Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

13/01/2021

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

The Senedd met by video-conference at 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome, all, to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are noted on your agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting today.

13:30
1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd

The first item is questions to the Minister for Finance, and the first question is from John Griffiths.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Inequalities

1. What further financial provision will the Welsh Government make within its annual budget to address the impact of COVID-19 on pre-existing inequalities in Wales? OQ56099

Thank you. Building on allocations made this year to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable, the Welsh Government’s draft budget 2021-22 sets out plans including an extra £23.1 million for free school meals and £200 million for affordable and social housing.

Thank you, Minister. I think it's clear that the pandemic has particularly affected those who were already struggling in many ways—so, people with more disadvantaged backgrounds have suffered more, in health terms, economically and socially. In that context, I very much welcome that £23 million to extend the free school meals during holidays entitlement through to Easter of next year. I think it's in line with what organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have said—that, in order to tackle poverty, you have to basically increase families' income and reduce their outgoings. And I think it's really good that people like Marcus Rashford, who's been so effective in campaigning on these matters, very much welcomed that Welsh Government funding of £23 million plus. And it's good to see campaigners like that, Minister, using their profile and their own lived experience to help others and take that wider societal view. It's also very good that, in these times of uncertainty in the pandemic, this lifeline is being made available to our families. So, with all those advantages for this provision, Minister, I wonder if in due course Welsh Government will consider making this a permanent provision here in Wales.

Thank you very much to John Griffiths for raising this really important issue. It was the case, of course, that Welsh Government decided to extend our free school meals provision through the holidays a long time before the decision was arrived at across the border in England. And I do take my hat off to inspirational people such as Marcus Rashford, who has used his platform in order to effect change over the border. I really do think that that is inspirational.

In terms of moving forward, I'm really pleased that we were able to put this allocation in the budget for next year as well, to give families that kind of certainty. It also goes alongside the additional funding of £2.2 million that we're putting in place for the school holiday enrichment programme, and that's for children aged seven to 11 in deprived areas in the summer holiday so that they can benefit from meeting up with their friends, from learning in a much more informal environment, and access to healthy meals through the day, and so forth. So, I'm pleased that those two initiatives will sit very well together.

In terms of future years, unfortunately it is the case that, again, we've just had a one-year spending round from the UK Government. And we were anxiously awaiting our comprehensive spending review, which hasn't arrived again, but, hopefully, we'll be in a position in due course to have that kind of longer look at public finances and be able to give some multi-year settlements and provide certainty where we can.

As the Minister has said, John Griffiths has raised a very important question. I think one of the most shocking things, certainly looking back at this in the future—this pandemic—will be the way that it has disproportionately affected those across society and those suffering from pre-existing social and health inequalities. Minister, you've mentioned free school meals, you've mentioned social housing; there are health inequalities as well, such as diabetes, lifestyle choices, obesity. So, there's no single silver bullet, is there, to actually deal with this issue, moving forward? So, in terms of this budget and future budgets, how are you going to ensure that all of these different strands are brought together, so that there is an overview, so that—hopefully we won't see another pandemic like this in the near future, but these inequalities are pre-existing anyway—these issues are ironed out, so that poorer people aren't affected disproportionately in future when health issues like this arise?

13:35

Nick Ramsay's right that inequalities have been exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, and we have seen those people who were already disadvantaged become more so as a result of the pandemic. I think the work that we've done to support the third sector in this financial year has been really important in terms of expanding our reach into communities. We, in this financial year, have provided £26.5 million in our third sector response to the COVID-19 crisis, and that was delivered through multi-agency approaches involving the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and the 19 voluntary councils working alongside their statutory partners. So, over 270 organisations have been supported under the voluntary services and emergency recovery fund, enabling nearly 9,000 volunteers to reach out to over 975,000 beneficiaries, and those funds cover a range of support, including advice provision, access to food parcels, medicines delivery and so forth. So, I think that our response to this crisis has created a really strong network upon which we can build in future years. 

The Effects of the Coronavirus

2. What consideration has the Minister given to supporting people affected by the coronavirus in South Wales East when formulating the Welsh Government's budget for 2021-22? OQ56117

In recognition that the most vulnerable have been hit hardest by the pandemic, we are investing an extra £40 million for the housing support grant and providing an extra £176 million for local government so that they can continue to support people and communities affected by the coronavirus across Wales. 

Thank you, Minister. You told the Finance Committee last week that there's around £800 million in reserves that will need to be spent in the current financial year if the UK Government continues to refuse to allow you flexibility to carry it forward. You mentioned then that you expect to use some of this to give further support to business, and that you are also considering giving more towards the council tax reduction scheme and the discretionary assistance fund. I thought I'd just take this opportunity to throw a few more ideas into the mix. For example, the Bevan Foundation has put forward five proposals, including extending the self-isolation payment for low-income workers, providing laptops to digitally excluded children, and writing off loans under the tenancy saver loan scheme. The campaign group Undod has also proposed offering a council tax holiday to people living in the bottom two bands as a way of providing much-needed assistance to those who need it most. And finally, Minister, a further idea could be to offer councils funding to replace their proposed council tax increases. I know many residents, including people in Caerphilly, for example, are dreading the 4 per cent increase they're facing. So, Minister, will you give consideration to some of these ideas if you are in the position of needing to allocate additional funds in this financial year?

Thank you to Delyth for raising these really important issues, and it is the case that, at Finance Committee last Friday I was able to set out our current in-year financial position and some of the allocations I expect to make. So, Delyth mentioned the potential allocations for further support for business, a council tax reduction scheme, and other support potentially for and through the councils, and also the discretionary assistance fund, which has been instrumental in supporting people who have been really, really hard hit by the pandemic. 

So, I will be making a series of allocations between now and the third supplementary budget, which is in February. I'm having some discussions in some of the areas that have been raised, for example the issue of meeting the needs of children who are still digitally excluded. We have provided significant funding thus far and enabled lots of children to have MiFi devices and other kit that they require to get online to access their classes, but we are really aware that there's more to be done in that area. So, that's one of the areas where I'm having particular discussions with the education Minister with a view to seeing what more we can do in that area. But, as I say, between now and the third supplementary budget, I intend to make some really significant allocations. 

Information, reassurance and continued funding will be absolutely key to keeping our Welsh businesses alive this year and in years to come. It is clear, Minister, that Welsh businesses will require Government support, financial support for some time after this pandemic has ended, but can you reassure them that providing that financial support that they really do need, and will need, will be at the forefront of your decision making when formulating future budgets? And what have you done in order to reach out to those businesses that have fallen through the gaps in terms of being able to get funding this time around, because we do not want to lose those vital businesses? Thank you. 

13:40

Thank you very much for raising the support for business, because protecting both lives and livelihoods have been our priorities during our response to the pandemic. And you'll see some significant allocations in terms of our approach to the economy and supporting jobs and creating jobs in our draft budget, which has been published and which we had the opportunity to debate yesterday. But I'm really aware that there are still individuals and businesses that have not yet been reached by support for a variety of reasons, and that's one of the reasons why my colleague the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip recently met with ExcludedUK to better understand the challenges that the people they represent are facing. And, of course, we'll continue to press the UK Government for further support as well, in terms of meeting the needs of businesses, because we see this very much as a joint effort. There's a specific role very much for the UK Government, in terms of furlough and so on, and we always aim to augment and enhance what's available, which is why we're able to provide the best possible support package anywhere in the UK. 

We have sought, on a number of occasions, to meet the gaps that we understood were already there. So, you'll recall that we introduced the £5 million start-up grant to support businesses that had started up in 2019 with a grant of £2,500 each. And we've also introduced a £10.5 million fund for the freelance community, which, again, we knew had been falling through some of the gaps. And, further to that, we have confirmed that discretionary support will continue to be available through local authorities so that they're able to support businesses who aren't on the non-domestic rates system and who have been materially impacted by the pandemic, and, there, those discretionary grants of up to £2,000 are available. But, of course, we're always looking to see what more we can do to support people who have not managed to access any support thus far. 

Minister, in south-east Wales we have on average suffered a higher level of coronavirus than the average across Wales, and I just wondered to what degree you consider that the extra costs of dealing with that on a regional level, where incidence has been higher, are met by the allocations in the budget.

Well, the local authority hardship fund has enabled local authorities to provide their own applications for funding. So, the funding that goes to the individual local authorities in Wales through that is on the basis of local need and local cost, rather than a per-head factor, for example. So, I think that has been a way in which we've been able to respond to those differential impacts that we've seen across Wales thus far. And, of course, the pandemic does take different shapes. It was only a few weeks ago that we were looking from the south very enviously up at north Wales in terms of the figures for the pandemic there. So, I think that we always need to be aware that things might change very quickly and be able to have the agile support, which I do think we have, available for local authorities and for others. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party leaders. The Conservatives' spokesperson, Nick Ramsay. 

Diolch, Llywydd. During the pandemic the issue of value for money has become centre stage and making sure, Minister, that we get the best from every Welsh pound spent. Over the last couple of days, it's emerged that the Welsh Government is repaying €3.4 million of rural funding to the European Commission, following last year's Audit Wales report on the rural development programme. Now, I know that the EU's disallowance has been reduced from a little over €33 million to €3.412 million, but can you update us on the current position with this repayment and what lessons the Welsh Government has learned? 

I thank Nick Ramsay for raising the issue of disallowance here in the Senedd this afternoon. This is a matter that has been principally dealt with by my colleague the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, being the budget holder for that particular programme. So, if it's acceptable to Nick Ramsay, I will certainly ask my colleague to provide that latest update, because, as I say, it's managed within the particular budget line.FootnoteLink 

I get the feeling I'm getting told to move on from that subject, so I appreciate it's within her line. If I can broaden that out into value for money across the whole budget itself, Minister, as I said in yesterday's budget debate, we often talk about building back better, and you've spoken about building back better and building back greener and the First Minister has. Now, that's a perfectly reasonable aim to have, but it's easier to say than it is to do. Looking through the budget, there are certain environmental aspects to it, such as, I think, the £5 million—I think I'm right in saying—towards the national forest; you may correct me on the exact figure for that. Projects like that clearly have a bearing on carbon budgeting and providing carbon sinks, but can you tell us how else you're ensuring that the budget does provide proper carbon budgeting or does at least signpost to it happening in future, so that as well as using all the soundbites about building back greener and better, we're actually going to see a future Wales where we do have environmental considerations at the very centre of everything we do?

13:45

Yes, I'd be happy to provide that update. You'll remember, last year, we published our first ever budget improvement plan and that set out some pieces of work that we would put in train this year in order to better understand the impact of the spend that we make, but also to allow us to take decisions that are better in terms of both gender budgeting, for example, but also understanding the carbon impact of the allocations that we've made. So, alongside the budget this year, you'll see several new pieces of work published. One is a distributional impact of spending on devolved public services in Wales. That's a new piece of work that we've undertaken to better understand the impact on the different socioeconomic groups in Wales. You'll also see the work that we've started to develop in terms of gender budgeting.

But, finally, the third part of the new approach is the pilot to model the estimated greenhouse gas emissions. And this is the first time that we've ever tried anything like this in Wales and it's very much in response to the concerns that you and others have raised in the Finance Committee and elsewhere, that this is something that you'd be interested in pursuing. So, alongside the chief economist's report, I did publish the initial exploratory work that the Welsh Economy Research Unit at Cardiff University had been commissioned to undertake for us, and they estimate the greenhouse gas emissions associated with Welsh Government spending. They did so in the first instance covering the largest revenue budget for the health and social services main expenditure group and that's based on last year's figures, but we do hope, between now and the final budget, to be able to get to a point where we've looked at this year's figures and also to look across all of the different MEGs as well. So, it's certainly not a finished product in terms of understanding our carbon impact, but it's definitely an important step forward in the way in which we demonstrate the impact of the choices that we make.

Diolch, Gweinidog. I'm all for carbon budgeting and I think it's great that we're moving that way, but I do appreciate the complexity of trying to achieve that. But, as you've pointed out, we have to start somewhere.

Looking across other aspects of the draft budget, and I appreciate it's still a draft budget, but housing, for instance. I can appreciate how carbon budgeting comes in with providing better broadband, et cetera, because that obviously takes more people off the roads, but your decision on land transaction tax and, for instance, reverting to the previous rate for properties between £160,000 and £250,000—I think they're back to the 3 per cent level pre the pandemic—it's difficult to see how that's going to help those people certainly at the lower end of the housing market—first-time buyers—to get on the housing ladder. So, who do you liaise with and what evidence have you taken into account in taking those decisions on land transaction tax? And are you sure or convinced that the revenues that will be gained from doing that will actually be worth any negative impacts on the first-time-buyer housing market?

Well, the existing reduction that is due to end on 31 March—which is also or at least a similar timescale is being thought of across the border in England as well—was intended to be brought in to ensure that we bring forward some of those transactions from next year. So, it was always intended to be a time-limited intervention to increase the number of homes that are transacted in this financial year. But that said, even when we go back to our original rate, the majority of house buyers in Wales will pay no or reduced land transaction tax and certainly less than they would have paid elsewhere. And we're also in the position in Wales where our average house price is much less than elsewhere. I appreciate it's a different situation in the constituency that Nick represents. But I still think that even then, we will have the most progressive approach that there is in the UK. 

13:50

Thank you very much, Llywydd. There's been quite some coverage across the UK this week on free school meals following the scandal of the inadequate meals provided by private contractors to children in England during the pandemic. But support, generally speaking, is still inadequate for children living in poverty in Wales; we've already referred during this session to extending free school meals during the pandemic, but let's look beyond the pandemic.  

There are 70,000 children in Wales, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, whose families receive universal credit but don't qualify for free school meals. Now, on two recent occasions you as Minister have referred to the fact that costings have been undertaken by your officials on providing free school meals to each and every one of those, first in response to a written question from Adam Price on 4 January, and the second in response to Siân Gwenllian in the Finance Committee a few days later. Can you tell us what conclusion you came to as to how much it would cost to ensure that every child living in poverty does qualify for free school meals? 

Llywydd, I did undertake in Finance Committee on Friday to write to the committee with the full detail in terms of the modelling that we have undertaken to explore the cost of extending free school meals, and I'll be certain to share it also with Rhun ap Iorwerth as well as the Finance Committee to give that level of detail. Of course, this issue was raised again with the First Minister in First Minister's questions just this week, and he did make the challenge—which I think is a completely legitimate one—in the sense that if we are going to look at spending tens of millions of additional pounds on this particular initiative—and, of course, there's a very strong argument for supporting families in this way—then we do need to explore where in the budget we would take that funding from. So, I think that we do have to have both sides of that coin when we're making these choices, but I will share that information as soon as I'm able to. 

Thank you very much, and I fully understand that it's a matter of prioritisation, but I hope that you as finance Minister would agree that there isn't a much greater priority than providing the necessary support for children living in poverty and, indeed, bringing them out of poverty. Having undertaken those costings, you decided for some reason that this wasn't a sufficient priority to include in the draft budget. Will you now reconsider your position on this whilst working on the final budget? 

And in terms of what we heard from the First Minister yesterday, unless you can correct me I think the First Minister yesterday misinterpreted what we're looking at by suggesting that we're talking about 70,000 families here. If there were one child in every family, it would cost £33 million he said, more if there were two children, and as much as £101 million if there were three children in the family, but we are talking about 70,000 children here. Given those figures that we received from the First Minister, should we assume that the cost would be £33 million were we to extend free school meals to those 70,000 children?

As I say, I'll share the modelling that we've undertaken and which is being completed by our officials in Welsh Government with Rhun ap Iorwerth and also with the Finance Committee, and then I think that would be the time then to explore where colleagues would suggest that cuts should be made within the draft budget in order to accommodate a change in this approach. 

Okay. I'll just reiterate once more that this has to be a priority, surely. We're talking about children living in poverty needing every help that they can get, and out of a total budget of £22 billion surely £33 million has to be found. We've seen the shame of the inadequate food boxes. We've seen the frustration and anger triggered by the Marcus Rashford campaign. Let's get this sorted. Look to your unallocated COVID consequentials; is there a contribution there? We know that COVID has amplified poverty problems in Wales. Plaid Cymru is calling clearly for this. Labour councillors in Carmarthenshire, I understand, have backed a Plaid Cymru motion asking the Welsh Government to extend free school meals to all children in families receiving universal credit. It's time the Labour Government acted on this.

13:55

I think it's important to recognise that free school meals are one part of an important package of support that we provide to children and families who are struggling. You'll have heard me already this afternoon talk about the additional funding that we're putting into the school holiday enrichment programme, which of course is not just about providing food to those families but providing opportunities to children in terms of meeting up with friends and having learning experiences through the holidays so that they don't fall behind. We've invested heavily in our pupil development grant, which is providing additional funding to schools, early years, and other settings, to enable disadvantaged learners to achieve their best educational outcomes, and in this financial year over £92 million of that was delegated directly to schools and educational settings so that they can support those families who they know need it. And you'll see, of course, additional funding to support children through the additional work we're putting in place for support for mental health, for example, so this is just one part of a wide suite of support that we are putting in place for families who are struggling. I'll just refer again to the commitment I did make at Finance Committee to share further details and information.

Youth Services

3. What priority is the Welsh Government giving to funding youth services in next year’s budget? OQ56107

Supporting Wales’s young people hardest hit by the pandemic is a priority for the Welsh Government. Together with maintaining £10 million for the youth support grant, including support to tackle youth homelessness and mental health, we are providing local government with an increase of £176 million to support vital local services.

There is obviously a great deal of concern about the viability of youth services going forward. A National Youth Agency report recently highlighted that nearly 70 per cent of youth clubs in England may be forced to close because of the Tory-led austerity squeeze on their finances via local authorities, which have forced them to cut services to the bone. I appreciate that in Wales we have endeavoured to protect local authorities from that UK austerity programme, and I'm extremely grateful that Cardiff council and indeed voluntary organisations like the YMCA have continued to provide outreach to young people on the street, even though they haven't been able to continue to deliver any support indoors during the pandemic, but we know about the rise in self-harm and suicidal thoughts amongst young people, and the fact that the closure of schools differentially impacts much more severely on disadvantaged families. How do you think we can maximise the use of this budget to ensure that both statutory youth services and the support from the voluntary and community sector can still be there for young people to help them recover from the devastating impact of this pandemic?

I think that combination of statutory services and support from the voluntary sector is absolutely vital, and that's why, since 2019, we've annually been providing over £10 million of direct funding for youth work to local authorities and the voluntary sector to ensure that there is that dual approach.

During the pandemic, since the very start, actually, we've been working really closely with the youth work sector to ensure that they have the necessary resources to continue to be confident in their work through the pandemic scenario, and that's included more support around safeguarding, using online resources and platforms, as well as sharing best practice of working in very, very different ways. Our £24 million package of support for the third sector does include the voluntary services emergency fund, and that's supported eight organisations so far, and three of those are in Cardiff, and they've received a total funding of £141,000. The impact of that has been critical, with funding allocated to the Church Army, for example, for counsellors to provide that support by telephone to young people who are at risk of self harm. The voluntary services recovery fund has also supported six organisations identifying as youth services, with a total of £123,000. Again, of those, three are in Cardiff. One of the recipients, the SAFE Foundation, was awarded funding to support positive mental health amongst young people affected by COVID-19 specifically. So, our response to the pandemic has very much been about demonstrating our real concern about the impact on young people's mental health.

14:00

I wonder whether you could give us an indication of where in the budget we might find support for the Urdd and the Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team—that's EYST—both of whom make essential contributions to youth work my region, targeting particular groups of young people as part other Welsh Government policy work. I'm not sure that all councils look at the Urdd in particular as an organisation that can support them in a number of policy aims, especially community youth work. And I do note from your previous answer that Cardiff seems to have done quite well from the emergency money here, rather than hearing from other parts of Wales.

I thank Suzy Davies for raising that. I did respond referring specifically to Cardiff because, of course, Jenny Rathbone was the Member who tabled the question and represents Cardiff, so I was sure to have those figures to hand to respond to that. We do support our youth services, as I say, through that £10 million funding for youth services, which is administered to both local authorities and the voluntary sector to ensure that they're able to respond together to the needs of young people right across Wales. I'm familiar with the work of EYST particularly here in Swansea and the excellent work that they do for our community.

I'm really impressed by the work that the Urdd has been seeking to do right through the pandemic. You'll have seen in the response to the pandemic with our in-year allocations that the education Minister did make funding available to the Urdd to ensure that it was in a good place to come out well from the crisis, and that it, as an organisation, wouldn't have been so badly impacted that it wouldn't be able to undertake its good work, as well. So, I hope you'll be able to see some funding for next year for youth services, which is quite explicit in the draft budget, but also take confidence that, this year, we've also been making significant allocations in that regard as well.

I'm grateful to the Minister for her answer, particularly to Suzy Davies. I just wanted to pursue the issue of funding for the Urdd. The funding that has already been granted has been a huge help, but I'm sure that the finance Minister and other relevant Ministers will be aware that the Urdd faced a £14 million loss of its income—the income that it generates itself, its commercial income, if you like—last year. Some very highly skilled Welsh-speaking youth workers' jobs continue to be at risk. I wonder if I could ask the Minister to ensure that she looks at issues of funding the Urdd with Ministers across portfolio—the education Minister, obviously, but there's also the Minister with responsibility for the Welsh language, and, I would argue, the culture budget as well. Because this is such a precious institution to us. It's the largest membership youth work organisation in Europe, and it would be—I'm sure the Minister will agree with me—a tragedy if more people had to be made redundant, with the risk of those vital skills and opportunities for young people to use Welsh outside formal education being lost permanently.

I'm very much an admirer of the work of the Urdd, and I have had discussions with both the Minister for Education and also the Minister with responsibility for the Welsh language, when she was in her previous portfolio, although she does maintain responsibility for the Welsh language now, about the future of the Urdd and what support it might need, both in the short term but then, also, as a result of the general challenges that are facing the organisation. I think one of the important things that we've done is approve a request for additional funding on 25 May of last year, 2020, and as a result of that, the additional capital funding will increase their twenty-first century schools funding allocation from £2.75 million to £5.5 million. They will be able to undertake some essential work at their residential centres, and I think that that kind of level of investment does provide assurance that we are confident in, and keen to see, that strong future for the Urdd.

14:05
Risks to Public Finances

4. What action will the Welsh Government take to reduce the risks to public finances in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56115

I am retaining a fiscal resource reserve of more than £800 million in the draft budget for 2021-22 to deal with the uncertain future path and impact of the pandemic. The fiscal framework protects the budget from the impact on devolved revenues of UK-wide economic shocks that have been caused by the pandemic.

Thank you for that answer, Minister, and happy new year to you. Last year, I raised the point that the Welsh Government, through the Welsh development bank, is lending money to local councils to buy and let out commercial properties to property developers. Last financial year, it was more than £35 million, and this year, it could be as high as £97 million. My main concern was the news that the COVID pandemic has seen commercial property returns and prices collapse, putting the public money that you have invested at huge risk.

The First Minister admitted that all commercial property values where the Welsh Government has invested public money have been affected by the pandemic, and he said that he expected lending decisions now to be calibrated to the current set of circumstances that we see. If no changes have been made yet to the lending criteria, there is £97 million worth of public money at huge risk. Please tell me what discussions you have had, and what firm decisions have been taken that have changed the lending criteria that were in place before the pandemic to criteria that are, in the First Minister's own words, calibrated to the current set of circumstances.   

Thank you for raising the question, and happy new year to you too. I have looked into this, because I was interested in the question that you raised with the First Minister previously. At present, there is only one deal—and that's of the entire £122 million that has been invested—where the repayment of the loan is reliant on the sale of a commercial development within a project. So, I think that we can be confident that this isn't a pressing issue at the moment. Obviously, officials are in regular communication with the DBW. They are confident, and they reassure myself and Ken Skates, whose department the DBW sits in, that the DBW is taking a prudent approach to investment in these uncertain times, particularly in terms of the maximum loan-to-value rate available for investment as well. But, we have received assurances that what has been undertaken is absolutely appropriate.   

I'm particularly concerned about the SME sector, which has been very badly hit by the COVID crisis, which has closed up high streets and imposed—necessarily, of course—very different working methods. For the health of our high streets, for the health of the foundational economy—and much of our economic strategy is on building up the SME sector—can you assure us that it will receive a very high priority in future business support plans and, indeed, the balance of resources that it gets from the Welsh Government budget?  

I'm more than happy to provide those assurances. SMEs are absolutely the backbone of the economy here in Wales. I think that our approach to the pandemic has demonstrated particularly our support for small and medium-sized enterprises. You will recall that there was quite a bit of a furore about the Welsh Government's early decision not to allocate rate relief, in terms of non-domestic rates, to those large businesses over £500,000 rateable value. But now, of course, we are seeing businesses such as Tesco offering money back across the border in England where they had received that funding. We took that decision very early on, and that allowed us then to repurpose lots of that funding—if I recall correctly, in the region of £150 million—back to small and medium-sized enterprises, which we understood needed that finance much more than the larger businesses.  

I was very interested in the question from Michelle Brown. Councils in England have borrowed far in excess of 100 per cent of their annual income in terms of commercial properties, which is certainly a cause for concern for all of us, because it effects the British economy. What I would say to the Minister is: do you agree with me that the best way of dealing with Government debt is to grow the economy, and thus grow the tax received? Tax received in 2018 was almost 50 times that of 50 years previously. The more you grow the economy, the more tax you receive, the less debt actually matters.

14:10

Thank you to Mike Hedges for raising this. On the issue of local authorities, we do provide statutory guidance for local authorities when they make their borrowing and investment decisions in a way that is appropriate to their statutory responsibilities. On the second part of the question, I also agree with Mike Hedges that we do need to grow the economy here in Wales and ensure that we do grow our tax base here in Wales. We have some structural issues and challenges in terms of our tax base, but I think that if work very carefully through that we can make some inroads. If we look at what we're doing in terms of housing and planning and in education, for example, I think that all of those things are levers that will help us grow the tax base in future. It's something that I've asked the tax engagement group as well to be thinking about. We had a meeting of the tax engagement group back in November, and we did consider some of those challenges to growing the Welsh tax base, including the deterioration in the labour market conditions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. So, it's an issue that we're keen to take expert advice on as well. But the logic of what Mike Hedges sets out is very sound.

Resources Allocated to Education

5. What resources have been allocated in the 2021-22 budget for education in the post-COVID period? OQ56104

In recognition of the impact the pandemic has had on our children and young people, we are boosting the budget for education in 2021-22 by an extra £102 million. This is in addition to the uplift of £176 million for local government, which will support front-line services, including schools.

We will need an ambitious plan for education if we're to support our children in this post-COVID period, particularly those children who have missed out most on their education—many of those from deprived backgrounds. I haven't seen such a plan as of yet, but certainly it won't be possible to pay for the huge amount of additional work required within the local government settlement in the next budget. So, I would like to understand how you and the education Minister are making progress first of all in working out how much funding will be required for a meaningful plan to restore education. And secondly, can you explain what options are available to you in terms of paying for an ambitious plan, which needs to begin this year and continue for the future?

Thank you very much for the question. The education resource and capital budget now stands at £1.9 billion for 2021-22, and that is an increase, as I say, of £102 million, or 5.8 per cent from our revised baseline. So, there's significant additional funding going into the education MEG. But, of course, the position within local authorities is also extremely important in terms of funding for schools. And that's one of the reasons why we've put such great store on giving local government the best possible settlement in the budget—so, an additional £176 million to local authorities to enable them to support schools.

In terms of our immediate response, you'll see £12 million of additional funding to support the catch-up learning in schools to help combat the loss of learning, skills and productivity that there has been as a result of the pandemic. You'll recall a while back we made an announcement that we would provide funding for the recruitment of an additional full-time equivalent of 900 new posts in the education system, and they consist of teachers, teaching assistants and other roles designed to support learners who are facing the greatest challenges. I'm really pleased that local authorities are reporting really good recruitment levels in that context, in terms of delivering that particular project, which is part of our more urgent and immediate response to the challenges that young people and children are facing as a result of the pandemic. But, clearly, as Siân Gwenllian recognises and says, this isn't something that will be solved immediately; this is something that will require sustained investment.

14:15
The Environment and Rural Affairs Budget

6. What additional funding does the Minister intend to allocate to the environment and rural affairs budget in the current financial year? OQ56111

The third supplementary budget is planned for publication on 9 February 2021. Any allocations in the current financial year for the environment, energy, and rural affairs portfolio will be included in that budget.

Well, we know, of course, that the Audit Wales report highlighted a problem with the way the Welsh Government has been allocating RDP funding. We heard earlier how you're now going to have to pay £3 million back to the European Union because of maladministration of that funding. Can I ask you, therefore, in your third supplementary budget, that you pay that from the central Government funds? Because you suggested earlier that that would have to come from the Minister's budget. Now, that would mean, of course, that there would be something else in that budget that couldn't be funded, because that money would have been spent there, and what you would be doing there would be penalising rural Wales because of the failings of your own Government.

Llywydd, as yet, I haven't had the opportunity to have a discussion with the Minister on this particular issue, but I clearly will intend to do so and will reflect, within the third supplementary budget, the outcome of those discussions. And, of course, I'd be happy to share that information with Llyr before that point.FootnoteLink

The Transparency of the Budget Process

7. What measures are in place to improve the transparency of the Welsh Government's budget process? OQ56082

I have taken additional steps this year to provide full transparency about the fiscal implications of the pandemic to support robust scrutiny of spending decisions. Measures include publishing two supplementary budgets, writing to the Finance Committee with details of consequentials, and providing regular updates to the Senedd in the Chamber.   

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the public interest is definitely served by more transparency, and this has been a long journey, and there's still a long way to go. We are, quite properly, demanding of local government in their financial statements and the information, indeed, they send to their council tax payers, and I think a similar process of public engagement is required so that we can truly have a transparent budget process here in the Senedd. It would both encourage many good ideas to come forward—and, dare I say, perhaps from people who are not necessarily the usual culprits—and also, it would identify some areas of waste. So, will you commit to greater public engagement models being used in the future?

I think, over the course of this last year, and certainly since I published the first budget improvement plan, we really have taken great strides, both in terms of transparency but also engagement. I think the fact that we've been able to still progress the work in terms of the gender budgeting, the carbon assessments, and the distributional impact assessments has been a real testimony to the priority that we do put on this agenda, especially during the pandemic.

There is much more happening. So, we've got an easy-read version of the budget this year, which, I think, is quite useful. I know that we've had lots of people downloading that online. And also, again for the first time this year, we have a budget calculator available so that people can go on to the website, they can put in their salary, they can work out then the proportion of their salary that is being spent across the Welsh Government departments in different ways. So, an individual can see how much of their tax is being spent on health, on education, on rural community and so on. So, I think that that again is a new innovation, but I'm always keen and happy to look at what more we can do to be engaging and to engage and also to be transparent.

Just bearing in mind, of course, that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has complemented the Welsh Government on its transparency through the crisis, and the fact that we have provided these supplementary budgets, whereas the UK Government has yet to provide a single supplementary budget. So, we're as in the dark as many people are about the spending that is being undertaken across the border. I really, really anxiously look forward to the publication of the supplementary estimates, where we will finally get a proper understanding of spend across the border and what that means in terms of consequentials for us in Wales. So, I think that the UK Government can learn a lot from the transparency that we've been very keen to work to this year, and I think it's one of the things we can be very proud of through our response to the pandemic.

14:20
Businesses in Alyn and Deeside

8. What consideration has the Minister given to funding for businesses in Alyn and Deeside when allocating the Welsh Government budget? OQ56074

We continue to do all we can to support businesses across Wales through these incredibly difficult times, and have provided the most generous support package anywhere in the UK. To date, the COVID business rates grant scheme has made 2,616 awards to businesses across Flintshire, which total more than £31.3 million.

Minister, thank you for that answer. As you say, these are really, really tough times for good, sound businesses in Alyn and Deeside, and I welcome the support they have had, and the launch of the new round of funding open today. I've been working hard with a host of businesses—large and small—including aerospace, hospitality, sport and leisure and hair and beauty and many, many others, and it's great to be able to help them with the support from the Welsh Government, and I look forward to seeing this support continue in the new budget. However, I must say: pleas from businesses to the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have often fallen on deaf ears. Now, he has claimed to not be aware of the 3 million businesses and individuals that have been excluded. So, Minister, will you use your office to amplify their voice to help the Chancellor to start listening and, more importantly, to start acting to help the excluded? 

I thank Jack Sargeant very much for raising this issue, and for the work that he does representing businesses, large and small, from his constituency; some of the largest that we have, in fact, are in his constituency. I know that he's been particularly concerned about the aerospace industry, which he's mentioned. And I'm very much looking forward to that meeting that I will be having with Jack Sargeant shortly to discuss the matter of support for the aerospace industry in particular. But also Jack Sargeant mentioned some of the smallest businesses as well, and those people who are self-employed. The Deputy Minister and Chief Whip met with ExcludedUK on 17 December, and I know that she's keen, as I am, to continue to press the UK Government to be responsive and responsible in terms of supporting those people who continue to fall through the gaps, and have yet to receive the support that they require. And certainly, in my discussions that I will have and do have with Treasury Ministers, I'm always keen to set out what more we must do to support those who have yet to receive any support.

2. Questions to the Minister for Education

The next item is questions to the Minister for Education, and the first question is from Laura Jones.

Education Progression

1. Will the Minister provide an update on measures to enable students to progress their education in Wales during the current pandemic? OQ56086

Thank you, Laura. The range of measures to support remote learning include extensive professional learning, significant investment in devices, and the enhanced £29 million accelerated learning programme. Building on guidance to support blended learning, further guidance has been published today to enable schools to effectively support learners.

Thank you, Minister. The announcement that Welsh schools will remain closed now until February half term has obviously had a massive impact on children's mental health. And also that stress has been felt by parents also trying to work from home at the same time, as you'll know, as I do. But that is being exacerbated in some families by the access to devices. And I know that there has been some, now, more money been allocated following discussions we have had in committee to devices, but the Child Poverty Action Group has raised concerns that

'Children without access to a laptop are being denied support for home-schooling by means testing'—

with some schools only offering support to children on free school meals. They went on to say that

'Three-quarters of families who lack the kind of devices they need aren't eligible for free school meals.'

So, what action are you taking, Minister, to tackle this inequality of provision of devices to enable home learning, which is stressful enough without children worrying that they are falling behind or don't have the equality of opportunity at home as they do in school? I'd just quickly like to share that I have, on Facebook—it was shared around that people can now access the Hwb on PlayStation and Xbox, and I thought that was really useful, but I'm just wondering, what else are you doing, Minister? Thank you.

Thank you, Laura. You're correct to say that access to digital devices is one part of the challenge. Since the pandemic began, we have made available approximately 106,000 devices for schools, which they can lend out to children. In the autumn term, we established with our local authority partners a distance learning working group to further understand the barriers to children accessing distance learning should that become necessary. We are working at speed with the local authorities to address the needs of those families that have come forward in the autumn term for additional support, as well as looking at the issues around connectivity, which, at this present time, local authorities tell us is a bigger concern than actual devices themselves.

14:25

Minister, I'm sure we can all agree that there is no substitute for face-to-face learning. Attending school is not just about educational achievement, it's an important part of the emotional development of our young people. While COVID is impacting upon school attendance, it must not be allowed to impact a young person's development, and I've been contacted by a constituent who is concerned that schools in Bridgend are not conducting live lessons, albeit via video link, they are merely providing workbook downloads from the Twinkl website. Minister, do you agree with me that this is unacceptable, and will you ensure that children across Wales continue to receive live teaching via video link as long as the schools are closed?

Thank you, Caroline. We have published extensive guidance to local education authorities and schools around distance learning at this time. All learners should be provided with the duration of learning time that they would have received should they have been in schools. Obviously, there are some exceptions to that implementation, especially for our youngest children. I'm sure Caroline would agree with me it's not in the best interest of our youngest learners to be sat in front of a screen for long periods of time. We continue, via our regional school improvement service and Estyn, to provide additional support for practitioners to improve practice in this area. I'm also aware, though, we have seen an increase in the use of live lessons in Wales since the previous lockdown, and that brings a different set of stresses to parents who are, especially for our youngest children, now required to sit alongside them to do that work, and sometimes parents find that challenging. I would urge all Members, and indeed parents, to go to the Welsh Government Hwb site to join the 3 million people that log on every month. There are specific resources available, not only to practitioners to learn from good practice, but also support for parents so that they can make the most of the resources that are available so that they can keep their children both safe and learning at this time.

Minister, in order for our young people to make progress in their education, they need to be supported by teachers who are fit and well, both physically and mentally. Nowhere is this more so than in our pupil referral units, where staff work with some of our most challenging young people, including throughout all of the lockdowns. PRUs are classed as special schools, and there was relief and optimism across the sector when the Welsh Government recently announced that staff in special schools would get priority access to the vaccine. However, since, that announcement has been clarified to state that only those staff providing intimate personal care will be eligible. With staff in PRUs having to deal with close contact, pupils spitting, refusing to comply with social distancing or to wear masks, all on a daily basis, will you please commit to seeking priority status for these staff, who consider themselves to be in a uniquely vulnerable position and are experiencing considerable stress as a result?

Thank you, Vikki. I would like to place on record my immense gratitude and thanks to those working in our PRU units, as you quite rightly say, working alongside some of our most vulnerable learners. That is why we have asked local authorities at this time, where at all possible, to continue to provide PRU education, and I'm grateful for those staff that are doing that on a daily basis. Could I reinforce the clarification? All staff, whether they are in a special school, a mainstream school, or indeed a further education college that are involved in the intimate care of pupils will be classed as social care staff. The tasks that they are involved in doing, if they were carrying those out as part of a domiciliary care package, or indeed as a care package, for instance, in a care home, they would be classed as social care staff. And it is those staff that will be eligible for the vaccine in this first round. We continue to discuss with the other parts of the United Kingdom, and with scientists, around when the further education workforce will become eligible for a vaccine. And I am very keen that that should happen as soon as possible. That's all staff that are keeping education going—so that's those working in our schools and those that are taking our children to school. And once the first phase of the vaccination process is completed, I hope we can move to a situation where we will receive advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation about how we can protect other front-line workers.

14:30
Remote Learning

2. Will the Minister make a statement on ensuring that all pupils have access to the necessary equipment and resources to enable remote learning? OQ56097

4. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that learners in Wales are not digitally excluded? OQ56113

Thank you very much, Alun. At the outset of the pandemic, my officials commissioned local authorities to identify all digitally excluded learners, in conjunction with their schools. Since the pandemic, we've made available approximately 160,000 devices for schools, which they are able to give to, to lend to, their pupils, and some 10,848 MiFi connections.

I'm grateful, Presiding Officer, to the Minister for that response. We share, I think, an absolute commitment to the equality of access to learning, and I know the Minister has spoken very forcefully about this, and I agree with the approach that she's taken, and I recognise her commitment to ensuring that all learners have the same opportunity to access learning. And she's already this afternoon addressed issues of the equipment—laptops, tablets, and printing resources. But she also touched upon, in the previous answer, the issue about connectivity. And this is something that really concerns me. She will know from her own constituency that connectivity can be a really serious barrier to learning. Download speeds in Blaenau Gwent are sometimes very low as well. And there are significant pressures on broadband access, particularly if a parent is working from home as well. So, I'd be interested to understand how the Minister can identify how additional support is being distributed, and how it is addressing, potentially, access to broadband and connectivity, to ensure that all children can participate fully in online learning.

Thank you, Alun. And indeed, our working group with local education authorities have highlighted issues around connectivity as being of concern to them. During the first lockdown, as I said, we did distribute in excess of 10,000 MiFi devices to those learners for whom connectivity was an issue. We continue to explore with local authorities what further devices are necessary in that regard, as well as looking at other innovative solutions with Cabinet colleagues who have responsibility for broader connectivity issues, to see what more we can do at this time.

It's also very important then to understand how those devices are used. I have to say, we have some concerns that the devices that were issued in the first lockdown seem to have had quite low usage. So, once again, we have to understand the barriers to accessing learning. Supplying kit and equipment is one thing, but if it's not used then that effort will be for nought. So, we have to understand what more we can do, not only to supply the kit and equipment, but ensure that learners and those that care for them feel confident and able to use those resources to carry on learning.

I think the Minister has requested for this question to be grouped with question 4. If that's the case, Minister, I'll call Lynne Neagle to ask her supplementary question. Yes. Lynne Neagle.

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, I very much welcome the findings of the Education Policy Institute, which said that digital devices in Wales had been rolled out much more quickly than in other UK nations, a finding of course that they also made in relation to school meal provision, which has certainly been brought into very sharp relief this week. As you know, though, the situation, as we continue to grapple with this pandemic, remains challenging. Can I ask what further discussions you've had with local authorities about funding, should they require further devices, and what assurances you can give that that funding will be made available by Welsh Government grant?

14:35

Thank you, Lynne, and can I thank you for acknowledging the work of both officials in Welsh Government, officials in local government, and indeed schools themselves that were able to act so rapidly during the first lockdown? We are working very closely with local authorities to identify additional needs at this time. We are due to distribute a further 36,000 pieces of kit in the next few weeks, and we are working very closely to identify any additional resources above and beyond that that will be needed, and I have had some very productive conversations with Rebecca Evans, the finance Minister, with regard to ensuring that finance is not a barrier to addressing the needs of local authorities as they are brought forward to me. 

Minister, you've answered a number of questions on digital connectivity, so I'll perhaps be a bit more specific in my question. Both you and I live in Powys, so we know the issues well in terms of the issues around and problems that occur with a lack of broadband. My concern is about the divide that is emerging, I think, sadly, between urban and rural Wales. I wonder what discussions you've had specifically with your colleagues in Government, particularly Ken Skates and Lee Waters, in terms of reprioritising the broadband roll-out across Wales, because, very often, we see that the easy-to-achieve areas are done first, and the most difficult areas are left to last, and there's an obvious negative consequence to that in terms of children in the very rural areas of my constituency and your constituency losing out. So, I wonder what discussions you've had with them about reprioritising broadband roll-out?

Thank you, Russell, and can I put on record my thanks to Powys County Council, who have used some of their own capital budget to add to the resources made available by the Welsh Government in an attempt to roll out additional devices for all those studying in Powys sixth forms during this term? And Powys are due their fair share of the additional 36,000 devices that we're currently waiting on to be delivered, but it shows that council's commitment to trying to ensure that all learners have the kit and equipment that they need. 

As I said earlier, connectivity remains a concern across Wales, and we are aware of this in the Government. Both Lee Waters and Julie James are looking at what innovative solutions we can adopt at this time, recognising that that kind of connectivity issue not only helps learners during the period of lockdown, but rural communities in general. I think we're all learning the value, are we not, of it's not a 'nice to have', it is an absolute 'got to have' during this period of uncertainty, not just for children and learners, but also those people who are having to work from home, or are trying to keep their lives going by having digital connectivity. 

Minister, it's clear now, isn't it, that connectivity is one of those basic rights that we all have, along with gas, water and electricity. I want to re-emphasise the point that has been made, but just to perhaps make it even more clearly. There are homes in my constituency where I know there are people where affordability of the actual connectivity is the issue, not the availability or the level of connectivity. That is, I know that Rhondda Cynon Taf has done a considerable amount of work, working in conjunction with Welsh Government, with regard to equipment, but identifying those homes where people cannot afford to have it, and consequently the children, either openly or subliminally, then don't get that connectivity and aren't able to participate. Now, I know it's an issue RCT have concerns with. I wonder if it's a matter that you could specifically comment on—the issue of financial support for those families who can't afford it.

Thank you, Mick. As I said, we are able to support families with the provision of MiFi devices. We are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Education in England, who are working with communication companies to see what can be done around affordability and access to data. And can I make it clear that, whilst we want to minimise the number of children who are accessing their schools at this time, and that should predominantly be for key worker children and vulnerable children, as an ultimate safety net, there is flexibility for local authorities and headteachers to make provision for students if connectivity is absolutely something that is real barrier to their education? And that is the final safety net that we have put in place as flexibility for local authorities and schools to respond to that, bearing in mind that we are trying to keep numbers in our schools as low as possible for COVID security reasons. 

14:40

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

We now turn to party spokespersons questions, and the first up this afternoon is Bethan Sayed from Plaid Cymru. 

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you very much. Good afternoon, Minister. Obviously, the disruption to those who are partaking in vocational and other technical courses has been pretty bad. We all need plumbers and electricians all year round, and we are hearing from the sector, for example, that many of these people are not able to go in and do the practical work to be able to complete their term in this academic year. I'm wondering whether you've considered extending this academic year in line with some of the calls from organisations such as Colegau Cymru, because of the inability to potentially go in to carry out their degree or their further education course, and, if so, would you be able to give them upfront resources to be able to do that?

Presiding Officer, firstly, can I welcome Bethan Sayed back to the Chamber, although it's a virtual one, and put on the record my congratulations to her and her husband on the birth of her son?  

Bethan, you're right: vocational qualifications are particularly challenging. The landscape for those qualifications is much more complicated than for general qualifications, not least because many of them are not regulated by our own qualifications body. The Member will be aware that, as we emerged out of lockdown last year, the learners of whom she speaks were prioritised by their local colleges to be able to return, if students felt able to do so, to allow them to complete those practical assessments so that they could gain their qualifications and their professional accreditation for those particular roles, and we will work closely with Colegau, and financial resources were made available to assist in that process. We were also able to, in some instances, extend provision into the new academic year, and, again, financial resources were made available to assist colleagues in that regard. And we are keen to continue to have conversations with our further education principals as to what can be done to safeguard the progression of those students taking vocational qualifications and seeking professional accreditation. 

Okay, thank you very much for that reply and for your congratulations; I do appreciate that. It's interesting that you say that the money has come to the institutions. What I'm hearing is that, because of students being unable to go back potentially until February—some of them think that they may not be able to go back until even later than that—it will stall their ability to be able to complete their degree in this academic term and, then, obviously for new starters it'll be even more difficult. But you seem to be suggesting that they've had the support that they need. I'm hearing differently, and so would you be able to then clarify what discussions you've had with representative bodies to ensure that they feel that they have enough money? And if they don't feel that they have enough support, would you commit to a long-term education recovery plan for the sector? Because, of course, it doesn't just affect the individuals, but it affects the economic fruition and prosperity of our nation if we simply don't see these people graduating.

Well, you're absolutely right: the ability for those individuals to progress is really important, and that's why we prioritised those learners last year. Because of the ongoing disruption, learners who find themselves in this year's cohort, again, will have to have additional support. So, we prioritised those students last year, and we're keen to continue to have conversations to prioritise those students this year, and to work with the colleges to understand what they need to allow those practical assessments of people's skills to go forward. Whilst colleges are closed for face-to-face teaching for the majority of their students, there is an exception where assessments—important external assessments—have to be carried out. Those are still able to be done within colleges and I know colleges are working hard to accommodate students in that regard. But with regard to a longer term plan, and as was referenced by the finance Minister earlier, whilst additional resources are being made available for education in the new financial year, the impact of COVID-19 on students' learning is going to be felt for many, many years. We've made good progress this year in recruiting additional staff, but we're not going to catch up from this pandemic in any one single academic year, and we do indeed need to have ongoing investment and a plan for catch-up.

14:45

Thank you, and I'm glad that you recognise that the plan for catch-up is going to be much, much longer than one academic year, and I concur with that. 

My final question is with regard to university rent rebates and I've got lots of support for those who have been taking part in strikes across the country in relation to not wanting to pay their rent if they're not able to go to their university accommodation. We've seen today that Cardiff University have said that they will pay back the rent if you are not able to go. Yesterday, Aberystwyth students campaigned hard to ensure that that university made a decision to give a rent rebate. Do you think it's fair that students should have to pay rent for accommodation that they are not in? And if you don't think it's fair, how will you support universities that want to give that rebate—i.e. will you give them more financial support to do so? And have you looked at what's happening in the private sector? I know it's much more complex, but are there any rent rebate possibilities there for students who may be in the private rented sector, who equally deserve to have that rebate, because, of course, they simply are following Welsh Government guidance to stay at home at the moment?

I have every sympathy for those students who are abiding by Welsh Government rules and are not travelling to universities at this time to occupy accommodation that they have paid for or are due to pay for as a result of ongoing restrictions. Last year, all of our universities looked to provide rebates or refunds and we welcome that and I welcome the actions by a number of Welsh institutions at this time to do the same. I am in close discussion with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, universities and, only this afternoon, with the National Union of Students Cymru, to see what more Welsh Government can do to assist with regard to rent and, indeed, general financial hardship that students may be facing at this time, and I hope to make an announcement shortly.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you for those answers to Bethan Sayed as well, Minister—that was very helpful. 

I just want to begin with schools closing. Obviously, we've been told repeatedly that schools themselves are very low-risk environments, even though this variant itself is more highly infectious than the previous version. The most recent technical advisory cell report points out again that it's behaviours around schools being the place where the transmission risk is, rather than in schools themselves. But that's not new intelligence. Other Members of the Senedd and I were talking about this with our health boards back in the autumn. So, while I'm absolutely not disputing your immediate decision to close schools, just two things on school closures: do you think it would have been useful to have had a very visible campaign targeting older pupils, students and their families to explain that their behaviours connected to a school or college—and I think those are the words—are the reason for closing schools? And what steps are open to you now to protect staff and children from that outside influence short of closing schools? The test and trace solution you spoke of before Christmas doesn't seem to have hit the mark. We haven't heard much about testing since either. You've probably heard as well there's a real inconsistency in the offer for key worker children in the school hubs, which actually are open, which isn't helping to make the argument for closing schools.

Thank you, Suzy. First of all, can I say schools and local authorities as well as colleges and universities have worked really, really hard during July and the autumn term to make their environments as COVID-safe as possible, and I commend them for that? The new variant of the virus does pose new challenges, although the relative risk to schools is not increased, but, of course, anywhere where people gather together is an opportunity for the virus to spread. The Member is also correct to say that it is very difficult to untangle exactly where the source of transmission occurs, and there are concerns around not only end-of-day activities—the beginning of the end of the school day—but, by having schools open, it allows other adults, not in school, to mix more freely, which also impacts upon the R rate.

At this time, we are reviewing our operational guidance in light of SAGE recommendations as to how we can make those environments even more secure, how we can reinforce messages around safe behaviours, such as how you walk to school in the morning, the sharing of mobile phones, cans of fizzy drink, and all the other activities where, perhaps, people are less aware outside of a regulated setting that can be sources of transmission. But, of course, keeping community levels of the transmission as low as possible is also absolutely crucial. Children and those who work in our schools live in our communities, and when community transmission levels are high, that invariably finds its way to disrupting education.

With regard to asymptomatic testing, online webinars were delivered last week with regard to the implementation of a testing regime to support schools when more children can go back to face-to-face learning, and we are working with local authorities to identify any barriers that exist for schools and local education authorities in implementing asymptomatic testing as soon as possible.

14:50

Okay, well, I look forward to seeing some activity on that testing piece; as I said, it had gone a bit quiet. Minister, you'll obviously know that I'm supportive of creating a discrete group of school staff for priority vaccinations after the four groups most affected by mortality risk have been fully treated. The current suggestions for phase 2 devised by the JIVC are primarily based on age. Bearing in mind the long-term implications for the continued loss of learning—and the worries about this are repeatedly captured in these assertions that schools must be the last to close and the first to open—I'm curious to find out what your personal position is on this. Do you think I should be getting my vaccine before any member of school staff just because I'm older than they are?

Suzy, I fully stand behind the work of the JCVI in how it has identified who is most at risk of serious harm or death as a result of contracting COVID-19. Members of staff, both in school and those who support education in other roles, will receive their vaccination in line with their relative risk of harm. Many of the teachers that I speak to speak of not only their worry about themselves but actually their worry about taking the virus home to a potentially vulnerable member of their family. If we disrupt the vaccination programme, potentially that member of the family might wait a bit longer. Other teachers talk of their concern about children potentially taking the virus home to vulnerable members of their family and their community, and, again, the overall programme is designed to deliver as much safeguarding from harm as possible.

The quickest way we can vaccinate our teachers is to move through the JCVI guidance as quickly as possible, and Welsh Government and health boards are moving every possible mountain to make that happen. As, then, we decide who should be vaccinated next, nothing would give me greater pleasure than to find education staff and, indeed, other front-line workers prioritised, and I know that evidence will be submitted to the JCVI as they make further decisions on the further roll-out of the programme. But, clearly, I am very keen to see our education workforce vaccinated as quickly as possible. 

Okay, well, thank you for that. I messed up those initials initially, there, as well. Okay, well, you're 'very keen'; I'll take that as a positive statement, then. 

I'd just like to go back, if I can, to this consistency about the quality and quantity of online teaching. I know we've rehearsed a fair bit of it today, but I wonder if you could tell us what's happened so far to that £29 million that was provided for 600 new teachers and 300 teaching assistants to help with maintaining and catching up on learning, particularly as we've just heard there's another £12 million on its way. We accept that the COVID recovery in education is long term, so I'd be wary about rushing to spend quite a lot of money in one go because it's available if it's not going on staff, but if it isn't going on staff but is still being used to support standards, can you tell us how it's being used? I'd be very interested to know if any of this is going to the consortia, for example, because it's their job to maintain standards, and, indeed, whether there are discussions, which we heard a little bit earlier, about even using it to subsidise the cost of broadband for those families who are struggling with getting enough access to broadband, just to provide things like dongles and Wi-Fi extenders, or simply just buying them extra data.

14:55

Thank you, Suzy. I can report substantial progress on the utilisation of the £29 million, which has indeed led to recruitment, to the targets that we'd set ourselves. Additional resources that are not being spent on staff are being spent in a variety of ways, including indeed to support the regional school improvement services to provide ongoing professional learning, so that teachers can improve their skills and improve their level of confidence, as well as providing additional resources so that teachers have ready-made teaching materials and support materials that they can utilise when they're delivering blended learning. So, that additional resource is being used in a variety of ways to support the distance learning effort.

The Consistency of Remote Learning

3. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure consistency in relation to remote learning in schools across Wales? OQ56116

Diolch yn fawr, Llyr. Clear guidance has been issued to schools and local authorities on distance learning as well as pre-recorded and live streaming of lessons. A dedicated area on Hwb is available that contains all the relevant information. Guidance has also been produced by both Estyn and the consortia, with a range of support being made available to schools and to parents.

Since I tabled this question, the future generations commissioner has also commented on this issue and she's described online learning as being patchy and inconsistent, and there are grave inconsistencies between not only different education authorities but individual schools within those authorities, and I'm not just talking here about access to equipment and connectivity; there is also inconsistency in terms of how many hours children are expected to learn every day, what kind of work they could expect, what digital platforms are used. Some receive face-to-face learning online, while some don't and only receive worksheets to complete. Now, I don't know if you would agree with the future generations commissioner that you should have done more to ensure consistency across Wales by providing greater guidance for schools and local authorities as a Government, because the upshot of the inconsistency is that we have a postcode lottery, where some children are gaining and others are losing out, and all that does, of course, is exacerbate the inequalities that are already too prominent within the education system in Wales.

Thank you, Llyr. I have to say, I do not know whether additional guidance is what we need. Often we hear from practitioners that Welsh Government is producing far too much guidance and it becomes a burden in itself in trying to keep up with it all. We published our distance learning plans in July. They have been kept updated. There is further guidance, as I said that, will be published today with a focus on our older learners. I think it's really important to recognise the huge strides the Welsh education system has taken at this time, and that's not just me saying that; Estyn, our school inspector, were involved in a number—. Well, actually, they visited all educational authorities during the autumn term. Again, sometimes that was not welcomed by our LEAs because they felt they had enough to do doing their day-to-day job without being answerable to Estyn, but Estyn have been able to provide individual support and recommendations to each of our LEAs, and say that there has been a step change.

While we're on the issue of commissioners, the Children's Commissioner for Wales carried out a listening day back in November, and the unanimous verdict of every young person who took part in the online service said that the online offering of schools had improved markedly from the first lockdown. Now, clearly, we need to continue to identify those schools that find this a challenge and to support those schools to understand the barriers that they have. There is advice and guidance available on Hwb, as well as an opportunity for peers to support one another and to learn from and another. And I have to commend GwE, the regional consortia in the north, who I understand, from speaking to headteachers in the north, have made tremendous efforts during the autumn term to provide professional learning opportunities for practitioners to improve their skills in this area, and we continue to work with LEAs to ensure that the offer is consistent and high quality.

15:00

As has been said many times this afternoon, parents and pupils do need fast and reliable online access. That does help to ensure consistency in remote learning, and I think it's important now, Deputy Presiding Officer, to put on record that broadband is a responsibility for the UK Conservative Government, but I must say, their failures over the years are not the fault of my constituents. In that spirit, Minister, parts of my constituency, like many others across Wales, do not have the right fast and reliable access that they deserve, and parents are rightly concerned, so I'm here today seeking assurances that that will not impact their children's education. So, what can you say to residents in Flintshire, in particular, and what can your department do to give those assurances that they'll get the education that those children deserve and are entitled to? Perhaps you could provide a further comment, Minister, on how they would go about accessing in the short term one of these Mi-Fi devices.

Thank you, Jack. It is correct to say that, as to ultimately whose responsibility the roll-out of broadband is. Indeed, Welsh Government has committed significant amounts of its own resource to try and address the shortfall that we find in our nation. But nonetheless, as you said, that is no comfort to those parents or students who are struggling at this time. As I said, we have asked for an early assessment from local authorities of their needs at this time, and I'm sure that Flintshire will come forward soon with its requirements, which the Welsh Government is committed to assisting them with.

My advice for families at this time is, if they are struggling with either a laptop or connectivity, in the first instance they should make that known to their school, as to whether there is kit sitting in a classroom that could be lent to them at this opportunity, or to speak to their local authority, who I'm sure would want to help.

I think it is fair to say that there have been some delays in some of the items of equipment that we've been able to supply to schools. That's because of a global demand for IT equipment at this time, but we hope to be able to distribute a further 35,000 pieces of kit in the coming weeks on top of the kit that has already been made available.

Unlike England, where it's mandatory for schools to deliver a minimum amount of remote learning a day, overseen by school inspectors, there's no legal duty on schools in Wales to deliver a minimum amount of online teaching, and school inspectors are not overseeing this here. As reported today, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales not only described online education in Wales while schools are closed as patchy and inconsistent, and stated the Welsh Government should do more to ensure consistency of learning at schools across Wales, but also said that real leadership from the top was needed. How do you therefore respond to the Flintshire parent who e-mailed last week, stating that her primary school children had not been taught effectively and asking why their school was still not in a position to give live lessons online; and to the statement by the Federation of North Wales Secondary School Head Teachers that current years 11 and 13 have had significant reduction in their face-to-face provision, the level of this reduction is not equitable across all schools, and is not equally impacting on all pupils?

What I would say, Mark, is that the description of secondary learning that you've just described is not the fault of the schools, of the local education authority or even the Welsh Government. It's the fault of the fact that different schools have been hit to different levels by positive cases. There are some schools in Wales—indeed, not an insignificant number—that thankfully to date have not had a positive case, although we know that there are other schools in Wales that have been very, very severely affected by positive COVID cases, which has led to significant disruption. Those cases where we have seen the highest levels of the disease in the community are those schools that have seen the highest levels of disruption, and that's nobody's fault. It is a product of how this disease has ravaged our country.

With regard to guidance for distance learning, the Welsh Government has long-standing guidance that is very, very clear around our expectations, and I would rather be working alongside our inspectors who, as I said to Llyr Gruffydd and Mark seems to be unaware, have visited all local education authorities during the autumn term to look at the adequacy of their plans for distance learning and their support for individual schools, and headteachers were interviewed as part of that process so that they were able to give feedback. All local authorities have been given individual reports on their state of readiness and support for their school systems. I'm sure if there are gaps, those local authorities will want to address them. And overall, Estyn say that schools have made significant progress in improving their offer. There is more that we can do by working in partnership together; threatening schools will not help at this time.

15:05

Minister, can I just begin by commending the work that's been going on within schools, both with the teaching staff but also with the heads and deputy heads as well to get the progress that we have? I don't want to labour the point, but the Hwb guidance is very, very good but it does give total discretion to the headteacher and school staff based on the conditions in the school, based on the resources available to them as to how much face time, how much live streaming there is. Now, that's a fair recognition of those conditions in each particular school and particular environment, but I wonder, Minister, whether there's an 'in principle' approach that you have, recognising that on the principles of equity, it also states in the Hwb guidance that there should be those opportunities to maintain connections with teaching and support staff and peers during the period of potential social isolation. So, how do we get the balance right and should there be face-to-face contact and, if so, how much and how often?

There are two issues. There is the issue of the live streaming of lessons, which increasingly we see being utilised across Wales, recognising that that itself poses different challenges for individual learners and families, and that's why we do have to have discretion for headteachers who know their communities and their cohorts, their schoolchildren and parents the best to be able to create a blended learning offer that truly meets the needs. They will also, of course, change depending on the age of the cohort. As I said earlier, I don't think any of us would want our very youngest children being sat in front of screens for hours and hours and hours.

But it is important, quite rightly, as you say, not just from a pedagogy point of view, but from a child safeguarding, welfare and mental health point of view, that children should have regular contact. Therefore, our guidance is very clear that there should be regular check-ins, not just in lessons, but regular check-ins with students to provide an opportunity to understand how that learning experience is going, whether it's working, whether children are thriving and to be able to possibly consider additional support and additional approaches if that is necessary.

The Delivery of Education

5. What is the Welsh Government doing to help schools find more innovative ways of delivering education amidst the constraints of suppressing the pandemic? OQ56106

Thank you, Jenny. Throughout the pandemic, we have made available a wide range of resources on Hwb, and these continue to be developed to support schools. We continue to capture positive practice and approaches from schools, publishing them on our 'Sharing our experiences' pages, and we look to take every opportunity to support innovation. 

Excellent. I know that prior to the return of all pupils in the autumn term, Estyn published a document collating the good practice that had been developed by many schools, and I know that some schools in Cardiff embraced the outdoor learning experiences as part of the well-being recovery programme. But I was shocked to learn recently of the hostile reaction of members of the public to one school taking a class in a bubble to the local recreation ground, which was a pretty shocking event given the lack of understanding of what children need.

Now that we have to revert to remote learning, we have some schools who have got really well-formulated blended learning plans, including proper online lessons with differentiated groups of pupils, depending on the levels of learning they're at, but others—. One teacher was told that it wasn't possible to do online lessons because there was a safeguarding issue. I'm aware that we have all this wonderful information on the Hwb, which is the envy of teachers in England, but nevertheless there's bound to be patchy practice, given that some schools have really very considerable responsibilities for safeguarding and deprivation amongst many of their pupils. I just wondered what we can now do to ensure that the consortia and Estyn are really sharing the best practice and giving the most support to those with the most challenges, referring back to what Llyr Gruffydd was saying earlier.

15:10

Can I make it absolutely clear that whilst a risk assessment should be undertaken and support and training given to staff, there is nothing in Welsh Government guidance that prevents schools from delivering live lessons? Indeed, those live lessons are happening every day in Wales. They're happening securely and they're happening well, and more and more schools are embracing that element of distance learning as part of their repertoire and as a part of their offer. So, there is nothing to stop that from happening, and there is very clear support and guidance available to both school leaders and practitioners to enable that to happen. You're absolutely right. I have conversations on a weekly basis with colleagues in local education authorities so that we can work together to identify those schools for whom there are concerns or a struggle, and to be able to ensure that they are supported by the regional consortia with their professional development to address these issues. I also understand that live lessons do provide certain challenges for parents, as does the entire distance learning scenario, so there are resources again available on Hwb for parents to understand how to use Hwb, how to log in, how to get free access to Adobe software, free access to Microsoft Office software, and it's important to recognise that that support material is available not just in English and Welsh, but is published also in a variety of community languages, to ensure that all parents can have the opportunity to access that support.

Minister, may I take this opportunity to invite you to congratulate Headlands special school in Penarth, which has recently received a recognition of excellence award from the High Sheriff of South Glamorgan because of the innovative way it has responded to the pandemic, particularly in distance and blended learning? One of the key things has been active outreach, whether this be telephone calls, Zoom or Teams, so that parents and children that are perhaps having particular difficulty in accessing this type of education get that sort of specialist support that teachers naturally give in the classroom to those pupils who need that little bit of extra encouragement and assistance, and that's one of the key skills we need to ensure is used properly.

David, I would absolutely want to offer my congratulations and my sincere thanks to Headlands, who are exemplary in how they have responded so proactively and with great skill and innovation to supporting their learners and their families at this time. They, and others, are there and, I know, are very keen to be able to share their good practice, their knowledge and their skills, so that other schools can respond in similar ways. We're asking so much of our education system at the moment, and while we can share that good practice, it saves individual practitioners reinventing the wheel, and that peer-to-peer support is often seen as the most valuable. It's non-threatening, it doesn't question people's abilities, and therefore that peer-to-peer support often is the most appropriate way of driving change and driving improvement forward.

Education Standards in South Wales Central

6. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve education standards in South Wales Central throughout the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56087

Welsh Government has awarded local authorities in South Wales Central over £7.5 million grant funding to recruit, recover and raise standards. This will help schools in the local authority area to provide additional support to those children who are most disadvantaged, most vulnerable, and those that should be sitting external qualifications.

Thanks for that response. We have covered quite a few issues today related to remote learning. I know there is support for parents who are carrying out home teaching on the Hwb, which you mentioned earlier, which is good, and I also appreciate there is an issue of how much guidance the Welsh Government should provide. It is a bit of a balancing act, as you suggested in an earlier answer. David Melding just cited the good practice of Headlands School, and I think that's interesting, because I'm wondering, in the longer term, once we've emerged from the COVID crisis, if you see any positives arising from the experience of remote learning that we have gone through.

15:15

It is difficult to find silver linings at this most challenging of times, but there are indeed things that we need to learn. For some children who find the school environment challenging, additional new approaches to delivering education are being developed at this time and could be used to assist those individuals. I spoke to one young man in a school in north Wales who had been receiving his distance learning in the firebreak, and he said that he much preferred it to being in school, if for no other reason than he didn't have to suffer the hour-long journey that he has to suffer in the morning to travel to his place of education. I don’t wish to be flippant, but there are lessons that we can learn, and there is good practice that we can share.

David Melding just talked about the example of Headlands. I’m grateful to Ceredigion council, who have offered up the opportunity to support schools in other areas, because they have the experience of the E-sgol that has run for a number of years now, which delivers entire A-levels via a remote learning method to great success. I know that they are very keen to be able to spread their expertise that they have been able to acquire over recent years to be able to develop and support distance learning in other parts of Wales, for which I am grateful. It shows the collective effort that exists in the Welsh education system to do right by Wales’s children at this very challenging time.

Educational Standards in North Wales

7. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of ongoing school closures on educational standards in North Wales? OQ56079

Thank you very much, Mandy. COVID-19 has had a major impact on education, including necessitating the current move to online learning for the majority of our children. I commissioned Estyn to undertake a review of local authorities' and regional consortia's approaches to supporting learning and vulnerable learners during the pandemic, and that will be published later this week.

Minister, I've expressed my concerns about our young people previously, but I'm now being contacted by worried parents about the standard and consistency of the online learning that their children are receiving. Apart from what Llyr and Mark said earlier, the Welsh future generations commissioner has also said that a chief digital officer for education could be needed. Can you say what guidance schools have received about remote provision and what efforts are being made to ensure a consistent approach, so that it's not patchy and inconsistent, to ensure that kids in school A will get a comparable online education to the kids in school B? And will we be seeing a possible digital education officer in Wales any time soon?

We have got a chief digital officer for the Welsh Government, who, I understand, has been in correspondence with said commissioner around the approach that Wales is taking at this time. There is considerable guidance that has been published. That guidance is regularly updated to respond to the public health scenario that we find at this time. As I said, we also have additional guidance to support practitioners, not only from the Welsh Government but from Estyn and from the regional school improvement service. Perhaps more importantly than the guidance, there is practical support available, and in your region, I would commend the work that GwE has done to develop distance learning skills for our practitioners during the autumn term, which has been very well received.

3. Questions to the Senedd Commission

Item 3 on the agenda is questions to the Senedd Commission. All the questions this afternoon will be answered by the Llywydd. Question 1, Helen Mary Jones.

Engaging with Newly Enfranchised Voters

1. Will the Commission provide an update on plans to engage with newly enfranchised voters, particularly as schools and colleges have moved once again to online learning? OQ56092

Last year, education resources were co-produced with young people and education professionals. These were later adapted for home learning due to the COVID-19 restrictions and they are offered directly to schools through the Hwb platform. Since the beginning of the autumn term, our education team has been delivering virtual sessions to schools and colleges across Wales and they will continue to do so. 

15:20

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Thank you very much. I'm sure that all Members will be very much encouraged to hear that the work has been adapted and is continuing. Is there anything further that the Commission feels that individual Members of the Senedd might be able to do to help promote young people's understanding of their new rights to vote?

Well, to take all possible opportunities to do so, when you're either speaking directly on Zoom in any meeting with young people in your constituency, or whether you are on broader media. I had an opportunity on Heno on Monday evening on S4C to once again promote the new right that young people in Wales will have—those who are 16 and 17 years of age—to vote the Senedd elections. So, use social media, and use all possible media to promote the reality of the situation, namely that young people do have the vote here, and encourage as many of them as possible, first of all to ensure that they are registered to vote, and then to use their vote. I'm sure that there will be some party politics coming into that as we approach the election, but what is most important is that the people of Wales use their vote, but particularly those who are 16 and 17 years old, who will use it for the first time in the Senedd elections.

Llywydd, although we live in this abnormal environment, there is a tremendous opportunity that arises now from the online learning. It seems to me something more direct, which is actually using it also as a tool of engagement—not in terms of any form of political direction, but in terms of specifically identifying, among that 16 to 17 group, and promoting the right to vote, the right to registration, and making it part of it. It is a tool that could actually promote that. I wonder if you've thought about how that might occur. I know that it might involve engagement with the education Minister or whatever, but it seems to me that it's an opportunity not to be missed.

Well, certainly we are aware that our young people are the most digitally aware cohort of the population. Therefore, adapting how we promote the new rights that young people now have to vote as 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales—adapting that to digital platforms that they are very well used to, either in social media or in the educational platforms that they are using every day now, is something that we are doing. As I said in my answer to Helen Mary, we are already placing our resources that are available to schools and to young people on the Hwb platform and other platforms. So, I agree with the question as posed by Mick Antoniw, yes, that there are plenty of opportunities for us to do more in new ways with young people in promoting their democratic experience. But we do so in the—I think you used this term—abnormal context that we are in, Mick Antoniw, and we've just heard the challenges that that poses to our young people as well in the previous set of questions to the education Minister. So, there is a balance to be struck here, but exercising their democratic right in the next election is something that we are excited about, and we want to make sure that young people in Wales are informed of that new right and how to exercise it.

I really welcome the innovations that have been done for the provision online in these difficult circumstances, and I think that it's commendable. I just wonder whether we are missing a trick here for the future—although it's probably too late for this one. I wonder if I could ask your views on whether the Commission would be willing to explore a concept that I strongly support—which they do in other countries such as Sweden, and so on—where they actually use their resources to provide a proper, actual election going on in schools, contemporaneous with the election going on in wider society, for 14-year-olds, for 15-year-olds and so on, so that they are ready. I just wonder, in the future, would this be something that the Commission, and the expertise that it has at its fingertips, would be willing to explore—to take the lead role in doing this within our schools, to prepare young people for democratic engagement?  

Well, the mock election of 1983 at Lampeter Comprehensive School was the first election that I took part in, a long time ago, and that was very direct experience. I won't share with you now what political party I stood for at the time, but I've learnt the error of my ways since then. But just to say that the exact direct role of electing and elections in a context that the young people are familiar with, and relating that to the real world—we know that school councils and primary schools and many young people are involved in different democratic ways already. I think that you pose an interesting prospect of formalising that probably a bit more than it's currently done. As you've hinted, it's probably too late for this set of Senedd elections, but it's certainly, I think, something that we could look at into the future. I'd certainly be interested in asking the Commission of the future to look into that for future elections. By the way, I won the election in 1983 in Lampeter Comprehensive School.

15:25
Adapting Ways of Working

Thank you, Deputy Llywydd, and thank you, Llywydd, for that information, it was brilliant. 

2. What plans does the Commission have to adapt ways of working for Members, their staff and Commission staff using lessons learned from lockdowns ahead of the sixth Senedd? OQ56081

Thank you for the question. As a Commission, we have been learning lessons from new ways of working in response to the pandemic. This has enabled us to continue to support Senedd business, in virtual and hybrid forms, as well as the work of Members in the Senedd and in their constituency office. In the spring, the Commission meeting will evaluate our learning over the course of the fifth Senedd, particularly the past 12 months, and we will be using what we have learnt in preparation for the sixth Senedd.

Thank you for that answer. I'd like to pay tribute to all Commission staff and, indeed, all political support staff who have adapted so quickly and effectively to a completely different way of working. I really miss the vibrancy of the Senedd when it is operating as it used to. I miss the support staff there and all the other staff around, especially security—you could have a really, really good laugh with them, no matter what the weather was outside. However, we've now proved the concept that hybrid sessions work and are feasible, as is remote voting. Considering the benefits to be had in terms of carbon footprint reduction at the very least, does the Commission intend to make any adjustments to the conduct of its parliamentary business in the sixth Senedd term? Thank you.

Well, thank you for your gratitude expressed to the staff of the Commission, the staff of the political groups—everybody who has had to adapt their way of working—as well as the Members themselves, of course. I'm sitting here in Tŷ Hywel, the Senedd, today. I'm quite a lonely figure here—not many staff present. I'm here chairing and conducting the vote, and I look forward to welcoming you all back to make it a more vibrant atmosphere here, although I think we've achieved a great deal in being able to hold both the options of the Senedd in its Zoom form, as it's meeting today, and also its hybrid form, to enable us to reflect the reality of the regulations within which we are working.

There will be most definitely lessons to be learned and ways that we will do our work in different ways into the future. Both our committees and our Plenary will look at those lessons and that of our experience of using digital technology and virtual technology to enable us to work, not just in Cardiff Bay, but in every location in Wales. It will be a matter for the next Senedd and the Business Committee in advising that next Senedd how those new practices may well be adopted, but I think it's true to say that we have learned many lessons during this very difficult year that we've all experienced, and some of them will stand us in good stead for the future.

Engagement Teams

I think my question leads on nicely from my colleague Mandy Jones's question. I would like to endorse her grateful thanks to all our staff. I think it's been remarkable how everyone has adapted so well. 

3. What steps will be taken by the Commission to review the structures of and expenditure on its engagement teams in light of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56100

15:30

The pandemic has led to a dramatic change in the way the Commission delivers its engagement work. Where possible, we've moved activities online. This has meant establishing virtual tours, virtual engagement sessions, explaining the work of the Senedd, and moving our sessions for schools and youth groups also. Virtual seminars and tours were delivered to a more diverse audience than ever before, and we have noticed that the demographic of those who have engaged with our virtual offers are more representative of all sectors of society than was previously the case when we achieved face-to-face engagement. We are learning lessons in terms of best practice in order to continue after the pandemic to reach those who are more marginalised and disengaged with our national Senedd.

Diolch, Llywydd. I have been making some enquiries about the Commission's expenditure on engagement teams. Now, in 2019-20, £1.3 million was spent on staff for the visitor engagement, the customer relations, the visitor experience, and four other engagement teams that currently exist within the structure of the Senedd. Now, despite the pandemic, the forecast expenditure in November for 2020-21—following year—was yet again £1.3 million. Now, looking at the details of the figures, I'm amazed that the actual expenditure in 2020-21 on the visitor experience team has increased, the visitor engagement team has increased, and the community engagement team has increased by £17,000, and finally, the education and young engagement team by £36,000. Now, nobody appreciates more than me that some of these staff have been seconded. But I would be grateful if you could explain why the expenditure has increased on some engagement teams, especially given that the offer now has shifted completely from physical to virtual, and whether perhaps, going forward for the next Senedd term, you might look to restructure the actual seven engagement teams, to bring in some savings, hopefully. Thank you.

Thank you for the question. And of course, the first thing to say is that moving virtual is not necessarily a means of saving money; the designing of virtual experiences can be significant in its initial investment. And as you've alluded to, Janet Finch-Saunders, there are of course changes that have had to be made to the responsibilities of work, and many of the people who previously worked in face-to-face engagement have done, and you acknowledged that there has been a considerable programme of secondment to other areas of greater pressure within the Commission work.

The Commission, in its early days of the fifth Senedd, set out as one of its main priorities to refocus much of our work towards public engagement and ensure that the people of Wales were aware of as much of our activity as possible. I think we've made strides towards that. I think our committees, in particular, have made significant strides on that. You chair the Petitions Committee, Janet Finch-Saunders, and the engagement with our Petitions Committee, I would say, has been significantly increased in the last few years, leading up to the pandemic, and during the pandemic. And hopefully you've been able to see that some of the work that those people working in this area have done has proved to be successful in encouraging more people in Wales to interact with us as a Senedd. I wouldn't want to do less public engagement work in the next Senedd. I want the people of Wales to be more aware, not less aware, of what we're doing here on their behalf. But, as you say, Janet, as always, we need to do so with a view to the expenditure that's placed on that activity, and to ensure that we are always reaching for as best value for money as possible.

4. Topical Questions
5. 90-second Statements

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. A Llanelli bus driver, who is known as Mr Selfie, has set himself another challenge of posting a selfie every day this year to raise funds for the Welsh Air Ambulance. He's asking others to send him selfies to share to help spread the word. Keith held a similar challenge four years ago and raised £3,700 for Marie Curie. The original fundraiser was set up because this grandfather of seven was teased by his colleagues for his love of taking selfies. He has quite a name for this with his colleagues at First Cymru. Following the success of his year-long campaign, Keith was awarded Marie Curie's fundraiser of the year in 2017. Speaking on why he chose the air ambulance to raise funds for this time, he said:

'I believe the air ambulances are such a crucial addition to the emergency services. I have seen them in action when my stepson played rugby; they attended teammates of his on two occasions and were so fantastic at what they did. So many lives are saved because of the swift action of our medical services and the air ambulance is the ultimate enhancement of their incredible work.'

The former plumber had to have a change of career after ill-health made it impossible for him to continue in that profession. He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2008, which resulted in him being rushed into hospital and having major surgery to remove his bowel. He decided that it would be best for him to live with a stoma for the rest of his life, and since then he has dedicated his time to being the best bus driver he possibly can whilst raising awareness for people living with hidden disabilities and fundraising for a range of different charities along the way. His warmth and cheerfulness are an inspiration to all of us who know him, virtually or in real life, and it's much appreciated by his passengers. He has received several awards, including 'best driver' in the Wales transport awards, and a silver award in the UK bus awards in 2019. 

With the coronavirus epidemic, it's going to be a slightly different selfie challenge for Keith Thomas this year, but he has already raised £230 of his £1,000 target. It would be great if some other Members of the Senedd could get involved by sending Keith a selfie @keiththom2014 on Twitter, and encouraging others to take part. It's such a worthy cause, and such a very caring fundraiser. Diolch yn fawr. 

15:35
6. Debate on petitions concerning access to facilities for sport and physical activity during lockdowns

Thank you. Item 6 on the agenda is a debate on the petitions concerning access to facilities for sport and physical activity during lockdowns, and I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion, Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Motion NDM7543 Janet Finch-Saunders

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the following petitions concerning access to facilities for sport and physical activity during lockdowns:

a) Petition ‘P-05-1053 Keep gyms open and consider them as important as shops should another national lockdown take place’ which received 20,616 signatures;

b) Petition ‘P-05-1063 Open golf courses as it plays an integral part to the improvement of both physical and mental health’ which received 6,317 signatures; and

c) Petition ‘P-05-1074 Raise the number of people allowed in outdoor spaces so football can restart for all teams in Wales’ which received 5,330 signatures.

Motion moved.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Now, this debate is going to cover three large petitions referred to the Petitions Committee at the end of last year. The committee has asked for them to be debated together because they all concern the impact that lockdown, and other coronavirus restrictions have had on people's ability to be able to train and take part in sport and physical activities.

The first and largest petition concerns access to gyms. This is one of a number of petitions which have been submitted to the Senedd on this subject since the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to more than 20,000 signatures gathered by the petitioner, this serves to demonstrate the strong desire many people have for gyms to remain open due to the important benefits that they can bring to both physical and mental health. This petition, which was submitted by Michelle Adams, calls for gyms to be considered essential services, and as a result, for them to be able to remain open even during lockdowns. As Members will know, this is not currently the case, with gyms being required to close during the current lockdown, as well as during other previous national and local restrictions. 

In her evidence to our committee, the petitioner highlighted the impact of gym closures on the people who use them to attend classes, work on their physical fitness, and potentially, as a place to unwind or escape from other stresses in their lives. She also highlighted the financial cost of closures to our gym owners, personal trainers, and others who use them to make a living.

Now, a common question raised by people who have created petitions on this subject is the scientific evidence behind the closures. Many have expressed a view, often quoting statistics, that gyms have been linked to fewer proven transmissions of the virus than other venues even, such as shops, cafes and restaurants. Of course, the committee also notes that even if this is the case, it is only one of a number of factors guiding the Welsh Government's decisions. Nevertheless, I hope the Minister will be able to say something about this when responding to the debate. 

We also note that, under the alert levels published by the Government late last year, gyms, golf courses and other leisure facilities can now remain open at all levels except in level 4. I believe that this clarity is welcomed by many users and operators, though, of course, it comes as scant consolation at the present time with alert level 4 measures in place in all of Wales.

Now, the second petition we are discussing today concerns golf courses, and also stresses the benefits to both physical and mental well-being that golf can provide to people who play. This petition was submitted by Sam Evans, and received more than 6,300 signatures. Again, it is one of a number of petitions submitted to the Senedd on this particular subject throughout the pandemic. This petition argues that the outdoor nature and natural social distancing of golf mitigates against the case for closing golf courses. However, as with gyms, golf courses are required to close during level 4 restrictions, such as those currently enforced. 

A separate petition referred to the committee on this subject made the point that golf is a form of exercise and social interaction, enjoyed by many older people for whom other forms of outdoor exercise may just not be possible. This is potentially significant, given the impact that the pandemic has had on this group, including through shielding requirements and acute social isolation. More generally, whilst they are very different types of sporting activity, it is clear that playing golf can bring similar benefits to mental health and well-being as using the gym or participating in other sports. 

And I want to turn now to the position of team sports. The third petition being debated today relates to amateur football. It was created by Mark Morgans and signed by more than 5,300 people. However, I have no doubt that many of the points it makes would apply equally to other team sports and, in part, the committee has agreed to bring this petition forward on that basis. The position of team sports is potentially more complex than the other issues I have raised so far. They are played in a far wider variety of settings, from small stadia to local parks, and under rules overseen by a range of different governing bodies. And, of course, the virus transmission risk may be affected by other factors, such as whether the particular sport is played indoors or outdoors and the level of physical contact between participants and by the size of teams that compete. 

Team sports are also impacted by a number of the measures in place. However, the specific issue raised by this petition is the so-called 'rule of 30'—the number of participants allowed to take part in an outdoor organised activity. This petition was submitted prior to the introduction of level 4 restrictions, under which most organised activity is prohibited. However, at some point, and we all hope and pray, Wales will be in a position to return to a lower level of restrictions and the limit on 30 participants in outdoor activities or 15 for indoor activities will likely, once again, happen. So, the petition makes the point that this makes it difficult for competitive amateur matches to be held, given that it includes officials and staff as well as the players themselves. 

Now, the committee has recently considered evidence from the Football Association of Wales in relation to another petition. In this, they stated their support for an increase in the number of people permitted in organised outdoor sport, and proposed that the Welsh Government should consider increasing the limit to 50 people under alert level 2 restrictions in order to create a more staggered approach through these tiers.

Now, I recognise that this would not have an immediate effect and that level 2 restrictions currently seem somewhat distant. However, this may just be the type of positive message that could help more teams and their players to plan for a fuller resumption later in the spring and summer, when I'm sure we all hope that the darkest days of this pandemic will be behind us.

In concluding these opening remarks, Deputy Presiding Officer, I want to acknowledge that each of these petitions does raise different issues and they do relate to a different set of restrictions and circumstances. It is our intention, as a committee, that debating them together should enhance rather than diminish the significance of the issues raised. We believe that it simply amplifies the importance of sport and physical activity to the many people who participate in it and indeed those who observe. We look forward to the contributions today of other Members during the debate and I thank you all for the opportunity to discuss these important matters today. Diolch yn fawr. Thank you.

15:45

Thank you very much for introducing these petitions. I fully appreciate, because I've had lots of constituents contributing to the discussion before this debate about the way in which gyms can really be a lifesaver for some, literally as a way of overcoming, or working through, traumatic experiences. So, I completely acknowledge the important role of that sort of intense exercise to work through the tensions—both physical and mental tensions—that many people are having to overcome.

Whilst I would urge anybody who currently cannot use a gym, because we have to have them closed, to ensure they exercise outdoors while we cannot do that, I appreciate, however, that, for some people, to exercise outdoors, particularly in winter, would be very, very challenging, either because of their frailty or their physical disability, which prevents them walking very far. For example, if you're blind, walking or running outdoors can be very hazardous because of the pavement furniture that could actually cause them really serious injury if they're not doing it with somebody else.

And for many with a disability—maybe a back problem—swimming really is the best form of exercise. For example, for women in the late stages of pregnancy. Giving birth is not a sprint, it's a marathon, and the fitter you are the more prepared you are for this, the most wonderful, but most demanding physical, mental and emotional challenge they're ever likely to face. Unfortunately, the swimming pool in my constituency, Pentwyn Leisure Centre, has been closed since March and there's no end in sight at the moment as to when it may reopen, even though it's located in one of the most disadvantaged communities in the whole of Wales, in a super-output area of deprivation, where over half the residents have no access to a car and they certainly won't have had any other holiday or leisure experience beyond walking in the last 10 months.

Turning to golf, it doesn't have a great image, even before Donald Trump came on the scene, because it is very much the image of a sport that is only for the well endowed. But I appreciate that being in the outdoors and walking around a specific course is a fantastic outdoor opportunity, and it is very disappointing that we have had to close golf courses at the moment, because, whilst they were allowed to reopen, they did implement some serious messages in terms of one-way systems, booking in advance, and not allowing people to go into the club to socialise. So, once again, I hope that we will be able to reopen golf courses again in the future.

In terms of football, I'm afraid that the professionals in football do no favours to encouraging us to think that football is something that we can do safely, because we've all seen on the television the way in which footballers embrace each other every time they get a goal. So, this is absolutely not permitted at this time. But, nevertheless, it ought to be possible to very soon envisage ways in which we can reopen small-scale amateur clubs—five-a-side, seven-a-side young groups involved in that—and I very much hope that soon we'll be able to be sufficiently confident about the extent of this new variant to enable us to do that. But, for now, I completely support the Welsh Government's position that, at this very moment, with hospitals on the brink of collapsing, we cannot allow any additional activities such as these really excellent ones in and of themselves. So, I do look forward to the day when we can make all three of these activities a priority for reopening.

15:50

The benefits of physical activity to health and well-being are well known, and many will be well used to me highlighting these throughout both my terms of office, as a big advocate for all the physical and mental benefits that physical activity and sport brings. But its importance during this pandemic has increased dramatically, as a way for people, young and old, to cope during lockdowns. Physical activity is key and a critical way of managing mental health and well-being. Studies have shown that enforced sedentary behaviour has led to depressive feelings and low moods in healthy people. Taking consideration of the current situation, with enforced periods of lockdowns and isolation, this could potentially have, and is having, a huge impact on the mental health and well-being of many people, even more so if they do not engage in any form of physical activity.

This has been very noticeable in children who are used to more physical activity during and after their school day. My own son, who's 10, is sporty and partakes in many after-school activities, as well as thrives on doing the sport and physical activity during his school day. The physical benefits are obvious, but now too are the negative mental impacts of having these activities stripped away from him and other children. People may say, 'Well, walk outside near your home or something', but there's no substitute for the amount of exercise that they would normally have, due to parents working also during the day, at home or whatever, during daylight, and, in the current state of the time of year, it's dark when they finish work, and so physical activity is one of those things that will not be happening after school days now.

So, many people aren't getting the level of physical activity that they need, whilst screen time, as we're seeing, is increasing. And a walk with your household is no substitute for the much-needed social interaction that our children need, and adults. We all understand the severity and risk of COVID and the new strain, but the importance of sport and physical exercise cannot be overlooked, which is why we need a commitment from the Welsh Government that outdoor non-contact sport will be the first thing permitted when the COVID figures improve, as it is paramount for the health and well-being of many throughout our country, followed as quickly as possible by all outdoor sports and indoor sports and gyms. As we know, scientifically, the outdoor risk is so low—negligible, as you know, Minister—as it's no different to walking or cycling, which is permitted, which we can do currently from our homes.

As Wales has recently been moved into tier 4 restrictions, unfortunately, once again, children are not permitted to take part in organised sport activities—although we understand why—even if they are outdoor activities. This differs considerably from the position in England, where tier 4 areas—where outdoor sport activities for under-18s and people with disabilities are allowed to continue, despite the restrictions. Throughout the pandemic, the Welsh Government has distinguished between indoor and outdoor activities, and it may make sense to do so again with regard to children's activities now, as the UK Government has done with tier 4 areas in England. Whilst I remain hopeful that the Welsh Government will phase back the return of sport as soon as possible, may I ask that it does differentiate between outdoor and indoor activities, contact and non-contact sports, so that we can at least get some sporting activities back, if not all?

But, Welsh Government, please take into account how COVID-safe our clubs now are and the level of risk involved in starting them again. I have an enormous amount of sympathy for clubs that are losing so much money, and share their frustrations in many ways, which have already been highlighted today. In the current climate, I think many understand the Welsh Government's concern, and the concerns of us all, with this new COVID strain particularly, but there needs to be a balance struck between safety and other health concerns as soon as we are able to do so. Thank you.

15:55

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer; thank you for the opportunity to participate in this debate. I've raised a number of times in the virtual Chamber, and in correspondence with Government over the past few months, the need to do everything possible through the difficult days of the pandemic to ensure that people do receive support and encouragement to exercise, to access fresh air, not only because of the physical benefits, but also because of the benefits in terms of mental health and well-being too.

I'm very fortunate that I can exercise regularly from home, and do so with company. Since the beginning of the first lockdown, some five days a week, around 7 in the morning, my wife and I go running. It varies from around 2.5 miles to 6 miles, and both of us are entirely convinced that the fact that we've been able to do that, and to do that regularly, which has benefitted us physically—the fact that we're starting the day in such a positive way, even if it is dark, cold and wet—has helped us through this period. But not everybody can do that. There are all sorts of reasons why people need something else, something more structured, in terms of maintaining their physical fitness—reasons of access, as Jenny Rathbone mentioned. There may be specific reasons why people can't access the open air; there are reasons of isolation and loneliness. And losing gyms has been a grave blow to many people. Michelle Adams—the petitioner behind the petition on keeping gyms open—is a constituent of mine, a member of CrossFit Place in Gaerwen. And in addition to the owner, Phil Brown, I've heard from a number of members of that gym about their heartbreak—and that isn't an over statement—when the gym has had to close at various points during the past 12 months, in terms of camaraderie and physical and mental health and well-being.

Now, in a letter to the Minister for health back in the autumn I suggested that gyms should be allowed to make the case to open safely—let them demonstrate that they can do so. I know in CrossFit Place there is a huge roller shutter from floor to ceiling in order to ensure air circulation. There may be other gyms that can't put safe arrangements in place, but allow them to try. The attitude when it comes to physical exercise should be that it should be allowed if that is possible. And yes, there will be occasions where the case numbers are at their highest, as we are currently experiencing, or in certain areas where that is the case, where perhaps it won't be possible for any gym to be opened, but we are talking about dynamic risk assessments here in order to encourage that kind of physical exercise, and I would urge the Government to think in that way.

The same is true of the other petitions. Can you imagine a safer sport than golf? It's played in the open air, people can maintain great social distance. And we're not talking about opening the clubhouse here—although, at the moment, you can go to the clubhouse to access a takeaway, but you can't actually play golf in the open air.

And I've pursued the issue of team sports to be allowed and viewed over the past few months. I have a great love for football, which is the focus of this petition—rugby too. I've coached a number of youth teams over the years, and encouraging team sports is so important again to physical and mental health, but it's also important in a community sense. It's been very frustrating in Anglesey that the coastal rowing team hasn't been able to get out there to train over the past few months, and my appeal is the same: will the Government think of themselves as facilitators, as enablers, if you like? They need to think that what needs to be done is to encourage and allow physical activity wherever that is possible. I support the all-Wales restrictions that we currently have—things are moving in the right direction, hopefully, yes, but the situation is still very grave indeed—but whilst there are things that can't be considered as being necessary at the moment, encouraging physical fitness and mental health and well-being has to be a priority, so do everything that you can.

16:00

Can I say how much I strongly support the principles behind each one of these petitions? We're all aware of the very serious situation with the coronavirus at the moment, and I think everybody is aware that we can't do things that we would choose to do and we can't do and behave in the way that we might do so normally, and that is understandable. But we're also aware that, as the Government establishes restrictions and regulations, there are things that we are still able to do and things that are more restrictive, but even the most restrictive regulations that the Government have laid have recognised the place and the importance of physical recreation and physical exercise. At every time when we've been through a period of restrictions in Wales and elsewhere in not just the United Kingdom, but elsewhere around the world, every Government has recognised the importance of physical exercise, almost without exception, and that is an important principle, because we recognise, therefore, that physical exercise and sport are important to us wherever we may be.

Now, it may well be that I can, for example, walk around a lake, but the Festival Angling Club in Ebbw Vale, for example, would like to fish it as well, and it does seem to be a very curious example to use, in that I could potentially even jog around the lake, but I couldn't stop and fish there. I think there are areas where the regulations become difficult to sustain. Now, we understand that the overriding objective of policy has to be to suppress and eradicate the virus. There's no argument there. It's a matter of how we do that and how we protect people as we do that and when we're doing it.

I've used the example of Festival Angling Club in Ebbw Vale; I could use also the example of West Monmouthshire Golf Club in Nantyglo, one of the most beautiful locations for a golf club—I'm sure the Minister knows it very well. I've never played a round of golf there, I must admit; I've walked the golf course, and as you walk across the course, you can see from the Sugar Loaf across to the Brecon Beacons, across the whole of the Heads of the Valleys, a beautiful location and a place where you can exercise and do so safely. The committee of the golf club understand completely the need to ensure safety for people in doing so, and they've already put in place a number of measures to ensure that people are able to do that safely.

At the same time, we have the whole situation with gyms. I can think easily of a number of really well-run gyms here—here in Tredegar, but right across Blaenau Gwent and elsewhere. The gym I'm a member of here in Tredegar, Fresh Active, is exceptionally well run, where they've taken the highest possible precautions to ensure the safety of all of us who will use that facility, and that's important, not just important for physical health, but for the mental health of people as well. I'm particularly concerned, Minister, and I'd be grateful for your observations on this, about the mental health of young men, because I was talking to a constituent before Christmas in the Ebbw Fach valley, who was telling me that there are tens and perhaps even hundreds of young men who were profoundly affected by the closure of gyms as a consequence of our regulations.

The final point I'd make, Deputy Presiding Officer, is this: Laura Jones spoke about her 10-year-old son, well, I have a 10-year-old son as well, and I'm sure we are not alone in having the most effective lobbyist we've ever come across sitting opposite us every so often. And it is important—the petition talks about football, but as Rhun ap Iorwerth said, it could be rugby or any other team sport—that we're able to ensure that our children particularly, and I'm thinking particularly of age-group sports, are able to maintain that social contact. We spoke in education questions earlier about the importance of socialisation in terms of school and education. And, of course, my son, and I'm sure Laura's and other people's children as well, socialises not only in the classroom, but more so, really, essentially through sport and exercise. And I know the excitement that my son feels; he tells me at a very high volume on a Saturday morning when he's off to football practice. And it's an important part of who we are and, of course, that is setting the foundation for a lifetime of health and activity.

So, Minister, in responding to this debate, I don't think there's anybody arguing that change can come immediately and everybody, I think, understands the importance of eradicating and suppressing the virus today. But we also understand that we're going to travel along a road, a pathway, over the next few months, and I think what we are seeking to argue is that the beginning of the relaxation of these restrictions should be with those activities that can be conducted safely outdoors, largely, but not only, and those activities that contribute to the health and well-being of people in our communities. So, I hope that we will be able to recognise that gyms are essential to our fitness and our health and well-being; that whether it's fishing or golfing, we are able to do that safely in the future; and also then that the sporting life and sporting activities that drive health and fitness and well-being in a community are also able to restart right at the beginning of this process of relaxation. Thank you very much.

16:05

I wish to deal primarily with the first petition mentioned in this debate, which is on the closing of gyms. It is an undisputed fact that a person's overall health condition is one of the most important factors in their being able to deal with infections of all kinds, including COVID-19. We have been told for many years to keep fit and exercise in order to ward off ill health. It is an undeniable fact that the fitness centres and gyms contribute hugely to the general health of the nation. We're also constantly being told that our health service is under severe, if not critical, strain, yet here we have a facility that has a proven beneficial effect on health and therefore a considerable mitigating effect on the COVID virus for those who contract it, which should of course mean that they will have little or no need to use healthcare facilities, whether it be primary care services or our hospital facilities. This will, of course, have the effect of easing the pressure on all health services. One would have thought that the Government would have considered the very positive effects associated with gyms and exercise facilities before forcing them to shut down. Why is it that the Welsh Government seems to have ignored their own COVID infection figures, which show that gyms have just a 1.7 per cent contamination rate?

As for the other two petitions, golf would be one of the easiest sports to exercise Government guidelines with regard to distancing. And, if limited to two players per game, there would be almost no possibility of cross-transfer of the virus. Indeed, much less chance than in any supermarket.

With regard to the third petition, I believe that football and other field games are always well organised under the association rules, and therefore would almost certainly be safe environments for people to congregate. Again, we cannot overemphasise the value of physical fitness in making people far more resilient to the COVID virus and neither can we ignore the effect that physical well-being has on mental health. 

To conclude, Dirprwy Lywydd, it is hugely important that any restrictions are thought to be valid and proportionate by the population as a whole in order for them to be willing participants in lockdown measures. The restrictions mentioned in these petitions do not appear appropriate or, indeed, sensible, given that they have the potential to cause many more people to be seriously ill with COVID, rather than protect people from the consequences of contracting COVID-19. Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd.

16:10

It's certainly the case, isn't it, during the pandemic, that many people have come to have a fresh appreciation and understanding of the value of physical activity and sport? Yes, for physical health, but, as people have said, also for mental health, for just quality of life and enjoyment, and I've had very many e-mails from constituents particularly concerned about their children. Their children's activities outside school in terms of physical activity and sport are very important to them as families, very important to the growing experience that these young people have, and, yes, they do instil good habits for life when they get involved in football, tennis, cricket, gymnastics, dance or whatever it might be. So, it's very valuable indeed to keep good health and enjoyable pastimes throughout lifetimes.

Locally for me, there are so many grass-roots clubs in football, in rugby, in cricket, who run activities for the whole range of ages, from young tots right through to older people, and it's very valuable to all of them. Newport Cricket Club is a very good example where they have some really good girls' teams and a women's team that's been very successful. They've built their activities and their facilities over a period of time and, of course, it's really difficult for them now to have a hiatus and, in some respects, to even have a reversal of the progress that they've made over very many years.

I had, for example, in terms of athletics and young people, an e-mail from Wendy in respect of her daughter Anya Brady, who is a very talented junior middle-distance runner, and Anya absolutely loves to run at the Spytty stadium where the Newport Harriers Athletic Club operates. She loves the social side of it, meeting her friends, she loves the track, the floodlights and the facilities there, and, to her, it's very, very important indeed. What her mother said in an e-mail to me was that these are fit children who regularly exercise, they need to carry on exercising for their physical well-being, but also their mental well-being in these difficult times.

That reflects many e-mails and telephone calls that I've had from constituents since the spring of last year. I've been very, very impressed at the way many of these grass-roots clubs have taken great steps to make sure that they operate safely. They really have taken the guidance very seriously indeed and put their houses in order, as it were, and that's even more the case, I guess, for the more professional operations such as Newport Live. Newport Live is the leisure trust in Newport and they have some wonderful facilities, some of which they've made available for long-COVID rehabilitation, that being the Geraint Thomas velodrome, where in conjunction with the health board, they've provided their facilities to enable people struggling with long COVID to accelerate their rehabilitation process. That's a great example, I think, of what we need to see more of: very close collaboration between our health sector and our sport and physical activity operators.

Their facilities and classes have been so important to so many people through COVID-19. We know that 60 per cent of adults and two thirds of young people say that their mental health has suffered during the pandemic. We know that sport and physical activity have played a very valuable part in lessening depression and anxiety. So, I think one of the lessons—you know, we talk so often of building back better—one of the examples that we really need to draw from our experience during COVID-19 is the importance of sport and physical activity to physical and mental health. We need much closer collaboration and integration between our policies and strategies for health and for sports and recreation, and I think we've got an example of that locally in Newport between Newport Live and the health sector, not just around COVID-19, but far predating that, where I've been involved in many meetings to try and ensure closer working, better integration.

So, what I'd like to say in conclusion, Deputy Presiding Officer, is that I do think that when there is some leeway to relax the restrictions that we currently have, those sport and activity classes for our young people should be towards the head of that queue, and just behind that should be a much more general opening up of sport and leisure for all ages. I hope very much that the Welsh Government will give that plea and that call very serious consideration.

16:15