us to help inform our work. I note that the tight timescale for undertaking our scrutiny caused difficulties for some stakeholders, so we're even more grateful for their input.
Much reference has been made to the fact that this Bill has been in preparation for many years. It is substantial in content and encompasses a wide range of provisions relating to local government functions. Clearly, since the Bill was introduced, circumstances have changed very considerably, but it remains a significant piece of legislation, and its scrutiny should not be lost.
Having considered the evidence presented by stakeholders, we recommended the general principles of the Bill be agreed by the Assembly. However, we believe that the Bill can be strengthened in some areas, and our report contains 32 recommendations in total, outlining the improvements we would like to see during the amending Stages.
It is disappointing that only seven of our recommendations were accepted in full by the Minister, although I realise that several others were accepted in principle. Our recommendations were based on evidence from expert stakeholders, so I would encourage the Minister to reconsider her response to some of these.
On the provisions relating to extending the franchise to include 16 and 17-year-olds, we believe that effective awareness raising will be required to ensure that new groups of voters are aware of their rights and make use of their vote. We therefore recommend that the Bill should include specific provision to roll out an adequate level of education on politics and democracy across all our schools in Wales. We think this should be accompanied by clear lesson plans to empower teachers to deliver these lessons. Welsh Government has cited the extension of the franchise to include 16 and 17-year-olds as one of the main reasons for proceeding with this Bill at this time. It is, therefore, imperative that young people develop their understanding and awareness of their right to vote, otherwise these provisions will be rendered less effective than we would all like.
Despite the reservations expressed at the approach in the Bill of allowing individual councils to choose their own voting systems, we recognise the potential benefits of proportional electoral systems, such as STV, particularly as a means of increasing diversity among candidates. We'd like to see Welsh Government work with councils to explore reforms to voting arrangements, including the positive impact STV could have on increasing diversity. There are a number of other provisions in the Bill aimed at increasing diversity, notably enabling job sharing and new responsibilities around councillor conduct. Whilst we welcome these, we believe the Bill could go further, as reflected in our recommendations.
In conclusion, although we have recommended that the general principles be approved by the Assembly, we believe there is scope to strengthen the Bill in the ways I have outlined today and outlined in greater detail in our report. Diolch, Llywydd.
I call on the Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. I'm very pleased to contribute to this debate. The Finance Committee has made 19 recommendations, and I thank the Minister for her letter of 23 March, which sets out her response to those recommendations. Given the time available today for this debate, I will focus on our main concerns only. As a committee, we do acknowledge that this is a significant piece of legislation, but there are two areas where the committee has particular concerns.
First, when the Minister announced the Bill and introduced it, she said that she intended to bring forward amendments to extend the franchise to prisoners and to young people in custody. We were critical of a similar approach taken during scrutiny of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill, when it was announced during Stage 1 that significant amendments would be brought forward in relation to the financial arrangements for the Electoral Commission at that point. So, the committee reiterates its view that inserting new provisions via amendment at Stage 2 reduces the committee's ability to consider the general costs of the proposed legislation, particularly as the opportunity for financial scrutiny of these changes is limited. Today, the Assembly will be asked to approve a financial resolution, but if there are substantial changes made during Stage 2, the Assembly will have voted to commit resources without being fully informed of the costs of the Bill. The committee believes that it's essential that the Assembly has the relevant financial information in order to ensure that it's able to make an informed decision when it's being asked to commit resources.
Secondly, the Bill contains a significant number of enabling powers for Welsh Ministers, and these powers, of course, have not been costed. This is another issue that we have raised on a number of occasions, namely that the Member in charge should include the best estimate of the costs associated with subordinate legislation alongside the relevant primary legislation. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the Minister has agreed in principle to recommendations 1, 5, 15 and 17, which relate to the Welsh Government providing full and robust regulatory impact assessments for any relevant subordinate legislation made as a result of this Bill.
The committee is concerned that some costs in the RIA relating to voting, elections and awareness raising have been averaged across principal councils. They don’t take account of variances in local authority areas. We feel that some costs are likely to fall more heavily in certain areas. Our recommendation 2 asks the Welsh Government to undertake further work to identify the distribution of the electorate across Wales and to clarify the approach it intends to take to any funding allocated to support the provisions of the Bill relating to elections and voting. We are pleased the Minister has accepted this recommendation and is currently working with local authorities and stakeholders to consider how best the Welsh Government can manage the potential differential impacts on individual local authorities. We look forward to receiving an update in due course.
In relation to elections and voting, the committee is of the view that there are a number of areas where more information could have been provided. It is disappointing that recommendation 6, which asks for further information on the types of pilot schemes that the Welsh Government may wish to trial and the potential resources required for such activity, has been rejected. Whilst noting that the Minister does not intend to trial any electoral pilots at the 2022 local elections, the Minister has stated that there are likely to be cost implications because of changes to electoral management software, staffing, training, and so on. The committee believes that an estimate of potential resource required for such activity should have been included in the RIA.
The Bill requires local authorities to make arrangements to broadcast their meetings in the interests of transparency in the decision-making process. The RIA estimates that the broadcasting contract for Wales would cost a principal authority, on average, approximately £12,000 per annum. We heard evidence that this figure is significantly underestimated, and we are therefore pleased that the Minister has accepted recommendation 10, to consider whether an all-Wales broadcasting contract is feasible and whether this would be the most cost-effective solution. We are also pleased that her officials will be considering further the benefits and disbenefits of doing this.
The committee notes the general support of the WLGA for the proposal for corporate joint committees as a vehicle for collaboration. However, we consider that there could be potential start-up costs to establishing such committees as well as potential savings over time. The committee is pleased that the Minister has accepted recommendation 16, namely that the Welsh Government shares its analysis of the costs and benefits of establishing corporate joint committees when the review has concluded, and will consider accounting for this information in the RIA.
I recognise that this Bill will progress in unprecedented times and that we may see changes at the amending stages that may be less substantial than expected. However, I would reiterate my comments at the beginning of my contribution, namely that Bills should be as fully developed as possible on introduction and that amending stages should not be used to introduce new, extensive policy proposals that haven’t been subject to scrutiny at Stage 1. Thank you, Llywydd.
I call now on the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, Mick Antoniw.
Diolch, Llywydd. We reported on this Bill on 13 March and we made 12 recommendations, and, as the Minister has stated, she responded on 23 March. I welcome the acceptance by the Minister of recommendation 5 and the positive comments made in respect of our recommendations 4, 6, and 9.
I would like to make some general observations on the Bill, which has taken six years to prepare. It is a relatively complex Bill, and it includes 98 powers to make to make subordinate legislation. Now, many of the powers taken are justifiable, but we were concerned to hear the Minister say that many of them allow the Welsh Ministers to respond to future circumstances that could not yet be foreseen. So, we do not consider it appropriate for the Welsh Government to take powers to deliver policy that has not yet been fully developed or foreseen. We consider this to be a poor legislative practice. This approach provides too much power to the Government at the expense of the legislature.
Now, overall, the nature of many of the regulation-making powers taken in the Bill give the impression of it having been incomplete on introduction. This view is exacerbated by the clear intention of the Government to bring forward significant policy at Stage 2 of the legislative process in relation to prisoner voting, bypassing Stage 1. We note that the Minister has since provided draft amendments about prisoner voting in advance of the Stage 2 proceedings. However, this should not be seen as a substitute for Stage 1 scrutiny. The approach adopted circumvents the scrutiny and consultation with stakeholders that would have taken place at Stage 1. That the committee has to make such comments continually is disappointing, and we do so in order to ensure that legislation is properly and fairly scrutinised and good law is made.
I would now like to highlight three of the recommendations that the Minister has not accepted. The first, recommendation 2, relates to the need to introduce legislation that is fully formed on introduction. Section 18 concerns regulations to provide for a database of electoral registration. The Minister acknowledged the regulation-making powers were taken because of the lack of time to include information on the face of the Bill. We therefore recommended a superaffirmative procedure for these regulation-making powers in the first instance, followed by the affirmative procedure. The Minister rejected this recommendation, because it was not in line with the Welsh Government's legislation handbook on when to use a superaffirmative procedure. This, in our view, is not a strong or a persuasive argument, and I would ask the Minister to reconsider our recommendation. It would allow for more robust scrutiny of proposals that, by her own acknowledgement, would have been included on the face of the Bill if the Government's own timetable had permitted more time. Now, I recognise and welcome the Welsh Ministers' reference to guidance on good practice when putting forward their law proposals. However, our recommendation was based on our own analyses, which included the circumstances that gave rise to the provisions contained in section 18.
Recommendation 3 relates to section 26 of the Bill. Section 26 seeks to change existing provisions in the Representation of the People Act 2000. One of the key themes of the Bill is empowering local authorities and advocating decisions being taken at the lowest possible level. So, it is, therefore, surprising to see a provision in the Bill that permits the Welsh Ministers to direct a local authority to undertake a pilot electoral scheme against its wishes. It is even more surprising that a decision to issue an Order, as currently drafted in the Bill, would be subject to no scrutiny by the National Assembly.
The power in section 26 can be used to change electoral systems of a local authority, so this is not a minor or technical power. It could have a substantive effect on the political make-up of a local authority following an election, even if only for one set of elections. Any decision by the Welsh Ministers of any particular political party to use the power could, therefore, run the risk of being politically motivated and, therefore, contentious. Even if not politically motivated, this, certainly, could be the perception.
As we often highlight, it is important to distinguish how powers could be used by Welsh Ministers, rather than the intention of the Welsh Ministers currently in post when taking them. In the circumstances, we believe that the affirmative procedure should be applied to the making of an Order in question. The Minister's rejection of our recommendation on grounds that it is disproportionate is disappointing, given that the power is to be exercised without being initiated by a local authority, as is currently the case, and without scrutiny by the Assembly. In our view, this power does not sit comfortably in a Bill that seeks to empower local authorities.
Finally, I would reiterate our view that the regulation-making powers contained in section 109(2) of the Bill are too broad, and that, as we stated in recommendation 11, the word 'expedient' should, therefore, be removed from this provision. Diolch, Llywydd.
[Inaudible.]—a cut-and-paste job including, possibly, 28 provisions contained within Mark Drakeford's 2017 local government White Paper, which was originally dropped. In his written statement on the Welsh Government's approach to legislation in light of COVID-19 last week, the First Minister asked this Welsh Parliament to work with the Welsh Government to explore novel approaches to scrutiny in order to allow it to progress its legislative programme under current circumstances. This statement omitted any reference to votes for convicted prisoners. It is also noted that the Welsh Government response to the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee’s report on this Bill only accepts a quarter of our 32 recommendations, recommendations made after detailed evidence gathering from a range of expert witnesses and hours of deliberation by committee members.
The Bill provides that each principal council may decide for itself on the voting system to use, whether first-past-the-post or proportional representation using the single transferrable vote. However, 33 out of 35 respondents to its White Paper consultation disagreed and preferred to keep one voting system for the whole of Wales. Further, as our committee report states,
'the majority of the evidence received oppose the provisions that allow principal councils to choose their own voting system.'
The regulatory impact assessment also notes that an additional cost would be incurred should a principal council opt to change its voting system, but that these costs are currently unknown. It is therefore deeply concerning that the Minister rejected the committee recommendation that the Welsh Government undertakes an engagement programme with the Welsh Local Government Association—WLGA—principal councils and communities across Wales around reforming voting arrangements of local government elections. Provisions in the Bill will enable the Welsh Ministers to establish and maintain an all-Wales database of electoral registration. The WLGA highlighted the benefit in reducing the potential for individuals to be registered at more than one address. However, our committee report notes that the regulatory impact assessment does not define any costs for developing an all-Wales database, and acknowledges concerns raised around the security of individuals' personal data. It is again, therefore, deeply concerning that the Minister rejected our recommendation that the provisions relating to registration without application are amended to ensure that individuals registered in this way are placed on the closed electoral register rather than the open register.
We support the Bill's provision to remove the power to enable imprisonment as a sanction for non-payment of council tax. As our committee report notes, however, 22 respondents to the Welsh Government consultation felt the removal should be supported by the introduction of alternate methods of recovery, including local authorities. It is therefore deeply concerning that the Minister rejected our recommendation that Welsh Government works with the WLGA to consider alternative measures for recouping debt accrued through non-payment of council tax. The Minister is right to focus on prevention, but a non-custodial penalty will always be needed for some.
Currently, Irish and Commonwealth citizens and relevant EU citizens can vote in local government and devolved elections, but this Bill will enable all foreign citizens legally resident in Wales to vote in local government elections. There is a long-standing reciprocal agreement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland as a consequence of the historic relationship between both countries, and the ability of Commonwealth citizens to vote in UK elections is a legacy of the Representation of the People Act 1918. However, this Bill proposes a step too far. At least most of the countries that allow foreign citizens to vote have a minimum residency requirement, but even that is missing here. As my colleague David Melding said when scrutinising similar provisions in the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill,
'their citizenship should determine where they principally vote, and if they make the choice not to pursue citizenship here, then it's their choice not to have political rights to the extent of voting in our elections.'
Even worse, although the Welsh Government did not include in this Bill a provision for prisoners to be given the right to vote, the Minister has confirmed that if Members pass this motion today, she will then table amendments to allow prisoners serving sentences of less than four years, such as for racially aggravated common assault, breaching a sex offender order, or courting prostitution of women, to vote in local government elections. In other words, at a time of national crisis, this Welsh Government wants for us to help them rush through Welsh Government legislation that will introduce changes that are massively unpopular with the people, and which we cannot support.
Before starting, I'd like to put my thanks to the Minister and the Government on record, and to express my support for the action that you've taken in extending the lockdown. On this piece of legislation, the Minister and her team have done a great deal of work already, and I'd associate myself with the comments made by John Griffiths, as a member of his committee.
When the Bill was first introduced, I thought there was a lot to welcome in it—I still do think that. Votes at 16 and the removal of barriers to participation in the political process, in particular, are really important provisions. Under normal circumstances, we would have been supporting this Bill today and looking towards strengthening it via amendments and testing the will of the Government with some new ideas. But these are not normal circumstances, and now is not the time to be discussing this Bill. There will be many people who will be wondering how this could be any kind of a priority for the Government at the moment, when people are dying every day. All of us should be resolutely focused on helping the nation deal with the biggest health emergency in decades, in which it would not be an exaggeration to say that we are pretty much on a wartime footing.
From a practical point of view, it's extremely difficult to communicate at this time, and impossible to scrutinise effectively. We don't actually know, with clarity, what the Welsh Government's intentions are with this Bill going towards Stage 2, as, clearly, thorough scrutiny of a piece of legislation that is this extensive would be impossible, at least in the foreseeable future. It is Plaid Cymru's view that if we can't legislate properly because of the circumstances, we shouldn't be legislating at all, and to do so would be irresponsible.
We have limited time today to scrutinise the Government this week, and all of this time should be devoted to the scrutiny of the Government's coronavirus response. It's dismaying that, of the scheduled time we were given, half of that was given over to this debate on legislation that we would argue isn't time-sensitive.
I do note that the Government has said that it needs to pass this legislation today in order for work to be undertaken in time for 2022. I'm not certain that this does completely add up. If we're really saying that a delay of a few months would jeopardise a project of many years, I'm sure that there are questions over the project management of that two-year project that has no slack in the timescale. It's also worth highlighting, I think, that it is legislative lethargy that has delayed matters already. Votes at 16 has been the express will of the Senedd on a cross-party basis for several years now. We are paying a price in a time of emergency for the Welsh Government's inaction during normal times. So, Plaid Cymru will be voting against the Bill today, not because we disagree with the general principles, but because we believe firmly that this debate and this vote shouldn't be brought forward under these circumstances.
But now I want to turn to some of the comments that the Conservatives have been circulating on social media in particular. All I'll say is that if it's wrong for the Government to be continuing with this Bill at this time, it's also wrong for the Conservatives to be misrepresenting this Bill and pushing some quite disgusting attacks on it. The Conservatives have been saying that—well, falsely claiming it contains provisions for votes for prisoners, when the Bill that we're voting on today doesn't contain those provisions. Those are amendments to be tabled at Stage 2 by the Government at an unknown date in the future, and certainly won't be applied to murderers, as some members of the party have claimed wrongly. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives made this claim himself, which was really delving into gutter politics, I would argue, when the leader of his own party is in intensive care. So, I would welcome Paul Davies having the opportunity to apologise for misleading the electorate for narrow party political gain at this time.
Furthermore, I understand that 10 prisoners have already died from COVID-19, and over 100, possibly many more, are infected. To attack them at this time is, frankly, appalling. I would suggest to the Llywydd that the standards committee may be the appropriate forum, if elected Members think this is a good time to promote fake news about this institution.
So, to close, I look forward to revisiting the Bill in the future when this crisis is over, but, for the reasons I've explained, it's obvious that we should not be discussing this today, when we should be discussing PPE, testing and saving lives. So, Plaid Cymru will be voting against.
It's regrettable that the Welsh Government have chosen to push ahead with this legislation, and I feel it's extremely ill-judged to be diverting resources at this moment in time when we could postpone this until our country is better placed following the coronavirus pandemic. Because at this moment in time, pushing ahead with legislation is also hugely unpopular with the public.
I have made my views on the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill perfectly clear in the past, but even if I had fully supported the Government's aim, I would not support pushing ahead at this time of national emergency. We cannot legislate properly and we cannot just rush something through, because people are dying from a deadly and virulent disease, and in order to limit the number of deaths and reduce the strain on our NHS, the liberties of each and every one of us have been curtailed. We have shut down vast swathes of our country and our economy, and some of our constituents have lost their jobs and their lives, yet here we are debating legislation.
My view on granting rights for prisoners to vote has never been because it isn't the right thing to do. It has always been because I don't think that that is the priority that we should be looking at when we visit a prison. Having worked there, I've seen people for seven years going out with a black bag on a Friday with no roof over their head at all, no food, no clothes and no support mechanism, and this is why I think that our priorities on true rehabilitation are totally wrong.
Democracy has been put on hold to fight this virus and elections around the UK have been postponed, and we should not be using valuable time during an international crisis in order to extend the voting franchise. We can discuss this and postpone it until such restrictions are lifted and business reverts back to something that we don't currently recognise. Until then, and only then, should we think about moving forward with this Bill.
I have supported the Welsh Government. They've had my full support and that of my party during the coronavirus outbreak, and we will continue to support the Welsh Government as they forge ahead, but I cannot and will not support them on this legislation. Diolch yn fawr.
I've got few brief comments to make on the Bill, and in saying this, of course, I do recognise, as the Minister said, that this has been subject to immense consultation, and across three different committees in the Senedd, including the committee that I serve on under the eminent stewardship of John Griffiths. We looked at this in great detail, and I think my first point would be that, in recognising that the Minister has said in her opening remarks that she's bringing this Bill forward with an eye to the future, we should, of course, as Senedd Members be trying to keep an eye on what comes beyond this dire emergency that we are currently in. But with that eye to the future, I would urge the Minister to look at the recommendations that have only been partially accepted, or which have been rejected from the committee's extensive exploration of this with many, many witnesses in front of us. I'd really welcome, if she could, as this Bill progresses, going back to have a look at some of those recommendations.
But in taking this Bill forward, it has an immense amount of support behind it. It is something that local government has been calling for in broad terms for quite some time, in many of the areas within this Bill, including the areas of general competences and the ability to work together voluntarily and so on.
The power to extend the voting franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds is something that I know has had strong support within the Senedd as well as from those within, for example, the Youth Parliament as well. But we do need—the point has been made already—to make sure that, if we take that forward, then those who are 13, 14, 15 years old actually learn not only about the process of engaging in democracy, but also about the political processes as well, in a sort of citizen engagement. And I think that Minister does need to consider with other colleagues how that is best embedded within our education system.
There are great measures within this Bill as well in terms of openness and transparency. I do remember taking a cohort of students, when I was a lecturer in Swansea, to Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. So, they sat in the galleries and watched a session in action. They were all tourism students. Unfortunately, the day we turned up was a day in which they were talking about grass cutting in the parks and cemeteries. However, it did show actually how local authorities proceeded and how they made their decisions and how they voted. But the fact that we could now be looking at extending the ability of people who can't attend in person to actually see these, and engage with it, potentially, as well, on screens and remotely, as we are doing today, should be something we are looking to take forward.
There were different positions on our committee in terms of the measures around STV and first-past-the-post. Now, I'll speak personally here: I'd be a supporter of greater electoral reform, but I think there is a balance to tread within this Bill. The fact that we actually have STV here as a possibility, if we're talking to the general principles of the Bill, I think is a remarkable step forward. But I would encourage the Minister, as John Griffiths has said as well, to explore with the local authorities where they felt there was a mood amongst the local public to actually take this forward and amongst members to enable them to do so, because, otherwise, as many witnesses said to us, we might actually never see the day when STV gets off the ground. And, of course, with STV, it's not simply the concept of it, but the fact that it can lead to each vote being more equal in the way that it weighs within the ballot box, but also the impact that STV can have on diversity as well.
And that brings me to my next point, about job sharing. I am one of those Members that would like the job-sharing proposals to go forward, although there is the great step forward within this Bill in terms of job sharing for executive members, and we heard evidence on this about how it can work. But, ultimately, I think we do need to move to that point where we can see job sharing when people stand for election, because, again, in terms of increasing diversity of candidature, that could be a major step forward. Now, I realise there are practical issues around all of these, and the Minister has to wrestle with all of these, but I welcome the fact this Bill is here.
In my final closing remarks, can I just thank John and all the other committee members for the way they've wrestled with some quite complex matters within this Bill, all the witnesses who came in front of us and engaged with us fully and frankly, and just urge the Minister again, in closing, to look at those areas that she hasn't yet been able to concede on and to engage with those areas as this Bill goes forward? It's a good Bill; it could be an excellent Bill if we have some movement. Thank you.
During such a time of global crisis and very serious circumstances affecting many of our people in Wales, I simply cannot welcome the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill today. To concentrate, during this period of emergency, on this Bill, when we've seen our local democracy stifled, scrutiny has been downplayed as a result of us all working together to adapt to social distances—. So, for me, precious Plenary time is being lost due to this legislation. One only has to look at today, where nine Members were unable to raise very important serious scrutiny questions to the First Minister to give way for the time for this, and it's just something that doesn't lay easily with me.
Now, in the first instance, you will be aware that the Welsh Government, local government and public sector response to COVID-19 is putting a remarkable and considerable strain on the financial resources available to our local authorities, and I would like to place on my record the work of our local authority and all the personnel in coping with this horrendous emergency situation that we have, but it is putting a financial strain on our local authorities.
Now, many of those financial resources have had to come from their current budgets and things. So, for me, it does seem rather irresponsible for us to be considering a Bill, which, according to its own regulatory impact assessment, will cost over £17 million, and that includes transitional costs to local government of approximately £3 million. To make matters worse, the Finance Committee's commented that the Bill contains a number of areas that have not yet been costed and this—. I'm sorry, but this is happening too often with the passing of Welsh Government legislation. We know the removal of reasonable chastisement—only passed weeks ago—was underfinanced in terms of the impact that it's going to have.
Now, I do agree with their recommendation that the Welsh Government commit to providing a full and robust regulatory impact assessment for any relevant subordinate legislation made as a result of this Bill, but would add that we all consider very carefully whether pursuing the legislation is considered reasonable, especially given such uncertain times that we see ourselves in at the moment due to COVID-19.
Given that this Bill is likely to be pushed through, and in an effort to be constructive however, I would note there are some aspects that I welcome. I do support the ability that Welsh Ministers will have to establish and maintain an all-Wales database of electoral registration information. However, the RIA does not define any costs for developing an all-Wales database. So, some clarity today would be welcomed on this.
Two: provisions to require a principal council to create a petition scheme. Now, as ERS Cymru have noted—and I know very well from our own Petitions Committee—petitions are a fantastic way to engage with the public, and I see democracy at its best when we're doing that. I would like to put on record Monmouthshire County Council's call for the Bill to be explicit in stating, though, that the petitions are not referenda, that they are only advisory rather than binding.
Three: that the Bill provides for two or more principal councils to submit a joint application to the Welsh Ministers for the voluntary merger of their respective areas and councils should they wish to do so. Local accountability and decision making is key. So, should two authorities wish to merge, I would like some assurances that the Welsh Government would not have a means in place to block that plan and would work with them in terms of resources and guidance to help make that happen. Another positive that I have long campaigned for is the amending of the eligibility for local government candidacy to allow council employees to stand for election. However, I would urge the Minister to consider whether it really is necessary for individuals such as school teachers, cooks, swimming instructors to have to stand down from their paid employment should they be elected. If one looks at our education system, one can be a teacher and be a governor of a school. So, I think we need to be looking at that again.
Now, in addition to local government candidates, the Bill is set to bring major changes to those who can vote, and albeit at amendment stage, in amendments and at Stage 2 and 3, I am strongly opposed to giving prisoners the vote. I have consulted widely with a number of my constituents in Aberconwy, and the overwhelming majority of correspondence I have received is strongly opposed.
So, I would like some clarification—because I may have missed the point on this—from the Minister, in what you said earlier: is it correct now that at Stage 2 or 3 you will not now be proceeding with amendments that would allow votes for prisoners? Because I cannot support that in any shape or form. Bringing a Bill in, amendments at Stage 2, for me, that will allow for the right of prisoners serving sentences of less than four years I do not believe is in the interests of democracy. So, I would ask you to confirm, and indeed to rule votes for prisoners out today. I would like to suggest that I am dismayed that we have a Welsh Government that is prepared to believe such an issue right now to be a legislative priority.
Finally, whilst I do acknowledge and support the precedents set by the Isle of Man and Scotland for extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, I would ask for greater assurances today that there will be some confirmation that these young adults will be provided with a stronger education in politics, so that, when they do go to cast their first vote, they do so with a fair context of what democracy means and how they can play their part in it. Thank you. Diolch, Llywydd.
Well, I think this is an extraordinary time to be bringing this Bill forward. This is a constitutional measure, and we are in a highly attenuated forum in this debate today. Despite the marvels of modern technology, which have enabled us quite effectively, I think, to participate in proceedings in the last two weeks, I don't believe that it's right, when two thirds of the Members of the Assembly are not able to participate in this debate, to bring it forward today for discussion and for a vote.
The only reason that this Bill is being progressed—in my view, it's a desperate attempt by the Labour Party to shore up its dwindling political support throughout the electorate. We see in the recent general election how the electoral map of Britain, and Wales in particular, has changed. Labour has lost a great deal of its traditional voter support, and it's a measure of its desperation that it now seeks some salvation by extending the vote to children, prisoners and foreigners. If that's the measure of the Labour Party's desperation, I don't give much for their chances in the next set of elections. It seems to me they're in the same position today as the great silent film actor Harold Lloyd—hanging from the hands of the clock, desperate to try and stop himself falling into an abyss. And I don't believe that they will succeed in this respect.
As regards votes for people who are not citizens of the United Kingdom, I believe that that is wrong in principle, that if you are to determine the make-up of a Parliament and the Government of a country, then you ought to be as firmly committed to that by being a citizen as you possibly can. So, this is wrong in principle and there's almost nowhere else in the world where this has been done in the past.
Whether votes should be given to those who are 16 and 17-year-olds, again I think is a highly controversial issue, and it's improper, I think, for it to be brought before the Assembly for legislation in this way. It's notable that the Labour Party today derives a very large proportion of the support it retains from younger people and from migrant communities, and, of course, those are two of the major elements of the extension of the electorate that the Government in Wales is seeking in the course of this Bill. In my view, it's a squalid political manoeuvre for partisan purposes. It's the Labour Party's emergency that this Bill has been brought in to try to benefit, rather than the national emergency. We have suspended our civil liberties over huge swathes of human rights in the course of the last few weeks, and that would never be done in times of normality. This is an emergency, currently, in relation to the COVID virus, which we've not seen before in our lifetimes, and, in these circumstances, I think it is absolutely extraordinary that the Welsh Government should feel it right and proper to bring forward this Bill for consideration today. So, I hope that the Assembly will stand up for its rights and the rights of its Members who are not able to participate in the proceedings in the course of this debate, and throw this Bill out today.
Diolch yn fawr. Excuse me a minute. Yes, thank you for the opportunity of speaking in this debate. I wanted to come in behind Mick Antoniw's earlier contribution and also part of what Delyth Jewell was saying about is this the appropriate time to be able to give this Bill proper scrutiny, so I want to discuss less the policy objectives of this, but to concentrate a bit more on our role as legislators in connection with a major piece of legislation. And I have to say that the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee is there to help us as Assembly Members with the singular and primary responsibility that we have, regardless of our political preferences, for making good law. I would say that the Welsh Local Government Association, whatever they want from this Bill, they want this law to be good and something they can use, and something they can rely upon. So, I'm not going to be talking about those policy objectives, except from an illustrative point of view.
I'm not embarrassed to say this yet again, that it is the Welsh Parliament that makes the law, not the Government. So, it's the very least we can expect as a first step from Government that it lays a Bill that is, first, complete; that is, secondly, fully fleshed out in terms of its policy objective and at least its initial delivery; and, thirdly, has been properly costed. I think the failure to accept certain recommendations from the Finance Committee on this is a mistake. I don't think that this Bill satisfies those three general principles. If it doesn't do that, I think as legislators we should reject it today, send it back and, maybe, reinvite it to be re-laid in a form that does satisfy those tests. That's notwithstanding the point that's already been made about the period in which this piece of legislation has been brought forward.
The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee—the former version, of course, of Mick Antoniw's committee—said that amendments are for debating and suggesting improvements to a Bill, and not to deliver large and significant amounts of text and not to complete Bills that are not considered fully developed at the point of introduction. As an Assembly, of course, we ignored that when we passed the Senedd and elections Bill, and as legislators we shouldn't do that again. Fool us once and it's shame on you, Welsh Government, but fool us twice and it's shame on us. I'd like to say it's for the first time, but it's not. I think it is time for us to do our jobs and say why this is bad law now.
So, just to look back at the Senedd and elections Bill, one of the arguments put forward by the Welsh Government was that the unscrutinised inclusion of votes for resident foreign nationals would be to make it more consistent with this—the contents of, at the time, an unseen Bill. Now, this unseen Bill will, belatedly, be offering votes to certain prisoners, although I heard what the Minister said earlier, and perhaps she could clarify the position now and what she meant when she said that she would not be asking officials to devote any more resources to this. But, the point is that it was completely inconsistent with the Senedd and elections Act, already poor reasoning on the part of the Welsh Government, and now they're seeking to have it both ways, unless the Minister has something else to say on this. As legislators, we should, therefore, say 'no'.
The obvious question is why prisoner voting wasn't included in the original Bill. I'm sorry to say that the answers that the Minister gave to our committee in her evidence to us were particularly weak. We've known that responsibility for elections was to be devolved to this institution as far back as 2017, so there's been a good 18 months to prepare for a draft to be included at the beginning of the Bill on this. Citing the Hirst decision for a delay: you know, that's a decision that goes back, or the issue goes back, to 2005, so that's not very credible either.
If you want further evidence of incomplete preparation, I think it's the inclusion of the 98 powers that Mick Antoniw referred to earlier. You've been at this for six years now—it's a lot for a lengthy Bill. At this stage, we would need to know why you're seeking powers, rather than committing to duties in some cases, and then the circumstances in which you would use those powers. You've had plenty of time for scenario planning, and we don't have clarity on that.
We have some powers, as Mick mentioned, with no procedure attached to them, including powers material to changes in how councils conduct elections. Your justification for this is that it was done that way in legislation that predates the existence of the Assembly by almost 30 years. That's not a good reason. Those weighty powers relating to the operation of the single transferable vote: you should be clear now about how those should be used and they should be in a Schedule to this Bill. We've already heard about the creation of an electoral database. The problem with that, as you said, Minister, yourself, is that you hadn't worked it out yet.
Conversely, we have a situation where the Government is certain about what it wants to do about certain types of publication, as in Schedule 4—a couple of paragraphs there. But, rather than set it out, it actually seeks powers to do it instead, when there's no need for that.
So, rather than repeat what others have said, I'll finish by drawing Members' and Ministers' attention to the recommendations that have been refused by the Minister—they do require further ministerial response—but also to chapter 3 of the committee's report, and to take to heart what it says, so that Government can draft better law and that we can become better legislators, quite frankly. I hope the Minister, and us all, as legislators, will bear that in mind. Thank you.
I, again, say thank you very much for arranging this sort of Assembly meeting, which I've never experienced before, especially these days when the whole country is gridlocked. I, personally, think it’s a bit ill timed to bring this local government Bill in front of one third of the Assembly.
I wish to speak on one area clearly regarding this, this afternoon. I wish to speak against the motion giving the right to vote, in devolved Welsh elections, to Welsh prisoners who are serving custodial sentences of less than four years. Prisoners convicted of crimes such as paedophilia, racially aggravated common assault and breaking sexual offence orders would be allowed to vote under this legislation, which is very strange to my thinking. It is not surprising that this proposal is not supported among the public. A person in my office put it to public opinion, and not a single person supported this view.
Also, I believe, in principle, that law makers should not be the law breakers. If we produce in society a framework of laws setting out the standard of responsibility and behaviour that we expect our citizens to abide by and maintain, by definition, also, people who have committed crimes against their fellow citizens have not met those standards. By breaking the law, they have abdicated or forfeited the right to make laws for others. There has been much discussion about prisoners' civil liberties, however, by definition, sentencing someone to a term of imprisonment involves a suspension of the right to liberty. The right to vote in elections, in a democracy, is a civil liberty, combined with others such as freedom of association, freedom of assembly and movement, and the right to stand for election. By the consequences of their action, prisoners are deprived of their very liberties. It is a choice they have made in full knowledge of what imprisonment entails. There are two aims of imprisonment: to punish and to rehabilitate. I fully support the rehabilitation of offenders. The restoration of the right to vote should be regarded as an important symbol that the individual has paid their debt to society. It is an incentive to integrate offenders back into society; this will be lost if prisoners are given the right to vote.
Presiding Officer, there are also practical reasons why this proposal will not work. They create a bureaucratic nightmare that will place an additional unnecessary burden on our prison service staff and officials, but many Welsh prisoners serve their sentences in England. There is, for example, no Welsh women prison in Wales. The Welsh Government is, therefore, proposing to allow people to vote without the privilege of accessing Welsh media coverage to inform them of the issues, of their local issues. So, people will be totally unaware of the local issues while they will be voting. Elections entail the right of electors to meet the candidates standing for elections. It is totally impractical for candidates to travel to prisons, even within Wales, to meet electors, let alone to hold hustings on their premises. The risk to security is also obvious.
Presiding Officer, I repeat: there is no public support for this proposal. I urge the Assembly to assert the right of the public over the right of the criminal and reject this motion today. Thank you.
Llywydd, thank you very much for calling me. Am I being heard?
Yes, you are. You can carry on.
Thank you, sorry. I had 'unmuted' flash up on my screen.
This is a very important constitutional Bill. We've heard that it's been six years in the making. It's a long time for the Government to get its priorities together and now we are going to see, it seems, a very truncated legislative process, despite the fact that the three committees that looked at this Bill made extensive recommendations for amendments, very few of which have been accepted by the Government. And I do note that the Minister has received next to no enthusiastic support from her own colleagues. It's been a very tepid C- approval when she's been able to get it. I think this should send a signal to you about the process you are following and that the legislative function is not being fully honoured in the approach that you've taken, and it's a problem, I think, when an Executive acts in an overbearing way.
I have to say that I think this is quite an ambitious Bill, and there are aspects of it that I do very much favour. I would have enjoyed the prospect of trying to work genuinely in the fullness of legislative time with proper consultation—we heard John Griffiths say that many stakeholders just couldn't engage in the timescale that was given. But, I think there's a really good, important local government Bill to be had here, and that this is really the tragedy of the fact that we are not going to see fully coherent proposals come through in a well-worked Bill that probably would have had cross-party support, which should be the aim of constitutional changes.
I very much support the franchise being extended to 16 and 17-year-olds. With apologies to my colleagues, I think local councils should be able to decide what their electoral system is, as long as they get support for that change amongst their electorate. I don't think that 22 systems, which is one choice or the other, first past the post or STV, would exercise our electorate particularly. They would just get used to wherever they were having that particular form of local elections. If we believe in local democracy, why not extend that principle to them to decide on how they are represented and how they constitute their councils?
I don't agree with extending council terms from four to five years. Our change in the Assembly to go from four to five years has not been successful, in my view, and I think a four-year term has a lot to recommend it at all levels of government.
There's much to be said about the general power of competence; the public participation strategy is something that would drag us into the modern age. Corporate joint committees between councils, I think that extends: we've seen how effectively city regions are working at the moment. There's a lot to be said for performance in governance reforms, and then allowing local mergers where councils want to do that.
There is good material here, but we have to face the difficulty that this Bill now requires very extensive committee stage work to look at the amendments. Those amendments are very comprehensive and will have to be crafted by the political groups in co-operation with the Assembly's lawyers. These are extensive meetings. This is serious law, probably one of the most important Bills in this Assembly term.
It's unfortunate the Government has been overtaken by a crisis they couldn't have anticipated, and I accept the challenges that has brought. But your timetabling was your decision, and to place major reform very late in the electoral cycle is always inviting trouble. I made this point when we discussed the Senedd Bill, around using two Bills to reduce the voting age. Also, I think some major things do need to be very well considered when we extend the franchise to people who are not citizens. That is clearly a huge principle that needs a lot of thought and examination, and similarly with the issue of prisoners, if that is brought forward.
Again, I don't completely agree with the very hostile view that no prisoners should receive the franchise. I think for lesser crimes—. We do imprison an awful lot of people in Britain, and have done so since the 1980s when we had roughly 40,000 prisoners, now we have about 90,000, many serving short sentences, and I think we have to be aware of the international organisations and treaties that we have signed, and some of the policy changes we might have to make are a consequence of international law, or decisions in international law, going against us. So, I don't condemn the Welsh Government for looking at that, because it's something that the UK Government has had to do as well. But it's still not elegant to bring in such a reform at Stage 2 and not have it fully consulted on.
So, I really think it would be an act of grace on the Government's part now to accept that, in the situation we find ourselves, which is not the fault of the Welsh Government, it is just not possible to give this Bill the extensive legislative scrutiny that it requires, and it's better to decide to postpone something than to rush something through that would not get cross-party support and may have serious deficiencies because of the unintended consequences. Thank you very much, Llywydd.
Finally, Jenny Rathbone.
Thank you very much. I hear the hostility there is from the opposition, but I just want to remind us all that when we did a cross-party inquiry into prisoners voting, it was notable not just for the support it attracted from prisoners, but also from prison governors, including one of the most senior governors in this country. So it's always possible to whip up hostility to prisoners voting. That is, unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of our criminal justice system, that it is so bedogged by the attitudes and prejudices of many of the newspapers in this country, which is why it's so difficult to have a proper debate on this subject. But I think it would be a tragedy if we missed this opportunity to introduce legislation that I think we can demonstrate will actually improve the civic engagement of marginalised people, many of whom end up in the prison system on relatively minor offences—and we are talking about a very limited franchise—and this would enable us to pay much more attention to improving our criminal justice system, on which we spend billions of pounds, and which is not effective at addressing recidivism.
The Minister to respond to the debate, Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. I'm very grateful for Members' comments today, and for all the work done by the committees, and I will reflect further on everything Members have said today, and on the full set of committee recommendations that are in front of us.
Sadly, Llywydd, I do feel the need to reiterate my opening remarks on two points, which seem to have been missed by a large number of Members today. As I said in my opening remarks, unfortunately I've had to take the decision, as part of the Welsh Government's wider consideration of its legislative programme, at the start of our planning for coping with the grave circumstances, unforeseeable circumstances, we are in, not to commit any future official resource to the proposed prisoner voting Stage 2 amendments, and so we will not be bringing forward those amendments, which I did say at the beginning of this debate. The Bill we are voting on today does not contain those provisions, so a large number of Members have taken up their time today on something that is not currently contained in the Stage 1 Bill.
I, too, seriously regret the discourtesy shown to the committee's thoughtful work on this point by the recent Conservative media, which I think they should really seriously consider withdrawing. And Llywydd, as I also said at the outset, Members I'm sure will be aware that today's debate will, if the motion is passed, allow us to continue to include future work on the Bill in our planning for matters that we will want to be ready to progress once the crisis that we now face is past.
I know many Members support the principles in the Bill and its policy objectives, and in passing this motion today, it will allow us to continue to plan to have that happen in the future. If we do not pass the motion today, we could not include it in the planning. That would be a serious disrespect to the Senedd. The Senedd's input is required for us to continue to do that planning. We cannot do it without that, as some Members appear to be suggesting.
So, Llywydd, on that basis, and on the basis that I will reflect seriously on the recommendations that the committees have made once more, I will urge Members to agree the general principles and the financial resolution of the Bill today, to allow that progress to be made. Thank you.
The proposal is to agree the motions. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I can see that Members are objecting, and I defer the voting under this item until voting time. [Interruption.]
Voting deferred until voting time.
And I'll move to the voting time. As indicated on the agenda, today's votes will be conducted in accordance with Standing Order 34.11—[Interruption.] Each political group may nominate one Member of the group or grouping to carry the same number of votes as there are Members of the group. In the case of a political group with an Executive role, the nominee will carry the same—[Interruption.] Before I carry on, can all officials and translators mute their microphones? Members who do not belong to a group or a grouping will vote for themselves and I will conduct the vote by roll call.
The vote, therefore, is a vote on the motions tabled in the names of Julie James and Rebecca Evans. On behalf of the Labour group and the Government, I call on John Griffiths. How do you cast your 30 votes? John Griffiths, how do you cast your 30 votes? Once again, John Griffiths.
Thank you. On behalf of the Welsh Conservative group, Darren Millar, how do you cast your 11 votes?
On behalf of Plaid Cymru, Helen Mary Jones, how do you cast your nine votes?
On behalf of the Brexit Party, Caroline Jones, how do you cast your four votes?
Neil Hamilton, how do you cast your vote?
That concludes the vote. The result of the vote: for the motions 30, no abstentions, against 25, and, therefore, the motions are agreed.
Vote held on NDM7307 and NDM7308 in accordance with Standing Order 34.11.
John Griffiths on behalf of the Labour Group and the Government: For (30)
Darren Millar on behalf of the Conservative Group: Against (11)
Helen Mary Jones on behalf of the Plaid Cymru Group: Against (9)
Caroline Jones on behalf of the Brexit Party Group: Against (4)
Neil Hamilton - United Kingdom Independence Party: Against
We bring our proceedings of today to a close. Thank you all for taking part. And I'd like to conclude also in wishing our fellow Member, Alun Davies, a speedy recovery. Diolch yn fawr i bawb.
The meeting ended at 17:32.