Y Pwyllgor Craffu ar Waith y Prif Weinidog
Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister24/03/2023
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|David Rees AS||Y Dirprwy Lywydd, Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Deputy Presiding Officer, Committee Chair|
|Delyth Jewell AS||yn dirprwyo ar ran Llyr Gruffydd|
|substitute for Llyr Gruffydd|
|Jack Sargeant AS|
|Jenny Rathbone AS|
|John Griffiths AS|
|Mark Isherwood AS|
|Russell George AS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Adam Price AS||Arweinydd Plaid Cymru|
|Leader of Plaid Cymru|
|Claire Germain||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Des Clifford||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Dr Rachel Garside-Jones||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Mark Drakeford AS||Prif Weinidog Cymru|
|First Minister of Wales|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Bethan Garwood||Dirprwy Glerc|
|Gareth David Thomas||Ymchwilydd|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu’r pwyllgor yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 10:01.
The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.
The meeting began at 10:01.
Good morning. Can I welcome everyone to this morning's meeting of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister? Before we get under way, can I remind everyone to make sure mobile phones are on silent or switched off? Can I also remind you that if there's a fire alarm today, there's no practice expected? Therefore please leave the building and follow the directions of the ushers in doing so. The meeting is bilingual. If you require simultaneous translation, that is available on the headsets via channel 1; amplification is via channel 0. And for those on remote, you should already be aware of the interpretation available to you via Zoom. I hope you'll be able to set that up.
Can I welcome the First Minister today? Before I go any further, we have received apologies from Llyr Gruffydd, who is a member of this committee. Delyth Jewell is here to substitute on behalf of Llyr. And can I welcome Mark Isherwood to his first meeting of the committee? Mark has taken over from Paul Davies on the committee. Do any Members wish to declare an interest at this point in time? No.
Therefore, First Minister, welcome to this session of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister. Would you like to introduce your officials for the record?
Gadeirydd, bore da; bore da i aelodau'r pwyllgor hefyd. Gyda fi y bore yma ar y sgrin mae Claire Germain, sy'n gweithio ym maes tlodi, a gyda fi yn yr ystafell mae Des Clifford, sy'n bennaeth ar fy swyddfa i—swyddfa'r Prif Weinidog.
Good morning, Chair; good morning to members of the committee too. On screen, I'm joined by Claire Germain, who works on poverty, and joining me in the room I have Des Clifford, who is head of my office—the First Minister's office.
Diolch. As you're aware, this session this morning is in two parts. The first part will be with you and focused on the cost of living, and the second part, after a short break, will be with you and Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru, on the co-operation agreement.
We will go into part 1 and focus on the cost of living. First Minister, I very much appreciate, as Members do, that many of the levers are not always with the Welsh Government, but it's about what the Welsh Government can do in tackling some of the issues we deem important to the people of Wales. To start those questions, therefore, can I ask Jack Sargeant?
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Gadeirydd. Brif Weinidog, bore da.
Thank you very much, Chair. Good morning, First Minister.
As the Chair said, the UK Government has many of the levers to alleviate the cost-of-living crisis. That said, the UK budget was an opportunity for the UK Government to do just that. First Minister, you've already said, in response publicly, that the budget delivered less than the bare minimum. The finance Minister herself, Rebecca Evans, has said that they've fallen well short of providing the support to support people during the cost-of-living crisis. With that in mind, I think it's pretty clear the Welsh Government's view on the spring budget. I was just wondering if you could comment to the committee on what the remaining gaps are in terms of support for households. How will the Welsh Government look to address those gaps within its limited budget?
Chair, thank you very much. Maybe in order not to have to repeat this many times during the morning, I'll just address some very brief contextual matters. Because when we say that the budget provides less then the bare minimum, what we are referring to is the fact that the budget is worth £800 million less in spending power than it was when the budget was set by the current Prime Minister, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, during the comprehensive spending review. The comprehensive spending review did not return the purchasing power of the Welsh Government to where it was before the decade of austerity began, and now we're nearly £1 billion below what a Conservative Government believed we needed. That's the point I need to emphasise. This is not some figure that we have invented; we are comparing what we have now with what the Conservative Chancellor believed we needed back at the point of the November comprehensive spending review. And we are very, very far short of that following the spring statement.
The spring statement was a disappointment for a whole range of reasons. Let me say, trying to be fair, that we were glad that the energy price guarantee was sustained for a further period in the budget and there were some practical measures in relation to prepayment meters—by no means enough, but at least a recognition for the first time that the interests of prepayment meter customers are different and need to be protected. But if you look at the things that drive poverty, the budget left them wholly untouched: not a penny piece for people who are working poor—we know that most people in this country who are poor are working for their poverty, as campaigners would say—and for those families who depend upon the benefit system; nothing to abolish the benefit cap and the two-child limit, the single greatest driver of child poverty; nothing to deal with the five-week wait for universal credit, and the single greatest call on our discretionary assistance fund comes from people who are left with nothing while they are waiting and therefore need emergency help; nothing to deal with the direct deduction policy in universal credit—so many people who depend upon what are breadline benefits don't even get that level, because deductions are made from their benefits before they even see them; nothing to increase local area housing rates, which are very, very draconian and have a major impact here in Wales; and nothing to restore the cuts in funding for discretionary housing payments.
Those are just some of the gaping gaps that remain in the field of poverty as a result of the spring statement. The Welsh Government's ability to fill all these gaps simply doesn't exist. We continue with a whole series of major programmes that we provide, which leave money in the pockets of people where otherwise that money would not be available to them. Free prescriptions is 20 years old this year. It's £9.55 for every prescription in England; in Wales, that money stays in the pocket of the poorest households. There's the council tax reduction scheme—the single biggest, at £244 million, which we invest to make sure that the poorest households don't pay the council tax. That scheme was abandoned across our border. Even the poorest households in England pay on average £4 a week towards the council tax. That money stays in the pockets of the poorest families here in Wales. Those are just two examples. There is a much longer list, which I won't use up time with this morning, in that same social wage field where, as a result of actions of the Welsh Government, money remains in the budgets of those families who struggle the most to meet their everyday needs.
Thank you for that, First Minister. I know colleagues will have questions that may delve into some of the comments that you've made there, but I'm going to stick with energy for now. You've mentioned already the energy price guarantee and the extension for that. There were numerous calls—I think Martin Lewis, the money saving expert, led numerous calls from charities, with over 50 charities supporting that call for it to be extended. You've mentioned the price guarantee, but just in terms of energy bills as a whole, when setting the Welsh budget and looking at support for what the Welsh Government can offer, have you anticipated the energy bills level changing and, if so, how have you factored that into any of the decision-making processes?
The paradox, Chair, for families in Wales is that, while they will see the price of energy falling, their own bills will go up. I should have mentioned in my answer to Jack Sargeant's first question that another major omission in the spring statement was that the £400 that the most vulnerable households have had ends in April. So, if you are the poorest households in Wales, your bills go up by £400 on 1 April. So, although the energy price cap has been extended, the energy bill support scheme, which offered help to the poorest households, comes to an end.
Now, I anticipate that energy bills will fall at a wholesale level. That, I think, is what most commentators believe. The price of gas fell to below £1 per therm earlier this week, for the first time since the energy crisis began. I think most commentators suggest that bills will come down to around £2,000 by September/October of this year—annual bills. There are two systemic things, though, Chair, that we would still need to factor into our thinking. The first is that in the autumn, wholesale prices might start to creep up again. Two things have been on our side during this winter. First of all, the enormous success of our European Union neighbours in increasing stocks of energy in advance of the winter. So, if you look at what Germany and France did, they stored energy in advance of the winter, and they've been able to use that store, and that has kept wholesale prices down. The other thing that's been on our side is that the winter has been mild in many parts of Europe as well, so the demand for energy has been suppressed below where it would have been in a cold winter. If either of those things aren't true next winter, if European nations aren't able to restock—. And of course our own stocking capacity is at an all-time low, because it was closed by the current UK Government. If our European neighbours aren't able to restock, or if it's a cold winter, then the down-turn in prices could easily be reversed.
The other strategic thing, which lies at the heart of so much of this, though, is simply the way that energy markets are constructed. I have had a string of people ask me why their bills are going up when the price of wind and the price of the sun hasn't gone up at all. Fifty-two per cent of all the energy used in Wales last year was from renewable sources. That hasn't been driven up by the war in Ukraine or other factors, and yet it is priced at the most expensive therm bought on the day before. That's the way energy price markets are constructed. We need to disentangle the price of electricity from the price of gas and for renewable energies not to be priced in the way that they currently are. The European Union is doing a lot of work to do that. We need to see the same thing happen here.
Diolch yn fawr, Prif Weinidog. My own view on the energy price market and the associated system with it is that it's absolutely broken. The regulator themselves, Ofgem, is not fit for purpose. You mentioned prepayment meters before, in your first answer, First Minister. It will be no surprise that I'm going to ask a question on prepayment meters, I'm sure. The Senedd, on Wednesday of this week, unanimously backed—all parties in the Senedd unanimously backed—a motion, which I led the debate on, on the forced installation of prepayment meters and its associated scandal, which I think is a big signal to UK Government. I think both UK Government and Ofgem in particular were slow at the wheel when it came to the forced installation of prepayment meters. On Monday of next week, the Petitions Committee will launch an inquiry into the scandal and how it has affected residents in Wales and households in Wales—many of those who have been the most vulnerable, as you've mentioned already. One of the key things we seek to do—. Again, the powers lie and the levers lie with the UK Government, but I think there are some things Welsh Government could do.
Firstly, the energy advice pilots that were run a few years ago now—I think there could be an extension into those. The best advice being available is the best way to keep people from crisis. Is there also room for the Welsh Government to look into how they can support tenants so that landlords can't forcibly change them onto a prepayment meter? Finally, the conversations that you have—. I must say the Minister for Social Justice, Jane Hutt, and Mick Antoniw, the Counsel General, have been very, very good on this issue. They've grasped the seriousness of this issue. I had Grant Shapps, who was then Secretary for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I think—he's now the energy Secretary—on 22 December or 23 December claim to me that there was no problem with prepayment meters, and I don't think we should forget that. Ofgem, of course, have extended the voluntary suspension of forced installations, but this is only a voluntary remit. I saw a story yesterday, where an energy supplier has broken that voluntary suspension, which they can do, which is clearly not good enough. I'm just wondering, in your conversations—you were with the Prime Minister yesterday—and your officials' conversations, would you continue to call for the complete stop of the installation of prepayment meters in future conversations that you have?
Well, Chair, thanks to Jack Sargeant for those further questions, and I want to congratulate him particularly on the work that he has done on the floor of the Senedd, and through the Petitions Committee, on this issue. If there's further work to be done by the committee, I will try and find a copy for the committee of a report that I wrote with Jane Davidson, a former colleague of ours, in 1995. So, that is nearly 30 years ago. It was called 'Token Gesture?', and it was an inquiry into the very early stages of prepayment meters, which, at that stage, were also being introduced in the water industry. And Dŵr Cymru, as it was at the time, were a leading advocate of the use of prepayment or trickle-flow meters, as they were called. If you didn't pay your water bill, your water got cut off, and you were to be offered a trickle of water, sufficient to allow you to fill a kettle in about an hour. It was an absolute disgrace, and we worked very hard with Michael Meacher, the Minister responsible for water policy in the 1997 Labour Government, and that's how you are not disconnected from water if you run into problems with your water bill. So, there's a long history in Wales of campaigning on these issues, and it's great to see it continuing today.
I did raise prepayment meters with the Prime Minister in the first meeting I had with him, very shortly after his appointment, and I do want to acknowledge the fact that I think those conversations have had some impact on the actions we saw in the spring statement. So, I think he did take those points seriously, and I think we can continue to try and make the case with the UK Government.
There are things we can do in Wales, and, as Jack said, Chair, both Mick Antoniw and Jane Hutt have been particularly engaged on this issue: Mick, in dealing with the problems in the justice system—there was a Welsh court involved in mass issuing of warrants that allowed companies to break into people's houses; that is now at an end—and Jane has met absolutely regularly with the companies themselves, and with Ofgem. Her next meeting with Ofgem is on the twenty-seventh of this month, the start of next week.
What I want to focus on is what I think is the scourge of self-disconnection, the notion that people choose to go without electricity or gas in order to help them with the way they deal with their week. If a company cuts somebody off, if a company makes the decision to disconnect you, they have to report that, and they have to include that in their annual report. I believe they should have to report self-disconnection figures in exactly the same way. One of the reasons why all of this has not received the public attention it has is that it's a problem that doesn't appear in those public ways; it's suppressed. It's the privatisation of poverty into the lives of individuals, rather than it being a public policy responsibility of the suppliers. We need companies to report publicly and regularly on the number of people who find themselves unable to pay for those lifeline supplies through prepayment meters. And I think if those figures were regularly in the public domain there would be a level of attention on it that would shift the policy dial on this issue, and that's one, alongside a series of other issues, that the Minister for Social Justice is pursuing in those conversations. Some companies have made some offers about better publication of that data. They have it. They know what it is. They should put it in the public domain.
John has got a supplementary, and then I need to move on to Jenny, because I need to move on.
Yes. I just wanted to pick up on some of the remarks we've heard already from yourself, First Minister, and indeed, Jack Sargeant, in terms of the levers available to Welsh Government to tackle inequality and poverty because, you know, we have here in Wales a Welsh Government committed to social justice, and poverty continues to be a blight here in Wales, just as it is across the UK and, sadly, across the whole of the world. And it's very frustrating, I think, for all of us committed to that agenda of tackling those problems when we haven't got all the levers we might have available to our Welsh Government. And I think one aspect of that, First Minister, is devolution of administration of welfare benefits. When I meet local jobcentre staff, they're very committed to doing a good job for local populations and communities, but, obviously, they operate within a system set by UK Government, although there are important partnerships with devolved services. And I think some of the issues around sanctioning, which you've mentioned, First Minister, and the impact that has on vulnerable families and communities, some of the waiting times, some of the arrangements around payment of the housing benefit element direct to the landlord or not, some of the issues around split payments between couples—there are so many areas, I think, where we could do much better if Welsh Government was making those arrangements and facilitating those arrangements rather than UK Government. This has been discussed, First Minister, I know you've given your own commitments on this, and I just wonder where we are at the current time.
I thank John Griffiths for that, Chair. Much of the work that is going on currently inside the Welsh Government on this issue is prompted by a report published in the last Senedd term by the committee that John then chaired. So, our officials are working with a wide group of the sort of organisations you would expect—local authorities in Wales, the Bevan Foundation, Citizens Advice bureau and others—on a benefits charter for Wales, and we're doing that because this is the way the Scottish Government embarked upon the journey they have been on in relation to welfare devolution. So, the benefits charter would commit all players to a set of principles, which would then underpin any practical action in relation to the administration of welfare.
Again, just for the record, Chair, to say, my own view, and I know it's probably not shared everybody on the committee, is that I'm not in favour of the break-up of the social security system itself. I think that, in the right hands, the social security system is an engine for redistribution inside the United Kingdom and that Wales benefits from that when it's used in that way. But how you deliver services on the ground I think is much better in the hands of a tier of Government, such as the Senedd, because we are closer to all those other services and would be able to run them in a way that was consistent with our own social justice approach. John certainly will know that the Gordon Brown report, which is a report for the Labour Party, and, hopefully, for the next Labour Government, explicitly proposes the devolution of responsibility for jobcentres in Wales, and I think that would be a fantastic step on this journey, because, for a start, it aligns absolutely with our own skills responsibilities. We will be able to make sure that the services provided to people looking for work are fully linked in to all the help we're able to offer through courses and further education colleges and so on, but we would do it in a different way. We would absolutely, I hope, not have a system in Wales where people who work in the Department for Work and Pensions are not paid on the basis of how many people they manage to disqualify from benefit that week.
I just want to go back to energy and the £400 that the UK Government is no longer going to be paying out. Jane Hutt's doing a great job chasing Ofgem and the energy companies but, at the end of the day, this is a UK Government policy. This £400 went to every household who are on pay-as-you-go meters and most of those on prepayment meters. So, what conversations could you have or have you had with the Prime Minister about, yes, cancelling it—that universal payment to everybody—but using at least some of that fund to target the poorest?
Well, Chair, we wrote to the UK Government, not directly to the Prime Minister. The way in which the system means we can influence a spring statement is through the work that Rebecca Evans does with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and there's a well-trodden path in this, which is that, so many weeks in advance of the statement, the Welsh Government writes and then there's a meeting between the Chief Secretary and our finance Minister in advance of the spring statement.
We drew on the advice of the expert panel that we have established as part of the work of the cost-of-living sub-committee of the Cabinet. They gave us advice as to the key things that we should ask the Chancellor to do in the spring statement, and that letter captured all of those, in addition to the things that I've already set out this morning, Chair. For example, we asked for a one-off payment to be made to people who are dependent upon means-tested benefits to help them with the impact of the £400 reduction and the other pressures that are there in their budget. There were a series of other things that we proposed. I'm very happy to make that letter available to the committee.
Can I just ask a question on that? Clearly, you'll be looking at the analysis of the statement and your letter. Will you therefore be looking at what you can identify to cover the gaps that you've identified in your requests and what you think is needed here in Wales, and what hasn't happened?
Well, we definitely will be going through the letter and the spring statement and seeing where the gaps are. The gaps I've already identified—. We've specifically asked for action on discretionary housing payments and the local housing allowance. Again, when I first met the Prime Minister I made the case to him that this was a simple invest-to-save measure; there's an absolute perversity in the fact that the UK Government suppresses the ability of the system to help people with the cost of rent and then pays much, much more in dealing with the consequences of homelessness and all the other impacts in those families' lives. So, I am sometimes baffled by the way that those arguments don't land because, actually, they would save the UK Government money, if they invested in keeping people in their own homes, allowing them to build their lives in a way that they would want to do, rather than creating social casualties that the system then has to respond to in a much, much more expensive—and, for those families, a much, much more damaging—way. So, we will go through, of course, what we have said. Where there are things that we can do ourselves, then of course we will look to do them. But our ability to do so is utterly constrained by what I set out in my very first answer—a budget that is shrinking at a time when demand is always growing.
A similar invest-to-save argument could be applied to the Warm Homes programme. The Equality and Social Justice Committee as a committee is very concerned that we do not know what the next iteration of the Warm Homes programme looks like in any shape or form, and the current one was due to end this month. So, I appreciate that you're £800 million down. You were £800 million down, and you'll now have an even bigger gap, but if the Government doesn't set out its ambition, then those who have money don't even understand what role they play in decarbonisation and making homes warmer. So, I just wondered if you could tell us why there's been such a significant delay in announcing the next iteration of the Warm Homes programme, and also the rather astonishing statement that the Minister for Climate Change made on 1 March that the Warm Homes programme isn't going to make any difference to the 0.5 million households living in fuel poverty. I'd be interested to hear how you've arrived at that analysis, or she has.
Well, first of all, Chair, the next iteration of the Warm Homes programme is due to be in place by the end of this year. It is delayed compared to where we had originally planned, and that is just the product of the number of different things that the Welsh Government is having to try to deal with. So, the current scheme will end and a new scheme will be in its place, and the aim is to not have a gap between those two.
In terms of what the climate Minister said, I've previously heard of this, and looked, at the time, to see—. And, you know, it is one phrase in a much longer answer, and what the Minister was saying in her much longer answer is some of the things we've already rehearsed today, that the energy market is broken, that the way in which people are enabled to meet the costs of energy cannot—. If it goes on as it is now, then the Warm Homes programme by itself, while the immediate effects for its recipients will be very positive—. And, actually, she said—I remember now—in that same answer, that it was a very good scheme and did very good work. What she was trying to point to was that that is not a solution to a broken energy market, and the fundamentals that we've talked about this morning need to be attended to first. And then, of course we need a programme here in Wales—as we have, and we'll have the next iteration by the end of the year—a programme that allows us to attend to the condition and fabric of Welsh homes, reducing the energy needed and, therefore, the cost of keeping people warm. But that is not the answer to the fundamentals, and the fundamentals we've talked about already this morning.
Thank you for that clarification. I appreciate the financial constraints the Welsh Government is under. But, 40 per cent of all houses are owned outright, either by the occupier or the landlord. Surely there's a role for Welsh Government to make it absolutely clear to everybody, including those who do have availability of cash, that this is something that everybody has got to do. So, isn't that one of the ways in helping to address the fuel poverty that tenants are living in?
Well, I probably agree with almost everything up until the very last phrase of the question, because I absolutely agree that reducing our energy needs, improving the quality of Welsh homes, making our contribution in that way to climate change, as well as to the individual householder, cannot be something the Government alone carries. And particularly, as you say, where 40 per cent of homes are owned outright, then we will have to find ways of persuading those citizens—and sometimes it will be by inducements as well as other things—that they themselves have to play a part in the challenge that faces us all. So, I definitely agree with that general proposition. And, of course, where the owners of homes rent homes to other people, then, in doing so, that will help those tenants. But, of course, the bulk of that 40 per cent are owner-occupiers. They're people living in their own homes; they're not, on the whole, at the sharpest end of energy poverty. There are some, particularly in parts of Wales where people are off grid and face all the additional problems of that, but a significant slice of that 40 per cent are people who live at the more comfortable end of the income distribution. We need them to play their part. The contribution to energy poverty and fuel poverty will be indirect rather than direct.
So, the Welsh Government's not considering any of these inducements—you know, a reduction in council tax or whatever it might be.
Well, not that. I looked, when I was the finance Minister, at inducements that could be offered as part of land transaction tax. There was an experiment, where you paid less land transaction tax if you were transacting a home that had energy security measures attached to it. I'm afraid it didn't demonstrate that that had either induced people to provide those measures or that it altered the way in which purchasers were making their decisions. So, if we are to have inducements, we will have to look carefully, to make sure that inducements are ones that genuinely lead to the behavioural change we're looking for.
We need to move on.
Okay. I was going to move on now, Chair.
One question, and then I'm going to call Mark in.
Okay. You talked about the working poor, and that chimes with—. Citizens Advice, in terms of cost-of-living support, is calling for the Welsh Government to move away from a sticking-plaster approach to address cost-of-living issues to a more preventative approach. But it rather relates back to my earlier question about the Warm Homes programme. What else do you think you could do to have a more sustainable way of dealing with these massive problems?
Well, if you're bleeding, Chair, sometimes even a sticking plaster is worth having, so I wouldn't want to dismiss the actions that the Welsh Government has taken over the last couple of years during this cost-of-living crisis quite in that way, because some of that help has been absolutely vital for families. I think Citizens Advice itself has said that the investment we have made in the discretionary assistance fund has been literally life-saving in a number of cases that they have seen. So, it may be a sticking plaster, but I wouldn't devalue its usefulness if you're in a real difficulty.
Look, the fundamentals, though, are the ones that really don't lie directly in our own hands in terms of a social security system or unemployment system where people end up in poverty wages. The long-term strategy of Welsh Governments over the whole period of devolution has been what I described earlier as the social wage. The powers that we have are best applied, I've always believed—and I've been doing this over the whole period, really—in collectively providing for those things that everybody then benefits from, but the people who benefit from them the most are the people who need that help the most. And you can trace that, I believe, over the whole period of devolution. One of the very earliest decisions made by a Labour Government in the year 2000 was to abolish charges for museums and galleries. You sometimes forget that, back then, you had to pay to go into St Fagans or to go into the national museum, or to go into a gallery in Wales. We abolished that, and there was research at the time—very heartening research—that showed that the additional visitor numbers, because visitor numbers shot up, weren't, as the critics would have said, the usual suspects coming back three and four times; they were people who lived in the poorest of our communities who suddenly were able to go to see things that belonged to them that they'd previously been denied. And you can trace that throughout the whole of devolution.
With the provision of free breakfasts in primary schools, I remember the huge pressure at the time to charge for them. 'Why aren't you charging people who can afford to pay for breakfasts, and then you could use that money for people who couldn't afford to?' Well, there was a very conscious decision to avoid the stigma that was attached to charging and to avoid all the administrative costs you get. So, breakfasts in primary schools in Wales are free, as are the holiday hunger schemes that we run, uniquely in the United Kingdom—a national scheme that depends on Welsh Government and local government working together, not on charitable funds for that purpose.
If you think of what we've done even in this most difficult term of devolution, there's the extension of the childcare offer to people who are on the cusp of employment. It's the most generous childcare offer anywhere in the United Kingdom, and it's going to be available to 3,000 more families as a result of just that alone. And that leaves the money then in the pockets of those families to apply to other things, including all the extra pressures that come with the cost-of-living difficulties.
I've always believed that, in a poverty sense, that is where our efforts have the most impact, not trying always to shore up the gaps that appear in the social security system, which, in the end, have to be the responsibility of the Government who has that responsibility and has the ability to fund it.
Thank you very much indeed. When speaking in the Chamber in support of the motion on prepayments referred to earlier, on Wednesday, I noted that the UK business Secretary had written to energy suppliers stating they should stop forcing vulnerable customers onto prepayment meters before The Times investigation drew public attention to debt collectors breaking into people’s homes and forcing the fitting of prepayment meters. I also referred, as has already been referenced, to the importance of energy efficiency and the levers that the Welsh Government itself has available. I chair, as I’m sure you’re aware, the cross-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency, and we’ve always approached these matters as a social justice issue, a whole-person issue—you can’t simply make improvements to a building and expect the issues that might be causing the wider problems a person is encountering to also be addressed. But we have, for at least two decades in current format and previous iterations of the cross-party group, been emphasising the urgent need to accelerate the improvement of energy efficiency in fuel-poor homes. I think I first spoke on this 20 years ago this year in the old Chamber. In November, the Minister for Climate Change stated the new national demand-led scheme focused on homes and fuel poverty as part of the next Warm Homes programme will be procured and operational before next winter. Are you able to set out a timeline for the next demand-led scheme to be operational before winter, and can you provide assurance that, although we know there’ll be a seamless transition from the existing programme onto the new programme, from Nest in particular, that will not only be procured, but will be operational before next winter?
Chair, I thank Mark Isherwood for that. I welcome all the steps that the UK Government have taken in relation to prepayment meters. As I said in my first answer to Jack Sargeant, they may not go as far as we would like, but the fact that they have become part of the public policy debate is itself very important, and the actions the UK Government Ministers have taken are to be welcomed, I think, as very important first steps.
Can I say as well that Mr Isherwood has mentioned another very important topic, and that is the operation of the enforcement conduct board, because the way in which debt collectors go about their business is a social justice issue? Now, the enforcement conduct board is an industry board, it’s voluntary, but it’s the first time we’ve had that sort of arrangement in place. Jane Hutt has met, I know, with the board. We want to support their work here in Wales. The regulation of bailiffs is something that I’ve often myself believed that a private Member’s Bill here in the Senedd—. It would make a very good topic for a private Member’s Bill here in the Senedd, because it is not simply—. Mark will remember from The Times report—and I accept what he said about the timing of that—that some of the worst stuff in The Times report was the way in which people breaking into other people’s homes went about that business. It wasn’t done in a way that demonstrated a great deal of respect for other people, and the way in which bailiffs are regulated and operate, I think, is a point we haven’t touched on so far. Mark Isherwood, I think, was right to raise it.
In relation to the scheme for later this year, I don’t think I’ve got any further detail beyond that which I offered to Jenny Rathbone. The intention is to procure and have it in place in a way that does not have a gap between the current scheme and the new iteration, and to achieve that by the end of this calendar year.
When you say ‘in place’, do you mean it will be operational before next winter, or simply in place and ready to go the following year?
I’m afraid I really don’t have—. I don’t want to guess an answer and then to mislead people. The note that I had for First Minister’s questions on this, as I remember, said that the idea was to procure it and to have it in place by the end of this year. Whether that measures up exactly to what Mark Isherwood has just asked me, I would rather check and let you know.
Okay, well, directly related to that, analysis by NEA and the Fuel Poverty Coalition in Wales—you mentioned Jane Davidson, and she and I jointly signed that when it was launched in 2009—and the evidence that they have found is that the current iteration of the Warm Homes programme, particularly Nest, has generally helped the least worst-first households, rather than those on the lowest incomes and living in the least efficient homes. How will you ensure that the next iteration does focus on the worst-first homes and, clearly, the people living within them?
Here's the policy dilemma, Mark, isn't it? You can run a scheme of the sort that we have had, which is not targeted in the way that you just described, but is targeted more geographically, or at particular types of tenants. The advantages of that are advantages of scale. You will help far more people, but you can't be sure that the people you are helping fall into the category of those who are most in need. Or, you can proceed as you suggested. You then have to identify those people individually. So, you can't now just rely on it being social tenants or private sector tenants, or people who live in a particular street. You have go to people individually and provide a service that is only available to, or is focused more on, those people in the circumstances that Mark Isherwood has described. You will target your help more successfully that way on those most in need, and you will reach fewer people than you do in the other sort of scheme. I have seen people argue this both ways, and there are campaigners in the field who take different views on it. We either use our money in a way that reaches most people, or we reach those most in need and end up with fewer of them benefiting. There's certainly a case for that second course of action, but we should just be clear about what it means, in terms of the scope of the scheme, in terms of the number of properties and the number of households that can be helped, if you go down that route.
Thank you. As you know, currently, the main schemes available are Arbed and Nest, and Arbed is area based in the way that you described, primarily focused on social housing. But Nest has been predominantly demand led, and I think that that's where the greatest evidence lies, showing that perhaps the least worst first may have been those most likely to successfully apply. So, what, if any, proposals do you have in place to better target that on worst first through the use of local authority engagement, local authority schemes, advice agencies, GP surgeries, local connectors, or navigators, or whatever term different local authorities are applying to the people they are employing to fulfil those roles or otherwise, so that that element of the next iteration of the programme can genuinely be seen to be hitting the worst first? And then, how will that be monitored as the programme is delivered, to make adjustments as necessary if targets are not being reached in the way that they need to be?
First of all, I think that Mark Isherwood very properly captured the distinction between Arbed and Nest. We are talking about a series of policy dilemmas this morning. If you were to say that the Nest programme should be recalibrated so that it focuses more on those who need help the most, it would certainly rule out many of the people who have used Nest in the way that Jenny Rathbone asked me earlier. Nest, for example, offers a service and advice to people who are looking to put solar panels on their roofs in order to reduce their use of energy and make their contribution to carbon zero. It's a valuable service. It's more likely to be used by the 40 per cent that Jenny mentioned than it is by those people who are at the furthest end of fuel poverty.
I do, though, agree, and have been doing my best to advocate for this inside the Welsh Government and through the sub-committee that we have where we meet our partners, that an every-contact-counts approach to this problem is one that is most likely to give us the maximum benefits. So, using, as Mark set out, that wide range of people with whom Welsh citizens are in contact, and to use them not to give expert advice on energy-efficiency measures, but to make sure that, if you're somebody—. I'll say this—it would be controversial amongst the GP community, I think—if you were a GP and you were seeing somebody whose chronic chest condition was the product of the housing conditions that they live in, then enabling our GPs to be able to refer those people to good advice so that they were able to draw whatever help is available to them, I think, would be a very, very good way of helping to increase the scope of the schemes we currently have in place. I think, by the way, across the whole range of cost-of-living issues, that those people—social workers, youth workers, all those people who every day come into contact with citizens who may need help in a cost-of-living period—we should be equipping those front-line workers to make those referrals and to put people in contact with advice that might help them to get the help that's available.
We have many areas we're here to cover, and I want to make sure we get at least three of those areas in before we finish this session, First Minister, so I'm going to move on now to some big questions from John Griffiths, and then I'll move on to questions from Russell George.
I'd like to ask a few questions, First Minister, on poverty and equality, on issues that have been brought up by various organisations in Wales. Firstly, I know the Equality and Social Justice Committee heard from Well Fed and other organisations in terms of the emergence of a new poverty in Wales over recent months, where families who've never previously needed support now require it. I wonder if you could tell this committee, First Minister, how Welsh Government has worked with organisations to ensure that people in that situation know how to access support, because I think Jenny's committee heard that, sometimes, there's almost panic that sets in, because they've no idea, really, how to approach the various systems that might provide help, and also whether you've been involved in any tailoring of eligibility criteria to support people and families in those circumstances.
Well, Chair, on the first point, people who've never previously needed help and who, when they do need help, have got no experience to fall back on as to how to get it, two examples. I think there are more, but two examples. The first is to pick up Mark Isherwood's point about making every contact count. These are people who are likely to be in touch with some public services. They won't go there for poverty reasons, but those services ought to be a gateway to the help that people need, and so I think the more we embed that idea that, every time you are seeing somebody, you should have this in your mind as one of the things that you might be able to help with, that would be one way.
The second way would be automaticity. So, in half the local authorities in Wales, 11 out of the 22, if you do get one form of help, that automatically, in the council systems, will lead to you getting other forms of help that the council are able to provide. The councils are the front line, in many ways, of the discretionary benefits system that we are able to help with. So, we have been working with the Welsh Local Government Association, with Councillor Anthony Hunt as the chair of their finance group, to try to extend the number of councils who are able to provide help in that way so that people who haven't a history of needing to apply for benefits, if they come into contact with the system at one point, then the system itself will take care of any other forms of help that they are able to have.
I talked a bit earlier, I think, Chair, about the Welsh benefits system and the work that we've been doing there. Automaticity is one of the principles that we're trying to embed in that. People should not have to apply separately for every little bit of help you need when, these days, we have automated systems that can do that for them.
As to how we have been able to tailor eligibility criteria, well, some members of the committee will know the way that we altered the discretionary assistance fund criteria so that it is available, for example, for people who are off-gas, and you can make payment claims there that you couldn't do prior to the cost-of-living crisis. And the new fuel support scheme also has a particular focus on helping people who use prepayment meters and people who rely on oil and other forms of heating, and we've enabled—or assisted, I should say—the credit union movement in Wales to be able to offer loans for people who buy their fuel in that big, bulk, one-off payment sort of way, so that they can spread the payments over a longer period. So, where we are able to, I think we are alert to and have shown that we are able to amend criteria to take account of the latest emerging sources of need.
Could I add a line, First Minister? If I may, Chair, it's just the discretionary assistance fund; there are just a couple of figures that very graphically illustrate the nature of the crisis that has really unfolded around us. Because in the year 2019-20, there were 77,000 people who were helped by the discretionary assistance fund. In the next year, that jumped up to 231,000, and then in the most recent year, 2022-23, that is now at 313,000, so it's a very graphic illustration of the trajectory and the scale of the issues that we're trying to combat here.
I should say, Chair, I wish we didn't need a discretionary assistance fund, but I'm very proud of our record on it in Wales. You will remember that the reason we have a discretionary assistance fund is that the then Chancellor George Osborne broke up the social fund, which was its predecessor as part of the social security system, and without asking us or with our permission, devolved responsibility for it in Wales to Wales. He cut the budget of the previous year by 10 per cent, and said, 'From now on, it's your problem', not his. Now, in England, that fund doesn't exist at all, because the money was given to local authorities and most of them, cash-strapped as they are—I don't mean that critically; they've got other urgent needs, and they've diverted the money to that. We made a conscious decision here in Wales that we would retain the money; we've supplemented it many, many times over. It is a national scheme in Wales. It is a rules-based scheme, so people know what they can and cannot be entitled to get, and the demand for it, in the way that Des has just illustrated, shows what a lifeline it has been over the crisis of the last few years.
Okay. Another area that's been highlighted—this time by the Bevan Foundation, First Minister—is rural households who are often particularly affected by cost-of-living pressures with cost of transport, some of the energy issues, and you mentioned the off-gas help that the Welsh Government has provided. But they tend to often have higher costs, lower incomes, and more limited support, so I wonder if you could say a little about what the Welsh Government will do to build on the support that it's already offered rural households in the face of these pressures.
Well, rural households, of course, Chair, benefit from all those sorts of national schemes, and I want just to make that point again that, in Wales, what we have tried to do when we are able to offer help is we try to do it on a basis not of local discretion, but nationally based schemes that guarantee that people in rural parts of Wales get the benefit of that as much as anywhere else. So, the universal free school meals, for example, it does have some particular benefits in rural areas, particularly in relation to local businesses that supply the ingredients for free school meals. The most direct examples are the ones I mentioned, though, a moment ago; the way that the Fuel Bank Foundation scheme has a focus on people who are not connected to the main gas network. So, that was a form of help that wasn't available previously. The fact that the discretionary assistance fund also helps people to meet the costs when they are off-grid in terms of fuel, and the way in which we've been able to help credit unions fund those systems that allow people—. I'm going to get the figure wrong, Chair, and there may be people on the screen who will know it, but isn't it 40 per cent of households in Ceredigion that are off-grid? So, in rural Wales, that's where the concentration of households in that position are to be found, and those measures, then, are particularly focused on the needs of those communities.
Okay. I know that time is always limited, Chair, so—. Foodbanks, First Minister, have become a feature of modern life and the use of those foodbanks, and the pressure on that service is ever-growing, it would seem. I know that the Trussell Trust are of the view that there should be a longer term plan, which, in a way, prevents the need for foodbank services. Is this something that Welsh Government is looking at with organisations such as the Trussell Trust as to how we can be more preventative and longer term?
Well, I'm sure, like every member of the committee, when you visit a foodbank, the first thing you are told by the fantastic people who run them is that they wish they weren't there; they wish they weren't needed. And surely that is the aim that we should have. Of course we celebrate the enormous voluntary effort that goes into them, but the fact that people have to rely on a foodbank for something as basic as something to eat cannot possibly be a cause for celebration in the twenty-first century in Wales. So, we need people to have incomes that are sufficient for them not to rely on those forms of provision, and the state has a responsibility there, both in making sure that benefit levels are sufficient for people to meet their basic needs and that we don't go on being a low-wage economy, where people have to subsidise the low wages they get in these sorts of ways.
Now, there are a number of ways in which, here in Wales, we are trying to help them. The free school meals in primary schools is a very good example of that. Is it £10.70 a week to pay for school meals in a Cardiff school? I think so, for one child. So, if your child is now going to be getting that free, then that's £10 you can use to supplement your household income for other food purchases. And then, we are committed to a community food strategy, which I think will help us to bring together a series of efforts in this area and to move beyond the point where we think that foodbanks are the answer to food poverty.
Delyth, you had a question specifically about disabled people and those with a long-term condition.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Ie. Prif Weinidog, mae ymchwil gan Cyngor ar Bopeth yn dangos bod pobl anabl a phobl sydd â chyflyrau tymor hir yn fwy tebygol o wynebu creisis ac angen cymorth gyda dyledion, bwyd a phethau fel yna. Ydy'r Llywodraeth yn ystyried rhoi mwy o gymorth wedi ei dargedu i fynd i'r afael â'r broblem yna, plis?
Yes. Thank you, Chair. Research by Citizens Advice shows that people who have disabilities and those who have long-term conditions are more likely to face a crisis and will require support with food, debt and so on. Is the Government considering providing additional targeted support to tackle that problem, please?
Wel, wrth gwrs, mae'r ffigurau yn dangos beth mae Delyth Jewell wedi ei ddweud. Rydyn ni'n gwybod bod pobl sydd ag anabledd corfforol ac anabledd dysgu yn wynebu mwy o broblemau na phobl yng Nghymru yn gyffredinol. Mae lot o'r pethau rydyn ni'n eu gwneud yn gyffredinol, wrth gwrs, yn rhoi help mawr i bobl yn y cyd-destun yna. Dwi wedi cyfeirio at y cymorth rydyn ni'n ei roi i bobl i dalu'r dreth gyngor, er enghraifft, ac mae presgripsiynau am ddim yn help hefyd.
Jest cyn yr etholiad diwethaf, roedd Jane Hutt wedi tynnu grŵp o bobl at ei gilydd, pobl â phrofiadau o fyw bob dydd gydag anabledd, ac maen nhw wedi rhoi syniadau i ni am sut allwn ni wneud mwy i'w helpu nhw. Beth maen nhw'n ei ddweud, fel buasech chi'n disgwyl, yw beth maen nhw eisiau ei wneud yw cael mwy o gyfleon i weithio, mwy o gyfleon i godi arian yn eu bywydau nhw, nid mwy o gyfleon i ddibynnu ar y system sydd ddim wedi eu helpu nhw yn ddigonol eto.
Well, of course, the figures demonstrate what Delyth Jewell has said. We know that people with disabilities, both physical disabilities and learning disabilities, do face greater problems than the population in general. There are a number of things that we do across the board that do provide support to people in that context. I've already referred to the support that we provide to people to pay council tax, for example, and free prescriptions, of course, is a great assistance, too.
Just prior to the last election, Jane Hutt drew a group of people together and these are people with lived experience of living with disabilities, and they have provided us with some ideas as to how we can do more to assist them. What they told us, as you might expect, is that what they want is to have more opportunities to work, more opportunities to make money in their own right, not more opportunity to rely on a system that hasn't helped them sufficiently in the past.
I'll move on to questions from Russell George.
Thank you, Chair. First Minister, could I just ask for your assessment on the impact of ending the bus emergency scheme? And I ask in the context of any mitigations being put in place, particularly for rural communities and vulnerable households.
Well, Chair, the bus emergency support is coming to an end because the emergency is coming to an end, and the funding that we had available to us through emergency support in England, and then flowing through the Barnett formula, is coming to an end as the emergency ends. We are all grateful to have moved to a point where the COVID emergency is now something we are managing in a different sort of way.
Now, the real challenge in the bus industry is that, while the COVID emergency is now being managed differently, patronage of the buses has not recovered to anything like it was before the emergency began. Without the continuation of emergency funding, we're simply not going to be able to carry on sustaining a bus service where the number of passengers that it carries doesn't contribute to the fare box, as its called, as it did before. So, this is very difficult—I absolutely understand that—and members of the committee will know that we have found money from our own budgets to extend that emergency support until the end of the first quarter of the next financial year, and as you will have heard the Minister say in the debate on the floor of the Senedd on Wednesday, we are finding money beyond that as well. But that money has to be used with the bus companies themselves to fashion a future in which emergency support cannot be a perpetual feature of the landscape. We already support bus services in Wales to the tune of over £100 million a year, and none of that is being removed. It is just the additional increment that came to us as part of the COVID experience. It's no longer coming to us, and we can't carry on as though that were not the case.
Thank you, First Minister. I appreciate your answer. This question now follows, I suppose. Perhaps you could just give us an understanding of Welsh Government's thinking about the future of subsidising bus and rail services, both in the short, medium and long term.
Particularly, Chair, the answer will lie in the bus Bill that we will bring in front of the Senedd. As I said, we invest £100 million and more in subsidising bus services across Wales. Do we believe that that buys us £100 million-worth of public interest? Well, I don't think we can say that. The privatisation of bus services means that the primary driver in the commercial system is profit taking rather than service provision, and we need to find new mechanisms through which the money that the public invests in the bus industry provides a return for the public on that investment. The franchising system that we will bring forward as part of the bus Bill is, we think, the best way in which the public interest can be more powerfully asserted in that system, and that it will lead to better outcomes for the travelling public. It won't do that if people don't use buses, because the single biggest factor here is patronage, and as you heard Lee Waters say, if ever there was a 'use it or lose it' service, then the bus service is it. There's more to it than that, as Russell George will know—the experiments in Fflecsi timetables, how we marry up fixed timetables in more populated areas with Fflecsi systems in areas where you need to create the timetable every day to meet the demand that has been phoned in first. There are many other ways in which we can design a bus service for the future while the immediate challenges do remain very significant.
Is there anything further, First Minister, you could add, or any considerations in terms of a flat £1 fare to particularly help in terms of the costs of living?
I'm not unattracted to the idea that you have a flat-rate low fare, but there are some very practical challenges that you have to think through before you embark on that, such as what would be the interaction between that and our policy of free bus travel for people aged over 60—I didn't mention that in the long list of social wage initiatives of the Welsh Government, but that was a very early one. You would have to think about the interaction of charging for some people and the current system of not charging quite a lot of people anything. You have to look at the issue of latent demand, as it's called. If you price bus travel at that level, you can't assume that the demand for services will be what it is today. There is a suppressed level of demand that would then rise to the surface and you'd have to have planned for that in advance. It is an idea that is looked at inside the Welsh Government, but some of those intended and unintended consequences have to be thought through properly. We've had some experiments in parts of Wales where we've had free bus travel or very low fare bus travel. They do show that patronage goes up—you know, it's price sensitive—and part of the lessons from those experiments will be how we approach that flat fare issue.
It sounds like, First Minister, you're open to the idea of a flat fare. You said that it's something the Welsh Government is considering—when might we see something from the Welsh Government in that regard in terms of a written statement or further details?
You are already seeing it in parts of the rail industry, because Transport for Wales continues to offer a range of cheaper and sometimes flat fares. Children under the age of 11, for example, travel free when they travel with a fee-paying adult. So, it's not that we're not doing anything in this area; it's there to be seen in the rail industry and, as I said, there have been some small-scale pilots in the bus industry as well. I think, as we have looked further into this, we've become more aware of some of the complexities. So, while we don't have a closed mind in relation to the flat fare idea, I don't want to give the committee the impression that this is going to be something that we will be able to embark upon in a large-scale way any time soon.
Thank you, First Minister. One last question from me—
I'll come to you in a minute, Russell. Jenny has a quick supplementary.
Going back to buses, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change said on Wednesday that either 20 per cent or 25 per cent of the education budget is used on school transport. I nearly fell off my chair. What are the opportunities to collaborate and integrate school transport with public transport as an emergency solution to ensure that we still have public transport in many areas?
I believe that there are opportunities there that we should certainly look at. The sums of money, as Lee said, are much larger than probably most people realise. The challenges that are there in the bus industry are, in some ways, felt even more acutely in school transport. We have an ageing workforce in the bus industry, we are failing to recruit new people to do that job, and what we will need to do is to squeeze every bit of value we can from the investment we're able to make, while planning ahead for the sort of bus industry that we wish to see in the future.
Is this something you're actually looking at with local authorities?
I know that the Deputy Minister for Climate Change and the Minister for education do meet regularly to talk about that interface between school transport and the more commercial bus services.
Russell, I'll come back to you for the last question, and then I'll move on to Delyth.
Thanks, Chair. That was a good point from Jenny. I think that's particularly relevant in terms of the context of rural areas, where it's more challenging in terms of a timetable. That's probably the context of my final question on this, First Minister. When are we going to see some improvements in terms of bus and train timetables aligning? This is particularly important in rural areas, where you've got less frequency of services. It's a question that I and others have raised for many years, and we still see that bus or train arrive five minutes after the other's departed. It's in terms of bus timetables in particular, I suppose, where it's perhaps more in your ability to align.
First of all, I completely understand the frustration of people finding that you take one form of transport and it arrives just after the other form of transport has left. But, actually, alignment does require you to have some control—or, at least, influence—over both parts of that equation. You can't expect railways to run their timetable against a timetable set by somebody else, and over which you don't have any control. So, while it is slow, I think you will find that there is progress on integrated ticketing and timetabling. The Welsh Government policy is very much aligned with what Russell George has said, certainly in the metro developments, where the metro development in south-east Wales, which I'm most familiar with, relies on both trains and buses. Having an alignment between the timetables will be essential to getting the maximum value out of the very significant amounts of public investment that we are mobilising to make that happen.
Thank you again.
First Minister, I want to ask you a few questions about children and young people, looking at childcare firstly, please. The UK Government has announced it's going to be bringing in a phased expansion, working up gradually so that it will apply to families with children aged nine months and above. Does the Welsh Government have any plans to undertake a similar expansion in Wales?
As I tried to explain on Tuesday in First Minister's questions, I wouldn't put too much reliance on the UK Government's plans for things that will happen well after the expiry of the term of the current UK Government. I would describe these not as plans but more as aspirations. The amount of detail that it's been possible to get out of the UK Government following the spring statement has, I think, demonstrated that this is another thing in a very long line of things where you get an announcement first and then the policy thinking follows afterwards, rather than the other way round, whereas here in Wales we've always done our best to do things differently, in that we plan, we work out how we are going to do something, we mobilise the funding to support that, and then we make the announcements of what we intend to do.
That is very much the case in the childcare field, where, through the co-operation agreement, the big expansions in childcare in Wales, over and above the extension to people on the cusp of work in the current system, will be to provide childcare to children as young as two years old. We've already made a very significant start on that expansion, an expansion focused, as Delyth will know, on growing the Welsh-speaking workforce and the capacity of the system to offer bilingual childcare. And we will take another big step forward in September of this year in phase 2 with 4,500 new places for two-year-olds here in Wales. So, I feel the system we have already provides more than is provided in England, and we would rather proceed on the basis, as I say, of proper planning, proper funding, rather than headline grabbing.
Diolch am hynna. Dwi'n ymwybodol o'r amser. Gwnaf symud ymlaen at rywbeth arall yn y maes yma, sef prydau ysgol am ddim yn ystod gwyliau ysgol. Rydych chi wedi cyhoeddi yn ddiweddar y bydd y ddarpariaeth yna yn cael ei hymestyn yn ystod gwyliau'r Pasg a gwyliau Sulgwyn, sydd i'w groesawu. Ydych chi'n bwriadu cario ymlaen gyda hyn ar gyfer gweddill 2023-24? Ac os felly, pryd fyddwch chi mewn sefyllfa i allu cyhoeddi hynny, plis?
Thank you very much for that. I'm aware that time is against us, so I'll move on to another issue, which is free school meals during school holidays. You've recently announced that that provision will be extended during the Easter holidays and the Whitsun holiday, too, which is to be welcomed. Do you intend to continue with this for the remainder of 2023-24, and if so, when will you be in a situation to announce that, please?
Roedd y cynllun i roi bwyd am ddim yn ystod y gwyliau yn rhywbeth a oedd wedi codi yng nghyd-destun COVID. Wrth gwrs, trwy'r profiad yna, rŷn ni'n gallu gweld pwysigrwydd gwneud hynny ym mywydau plant a theuluoedd mewn tlodi, a dyna pam rŷn ni wedi trial ffeindio arian bob tro i ymestyn y rhaglen. Fel roedd Delyth Jewell yn ei ddweud, nawr rŷn ni'n gallu dweud y gallwn ni ei wneud e yn ystod y Pasg a'r hanner tymor yn yr haf. Ond rŷn ni'n dibynnu bob tro ar yr arian sy'n codi yn ystod y flwyddyn—one-off money. A dyna pam dŷn ni ddim mewn sefyllfa i gadarnhau y gallwn ni fwrw ymlaen i wneud hynny trwy'r flwyddyn hon. Ond dwi'n gwybod bod y Gweinidog addysg yn trial bob tro, os mae'r arian yn codi yn ei gyllid e, i wneud mwy, fel rŷn ni wedi gwneud yn barod. Dyna un o'i flaenoriaethau fe.
Yng nghyd-destun y cyllid am y flwyddyn ariannol nesaf, mae'n mynd i fod yn anodd dros ben, dwi'n meddwl. Pob ceiniog sydd gyda ni rŷn ni wedi cynllunio ei ddefnyddio cyn i'r flwyddyn ddechrau. Os bydd arian yn codi yn ystod y flwyddyn i wneud mwy yn y gwyliau i helpu plant a theuluoedd, fel rŷn ni wedi gwneud, mae hwnna, fel dywedais i, yn un o flaenoriaethau'r Gweinidog. Ond dŷn ni ddim yn gallu dweud dim byd ar hyn o bryd, achos dyw'r flwyddyn ddim wedi dechrau eto, a dŷn ni ddim yn ymwybodol eto ble bydd—ac os bydd—posibiliadau'n codi.
The plan to provide free school meals during the school holidays was an issue that came up in the COVID context. Of course, through that experience we've identified the importance of doing that for the benefit of children and families in poverty, and that's why we've always tried to extend the programme. As Delyth Jewell has said, we can now state that we can do it during Easter and the Whitsun holidays. But we're always reliant on funding that arises during the year—one-off money. So, that's why we're not in a position to confirm that we will be able to continue with these extensions throughout this year. But I do know that the Minister for education always tries, when there is funding available within his budget, to do more, as we've already done. That's one of his priorities.
In the context of the next budget, it's going to be extremely difficult, I think. Every penny we have has been allocated before the year begins, but if there is funding available during the year to do more in the school holidays to assist children and families in the way that we have been doing, then as I said, that is one of the priorities of the Minister. But we can't say anything at the moment because the year hasn't yet begun, and we don't yet know if and where the funding possibilities might arise.
Thank you for that, First Minister. I think that's clear. Finally from me, turning to older young people, perhaps, the Welsh Government's annual report on the young person's guarantee found that 60 per cent of young people are scared for their generation's future. All of the crises that we've been discussing this morning seem to have a particularly acute impact on young people, whether that's education, employment, training opportunities, and again that mental health crisis enveloping all of it—they're scared about their future. What work can you comment on, please, that the Welsh Government is putting in to make sure that the advice and support that's available to young people, in knowing where to go to get that support, is coherent, is easy to access, and particularly that that psychological support is there for them, please?
Delyth Jewell is absolutely right; any of us who go to speak with school students will know that the impact of COVID and the impact of pressures on mental health do mean that there is a generation of young people—and it's not just in Wales; it's more widespread than this—who are genuinely anxious for their future. They see it in the context of climate change and all the other things that they will live through. These are things in their lives that we're talking about, and it's easy to understand why they have those anxieties. And yet, one of the biggest things that I think has changed in my political lifetime is that for most of my political lifetime we have thought that the problem we face with young people is to create economic opportunities for them, to find work for young people to do. Now, we're in a completely different position where young people are a scarce and sought-after resource. I was with Airbus, which Jack's constituency has such a powerful association with, over last weekend—they are looking to recruit more young people, but they are having to compete for those young people because there's a shortage of people in the workforce. What we have to do is to give confidence to all young people that, actually, their futures are potentially very successful, because they will be wanted in the world of work. Working Wales, which is the programme that we use to make sure that there is a coherence of advice to young people, has had over 11,000 young people engage with them since it was started in November 2021. And colleagues will be aware that the Minister for Economy announced, just a few weeks ago, the additional support that we are putting into Jobs Growth Wales+, which is the programme that focuses on some young people who are maybe furthest from being ready to be in the workplace: doubling the training allowance, a new free meal allowance, extending help with transport costs and extending the eligibility age of the programme up to 19 as well. So, while we aim for a universal gateway, so all young people who need the consistency of advice that Delyth Jewell mentioned can get it, and, then, extra support for those young people who need more help to become work-ready—. Because, once you are ready for work in Wales as a young person, there are opportunities and choices for you that maybe weren't there for young people even a decade ago.
Can I expand upon that point, First Minister? Because I know that Luke Fletcher has been a very strong advocate for expanding the education maintenance allowance, and you've just talked about Jobs Growth Wales+ and we know that Jobs Growth Wales was originally supported by European funding, and you're now adding to that, and there's a review going on. Can we expect a review of the EMA to also highlight the important role it plays in keeping people in further education, particularly when we're looking at developing skills for new sectors? And we know that free ports yesterday highlighted that new sectors are coming to Wales. So, are we looking at a review, and when can we expect that review to come to its fruition, so that we have an understanding of how young people who want to stay in further education and avoid putting themselves into a situation where they are facing financial difficulties can continue in education?
Well, Chair, in our discussions with Plaid Cymru, as part of the co-operation agreement, and the influence that Plaid Cymru have in the budget-making process, you will see that we published a joint statement, that said that post the spring statement, the three shared top priorities for us, if any further funding can be found, are firstly to deal with public sector pay; secondly, to do with investment in the bus industry; and, thirdly, education maintenance allowances.
Anybody who sits in the Chamber will know that there is a very long list of things that many Members would like to see more investment in. So the fact that EMAs get into the top three priorities that we've identified jointly, I think, does tell you, that it is very much in the minds of Welsh Government Ministers. I mustn't anticipate anything that the education Minister might be able to say, and finding money even for those three priorities is a real struggle. But the reason that EMAs are on that list are for the reasons, Chair, that you've set out. And, if I'm, beating this drum a bit this morning—. And let's not forget that EMAs were abandoned across our border as well and that it was a deliberate decision here in Wales to retain it, and, while we've not been able to uprate it as we would have liked, the fact that it is still there and still helping many, many young people, gives us a platform to do more in the future, which is not available elsewhere.
I'm going to give Mark Isherwood the last question. His hand is up.
Diolch. Thank you. Going back 18 years, I remember calling for EMAs to be introduced in Wales, when they were being piloted in England but not Wales, and leading our position at the time to support their introduction, but with the condition stating that, yes, we would vote and support, but we wanted monitoring and evaluation to ensure that they were achieving their stated goal, which was enabling young people who could not otherwise afford to carry on with their post-16 education to do so. What such monitoring and evaluation is ongoing to ensure that the outcomes intended through the EMA programme are being achieved?
Well, Chair, this is being done as part of the education Minister's response to the report of the Children, Young People, and Education Committee and, indeed, the Finance Committee's recommendations that we should undertake an independent review of EMAs. That independent review is looking in more depth at the allowance rate, threshold levels for EMA eligibility, modelling for rate increases. Some of that work had begun before the committee reports became available, and the committees have asked that that work be completed by the end of December 2023. So, the work that Mark Isherwood has asked about is happening, and it's happening in response now to those committee reports.
Thank you, First Minister. We've come to the end of our first session, and we haven't yet even touched on public sector pay or other areas, though I'm sure you'll get questions on that in the weeks ahead. But perhaps if there's anything specific, we may well wish to write to you, if that's okay, on any specific topic that we think is important in the questions we were yet to ask.
Yes, of course.
In that case, I'd like to thank you for your time in this session and Des for his attendance and Claire as well. We will now take a short break, because we obviously have a second session on the co-operation agreement, and we'll take 10 minutes now as a short break.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:31 ac 11:43.
The meeting adjourned between 11:31 and 11:43.
Can I welcome everyone back to this morning's session of the scrutiny of the First Minister? And in this second part of the meeting, we will be looking and focusing upon the co-operation agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru. Can I welcome back Mark Drakeford, First Minister, and welcome Adam Price, leader of Plaid Cymru? And First Minister, would you like to introduce your officials for us in this session, please?
Cadeirydd, diolch yn fawr. So, mae Des Clifford yn ôl gyda ni am y sesiwn, ac hefyd, mae Rachel Garside-Jones gyda ni. Mae Rachel yn arwain yr uned rŷn ni wedi creu i helpu ni i gydweithio ar bopeth sydd yn y cytundeb.
Thank you very much, Chair. So, Des Clifford is back with us for the session, and we're also joined by Rachel Garside-Jones. Rachel leads the unit that we have created to help us to co-operate on everything related to the co-operation agreement.
Thank you. We'll move straight into questions. I suppose I'll start with the first question, and I very much welcome this opportunity to scrutinise both yourself and Adam Price on the co-operation agreement and we've had this once before, which will be extended in this period, because we felt that it wasn't long enough last time, and I understand, also, that you produce an annual report, but I suppose the question we want to look at is: how can ensure that the transparency and the monitoring is improved as part of the process of coming to your decisions and presenting your policies as a consequence of the co-operation agreement?
Ydych chi'n moyn i fi fynd yn gyntaf? Cadeirydd, dwi'n croesawu'r cyfle i fod gyda chi yma yr eildro, am sesiwn ehangach y tro hyn, fel rŷch chi'n awgrymu. Dwi'n credu ein bod ni, yn sicr o ran Plaid Cymru ond dwi'n credu ei bod e'n cael ei rannu rhyngon ni, yn agored i unrhyw awgrymiadau gan y pwyllgor yma, neu ar draws y Senedd, a dweud y gwir, o ran ehangu'r cyfleon ar gyfer craffu, fel dŷn ni'n gwneud, wrth gwrs, yn y sesiwn yma o ran sicrhau tryloywder a digon o sgôp ar gyfer trafod yr hyn sy'n cael ei osod mas, wrth gwrs, yn y cytundeb cydweithio. Felly, dŷn ni'n croesawu'r cyfle hwn ac yn agored i unrhyw ddulliau, unrhyw ffyrdd eraill, y gallwn ni greu cyfleon craffu ar gyfer cytundeb sydd, o ran ei hanfod, wrth gwrs, yn benodol, ond wrth gwrs sydd yn dod ar ôl nifer fawr o enghreifftiau o wahanol fathau o gytundebau gwleidyddol ar hyd cyfnod datganoli. Felly, dyw e ddim yn gwbl unigryw yn yr ystyr yna, ond wrth gwrs mae union fanylder y ffordd mae'r cytundeb wedi cael ei greu yn benodol.
Would you like me to go first? Chair, I welcome the opportunity to be with you for a second time, for an extended session, as you've suggested, this time. I think that, certainly from a Plaid Cymru perspective but I think that this view is shared between us, we are open to any suggestions that this committee or the Senedd as a whole may have in terms of expanding the opportunities for scrutiny, as we do in this session, and in ensuring transparency and plenty of scope and opportunity to discuss what is set out in the co-operation agreement. So, we welcome this opportunity and are open to any other approaches that we could adopt in order to create scrutiny opportunities for the agreement, which is in essence very specific but also follows many kinds of different political agreements throughout the period of devolution. Therefore, it's not entirely unique in that sense, but the exact detail of how the co-operation agreement has been drawn up is very specific.
I thank you for that, Adam. I suppose it is not—you might say it's not entirely unique, but it is unique for us because we've seen coalitions before and we've seen it, in a sense, previously when the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire joined the Government, but it's slightly different because, in a sense, they were part and parcel of the scrutiny process, whereas, this time, you're not members of the Government, if you know what I mean, you're working in partnership with the Government. So, in that sense, I'll go on to some of the questions on some of the topical areas, and start with Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. I'm going to focus on the commitments that are to do with the environment. Now, I recognise the Government's commitment to bringing forward environmental legislation that would bring in new targets. There is a concern about the timetable for that. Could I ask you how you respond to the open letter that was signed by over 300 organisations that has called for a nature-positive Bill to establish biodiversity targets and an environmental watchdog? They're calling for that to be included in the 2023-24 legislative programme.
Well, Chair, I welcome the letter; that's the first thing to say. The letter has many positive things to say about the record in relation to the environment here in Wales, and the letter does what you would expect campaigning groups to do: it tries to put pressure on the Government to accelerate some of the work in which they have a particular interest. I think the letter is constructive and it's part of the ongoing engagement we have with the sector.
I think it's just worth saying for the record that it is not that we don't have an environmental governance regime in Wales, because we have the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, which provides a basis for environmental governance in Wales. While we have not yet been able to bring forward the environmental governance Bill, to which we are committed in the co-operation agreement, we have put in place interim arrangements with Dr Nerys Llewellyn Jones in the job that she does to help us to bridge the position between the end of the EU regime and the new regime that we will put in place in Wales. That new regime will do many of the things that the letter asks us to do: the environmental watchdog, the targets, and so on.
I can't make commitments this morning on the timing of the Bill. The co-operation agreement stretches over three years and the system, as all colleagues will know, is that, in July, I will make a statement on the legislative programme for the year ahead. It will be the usual competitive process. There are always more requests for legislation than we are able to accommodate. And, just as there is pressure from our colleagues in the environmental movement, you can be sure that there are letters and other pieces of action in other parts of the Welsh Government's responsibilities equally looking for us to bring forward things as soon as possible.
Thank you for that. On the role of the interim assessor, obviously in no way wishing to criticise what the interim assessor has done, I think that some of the concerns that have been raised by these groups are about the fact that the other legislation that the Government is trying to bring forward in terms of the clean air Bill, that there could be a gap there in terms of the enforcement of that legislation, that, with agricultural standards, with water quality regs, they would all depend on that robust governance. So, I would just like to make that point.
I'm aware of time, though. Could I ask you, First Minister, on targets specifically? The climate change Minister has said in the Chamber that the Government is committed to legislation but that you as a Government don't want to wait for the legislation to start work on that. Could you explain to us what that means, please, and could you also tell us whether the Cabinet has considered the implications of the new global framework and the implications that that might have for Wales?
Well, Chair, first of all, look, I don't want to claim for a minute that the interim assessor is able to do all the things that we will want the regime to do in the end. I think Dr Llewelyn Jones has done very good work. I think she's very well regarded across the sectors. But there are limitations to her role, given its interim nature. So, the regime that we will put in place in the end will go above and beyond what she is able to do. When the Minister said she didn't want to wait for the legislation to begin the work, I think what she was referring to was that lots of the things that we will want to put in the environmental governance Bill, she is already working on, and I'm familiar with a bit of that because it's reported to the legislative programme board that I sit on in the Welsh Government. So, colleagues can be sure that nothing—. It isn't as though everything is on hold until space can be found for the legislation in the programme. And one of the things I was always keen on in creating a climate change ministry is that it allows all those strands—the things that Delyth has referred to—to come together under that single umbrella. So, the wider pieces of work that will come within the ambit of an environmental governance regime, I have a bit more confidence than, I think, maybe some of those who are questioning it that we will be able to hold together the clean air aspects, the pollution aspects, the water quality aspects, all within a single approach that will culminate in those governance arrangements that the Bill will set out.
Thank you, First Minister. Could I just ask two further questions, Chair, if there's time?
If it's quick.
Could you confirm, First Minister, have any discussions happened at Cabinet level about the implications of the global framework on targets?
What I can from memory say definitely is that we have taken recently—. Sorry, just one step back—I have been trying more recently to try to organise Cabinet business on the basis of bringing together a set of papers that are linked with one another. Within the last month, we had a Cabinet meeting where almost all the papers were brought forward by the Minister for Climate Change. Whether they referred directly to that point, I can't recall from memory, but they certainly covered the ground that is covered in the document to which Delyth has referred.
Thank you, First Minister. If you could confirm that with us in writing, that would be really useful, please. Finally from me, in the context of the retained EU law Bill, there's a potential catastrophe in terms of how it could affect the capacity of Government. Could you tell us how many officials within the Government are working on this work on targets and governance generally? Will you need more people to deliver that work, and more resourcing, if indeed the retained EU law Bill does mean that there is that real strain on Government capacity?
Well, actually, I don't think that will be the biggest—. At least, it won't solve the problem, because if we have the catastrophic circumstances of a dash to the end of this calendar year to resolve all the issues that need to be attended to in retained EU law, it won't be just capacity within the Welsh Government that will be the bottleneck; there just won't be time on the floor of the Senedd to bring forward any other form of legislation. So, even if we were able—and it would be very difficult, because these are relatively specialist people; you can't just summon them up, you can't whistle down a coal pit for them, as they used to say in cricketing circles—even if we could find extra people, their work would not be able to progress because all the capacity of the Senedd itself will be taken up in trying to deal with the consequences of the botched job that we would see unfolding in relation to retained EU law. So, I'm afraid, if the worst came to the worst, Chair—and I did discuss this with the Prime Minister yesterday, in an attempt to persuade him to avoid the worst coming to the worst—we would see capacity across the Welsh Government having to be diverted from the things that we would like to see happen, to deal with retained EU law issues, and the Senedd itself would find itself caught up in the same endeavour.
Can I ask, therefore, First Minister, and Adam the same, as well—? Clearly, the EU retained law, as you say, could put a huge burden upon both institutions—the Government and this institution. Have you had discussions regarding the co-operation agreement as to how that would impact upon some of the agreements on policies you are focusing on in that agreement, and what that means for those, because, clearly, it could have the possible impact of knocking some of those either back or out of the agreement altogether?
Well, I'll take one turn and then Adam will. So, you will know that there are institutional mechanisms that we have set up, which we've declared publicly. They culminate in an oversight board that Adam and I both sit on, and that regularly discusses constraints on our ability to make the progress we would like to make with aspects of the programme. Sometimes those constraints are financial, sometimes they are in terms of the people we have available, sometimes there are things like retained EU law that are beyond our own direct responsibility. So, at the oversight board, the issue of constraints on our ability to make progress is a regular part of our discussion there. And the board is a problem-solving place; where we have problems identified, it's our job to work together to try and find solutions so we can move forward.
Yes, I think that sets it out very clearly that, through the mechanisms that we've set out in the agreement, we regularly scan the horizon, look at how the external environment is changing in a whole number of ways, and how that could affect our ability to meet the commitments set out in the co-operation agreement. And they vary in nature—they can be financial, they can be practical, policy-related matters in terms of the detail or, in this case, they could be, as I say, unintended consequences. I don't know whether they are unintended or not, but certainly they could have implications not just, of course, for those matters contained within the co-operation agreement, but they have broader implications for the Senedd as a whole and, indeed, for the Government's wider programme. And we keep all of these matters under review, but we are very, very clear and committed to delivering on the commitments that we've jointly agreed.
So, how often does the oversight board actually meet?
Rachel will—. She's the keeper of the timetables for us.
Yes. We aim to meet monthly, and certainly did meet monthly during the first year. But, as the mechanism set out, it meets whenever it's necessary to meet, when there are issues to resolve.
Diolch yn fawr, Cadeirydd. A couple of questions from me in terms of how we play our part in Wales in reaching net zero. I think most people would say we have great potential in Wales in terms of tidal energy, offshore, floating wind platforms, wind energy more generally. We've seen a recent development in terms of the free ports, which is very interesting. But, in terms of devolution of powers over energy, I wonder what you would say about the conversations you're having, First Minister, with UK Government. I know you've said that, in terms of the Crown Estate, there appears to be very little appetite for devolution with the current UK Government. I think we used to talk about everything but nuclear in terms of Wales's ambitions in this regard, and it's very frustrating when some of the issues around contracts—the difference, for example—are not what they should be to encourage the growth of renewable energy development in Wales, with all the benefits that brings in terms of tackling climate change and generating economic development and jobs here. So, I just wonder if you could tell the committee if there's any optimism in the conversations you're having with the current UK Government on these matters, and what our ambitions are.
Well, Chair, if you look at the broader sweep of devolution, then I would have said that, from 1999 to 2019, the flow was, to different extents at different times, in the direction of strengthening the responsibilities of the Senedd. And that was true under Labour, but it was also true under Conservative Governments as well. If you think of the St David's Day process, the Paul Silk report, it led to the Wales Act 2017 that transferred fiscal responsibilities and other responsibilities to the Senedd. The long sweep, under Conservative as well as Labour Governments, has been to strengthen devolution. Since 2019, that has not just stopped, it has gone into reverse. The last four years have all been about trying to prevent the taking back of powers from Wales and taking back of funding from Wales to the centre at Whitehall.
So, I'm afraid that the answer to the question about whether I can be optimistic under the current regime of further devolution in the energy field, and in the fields that John Griffiths has talked about, I don't think you can. A flat refusal to talk about the devolution of the Crown Estate—. If we're straining every sinew to be fair, the free ports announcement yesterday stands out as the one example of where things have been done differently, where we were able to agree on genuinely joint decision making, where at every point we have been equal partners in the development of the free ports programme. I made that point to the Prime Minister yesterday as well—would it not be better to build from that success in looking ahead, and try to draw a line under the difficulties that we experienced under both his predecessors? But we're at the end of this Government, aren't we? This Government is in its final period. It is hard for it to find the energy or the political capital to change direction on something that has been such a feature of the way that it has operated since the last general election. So, where I see the change coming, I look ahead beyond this parliamentary term and hope that we will be able to strike a different way of doing things with whoever turns out to be in government then.
And this question, of course, can and is likely to quite properly be one of the areas of focus for the independent commission on the constitutional future of Wales. And you're right, John, obviously—it has a major potential impact upon our ability to achieve our net-zero ambitions. And, indeed, part of the co-operation agreement is exploring whether we can be even more ambitious and look to see whether we can emulate, for instance, the kind of target that countries like Finland have set in terms of net zero. But the impact of having more democratic control over our energy system in Wales has an impact in all kinds of directions—in terms of economic development, and, indeed, it's good to see reference being made in the context of yesterday's announcements to harnessing Wales's energy potential for economic purposes. But, surely, it is the democratically elected representatives of the people of Wales that are best positioned to make sure that we do achieve that potential to its greatest extent.
And obviously, there are implications in terms of equality and poverty et cetera. Again, it's best if those decisions are made in Wales. We have partial devolution. That doesn't help us make sure that those opportunities in terms of the supply chain, from the potential that's there, and offshore and all the various energy projects that are being planned—. We can only make sure that we achieve that potential if we are really driving it here in Wales. One would hope that there will be a change in the political weather around this question, because it’s going to have major implications for us in the years ahead.
Thank you both very much. Just one other question from me on net zero, and that's in terms of Ynni Cymru and the role that that will play, particularly in terms of the smaller scale community, domestic and farm developments. I know it will work alongside the larger state-owned operator. But in terms of Ynni Cymru, could you provide an update on how that's progressing?
Detailed work has been ongoing for some time now. Obviously, it will be for the Minister to make any formal announcement, and it would be premature for us to do so at this point. But a lot of the detailed work has been done, and I expect that there will be an announcement on the progress soon. As you said, John, the focus of Ynni Cymru will be on community-owned renewable energy and also looking at not just generation but, in a holistic sense, looking at smart energy systems at a local level; also looking at questions around grid capacity, et cetera, both in terms of unlocking the potential for generation, but also capturing the benefit in terms of some of the constraints there are in communities right across Wales at the moment, and very much this focus on ownership. We know from our past as a nation that not having domestic ownership of our natural resources has scarred us environmentally, economically and socially. We’re all, I think, very, very keen to avoid reproducing those mistakes of the past, so we're putting very much a focus at the heart of the company on working, enabling, empowering, facilitating a role, directly and indirectly, working with the existing community energy sector and also growing that sector throughout Wales in parallel with the other developments in terms of larger scale direct investments by the Welsh Government developer. So, it will be those two processes working in parallel, in tandem, and cross-fertilising each other, I think.
Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you, Chair. Can I just ask both parties, I suppose—? There's no update on the public transport commitments in the co-operation agreement annual report. Can you just update us in that regard, please?
Just to repeat something I said earlier, it’s important to remember that the agreement is a three-year agreement, and not every aspect of it is going to be covered in the first year in an annual report, because some things will happen at the very end of the three years, just as some things have happened at the very start of them. That’s just inevitable. The public transport work that is going on to deliver the commitments in the agreement are being taken forward in part by the work of Lord Burns in the piece of work that he is doing for us in north Wales in particular. We have a north Wales Cabinet committee. It met last in January and I was in north Wales for that meeting. It was attended by Lord Burns himself, and he set out the detailed work that his commission has already done and the work that they are still to do, which will lie behind the practical ways in which we will then be able to take forward the commitments in the co-operation agreement, particularly what it says about potential travel corridors on the west coast of Wales and in the north-west of Wales especially. The reason it's not in the first year's annual report is that we're still in that preparatory phase, getting the expert advice that we need, and that will lead us, then, to the more specific initiatives that we will agree on, and they will then be reflected in annual reports that will follow.
Perhaps I can, if it's okay, Chair, widen the question before Adam Price might want to come in. Are there any updates in regard to Transport for Wales, in terms of delivery against the co-operation agreement, but particularly as well on work on transport links between north and south Wales?
Yes, Russell. As the First Minister was saying, a lot of the detailed technical work I think has been ongoing, now led by Transport for Wales, as set out in the co-operation agreement. I know that in addition to the discussions that the First Minister referred to in terms of the Burns commission and, also, a Cabinet sub-committee, there's, I think, a presentation by Transport for Wales on their technical work, looking at short, medium and long-term options in terms of the north-south links, to the Arfor board. The Arfor board brings together the four local authorities along the western seaboard. I think that's happening on Wednesday next week.
It looks at a whole range of different options. The work that I've seen looks at bus and rail, it looks at light and heavy rail options. If you think about that north-south linkage from Swansea to Bangor, there are a number of different missing links in terms of rail. It looks at all of those, and it looks at the options available, as I said, across a short to longer term timescale. The detailed work has gone on, the discussions are happening and there will be some, I think, further announcements at an appropriate stage.
That's fine, thanks, Chair.
Can I just ask one extra question on this, then? Clearly, we've had the roads review report and we're talking about the transport links between north and south as an example here. Did the roads review report—? Are you aware whether it actually took into consideration any aspects of the co-operation agreement?
In everything that the Welsh Government does, the co-operation agreement plays its part, because in anything that we do that trespasses into, if that's the right word, the scope of the co-operation agreement, I am very clear with my ministerial colleagues that that must involve discussions with our Plaid Cymru colleagues—the designated Members—when that takes place. I don't have in front of me the detail of those discussions between the Minister and the designated Member on this issue, but that is the governing principle that I operate. It's not simply the things that are directly in the co-operation agreement, but when other things impinge upon it, then those discussions have to be part of the way that we proceed.
The commitment in the co-operation agreement, of course, specifically refers to public transport, both bus and rail, so that's the focus for the co-operation agreement. Other matters are outside of that agreement, and we, obviously, engage with the Government, then, on the usual basis, if it's outside the co-operation agreement.
Thank you. Jenny.
I want to talk about the community food strategy. We don't have the levers to eliminate poverty in Wales, as discussed earlier with the First Minister, but we do have the capacity to eliminate food poverty, according to the Well-Fed coalition in Flintshire, which is led by Flintshire County Council, the leading social housing provider and a social enterprise. I just wondered whether their ambition to ensure that every member of the Flintshire community is (a) taught to cook and (b) provided with the ingredients for a freshly produced meal, even in areas of food deserts, is something that the co-operation agreement partners have discussed.
In terms of their specific vision, I would have to check with our colleagues. It may be possible that they've had a specific discussion between the designated Member and the Minister on that, but I'd have to get back to you. In terms of the general principle, obviously that kind of vision, I think, is foundational to the kind of ideas that we would expect to see in a community food strategy. I think that our commitment to the importance of food justice, if I can put it in those terms, and food equity is present in other aspects of the co-operation agreement as well, because in our commitment to universal free school meals we were very careful jointly as well to signify and commit to the importance of local food—so, using universality as a means of strengthening local food systems, but also making sure that these were nutritious meals. I realise, Jenny, I'm talking to somebody that has remained very much at the forefront of that debate. So, it's not just present in the commitment to the community food strategy; I think these are general principles, values and a vision that we would subscribe to more comprehensively, and they are reflected in other places.
We'll come on to the free school meals programme later. At least three Welsh Ministers have visited Can Cook/Well-Fed in Shotton, and I'm keen to explore whether whatever they've taken away from those visits has been fed back into the discussions about the community food strategy.
There's a great deal of discussion between Lesley Griffiths, who leads for us on this, and the designated Member on those matters. Lesley is very well aware of that project, so certainly the lessons from that have been part of that discussion. The community food strategy, as I've been told about it, as it is developing, has a number of different strands in it, some of which will reflect the experience in Flintshire.
One of the purposes of having a strategy is to bring focus to that issue, to bring the different strands of Welsh Government activity and activity with our partners to bear on this topic in a way that the strategy could achieve. It focuses on issues of capacity and building up capacity in this field, because while the potential is there, in the way that the Flintshire project often advocates, the capacity to deliver it isn't there everywhere yet. So, the second strand in the strategy is about capacity. There's a strand in the developing strategy about co-ordination, because there's a lot of activity in this field and it isn't all activity, by any means, the Welsh Government leads on. There's a lot of stuff that goes on at a local level, and not just principal council either. There's a lot of town and community council activity, and there's an awful lot that goes on in the industry, the farming industry and in the third sector as well. So, the third theme is around co-ordination. And then the final theme, as I remember it, is barriers—what are the barriers to achieving what we think could be achieved in Wales, like access to land, for example. So, the strategy will have a focus on identifying the barriers and then trying to mobilise solutions, so that we are able to move closer to the ambition that the Flintshire project has outlined.
I want to just put, though, because we're here today, one warning note into the conversation, which is that there is also a private Member's Bill that deals with a lot of this sort of area. The capacity in the Welsh Government to deal with this, we're probably talking about one or two people who work on this at a civil service level, and we can do one or the other. If the Senedd decides to go ahead with legislation, then the capacity of the Welsh Government will have to be directed to supporting Ministers in the role that they will have to play as that legislation makes its way through the Senedd. We can't do both.
Okay. The horticulture development grants and the start-up grants were very welcome, but, obviously, we were talking about, I think, 26 farmers who took up the development grants and another 18 who took up the start-up grants. They're relatively small sums of money in, I appreciate, a very difficult financial settlement. Helping farmers diversify so that we improve our food security—is that something that the community food strategy includes?
It includes it in the sense that, as I said, Chair, in that co-ordination sense of the strategy, it will need to bring together the things that happen across the Government. Farming our land is the key driver here, paying farmers in the future to do the things that the public would have an interest in farmers doing, and the potential for an expanded horticulture sector in Wales is very real. Small amounts of money bring the enthusiasts in that industry more into this space. We want to do that in a more thoroughgoing way, and the design of the scheme—I know that Lesley was in front of committee yesterday; did she say to me it was for four hours of Stage 2 of the agriculture Bill? Our big ambitions for the way in which we shape the future of Welsh farming are that farmers are properly rewarded for doing the things that they do or the things that they do are the things that meet the public interest in Wales. That's where I think we will see—I don't like using the word 'transformational'; we use it far too often—the big changes, the big ways in which we design the future.
And there are great opportunities there that I think many farmers are very keen to explore. There is a great wave of farming entrepreneurs, isn't there, who are very, very keen about, in a sense, rediscovering our heritage in horticulture and, indeed, in Welsh grains, which I think is very exciting. As the First Minister said, the role of Government in co-ordinating some—no pun unintended—seed capital then can be a great catalyst. Some of the drivers are already there, but how can we actually accelerate that, help it to go further and faster, I think are great questions to ask as part of the process around the new sustainable farming scheme and, indeed, the interrelationship between that and a national framework for a community food strategy.
Okay, because if you invest—
Jenny, we need to move on, otherwise we won't get to your free school meals programme questions. So, Mark.
Diolch. Thank you. Next week, I'll be leading a debate on the cross-party group of hospice and palliative care's inquiry into experience of palliative and end-of-life care in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the evidence, we received a lot of evidence, not just from families affected, but from people working in the care system, either the health service or local authorities, but also in care homes and hospices. They shared with us some horror stories, some heartbreaking stories; what came through was that almost all of them had stuck with it during those horrible, difficult times, but many of them had since left because of stress and because of the ability to earn more in retail or other sectors subsequently. The Welsh Government has acknowledged that the real living wage isn't enough to address severe social care shortages, so what specific progress has been made in moving ahead with steps to provide for a better integrated system of care and particularly parity of recognition and reward for social care and health workers?
I'll just make a start; Adam will have things to add, I know. But this is one of the areas where that context for the work of the co-operation agreement has altered very significantly since the negotiations to come to an agreement were being carried out. When we were holding those negotiations, the UK Government had committed itself to a social care funding stream, a specific social care funding stream, and it had committed itself to an implementation of its version of the Dilnot report, so it meant that we were able to plan ahead on the basis that there was going to be money available for the development of social care, and we would know the landscape across our border, which has a shaping impact on some of the decisions that we have to make. Neither of those things are true any longer, and inevitably, that has an impact upon the way in which we can take the co-operation agreement proposals forward.
But, Chair, in the way that I said to you, I've been trying to get Cabinet agendas to have a theme about them; the theme on Monday of this week, I think it is—it's been a very long week—Julie Morgan brought a number of papers to the Cabinet, including a paper dealing with the next phases of implementation of our joint commitment. So, the Cabinet agreed, on Monday, to stage 1 of the implementation plan. It includes the establishment of a national office for care and support; the national framework for commissioned care; development of the fair work forum that we have, and for them to move on from the issue of pay, per se, where we now pay the real living wage, to other terms and conditions issues that we know matter to people, and being able to retain people in the sector. We've committed as a Government to maintain—and this is in the context of a very difficult budget that we've been discussing this morning—the maximum weekly charges for domiciliary care and the capital cap in relation to residential care. The Cabinet agreed to the preparation of the next phase of implementation, focusing, for example, on continuing healthcare and its interface with social care provision, national market oversight and options relating to paying and funding for social care—the revival of the Holtham work that we've referred to on the floor of the Senedd a number of times.
Your very first question, I think, Chair, was to do with transparency, accountability, and all those sorts of things, so maybe I should explain that, when there is a Cabinet item, which is explicitly linked to the co-operation agreement, then Plaid Cymru colleagues join the Cabinet for that part of our agenda. So, the discussion we had on this paper—the paper in front of the Cabinet on Monday that led to those conclusions—then Plaid Cymru colleagues were part of that discussion.
Adam, do you want to add anything?
Yes. I think the First Minister has set out, really, how, despite the very important and significant changes in the funding environment that we're facing, nevertheless, we are moving ahead with the implementation of those first steps in the implementation plan, which arise out of the work that the expert group completed for us on the creation of a national care service. There are two key elements within the creation of a national care service, moving into a system that is based on the principle of free at the point of need, so mirroring the situation with the NHS, but the other one that you focused on is pay and what it means in terms of the ability to attract and retain staff.
Clearly, as the First Minister has said, with the changes from Westminster, then we have to look again, now, at how we can actually provide sufficient revenue on a sustainable basis in order for us to meet that objective of creating a national care service for the future. And it arises out of our ambition specifically in terms of the national care service, but also commitment No. 29—just to show that I do read the co-operation every night before I go to bed—and also looking more broadly at this whole question of sustainable public services. We have to look beyond the immediate political cycle of a single term when we are looking at Wales's future needs and in terms of the pressures that arise from demographic change, particularly those that arise in this context, and then we're also doing work looking at Wales's medium and long-term funding needs right across the whole of public services, but also they do apply here in health and care as well. So, that work is ongoing. We will have to revisit it now that the fiscal environment has changed, but that hasn't prevented us from beginning those first steps that set us on the path to creating the national care service, and then we'll be able to share more in due course, when we've come to some interim conclusions at least in terms of the revenue side of the equation.
Thank you. What actually is being done to stabilise the sector and workforce to ensure that services are there to meet demand, not only in terms of statutory services but also incorporating other providers, such as those I mentioned—hospices, independent care providers, third sector providers and specialist health providers in the third sector—in the design and delivery of those services at a local and regional level? And, overall, I suppose, how realistic and achievable is the ambition to deliver care free at the point of need, as things currently stand?
Well, Chair, very quickly, here are four of the things that we are doing in this challenging environment. First of all, paying the real living wage is a major commitment of this Government. It will cost £70 million in additional funding in the next financial year. It's not enough by itself, but it is a major step of its own. Then, there is the action that is going on to improve terms and conditions of service through the social care fair work forum. Then, there are the actions we are taking to raise the status of the profession through Social Care Wales—the registration of workers in the profession, making sure that there is a career path in front of people so that they can see how they will be able to make choices in this profession that will lead them into new opportunities. And then, there is the effort to recruit people from beyond Wales. One of the genuine difficulties in this space is the impact of Brexit. We relied upon our ability to recruit people from outside Wales to supplement the social care workforce. Many of those people took Brexit as a sign that they were not welcome in the United Kingdom, and we're unable to recruit in that free movement space as we were a few years ago. We're having to look at other places and other arrangements in order to supplement the number of people who we are able to recruit indigenously, and we're doing that partly through the regional partnership arrangements and partly by extending some of the more long-standing arrangements that we have in the health service.
Thank you. I want to move on now to Jack.
Thank you, Chair. We heard in the previous session with the First Minister about the anxieties and the everyday pressures that young people face in terms of their livelihoods and the impact on their mental health that that may have. The health Minister, during the recent session to the Health and Social Care Committee that I sit on and that the Chair, Russell George, also sits on, she committed and announced that additional funding has been agreed for four pilots of planned sanctuary for young people as part of the co-operation agreement. The Minister announced the funding. I just wondered if the leader of Plaid Cymru, perhaps, could share with the committee his understanding of where we are up to in terms of progress on those schemes. I'm particularly interested in locations of schemes, and perhaps when we might see them open.
I don't have the information in terms of the location of the schemes, so maybe the First Minister might be able to help there. But, as you said, Jack, there are a number of pilot projects that I think have already been agreed that do include bespoke sanctuary space specifically for young people where they would be able to access immediate therapeutic support and clinical assessments and involving a discharge lounge and a child and adolescent mental health services assessment so they can access those kinds of services in a safe and appropriate environment, receiving the support that they require. So, the pilots, they are now being initiated. I think they're happening across Wales. The First Minister may have more information in terms of the locations.
I had a chance to discuss this recently with Lynne Neagle, Chair, so I'll try and recall what she explained to me, which is that we're committed to the four pilots, that they are coming on stream in a sequence across Wales, and that Hywel Dda is the first health board to have a sanctuary system in place. So, it has practical arrangements already operating in Haverfordwest and Aberystwyth, from memory. The second in the sequence will be Aneurin Bevan. They are converting the old Bettws ward at St Cadoc's Hospital—John will know this better than me—into a space where, is it, 11 to 18-year-olds will no longer have to spend lengthy periods in emergency admission departments; there will be a dedicated space where they will be able to be offered sanctuary. So, that work is actually happening now, and the service itself will begin this year. The third in the sequence is Swansea bay. From memory, Chair, they are out to tender for the new service, and I think they're expecting the procurement exercise to complete in May. And then Betsi Cadwaladr is the fourth area, and I know officials have met already with the board, and I think Lynne said to me there was a further meeting planned, either for the end of this month or the beginning of next.
I want to move on now to one of the big issues—because I'm conscious of the time we have left—the free school meals programme. Clearly, that's been an important aspect of the co-operation agreement. Jenny.
Thank you. The children's commissioner says that child hunger is the No. 1 issue, so clearly there's an urgency to rolling out universal provision in primary schools where possible. Are there any local authorities who will be unable to provide the meal to reception years 1 and 2, starting next term?
Chair, my recollection is that 20 of the 22 local authorities will deliver that milestone in full, and that there are two local authorities that will be able to deliver it in good part but where there may be some very specific building challenges or whatever that mean they will be a little later in reaching the full milestone. But I think we are really encouraged by the rate at which local authorities have made this progress in Wales. They've really grasped all of this, and it's a huge effort. I think I might have said in an answer earlier this week that 3 million more meals have been served already in Welsh schools since September of last year, when Siân Gwenllian and I were together in Ysgol Bro Preseli for the launch of the scheme. So, this is really big-volume stuff, and I think we have been really heartened by the enormous efforts local authorities have made and the extent to which we are on track to achieve what was a very, very ambitious set of targets.
In terms of making every contact count, the Welsh Government website says that you will need to register your child for free school meals, and this information will be provided to your child's school or local authority. Are we asking people about their economic situation to ensure they're getting every benefit that they could do? Some families never registered for free school meals because they didn't want the stigma. Clearly, that is going away, and we know, from other local authorities, for example in London, that they actually drove up benefits uptake through that conversation on the free school meals for everybody. So, I just wondered if all local authorities or local schools are being that ruthless, if you like, in ensuring that everybody is taking up the benefits that will benefit them and their local communities.
Every school has a direct interest, don't they, in doing so, because the funding formula, there's a significant part of it that is based on the percentage of children in a school who receive free school meals. So, schools have every incentive to do just that. There is still some sensitivity; even when free school meals are free to everybody, not every family chooses to take it up, and we don't want to be—. It's very important that people declare themselves as wanting to do it. We don't want to do that in a way that would put people off from doing that. So, it's—[Inaudible.]
Okay. All right. It's a complex situation, but clearly it's an important economic consideration.
Yes. There are other, of course, grants that still follow the former eligibility for free school meals in terms of school uniform et cetera, and indeed the holiday provision of free school meals, of course, is provided on that basis. So, it is important that there still is a focus on this, and apart from that, of course, the wider issues in terms of benefits take-up, which I know are outside of the co-operation agreement, I think, but the Welsh Government has been doing some work in that area, and there's more, obviously, to be achieved.
Okay. To what extent are rising food prices—the ingredients for these meals—and the shortage of catering staff, the chefs that are needed to make the meals, posing a challenge to the viability and sustainability of this ambitious project?
Through our work through the mechanisms—as I was saying earlier, both myself and the First Minister at the oversight board, but the tier below, if I can put it in those terms, the joint policy committees, which are constituted of the relevant Minister and the designated Member and look on a regular basis, and sometimes meet on a weekly basis, and indeed we have capacity to have bilateral meetings in between the oversight board—. We're always looking at questions of any practical constraints, and there can be funding constraints, so the effects of food inflation—we saw the figures, didn't we, earlier this week—issues to do with staffing, they have been on the agenda, I know, for looking at their implications in terms of delivery. We spend a lot of our time thinking very much about how we're going to meet these commitments and identifying these kinds of constraints, and certainly, I think, in the context of budgetary discussions, because one of the issues that is set out clearly in the mechanisms document is our budgetary discussions focus on ensuring that there is sufficient resource there to achieve the commitment. And certainly, in free school meals, there has been a lot of discussion to ensure that we are able to meet the commitment. But also we're mindful that any live issues, such as food inflation or, indeed, staffing shortages or capital investment needs, are fully factored in.
But this could unseat the ambition of the Minister, and yourselves, to change the food culture and ensure every child is being fed a nourishing meal. Professor Kevin Morgan says that the real danger is that the pressures, the capacity issues in local authorities, could end up with them taking the easy road, which is to hand the catering project for school meals over to a multinational, who will deliver, in the main, processed food rather than fresh food. So, I just wondered how your negotiations with local authorities are ensuring that we don't lose this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
We've committed to what's called a unit price review with local authorities for free school meals, to give them the comfort that we are alert to all these dangers, and we'll work jointly with them. Chair, Adam and I discussed this at an oversight board in the very beginning, when this policy was more under development, and there were some shortcut ways in which we could have made this happen even faster, and we decided against it, because the quality aspects of the programme are just as important to us as the volume ones of them. So, it is tough. I'm not trying to pretend that we've got any magic wands to solve Jenny's problems, but I think we've already shown that we are committed to doing this in a way that delivers not just a meal, but a meal of quality and with those additional benefits that Adam mentioned. And that's how we will go on trying to make this very ambitious part of our joint agreement deliver.
Okay. We haven't got time to go on on this, but perhaps we can have a note, really, on—
Unfortunately, we've come to the end—
We're jointly aware of Professor Morgan's work early on in Carmarthenshire, but also we're very grateful to see the project that is now looking at how to grasp the opportunity of free school meals, and I'm sure that that research will continue to inform the development of the policy, as we go forward.
Unfortunately, as I said, we have come to the end of our time allocation for this session, and we haven't touched on housing aspects, Welsh language standards, equalities and other aspects of the co-operation agreement. But I will ask one final question, which I think is a very easy one for you to answer, First Minister. Now, obviously, one of the major cornerstones of the agreement was Senedd reform, and the question is: are you still confident that any Senedd reform Bill will be laid within the next six months?
Well, we work very closely and regularly, together, on this, as we work through all the different policy challenges that are there in bringing Senedd reform forward. I think, with a great deal of work, we have solved the issues that are put to us one by one; there are more to come, but I think the process is delivering. We made a commitment to bring a Bill in front of the Senedd between 12 and 18 months from the date of the delivery of Huw Irranca-Davies's committee report, and that is what we are still intending to do.
Okay, thank you. Can I thank you both for your time this morning? As you both know, you will receive a copy of the transcript, and, if there are any factual inaccuracies, please let the clerking teams know as soon as possible.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
I now propose, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42, to resolve to exclude the public for the remainder of the meeting. Are Members content to do so?
Therefore, we'll now move into private session. Thank you.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 12:49.
The public part of the meeting ended at 12:49.