Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

17/03/2021

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

Good afternoon, and welcome 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, and those are noted on your agenda. And I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, of course.

1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd

The first item is questions to the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd, and the first question is from Mick Antoniw.

The Twenty-first Century Schools Programme

1. Will the Minister make a statement on additional funding allocated to the education portfolio to support the twenty-first century schools programme in Rhondda Cynon Taf? OQ56450

13:30

We are providing an additional £70 million to support delivery of the band B programme next year. This money will bring the total invested over the life of the twenty-first century schools programme to £3.7 billion, of which nearly £400 million will be invested in Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Minister, by the end of this year, and over the past 10 years, Rhondda Cynon Taf Labour council, with support from a Welsh Labour Government, has invested or committed nearly £0.75 billion in our local education infrastructure, building new schools, renovating buildings, providing our children with the most modern facilities anywhere in Wales and the UK. And what we can see developing is quite remarkable: a new £23 million school at Y Pant in Pontyclun; a new £43 million three to 19 community school in Tonyrefail; new schools at Penrhiwfer—£7.4 million; Llwyncrwn at Beddau—£3.5 million; investment in Coleg y Cymoedd; and new schools planned at Pontypridd High, Hawthorn; Bryn Celynnog 3G and running track—£1.3 million; and much, much more. Minister, already I can see the impact of these investments on our students, their morale, their confidence, and pride in their schools. Can you confirm that, in the next Senedd, a Welsh Labour Government will continue to invest in education and provide our students with the world-class educational facilities they deserve?

Yes, I will absolutely provide that reassurance and confidence to Mick Antoniw this afternoon. And just listing the investment that's gone into Rhondda Cynon Taf, I think, really shows the scale of the ambition that we've shown so far, but also gives an indication of the kind of investment that we would want to make in future. So, Welsh Government will continue to invest in the school estate through the twenty-first century schools and colleges programme. Of the £3.7 billion lifetime investment, £2.3 billion of this will be invested in band B over the coming years. And band B of the programme was, of course, launched in April 2019, with an indicative five-year delivery reporting period. And the investment of £2.3 billion is a combination of traditional capital and revenue under the mutual investment model. Its aim, of course, is to deliver 200 new build and major refurbishments across Wales, which I think sets out the level of ambition for the future and a really exciting period continuing in the years ahead.

Minister, I'm sure you'll be relieved to hear I'm not a candidate for the election, so I'll not read out my election address; I'll just move to an appropriate question. When large sums of money are given for public use, I think we need the maximum value for the Welsh pound. And here, I do commend RCT council for the way they've used some of these moneys to promote, through the schools programme, ecological habitat, the imaginative use of technologies, connectedness to other priorities like Welsh-language childcare settings in Welsh-medium primary schools, and also dual use of sports facilities so that they're also available to the community. And we do need to use our public expenditure in this way, to get the maximum value from them.

I absolutely couldn't agree more with David Melding on that point, because, of course, when we're investing in our school estate and our college estate, we're investing in the futures of those young people, which is absolutely the priority. But there are so many more benefits that we enjoy as well—for example, the investment that we're making in decarbonisation, in terms of supporting biodiversity, and all of that is very central to our approach. And the mutual investment model will be very important in the next steps of our school building programme here in Wales. And that model is very much focused on delivering those additional benefits—those community benefits—be they ambitious decarbonisation or biodiversity targets, or those other benefits, including ensuring that local communities are able to benefit from apprenticeship opportunities and learning opportunities. So, absolutely, this isn't just about the bricks and mortar; it's about everything that goes around that.

Newport West

2. What are the implications of the Welsh Government's 2021-22 final budget for Newport West? OQ56464

Newport City Council will see an increase of £12.8 million in its settlement, the largest increase in funding of any local authority, at 5.6 per cent. I've also announced today £1.5 million to drive forward an £11.9 million joint investment for the major renovation of the Newport transporter bridge. [Laughter.] I'm very excited about that, as you can see, Llywydd. Sorry, I was struggling to say it. 

13:35

Thank you for that answer, Minister. It's an incredibly challenging year, and it's good to see that Welsh Government have recognised the significant pressures on local government and, specifically, Newport City Council receiving the largest settlement in Wales. As a vice-president of the Friends of Newport Transporter Bridge, I'm genuinely delighted at today's announcement that Welsh Government will provide the shortfall in capital spending so that restoration work on Newport's treasured transporter bridge can begin. The plan to safeguard the bridge will create a new tourist centre to welcome visitors, and a visit to travel across the gondola, or walk across the top, is one of the must-visits here in Wales. It's been such a hard year for heritage and culture, but to see this commitment to one of Newport's and Wales's most iconic landmarks is a great step forward, and I'd like to pay tribute to all who have helped make this happen. 

Investment in our cultural and heritage sectors is so important and will be part of our economic recovery. Can the Minister assure me that the Welsh Government are committed to investing in finding creative ways to support projects like this for the benefit of local communities and to boost our tourism sector?

I very much share Jayne Bryant's enthusiasm for the announcement today, and also pay tribute to the work that she and John Griffiths have done jointly to ensure that this particular project stays very much at the top of the agenda. And it's great that we've been able to bring things across the line, because I think that the transporter bridge really does provide an opportunity to act as a gateway to south-east Wales, connecting south-east Wales with elsewhere, and symbolising both the region's heritage and culture, and the people, actually, who pioneered the development and the innovation as well. And it is, I know, part of a wider vision for Newport and a significant part of the city's plan to create more confidence and excitement around its heritage, and also to develop its leisure and tourism offer. So, the multimillion-pound makeover is forecast to attract more than 46,000 visitors each year, and I think that that will be fantastic both in terms of setting Newport on the map as a tourist destination, but also creating jobs and opportunities for the community. So, a great announcement today, and, of course, we do see culture and tourism very much at the heart of our recovery efforts as we move forward from COVID. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth. 

Thank you, Llywydd. Over the past few weeks, Welsh councils have been making very difficult decisions on the level of council tax for next year, at such a difficult time for so many of the people that they serve. Can the Minister tell me whether she believes council tax is fairer now than it was when she became Minister for finance in 2018?

Council tax is fairer than it's been across the period of devolution because of the sheer work that we've put into making the agenda more fair. I'll give some examples as to how we've achieved that. For example, we've ensured that young people leaving care are now exempt from paying council tax to the age of 25. We've ensured that the sanction of imprisonment has been removed for people who have been unable to pay their council tax. Clearly, being unable to pay your council tax does not make you a criminal; it means that you're in very difficult circumstances. We've worked with local government across Wales to develop a protocol that means that they will work with people who are unable to pay their council tax rather than go to court summons as a first step. So, we've made those steps. We've also ensured that we have the council tax reduction scheme in place, which is a much better scheme than that which is across the border, and it supports more than 220,000 households across Wales with their council tax bills. 

I appreciate the Minister's efforts to put a spin on things, but what I see there is an admission that we need so many mitigation steps in place because council tax is fundamentally unfair. And the right answer—if there is such a thing—is that council tax wasn't fair when she came to post, and it's still not fair today. Because of the impossible situation that councils find themselves in and the way in which council tax fits into the general squeeze on public expenditure, council tax bills will again go up by twice the rate of inflation and more again across Wales, varying from 2.65 per cent in Rhondda Cynon Taf to almost 7 per cent in Wrexham. I and Plaid Cymru have argued that this could and should have been avoided this year. Spending around £100 million of unallocated funds to freeze council tax at this difficult time would have been a valuable step in terms of helping people with the response to COVID. And I can't claim that it's a particularly innovative thing from me; the Scottish Government are doing this. Why did the Welsh Labour Government decide not to?

13:40

Well, the question that Rhun ap Iorwerth posed in his first question was, 'Is council tax fairer than it was when I came into post?' and the answer to that is, undeniably, yes, it is. The question he didn't ask me was, 'Is council tax fair?', because I would have answered that council tax is actually a regressive tax, and that's why we've been working very hard over the past couple of years to undertake a series of research projects in terms of reforming local government finance. I published the findings of that on 24 February, and that drew together all of the work that we've been doing across the past couple of years to explore reforms to council tax and, actually, non-domestic rates and the wider local government system. It considers alternative approaches to local revenue raising, such as land value tax and local income tax, as well as options for keeping and significantly improving the existing systems. It also sets out aspirations for how future funding systems should work, and those are systems that should be fairer and more progressive, strengthening local accountability and providing a sustainable footing for local services, and, of course, to be simple and to be understood. So, clearly, this isn't the end of the road in terms of making council tax fairer. We have set out research that will inform the next Government in terms of steps it might want to take, some of which are quite radical steps but nonetheless do provide, I think, a significant opportunity to improve the system. 

Thank you. There was no mention of the freezing of council tax there. We've made our views clear on that. That's a temporary step, of course, and we need to think carefully about how to reform local taxation for the longer term. It's not a politically easy thing to do, but we are talking here about tackling major inequalities, and, even with mitigation steps in place, we know that, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the poorest 10 per cent in society pay some 8 per cent of their income in council tax, the next 50 per cent of the population pay around 5 per cent of their income, and the wealthiest 40 per cent only pay around 2 per cent. Now, the Minister's said that they've been having discussions on this. Well, you've been in power since 1999. How has Labour Government after Labour Government been so willing to allow these inequalities to continue? 

Well, I set out in my first answer some of the steps that we have undertaken in order to make council tax fairer, and they are significant steps. The protocol, which we agreed with local authorities, has been very significant in ensuring that people get the support that they need should they be unable to pay their council tax or struggling with it. We worked with MoneySavingExpert.com to ensure that people who have conditions, which might include dementia, for example, are able to access support for council tax. So, we've done significant work to make council tax fairer over the course of this Senedd term.

And I know that Rhun ap Iorwerth recognises how significant and huge a task reforming local government finance is. It would take probably, potentially, a whole term in order to completely change the system were we to go down some of those more difficult avenues, which I've described and which we've explored, such as the land value tax, for example. That's a major undertaking. So, clearly, there are options for the future. I'm sure that parties will set out their views on how the future system should look. But none of these things are easy to do and all of them will require significant work over a long period of time.   

Diolch, Llywydd. This month's Wales fiscal analysis report on the implications for Wales and the Welsh budget of the UK budget 2021 states that the Welsh Government, 

'left £610 million of unallocated day-to-day spending in Final Budget plans. With additional consequentials from the UK Budget and changes to projected devolved revenues...this means the Welsh Government currently has approximately £1.3 billion to allocate at future supplementary budgets.'

However, your written statement on 10 March, announcing an additional £380 million of non-domestic rates relief for retail, leisure and hospitality businesses in 2021-22 directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic states that this,

'makes full use of the consequential funding for Wales resulting from the Chancellor's Budget on 3 March.'

How do you therefore explain this apparent difference and what consideration have you given to wider provision for businesses within a road map out of lockdown from the remaining carried-forward budget available to you?

13:45

I can explain that very easily, because the funding available to us next year includes both the funding that was announced in the UK Government's budget on 3 March and also the more than £600 million that we're able to carry forward into the next financial year from this year, because of the good budget management decisions that we have taken. So, across the border, you'll have seen the absolutely scandalous approach that UK Government has taken to contact tracing. Here in Wales, it's been a localised service delivered by health boards, by local authorities, getting value for money for the Welsh taxpayer and also ensuring that those workers are employed on good terms and conditions. And that has meant that our system has been much cheaper and is much more effective, I have to say, and also that money is able to be freed up for us to spend next year, giving local authorities the certainty that they need, and health the certainty that it needs, and, importantly, allowing me to earmark £200 million in reserves for business support.

I'm very happy to debate the comparative performance during the pandemic of Governments on health issues, but my question was about support for businesses and the apparent gap between your statement, that full use of the consequential funding for Wales had been made, when the figures from Wales Fiscal Analysis suggested that the figures were far greater.

After the Welsh Government issued revised grant eligibility criteria for self-catering businesses last April, Isle of Anglesey County Council's chief executive told me that the change in the guidance was designed to ensure that councils did not pay grants to people who had simply switched their property from the council tax register to business rates in order to avoid paying the council tax premium on second homes, and that the council is using the discretion allowed by the guidance to make sure that they pay genuine self-catering businesses and are not automatically disqualifying applications simply because the businesses could not show that the property generates at least 50 per cent of the owner's annual income.

When I previously wrote to you regarding eligibility, you also confirmed in writing that local authorities are not obligated to withhold payment, if they're otherwise satisfied that the application is from a legitimate self-catering business. However, a view has recently been expressed to me that local authorities should only use discretion on whether or not to award a grant where a self-catering business applicant falls just short of one of the three criteria, and they would expect local authorities to use their discretion only in such circumstances. For clarity, will you therefore confirm that both your original response to me and that of Anglesey's chief executive still stand?

The whole point of the discretionary fund is that it puts discretion in the hands of local authorities to be able to allocate grants to those businesses that haven't been able to access funding through the NDR business grant scheme. And it does give local authorities wide discretion to make those allocations to businesses that they think are important to the local community and that they feel have a genuine case to be made for financial support. It's not for the Welsh Government to direct local authorities as to how they exercise the discretion that we've given them within the fund.

No, precisely, and the question wasn't about directing local authorities; it's simply acknowledging that they have the discretion for them to exercise. So, thank you for confirming that.

In a question to you last month, I stated that although the Welsh Government initially allocated £6.3 million for the hospice emergency fund, this was less generous than equivalent funds in all other UK nations and fell significantly short of the total allocated to the Welsh Government in consequential funding from the UK Government support for hospices in England. However, our hospices and palliative community care sector has continued to provide vital care and essential services throughout the pandemic.

Hospices in Wales were facing a combined shortfall of £4.2 million by this month, but after I led the debate on palliative and end-of-life care here last month, the Welsh Government only announced £3 million extra to support them. Further, there was no indication in your draft budget for 2021-22 of continued support for hospices to maintain their essential services, despite their estimated combined shortfall of £6.1 million during 2021-22.

In response to a Labour MP last month, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury stated that the £249 million new UK Government funding for hospices generated £47 million in consequentials for the devolved administrations, including £15 million for the Welsh Government. Why, therefore, have you not allocated and even topped up the missing £5.7 million for hospices in Wales, both to respond to their urgent funding needs and to enable them to deliver more, thereby generating greater cost reductions for NHS Wales?

13:50

Well, Welsh Government receives consequentials from the UK Government on all areas of spend that fall within the devolved context, and I'll give you, as an example, the fact that the Welsh Government has distributed more funding to business than we've received as a result of consequential funding from the UK Government.

I'm demonstrating to Mark Isherwood that we are not a post box for consequential funding from the UK Government. The consequential funding comes in a block of funding that we are then able to allocate as per the needs here in Wales.

Now, the funding that we allocated to hospices here in Wales was on the basis that we had discussions with the hospice sector to understand the financial need that they identified, and the pot of funding was allocated accordingly. And those are the discussions that my colleague the health Minister's department were having with the hospice sector here in Wales. And, of course, our hospice sector here in Wales is smaller than the sector across the border. So, it's not the case that every penny of consequential funding we receive goes to exactly the same spending area.

Now, if it is the case that hospices are telling you that the funding that they receive isn't meeting the needs, then obviously we would want to have those discussions with the hospice sector, and I'm sure that my colleague the health Minister will pick that up with the sector, to understand their needs for the next financial year. But, as I say, the funding package that we did put in place for the sector was done so in discussion and consultation with the sector.

The Nil Rate Band of Land Transaction Tax

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the phasing out of the nil rate band of land transaction tax on residential property transactions up to £250,000? OQ56456

Yes. The land transaction tax temporary reduction period has been extended to 30 June to help those taxpayers who may have encountered delays in completing their home purchases before 1 April. From 1 July, the standard rates of land transaction tax will apply.

I refer to phasing out, but, unlike what the UK Government is doing in England and Northern Ireland, we don't have any taper in Wales. Why has the Minister made that decision, and why does she consider it right that people buying houses between £180,000 and £250,000 in Wales should pay 3.5 per cent on that part of the transaction, when those same purchases would be nil rated in England or Northern Ireland?

Well, we have a different housing market here in Wales, and we've shown that, actually, in terms of transactions and revenues from land transaction tax, the market is much more buoyant here than it is across the border. The increase in the zero-rate band for those paying the main residential rates to £250,000 from £180,000 will, as I say, come to an end in July. But, even then, we will still have the most generous and progressive form of support for house buyers, which isn't, of course, limited to first-time house buyers here in Wales either. We took those decisions because the housing market is different here in Wales, and we've reflected that within the decisions that we've taken. House prices in England are very different, so that means, on average, the benefit can be up to, or increasing up to or above £12,000, whereas here the maximum is £2,500. So, I think that the kind of scale of the challenge in terms of house prices is very different.

13:55

Thanks for that answer, Minister. I think Mark Reckless has raised a very good point in terms of how we get the housing market going in Wales. I hear what you're saying about the housing market being different here from across the border, but nonetheless it still needs that stimulus that the UK Government are seeking to do by applying the nil rate band until the end of 2021. Can I ask you, Minister, that you look at this again and keep it under review and act on the evidence? Because I am concerned that, certainly in some parts of Wales, this policy may have more of a negative impact than in others, and I do think that there is a case for extending relief as long as possible until the economy gets back on its feet.

Well, all of these rates and bands across the Welsh taxes are kept constantly under review. The extension of the LTT reduction is expected to benefit around 4,000 additional homebuyers here in Wales, and up to and including January, around 10,000 homebuyers have already benefited from the temporary reduction that I announced last year. So, a significant number of households have already benefited from it, and actually only around a quarter of house buyers at the moment are actually paying any land transaction tax as a result of the decisions taken last year in this respect. But, as I say, when the normal—if you like—rates do return, we will still have a relatively generous situation here in Wales.

The Financial Services Sector

4. What consideration did the Minister give to the financial services sector in Wales when allocating the 2021-22 final budget? OQ56431

Over £14 million has been allocated to 870 businesses within the financial and professional service sectors from the economic resilience fund during 2020-21. We are also investing £270 million in the Development Bank of Wales to support businesses, and will continue to work with all sectors to consider what support is needed into 2021-22.

Well, Purple Shoots is a charity that helps people in Wales who can't otherwise access the affordable finance they need to start a business. They also work with self-reliant groups, creating opportunities for people furthest from employment or work. They're supporting or have supported many hundreds of small businesses right across Wales. However, they advise that although just £2 million of the hundreds of millions provided to the Development Bank of Wales would keep them lending for six years and create more than 1,500 jobs and 1,300 businesses, that funding excludes completely the client group they work with. What, if any, plans do you therefore have to make funds available for these brave, budding entrepreneurs, otherwise trapped at the starting line, where, as Purple Shoots say, 'It is so frustrating because we've seen such incredible courage, resilience and entrepreneurial thinking amongst our clients; they've kept going in the face of incredible hardship, many with no help at all, apart from the repayment holiday'?

Well, without knowing any more than you've described about the Purple Shoots, I would suggest that a potential avenue to look at would be the Wales flexible investment fund, which is designed to invest and generate new money, including in financial and professional services investment. And that fund has been extended in value to £0.5 billion, with a further injection of £270 million, giving the fund the firepower to maintain investment over the next 10 years. So, in the first instance, I would suggest that Purple Shoots explores that. However, if you were to share with me the contact details of the organisation, then I would be very happy to ask a representative from Business Wales to explore their needs in more depth.

Budget Priorities in Pembrokeshire

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s budget priorities for 2021-2022 in Pembrokeshire? OQ56433

Yes. Our priorities are to provide certainty for our public services, help rebuild a greener economy and to make changes for a fairer, more equal Wales. This includes an increased settlement of £179.4 million for Pembrokeshire County Council and £48.7 million towards a new 11-to-19 secondary school building for Haverfordwest high.

14:00

Thank you for that response. Minister, it is vital that the Welsh Government prioritises its resources to support lives and livelihoods during the COVID pandemic. I've received representations from local businesses and individuals in Pembrokeshire who have slipped through the net in terms of accessing Government support, despite, of course, the funds that you've just said that you've allocated to Pembrokeshire. It is vital that funds designated to support our businesses actually reach those businesses that require support. So, Minister, what processes have you undertaken in your role as finance Minister to monitor the effectiveness of Government spend during the pandemic, and what assurances can you offer the people of Pembrokeshire that the Welsh Government is ensuring that its support reaches those that actually need it?

The Welsh Government put in place some formal evaluation processes, particularly of the non-domestic rates grant support, to ensure that the funding was reaching those businesses that we intended for it to reach, and we've been keen to ensure that we have those monitoring and evaluation points built into our projects. Since the start of the pandemic, businesses in Pembrokeshire have received over £91 million from the economic resilience fund, and our other restriction-based funds. For example, our latest restrictions-based fund has seen 4,380 grants paid to businesses in Pembrokeshire, worth £14.1 million. We've also provided 628 businesses with £10.1 million of support under phases 1 and 2 of the ERF, and that's safeguarded in Pembrokeshire alone 4,585 jobs, which I think is a tremendous achievement in very difficult times. And, of course, through the loan scheme, then, through the DBW, we've provided over £5.4 million to 80 businesses in Pembrokeshire, helping to safeguard a further 915 jobs. So, there certainly is significant funding going into Pembrokeshire, but, again, there will be businesses that we have not yet been able to reach, and I'm always interested and keen to understand where those gaps in provision are. If there is further information that you can share with me about specific businesses, I'd be very interested to receive that.

The Levelling-up Fund

7. What discussions has the Minister held with the UK Government about the levelling-up fund? OQ56458

Last week, ministerial colleagues and I met with the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, where they reiterated their intent to run a competitive fund from Westminster, contrary to what was announced in the November spending review.

It's astonishing, isn't it? The levelling-up fund is a direct affront to Wales's devolution settlement, Minister, I'm sure you'll agree, and it circumvents our democratic institutions. Not only is the Senedd excluded from decisions that will be taken in Whitehall, but the fund ties the success of community projects to representation made by MPs in Westminster, even as the UK Government cuts the number of Welsh MPs by a fifth. Surely, decisions made for Wales should be made in Wales. Given that England's Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be overseeing the scheme, what assurances have you received that they will be able to assess accurately Welsh bids, given their complete lack of expertise in devolved areas?

I have absolutely no confidence that the MHCLG department in the UK Government will do a good job of this. I take that view because of the record upon which they stand. The UK Parliament's Public Accounts Committee has released its report on the towns fund in England and found a lack of transparency and accusations of political bias in the selection process, lack of consistent or transparent stakeholder engagement, a lack of capacity at local level to effectively implement those proposals and a potential risk to the civil service's reputation for integrity and impartiality. Under any other Government, that would be absolutely shocking, but this just seems to be run-of-the-mill and accepted behaviour. So, I don't have trust that the UK Government will be able to deliver for Wales.

We've only just seen the criteria upon which the levelling-up fund will work, and we have some real concerns about that in terms of the selection methodologies for the fund. The choice of indicators really does omit things that are important to us here in Wales. They don't look at indices of deprivation, for example, and they're not interested in looking at transport data. All of those things will only serve to disadvantage Wales when we are compared to other regions in terms of the bids that are being made to that fund. So, all we have, I think, at the moment, unfortunately, are reasons to be concerned, rather than optimistic. 

14:05
Barnett Consequentials

8. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the 2021 UK Government budget and the likely impact of its Barnett consequentials on the Caerphilly constituency? OQ56459

While the additional £735 million revenue is welcome, the majority is time-limited COVID funding and doesn't make up for a decade of austerity. In stark contrast to the £224.5 million capital boost we recently announced, benefiting all parts of Wales including Caerphilly, the UK Government failed to provide any extra capital.

One query I've been getting is about the restart grants that the UK Government announced in its recent budget, as businesses are keen to know if they'll apply in Wales or if something similar will be introduced. Also, those non-essential retail and hospitality businesses that still can't trade but can't claim the additional NDR-linked grant support announced last week as they don't have their own premises are also keen to know if any further discretionary grants are going to be announced. I've had several contacts about that in the last hour or two. Will the Minister therefore discuss this with her colleague the Minister for transport and the economy, but also ensure that every last bit of available business support is accessible to those businesses, and particularly those that don't pay NDR?

Yes, I'll definitely be having some further discussions with my colleague the Minister for economy and transport. I can say that, in the next financial year, we've already earmarked £200 million of funding for businesses here in Wales. We're still having some discussions with the UK Government because, in terms of the restart grant, all they've announced thus far is the fact it will be in the next financial year, and they've announced the name of the scheme. We don't actually know any of the details that sit under that, so it's very hard at the moment for businesses in Wales to make that comparison, as I know that they would want to do. But for our part, we absolutely commit to continuing to support businesses through this difficult time, having earmarked, as I said, £200 million already for the next financial year. And we look forward to receiving further information about what the UK Government's plans are to consider the packages of support on offer there. But, as I said, I will be having some further discussions with my colleague Ken Skates in order to ensure that we leave this end of term in good shape in terms of giving businesses the confidence that they need. 

Non-domestic Rates

9. Will the Minister confirm how much the Welsh Government has raised in revenue since 2016 through non-domestic rates? OQ56445

Between April 2016 and March 2020, £4.2 billion has been collected in non-domestic rates revenue. Over the same period, the Welsh Government has provided £900 million for rates relief schemes. All the revenue from non-domestic rates in Wales is distributed to local authorities to fund local services in Wales. 

Diolch. Thanks for those answers, Minister. According to the Welsh Retail Consortium, the industry has been losing £100 million in revenue every week during the lockdown. I'm sure you'd agree with me that we cannot underestimate the enormity of the economic hardship that this has caused small businesses—people who've spent a lifetime building up their enterprises, employing local staff and being a big part of local supply chains. In terms of building back better and delivering a strong economic recovery, will you look at the whole non-domestic rates situation and specifically look at whether you could scrap the business rates for small businesses, taking that burden off some of the smallest businesses in our economy, giving them more money to invest in the future, invest in staff and help the process of building back better?

Thank you for raising that issue. I think there are several important things there, including our immediate response in terms of non-domestic rates. You'll be aware that I've frozen the multiplier for next year, and that of course gives small businesses a boost. And also, of course, I've provided the 100 per cent rates relief for retail, leisure and hospitality businesses for next year, and that support in itself provides over £360 million of relief to ratepayers across Wales. Of course, we have taken out of that the large supermarkets, because clearly they don't need that kind of support at this time. We do have a permanent package of rate relief of over £239 million a year and over half of that goes towards the small business rate relief scheme, reducing bills to zero for ratepayers occupying properties with a rateable value of up to £6,000, and on a tapered basis then to £12,000. That is a generous package and a large percentage of businesses benefit from that by paying no rates at all. But as I was describing in my answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth earlier on this afternoon, the Welsh Government has undertaken a major series of research endeavours and commissioned research to ensure that we do have the information that we need to really think properly about the future of local finance. We're looking at non-domestic rates and council tax and what the future should be for both of those in order to ensure that as we move forward, the system is as progressive as possible and to ensure that it does continue, of course, to bring in funding for the Welsh Government to provide local services, but to do so in a way that is progressive and fair.

14:10
Changes to Taxation Policy

10. Will the Minister provide an update on changes to the Welsh Government's taxation policy to support businesses in light of the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56462

We have taken a series of tax measures to support businesses in Wales during this pandemic. These have included providing NDR relief, freezing the NDR multiplier and raising the threshold at which non-residential property transactions are subject to land transaction tax.  

Diolch, Minister. The Welsh Government in its final budget stated it will set aside a further £200 million for businesses from its own reserves. This is additional again to the previous Wales-only additional spend made from its own budget, and further cements Wales as providing the best package of business support in the whole of the UK. What representations therefore has the Welsh Government made to the Tory Chancellor in Westminster to enable the Welsh Government to have the flexibility in the future to continue to help support Welsh business?

We've been making arguments to the UK Government in respect of further flexibilities for the Welsh Government for some time, and I've been really grateful for Rhianon Passmore's support for the work that we've been doing in that area. I know it's something that her colleagues on the Finance Committee are particularly interested in supporting as well. I think that this year has taught us that financial flexibility is so important, both in terms of being able to target our resources effectively, but also to manage our in-year position in a year that has seen so much change. It's important I think that in future, the Welsh Government does have access to its full reserve. It's a small reserve in many ways, but actually having greater flexibility to access more of that would, I think, be useful for a future Government, as would the ability to borrow more in one year and borrow more in the aggregate. Especially now, that will be important, given the very, very poor capital settlement that we've had from the UK Government and also the UK Government's intent to bypass the Welsh Government now in terms of capital spend via the levelling-up fund.

Allocating Expenditure within Portfolios

11. What steps will you take to monitor the assessments undertaken by ministerial colleagues when allocating expenditure within their portfolios? OQ56442

It's the responsibility of all Ministers to take into account a range of factors, including impact assessments and value for money considerations, in setting detailed spending plans. These plans are monitored through the year as part of our in-year reporting process.

I'd be interested to know, Minister, what steps you take to monitor the expenditure by individual Ministers when you are looking at specific sectors that you wish to develop within Wales. For example, if Wales was to decide to try to become a science superpower, which is where I think we should be heading, and you wanted to put far more investment into research and development, into supporting our thriving research and innovation centres within our universities and within our medical establishments, how would you then tie that back to that principle by ensuring that Ministers that may be involved in that—e.g. health, education—do afford the right sums of money to help support that governmental goal? 

We do this in a number of ways, which are often underpinned by the ministerial sub-committees that we've set up. So, some of them are formal sub-committees of Cabinet and others are committees that are not formally created via Cabinet, but nonetheless operate in an important way. An example would be the work that we're doing on the inter-ministerial group that looks at digital and data—that clearly is a cross-Government agenda, and it's important that all Ministers are bringing to the table what they need to to develop that, to make sure that Wales puts itself on the map in terms of being a destination for digital skills, and also to use all of the investment that we are putting into digital in a way that delivers transformation for public services. So, I think that those structures that we have in place are really important, and from a financial perspective then it allows me to ensure that we create the right funding opportunities.

Within digital, we've worked across Government to pool budgets from different parts of Government to ensure that all Ministers are working to deliver that important agenda. We have similar work now going on in the recently—I say 'recently'; it's a year now—the recently developed land division. So, that's something that I chair, but it looks at all of the land held by Ministers in different portfolios across Government to ensure that we're maximising those for the shared purposes that we have. We have a particularly strong focus at the moment on releasing land for social housing, so we're looking particularly at land that sits in the economy department, what land there is suitable for social housing, and how can we best go about releasing that and building on that land.

So, there are ways in which we're working across Government in a number of areas. Those are two, decarbonisation would be another, and the work that we're doing across Government on support for renewable energy as well is something that really benefits from that structure that we've put in place to enable those cross-ministerial discussions, but also joint work in terms of budget, as well.

14:15
Mental Health

12. What consideration does the Minister give to mental health when allocating funding to the mental health, wellbeing and Welsh language portfolio? OQ56461

During the pandemic, we've invested an extra £9.9 million to support mental health services. Building on this, we're investing an additional £42 million in mental health next year. This makes our total spending on mental health more than £780 million in 2021-22.

Thank you for that reply. Obviously, during the pandemic and before that, we know that mental health services have been squeezed and have often in the past been seen as cinderella services, but I know elements of that have changed, as you've exemplified in your answer to me today. But I've done a lot with eating disorders over the years, and obviously the service review recommendations will require significant investment, and I've also in the last year or so been doing work on maternal mental health. Some of the changes there will need significant investment. What would you say to a future Government in relation to the allocation of funds for these most important areas of development?

In our discussions when we were developing the budget for 2021-22, we were very clear very early on that health had to remain a priority for the Welsh Government in terms of our investment, and that's why we've provided significant additional funding for the core health budget for the next financial year. Now, clearly there will be opportunities for a future Minister to look at prioritising in areas such as those that you've described. I've been very clear and very careful to ensure that our core funding for the NHS is able to do its day-to-day work, and is separate from our additional funding for COVID response. That really is to ensure that those things such as eating disorders, which are important parts of our response, aren't lost in our COVID response, which is clearly at the forefront of many minds at the moment. So, it's important that a future Government does have that clarity between COVID response, and the work that we just have to keep doing. That applies to the eating disorders work, but of course goes on across cancer, diabetes and all of the other important areas of spend as well.

Thank you, Minister.

Excellent work—all your questions answered in your final questions session in this Senedd. Over to you now, Minister for Education—see if you can keep to that record. 

2. Questions to the Minister for Education

Questions, then, to the Minister for Education.

The first question, Jayne Bryant.

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

The Mental Well-being of Teachers

1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support the mental wellbeing of teachers? OQ56460

Welsh Government continues to work with stakeholders to ensure support is available for teachers around Wales during this pandemic. This includes funding a tailored package of mental health and well-being support services for teachers and support staff, and providing additional funding to increase capacity in schools across Wales.

14:20

Thank you very much for that answer, Minister. The education sector has faced the most disruptive year in a lifetime, and time and time again teachers and senior leadership teams have been required to totally transform how they operate: online learning, virtual lessons, year group bubbles, key worker provision, exam grading, mass testing, monitoring well-being and adapting buildings. They've done all that they've done, and they've done that and more on top of their own personal situations. Some who have been doing online classes have also juggled that with home schooling their own children. The education workforce have been outstanding, but we cannot forget the impact on their own health and well-being. What further measures can the Welsh Government take to ensure that teachers and staff feel supported in their jobs over the coming months ahead, and what support is available for them to ensure that their own mental well-being is paramount? 

Thank you, Jayne, for recognising the tremendous effort of the education workforce throughout the pandemic. They have shown real innovation and resilience in the most difficult of times, and it is important that we recognise that we need to support them in their mental health and well-being. That's why we have engaged with Education Support, a charity organisation with expertise in supporting the well-being of teachers to deliver a programme of support during this academic year. That has included online facilitation of peer-to-peer support for headteachers, one-to-one support for headteachers delivered by counsellors, a dedicated schools and well-being service being set up, free online learning modules for staff themselves. And, indeed, this very evening there is an online webinar which over 400 education staff have signed up to in preparation for ensuring that they can enjoy their Easter break. I'd also like to commend the work of the National Academy for Education Leadership Wales that run weekly sessions that allow groups of two to three headteachers to provide peer-to-peer support, and to discuss the challenges that they're facing in a safe and secure environment.  

Jayne Bryant has raised a really important issue. Minister, in November, academics at Cardiff and Swansea universities published the results of a joint survey. They spoke to around 13,000 people; half of those were identifying with some degree of mental health issues, and 20 per cent said they were severely affected. This was particularly relevant to younger people and women and, of course, both of those groups are to be found within our primary school sector where there is a higher number of women involved there as teachers. What discussions have you had with the education system, with the trade unions about ways that these mental health issues can be addressed in future? In terms of recruitment, has any assessment been made about the potential effect on recruitment, because it strikes me that as we come out of the pandemic, the last thing we want is there to be a negative impact on recruitment into our primary schools? 

Thank you, Nick, for that question. My officials have weekly conversations with the trade unions, discussing a wide range of issues and, clearly, the well-being of school and support staff features strongly. The Welsh Government has had very positive feedback from the services that the Education Support charity has been able to put in place this year, and we will continue to reflect on what more we can do to support the profession throughout the pandemic, and the period following.

With regard to recruitment, what I can say, Nick, is that we have seen this year very strong recruitment to our initial teacher education programmes. I think the spotlight that has been put on the importance of education, and the crucial role that educators play in the life of children and young people and, indeed, supporting communities, has inspired very many people to think about a career in teaching, and I'm very pleased to see that. 

Welsh-Medium Services for School Governors

2. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh-medium services for school governors in Wales? OQ56437

Governing bodies have an essential role in improving school performance. Local authorities provide direct support to governors through their governor support services. Under Welsh language standards, all information, advice and guidance provided by the Welsh Government to local authorities is provided bilingually. Local authorities are under the same standard duties.

14:25

I'm a governor here in Denbighshire and as is required and reasonable for me to do, as with everyone else, I need a DBS check every now and again to ensure that I am a fit and proper person to be a governor. Now, I was invited for a DBS check recently and it was undertaken online, but if I want to do that through the medium of Welsh I have to ask for a paper form. Although I am a Welsh speaker, a governor in a Welsh-medium school where the governing body holds all of its meetings and administration through the medium of Welsh, I have to settle for a second-rate process. Now, there is discrimination on a linguistic basis here and I understand, too, that online applications usually take less than a week to process, but if done on paper it can take a month to six weeks. So, do you think that this kind of discrimination on the basis of language is acceptable, and if you don't, then my question is what will you and the Government do to try and put that right?

Well, firstly, Llyr, can I thank you for serving as a governor? They are important roles and I would encourage everybody that is interested in education to think about how they can help our children and young people by doing what you do and serving in the role of governor. Clearly, the situation that you have just described is not acceptable. I'm grateful to you for bringing it to my attention, and I shall raise it with the necessary authorities to ensure that there is equality in the service that is offered to people who have taken the time and trouble to put themselves forward to undertake this important role. Diolch yn fawr.

Minister, I'm pleased to hear that you have thanked everyone who has given of their time and skills to become governors in our schools, and their jobs are about to become more burdensome under the new curriculum, and more similar to the role of trustees or non-executive directors of businesses or charities. Certainly, their relationships with local communities will have to be more open, too, because of the curriculum. How will you ensure that governors receive all the training they need, and what measures are you putting in place to help learners and their families to hold governors to account?

Well, thank you for that, Suzy. Can I assure you that that training is already being delivered? For instance, even in the midst of the pandemic, GwE, our regional support service in north Wales, is already delivering a comprehensive programme of governor training in anticipation not only of curriculum reform but also ALN reform, and that is a programme of work that is being replicated across Wales. It is absolutely important that governors have the skills necessary to provide that supportive challenge to headteachers and to be able to play a full part in developing new curricula within their schools. You're right; this gives us a new opportunity to be able to explain to parents in the roll-out of the new curriculum the important role that governors will have and how parents themselves can influence that process, and indeed to encourage other parents to take up roles as governors, not just in the slot that is reserved for parents, but actually looking at ways in which they too can contribute, either to their own children's school or to other schools in their area.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

We now turn to spokesperson's questions, and the first up this afternoon is the Conservative spokesperson, Suzy Davies.

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. Well, here we are, Minister—our last spokesperson session together. Dirprwy Lywydd, I hope we will get a chance—. I mean, I'm going to get a chance to thank other Members in this portfolio next week, but I hope you will allow me just a few words at the end for the Minister when we get to my third question.

But I'll start with asking about this, which is that the Education Workforce Council has confirmed that registrations with them are down by 1,000 on last year. Many Members have been contacted by supply teachers, saying how difficult it's been for them to get work this year, yet your Recruit, Recover and Raise Standards programme has apparently found 1,800 new members of staff to help deliver on its intention. That's twice as many as you'd budgeted for, and especially impressive considering you've only spent £17 million this year of the £20 million you'd earmarked for this. If the number of registered staff has dropped, who are these 1,800 new members of staff, and how can you afford them for £17 million? Why is it only in the last 10 days that you've been able to reverse the position of providing only half the catch-up money for Welsh pupils that their peers in other parts of the UK have benefited from throughout the year?

14:30

Well, Deputy Presiding Officer, the Member tried to lull me into a false sense of security, I think, before asking that question. If I had any hopes that she would spare me in this last session, they've been cruelly dashed by that question. Can I just say that the success of the RRRS programme is something to be celebrated? I think it is fair to say that we had initially anticipated that we would have more qualified teachers recruited under the system, but, actually, schools have been given the freedom to recruit professionals as they see fit, and many schools have decided to recruit teaching support staff rather than qualified teacher status staff. Some schools have used the resource to offset redundancies that had been planned and were being taken through the system, and they've been able to retain additional staff that would have been lost to them. In some schools, they've been able to up individuals' hours. So, somebody perhaps that was employed on a part-time contract, the school has felt it was appropriate, because of their familiarity with the school—rather than bringing in additional members of staff, they were happy to increase hours of part-time members of staff. So, the programme has been utilised in a number of ways. Some schools have looked outside traditional staffing roles, and, for instance, have recruited youth worker mentors and those skilled in child well-being and mental health. With regard to additional funding, I am delighted that we have been able to secure additional funds to support the RRRS programme. And I would say to the Member that those funds that we've been able to secure go above and beyond the Barnett consequential that her colleagues in Westminster saw fit to give us.

Thank you for that answer. So, what we're talking about here, then, is 1,800 equivalents of teachers, rather than new members of staff. I'm grateful for the clarification. But there's still no doubt at all that we need more teachers, and so I was pleased to have it confirmed that teachers from anywhere in the world will be permitted to apply to teach in Wales now. Newly qualified teachers will need particular support—I know we're going to have new ones, but they will need new support, of course, because of limited classroom experience, and all teachers will need to find time to acquire the knowledge and skills to design and teach the new curriculum. None of the NQT targets, apart from physical education, I think, have been met, and they still won't be, despite the new interest shown in teaching careers during COVID that you alluded to earlier. Do you think that might be because the degree, or the degree plus a PGCE, and of course now the Master's option route to teaching, is squeezing out talent, because the process is too long and too expensive, and maybe still values theory over life experience a bit much? And is part of potential applicants' worry that, despite the shortages that we've just been speaking about, schools won't have enough money to employ them and pay them properly?

Well, Suzy, I'm grateful for your acknowledgement that the Welsh Government has introduced new secondary legislation that allows teachers from across the world to enter into a process, with our Education Workforce Council, to be accredited to teach in this country. I believe those first applicants are already in process, including a new would-be maths teacher who qualified in the United States, who is very keen to take up a role here in one of our secondary schools in the capital.

With regard to ITE, we have reformed initial teacher education to ensure that it gives our teachers the best possible start in a professional career. And we have recognised that the more traditional routes perhaps were putting off those people that had something very valuable to offer our children and young people, but the traditional routes were not appropriate to them. And that's why we've worked with our partners in the Open University, for instance, to develop a distance learning part-time route to qualified teacher status. That makes it much easier, especially in areas of Wales where you and I live, where, actually, accessing a university on a full-time basis is really challenging. And I'm delighted to say that we have seen good and strong recruitment to that part-time distance learning route that is now offered by the Open University.

Thank you. Yes, I'm rather keen on that OU route as well, as indeed I am on teaching apprenticeships; I think there are many ways, different routes to excellence, here that should be explored by the next Government, which, obviously, I hope is a Conservative one.

Kirsty, when we met in 2007, I'd be surprised if either of us thought we'd be doing this today, although I suspect that perhaps you've always hoped you'd get the chance to be the education Minister, because it's evident to everyone, even those who might disagree with you—and that's been my party less often than perhaps the public might imagine—that the life chances of our young people really matter to you, and that accessible education, that education of all Welsh citizens, but particularly children and young people, needs to be an education that they can reach into and grab hold of and create themselves with, on the basis that, of course, if you can transform one child, you transform the world entire. 

But I wasn't sure, after my early raid on your territory back in 2007, what my reception would be when I got this shadow role, but what I've found is someone who has goals, is values driven, knows her stuff, and, most shocking of all for us, is open to listening to the views of others. And so I was sorry I couldn't join you for Stage 4 of the curriculum Bill last week to say thank you for specific changes to that Bill, but I also wanted to thank you for the respect and understanding you show to the scrutiny process overall, your willingness to act on committee recommendations, not ducking too many questions, and seeing scrutiny for what it is. I think that's been deeply impressive, because facing scrutiny is not about protecting the party brand in the face of inconvenient questions; it's about recognising that Parliament represents the people, and it's Parliament that legislates for them. And so I do honour you for that. It does leave me with my final, slightly horrible spokesperson's question though, Kirsty: does a period in opposition make people better Ministers?

14:35

Well, Suzy, can I just say thank you very much for your kind words, and thank you for forgiving me? I do remember a certain public meeting in the Strand Hall in Builth Wells—although the subject that day was health—when I suspect that I was particularly mean, not that anybody in the Chamber would ever remember me being mean or sharp or difficult with people, but—. So, I thank you for that. 

You're right; it is an absolute dream job for me to become the education Minister, and I suspect an unexpected surprise to everybody, including myself. It's been a joy over the last five years. And I am sorry that you weren't here last week, because, if you had been, you would have heard me say that the Bill that we got to vote on last week was a better Bill for the scrutiny and the legislative process. And I was honoured to present it, not just as the Minister, but as a parliamentarian. And I agree with you, Suzy: there is something particularly interesting to have crossed the aisle, having served a very long apprenticeship on the opposition benches. And all I would say to anybody that finds themselves on the opposition benches and then maybe, or maybe not, might be lucky enough to find themselves in a position of Government is that it's a lot harder than it looks, and it's not as easy as you suggest that it might be when you're sitting on those opposition benches. 

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. One of the issues that is of concern to the majority of teachers is the workload that they are having to deal with in addition to the work that they are trained to do, namely to educate and to lead. According to some, the additional burden, the daily bureaucracy, has got worse over the past five years. What's your response to that claim?

I recognise that we ask an awful lot of our teaching professionals. And now, more than ever, we need to attach even greater weight and greater pace to the managing workload and reducing bureaucracy group. That group is still working, despite the challenges of the pandemic, to identify the pressures facing teachers and implement new solutions. The workload charter has now been published, with the workload and well-being page on Hwb currently in development. The education support charity that I also spoke of earlier is producing a well-being toolkit on Hwb, which will contain a greater range of resources and practical advice, to be published in April, and the Welsh Government continues to work with our partners in regional consortia, in individual local education authorities, and, indeed, with Estyn, to ensure that the demands placed on schools from outside organisations are manageable, proportionate and add value to outcomes for children. 

One issue that certainly adds significantly to that workload is budgeting, particularly at this time of the year. What creates complexity is when funding is provided via grant very late in the day, as has happened this week. I want to quote one headteacher who contacted me yesterday, and this is what she said: 'We are spending more time writing about how we're going to spend these grants than we spend in actually using the grants in the first place.' And another headteacher told me that, 'Whilst, of course, I always welcome any additional funding on any occasion, I do feel that a lack of planning and arrangements does account for the money being released so late in the day, and perhaps this, of course, gives an unfair picture of school budgets and the amounts carried over from one year to the next.'

Now, I understand entirely and accept entirely that the situation is even more unstable than usual this year because of the pandemic, but do you accept that this is a major problem—the grants arriving very late in the day? And what should the next Government do, in your view, to reduce that workload in terms of budgeting placed on our teachers, so that they can be released to focus on teaching?

14:40

The Member is correct: sometimes, we are able to release additional resources to the education system later on in the year. The challenges of operating a budget of the size that we do are not without difficulties, but I will never turn down an opportunity from the finance Minister to spend more money on schools.

With regard to the bureaucracy and the reporting, I would say to Siân Gwenllian that, throughout my period as education Minister, she has often asked me to explain where the money has gone, and, indeed, we've just heard from Suzy Davies wanting to know a detailed breakdown of how the additional money from RRRS has been spent. I can only provide answers to people like yourself, Siân, or Suzy Davies, if we ask teachers to report back on what they're spending money on, otherwise I'm not able to answer the questions you often ask me. 

I of course accept that point, but there is far too much data being collected, and it's data that the teachers, very often, don't understand why you, as a Government, would need that data. 

If I could turn to my final question to you—not just for today, of course—may I also thank you very much for your willing collaboration through this Senedd, and particularly for our regular meetings during the pandemic? We certainly share the same passion for the importance of education in the lives of our children and young people, and I'd like to thank you for all your hard work over the years, and particularly for focusing on the deprived children of Wales. I think that has been a prominent feature of your period in post. 

Suzy has already asked you about useful experiences for prospective Ministers, but I want you to look forward, and look beyond COVID, if you could. What, in your view, is the greatest challenge facing the new education Minister over the next years?

The greatest challenge facing any education Minister is the realisation that education reform and transformation cannot be driven by the will of a single Minister. It has to be done in collaboration and co-operation with the sector. The co-construction of our national mission and our new curriculum has focused on building those strong relationships. I think it will be really important for any incoming education Minister to continue to work in that spirit and not dictate from the centre. 

Face Masks

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the mandatory wearing of face masks for school children? OQ56451

Our operational guidance states that face coverings should be worn by secondary school learners in all parts of the school building if social distancing cannot be maintained, and on dedicated school transport. This is one of a range of measures to keep schools as safe as possible for both staff and learners.  

Thanks, Minister. There's much research that exists on the unhealthiness of prolonged unsupervised mask wearing as there is on the benefit. We need to get all pupils back into the classroom in a positive learning environment. UsforThem Cymru is an example of concerned parents who want clear direction on freedom to choose, because many pupils are being told that the wearing of masks in the classroom over a prolonged period is mandatory, and policing in all senses works best on consensus. There are real physical and mental impairments to mask wearing and the issue of some headteachers mandating the wearing of masks is causing real anxiety, possible future health problems—depending on the mask and what is done with the mask before wearing—and, for many pupils, it is a barrier to learning. So, what I'm looking for here is some kind of responsibility because you omitted to really address the issue of pupils having to wear masks in classrooms over a prolonged period. So, what will you do to support parents, pupils and staff who choose not to wear masks or who want to not wear masks in the classroom over a prolonged period? What are you going to do to support those people?

14:45

I'm not aware that we're asking children to wear masks in an unsupervised situation at all. Children are supervised on school transport and when they're in classrooms they are supervised. The advise that we're giving is that when social distancing cannot be maintained, then masks should be worn because that offers a level of protection, as I said, to both staff and learners. There are times when masks are not appropriate, such as at meal times, when outside, when social distancing is possible, when learners are running around, playing active games, and where learners do have indeed a genuine, specific barrier to wearing a mask. What I would say to parents and to pupils is I'm very grateful for their continuing willingness to engage actively with us, as Welsh Government, and with headteachers and recognise the steps that we can all take to minimise disruption to education and to keep them learning. And I'm very grateful for their willingness to continue to do so.

Can I wish you well for the future, Minister? You have survived five years and prospered, I think, despite having to start under the incubus of a commendation from me—there we are, it obviously, didn't affect your authority and performance.

I do have some sympathy with Neil McEvoy's point here, because I think we need a flexible approach in some respects. And I'm particularly concerned bout the need for effective social communication, especially for those pupils who are hard-of-hearing and also those pupils who have a language learning difficulty and therefore need lip-reading as part of their communication method. So, I do hope that the guidance is flexible enough to address these very real issues that do affect a minority of our pupils.

Thank you, David, and thank you for your kind words. Coming from you, who I have appreciated working alongside, as a member of the class of 1999, they are worth that much more.

Can I assure the Member that there is flexibility? Where learners have a specific barrier to wearing a face mask, then that should be recognised by schools. That might be in the case of neurodiverse learners or where learners have a communication difficulty. We have provided advice to schools on the appropriate specification of clear face coverings and where those should be worn, especially if there are children for whom lip-reading is absolutely essential to be able to participate within activities in the classroom. And we have provided advice on specification to schools about how those can be obtained and when they should be used.

Support for Teachers

4. Will the Minister make a statement on support for teachers in Pembrokeshire during the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56432

Welsh Government is working with our stakeholders and employers to ensure that support is available for teachers in Pembrokeshire and, indeed, across Wales during the pandemic. This support includes a tailored package of well-being and mental health support, and additional funding to create capacity within the school workforce.

Now, Minister, you'll be aware of the ongoing concerns faced by local supply teachers in Pembrokeshire, many of whom feel they have been overlooked during the pandemic. The National Procurement Service's supply teachers framework has the potential to improve pay and conditions for supply teachers, but I understand that schools are not required to use agencies that have met the requirements of the framework, which means that there is still a patchwork of support for supply teachers, as not all supply teachers receive the same level of pay from agencies. I appreciate that we've corresponded on this matter over recent months, but I'm still receiving representations from supply teachers. So, can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that all supply teachers are being treated fairly and are adequately supported during this pandemic?

14:50

Thank you, Paul. The framework does indeed provide a level of assurance that individuals will be treated fairly. And we have come to an agreement with the Welsh Local Government Association to once again communicate with their schools and make it very clear to the schools in their local authorities that schools should only be using those agencies that appear on the framework. I will give a commitment, Paul, that I will ask the WLGA to update me on that work when I next meet with them, but we have an agreement with the WLGA that they will stress the importance of doing that with their own schools.

The Physical Infrastructure of Schools

5. What has the Welsh Government done to invest in the physical infrastructure of schools in Islwyn? OQ56463

Caerphilly received over £56 million during first wave of twenty-first century schools and colleges programme funding, and, of this, £28 million was spent in the Islwyn constituency. A further £110 million is planned for the second funding wave, and we are working with Caerphilly to make their plans a reality.

Diolch, Minister. As I said yesterday in this Chamber, education, apart from love, is the greatest gift that we can give our children. As a society, it speaks to who and what we are, what we prioritise and all that we value as a progressive, vibrant and dynamic nation. As such, I wish to thank you, Minister, for our often robust interactions and I wish to put on record my support for your undoubted positive legacy, going forward. Although, I'm sure you will recall an area of music education discourse.

In Islwyn, the delivery of the groundbreaking and unprecedented £3.7 billion twenty-first century schools programme has seen transformational change. Large-scale projects have been delivered, such as Islwyn High School, large-scale investments to secondary schools in Newbridge and Blackwood have occurred, and major twenty-first century school refurbishments have occurred, and such refurbishments must continue to be rolled out in the future, post 6 May. But, importantly, it is right to put on the record the local leadership of our fantastic education leaders in Islwyn, such as Keri Cole, Christina Harrhy and now Councillor Ross Whiting. Equally, without our most amazing headteachers and governors in Islwyn, the excellent Caerphilly County Borough Council local education authority partnership with Welsh Government would be inoperable, so I want to thank also our education family.

Minister, in my prior roles and as an education cabinet member and now, I've been thrilled, inspired and honoured to open and tour our new schools and see those fantastic facilities first hand. But this is also in direct contrast to prior years when, pre devolution, as a teacher and school governor, schools across Wales were forced to get rid of teachers and our schools were rotting. This is contrasted now with the delivery of this brand-new, state-of-the-art—

I'm coming to it. Minister, thank you. How will, then, Islwyn communities and schools benefit from this innovative £3.7 billion programme, going forward, and what do you feel is your legacy?

Rhianon, you're right—the twenty-first century schools and colleges programme is a partnership approach and we would not have been able to realise the ambition of the programme without the close collaboration and working that we have with local education authorities. As we discussed at length yesterday, there is a multibillion-pound pot of money within Welsh Government to look to work with our partners to develop even more fantastic facilities, whether they be in the county borough of Caerphilly or, indeed, anywhere else in Wales. That's the beauty of the twenty-first century schools programme; its impact has touched every corner of our nation.

Pupil Well-being

6. What steps will the Minister take to promote pupil well-being in the return-to-school plans? OQ56453

On 15 March, we published our framework on embedding a whole-school approach to emotional and mental well-being. It places well-being at the heart of learning and, together with funding of £2.8 million to deliver well-being support to learners in the current year, to ensure that their return to education is all that it should be.

Thank you, Minister. I was delighted to see the framework published yesterday. And I hope to speak next week in the statement and to say some words about you then.

As you know, the Children, Young People and Education Committee recently held a brilliant session on the impact of COVID on the physical and mental health of children and young people, and I would like to thank Professor Ann John, Professor Alka Ahuja, Professor Adrian Edwards and Dr David Tuthill from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health for their very powerful evidence. We were given a very clear message about how vital the focus on well-being is in the return to school, but also how crucial it is that we give children and young people hope. Some of the narrative emerging in public discourse about ensuring children and young people can return to school has been very negative. Terms like 'COVID generation', and even terms like 'catch-up' are indicative of loss, when I think we should be celebrating the phenomenal resilience of children and young people, given what they've been through through this period. So, would you agree with me, Minister, that it is absolutely correct that we not just prioritise well-being as more and more children now return to school, but also that we reject any counsel of despair and make sure that we say to our children and young people, 'We know what you've been through, and our priority now is to help you recover from that in a positive and hopeful way'?

14:55

Thank you very much, Lynne. I, too, am absolutely delighted that the framework has now been published and will be there to support schools in this really, really important aspect of their work, because if we think about the interruption to education that we have all witnessed and our children and young people have experienced, we're not going to be able to move forward from that unless we address well-being, because we know that learning cannot stick without that. And I couldn't agree with you more that a constant reference to a deficit model will help no-one. In fact, it will just add additional stress to the teaching profession. It will add additional stress to our children and young people. So, learning interrupted, yes, but learning lost, never. I understand why parents are concerned, and I understand why older children and students would be concerned. But, as we've demonstrated, with the investment that we're already making, we have an education system and professionals who stand ready to ensure that they can move forward with real confidence in the next steps of their education. And if we engage continually in that mantra of despair, as you have described, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because children become what they are told, and therefore we need to change the dialogue and work with our educational professionals to help our children move forward with confidence.

I agree wholeheartedly with what Lynne Neagle has been saying about the importance of focusing on empowering young people and giving them hope. Young people have—. I'm trying to recalibrate the way I'm going to word this, actually, because I was going to say, 'They've missed out on so many experiences.' But, actually, young people have so many experiences that they need to regain, then, after the pandemic. Friendships and routines have been disrupted. Many young people have been suffering with isolation and loneliness. Could I ask you, Minister, when the guidance on the whole-school approach to well-being and mental health will be implemented in schools and when will young people be able to feel the benefits of that? I am particularly concerned about very young children—those who should have started school during the pandemic, but because they've got parents who are shielding, maybe they haven't been able to go into school. Those yearly years—the reception classes, the meithrin classes—are so fundamentally important to forming bonds between children. So, what support do you think could be made available to re-establish bonds between young children? And will there be particular help, particularly for children who haven't seen their friends in such a long time?

Thank you, Delyth. I think you have hit upon one of the aspects of the interruption to education that has really impacted upon children and young people, and that is a sense of isolation and the inability to spend time with their friends. And that's why schools the length and breadth of Wales have been focusing on that when they have seen the foundation phase return. And, indeed, that interaction and that pedagogy is at the heart of our foundation phase approach, and in that playing together once again, being together, chatting together, children are learning and acquiring the skills that they need for a confident future. That's why we have ensured that there is time and space within the curriculum for that to happen, and that's why we have made additional funding available together to ensure that there are adults there to support children as they re-engage with face-to-face learning and re-establish those relationships with their peers and with their teachers and teaching assistants.

15:00
School Standards

7. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve school standards in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ56441

Thank you, Angela. Welsh Government has so far provided Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire local authorities with £1,649,000 to recruit, recover and raise standards, supporting learners at crucial stages in their education. I recently announced an additional £72 million to support learners, taking our total support for learning—I was going to use the word 'recovery', but after what I've just said, that would be remiss of me—for our learning plan for 2021 to £112 million.

Well, thank you for that, but the reality in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire is, over the last decade and a bit, only one out of the five secondary schools in that constituency have not been in some form of special measures or targeted intervention or needing to improve significantly. Now, with education being hit by COVID over the last 12 months, it's inevitable that the schools that were already struggling will struggle to move forward. I'm thinking of schools such as Greenhill, where Estyn report after Estyn report after Estyn report has said there has to be improvement, and improvement we do not really see. So, what action is the Welsh Government going to be able to provide specifically to schools in special measures or that require some kind of significant improvement, to help raise the standards of their educational offering to their pupils? Because this is a problem that seems to be incredibly intractable.

Thank you, Angela. Whilst inspection activities have been suspended during the pandemic, I want to reassure you, and indeed other Members, that Estyn continue to engage with schools that were previously identified as needing an additional level of support. Clearly, that has been done remotely and has been done in a sympathetic way, recognising the conditions under which those schools are working, but that work has not stopped as a result of the pandemic, nor has the work of the regional consortia in ensuring that those schools that have been previously identified as needing additional support continue to receive it.

With regard to schools that are causing concern, the Member may be aware that, prior to COVID, we had piloted a new multi-agency approach, with Estyn having an ongoing role in leading school improvement rather than the previous role, where Estyn came in, decided what they felt was wrong, disappeared and then came back to pass a judgment once again. The new pilot model, prior to COVID, trialled in a number of schools, was proving to be very successful, and in my recent letter to Estyn, I have also agreed to extend funding for that programme. So, that programme will become available to all of Wales, which, I believe, is a different approach to trying to make more rapid progress in those schools where we know extra support is needed.

Supply Teachers

8. Will the Minister make a statement on the employment of supply teachers in Wales? OQ56429

Supply teachers in Wales can be employed either directly via local authorities or schools, or via commercial supply agencies. Headteachers and governing bodies are responsible for all staffing decisions and for ensuring that they have an effective workforce in place under the Staffing of Maintained Schools (Wales) Regulations 2006.

Can I thank the Minister for that response? I mean, I, and I'm sure many others, have serious concerns regarding the way supply teachers are treated and paid via agencies. I know it's not the best solution, but councils could recreate the supply register and supply teachers to be directly employed by councils, or a consortia of councils, and then go out into schools rather than having them employed by the agency who top-slice their pay.

Indeed. Mike, as I said in my opening question, there is nothing to stop local authorities creating a supply list of their own, and may I suggest perhaps the best way forward is to discuss that with Councillor Jen Rayner in your own local authority? I'm sure she'll be very happy to oblige.

Student Finance Reforms

9. Will the Minister outline the impact of the Welsh Government's student finance reforms on part-time higher education? OQ56454

Thank you, Bethan, and this is probably the last question that Bethan will ever ask me, so I just want to wish Bethan all the best. Bethan, since the introduction of our student finance reforms, which are unique in Europe, there has been a 40 per cent increase in first degree part-time students in Wales, and we've also seen a 21 per cent increase in Welsh part-time students from the most deprived backgrounds.

Thank you, and all the best for the future; we'll have lives outside of politics yet.

The Minister has made increases in part-time numbers of students a major theme during her time in office. But can you confirm to us that when Open University student number increases are taken out, overall there has been a decline in part-time student numbers in the Welsh HE sector since the start of the implementation of Welsh Government financial reforms, specifically since the start of full Diamond implementations, not the announcement of the policy? So, can you confirm the numbers of part-time students starting at Welsh universities? Thank you.

15:05

Bethan, as I said, actually, in terms of first degrees that are being studied on a part-time basis in Wales, there's been a 40 per cent increase.

3. Questions to the Senedd Commission

We move on to item 3, which is questions to the Senedd Commission. Question 1 this afternoon will be answered by Joyce Watson—[Interruption.]

Right, it's obvious Janet Finch-Saunders isn't ready to ask her question, so we'll move on to question 2, which is to be answered by the Llywydd, and it's Huw Irranca-Davies.

Question 1 [OQ56466] not asked.

Promoting Voting Among Young People

2. What steps are being taken to promote voting among young people ahead of the Senedd elections? OQ56436

Thank you for that question. The Vote 16 strand of the election campaign is being rolled out across Wales and includes paid advertising, social media promotion and events. We are running adverts on social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube, and holding a range of events for schools, colleges and youth groups, and this will continue throughout April. And we, of course, worked with a broad range of bodies during the last week of February for Vote 16 Week, which showcased events, including a school assembly, training for education professionals, and the mock election debate hosted by the BBC's Teleri Glyn Jones.

Diolch, Llywydd, and I really appreciate the work that you and the Senedd Commission are doing in terms of promoting the election for first-time and for younger voters, and, of course, this is going to be such a dramatic leap forward for 16 and 17-year-olds in Wales. It's a real leap forward for democracy. But it is, of course, crucial that first-time voters, younger voters, understand the power they have in the ballot box, as well as the practicalities of how to vote, that they have easily accessible information regarding candidates and party policies, and are at ease with the Senedd's hybrid electoral system, but also, I have to say, that they understand, like all of us should understand, that voting itself is a precious right and a privilege that is only made stronger by being exercised regularly. So, would you join me in commending the work of organisations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Wales, the Urdd, Democracy Box, the Electoral Reform Society in Wales and others who are doing their very best, alongside the work you're doing, to encourage young and first-time voters to register to vote and to use their vote too? This is an exciting time, let's make sure all our younger voters have their voices heard.

It is most definitely an exciting time for our young people. Young people, of course, have been affected more than anyone, possibly, during this last year, and will rightly, hopefully, exercise their voice in the ballot box as 16 and 17-year-olds, and do that as the first 16 and 17-year-olds ever in Wales to do so. And you're exactly right as well: the work that the Commission does and Welsh Government does in promoting 16 and 17-year-old voting is indirect towards those young people; there are others who can work with us and on our behalf to work directly with the young people that they work with, and the young people, of course, trust those sources, whether that's in schools or in external organisations. So, we're very keen, have been keen, to support efforts made by third parties to support us in our endeavours to ensure that young people are educated about the new rights that they have, and motivated to do so. And all of us who are standing as candidates in the election in May, as well, have a responsibility, as political parties and as individual candidates, to ensure that our manifestos and our messaging and our means of communication are interesting enough to attract the interest of young people.

15:10

This is so very important, in encouraging young people to vote, but it's also important for the future generations. The children's commissioner is running an alternative election for young people between 11 and 15 years of age, and this gives everyone who'll be able to vote in the 2026 election a real experience of the voting experience. Eighty-five schools across the whole of Wales have signed up to be part of Project Vote already. So, would you join with me in encouraging every secondary school to participate in this innovative and crucial project?

I would be delighted in seeing more schools in Wales taking and using the leadership, resources and advice provided by the children's commissioner to hold those electoral events, the mock elections for that age group who don't yet have the right to vote in Senedd elections, but will in our next set of Senedd elections, and even possibly in local council elections next year.

Participating in a mock election in Lampeter school in 1983 was my first experience of elections and electioneering, and I remember that well to this day. I very much hope that this experience provided by the children's commissioner and her office to young people in secondary schools will engender the interest of those young people to vote and to participate in our democratic life for years to come. So, thank you very much to the children's commissioner and her office and everyone working on this programme in schools in promoting our democracy and the engagement of young people in that democratic debate.

Coronavirus

3. What assessment has the Commission made of its response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? OQ56444

The Commission has supported the Senedd, its committees and Members to discharge their functions during the pandemic, and the Commission regularly reviews responses to issues as they arise and to learn lessons for the future. This includes feedback from Members, regular staff surveys and governance and risk reviews.

Thank you, Llywydd. I just would like to take a moment to place on record my thanks to the Commission staff for how they've supported Members of the Senedd during the pandemic, and, of course, to MS support staff, who I know have gone above and beyond to help constituents deal with a range of urgent and pressing queries. What assessment has the Commission made of the impact of the pandemic on our superb staff over the last year?

Thank you for making sure that our staff know—Commission staff and those staff who work for us as political representatives—that you and, hopefully, all of us are very appreciative of the innovative work that's gone on to respond to the pandemic, to enable this Parliament to continue its work and to enable us as elected Members from all across Wales to provide services and information to our electors. As I said in my previous answer, the Commission does look to engage with staff to learn from their experiences and to think about how the lessons that we've learned over the past year can carry on into the future and enable a more flexible means of working, and that we don't lose sight, as we move out of this pandemic, hopefully, of the many good ways of working that we've probably experienced over the past few months. So, I'm really grateful for your thanks, but also for giving me the opportunity in my last questions as a Llywydd to thank the staff of the Commission, all the staff who work for our contractors and our political party staff. Everybody has been excellent and enabled this Parliament, this Senedd, to carry on its work in the most challenging of circumstances, and to do that on behalf of the people of Wales.

Thank you. Question 4 is to be answered by Joyce Watson, and it's question 4, Bethan Sayed.

Flexible Working and Job Sharing

4. What consideration has the Commission given to improving flexible working and job sharing? OQ56455

15:15

Thank you for that question, Bethan. Our flexible working culture is supported by a range of policies that include flexible working, job sharing and homeworking, which enable staff to manage their own working hours, balance work and also home commitments. Forty per cent of Commission staff have caring responsibilities for young children, and 15 per cent of staff have regular caring responsibilities. The Commission is committed to ensuring a truly flexible culture that allows all staff to thrive. The Commission is award winning in these efforts, and it has been recognised both as a top 10 employer of working families and a The Times top 50 employer of women. Building on our experience during the pandemic, the Commission is exploring new ways of working and delivering services to extend that flexible culture even further. 

I thank Joyce Watson for that very comprehensive response. As I've outlined recently in the context of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill, job sharing is something that we need to consider in order to provide further opportunities for more diverse representation and a political environment that is more family friendly. As this isn't now on the agenda in terms of elections, the Commission could take a lead in this area in terms of promoting working in this way. You mentioned that the Commission is doing work in terms of job sharing, but I haven't heard anything from you on data in terms of what you're doing in terms of advertising jobs and offering the opportunity for job sharing. Is this something that you would consider doing and looking at during the next Senedd, so that the Senedd is more flexible?

I thank you for that. I recognise that this is dear to your heart and you've made your feelings known through your statement on having your young son and the challenges of that. They're real challenges, as has been brought home to you, and have, in your own words, made you reconsider your future. And I'm really sad to lose you, as I'm sure other people are, from this institution.

We know that Members cannot currently job share, and we also know that it would be up to the next Senedd to determine legislation to allow that to happen. And I think it's wider than that. I think there's a whole public conversation that needs to happen so that people feel that they can vote for job-sharing politicians, and I'm not sure that we're there at this moment. But I would like to join you in that conversation, because I think it is a conversation that has to be had. It's also, of course, much wider than that and the Electoral Commission would have to allow two names to be on the paper for one position. And again, I think that's a conversation that has to start. I really think that this will be top of the agenda for the Commission—the next Commission, of course, post election. But I think it should be on the top of the agenda of all political parties, women's organisations and wider organisations as well. There are many reasons that people need to job share. 

We do have facts and figures, and they are numerous, in terms of how we support our staff and who those staff are, and there is a whole plethora of data that underpins that. I think the best thing in terms of time and understanding of that would be for me not to read it out—I do have it in front of me—but for me to e-mail that to you. But please be assured that there are plenty of sisters around this table today who will support you in your endeavour. 

4. Topical Questions

Item 4 on the agenda is a topical question, to be answered by the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip. Delyth Jewell. 

Women's Safety

1. What assessment has the First Minister made of the impact that the UK Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will have on women's safety in Wales? TQ548

I thank Delyth Jewell for this question. The Welsh Government received the final version of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill upon its introduction, last Tuesday, 9 March. We are considering the provisions in detail and how they will impact on Wales, including the safety of women and girls.

15:20

Thank you, Minister. This is a deeply personal issue for me, not least because I am the same age as Sarah Everard, who was so devastatingly killed near London recently, and whose vigil was so horrendously mishandled by the police. At least seven women in Wales this year alone have died at the hands of male violence. We are still counting dead women, including Wenjing Lin, who died in Treorchy. My concern over the policing Bill is rooted not just in the context of assaults on the right to peacefully protest, though these are worrying, but I have grave concerns at the treatment of male violence against women. It is a Bill that doesn't centre on survivors; it places greater sanctions on people who attack statues than on those who attack women. Heavier sentences would be given to fly-tipping than for stalking. I was involved in the inquiry and campaign in 2012 that brought in the new laws on stalking, and Minister, this development is offensive to all of the survivors who played such a crucial role in that campaign.

If the last week has taught us anything, it should be that for women in Wales, as in all of the UK, navigating fear and adapting our behaviours to reduce the risk of violence is a normal occurrence. Women and young girls are taught not to do certain things instead of tackling the underlying reasons why male violence happens. In failing to tackle the prevention of male violence against women, this Bill is not just a missed opportunity; it is a catastrophe that will play out in slow motion. Surely we need a public health approach that focuses on prevention, early intervention, changes to how we educate young girls and boys, changes to how women are portrayed in the media, in magazines. I'd ask you, Minister, how much discretion Welsh police forces will have in how they implement this Bill. I'd also ask you if you agree with the suggestions of Chwarae Teg about using the curriculum to tackle gender stereotypes, ensuring planning guidance specifies women's safety as a central consideration in designing urban spaces, and the need for more funding and awareness-raising campaigns like Ask for Angela, which offers women in bars a way of getting out of dangerous situations.

And finally, Minister, aside from this radically different approach we need to take in Wales, doesn't this Westminster legislation show why we need the devolution of policing and justice? I'll close with this, Dirprwy Lywydd: if we don't do something radical, if this daily horror in our society isn't fixed, we will go on mourning yet more women we never knew.

Thank you very much, Delyth Jewell, for that very strong, impassioned and committed speech. As a woman of the age of Sarah Everard, you have enabled us to again remember, as I did yesterday, the recent killing—that senseless, awful killing of Sarah Everard. It has sent a shock wave through us all, it has reignited this national conversation about women's safety, and you'll have seen that reflected in my written statement yesterday. That was a statement on women's safety in Wales, and it's reminded us, of course, as I said in my statement, that violence against women and girls is far too common. It's highlighted again the impact that violence and abuse has on the daily lives of women. And so my recommitment again in terms of our pioneering legislation—and I thank Nick Ramsay; he raised this yesterday, as other Members did across the Senedd—is that it's our commitment in Wales to end violence against women and girls.

I think it's also a wake-up call, isn't it, to us all that we must honour Sarah's life by making changes to society and culture, and that is what I said in my statement. But I think it is very important, as I said yesterday, that I have called on the UK Government, and indeed also call on the UK Parliament, to make sure that this Bill is a Bill that should strengthen the safety of women and girls, and of course, we have the opportunity now to comment on that. I think it's crucial that we recognise that the Bill that's coming forward, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, should be about strengthening the criminal justice system to protect women and girls, and also—equally strongly, I would say, and I did say this yesterday—enabling people to continue to express their concerns freely.

I also agree with you that this is a public health issue, as did our great national adviser, Yasmin Khan, on Sunday. On many occasions, she talked about the need for a culture change, and she recognised that this was a public health issue, that we had to hold perpetrators to account, that we had to have a trauma-informed system, and also that we cannot be bystanders. That's why we have a strong Don't Be a Bystander campaign as part of our violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence legislation and strategy. I'm also very proud of the fact that we actually do now have in our new curriculum, in the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Bill, that statutory duty to make raising awareness about healthy relationships and sexuality education part of the curriculum for children up to the age of 16. It will help young people to challenge toxic attitudes and behaviours.

15:25

I'll speak, if I may, as the son, brother, husband, father and grandfather of women and girls who I care about and love passionately. The recent tragic cases of Sarah Everard and Wenjing Lin have highlighted the issue of violence against women in a truly shocking way. We in this Welsh Parliament are united, I believe, and determined to make our streets and communities as safe as possible for women and girls. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill seeks to equip the police with the powers and tools they need to protect the public while overhauling sentencing laws to keep serious sexual and violent offenders behind bars for longer. New powers proposed will halt the automatic release of offenders who pose a danger to the public, end the halfway release of offenders sentenced to between four and seven years in prison for serious violent and sexual offences, and reform criminal records disclosure to reduce the time period in which people have to declare previous non-violent sexual or terrorist convictions to employers. The Bill also imposes a legal duty on local authorities, the police, criminal justice agencies, health, and fire and rescue services to tackle serious violence through data sharing and intelligence. Would you therefore agree that these measures, which complement those included in the Domestic Abuse Bill discussed here yesterday, should make women safer in Wales? And given that the UK Government is seeking views to help inform the development of its next tackling violence against women and girls strategy, how will you engage with this process?

Thank you very much, Mark Isherwood. Can I thank you also for speaking up as a father and in terms of all the women in your life? We know that men are standing up, as they do year in, year out. The November International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women is an important event. Every year we have our vigil, don't we? Our virtual vigil this year was very much led by Joyce Watson—always led by Joyce Watson—with a cross-party response, as you say, Mark Isherwood. I'd like to pay tribute to all the men across our services who are White Ribbon ambassadors. I think Jack is here today; I know that he is a key White Ribbon ambassador, as are so many, of course, not just here, but represented across Wales.

I just want to say, just on the Bill, that we received, as I said, the final version of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill last week. It is a UK Government Bill, and we are considering its provisions in detail and its impact on Wales, but we are calling on the UK Government to strengthen the Bill to ensure the criminal justice system protects women and girls, because we are concerned about many aspects, just receiving the Bill as it is, and seeking advice in terms of those measures and provisions. It will be important for, obviously, our colleagues in the Westminster Parliament to look, scrutinise this, and there have been many concerns already raised about the Bill. But we need to make sure it is scrutinised effectively. But I would say today that we have got to do, within our powers in Wales, and of course there are powers in terms of the Thomas commission—and Delyth made that point—that we seek to consider, being powers that we would recognise that could enable us to strengthen our responsibilities in this area. But we seek in Wales to work closely with our four police forces, our local authorities, as well as the UK Government, and all our third sector organisations, to ensure that the safety of women and girls can be at the forefront of our powers and our provisions, our priorities, and our budgets.

And that is why, of course, our Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, our pioneering legislation, is so crucially important, and that we do have our Live Fear Free helpline. And I will use the chance again to say this is a free 24/7 service for all victims and survivors of domestic abuse and sexual violence. And not only has it remained open, of course, through the coronavirus restrictions being in place, that means that home shouldn't be a place of fear, but it has been extremely concerning to us all in the Senedd about the impact of COVID-19 on people who are restricted because of COVID-19. But we have given additional funding to Live Fear Free, and of course we're working with our Don't Be a Bystander and 'ask and act' training provisions, as well as funding Hafan Cymru's Spectrum Project, which of course is promoting healthier relationships effectively in our schools and with our young people.

15:30
5. 90-second Statements

Item 5 on the agenda was the 90-second statements, of which none have been submitted.

6. Motion to appoint the Senedd Commissioner for Standards

Therefore, we move to the motion to appoint the Senedd Commissioner for Standards. And I call on the Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee to move that motion, Jayne Bryant.

Motion NDM7654 Jayne Bryant

To propose that the Senedd: 

 1. Notes the report of the Standards of Conduct Committee: 'Appointment of Commissioner for Standards' laid in the Table Office on 10 March 2021 ('the report'). 

2. Acting under section 1(2) of the National Assembly for Wales Commissioner for Standards Measure 2009, appoints Douglas Bain CBE TD as Senedd Commissioner for Standards under that Measure, for a term of six years starting on 1 April 2021. 

3. Acting under paragraphs 1 and 2 of the Schedule to the National Assembly for Wales Commissioner for Standards Measure 2009: 

a) agrees the remuneration package of the Commissioner, in accordance with paragraph 1(b) of the Schedule to that Measure, as set out in Annex A of the report; 

b) delegates, in accordance with paragraph 2 of the Schedule to that Measure, the making of decisions in relation to the annual adjustment of the Commissioner’s remuneration package to the Clerk of the Senedd; and

c) delegates, in accordance with paragraph 2 of the Schedule to that Measure, the settling all other terms on which such appointment is to have effect to the Clerk of the Senedd. 

Motion moved.

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. The standards committee recommends that Douglas Bain be appointed Senedd Commissioner for Standards from 1 April 2021 for a six-year term. The commissioner is an independent officeholder whose role is to promote, encourage and safeguard high standards of conduct by Members of the Senedd. This will be the third appointment to the office of commissioner.

Douglas Bain was nominated following an open, transparent and rigorous selection process. The selection panel was chaired by the Chief Executive and Clerk of the Senedd, and comprised of two members of the Standards of Conduct Committee—myself and Rhun ap Iorwerth—and an independent panel member. A number of high-calibre applicants were interviewed; the panel unanimously identified a preferred candidate—Douglas Bain. Douglas Bain has been acting commissioner since November 2019. He was previously the Commissioner for Standards for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Douglas Bain attended a pre-appointment hearing with the standards committee; the standards committee questioned him on his approach to the role, and welcomed his ambition to raise the profile of standards of conduct. We noted his broad experience of dealing with complaints, particularly those falling under the dignity and respect policy. The committee unanimously endorsed the nomination of Douglas Bain as Senedd Commissioner for Standards. Deputy Llywydd, I move the motion.

Thank you. There are no speakers to the debate, and therefore the proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No, I don't see objections. Therefore, in accordance with Standing Order 12.36, the motion is agreed.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

7. Debate on the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee Report: 'Remote Working: Implications for Wales'

Item 7 on our agenda this afternoon is a debate on the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee report, 'Remote Working: Implications for Wales'. And I call on the Chair of the committee to move that motion, Russell George.

Motion NDM7653 Russell George

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the report of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee on its inquiry, Remote Working: Implications for Wales, which was laid in the Table Office on 10 March 2021.

Motion moved.

I move the motion in my name, Deputy Llywydd. This report was published last week. The implications of radical changes in how we live and work are something that the next Welsh Government is going to have to get to grips with, and hopefully, our report will help in that regard. 

First of all, we wanted to know whether the Government's 30 per cent target for remote working is achievable, and the evidence strongly suggested that it is. But, clearly, there are both opportunities and risks to consider. For example, we heard how working from home has been a real game changer for some disabled people, but we also heard about the possibility of remote working creating a two-tiered workforce, as those who can work remotely tend to be, or usually are higher-skilled and higher-paid. The Government needs to use robust definitions of remote working to collect plenty of Wales-specific data, and all the equality impacts need to be considered in the assessment of this policy. 

Now, our first recommendation calls for a clear strategy that maps out how remote working policy actions will co-ordinate with other policy areas. It's not just about achieving carbon reduction goals. There are implications for childcare provision, spatial planning and infrastructure plans, regeneration and community cohesion policy, partnership working with local government and the private sector and the third sector, so lots there to co-ordinate with. 

I don't think Members would expect me to say anything different on this next point, but closing the digital divide in Wales is also essential for everyone, regardless of their location and background, and the opportunity to benefit from more flexible working practices. 

We're all aware, sadly, of the impacts of remote working on health and well-being in the current circumstances, and there's plenty in that regard in our report as well. Different managerial skills, of course, will be needed to manage a remote workforce, and to help mitigate some of these negative impacts.

Recommendations 12 and 13 say that the Welsh Government should use all the levers at its disposal to protect workers' rights. There's a lot of concern in committee from witnesses in regards to those working from home working longer hours, and working in worse environments. And I'm sure we've all got examples, haven't we, of receiving e-mails late at night, or late into the evening, from staff and other bodies, to a different extent than would have been the case pre-pandemic. 

We're grateful to Dr Reuschke for helping us better understand the existing network of co-working habits in Wales, and certainly think the Welsh Government need to think about that. We recommend more mapping of the existing provision, and for the incoming Government as well to think about looking at repurposing buildings as well. We've seen dramatic changes in our town and city centres, and there's still a lot of uncertainty unfortunately, of course, about the future for retail. So, we recommend that the Welsh Government has a plan that can adapt and respond to remote working trends, setting a clear path for the sector. 

It wasn't all doom and gloom in that area as well. Our witnesses also saw real opportunities to reimagine our cities and town centres. Decarbonisation targets have clearly driven the 30 per cent ambition, but it needs to run alongside other measures to achieve this modal shift. 

Wales isn't alone in managing the risks associated with the new normal of increased remote working. We considered international best practice, and we think policy makers here in Wales should consider the evidence from places like Milan, Finland and the Netherlands.

There is an awful lot to think about in this report, Llywydd, and I've tried to skim over it in the short time I've got. I'm hoping that other Members will be able to contribute and dig into specific aspects of this report, but, of course, I welcome views from across the Chamber and the Deputy Minister's response and comments at the end of the debate as well. 

15:35

Rather than treating remote working as an anomaly, we should be seeing it as the new norm. Looking at the following areas of office work, pay and human resources, accounts and audit, in the pre-ICT days, they needed to be done in the office. Pay and personal records had to be manually updated and physically filed, with pay calculated, counted, manually checked and put into envelopes. Income and expenditure had to be recorded in the ledgers, and bills posted and cheques or money collected and banked. Auditing involved the physical checking of ledgers and reconciling with bank statements. With ICT developments, records became electronic. This has been followed by fast broadband, which is the last impediment to working from home. The movement towards homeworking and online meetings was taking place well before COVID. What COVID has done is turbocharged this change. We have seen, in the last year, how well Zoom and Teams work, especially where high-speed broadband is available.

The Welsh Government needs to set a working from home target itself and other publicly funded bodies, but why change what has worked for the last 12 months? The private sector will do what works for each individual company. People, in general, do not want to spend hours a day commuting. Competitive recruitment will mean that to offer a job where you can work mainly at home will be more tempting than one that involves a commute of several hours a week. 

The growth of homeworking will be decided by lots of individual decisions, which, when aggregated, will produce the direction of travel. Do not forget the costs of office space and servicing that space. This will have a strong influence on decisions by companies, and saving travel costs will have a strong influence on individuals. The homeworking experiment over the last year has taken place under sub-optimum conditions, with home learning for children alongside homeworking, and no study has shown a substantial drop in productivity, with some showing improved productivity. 

This change to mainly homeworking will create huge changes and challenges. We have a transport system based on commuting. People asking for bypasses and relief roads are in the same position as those in the 1900s who asked for more horse troughs. We have evidence of a service sector which depends on commuters and office workers for a substantial part of their trade. The change will not be painless, but it is inevitable. The challenge to governments, as always, is to react to things as they are and as they are becoming, not as they would like it to be. This is the beginning of the post-industrial revolution, a complete full circle from the first, and we must ensure that we win. 

15:40

Can I just thank everybody on the committee and the witnesses that gave us evidence? I really enjoyed this session, as a relatively new member of the committee. I think Mike is right. There's no putting this genie back in the bottle now, although, as the report makes clear, we need to be sure what we mean when we're talking about remote working or hybrid working, as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development call it. And I don't think it would be—. I don't agree with Mike when he suggested that this might be the new normal and a lot more of us will be working more from home. Clearly, if you're serving food in a cafe you can't do that from home, but there are jobs that lend itself to this. If you look at what Admiral has been doing lately, and basically turned the whole of its workforce over to working from home—. I do recommend that Members have a read of this report, and I just want to draw their attention to the later recommendations, which draw attention to how this possibility of working remotely needs to be factored into a bigger jigsaw policy, really. It can't be dealt with in a stand-alone way.

But I'd start by saying that it's too easy to say that we—and who are we in these circumstances—can just set up working hubs in towns and villages throughout Wales without thinking this through. The CIPD isn't actually sure that the call for working from hubs is particularly there, anyway. While the prospect of this would be about reducing the horrors and the environmental damage of commuting, we do need to be clear that the commute isn't just going to be displaced to somewhere else. It's true to say that active travel could play a role here, but it would be quite a step, wouldn't it, to claim that people won't still reach for their car keys when they're still having to deal with dropping children off in school or filling a boot up with shopping. 

The other thing perhaps I just want to draw attention to is to watch out for the unintended consequences of this move, some of which we've seen during lockdown, of course. Because, yes, flexible working sounds great in principle, but what it's done is moved a lot of people who are working at home into working late at night in order to accommodate more domestic responsibilities. And as that's still—unsurprisingly—predominantly women, we have to bear in mind the equality impacts of any changes that remote working might bring to the fore. 

In short, the report recommends that any great shift in working practice has to be planned for, based on the fullest evidence, and that really none of that is possible, as Russell was saying in his opening remarks, without proper digital infrastructure and physical infrastructure, so there has to be a strategic approach to any major overhaul on how we have working lives. Diolch.

15:45

This is, as usual, a robust and comprehensive report by the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee and I congratulate Russell George, the committee members, and, of course, the Commission staff who have helped to put this report together. Given the limited time I have, I shall concentrate on the overarching principles and the effects on homeworking, but would say that I am in agreement on the recommendations put forward in this report and I would hope the Welsh Government in the sixth Senedd will take on board these recommendations.

The report does not mention—I may have missed it—5G roll-out, but there is no doubt that this new technology will have an exponential impact on the ability to undertake tasks remotely, not least in the health sector. Home or remote working can, as the report suggests, take many forms, but it's primarily understood to mean working from your place of residence. Whilst, in most cases, this is feasible or even desirable, home circumstances can vary to such an extent that, for some, it is difficult or even impossible. Children, housework, food demands can impact to a greater or lesser extent, not just on the female homeworker, though probably to a greater extent, but also on male employees too. It is therefore imperative that we do not reach a position where people are forced to work from home on a permanent basis. Studies seem to indicate that a hybrid system of a few days homeworking and a day or two in the office offers the best solution in avoiding mental issues arising from continued isolation.

The strategy of opening working hubs, particularly in the smaller town centres, should create a number of positive impacts: shorter travel distances, greater town footfall, and the possibility of meeting with other people—a fundamental aspect of human activity. There is a possibility of setting up multiple business offices where different companies rent office space, but where there are shared facilities. These, of course, already exist, but almost all are mostly run by commercial companies. There's much scope for these to be set up by local or national government, with initial low rents and rates, but rising slowly over time. There's much talk in the report of creating inequalities with this form of working. I don't share this view. I believe it creates greater opportunities for the disabled by taking away the obstacle of travel, which, even with better travel accommodation, still creates difficulties for the disabled. A hybrid form would mean that these travel difficulties could be reduced to perhaps once a week. The suggestion that homeworking only benefits the higher skilled and higher paid employees ignores the fact that everyone will benefit from reduced traffic: builders, delivery workers and many more whose work means they have to use the road network; all will be positively affected.

The impact on the environment that less commuting brings is obvious, but setting goals that may mean people being forced to work from home should not be an option. Remote working should be for those who desire it, not an enforced way of working. Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Thank you. Can I call on the Deputy Minister for the Economy and Transport, Lee Waters?

Yes, thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I must thank the committee for their considered report and the way that they conducted the inquiry and everybody who has made a contribution to the debate this afternoon. 

As Mike Hedges has put it, what COVID has done has supercharged what was already happening. And we don't want to return by default, simply because we haven't put in place an alternative, to many of the bad old ways that we had before COVID. As Mike also pointed out, why do we want to go back to a situation where we were commuting several hours a week? And I think there has been an acceptance that, before COVID, many employers thought that working from home would not be productive, that employees couldn't be trusted, they couldn't be supervised properly, it simply wouldn't be practical, or the technology wouldn't hold up. And by and large, those concerns have proven not to be the case. As Suzy Davies pointed out, there are significant disbenefits for many from homeworking, and, particularly, there is definitely an equalities point of view. I think all of us in our domestic circumstances have seen the situations that Suzy describes of simply having just ended up doing more and absorbing the domestic chores and moving them around, and this does disproportionately fall on women, I'm sorry to say, even in enlightened households. So, we need to be alert to and aware of the dangers of this, for sure, so let's try and bottle the good but also be alert to the bad and try and deal with it. 

I'm pleased to say that the report's recommendations were broadly in line with the plans that we are already developing within Government, and we are working on a set of recommendations and a report that will be available—a strategy—for the next Government in September or October. And it is a complex piece of work to think through all of the different elements to it. Today, we have published and announced a series of pilot projects to try and test some of these interventions. This includes Costigan's in Rhyl and HaverHub in Haverfordwest, both of which aim to encourage employers and employees to try working in their local town centres. Another project will focus on how we can use spaces in rural communities across the Swansea valley.

This is in addition to a number of initiatives across the Valleys taskforce area, such as spaces where we can work surrounded by nature as part of the Valleys regional park project in Llyn Llech Owain in Carmarthenshire, and in Parc Bryn Bach in Tredegar, as well as a community-focused co-working space in the Rhondda Housing Association offices in the centre of Tonypandy. And, on top of that, Transport for Wales will be trialling using the space in their new offices in Pontypridd for other people who don't work for them to trial co-working. 

So, we'll be using these projects to monitor the appetite for and the feasibility of working locally, giving people the choice and the means to work in a town centre, and this I think represents a major opportunity to support a new economic model outside of large city centres. Of course, cities will remain important, but, for areas like the South Wales Valleys that have battled 40 years of de-industrialisation—and that's true in many parts of Wales—this represents a once-in-a-generation chance to build a new model for small towns and high streets outside of the major cities. With greater and more diverse footfall, it brings with it a chance for jobs, local spend and new vibrancy to come back to these areas, which is particularly important in the context that COVID has accelerated the end of the exclusively retail-based model of our town centres. And our Transforming Towns initiative, some £900 million-worth of investment in the last six or seven years or so, shows that we are very much committed to this, and it works with the grain of much of the policy that we already wanted to achieve. 

Of course, working across Government is ever relevant here, and, as was mentioned again in the debate both by David Rowlands and by Suzy Davies, the need for infrastructure to support this is crucial, and digital infrastructure in particular, as we've much rehearsed in this digital Chamber. This is not a devolved responsibility, but we are looking to see what value we can add to make sure that the co-working spaces we set up are fully digitally enabled. And I think there's a great opportunity, through our public sector broadband scheme, to try and link up to existing networks that we have created to make sure that this agenda is meaningful for as many people as possible. 

So, as I say, 'choice', I think, is the important word here. We know, for the majority of the employed in Wales, this is not a choice that they are able to exercise; they're not able to work from home. So, this is for a significant minority, but a minority nonetheless, and properly managed it can bring real benefits to people—avoiding a stressful commute, having greater flexibility—to communities, by using it as an opportunity to regenerate the high street, and, of course, for the environmental benefits of cutting down on congestion and unnecessary journeys. And when we debate next week, Dirprwy Lywydd, our new Wales transport strategy, you will see that our target of 30 per cent of people working from home on an ongoing basis will be a key part of our plan to try and reduce our carbon emissions and meet our net-zero targets by 2050. 

So, I would say, in conclusion, that this is a response to a crisis that has thrown up opportunities but also presented a series of challenges. We are keen to take our time to think these through, to test and pilot approaches, be acutely conscious of the equalities impacts, and try and navigate this new terrain as carefully as we can to make sure we harness the benefits and mitigate the disbenefits. Diolch.

15:55

Thank you. No Member has indicated they want to make an intervention. Therefore, I call on Russell George to reply to the debate. Russell.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I was in Newtown during the lunch break today buying a light bulb, and I was in a shop with my jeans on and my trainers and a constituent recognised me, even though I had my mask on, and thought I was having a leisurely stroll and not doing my job. I said, 'No, no, I'm out buying a light bulb; I need the light bulb to go back to my office to plug in, otherwise I will be delivering my debate in the Senedd this afternoon in the dark.' It just made me think how bizarre that conversation would have been just 12 months ago.

But, look, I thank the Members for their contribution this afternoon. I was struck by something Mike Hedges said in terms of the working experiment, in the context of children being in the home as well at the moment. That won't, hopefully, be the norm, so it's difficult to know and properly capture this experience whilst we're currently in this pandemic, of course. Other things that Mike talked about: growth determined by individual decisions—absolutely. And Mike also pointing out that the change will not be painless—I think we recognise that as a committee as well.

Thank you, Suzy, for your contribution. Quite right, homeworking isn't for everyone, and I think it's quite right as well to question what kind of demand there will be for the hubs. We just don't know yet how that is going to pan out and how that's going to fit into remote working more widely. And Suzy also was pointing out that working longer hours, especially, can affect some groups of people as well, such as women, so is something as well to take into account.

I thank David Rowlands for his contribution today. I think the scope for Welsh Government to set up co-working hubs was also discussed as well, and I think there are obviously the traffic issues as well that David Rowlands rightly mentioned.

The Minister—. I thank the Deputy Minister as well. I think that you're right, Deputy Minister, there's a point that we don't go back to the bad old days. I think you're also right that the barriers that were there in the past to homeworking have perhaps been proven wrong. I agree with that. I was interested in your announcement earlier today in regard to co-working pilots—so, interesting to see the progress in that—and of course I'm pleased that you're considering the implications for town centres, which you talked about as well.

So, apart from that, Deputy Llywydd, I would like to say that this is the last committee debate that I shall lead, so, like Kirsty Williams said earlier it was her dream job, I've felt like it's my dream job. I've really enjoyed chairing this committee and we've hit on reports on issues that I've really been passionate about and taken an interest in previously, so I've really enjoyed my time as the Chair of this committee.

But, finally, to thank the clerking team and the wider integrated team for their support—huge support from them—and we're indebted to them as Members, so thank you to them; I'd like to put that on the record. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.