Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

19/01/2022

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

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

Statement by the Llywydd

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Economy

The first item is questions to the Minister for Economy and the first question is from Jayne Bryant.

Cost of Living

1. How will the Welsh Government use economic development to tackle the UK-wide cost-of-living crisis in Wales? OQ57477

Thank you for the question. Our economic mission, alongside our upcoming employability strategy, sets out our policies to increase skills, productivity and earnings to help boost living standards here in Wales. Many of the key levers, of course, and responsibility around the cost-of-living crisis, rest with the UK Government, but the Welsh Government has already announced a £51 million household support fund and the £10 million tenancy hardship grant, which shows this Welsh Government’s commitment to support the people of Wales.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. The cost of living in the UK is dramatically increasing. Worryingly, energy price rises are only the tip of the iceberg with the news today that inflation has hit a 30-year high and still set to increase. Financial pressures will become very real to very many people. Thousands more will be driven into poverty, forced into stark choices of heating or eating. The Westminster Tory Government have all the powers and the finance to address this, but at a time when they should be doing all they can to protect people, they're into diverting more of their energy into propping up their leader. I'm glad to hear of the measures you've mentioned here in Wales, Minister, but it's imperative that we use every lever at our disposal to help those who need it, from supporting local food supply chains to ensuring that people have the skills and employment opportunities. Can you ensure that no stone is left unturned to protect the residents of Newport West and Wales throughout this difficult time?

Yes, thank you. I certainly can give you that assurance. I worry a great deal about my own constituents, as indeed I know Members in constituencies and regions will do as well, in particular due to the stark warning from the Resolution Foundation of a cost-of-living catastrophe coming up in April that would affect over half of households in the country. And of course, pre pandemic we really had made progress. So, the Resolution Foundation report in November 2020 highlighted that, before the pandemic, Wales had halved the employment gap with the UK over the devolution period and we had more jobs in the top half of the income spectrum rather than in the bottom half. So, we were already making progress.

Of course, now we are undertaking a number of measures. So, from the backing local firms fund to supporting people to gain more from their local economies, the work we're doing more broadly on the foundational economy, on supply chains, is going to create more jobs closer to home, in addition to, of course, the young person's guarantee and the employability strategy. This Welsh Government will continue to act to try to protect the citizens of Wales and to give people real hope for the future so that people really can plan a prosperous future here in Wales.

Minister, what we've heard the last couple of weeks from Members and you is that you like to berate the UK Government with the usual mantra of, 'We don't get enough money', but the fact of the matter is you've had more money than ever before. The UK Government provided furlough for workers during COVID. The UK Government is increasing the national living wage by 6.6 per cent this April. The real issue here is that the economy in Wales has been failing for over 20 years. Wales has the lowest gross disposable income in the UK. Wales lost 6 per cent of its businesses whilst Scotland and Northern Ireland went up by 10 per cent and 19 per cent respectively. We have the worst gross value added growth out of all of the four nations across the United Kingdom since 1999 and just one business in the FTSE 100. So, Minister, with the cost-of-living crisis coming, and we all are concerned about that, what further economic levers can you and the Welsh Government use to ensure that, in Wales, we're creating a high-wage, high-skilled economy?

Well, yet again, another Conservative politician who wants to divest the Conservative Government of any responsibility for the UK-wide cost-of-living crisis. The near 30-year high in inflation figures are not matters that rest with the Welsh Government. You'd have to take an extraordinary view on matters to say that that's our direct responsibility. And, as you recognise in talking about interventions like furlough, which I do think is one of the better things that the UK Government has done during the pandemic, the biggest levers and the biggest firepower rest with the UK Government. They could resolve issues around VAT. They could resolve issues to better support families rather than choose to take money out of the pockets of our hardest hit families, as they did in cutting universal credit. Each and every choice thus far has made life harder for normal working people and, actually, I think it's high time the UK Government looked again at what it could and should do. And I remind you of what I said to Jayne Bryant: pre the pandemic, Wales had halved the employment gap with the UK—still more to do, but halved the employment gap—during the devolution period, and more jobs in the top half of the income spectrum rather than at the bottom half. So real progress has been made and is being made. As you know from me yesterday, we could do so much more if we were able to have money to invest in skills rather than having it taken away from us. It's not just an issue in Wales; you might want to pay attention to the Committee for the Economy scrutiny in the Northern Ireland Assembly, which highlighted the problems they have because of the significant funding gap they too have on skills and innovation because of the broken manifesto promise in 2019.

13:35

Thank you to the Minister, and to Jayne Bryant for posing this important question.

I'm sure we're all increasingly concerned about the situation in Wales, and particularly about the pressures faced by small businesses. The pile-up of the effects of COVID, Brexit and now of rising energy costs, national insurance increases and inflation is putting huge pressures on small businesses. Labour market statistics out today show that wage increases have been far outstripped by inflation, leading to a fall in actual wages. A 2021 survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that energy costs are the biggest concern facing its members and warned that they could pose an existential threat to small firms. Just two points from me. Minister, what support could be given to businesses to enable them to invest in energy efficiency and decarbonisation measures? The Welsh Liberal Democrats have put forward plans for a business rate investment relief fund, and I wondered if you had given any consideration to introducing similar financial relief to aid businesses during the energy crisis. Diolch.

Thank you. I agree with you—the challenges of the rise in energy costs, with further rises to come, are a really significant factor in the impact on pretty much all other commodities and goods as well, so, food, and then the national insurance rise on top. All of those link back to a real crisis for homes as well as for businesses. And we've all seen regular coverage now in pretty much all mainstream media of the cost-of-living crisis here, due to get worse.

On your point about a business rate relief fund, the finance Minister has already announced there will be significant business rate relief for the first half of next year. Again, we need to look creatively at what provision there is, because, regardless of the initial spin about the three-year budget settlement, that actually isn't quite as generous as the first headlines might have seemed. Actually, the value of that money will be further denuded by the rises in inflation, having reached a near 30-year high.

And when it comes to what we're looking to do to help businesses move to more energy-efficient ways of working, actually, the investment fund that I announced before the pandemic reappeared in the form of omicron and the latest wave, part of it was actually about how we can help invest alongside businesses to improve energy efficiency. So, I'm keen to get out of this phase in the pandemic and to talk again about how we can work alongside businesses and provide incentives for them to do just that. And it's part of this point about managing a transition to decarbonise our economy. There are gains to be made from greater efficiency as well, but we will need to help businesses and families through that transition.

The Economic Resilience Fund

2. How does the economic resilience fund support Welsh businesses impacted by the pandemic? OQ57453

Thank you for the question. We have made unprecedented levels of funding available to support Welsh businesses through the pandemic, including through the unique, Wales-only economic resilience fund. The latest package of emergency support—just from ER—will provide up to £120 million to those businesses impacted by the latest protective measures to protect public health.

Minister, can I thank you, first of all, for continuing to support countless businesses and a huge number of workers not just in my constituency but across Wales during the pandemic, whilst also providing essential leadership on the economic mission that the Government is embarked on? Now, there are two particular sectors that have been hard hit during the course of the pandemic and which have enjoyed support that is only available in Wales. They are non-essential retail and taxi drivers. Minister, can you assure us that such sectors will continue to receive Welsh Government support and that you'll go on engaging with the business community and, of course, our trade unions to shape the best possible package of support for businesses?

13:40

I certainly will. Actually, it's been interesting—a recently published survey from the Cardiff Business School showed that 85 per cent of businesses who responded agreed that the support from the first two phases of the Welsh Government's economic resilience fund was as important as furlough in supporting them during the first year of the pandemic. I think that's a great credit to Welsh Government and, indeed, to the former economy Minister who oversaw those schemes. 

When it comes to non-essential retail, there is a deliberate difference between us and England. Non-essential retail is supported by measures here, but hasn't been across the border. And that's a point that was made to me forcibly by representatives of the retail sector when I met with them as part of the regular series of engagements I have with businesses, business organisations, local government and, of course, our trade unions. And, again, the point was made about freelancers, the self-employed and taxi drivers during our recent discussions. When we knew we'd have to take further measures to protect public health, I was keen to make sure that there was a form of support for taxi drivers because we know the trade was directly affected. We recently announced, of course, a doubling in that support to £1,000, showing we're listening to people, working with them and doing everything we can with the resources available to us. We'll go on listening and working with our partners here in Wales, and I believe we get better results by working in exactly that way. 

Thank you to the Member for submitting this important question as well. Minister, because of the further restrictions over Christmas and into the new year, the announcement of further financial support from the economic resilience fund is of course welcome for those businesses. However, because of the level and length of these most recent restrictions, for many it is simply not enough. An example of this is from the Night Time Industries Association, who've estimated that, on average, their members have lost around £45,000 over the festive period and into the new year. So, Minister, are those businesses lying when they say that support that they're likely to receive from the Welsh Government is not enough to cover their losses?

I think every business sector is looking to gain the greatest amount possible to support their business, and you understand exactly why they would do. When you think about the support that we've provided through the economic resilience fund, through the non-domestic rates-related support—and again, a scheme that is more generous than England—and also through the cultural recovery fund that supports a range of people in the events sector, I think, actually, you can see that we're doing everything we could and should do within the resources available to us to properly support businesses. 

Now, I don't think it's helpful to say that people are not being honest about the impact on their operations. What we're looking to do with the support we are providing is to try to make sure that businesses can survive and to support them into the recovery, and a recovery that is taking place at a more rapid pace in Wales because of the action that we took. And if you want to see the evidence for that in the public health issue, you can see that in the differential in the hospitalisation rates, and you can also see that in current case rates today, where they're nearly double in England what they are in Wales. That means we're less likely to have the direct impact those businesses also face when people aren't able to come to work because of COVID and, indeed, their customers who aren't able to come in because of COVID as well. The balance in our approach I think is the right one, and I'm confident that, in time, the further data we expect to get will prove that to be the case. 

The fund has been one way of helping businesses, but some businesses managed to survive by becoming part of the response to COVID. And I've written to the Minister and to the Government in the past on the need to maintain the supply chains created during the pandemic. Brodwaith in my constituency, as well as companies such as Elite Clothing Solutions, which is a social enterprise in the south-east, were crucial in providing personal protective equipment, but they now find themselves losing those contracts for PPE that they could still supply to the NHS. And some of these businesses, in becoming PPE suppliers, have lost some of the old contracts that they had. So, will the Minister give a commitment to look at how to maintain these supply chains, which could be a positive to come out of this pandemic?

Yes, I'll happily do so. Across the Government, Ministers are interested in the future of procurement, and how we have a properly searching test on the price but also, more importantly I think, on the value of what we are procuring as well, and on the impact on local economies of being able to source more of our goods from local supply chains, but crucially also on the resilience of the supply chains as well, because we found, in the early stages of the pandemic, that supply chains that were long established were cut off very, very quickly as the whole world was competing on a much more rapid and aggressive scale for different sorts of goods. So, yes, that is an active subject. On the particular issue you raised, I'm happy to look for the correspondence, and look to make sure that I, the health Minister and our officials do look at that properly. It is also worth pointing out, of course, that because of the way we successfully worked with Welsh businesses, and the way that our procurement teams worked in an open and transparent manner, we've had none of the scandal of an unlawful VIP lane here in Wales. That also shows that the values the Government have do matter in the choices that governments make and the way that public money is spent and safeguarded. 

13:45
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. First of all, Conservative spokesperson, Paul Davies. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, businesses across Wales, of course, welcomed the announcement on Friday by the Welsh Government to ease COVID restrictions in Wales over the next two weeks. That announcement was particularly welcomed by businesses in the hospitality and night-time sectors who have faced great hardship, not just over the past few weeks, but through the whole pandemic. The struggles still felt by those sectors still exist with the sustainability of some businesses still threatened and the possibility of jobs being lost. Minister, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the restrictions on hospitality and night-time industries in Wales? How confident are you that the current package of support from the Welsh Government is sufficient enough to cover the costs borne by businesses as a result of these restrictions? 

As a result of the protective measures, we know that a number of business sectors were not able to trade. And, of course, we required some businesses to close, as well as requiring other parts of hospitality that were open to operate in a different way. That's why we've provided the support we did. We announced that support at the time when those protective measures were being taken and announced. I've had direct engagement with the hospitality sector, including the night-time industry, and they've been very upfront about the challenges they face and the direct impact they have on their businesses, on the people who run and manage those businesses, and, indeed, on their workers. There are some people who are genuinely fearful for the future, because we're at a point where many businesses have challenges about their access to cash, as well as their ability to look forward to a different sort of trading environment. I do take seriously the concerns that are directly put to me and the direct engagement my officials have. That's why we have looked at the way in which we can make the forms of support we have slightly easier to obtain, and slightly more generous. It's also why we're continuing to work with the sector to try to make sure that we are supporting viable businesses as the trading conditions will change, and as I hope the confidence of customers will change, and people will come back to support good local businesses, both those that perhaps younger members of a different age cohort to myself and Mr Davies may want to use more regularly, as well as the wider range of businesses that we know have been directly affected by the necessary measures we've taken at this stage in the pandemic. 

Minister, as we look forward, it is important that the Welsh Government spells out exactly how it's going to support the sustainability of the sector for the future in the form of a specific strategy. As part of that strategy, the Welsh Government should look at some of the underlying challenges facing the sector prior to the pandemic and consider what lessons it can learn from the COVID pandemic, to ensure that the sector's sustainability is not threatened in the future. Of course, as we move out of the pandemic, the Welsh Government must reconsider the need for COVID passes, and, at the very least, confirm what criteria will need to be met before they are scrapped. Minister, given that COVID passes have been proven ineffective in keeping nightclubs and similar settings open, which was the whole basis, incidentally, of the Government introducing these passes in the first place, what steps now are you taking to roll back COVID passes, and instead work up industry-backed solutions to support the hospitality and night-time sectors in the short and medium term? 

When it comes to a future strategy, we are looking at what could take place in a range of different sectors. So, we're looking at a retail strategy, and we're looking at the strategy—to revisit it—for the visitor economy. That in itself will make a difference for a range of people in the hospitality sector. The two sectors are obviously linked to a significant regard. I'm also entirely open to see whether we need to do more around the events section of that, or, indeed, the night-time economy specifically. So, I'm open-minded about where we can have a useful and productive conversation. But we start from a good basis, because we do have regular engagement with people who lead and run those businesses, and there are honest conversations about challenges as well as about the levers available to us to support them. 

When it comes to the second part of your question about COVID passes, I think a number of the assertions made by the Member are simply not correct. When it comes to the introduction of COVID passes, it was on the basis that this was a useful way to manage risk and that it would help to keep businesses open for longer, because the alternative was that, to manage the public health position, there would have been further interruption and potential closures in sectors. It was about avoiding those closures and keeping those businesses open. The fact that we nevertheless had to take further steps, including the recent measures, doesn't mean that COVID passes have failed; it actually shows the strength and the impact of the omicron wave in particular in overtopping all of those defences. When you see the eye-wateringly high numbers of cases that came about, I just think it is a wholly erroneous and not terribly intellectually honest argument to say that COVID passes failed because we nevertheless had to take further measures to protect public health. I look forward to engaging with the public health advice on when COVID passes are no longer a proportionate measure to help protect public health, but there's no evidence to date it's had a significant impact on the profitability of businesses where they have been introduced.

13:50

Minister, the reality is that COVID passes have had a huge impact on the night-time economy, with some evidence showing that on average the cost to implement COVID passes per week was around £400. This would represent an annual cost of £20,000 per year. And let's not forget that these venues have been forced to shut despite the promise that COVID passes would keep them open. Today, a judicial review is being sought over the continued roll-out of COVID passes in Wales despite there being no evidence that they meet their objectives. 

Minister, these sectors are integral to us all. They're important cultural assets that promote and raise awareness of emerging new artists and musicians. They are significant employers to people, in particular many young people, and hospitality settings are often important community assets. Yet, this pandemic has been a hospitality horror story with many businesses struggling for survival and feeling let down by Governments. 

The UK Government has published its own strategy for the sector, focusing on reopening, recovery and resilience, and it's vital now that the Welsh Government do the same for the sector here in Wales. So, Minister, can you tell us what the Welsh Government's long-term thinking is for these sectors post pandemic and how you're championing these sectors' roles as hubs for community well-being as we emerge from the pandemic? Can you also confirm exactly how much money the Welsh Government has allocated from the budget to invest in resilience measures for these sectors in the future?

I think there were three particular questions there. On the first part, I simply don't agree with the Member's view around COVID passes and their impact. They're a measure that has helped us to keep sectors open where we would otherwise have had to introduce further protections that would have affected their ability to trade. We're just not going to agree on that. 

When it comes to the future for the sector, I'm optimistic about the future for the sector, because we are looking to come out of this phase of the pandemic, because I look forward to the pandemic being a point of history rather than the day-to-day reality that Ministers still have to manage. But in particular, when you come to the spring and the summer, when conditions have been much more benign, you can look forward to a bounce back in a range of activities. We've seen the way, as I said earlier, the visitor economy has made a really big difference, with more people coming to Wales, more people going into different businesses. The biggest challenge for many of those businesses has been having enough staff to cope with the demand that's come in. That's part of the challenge about having a tighter labour market that is nothing to do with the COVID pass or indeed the choices that this Government has made. I'm keen to have conversations with the sector so I don't try to impose a strategy on them, and that works in tandem with the work we are doing with a range of other businesses. We're in good shape to do that, as I've previously suggested.

When it comes to future funds being allocated, the reality is that if we have a further emergency situation we'll look to further emergency funding measures. We'd actually look for the UK Treasury to step up and do its job if any part of the UK needed to take further steps to protect public health. As the Member knows, in the draft budget unveiled by the finance Minister, it sets out a wide range of spending measures and it also makes clear we're using the maximum amount of resource we have available to help kick-start the economy and to support public services. I look forward to a full debate on the final budget. 

13:55

Diolch, Llywydd. We know that people and workers in Wales are currently living through a cost-of-living crisis, which is only set to get worse. The UK inflation rate is currently at 5.4 per cent—the highest rate in 30 years—with increases expected to continue, peaking at 6 per cent in spring 2022. These high inflation rates are considerably higher than current wage growth, which has been around 4 per cent in the second half of 2021. This means that real wages are falling and are expected to continue to fall compared to prices. In fact, wages are not expected to grow significantly until the end of 2022, and, even by 2025, real wages will be nearly £800 lower than they would have been if pre-pandemic growth had taken place. This is also disproportionately affecting those on low incomes, with nearly a third of households on low incomes seeing their income fall since May 2021. The Minister touched on this in an answer to a previous question, but given that workers are working the same or more hours, given that workers are earning less money in real terms and have a lower ability to buy the necessities they need, could the Minister set out what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that workers on the minimum wage see an increase in their wages during this cost-of-living crisis?

The Member has highlighted the point that wages have been falling in real terms, and that's a point that, of course, Jayne Bryant highlighted in the first question today—that real wages have fallen. The figures out in the last few days are of real concern. It should be of real concern to all of us. I've highlighted before some of the measures that this Government has taken in areas where we think the UK Government should have acted but we have chosen to act to try to support families. To give you the example of the £51 million that Rebecca Evans and Jane Hutt previously announced, the support we're giving to help people pay up to £100 of their winter fuel household bill should help about 350,000 households in Wales. It's not a small measure; it's got significant reach. So, we are looking at where our powers exist and where our resources exist to allow us to support families.

When it comes to the minimum wage, we're clear that we want Wales to be a high-wage economy. We want to see the living wage adopted in more sectors. You'll see that in the way in which we're working through the public sector. The health Minister will have more to say, of course, about our programme for government commitment to deliver the real living wage in the social care sector. That will make a huge difference to a sector that employs large numbers of women, often in low-paid work. And, of course, that is money that is unlikely to disappear out of the country—it's money that's likely to be recircling and spent on local families and then local jobs as well. So, we are trying to take a leadership role in seeing rises in wages, and we certainly want to see workers' wages keep pace, at the very least, with inflation. But all of those things are under threat if the UK Treasury refuses to act. I hope the distractions on other matters on the other end of the M4 can be resolved, so we can at last have a responsible Government with responsible and decent leadership that recognises that the cost-of-living crisis is here and needs action.

Of course. There are, of course, many things that can be done to address, specifically, workers' well-being and pay during this cost-of-living crisis, all of which requires swift and decisive actions from Government, not just in Cardiff, but also in Westminster.

Of course, the Minister will be aware of my and a number of cross-party colleagues' support for universal basic income, and I'm sure that the Minister has read, with great interest, the report produced by the Petitions Committee on a proposed UBI trial in Wales. Those of us who are supporting an increased trial for UBI also believe that UBI should be part of a policy package. On Monday, a four-day working week trial was launched by Autonomy, 4 Day Week UK and 4 Day Week Global. There are many known benefits to the four-day working week, such as increased productivity, improved employee well-being, and improvements in gender equality in the workplace. Microsoft trialled the four-day working week in one of their offices and found a 40 per cent increase in productivity. A poll conducted by the Scottish Government found that 80 per cent of the Scottish public thought this would improve their well-being.

What we're seeing globally is a number of trials progressing, both on UBI and the four-day work week, and whilst we have our own UBI trial here in Wales on the cards, we have yet to see the Welsh Government consider a trial for a four-day working week. Whilst I understand that Government wishes to watch closely what happens in other countries first, we are missing an opportunity here—an opportunity to push ahead with progressive policies in a way that means that they will be implemented here in Wales sooner rather than later. Would the Minister agree that we have nothing to lose in conducting our own four-day work week trial here in Wales at the earliest opportunity?

When it comes to both UBI and the four-day working week—and, of course, Jack Sargeant has a question on four-day working week trials coming up later today—we are interested in what is happening. We have nothing to lose from reviewing the evidence in other parts of the world and seeing how comparable it is. We always have challenges about how we prioritise Government resources that are limited, and are undertaking trials that are meaningful and worth while, and can tell us something about what may be able to apply in the future, and how widely spread that opportunity may be as well. It's why the universal basic income pilot is a pilot to learn more, and the First Minister has been very clear—it's a pilot that initially targets a group of people where we know that there are not great outcomes for those people in the wider economy, to learn more about how we can support that group potentially, and then whether it could be successfully applied in a wider area. And, of course, that's the whole point of pilots—to learn what works, sometimes to learn what doesn't work, and then to see if we can apply it more widely and more successfully. So, I retain an open mind and a real interest in learning from action in this country, across these islands and, indeed, from further afield as well. 

14:00

Question 3 [OQ57461] has been withdrawn, so question 4, Jack Sargeant.

A Four-day Working Week

4. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Social Justice regarding supporting employers who are considering trialling a four-day working week? OQ57469

Our officials continue to work together on all matters, including this subject. Where employers have viable proposals for a shorter working week, we will consider what we can do to assist them through our business support and advisory services.

I'm very grateful for your answer, Minister, and as we've discussed this afternoon, there is a four-day week pilot being launched in the UK, in partnership with the think tank Autonomy and 4 Day Week Global. Could I stress the importance of these trials to learn, and could I ask you, Minister, what conversations both you and the Minister for Social Justice have had with the think tank Autonomy and 4 Day Week Global about supporting Welsh employers who may be interested in this trial? Given your answer to the previous question, Minister, will you also commit to looking at the findings of this trial and reporting back to the Senedd with a view to holding an extended trial here in Wales? Diolch yn fawr. 

Thank you for the comments. The Minister for Social Justice is leading on this as a policy area of work, and my officials will be working alongside hers in doing so. I think it's worth pointing out that we're interested in a variety of different forms of more flexible working, both the place that people work, the hours that people work and how they work those hours. Now, some businesses are already doing some of this. We know that some countries are already piloting different measures. Some people manage to compress their hours into a shorter number of days without losing any hours or pay; other people are looking at working fewer hours, and whether you can actually get a more productive workforce as a result.

Our officials are aware that we're expecting further reports around the four-day week, including the work that Autonomy are undertaking, and I understand some of that work is being done with the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. So, we remain actively interested in this area of policy formulation, but as I say, if there are businesses that want to trial a four-day working week, we would be interested in having a properly constructive conversation about how that would fit into the work we're already doing, whether we could support them, and how then we take on board the learning that comes from those, to see whether it could be applied more generally, whether in public services or, indeed, the wider economy, but to work alongside our partners in doing so. I should also point out my officials are in contact with the Scottish Government as they themselves are looking to implement a pilot in this area too, as I'm sure the Member's aware.

Thank you, Minister. Let me take it a little further. Minister, many employers already offer flexible working conditions, recognising that organisations can very often benefit from arrangements that respond to people's lifestyles, family arrangements and responsibilities. Has the Minister reached out to organisations that offer more flexibility to understand the evidence of those benefits, and if so, what does it tell him? Thank you.

Yes, we do have regular conversations with businesses and business organisations around what used to be called agile working and is sometimes called flexible working. But it's about the different working patterns that can suit workers and businesses. It's also worth reminding ourselves that, for some people, that flexibility is a bit of a mirage. There are far too many Welsh workers who work in an environment where they don't have those choices to make, so greater flexibility should benefit all of us, and it's not—. When I was a younger man in the world of work, flexible working was almost always a conversation around women and childcare, and actually, it's a much broader conversation that we should have about the whole workforce and how we can get a more productive workforce to take account of the change that has been accelerated through the pandemic, with many people, men and women, thinking again about the value they get from work and the value they get from other parts of their life, too.

A work-life balance is just as important to me as, indeed, it is to other people in the economy as well. So, I'm interested in what we can do alongside businesses. I'm also interested to see if the UK Government really is going to take a step forward in some of its broader and fluffier manifesto pledges around flexible working, because if flexible working is going to be made easier and more easy to attain, then, actually, the law is one way of doing it. The other, of course, excellent way that the Member will be aware of, I'm sure, as a British Medical Association member in the past, is actually that highly unionised sectors tend to have better terms and conditions and a much better and more enlightened attitude to flexible working, so if you want more flexible working in your workplace, joining a union would be a good place to start. 

14:05
Job Creation through Inward Investment

6. Will the Minister outline a timeline and targets for job creation through inward investment in Wales? OQ57462

We aim to attract quality inward investment to Wales, as set out in the five-year international strategy and the economic mission within our programme for government. These focus on promoting specific economic sectors where Wales is recognised internationally along with critical magnets and assets that are attractive to investors.

Thank you for your response, Minister. The chief economist's report in 2020 highlights that the growth in productivity and inward investment has been very sluggish in Wales since the 2008 financial crash. The Welsh Government's approach has focused more on pet projects, with big promises but little return on economic development, for example your disastrous enterprise zones, a failure to invest in transport infrastructure, and the Circuit of Wales project. The former Welsh Development Agency, for all its faults, made significant progress in growing Wales's economy, attracting large levels of investment into Wales. Has any thought been given to re-establishing a body such as this to breathe life back into the Welsh economy, as it is since the WDA's powers were transferred back to the Welsh Government that the problems have begun? The approach to economy in Wales has changed to 'hit and hope', and value for money for taxpayers has become a second thought, a decent transport infrastructure is not on the cards, and investors have now looked elsewhere in the UK. Wales is craving inward investment, Minister. What are you doing to promote Wales as the best place to set up a business, which obviously in turn will create more jobs in prime locations, such as along the M4?

Well, as ever, a certain view on the past that isn't fully reflective of what happened is something that I've come to expect. I just don't accept the entirely rose-tinted view on where the WDA was compared to where things are now. And actually, last year, Wales saw an increase in inward investment, the only UK country to do so. And you'll have seen—or if you haven't, you may want to look at it—the international evidence and forecasts that suggest that, actually, inward investment in the next year or so is unlikely to significantly rebound. Part of the challenge of the pandemic and its global reach is that those inward investment projects are less likely in terms of the number and the scale. Despite that, we have 1,300 foreign-owned companies in Wales that employ, we estimate, over 165,000 people. A range of those are high-value and long-term partners. I, myself, have had regular conversations around trade and around supporting businesses that export and import, around supporting further foreign direct investment. I've had direct conversations with some of those potential investors as well. And the point about what we're trying to do is to be smarter about how we use our resources, to have people who are interested in a long-term future in Wales and a high-value future in Wales. So, we're continuing to pursue areas to attract investment in Wales from across the globe, and that includes working with the Department for International Trade as well. So, I look forward to continuing to see Wales as a good place to invest, whether you're a local, home-grown business—and we want more of those—as well as the potential for inward investment alongside that.

Minister, if we were able to have an electric bus manufacturing plant in Wales, that would be very beneficial for our economy, for jobs and for the environment. In Newport East, we have CAF, as you know, who supply trains. They also have a bus manufacturing capability in other European countries, and I wonder if Welsh Government might hold talks with CAF, given I know they have ambitions to establish an electric bus manufacturing plant alongside their train operation on the old Llanwern site in Newport.

14:10

[Inaudible.]—investment project that has been landed by the Welsh Government, working alongside other partners. And again, going back to the previous tenure of Ken Skates, where I think a significant amount was done to gain high-value inward investment with a company that's now committed to a Welsh footprint. I've visited the CAF site as well in your constituency. As you know, I'm impressed by their commitment to their local workforce, the high-quality nature of the jobs, and it was interesting that I had the meeting at CAF alongside the business and, indeed, the recognised union, the GMB, when I visited. So, I'm open-minded about future investments, and I'm happy to work alongside businesses that have a real commitment to Wales as well. So, if there is a viable proposition around further electric bus manufacture, I'm interested in how that can be done and what that means in terms of resources we have available to help support that. So, I look forward to contacting my officials to see if they've had the same conversation about the potential for future investment from CAF in Wales. 

Business Support

7. What plans does the Welsh Government have to help businesses in the Vale of Clwyd to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ57464

Thank you. As the Member knows, we are providing significant resources to help recover. We are providing almost £140 million, when you take into account of the £120 million economic resilience fund, the £15.4 million cultural recovery fund, and the initial £3 million put into the spectator sports fund. That's the emergency business support that we've provided. Since April 2020, the Member may wish to know that businesses in Denbighshire have received over £65.7 million in grant support. That does not, though, include the support from the separate cultural recovery fund packages, which compare very well with those available across the border, which I'm sure the Member will be pleased to hear. 

Yes, I appreciate that response, Minister. A large number of businesses in my constituency rely on the tourism and leisure markets, as do many across the north Wales coastal strip, and the past two years have been pretty disastrous, as you'll be aware. Not only do these businesses need continued help with such things as business rates in order to help with large losses incurred over recent times, but they also need assurances that future restrictions will be the very last resort. So, Minister, with that in mind, what discussions have you had with Cabinet colleagues about ensuring the Vale of Clwyd and, indeed, the whole of Wales, is fully open for business when the tourist season begins in just a few short weeks? 

Actually, I think your characterisation that tourism and leisure have been disastrous in the last two years doesn't quite accord with the reality of what's happened. Some businesses really have suffered, but a range of others in the tourism sector have actually done extraordinarily well, and that's because many people have taken their holidays and more time visiting other parts of the UK. And actually, north Wales has done particularly well out of that. We've seen the pressure that's produced in a range of local communities as a result of the extraordinary success of the visitor economy in the last two years. A number of businesses say they've had better years as a result than they previously had expected. That, of course, comes alongside other businesses, especially those that have run events and visitor attractions, individual ones, where it has been much more challenging. So, the picture is more mixed than the Member presents.

And, actually, when it comes to introducing public health protection measures that affect the way businesses can operate, this is never the first option of the Government. And if you had ever had to have the responsibility to consider the impact on public health—the physical impact of COVID, the mental health impact of COVID, and what it means to act or not to act—then I don't think you'd be quite so cavalier in painting restrictions and protective measures as something that Ministers want to do because we like to do it. That's been the broad tenor of many Conservative comments. It is always a balanced approach, recognising the harm that is done to the economy in having public health protections, and the balance of trying to protect people's health and well-being, so that more people are able to go to work, more people are able to spend their hard-earned money in businesses here in Wales. And I believe that our proportionate approach is one that is bearing fruit as we exit the restrictions that we have introduced in better shape than other parts of the United Kingdom, most notably England.

Employability of Young People

8. What measures has the Welsh Government put in place to improve employability prospects for young people in North Wales? OQ57466

Thank you. The young person's guarantee has, of course, commenced, and I'll have more to say on the young person's guarantee, moving forward, and its component parts, in the coming months. We're also reviewing our employability strategy as well. We would, of course, be better able to meet the predicted employability needs of young people if we were in a position to have guarantees around receiving full replacement funding for former European Union funds that, of course, supported skills and other interventions to help improve prospects for young people in north Wales and beyond.

If you'll just excuse me for a moment, I'll close the door, as my son doesn't need to join in. [Laughter.]

14:15

Certainly. I saw the door. You have got a blurred background, so that helps. [Laughter.] Thank you, Minister. I recently visited a new community facility called Tŷ Calon in north Wales. It's been part funded by Welsh Government as part a learning hub. It was raised with me that there is a gap that needs filling for some of the young people that they support, in particular those who have dropped out of school and are waiting to go into further education, but need help in building confidence, resilience and some foundational skills for that step up. Is there any funding available for this cohort of young people?

Yes. I actually think that, for that group of young people, it's where our traineeship programme should be able to help, and we're looking at how to refine those interventions. The traineeship programme was aimed at helping young people aged 16 to 18 in Wales, and to give those young people the skills they need to progress further, either in further education and apprenticeships or employment. It also supports them with the development of soft skills, and tries to provide purposeful training and work experience opportunities. So, I'd be more than happy for my officials to engage with you around issues with Tŷ Calon to make sure that they get access to the right sort of information to help Tŷ Calon succeed in its mission.

Social Enterprises

9. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the financial barriers that stop social enterprise start-ups in Wales? OQ57451

Thank you. We work closely with the social enterprise sector, and finance has been raised as a key barrier for social enterprises to start up. That's why, through WEFO, our Welsh European Funding Office, the New Start programme pilot was approved in 2020. I've also committed a further £235,000 to support the creation of social enterprises, targeting climate change, to help the sector deliver a fairer, greener economic recovery here in Wales.

Thank you. As the Minister will be aware, small-scale social enterprises are a business model that struggles to take hold in the marketplace, with funding being by far the biggest challenge it faces, particularly start-up capital. Since most social entrepreneurs are individuals, the predominance of funding comes from their savings rather than traditional forms of financing, such as bank loans.

Despite the fact that some people are willing to pay more for goods and services that come from a social enterprise, many consumers—particularly those who are among the poorest in society—are price sensitive, and will look to purchase at the most competitive price. The problem that this creates for social enterprises is that it limits their ability to expand, as their business model is not always profitable enough to access the necessary funds.

In Valleys communities, we have a juxtaposition, in that these are the communities most likely to benefit from social enterprises, yet they are the least likely to be able to afford to pay more for goods and services. With this in mind, Minister, what assessment has the Government made of the long-term financial support that is needed for social enterprises in Wales in order for them to expand from being small and medium enterprises? Thank you.    

Well, there's an honest challenge there, and I know that the Member won't like it, but it comes back to some of the reasons why we've talked so much about former European funds. A lot of the support that we provided has actually come come from the former European funds that we used to receive. Not having those means that we're compromised in our ability to do that; we have to direct resources from other parts of the Government. I would like to be able to do more and give more certainty, and actually not having certainty about where those funds are coming from is a real problem. The specialist business support that often social enterprises need to move to a position of being generally profitable is something that we do have a range of people that can provide. So, we support Social Business Wales, the Wales Co-operative Centre and others to do just that.

Our challenge will be that, if there isn't the money available, it means that we're having to cut our cloth accordingly, and that is a real problem. I want to carry on supporting this sector. I think that they have a big role to play in communities right across the country. We would be in a much better position to give them the stability that I think they need and deserve if we had greater certainty on how replacement EU funds were going to be used. I would have thought that that point, in itself, should not be one that should in fact be party controversial, but I'd hope we could get rather more agreement on wanting stability in funding coming to Wales to do just what the Member suggests should happen.

14:20
2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

We now move to questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services. Question 1 [OQ57459] is withdrawn. Question 2 first, therefore, and that is from Rhianon Passmore.

Patients Hospitalised with COVID-19

2. Will the Minister provide an update on the number of patients hospitalised with COVID-19 in the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board? OQ57479

As of 12 January, there were 178 COVID-related patients in hospital across the health board area.

Diolch, Llywydd and Minister. Thank you for that update. Sadly, 1,160 people have died in the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board with deaths relating to COVID-19. The citizens of Islwyn and Wales have sacrificed so much in our continued fight against this vicious virus during the pandemic. The World Health Organization's COVID chief, David Nabarro, this week stated:

'Looking at it from a UK point of view, there does appear to be light at the end of the tunnel',

and it is never too late to be vaccinated in Wales. With COVID restrictions set to be lightened over the next few weeks, what can the Welsh Government do to reach and persuade people who are still to be convinced of the value of vaccination, and does the Welsh Government have any further public information plans to target the unvaccinated sections of our society, either through direct correspondence, or via new public health messaging?

Diolch yn fawr, Rhianon. I think what's really important is that we make it absolutely clear that it's never too late to arrange an appointment for a first or a second vaccine or a booster dose. So, together with our health boards and a wide range of partners, we're encouraging vaccine take-up, making it as easy as possible to get the vaccine, by offering a really flexible service that adapts according to local circumstances. So, obviously, in many places around Wales we have mass vaccination centres. They have extended hours, opening in the evening and on weekends as well. There have also been travel initiatives and pop-up clinics, walk-in centres and mobile services. And of course we've given additional incentives to GPs to take the vaccine into people's homes. And then, on top of that, we've had vaccine clinics in some very unusual places, making sure that people feel comfortable in surroundings where, if we hadn't done it there, they may not have stepped forward, particularly, in faith communities, cultural and community centres.

All of those are areas where we have tried to make a point of making sure that the information and the opportunity to have a vaccine are available, but also that the language issue is something that we're trying to overcome as well. There are details of all of this on the websites of the local health boards, and I would encourage everybody to take the opportunity to take up this vaccine offer. It's never too late to be protected.

Minister, whilst I understand that COVID has put the NHS in Wales under immense pressure, as it currently stands, hospitalisations for COVID are stable. With this in mind, Minister—. I'm contacted by constituents on a daily basis, as I'm sure we all are, with constituents in pain wondering how much longer they can go on. Minister, for example, an 83-year-old gentleman with osteoarthritis desperately waiting for a hip operation for three years, living in constant pain, is wondering how much longer he can go on living like this. Minister, we cannot continue to delay; waiting lists were far too long before the pandemic hit. Now that we are seeing COVID numbers falling and hospital rates stable, can you press to get elective surgery started again, to give people some hope? Thank you.

Thanks very much, Laura. I can't tell you how aware I am of the many thousands of people—not just your constituents, but people across the whole of Wales—who are genuinely suffering at the moment and are in a lot of pain. So, it is, after COVID, my first priority to get those waiting lists down. We're already working very hard with the health boards. We've set out some clear guidance in terms of what we expect to happen. We're waiting for them to report with their integrated medium-term plans, so they'll be presenting plans that they would like to bring forward.

I've made it clear to them, for example, that I want to see in those plans an opportunity for us to address some of these issues on a regional basis—so, not just keep them within the footprint of the health boards themselves—because I firmly believe that, if people are in pain, they're actually probably willing to travel a little bit further afield if they can go back and recover and recuperate closer to home. So, I'm very keen to see that kind of new model being developed. We're waiting for these to be presented. I've made it absolutely clear that it's going to be difficult during this period and we all knew that, as omicron was going to work itself through the NHS system, there would have to be a cutback in terms of the number of planned care operations carried out.

We'll be getting the new and latest statistics on waiting lists tomorrow. I've made it absolutely clear that I don't expect us to get back to normal or to get to a place where we're really trying to be really tackling that waiting list until maybe the spring because of the restrictions that we have to put in place due to COVID. So, it's not an easy option. I have absolute empathy for all those people in pain, and I would encourage your constituent to get in touch with their GP just to make sure that they've got some support and some help and some painkillers to get them through to that point where we can offer them that support that we're all desperate to get to them.

14:25

One crucial factor in ensuring hospitals can provide care is the level of staff absences. You've said, Minister, that there were around 10,000 staff absences in the Welsh NHS last week, and 98 per cent of British Medical Association Cymru members said they're concerned about staffing levels because of those absences. Last week, I asked the First Minister about providing higher grade masks for NHS staff, and he told me that the Welsh Government's policy was based on the advice of a UK-wide specialist group and, at the time, it wasn't advising making these masks available nationally. Following that exchange, Minister, concerns were relayed to me by doctors who feared that that advice was not scientifically sound in terms of ensuring their safety. I understand that the UK advice has now been updated and new guidance states that FFP3 masks must be worn by staff caring for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID infection. So, could you confirm whether the Welsh Government has received this new advice, and, if so, whether you intend to implement it, and, if you do, finally, could you give us an idea of timescale in terms of how long it'll take to fit-test all remaining front-line staff, to get these respirators to where they're needed, please?

Thanks very much, Delyth. I'm pleased to say that the sickness levels within the NHS have actually reduced from a week ago, so they were at about 8.3 per cent of staff off a week ago, now down to 7.3 per cent and, of those, around 1.7 per cent were off with COVID, and about 1 per cent of them were off for self-isolation reasons. So, the rest of them were kind of normal sickness that happens to lots of people at this time of year anyway.

In relation to the masks, I haven't seen that advice. I'm very happy to go and see if something's arrived, but I obviously can't give you any commitment on that until I've seen that advice, but I'll make a point of going to ask if we have received any additional update. I know it's something that we're constantly looking at; it's constantly kind of, 'Look, should we be doing this?' And we're waiting for the advice to change. We have been waiting for the advice to change. If the advice has changed, then, obviously, we will have to look at that again, but I haven't seen that updated advice, but I'll make a point of going to look for it now, Delyth.FootnoteLink

Access to Healthcare for People with Hearing Loss

3. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the barriers in accessing healthcare that affect people with hearing loss? OQ57440

Thanks very much, Joel. The Welsh Government requires NHS organisations to assess barriers to accessing healthcare that affect people with hearing loss in line with the Equality Act 2010. Annual reports are submitted for assessment, detailing achievements made towards implementation of the all-Wales standards for accessible communication and information for people with sensory loss.

Thank you, Minister, and, as you mentioned, the all-Wales standards for accessible communication and information for people with sensory loss policy provides clear guidance on what GPs and hospitals should do to make their services more accessible for people with hearing and sight loss. It aims to make sure people with sensory loss can understand the health information they're given and have access to qualified British Sign Language interpreters or other forms of communication support during NHS appointments. Disappointingly, patients with sensory loss have reported to the group Action on Hearing Loss Cymru that they're not seeing the increased accessibility they were promised.

In 2018, a Welsh health circular stated that all relevant staff must be made aware of their responsibilities for recording such information, in order to support individuals with information and/or communication needs that are related to or caused by sensory loss. However, a Social Care Institute for Excellence survey found that, in Wales, more than half the people surveyed still leave their GP surgery unclear about their diagnosis or how to take their medication. In addition, 42 per cent of deaf BSL users say that communication at their appointments is inadequate because they don't have an interpreter and 36 per cent of survey respondents have to travel to their GP to book an appointment in person as they can't use the phone. With this in mind, would the Minister outline what action they intend to take to make sure that local health boards have mandatory induction training on sensory loss for NHS staff? And will the Minister outline what the Welsh Government proposes to do to enforce implementation of the current policy? Thank you.

14:30

Thanks very much, Joel, and it's disappointing to hear what you're setting out there. I know that officials are currently assessing the most recent submissions against those criteria that we set out in those all-Wales standards for communication and information for people with hearing loss. What those standards do is set out what every patient or service user should expect from those standards. And obviously I am concerned if we're not meeting those standards. So, presumably that will come through when those submissions are assessed. So, I'm just waiting for those. They then are going to report their findings to the NHS Wales national executive board and the NHS delivery framework board. And the idea then is to discuss any concerns they have in terms of the implementation of standards with those appropriate organisations, and if you're saying that there's a particular problem with GP surgeries, then obviously we'd expect that to come out in those assessments.

I guess that actually the move to online may be helpful in this regard, that the eConsult process should be easier for people with hearing loss in terms of being able to access GP surgeries. But the key thing is that we do need to learn from best practice, so I'll look forward to seeing that assessment and those submissions when they come in.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Welsh Conservative spokesperson first, James Evans.

Diolch, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, are you aware that the latest figures from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre suggest that a staggering 81 per cent of patients confirmed with COVID-19 in Wales had a BMI of over 25, when the healthy range is between 18.5 and 24.9. We're already seeing the stage when nearly two thirds of Welsh adults are overweight or obese, with a quarter of Welsh adults being obese. This is one of the highest rates in the UK. Obesity causes one of the biggest risks to your health, from heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and orthopaedic problems, and this costs the NHS millions of pounds each year. Minister, do you think that 'Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales' has reduced obesity figures over the last few years or is it yet again a Welsh Government strategy that is simply not working?

Can the Deputy Minister's microphone be unmuted, please? Lynne Neagle. Yes, there it is; sorry for that. Deputy Minister.

Thank you. Thank you, James, for that question. I haven't seen the study that you have referred to, although of course I'm very well aware of the link between being overweight and increased susceptibility to having serious COVID. But I completely refute your suggestion that our strategy, 'Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales', is just another Welsh Government strategy. We're investing £6.6 million every year in this strategy, which is about to be re-launched and will take account of the fact that the pandemic has actually worsened the problems that we face with obesity. We will have a range of measures in place to drive down the levels of obesity, which are not just a problem in Wales, they are a problem throughout the UK.

14:35

Thank you, Deputy Minister. And I do appreciate it isn't just a problem in Wales, it is a problem across the UK. You said to myself and colleagues on the Children, Young People and Education Committee that you're due to set out a new delivery plan for 'Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales' between 2022 and 2024 on 1 March, which is due to be a cross-departmental effort, with seven national priority areas. I'd just be interested to know, given that the previous delivery plan was published less than a year ago, how much progress has been made on the eight national priority areas in that plan. And do you think that the £6.6 million in the 2022-24 budget for 'Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales' is enough to carry out your aims in the new delivery plan, considering the rising numbers of people becoming overweight?

Well, in terms of the delivery plan we've been working to, that had to be adapted because of the impact of the pandemic. The pandemic has undoubtedly had an impact on our ability to take action in this area and, as I've already said, has actually worsened the problems with obesity and people being overweight. I set out the figures that we are investing, which are very substantial, in the children's committee last week. But we are keeping the delivery plan under regular review, so that we can actually flex our actions to respond to the outcomes that we're seeing. For instance, I referred in the committee last week to the investment that we're putting in to the children and families pilot. Well, obviously, we'll want to look at the impact of those pilots, identify how we can use the learning, and then, if necessary, will use further funding to take that forward. So, I don't see the document as being set in stone at all. Obviously, it's something that has to be a living document, particularly in light of the impact we've seen the pandemic having on people's physical and mental health; we're all moving less, and that presents more significant challenges.

Thank you, Deputy Minister. And I do agree that these documents should be live, working documents that do change and adapt, but it is nice to see what delivery comes from those sorts of measures that are in those documents.

Finally, you mentioned last week that the diabetes prevention programme was now live in Wales, and I'm really, really pleased to see that. But I am concerned that we have a lot of catching up to do with our neighbours, given that the English NHS launched their own programme in 2016, and the Scottish NHS not long after, in 2017. Current estimates suggest that one in five of the Welsh population are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and this is going to cost the Welsh NHS up to £500 million a year to help manage diabetes and the complications that come with that, so we need to be reassured that this new programme will be a success. So, I want to know what milestones and targets you're working towards in the programme, and how you will ensure that it's reviewed honestly and regularly. Diolch, Llywydd, and thank you very much, Minister.

Thank you, James. As I said last week in the committee, we've been piloting the diabetes prevention programme, and what we're doing now is upscaling that across the whole of Wales. But that is not the only measure that we're taking to prevent type 2 diabetes. We've also got the all-Wales weight management pathway, which covers children and adults, and I think we shouldn't forget that, unfortunately, we're seeing more children now being at risk of type 2 diabetes, which is incredibly worrying. But also, in terms of what we are doing as Ministers to drive delivery in this area, both myself and Eluned Morgan have been very clear that we see this area as a priority for prevention. It has been set out in the measures that have been issued to NHS bodies in Wales by the Minister, and we are both making sure that, in our discussions with the NHS, we continue to drive home the message that we expect them to deliver on this agenda and to make a difference in this agenda. It is challenging to set targets in this area, especially as we come out of, hopefully, the pandemic, because things like the child measurement programme have been affected, but we have been very, very clear that we expect those services to be recovered, and that the expectation of Ministers is that reducing levels of overweight and obesity is a priority for us, and that's something that we will be measuring going forward.

14:40

Thank you very much, Llywydd. Seventy per cent of care home residents live with dementia, and social contact, particularly with family or informal carers, is very important to them in terms of keeping hold of their cognitive skills and so on. The safety measures during lockdown were crucial in terms of preventing the spread of COVID, but given the evidence, such as research by the Alzheimer's Society, that suggests that 82 per cent of people with dementia had seen their condition decline during the first lockdown and that the reduction in social contact was a major factor in that, would the Minister agree with the principle of what John's Campaign is calling for, namely that we must find ways of safeguarding those contacts, even in the face of the challenges of COVID? And is the change in legislation to make visiting rights a fundamental human right for patients with dementia, as the Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts called for recently, something the Minister could support?

Thank you very much, Rhun. I am highly aware of the fact that so many people are experiencing dementia the length and breadth of Wales, not just those in care homes, but there are many people living at home too who have been isolated, have had less social contact, and we have seen decline during that period among elderly people particularly. And that is why, time and time again, we have ensured that we look in detail at what the guidance should be in terms of visiting care homes. We have tried to strike the right balance, and it is difficult to do that, because everyone would be screaming and shouting if we had seen a system where we were introducing omicron or COVID into care homes. So, we have to strike the right balance, and it's difficult. 

Our guidance is clear. People do have a right to visit a loved one in a care home, but the problem is that most of these are privately run homes, run by people who have to pay for insurance, and they fear that their insurance wouldn't safeguard them if COVID was introduced into their care home. So, in terms of a change in legislation, I think that would be a very major step to take in terms of what constitutes a human right. Now, a human right says that an individual has a right to a family life—I think that's the wording, I'm not sure. So, I'm sure you could appeal to that already. So, the question following on from that is whether that would stand up in a court of law. I think it would be very difficult to go any further than that. I don't know if there are other examples elsewhere in the world, but that right already exists, the right to a family life. 

Thank you for that response. And, yes, it would be a major step, but an important step too. And the whole point of placing it in legislation would be to ensure that the principle couldn't be ignored; one would have to act on that principle.

In Wales, very promising steps have been taken—the principle of care partners in the Wales dementia action plan, for example—but there is a great gulf between what is described in that plan and the reality of the situation. There are health and care settings where guidance isn't followed. As the Minister mentioned, there are additional problems in terms of having insurance for issues related to COVID in care homes, and I echo Care Forum Wales's own request for an indemnity scheme, similar to the NHS's indemnity scheme, for the care sector. But as we are now in the last year of the current dementia plan—and this is the key issue—how will the Government seek to ensure that positive words are made a reality?

14:45

Thank you very much. We have set out the guidance clearly. I know that Julie Morgan has ensured that she's done everything in her power to allow people the access they need to go and visit their families. The current dementia plan—. We're looking to the future now, and I think there is an opportunity there to see how far we could go with individual rights. But I would have thought that rights—. A right is a major legislative step to take. Clearly, we would then need to make place in the political agenda to deal with that. It would be a very major step. So, I'm willing to look at the issue and to consider whether it would make sense, but I think the best thing would be to try to continue to convince those who haven't been following guidance that it is part of their responsibility to do so. And, of course, most of these care homes are in receipt of funding from local authorities, from the Government, and therefore there is a possibility there to try and see what impact we could have through the contracts that we provide to these homes. 

The next question is to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Social Services and to be asked by Natasha Asghar. That's question 4. 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

4. Will the Minister provide an update on plans to improve services for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? OQ57468

Thank you. It is vital that all children and adults with a neurodevelopmental condition, including those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, can access the services that they need. A demand and capacity review of all neurodevelopmental services will report in March, and we will act on the recommendations it makes for improvement across Wales.

Thank you for your reply, Minister, and also for your prompt reply to my written question on this issue. I'm very pleased to hear that you have plans for a new time framework to improve children's early access to the right support, as well as a collaboration across Government to improve support for people with ADHD. However, as I said during last week's business statement, many adults across Wales are being undiagnosed in their childhood, and we know that a person's personal circumstances can bring about profound change within their mental health. Sufferers go undiagnosed until adulthood, because the diagnostic criteria is based on research that focuses on traits exhibited by young boys. Leading psychologists have warned that gender bias is leaving many women with ADHD undiagnosed, and it's estimated that tens of thousands of women in the UK were actually unaware that they have the condition and are not receiving the help that they need. I was surprised to see with my own eyes the NHS 111 Wales website state, with regard to such services, and I quote, 

'Who you are referred to depends on your age and what is available in your local area.'

Minister, this began with a constituent who had contacted me to complain that his doctor's surgery could not do a referral for his wife, as there is no such service available. And since my statement in the Senedd previously, more and more people are writing to me from various areas in Wales expressing the hurdles they have faced personally and for their loved ones. So, can you, please, Deputy Minister, confirm that the planned new framework will address these concerns of those adults who have not yet been diagnosed in their childhood and require support? And will you be able to give some insight as to when your proposals will be published? Thank you. 

Thank you very much, Natasha, for that question, and thank you very much for the work that you've been doing to raise the profile of ADHD. I think it's been well publicised, and thank you for that. We know how important it is to concentrate on assessment and support for neurodevelopment conditions, which includes, of course, ADHD, and, of course, includes adults. And the review I've already mentioned will cover children and adults. It will report in March and will provide options for service improvements. It will say where the pathway is ahead, and we plan to publish a delivery plan before we go for the summer recess. So, before summer, we will know what the plans are. I'm very aware of the situations that you describe, and I'm aware that many adults were not diagnosed when they were children and that there is a need there amongst the adult population that we're only just beginning to recognise and we're not really aware of the extent of it. So, we need to find out much more about it, and we are looking at the data that we collect in order to do that.

I'm also aware about the issue that Natasha mentions about women and girls and the fact that, with conditions such as ADHD and autism, they are much less likely to receive a diagnosis than men and boys are. I think the reasons for this are very complex, but we're working with our stakeholders, which of course does include women who have ADHD themselves, to consider the impact of this disparity and how we can increase good practice in this area.

So, we're very aware of all those points you make and we have a pathway ahead, and, as I said, thank you for the attention you're giving to this subject.

14:50
COVID-19 Transmission Levels

5. What new steps is the Welsh Government taking to address COVID-19 transmission levels? OQ57467

We are supporting all areas in reducing community transmission. Local action and protections are targeted at areas where rates are increasing. The virus spreads more easily in urban areas where the population density is higher.

Thank you, Minister. I welcome the steps that you have outlined in your respone. The pandemic has clearly revealed the socioeconomic inequalities that exist within our society, and indeed have exacerbated those inequalities. These inequalities are also health inequlaities, with a clear relationship between one's socioeconomic situation and the impact of COVID on them. Figures from England show that those living in communities described as being left behind are 46 per cent more likely to die of COVID as compared to those not living in these communities, and the 'Locked Out' report in Wales noted that socioeconomic factors play a crucial role in the higher level of deaths among disabled people and the impact on their health and care compared to the rest of the population as a result of COVID. It's clear therefore that the Government's health policy for the future needs to do more to deal with these inequalities as we continue to tackle COVID levels and its impact, including long COVID. Could the Government therefore ensure that any new steps to tackle the transmission and impact of COVID incorporate clear strategies to tackle these health inequalities? Thank you.

Thank you very much, Sioned. This follows on from the discussion we had in the Senedd last week. I thought that was a very detailed and appropriate debate from everyone who contributed. We're highly aware of the difference in terms of where COVID has hit hardest, and it's clear that those in poorer areas, in poorer households have suffered more than other areas. Therefore, as we rebuild from the pandemic, clearly we consider these issues not just in terms of health but across Government in order that we do more to ensure that we don't see those inequalities for the future.

From a health perspective, I have made it very clear to the health boards that we would see the same outcome if we were to have another pandemic, unless we do things differently. So, from my perspective, I've been entirely clear with the health boards that we do have to tackle the issue of prevention. We have to stop people from smoking. We've been discussing obesity too. All of those factors are crucially important in terms of individual health for the future. But it's not something that is limited to health; it is crucial that we consider education, the economy, and all of the other issues that contribute to the way in which people live.

Minister, despite having the most stringent measures in place to curb the transmission of COVID-19, Wales has the highest infection rates of any home nation and one of the highest per capita death rates in the world. Does your Government now accept that the non-pharmaceutical interventions are now doing more harm than good? And with, according to your chief medical officer, over 90 per cent of the Welsh population possessing COVID-19 antibodies, do you accept that we now have to learn to live with COVID, rather than focusing our efforts on how to stop it?

14:55

Thanks very much, Gareth. I almost encouraged you, didn't I, yesterday, to ask me this question, so I'm very pleased that you have asked me this question, because it gives me an opportunity to say that, actually, the data we've had so far actually suggests that those restrictions were helpful. We've certainly seen a difference in terms of hospitalisation. We're just waiting for that data to be processed. England certainly had higher rates in terms of hospitalisation compared to all of the other three nations that introduced restrictions. It's still early days, so we'll wait for that final data to be published, hopefully by the end of this week.

I think, also, this is about counting, Gareth. So, the way we count cases is different in all four nations. For example, England doesn't count reinfections, so that could make a considerable difference. Wales does count reinfections if they are 42 days apart. That makes a big difference to the numbers. Our policy on testing changed, of course, so that may have made a difference. Also, I think what you'll find is that people modified their behaviour in England when they heard the chief medical officer, because, obviously, your Prime Minister was not in a position to tell anyone to do anything because of all the parties he'd been holding. So, what happened is that people listened to the chief medical officer in England and they curbed their behaviour. What they didn't have in England was the kind of economic support that we were able to give to our businesses because of the protections that we put in place. I'm pleased to say that the indications so far are that it was helpful to put those restrictions in place, but, obviously, we will need to wait for a few more days just to be absolutely confident that that is the case.

Certainly, the statistics I've seen so far are that we had about 170,000 people with COVID. If we were in the same position as England, we'd have had 40,000 extra people with COVID, and if we were in London, we'd have seen almost 70,000 people additional having COVID. That would be the whole of the millennium stadium being filled additionally on top of the numbers that we had. So, those are some of the early calculations, but, obviously, we wait for that data to be comprehensive.

Social Prescribing

6. Will the Minister provide an update on the roll-out of social prescribing in the Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board area? OQ57442

Thank you, Buffy. The community development hubs in Rhondda Cynon Taf are good examples of projects embodying social prescribing principles across the Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board area. We are also taking forward our programme for government commitment to develop an all-Wales framework to support social prescribing.

Thank you, Deputy Minister. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we've seen GP surgeries completely change the way that they operate. In Rhondda, this has meant an astronomical increase to the number of residents that GPs support. Around 20 per cent of these residents won't require medical support and will instead benefit from social prescribing. I recently visited Men's Shed Treorchy, who provide an invaluable service at the top of the Rhondda Fawr, alongside Forest View surgery and a local housing association. We know that social prescribing works and has changed many people's lives. How will the Welsh Government work with multiple agencies to ensure that we see the roll-out of social prescribing right across the Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board area, and not just in small pockets, which so many residents in need of this specific support can benefit from?

Thank you for that supplementary, Buffy. As you know, we are developing a national framework for social prescribing in Wales, which is designed to make sure that there is good coverage everywhere really, not just in pockets. There are some brilliant examples of social prescribing, and I'm a huge fan of the Men's Shed movement. We've been very clear that, as we take forward this national framework, what we want to do is add value. We're not looking to duplicate what's working well at the moment; we want to add value and augment and support services to ensure that everybody has access to good-quality services. We're already this year investing £89 million through the integrated care fund in social prescribing, but, going forward, our new health and social care regional integration fund will also have set funding for social prescribing. That will be a five-year funding model, so that will provide more sustainability. We're making really good progress with the national framework. There's going to be engagement now over the next few months with stakeholders on a draft framework, and then we'll be going out to consultation. So, the work is proceeding really well. The aim will be to make sure that everywhere in Wales has a good social prescribing offer that is appropriate to local needs.

15:00
Eating Disorder Services

7. What action will the Welsh Government take to ensure faster and equitable progress in improving eating disorder services across Wales? OQ57443

Thank you, Mark. We continue to prioritise support for eating disorder services in line with the recommendations in the 2018 independent review. We have increased investment each year since 2017 to support equitable service improvements, including increasing community treatment and support and early intervention services.

Thank you. The Welsh Government's eating disorder service review in 2018 set out an ambitious vision based on early intervention, evidence-based treatment and support for families. Eating disorder charity Beat played a key role in this review. Beat's 'The Welsh Eating Disorder Service Review: 3 years on' report, published this week, found that progress towards achieving that vision has varied widely across Wales. Will the Welsh Government, in line with Beat's recommendation, publish a new service model or framework, including timescales that set out what they would expect from health boards? If so, when would you expect this to happen?

Thank you, Mark. As you highlighted, the 2018 review did set out a radical agenda for change, but we were very clear that that would have to be undertaken in a phased way. The Welsh Government funds Beat; we give Beat £100,000. So, I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Beat for the really important support that they're providing as a third sector organisation. Their report, which I believe was just published today, I've only had a chance to have a very quick look at, but we will be using that report to inform our work going forward. We have invested very substantially in eating disorder services—£3.8 million funding since 2017. Given the very significant additional funding that the Welsh Government is making to mental health services for the next three years, I can also confirm that we will be using some of that money to improve eating disorder services. You rightly highlight the need for there to be clear national direction to ensure equitable services going forward. The national lead for eating disorder services has left to take up a new service, so we're currently looking at a new model to make sure that the improvements we want to see are taken forward on a national basis. I'll be happy to update you further on that in due course.

Mental Health Services

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the provision of mental health services in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ57470

Thank you. Mental health support in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire is provided by the NHS and a range of partners. Hywel Dda University Health Board's transforming mental health services programme is providing further benefits.

Thank you, Deputy Minister. I recently met with representatives of Dezza's Cabin, a charity set up following the tragic suicide of Derek Brundrett, a pupil at Ysgol Harri Tudur, formerly Pembroke comprehensive school, back in 2013. The charity aims to provide support to reduce the suicide and self-harm risk in young people, as well as offering signposting for mental health support services. Will you join me in praising the work of organisations such as Dezza's Cabin, who provide such a valuable service to the local community? And will you commit to look into what support is available to provide longer term funding to this organisation, so they can continue to grow and expand their service?

15:05

Thank you for that question. I'm really sorry to hear about the young person that you referred to. I'm really pleased to see any organisation that is working to support people either affected by suicide or to prevent suicide. I've not come across this organisation myself, but I'm very happy to have a look at the work that they do. We recently closed a bidding round for a significant amount of bereavement support in Wales—some £1 million that I'll be making an announcement on shortly—but I would advise that the organisation makes contact with the health board and the regional partnership board, as there may be funding opportunities through there. But I'd be very happy to have a look at the work that they do and to signpost to further opportunities for support.

Personal Protective Equipment for Care Workers

9. Will the Minister make a statement on responsibility for the provision of personal protective equipment to care workers? OQ57473

Thank you. The Welsh Government has already committed to providing the recommended personal protective equipment to social care workers, free of charge, until the end of the pandemic. This is managed through regular deliveries to local authorities for their onward distribution to public and private services.

Thank you very much to the Deputy Minister for that response. It's interesting, because a constituent of mine has been in touch with the office, mentioning that she now, because of breathing difficulties, needs a CPAP machine in her bedroom. As a result of this, she's received advice from the respiratory team in hospital that she herself needs to provide FFP3 masks to her carers. Now, she has contacted her GP, and the GP has told her that it is the responsibility of social services to provide this equipment. In turn, social services have told her that it's the responsibility of the GP to provide these masks. Now, they're very expensive for individuals, and she can't afford to buy this equipment every time someone visits. So, can you therefore confirm what accounts for this confusion for my constituent and ensure that people know how people should get equipment and who should provide that equipment?

Thank you very much, Mabon, for that question, and, obviously, this is of great importance to your constituent. I think the best way of dealing with the individual situation is perhaps if you write in about that situation. We will take it up to look at the specific circumstances that you're referring to.

Certainly, enhanced PPE, such as FFP3 face masks, is recommended in instances where a member of the health or social care staff may be undertaking an aerosol-generating procedure. And, certainly, I think we need to look at what procedure your constituent is having undertaken. And, certainly, throughout the whole of this pandemic, the Welsh Government has provided items of PPE, free of charge, to hospitals and to social care, to ensure that the protection is there. And, in fact, since March 2020, 514.6 million items of PPE have been issued. So, I think we have certainly got a very good record in terms of delivering PPE, but, obviously, I think this particular incident is one that we should look into.

3. Topical Questions

We now move to topical questions. There is one topical question today—that's from Heledd Fychan, to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, and Chief Whip. Heledd Fychan

The Licence Fee Freeze

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the licence fee freeze on Welsh broadcasting? TQ592

Can I thank Heledd Fychan for that question? I met with the BBC yesterday, and we are working with them to understand the impact of the deeply concerning UK Government licence fee announcement and what it means for services and the media sector in Wales.

15:10

Thank you, Deputy Minister. The UK Government announcement on the licence fee on Monday is further proof that Wales's needs with regard to media will never be met while Westminster remains in control of them, and marks the beginning of the end for the whole concept of public broadcasting in the UK. Freezing the licence fee for two years will lead to major uncertainty for the future of the media in Wales, especially for our national channel, S4C, and Radio Cymru, which will be funded entirely from the licence fee. Nadine Dorries confirmed that the licence fee will be frozen for two years, which represents a significant real-terms cut in the corporation's budget.

Many on the Conservative benches in Westminster have noted the importance of Welsh-medium broadcasting and the additional funding for S4C. However, do they acknowledge that a real-terms cut to the BBC settlement will inevitably have an impact on Welsh language provision, bearing in mind that the BBC provides around £20 million-worth of S4C programming every year? An increase in funding for S4C's digital output cannot compensate for that cut, not to mention Radio Cymru. It is clearer than ever that we need a healthier media landscape in Wales. The UK Government is increasingly hostile to the BBC, while, at the same time, local news output is declining. This is pushing Wales into a corner in terms of a media deficit in Welsh and English, which is damaging our democracy.

With further talk of abolishing the licence fee entirely after 2027, I welcome more than ever the intention to call for the devolution of broadcasting that has been included in the co-operation agreement. Would the Deputy Minister agree that recent developments underline the importance of the Welsh Government's commitment to support the devolution of communication and broadcasting to Wales, so that we are not trapped in a race to the bottom where profit trumps quality provision?

Can I thank Heledd Fychan for those further comments? I largely agree with everything that she has said. Public service broadcasters play an incredibly important role in Wales's cultural and economic life, and we're deeply concerned at the reckless UK Government announcement made concerning both their immediate and long-term future. The people of Wales expect and deserve public service broadcasting that reflects Welsh life, supports our diverse creative expressions and promotes the Welsh language. The confirmed real-terms funding cut announced in recent days could threaten all those key elements of existing services, as well as the development of the media industry in Wales. It's simply not credible to believe that the UK Government has prepared longer term plans to take account of these issues.

The manner of these announcements clearly demonstrates that the opposite is true. Although we had an announcement from Nadine Dorries about the abolition of the licence fee, it does appear that Rishi Sunak has rolled back on that somewhat over the last couple of days, when they've seen the backlash from the public on that particular announcement. Because that announcement clearly wasn't credible insofar as any kind of comprehensive plan that was ready to be announced so soon after No. 10 had found itself yet again mired in another political crisis of its own making. What I would say is that the expansion of the BBC operation in Wales has been integral to the remarkable success of the tv and film industry in Wales over recent years, and any threat to this progress would be a visible demonstration of this Government's intent to level down and hold back the Welsh economy.

In relation to the devolution of broadcasting, as Heledd Fychan knows, there is a commitment in the co-operation agreement, which is to jointly explore the creation of a shadow broadcasting and communications authority for Wales, providing additional investment to develop enterprises to improve Welsh-based media and journalism. We're working on plans to pursue the case for devolution of broadcasting and communication powers in readiness for the devolution of those powers to Wales. I think it's true to say that there is a broad consensus that the current broadcasting and communications framework is inadequate. It's hampering the democratic life of our country, it's not serving the needs or the ambitions of the Welsh language, and its latest attack on public service broadcasting is the latest proof that this current system will not deliver that.

I'll just finish by repeating what the First Minister said yesterday, and that is that there is now an urgent need for a coalition of support to defend public funding for public service broadcasting in the UK.

15:15

Deputy Minister, I wish to welcome the commitment to Welsh language broadcasting that has been realised with the significant extra funding for S4C. Our party established the channel over 40 years ago, and we will always secure its role in Welsh life, regardless of how the BBC is funded and frivolous claims from opposition parties. I joined my colleague Tom Giffard in writing to the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport calling for an increased funding settlement for S4C last year, and I'm glad that our calls were heeded. Indeed, I was pleased to see that S4C's senior leadership have also welcomed the extra funding, with S4C's new chief executive Siân Doyle saying

'This is great news for S4C's audience in Wales and beyond'.

And S4C's chair, Rhodri Williams, saying

'This settlement reflects the faith of the DCMS, and the Secretary of State Nadine Dorries, in S4C's vision for the next five years.'

During the meeting I had with the new chief executive last week, the passion for bringing the channel into the digital age was evident. The additional funding of £7.5 million per annum to support digital services is an acknowledgment that online streaming services now play a huge role in our consumption of television shows. Putting S4C up there with the streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon Prime will bring a new and growing audience to Welsh language content. Will you join not only me but also the senior leadership team of S4C in welcoming this additional funding announcement to support Welsh language broadcasting here in Wales?

Well, can I thank Samuel Kurtz for that further question? He is absolutely right, S4C did have a more favourable settlement than the BBC, and the work that S4C are undertaking in terms of developing Welsh language programming is to be welcomed and I am absolutely happy to do that. However, this question was about funding of the BBC, and the BBC and its wider role in terms of supporting public service broadcasting, not just in Wales but in the UK and across the world. We shouldn't forget the role that the BBC plays in developing and supporting the Welsh language in Wales with BBC Radio Cymru et cetera, and some of the programming that they do for S4C as well. So, whilst I absolutely do welcome the far better settlement that S4C had compared to the BBC, I am not suggesting for one moment that what we have seen here in the announcement on BBC funding is anywhere near adequate, and does present an absolute threat to the future of public service broadcasting unless this is addressed as a matter of urgency.

4. 90-second Statements

The 90-second statements are next. There's only one of those, and it comes from Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Diolch, Llywydd. I wish to place on record my most sincere congratulations and gratitude to Her Majesty's Coastguard in celebrating their two-hundredth year anniversary of service and dedication to our coastal communities. Originally founded in 1822 to tackle the tax-dodging illicit trade in goods, Her Majesty's Coastguard has evolved into a British institution that ensures our people's safety around UK shores. Working 24 hours a day, the innovative and dedicated organisation now boasts 3,500 volunteers and 310 teams nationwide, and they are supported by 10 search-and-rescue helicopters.

It would be remiss of me, Llywydd, to not take this opportunity to express my particular thanks to the team of the Llandudno coastguard, who working with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and whose professionalism continues to save lives at sea and among our local coastal areas, such as the Great Orme and the Little Orme. As record numbers of people have holidayed along British shores over recent years, the unassuming sandbanks of the Conwy estuary on the west shore have at times become a regular hotspot for rescues, with the cool-headed co-ordination of our coastguard and the RNLI in conducting their responses remaining a point of local pride. On this important two-hundredth anniversary, Members across the Siambr will, I hope, agree that the selfless bravery shown by its members in the most turbulent of conditions, responding to those in distress, is something that we all remain thankful for.

As we approach 27 January, it will be the very sad anniversary of the sinking of the Nicola Faith, and we lost three members of our community—Ross Ballantine, Alan Minard and Carl McGrath. I hope Members will join me with our thoughts about the members of the family, and also again thank the coastguard for all the work and the two-day search-and-rescue operation that took place there, hoping to bring these fishermen home. Thank you for your time, Llywydd, and diolch.

15:20
5. Debate on petition P-06-1243 Reinstate cervical screening to every three years

The next item, therefore, is the debate on a petition on reinstating cervical screening to every three years, and I call on the Chair of the Petitions Committee to move the motion—Jack Sargeant.

Motion NDM7887 Jack Sargeant

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the petition P-06-1243 'Reinstate cervical screening to every 3 years' which received 30,133 signatures.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. On behalf of the committee, thank you very much for the opportunity to present this debate on this important petition.

As Members will know, the recent change in the cervical screening arrangements in Wales has been of significant public interest. This petition to the Senedd, titled 'Reinstate cervical screening to every 3 years' gathered 30,133 signatures in just three days, and a similar petition on the change.org platform has so far received over 1.2 million signatures. Llywydd, to put this into perspective, that is over 100,000 more people than who voted in the Senedd elections last May. This is utterly remarkable and it demonstrates the strength of feeling and concern about women's health in Wales.

I don't pretend to be a medical expert, but what is clear to me is that women right across Wales want and deserve answers. The petitioner, Joanne Stroud, is passionate about the importance of regular screening and is pleased that the Senedd's petitions process has ensured that her voice will be heard on the floor of this Chamber today. Her petition represents thousands of women's fears, disappointment and dismay about how and why this change happened. Therefore, Llywydd, we asked the petitioner to close the petition after just three days, so that it could come forward to the Petitions Committee last week, and they agreed to request it be considered for debate immediately. I'm grateful to the Llywydd and members of the Business Committee for enabling this debate to take place today, and I'm also grateful of the Welsh Conservatives for offering some of their time in today's proceedings. I'd also like to extend my thanks, on behalf of the committee, to Gareth and Mared and the wider clerking team for all their work on this important petition.

At the start of January, Cervical Screening Wales extended the routine screening for 25 to 49-year-olds from three to five years. The change was recommended by the UK National Screening Committee in 2019 due to the success of the human papillomavirus vaccine roll-out and the use of, and I quote, 'more accurate' cervical screening. This was announced on 4 January and a social media storm erupted—challenging, questioning and seeking clarification about why there would be a longer interval between life-saving cervical screenings. Such an important decision and change should have been carefully and fully explained and effectively communicated to all women in Wales. Social media is excellent for many things, but it should not have been used as the way to announce such an important issue.

I do hope that this debate today will provide an opportunity to listen to the concerns women in Wales have, and to hear facts about why the changes to the screening framework have been made. Many women will not have been offered the highly effective HPV vaccine, which was introduced in 2008. For them, the key question is whether it is possible to come into contact with HPV and for problems to develop in the five-year gap between screenings. I know many of you will have read similar concerned e-mails to the ones I have received from women in my constituency who feel they are bearing the brunt of cost-cutting and time-saving measures during a period of extreme pressure on our NHS.

Llywydd, in her petition Joanne states her concerns that these important changes have been made without public consultation, stating that the response to the announcement on 4 January was, and I quote, 

'met with anger, sadness and serious concern for the cervical health of Welsh women.'

She shares the concerns and questions of thousands of people in Wales about whether this change would result in later detection of cancers resulting in, and, again, I quote,

'more aggressive, lengthy and costly treatments',

and is it ultimately a risk to life.

These concerns have been widely reported in the media and on social media platforms following the announcement at the beginning of the month. And as I mentioned at the start of my contribution, over a million people have signed a similar petition on change.org, emphasising the genuine concerns, the genuine anxiety and the genuine distress resulting from the announcement, made without sufficient clarity or explanation regarding why the change was made.

I'm glad to see that Public Health Wales apologised on social media, acknowledging that they didn't do enough to explain the changes, which created so much confusion and so much anxiety. They have since provided more information to explain the decision and tried to reassure women. Their communication strategy was clearly flawed to say the least, and I would call on them to carefully reflect and review their policy for the future. Clear, high-quality information is vital when sharing such important information and messages. When communicating with residents, you should do so. Isn't it in everyone's next appointment? Wouldn't that have been much easier, and wouldn't that have been the time to raise this important message?

I must say I was also disappointed that such a significant change in our public health approach was not announced by the Minister for Health and Social Services on the floor of our Parliament in advance of the changes.

All their adult life, women have been told about the dangers of delaying their smear tests, that a quick trip to the doctor every three years could make all the difference. It should come as no surprise that the announcement of a two-year delay via Twitter caused such extreme outrage. We, as Members of the Senedd, as their representatives, should have been given the chance to raise their fears and concerns openly, and for the Minister to explain the reasons behind the change in full.

Gweinidog, I did read with interest the reports this morning from medical professionals, pointing to the vaccine as a crucial development, and I accept this. I would welcome you using your response to update the Chamber on the percentage of women in Wales who have been vaccinated. I would also urge you to use your response to address the information vacuum that was left by the way this was announced, and in that vacuum, I'm aware of young women throughout Wales who have been targeted by Facebook ads encouraging them to pay £500 for the vaccine. This has really troubled me. 

Llywydd, before I conclude, I would like to thank Joanne for petitioning the Senedd so that these important concerns about women's health are discussed here in our Parliament today. There are around 166 new cervical cancer cases in Wales every year according to Cancer Research UK. Screening to identify those at risk or who have cancer is essential. It can save lives, ensuring women or people with a cervix receive the treatment they need.

Coincidentally, this debate is taking place during Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and I hope it will contribute to raise awareness of the importance and benefits of cervical screening. There are many who don't take up screening opportunities for various reasons. We all need to support that campaign to raise awareness and aim to increase the take-up to protect lives.

Llywydd, I look forward to hearing the Members' contributions this afternoon, and I look forward to the Minister's response, and I trust she will answer the questions of the many women who signed this petition, and those similar petitions out there. Diolch yn fawr.

15:25

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

I welcome the chance to debate this in the Senedd today, particularly during cancer awareness week, as Jack Sargeant has just pointed out, and given the strength of feeling on this from women, and in support of women, on these significant changes that have taken place. And I thank Jack Sargeant and the Petitions Committee, the Government and the Llywydd, for allowing this to come forward at such speed. The strength of feeling has been exceptionally high, as demonstrated by the sheer amount of signatures the petition has gained, as outlined by Jack earlier, with the shocking statistic, as he said, of 100,000 more people signing that than voted in our Senedd elections.

I find it very concerning that the decision to extend the time between cervical cancer screenings from three to five years wasn't given the right, careful promotion that was needed to ensure that half of the population of Wales were educated properly on these hugely significant changes. The way that the news was broken to women the length and breadth of our country was shameful, with a snappy headline on social media that ensued panic. That's not a bad use of the word; there was panic amongst women and families across Wales because, as Mr Sargeant pointed out earlier, we have been educated for years on the timing and how significant it is at catching cervical cancer as early as possible.

The lack of information following from that snappy headline just assumed everyone knew why this was happening, that everyone would know the move was due to a positive development in science, rather than an alarming extension of two years where women would be unable to be screened as they previously were and any cancerous cells would not be picked up. People know full well that when you're diagnosed can mean the difference between life and death—that's how we've been educated. The lack of information from this Government and Public Health Wales on such an important development and change caused anxiety and distress across our nation, worried about developing cervical cancer and not catching it in time. And for families as well there was panic, particularly those who have lost people to cervical cancer.

It brings me some comfort that both Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust and Cancer Research UK are in support of this change, as outlined today. But this and the reasons for it need to be brought to women's attention. Due to the communication being so appalling on this, I must admit my own panic initially when hearing the news. And I can recall the awful situation that Jade Goody endured whilst suffering from cervical cancer, who was a former Big Brother celebrity, for those who don't know. She had a horrendous time from not catching it early enough; she didn't go to her screenings. And as result she lost—oh, it makes me sad—her life, and left behind her two young boys. It was quite emotive. Sorry, I don't mean to cry, but it was quite an emotive campaign and period of time, and what happened from that, the result, was that many, many women, who hadn't even thought about it—it hadn't even been on their radar—came forward and were tested. It was very traumatising at the time, and, obviously, it still rings true. But she was very brave, and used her celebrity status for good, taking everyone on that journey with her until her sad death. It shook a lot of women into action, and the take-up for cervical smears increased substantially. The publicity campaign that followed was a huge success, and I ask that this Welsh Government look at doing something similar.

It is clear that a substantial public awareness campaign is needed now, particularly given the clear message from over a million people signing a petition opposing this change. This tells me there are countless more women out there needing to know about the reasons for this change from three to five years still. An apology from Public Health Wales was great, but there will be many women out there who won't have seen that one social media post and will still not understand why these significant changes have happened and what they mean.

When the reasons for change were relayed to me, it brought me some comfort initially—not totally, because there are examples, as has been posted on social media, as I'm sure others have seen. There are people who still will slip through the net because, with the change, some people will develop those cancerous cells in that time frame that will be missed. But, for the majority, this technological advance will mean that HPV cells will be detected sooner, and that is very welcome. And it will mean for the majority of people that they will have now longer gaps between screenings, which is absolutely fine. We must make absolutely sure that this is not a cost-cutting exercise though, as Jack said, and that it will be 100 per cent safe to do this.

Minister, there are still a lot of concerns, as the virus can, as I said earlier, lay dormant for many years and present no sign or symptom of infection. And although I've seen many e-mails regarding cervical cancer screening from constituents over the last fortnight, one in particular caught my attention. It was from a woman aged 30 who had developed stage 1 cervical cancer, which had thankfully been picked up on her third smear test. If that test would have been delayed another two years further, the cancer would have likely developed and it could have been either infertility for her or death. 

There is a lot of work still to be done—

15:35

—to improve life chances for women who develop cervical cancer, and I fear that this extension of two years will not contribute towards saving more lives. There's still so much more to be done. 

I will reiterate now, Deputy Presiding Officer, the calls I made last week to the First Minister and this Government, and I strongly urge them, and Public Health Wales, to launch a public awareness campaign to help inform our Welsh citizens of the significant developments that have occurred. We need to actively encourage more people to come forward for a cervical screening than have done recently. These new changes will not work and not be effective unless everyone now comes forward for a new screening with this new screening technology. Thank you very much.

Thank you for the opportunity to make a brief contribution to this debate. And, firstly, let me say how much I sympathise with all those people, the many, many thousands, who have spoken about their deep concerns about the change in the cervical cancer screening regime. Screening has, of course, become a valuable part of the preventative armoury when it comes to women's health, and many, many lives have been saved through early diagnosis stemming from the screening programme. And the sudden announcement that three-year tests would become five left so many people distressed and worried. And my own reaction, I must say, was one of incredulity: could this really be the result of the current pressures on the NHS, another effect of systems under strain?

But, in trying to learn more then about the change, what became apparent is that we are talking not about a downgrading of this invaluable protective health measure, but, in fact, a serious failure to communicate change that is in fact the right change, and one we should celebrate, in fact, as a step forward in preventative healthcare. I'm immensely grateful to those organisations, Cancer Research UK and Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust in particular, for stepping in with explanations of why this is a positive change, why advancements in technology means testing for the HPV virus, which causes the vast majority of cervical cancers, allows for earlier identification of what could ultimately lead to increased risk, early enough in fact to allow five years between testing episodes if no evidence of HPV is found. In the past, screening tested for changes in cells, the beginning of cancer; now we can find earlier signs of what might eventually lead to that and so allow for more timely intervention.

Now, can I draw the attention of Members to the statement of opinion I've tabled this week, following discussion with Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, noting that this week is Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, and expressing again how vital screening is? The statement expresses regret that recent changes to the cervical screening programme—the way they were communicated—have caused anxiety and confusion, and urges Ministers and Public Health Wales to prioritise restoring confidence in the programme through clear and direct communication to answer the concerns that so many have. Now, I've written to the health Minister the week before last, I think, to ask for that direct communication to happen. It has to happen. The handling of this change by Welsh Government and its agencies has caused a great amount of anxiety, and it's up to Government and its agencies to put that right. 

Now, may this be a real lesson in the importance of getting communication right, and, at the same time, a reminder of the importance of screening. We must encourage more to come forward, so that we can be confident that as many women as possible can be giving themselves the chance of an early diagnosis. 

On 4 January, Public Health Wales announced this important enhancement to the cervical screening service. Whilst it was disappointing that they failed to provide some context as to why this was an improvement, rather than a reduction in service, hindsight is a wonderful thing. And I can see why a change that was introduced nearly two years ago in England and Scotland was not deemed to be controversial in any way. This was following what the experts had told us was the best way of approaching this particular service. Clearly, it's entirely to be regretted that over 30,000 people were sufficiently exercised by what they were persuaded was a cut in service, rather than an enhancement, to sign this petition. But, really, I don't think that persisting with this inaccuracy is at all helpful. 

This debate takes place on the afternoon when we've all had the opportunity to ask questions of our health Minister. So, we have fresh in our minds the areas of health provision where we can all agree we need to do better, whether that's eating disorders, ADHD, hearing loss, social prescribing, or, earlier, I attended a meeting about ovarian cancer, which was hosted by Mark Isherwood. On all these things we need to do better, and nobody in the Senedd would disagree with that. So, I have to just repeat that no change is not an option for us. It is our duty to ensure that we are constantly reshaping services to better meet the needs of our population, and that we are constantly delivering best value with limited resources. I was born in the era where people routinely had their tonsils and adenoids removed when they were aged seven, and how traumatic was that for a child to be removed from their parents for something that was proved to be a completely pointless intervention, unless there were very particular issues.

So, as with COVID, we need to follow the latest scientific evidence, and the experts tell us really clearly that HPV is what causes 99.7 per cent of cervical cancers. That's why we offer all teenagers the HPV vaccine, so that the HPV virus is going to be put out of business and no longer able to cause cervical cancers in the future, once the people who've benefited from the vaccine have grown up. So, we have to recognise that the cervical screen has changed substantially. It's much more sensitive, much more accurate and it's now checking first for the presence of HPV. And by reducing the period of time when women are screened, it makes it possible to free up time to concentrate on that small minority of the female population who are causes for concern, where they have HPV present in their cells and can be benefiting from even better screens to ensure that, were they to develop cervical cancer, that will be picked up earlier. 

I spent many, many years of my life, before I became a Senedd Member, trying to help drive up cervical cancer screening rates. So, I find it extremely disappointing that, despite all the evidence presented by Cancer Research UK and Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust, still Laura Jones decided she was going to put out a statement of opinion about the inaccurate information that people had been given. This simply won't do. Yes, this week is Cervical Screening Awareness Week, and a very important week it is too, because the people we need to focus on are the people who never turn up to have a cancer screen. The sort of people that we're talking about are people who have caring responsibilities and have nobody to leave their child with in order to go for a screen, who are in zero-hours work and therefore are unable to take time out from their work in order to go for their screening appointment.

So, one of the ways in which we can benefit from this blast of publicity on a pretty unnecessary story is to focus on how we improve the rates of young women who attend for screening, or who get the cancer screen. And I particularly want to focus on the pilot of home screening that has been going on at King's College London, in an area where there are predictable low levels of presentation for the regular screening because—

15:45

Okay. I'd like to hear from the Minister how that compares with the bowel screening that takes place in the over-60s, because obviously once again this is something that takes place in people's homes, they don't need to go for an appointment, they don't need to travel to see the nurse who's going to do the screen. This is a very important way of ensuring that cervical cancer is something that is so rare as to be almost non-existent.

As we mark Cervical Cancer Prevention Week, I'd like to make a general point at the outset, and that is that girls don't always get taught enough about their bodies—neither do boys, of course. A mix of embarrassment, a lack of understanding, even body shaming, can coalesce from when girls are really quite young, and those factors surely contribute to the fact that one in three women fail to attend their cervical screening appointment when they're invited. We've heard already in the debate about the thousands of women who'll be told every year that they have cervical cell changes, so surely we have to find better ways of talking about these issues and normalising the process of smear tests.

Specifically on this petition, the changes to routine smear tests, it's already been said that they were communicated very poorly, and that did cause avoidable anxiety. The explanation that we have been given by Public Health Wales has set many minds at rest, but since that change was announced I've been contacted by women who are still nervous. I wanted to raise those concerns here so that I could get some constructive answers for them from the Minister. Some constituents have raised the fact—it's already been rehearsed—that a HPV infection can clear within one or two years, meaning that an infection could have cleared by the time a test is taken. Those constituents have queried how someone looking at the results could then know whether the infection has caused cellular changes if they're not looking for those changes. Another constituent was diagnosed with stage 1 cancer at age 30 in 2021 and the cancer was caught during her three-year smear test. She's worried that, had she waited an additional two years, the cancer could have progressed far more and potentially affected her fertility or something far graver.

Now, as I've said, the new test should work very well for most of those who've had the HPV vaccine, which is obviously something to be very much welcomed, because that will have reduced the incidence of abnormal cell changes. Not everyone will have been offered that vaccine, and I know that women, particularly in their 30s, will have missed out on that opportunity because that's true for me as well. So, I'd equally like to hear more about what could be done to put women's minds at rest about that. A further worry felt by some of my constituents concerns women who could develop cervical cancer that isn't linked to HPV. They would presumably be left without screening, so what provision, please, could be made for them? I've raised these concerns in order to get clarity for those constituents who are still feeling uneasy about this change.

Minister, all of this could, of course, have been avoided had a communication gone out before that graphic was shared on social media. I understand of course that lessons will have been learnt about this, but alongside those specific queries I would ask how Public Health Wales will be seeking to combat any sense that could develop of the wrong message being sent to women—that is, that it isn't as important to keep on top of smear tests. I know that that is in no way what's meant by this change, but again a vacuum could develop for the wrong assumptions to be made, unless that vacuum is filled. One constituent said to me that, like visiting the dentist, even if you don't think you need to go, it's important to go, and it's really important that public health messaging doesn't inadvertently discourage women from attending. So, I'd be grateful for any information the Minister could provide in summing up the debate that could alleviate those concerns of my constituents that I've relayed to you. 

But the overwhelming point I would make, just in concluding, Dirprwy Lywydd, is that again we need to make sure that women of all ages get the sense that smear tests are normal, that they're not something to be worried about. When I was in school, they were talked about in this hushed, quite horrified way—not by teachers, I should say, but by other pupils—and I got this impression it was going to be this very painful thing. Actually, for most women, it's totally painless; bit awkward—it needn't be awkward. But I think we need to find ways of countering this narrative, and it comes about because too many of these topics are considered taboo and they're not talked about.

Diolch to Jack as Chair of the Petitions Committee for making sure this debate could take place at such short notice.

Cervical screening isn't a pleasant experience to say the least, and I'm sure I'm not the only woman in Wales to have put off or dreaded attending a screening appointment, but we also understand that cervical screening is one of the most important appointments for us to attend as women and, without a doubt, saves lives. The scientific strides that have been made to make sure that the test for HPV is more accurate is fantastic news and should be celebrated. But, the way in which the announcement was made was appalling and left many women feeling anxious, frustrated and confused. For this petition to reach over 30,000 signatures over the space of a couple of days is testament to the strength of feeling out there. Although the announcement was followed by the apology, which was far more informative, many women still feel aggrieved, and I'm one of them.

It has taken generations and generations of women to fight to have control over their own bodies. Women should have the right to decide when they'd like to attend their screening appointment, be it every three years or five years, or anywhere in between, regardless of the improved test. For many women, life just gets in the way, be it due to work or childcare. And I think, if we're being honest with ourselves, more often than not, we let life get in the way. We know that three years between screening appointments then becomes more like four or five. If we are to see a change from three to five years, then for some women this could easily become up to 10 years.

Cervical screening appointments are, first and foremost, to detect HPV, but we all know that when you attend the all-important smear test, the test itself isn't the only thing that we discuss, it's the whole well-being package. Being at our most vulnerable during the smear test, we sometimes feel more able to have the more uncomfortable discussions that are usually left on the back burner. For some women, such as those experiencing domestic abuse, their cervical screening appointment could be the only time they're able to see a healthcare professional alone. These appointments aren't just about screening for HPV, they're about the wider package of checks and care available to them. To increase the duration between these appointments would be detrimental to women and their well-being. Let's acknowledge the huge scientific strides that we have made, but not take a step back on women's right to decide, especially when it comes to their well-being. 

15:50

Diolch yn fawr. Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the debate today. I know that it has really produced some very strong responses from across our communities, and the tone and the passion that we've seen in the debate this afternoon demonstrates that this has touched many, many people. So, I would like to thank people for engaging in the conversation, but clearly there is a need to learn some lessons here.

As you've all pointed out, this follows a petition calling on the Welsh Government to reinstate cervical screening to every three years. This was announced by Public Health Wales on 4 January and the idea was to extend the routine screening interval for people aged 25 to 49 from three to five years if high-risk HPV is not found in their cervical screening test. And that will bring the screening interval into line with those aged 50 to 64.

Many this afternoon have pointed out the calamitous way in which this was communicated. Public Health Wales has apologised and I met with them earlier this week, where they were at pains to tell me that they have learned the lessons, that they understand the anger and the concern that people felt because of their failure to communicate in an adequate way. And it is important, I think, that Public Health Wales is reviewing its approach now to communicating public health messages following that feedback.

It's important to note that the interval change will not apply to those who are found to have high-risk HPV, with or without cell changes, as they will be offered annual screening and further tests as necessary. And that's the point, that's what we're doing here is really focusing on those people who are more at risk. This change is fully supported, as many have pointed out today, by the main cancer charities, and I've got to emphasise that this has not been made to save resources. Investing in preventative services, such as screening, and detecting cancers at earlier stages makes them easier and more cost-effective to treat.

The change has also not been made due to the success of the HPV vaccination programme in schools, although that has been successful, and I was asked by Jack what the rates are. The rates last week in terms of the uptake of vaccine in year 8, which is 12 to 13-year-olds, was around 71 per cent. So, far fewer than we'd hoped, but there will be a catch-up immunisation programme that we'll be looking to roll out—obviously it's a very disruptive year in our schools. And those people who've had the vaccination, they're only now entering the age cohort for the screening programme, although it's expected that in future the combination of vaccination and screening should see cervical cancers decline significantly in the near future.

The Welsh Government follows the advice of the UK National Screening Committee, which recommended that all nations implement the new cervical screening test and interval change because the new testing method is more accurate. The UK National Screening Committee is an independent scientific advisory committee that reports to all four UK chief medical officers, and is recognised globally for its expertise and its academic rigour. It requires a very high level of evidence, and its recommendations are based on years of research and public consultation. And that's, I guess, the frustration with this, that this should have been a good news story and, somehow or other, it's created a real sense of anxiety within our communities.

The aim of the cervical screening programme is to reduce the incidence of and mortality from cervical cancer. This is by detecting and treating changes at the cervix before they develop into cancer. But the new test, which was introduced in Wales in 2018, before any other part of the United Kingdom, I think it's important to state, is not a test for cancer itself. It helps to protect against cervical cancer by identifying the virus that causes it. Current screening looks for the presence of high-risk human papillomavirus, which causes nearly all cervical cancers. The data that Jenny Rathbone pointed out, I think, are accurate and should be considered. The new improved test involves the same procedure as the previous screening, whereby a sample is taken from the cervix, but instead of looking at abnormal cells, the sample is tested for HPV first.

As having a high-risk HPV infection comes before abnormal cells develop, HPV primary testing detects people at risk of developing cervical cancer at a much earlier point. If HPV is found, the sample is then also checked for cell changes and followed up with further tests if changes are present. If abnormal cells are not present, the person will be invited for screening again in one year's time. So, it's important to remember that if you don't have HPV, then there is a different system for those who are found to be higher risk. If no high-risk HPV is found in the sample, the person will be invited for screening in five years' time. And that interval change will apply to people whose next routine screening result shows that they don't have high-risk HPV, and this is because their risk of developing cervical cancer within the five years following their screening is very low.

Now, I understand that many people are concerned that extending the interval between screenings will lead to missing cases of cervical cancer. But I'd like to assure people that HPV causes changes to the cells very slowly over several years, and that means that if there were to be cellular changes, they could be identified early on still in the next screening process. Screening more often than five years after a negative HPV result would be too early usually for any changes to the cells to come to the fore. So, the screening would not be beneficial and it could also give an incorrect reassurance to people. I'm pleased that Wales has led the way, and that we were the first nation in the UK to introduce those screens for high-risk HPV back in 2018. Scotland and England have now introduced those same tests for HPV, and in Scotland, the interval between screenings was extended some time ago, in March 2020.

Undoing that change to the interval for those at low risk would be a retrograde step. I acknowledge fully that more regular screening feels as though it would provide that additional reassurance, but, for those low-risk individuals, it doesn't provide the benefits that they would want to see. Extending the interval for those at low risk means that the screening programme can then focus on those high-risk individuals, who will be monitored more closely than in the past. We have to ensure that health services follow the science, and that they are provided only when they provide genuine benefit, and when there is a clinical need for them. So, that is the response to Buffy's comment about using this to talk about other health issues. It's very important that you are careful about how you use clinical interventions. We have to decrease possible harm in terms of providing those unnecessary interventions. Screening programmes need to evolve in response to cancer and developments in science. Just to respond to Jenny Rathbone—.

She was asking about the pilot in England. We are watching the pilot in England with interest. We know that we've seen a better response in terms of bowel screening since people have been sent out a FIT test. We've sen an increase in people using that from 60 per cent to 65 per cent. We want to know whether that will be the response in relation to cervical screening for those particular areas where people are not coming forward. So, we want to see that the evidence is safe and effective before we think about introducing that into Wales. 

Introducing those tests for HPV will enable us to make more—

16:00

Okay. Thank you very much. This should be a good news story for Wales. We can prevent more cases of cancer and detect those that are developing earlier on in the process. It's important to note, as many have done, that a quarter of those who are invited for a screening don't attend their appointments. So, if we can use this issue that we have seen, and the concerns that people have expressed, we do need to take this opportunity as a chance to tell people to come forward for their screening care appointments, and to encourage more people to take that opportunity. Thank you very much.

Diolch yn fawr, Deputy Presiding Officer. Diolch, Weinidog, for your response to today's debate, in particular for setting out some of the science behind the decision by Public Health Wales and answering some of the questions from Members. And, of course, thanks to Members.

I do think that it's right to say that, unfortunately, the outcome of today will not always be satisfactory to some. There will still be thousands of women out there across Wales who have been left feeling let down. They have been left feeling confused, and of course, they will still be frustrated by the events of the last few weeks. So, I do feel that it's right, and that it's time, for Government, for officials, and for the health service, to not only reflect and learn lessons from the process that has happened, but also to think about how we can rebuild the trust lost to ensure that failure of this magnitude does not happen again.

Deputy Presiding Officer, I have been reflecting on how the petitions process is a vehicle to bring forward issues that are important to people across Wales. It does provide opportunities to raise awareness, highlight challenges and strive for positive change. It brings these matters to the heart of our democracy and ensures that citizens' voices are heard.

I think that we heard from all Members right across the Senedd Chamber today on the importance of screening, the importance of education, the importance of early diagnosis. We heard Laura Anne Jones specifically call once again for a public awareness campaign. I feel she is absolutely right to call for that, and will join her in those calls. We heard Members refer to the cancer charities, Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust and Cancer Research UK, who welcomed the news, but of course we have to do everything we possibly can to spread this message to women across Wales.

As Buffy Williams rightly reminded us, it has taken generations and generations of women to fight to have control of their bodies, and they should not, and we should not, then allow a step to be taken back. Buffy Williams is absolutely right when she says that, and I do commend her for that. And the very real story that life sometimes gets in the way—we do have to remember this when we make decisions on public health. So, I do feel, although there has been a debate today and I'm pleased that the Senedd Petitions Committee could facilitate this, that there is clear work that needs to go on to convince people and the women of Wales that this is the decision that needs to be taken forward. I look forward to seeing that happen in the future.

On behalf of the committee, I'd like to thank Joanne Stroud and all of those who have supported this petition, and I thank the Minister and all Members for their contributions today. Thank you very much.

16:05

The proposal is to note the petition. Does any Member object? There is no objection, and therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Welsh Conservatives Debate: COVID restrictions

The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Lesley Griffiths.

The next item on the agenda is the Welsh Conservatives debate on COVID restrictions. I call on Russell George to move the motion,

Motion NDM7891 Darren Millar

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Believes that sport, recreation and exercise are essential for people’s physical and mental health.

2. Recognises the impact on the Welsh hospitality industry of the latest COVID-19 restrictions.

3. Calls on the Welsh Government to outline a roadmap to easing restrictions, to include:

a) permitting more than 50 people to exercise outdoors together;

b) removing the rule of six in hospitality and cinemas; and

c) ending the restrictions on the number of people that can attend an outdoor sporting event.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. I move the motion this afternoon in the name of my colleague Darren Millar. This motion was of course tabled at the back end of last week, just before the Government made its announcement on the easing of restrictions. I'm always pleased when the Welsh Government pays heed to our motions and I'm glad that the Welsh Government has listened to calls from ourselves and from others in terms of outlining a road map for easing restrictions. And whether you call—. I can see the Minister laughing, but I'm pleased, Minister; I'm being positive here. I'm welcoming the fact that you've heeded our calls.

Russell, will you take an intervention? I've got Huw Irranca-Davies wanting to make an intervention.

Russell, thanks very much for taking that intervention. I, like many people, follow the Welsh Conservatives' social media, and the fact you're taking credit for this—. Fair play to you. But one person noticed, in response to that, that it was the equivalent of shouting, for 25 minutes consistently, from row Z in the stands, 'Give the ball to Shane, give the the ball to Shane' and then Biggar kicks the drop goal to win in the final minute, and you pat yourself on the back and say 'Well done'. He wasn't the only one, Russell.

Thanks, Huw. I'm glad that you do follow and take an interest in the Welsh Conservatives' social media. I'm pleased to hear that. I think what I'll outline, perhaps, during the course of this debate, is not only that we're patting ourselves on the back for the Welsh Government taking heed to our calls, but why we questioned why the restrictions were in place in the very first place. I was going to say, Huw, as well, that I congratulate the Welsh Government on having a road map out of restrictions. This is always important. Whether you call it a plan or a road map, I don't particularly mind what you call it, but the public and businesses need to know where the end game is when restrictions are brought into place.

With some of these regulations, Huw, and others, and the Minister, I would say that there are many parts to these regulations that were brought in on Boxing Day that we support. Some of them were balanced. Some of them were proportionate. So, we're not suggesting at all that we disagree with all the regulations that were put in place. What we are saying is that after restrictions are put in place, and after the event, we have to scrutinise and we have to look at what was balanced and what was sensible. That's why we're particularly looking at some of the confusing and contradictory regulations that were part of these regulations that were brought in on Boxing Day.

I think we're all aware—it's been said in the Chamber—of the issue in Caerphilly rugby club, where 50 people were allowed outside to watch a rugby match, but 140 were allowed in the clubhouse on tables of six, to watch the game on streaming. So, we have to question, don't we? Is it not right to question restrictions that limit particularly outdoor activity? And the rule of six, of course, that was brought in during the busiest period of the year for hospitality was business breaking, I'm afraid, for many, sadly. Many of these businesses use this period—as we all know, they use the revenue to carry them through the quieter months ahead. I remember back to last Christmas when we saw much retail shutdown just a few days before Christmas Day.

In Wales, I do not think the business package has been enough. And that's not just me stating that, or Welsh Conservatives; this is the view of businesses across Wales. The chief executive officer of Creative Hospitality Group said this—and I'm quoting him here:

'From my own business perspective, Creative Hospitality Group may be entitled to £90,000 across the nine weeks. This won’t even cover my staff wage, rent and loan repayment costs for a single week. We need more support, we need more clarity and most importantly we need the evidence that shows why our sector has been targeted so harshly.'

We've also heard from the chief executive of the Welsh beer association, who's estimated that on average, each pub across Wales will lose £16,000 each due to the current restrictions, which they won't recover; that's the important point here. Welsh businesses have again been let down by the lack of support from Welsh Government. If you're bringing forward restrictions, you've got to bring forward the right support for businesses. And of course, I say this in the context where businesses in the English economy continue to open freely.

When you bring forward restrictions, these are always balances that have to be taken into account. What I'm saying and what we're saying as Welsh Conservatives today is that the Welsh Government on this occasion got that balance wrong. You've got to think, when restrictions are brought in, about the consequences to businesses, especially along the border. Many people in north Wales go across the border for hospitality, and in south Wales they go into other parts of England. In my own constituency, they just travel a few minutes up the road for hospitality in Shrewsbury and into Shropshire. So, again, you've got to think about the consequences that these restrictions are having on businesses when you're making those balanced choices.

The Government has said that they have been following the science and advice on these restrictions, but we know that advice from University College London submitted to SAGE in December suggested that people were twice as likely to catch COVID whilst out shopping compared to being in a pub or a cinema where no restrictions were in place. I also note that in Scotland, the national clinical director said, just last week I think it was, that Scotland's restrictions on hospitality and sporting events had made little difference to Scotland's coronavirus case numbers compared to the approach taken in England. Of course, again, balances have to be taken into account, but on this occasion, the Welsh Government got the balance wrong.

It's not just about allowing people freely to go into pubs and restaurants and mix, it's not just about whether you're going to watch a football or rugby match; it's about the things that we should legally be entitled to do. It's about our physical and mental well-being. Volunteers across Wales have been let down because we didn't have proper thought when it came to the considerations on parkruns across Wales. I heard what the Minister and others have said previously—that parkruns can continue under the regulations. But practically, they were not able to continue. The practicalities meant that they were not able to continue as has been suggested. Again, people accept restrictions when they're needed, in the context of the right balances, but again, the balances were wrong on this particular restriction also.

When we come to COVID passes, again, we're still waiting for the evidence. The Government says, 'We'll work on the data, we'll supply the data'; we haven't seen the data on COVID passes and where the impact is successful or not successful. We've got to question why the Government is not bringing forward that data also. There is a huge, of course, cost. I won't reiterate my views and the views of Welsh Conservatives on COVID passes; they're well documented. But we've also now got to consider the cost to the taxpayer as a legal challenge is brought to the Welsh Government with regard to COVID passes.

As Welsh Conservatives, as I do myself, we welcome that Ministers have eased restrictions. We have welcomed the road map, to be positive. I'm clearly saying that I'm pleased that we've got a road map out of restrictions. But, of course, I would say that the current restrictions, the restrictions that were brought in on Boxing Day, were an overreaction. I'm glad that the Government has changed position in terms of easing restrictions now, but we've got to assess at what cost these restrictions were brought in. And it would be refreshing if the Minister would accept that perhaps some of the restrictions that were brought in were not appropriate, and perhaps wouldn't do that again if the same scenario was presented again. I think it would be refreshing if the Minister could at least give us some indication of whether she believes that some of the restrictions that were brought in were indeed an overstretch. Diolch, Llywydd.

16:15

I have selected the amendment to the motion. I call on the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport to formally move the amendment, tabled in the name of Lesley Griffiths. Dawn Bowden.

Amendment 1—Lesley Griffiths

Delete point 3 and replace with:

Welcomes the Welsh Government’s decision to:

a) ease restrictions from 15 January so that outdoor events involving up to 500 people or spectators can take place;

b) remove wider protections for outdoor events from 21 January, if conditions allow;

c) complete the move to alert level zero from 28 January, if conditions allow; and

d) review all alert level zero protections and announce any changes on 11 February.

Amendment 1 moved.

Formally.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I have brief comments today. It's clear that this motion is dated. It's calling for a series of things that are already happening, so we will be abstaining today. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn't it? And listening to Russell George there passing judgment on something several weeks after the evidence that was presented to us on the threats that the scientists that had advised the Government thought that we faced at that point, and they came to conclusions based on what they had in front of them at that time—. And the suggestion perhaps that Wales shouldn't have taken steps because England was taking a more cavalier approach is strange to me. It was about protecting and safeguarding the people and health service of Wales. That is the task for the Welsh Government, and, in general, people will find it very difficult to take any lessons from the party of parties at Downing Street—

Thank you, Rhun. I take your point, absolutely, about having views in hindsight, but, as Welsh Conservatives, I hope you would agree as well that we don't want to have views in hindsight on these regulations; we want to be able to vote on them when they come forward. And there's no reason why that cannot happen now. With the virtual meetings, that can be easily be brought forward. It could have been brought forward over the Christmas period. So, please, take that into account. We don't want to be talking about these in hindsight; we'd have been able to put our thoughts very publicly in the Senedd should these regulations have been brought forward at the time they were brought in.

And that is a point I've made myself: it's important for democracy that we get things right and do things in the right order. But to argue now that what was evidenced properly at the time was wrong is a very good example of the misuse of hindsight, I think.

We will be voting for the Government's amendment because all it does, I think, is set out the process of lifting those restrictions that has already been announced and has started to be implemented indeed.

I think it's worth outlining once again the principles that I and fellow Members of Plaid Cymru have been led by over the past two years. We need those restrictions and regulations in place that are stringent enough to respond to the health risks that we face, but we also need to ensure that there aren't more restrictions than are needed in place because of the impact that they have on well-being, on mental health, on the economy, on hospitality, and so on. I have encouraged the Government to push the envelope in terms of what can be allowed and the normalcy that we all are craving. A week ago, before this motion was introduced, I was calling on the Minister to focus on what we were hoping were very hopeful signs in the statistics—it turned out that they were very promising—and to be able to prepare to lift these restrictions as soon as possible. And I think the Welsh Government has done just that on this occasion.

Rhun, can you bear with me a second, please? Janet, you've got your hand up. Do you want an intervention? Rhun, are you prepared to take another intervention?

Thank you. Rhun, I'm baffled, because as far as I'm aware and the argument we have made as the Welsh Conservatives is that we hadn't seen a technical advisory cell at the time—we didn't see any evidence at the time. So, please put on record the evidence that was there that, somehow, we as elected Members have not been made aware of.

16:20

Well, I think from my experience and from the experience of colleagues of yours, I know there has been open dialogue that you can have with advisers to Government, and we have it through health committee and so on. Plus, we were talking about a global wave and global evidence of an impending wave of a new variant that we knew nothing about, that you might think you know everything about now, Janet, but you didn't at that time. And this was a response to how to keep safe, and I'm convinced that it was the right thing to do and I think it's borne out also in the statistics on the number of hospitalisations and so on that we've seen in Wales. Nobody wants any of these regulations; let's remind ourselves of that. But at times, throughout the past two years, measures have had to be put in place, and I believe that these were reasonable measures to have been put in place in response to the threat that I certainly was clear was being communicated to us in different ways, although, absolutely, I agree that we need to be voting on them as close to the time of implementation—ideally before their implementation, of course, though, sometimes, responses from Government have to be very, very quick.

I will bring my comments to a conclusion by looking ahead. We need to adhere to the same principles that I've mentioned about doing enough but not too much. In terms of the self-isolation time: bring it down as much as possible, but only when the evidence allows that to be done safely, and I hope that that can happen soon, of course. We have to remember that we are still living in a time of pandemic and that strengthening those elements, perhaps where the Government has been too slow to take action, is more important than ever—ensuring that we ventilate so that any future waves don't have a major impact, and that we have that ventilation guidance in schools and so on. We are clearly in a more promising position now, and the right decision has been made to lift certain restrictions, but we have to be vigilant still. We need to continue to prepare, we need to put preventative steps in place and respond quickly and appropriately to a changing situation. That is what will enable us to be as resilient as possible in facing future problems.

I'm pleased to have the opportunity to contribute in this important debate, as we've endured yet another round of damaging and senseless restrictions.

The First Minister and the health Minister's approach on messaging since the omicron variant arrived in Wales has been chaotic and contradictory. It has increased fear and it could be argued that it was a political decision in some respects. Most worryingly, most of these decisions didn't seem to be based on science, with a quite obvious lack of evidence to back up any decisions being made. There is a fine balance when weighing up the balance of harms, when we're making these tough decisions and they are tough decisions—everyone recognises that. But when they are decisions with such huge implications on lives and livelihoods, some degree of explanation coupled with evidence is needed to explain why you are, in some cases, destroying someone's business by taking a specific decision.

Once again, the immediate reaction of this Welsh Government to the new variant was to hastily shut businesses and take away freedoms. It comes as no surprise to me as we have a First Minister who has spent his career theorising about socialism instead of running a business or having to worry about paying staff. The decision to move back to level 2 forced outdoor spectator sports events to close their doors once again to fans, and other community sports events and gatherings were referred to as 'superspreader events', despite no evidence being presented, which understandably created outrage. These restrictions prevented more than 50 people partaking in sports outdoors, yet the same restrictions allowed for more than 50 people to be present in an indoor environment, providing that they are seated, where ventilation would be far lower. It is no wonder that people were angry and fed up with these nonsensical restrictions on our lives.

Deputy Presiding Officer, I couldn't understand why the Welsh Government refused to publish the evidence behind their decision, however seeing the data for myself and looking across at how England fared without restrictions, I can now see why. Welsh people and businesses cannot plan for the future or live their lives while the Welsh Government continues to enforce draconian—