Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

26/10/2022

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 in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary session. The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and the first question this afternoon is from Peredur Owen Griffiths.

Local Authorities

1. What additional financial resources is the Welsh Government providing to local authorities to help them deal with the cost-of-living crisis? OQ58608

At the spending review, we maximised the use of all of our available funding. I prioritised funding for local government in the Welsh budget so that every authority in Wales received an increase in funding of more than 8.4 per cent.

Thank you for that response.

People are petrified at the prospect of being unable to afford the basics this winter and they have little faith in a super-rich Prime Minister doing anything for them. In the absence of adequate help from Westminster, reserves that local authorities hold for rainy days need to be deployed. Unfortunately, you have local authorities like the Labour-run Caerphilly County Borough Council holding an astronomical reserve of £180 million. This stack of cash, which is bigger than the reserves held by the largest local authority in Wales, increased by £16 million in the last financial year alone. This is why my Plaid Cymru colleague Councillor Greg Ead has called for the Caerphilly county council cost-of-living hardship fund to be increased from £3 million to £10 million. Should the Government mandate a limit on how big cash reserves can get to prevent Scrooge-like local authorities sitting on huge pots of cash?

I'm not sure that's a fair characterisation of local authorities and the way that they look towards their reserves. But, to be perfectly frank, I am glad that local authorities generally are in a much better position than they otherwise would have been, and that's partly thanks to the additional £50 million that we provided to local government at the end of the last financial year. And that was to help them manage their budget in response to the emerging inflationary and service pressures, which they were identifying and experiencing at that point.

But, I think that we do need to think about reserves in relation to the overall budget of local government. And certainly, at an all-Wales level, the widest interpretation of usable reserves—and I think that that is an important point—is 26 per cent of the total annual expenditure. So, that's just three months provision for all of the costs of local government. So, I'm pleased that local authorities are in a better place than they otherwise would have been thanks to the additional funding we were able to provide. But, at the same time, I do have to say that usable reserves are different to the general reserves position because, of course, local authorities will have earmarked funding for various things, not least our investment in the sustainable communities for learning programme and the new schools and so on.

I thank Peredur Owen Griffiths for tabling this question. I just wanted to follow up as well on the point about reserves, because I think it is important, and you're right—people don't necessarily understand the definition of usable reserves, particularly those councils that call them usable reserves and then never use them. So, in my region of South Wales West, Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea councils, in 2019-20, had a combined £288 million in reserves. In 2021, that went to £400 million. Can you explain why those three councils, two of them run by your party, have added £110 million to their usable reserves in a year and do you back it?

Absolutely I can explain that, Llywydd, and it's called 'the pandemic', and that is one of the reasons why local government was provided with significant additional funding through the pandemic. And I have no doubt that local authorities, given the huge gap in funding that they've identified not only for this year, but into future years as well, will be looking at those reserves. But, let's remember, you can only spend those reserves once, so when I'm hearing calls, for example, for increases in pay and other pressures, you can only use those reserves once, and I know that local authorities will be looking to use those reserves very carefully. But, I make no apology whatsoever for providing significant additional funding to local authorities through the pandemic, and, frankly, I'm glad that they're in a better position than they otherwise would have been had we decided not to.

Tom Giffard and I were at a briefing only in the last two weeks with Welsh local government leaders from our area, but also at a national level in Wales, having quite a frank assessment about the perilous state of local authority finances. And, of course, we also know this spreads right across the voluntary and third sector as well, at the time when the need for those public services and the reach of the third sector into communities has never been so acute. So, could I ask you, away from froth over reserves, which, frankly, if they are available and there's a bit in there, are going to be used pretty damn rapidly now—pardon my French, Presiding Officer—how can we actually target resources from Welsh Government to ensure that, right across the sectors, local authorities and local, regional and also third sector organisations are really tackling the cost-of-living crisis and collaborating together to do so, because we know we're going to have to stretch this money, reserves or not, a hell of a lot further than we've ever done before?

13:35

I absolutely agree that the approach has to be one of social partnership in terms of addressing the cost-of-living crisis. And this is one of the reasons why the First Minister has set up a cost-of-living Cabinet sub-committee, which I and other Ministers attend, but also we invite to those meetings representatives of the third sector, local government and other social partners to ensure that we're all pulling in the same direction and maximising our resources in ways that are complementary to one another. So, I just want to reassure colleagues that that is absolutely the approach that we're taking.

And I think that we can also look to some of the work that I've been doing in recent times in terms of our approach to grants policy. It used to be the case that we would have one-year grants, and that would be very difficult for the third sector in particular, but also others, including in local government, to be able to have that longer term and more strategic look at how they spend their money. So, now we have allowed grants to be up to five years—if they can roll over, they have to meet benchmarking and other due diligence tests as well. But I think that that has helped to give that longer term look, which also then provides better value for money.

May I too thank Peredur for raising this issue?

Good afternoon, Minister. Since the pandemic, many of our care workers have been struggling to make ends meet, and I'm sure many of us have heard about the situation that both those receiving care and those giving care are in. In July, the new administration of Powys County Council—a group of political parties: Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green; and we all need to work together on this as this shouldn't be about party politics in our local government finance, because we all know the people who receive those services—raised the travel expenses to 45p a mile, in line with their local authority employees. That package cost around £150,000 to implement, Minister. What consideration have you, the Government, given to support local authorities to continue with that funding for care workers, to ensure that they deliver that vital social care to vulnerable people? Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

So, in the first instance, we're seeking to impress upon the UK Government the importance within HMRC of raising that per-mile payment in respect of travel related to work. So, that's our first way in which we're trying to address this, and I know that my colleague Vaughan Gething's officials have been active in their discussions with HMRC on this. My officials have also raised it with Treasury, and it's my intention also to raise this issue with the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury in due course as well.

Monmouthshire County Council

2. What discussions has the Minister had with the newly elected leadership at Monmouthshire County Council? OQ58622

I held an introductory meeting with the new leader in August. And I also meet all leaders regularly through our fortnightly meetings at the Welsh Local Government Association executive board and separately on issues such as taxation reform. I have also discussed local government financial challenges with Monmouthshire’s deputy leader through the finance sub-group.

Minister, you'll be aware that Newport East includes the Severnside area, which comes under Monmouthshire County Council. I was very pleased in May to see Labour take control of the council there, for the first time since the mid 1990s. I know the new leader, Mary Ann Brocklesby, and her cabinet have ambitious plans to tackle the affordability gap in housing in Monmouthshire. The area has suffered from historic underinvestment in affordable housing and has had an over-reliance on private landlords. Recently, the new Labour council approved plans for 100 per cent affordable housing on the former Caldicot school site, with Monmouthshire Housing Association being the preferred bidder. This illustrates the ambition and the work of the new Monmouthshire County Council, Minister. But I just wonder how you, as finance Minister, working with the Minister for Climate Change, can work closely with the new leadership to support them in their ambitions for more affordable housing in this area.

I'm grateful to John Griffiths for raising this issue, and I do recognise what he says in terms of property prices being higher than average in Monmouthshire, and there obviously are links between job opportunities and higher house prices. But property prices can be skewed, of course, by second home ownership and also by a significant number of short-term holiday lets in an area, which is why the work that we're doing in partnership with Plaid Cymru to address the second home challenges is really important, and will have an impact, I think, in Monmouthshire.

But, of course, it's important that there is good-quality social housing and affordable private rental sector housing available in these areas, and schemes such as that which you've described, which I know has now been confirmed by Monmouthshire County Council's new administration, are exactly the sort of ambition that this Welsh Government wants to see in terms of fulfilling our citizens' needs. So, I can reassure John Griffiths that I and my colleague the Minister for Climate Change will absolutely be keen to support Monmouthshire in their ambitions. 

13:40

I thank John Griffiths for raising this, and I very much welcome the renewed focus of the Welsh Government on Monmouthshire; it was sadly lacking for 13 years when I was a leader. And I'm also very pleased that the new Labour administration is taking forward the plans we put in place, so I do thank them. 

Minister, you will know that I've consistently pushed, throughout my time in local government, and since I've been here, the importance of fair funding, and I've challenged the current funding formula several times. And I know the First Minister said only yesterday that if local government wants a change in the formula, if they ask for it, you'll do it. Now, we know turkeys won't vote for Christmas, and there are several leaders who are accruing up to £208 million of reserves while some only have £30 million of reserves. They're not going to vote for something that dismantles that. Can I ask you, Minister, if you will take the initiative to invoke an independent commission on the funding formula? We know there's only one pie and it's unlikely to get any bigger, but some people have huge slices and others have crumbs. That is not fair, and it's the responsibility of this Government, working with local authorities, to change that. Can you do that? Can you invoke that commission?

Well, Llywydd, the core revenue funding that we provide to local authorities every year is distributed according to relative need, and that uses a formula that takes into account a wealth of information, including the demographic, physical, economic and social characteristics of authorities. And there is no evidence whatsoever that any authority, or a group of authorities, with any particular geographical or social characteristics, are being disadvantaged through that local government funding formula. It is free from political agenda, it's free from political influence and it's driven by data. And, in fact, the formula is set by 70 different indicators of the need to spend, and the majority of that, representing 72 per cent of the funding, is updated annually. And, of course, to ensure that level of independence, we do have independent members on the distribution sub-group to ensure that there's no bias in favour or against the interests of any individual authority. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Sam Rowlands. 

Diolch, Llywydd, and good afternoon, Minister. As you may have seen from social media over the weekend, Minister, a 2022 council candidate from Newport received hundreds of pounds-worth of damage to his car, and that isn't the first attack on his property, with targets to his house, nails pushed into his car tyres and social media trolling during the recent council and Senedd elections. So, in light of this, Minister, what are your views on council candidates, who are willing to put their head above the parapet and represent their communities, having to deal with this abhorrent abuse?

First of all, I would just like to say—and I know that Sam Rowlands agrees with me on this—that we have to give respect to anybody who puts themselves forward as a candidate for a community council, town council or county council election, because it does take an element of bravery to do that. And the abuse of any candidate is absolutely unacceptable and we have to do everything that we can to prevent it. 

One of the things that I'm really pleased that we were able to do was to ensure that we removed the need for candidates to provide publicly their home address, which I think does provide a level of safety and security, although I know that candidates are often very well known anyway within their communities, so we have to bear that in mind. And we're also currently undertaking some work looking at a survey that we did of members of the public to gauge their understanding of councillors and the role that councillors play within their communities, to see what more we can do in terms of helping people better understand the role of councillors and, hopefully, that might bridge some of that gap between the lack of understanding that some people will have and the actual immense dedication that people put into these roles. And whether or not they are eventually elected, I think that we have to pay due respect to those people for putting themselves forward.  

13:45

Thank you, Minister, for your response and for outlining some of the actions that are already in plan. Clearly, this is not just a recent issue as well, or a single issue for one candidate. We saw, in May's elections, that paint was thrown over cars owned by a long-serving Swansea councillor, which led to irreparable damage; we saw two councillors in Caerphilly receive abuse letters, calling them all sorts of things and the police had to get involved in that; in addition, a Cardiff councillor, who'd been a councillor here for a long time, shared some horrific stories about some of the abuse that she has had to face up to over recent years. So, you've outlined already, Minister, some of the work and the actions that you're undertaking. I'd be really keen to understand when you expect some fruit off the back of that, and when we can expect to see not just the understanding of it, but the actual real implementation of those potential actions, because it's really important, as you say, and as we all agree, that we protect our local councillors, our local candidates, from this disgusting behaviour. 

I think one of the important things that we have to do as well is to help councillors understand that this kind of behaviour isn't acceptable, because there's often an inclination on the part of elected representatives to think that abuse just comes with the job, and it absolutely shouldn't, and I know that we all appreciate that in this Chamber. And that's one of the reasons, again, why we've recently refreshed 'The good councillor's guide', and that very much is about helping those councillors understand what is and isn't acceptable in terms of the response that they receive and potentially the abuse that they receive, and it also then helps them to understand what support might be available to them. So, you would expect individual local authorities to be putting in place the appropriate plans to support the welfare and the well-being of those councillors, but also to be working in partnership locally with the police, who can also provide additional support and advice, as necessary, for the more serious kind of abuse and, in some cases, almost violence, that you've described.

Yes. Thank you, again, Minister for that, and it's pleasing to see that. I'm sure we all agree around this Chamber that more needs to be done and is being done to ensure that our candidates and elected members are being properly protected. But, again, we did see, in May's election, 74 uncontested seats, with many people suggesting that they're not willing to stand because of the fear, at times, of some of the abuse and behaviour pointed towards candidates. Of course, it's this level of democracy that is absolutely so fundamental not just to delivering services, but also as an example of elected individuals being able to make those decisions without fear or favour. We do have a new cohort of councillors elected in May's elections, so I wonder what work you may be doing with them to ensure that they, now in their elected positions, feel confident to make some of those difficult decisions without that fear of intimidation from all sorts of people who, sadly, are in our community?  

Thank you again for that important question. Like you, I was disappointed at the level of uncontested seats. I think that having contested seats and giving local people a choice is a really positive thing, which is why the work that we're doing through our diversity and democracy programme is so important in terms of widening up access to elected office by all people in our community. We've introduced our access to elected office fund, which will, hopefully, support a wider range of people to become candidates, and we had some success with that. It was administered at the last election by Disability Wales, but we're considering now what other protected characteristics we can bring into that wider work as well. But I know that the Welsh Local Government Association and individual local authorities do work hard to support incoming councillors to understand these things, and, hopefully, to signpost them to where they can find local support, in the event that they should feel threatened or undermined in any way in their particular role, but I'm more than happy to have some further conversations, if there are good ideas as what more we or local authorities can be doing in this important space. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Afternoon, Minister. Cumulatively, the financial pressures building up in the local government system, of course, are beyond anything, really, that we've probably ever seen before, even though pressures in the current financial year were offset somewhat by a better than expected settlement for this year. That feels a different world away, doesn't it—only, what, eight months ago when that 9.4 per cent settlement was confirmed.

It is becoming clear that additional in-year pressures, amounting to over £0.25 billion, are potentially facing local councils in Wales this year, and there's an expected cumulative shortfall of over £800 million by the end of this three-year spending or funding cycle. Every authority is now reporting budget gaps, and other maybe than the experience of the early months of the COVID pandemic, these are unprecedented pressures that are being faced. So, the risks to all local government services, including, of course, significant statutory services, such as education and social care, can't be underestimated. So, if, as is being suggested, statutory services are facing significant cuts, what discussions have you had or what consideration are you giving to actually advising local authorities about which statutory services they should be prioritising? Because many of those councils are telling me that they need a clear steer from the Welsh Government. In a climate where they just can't deliver what they're expected to deliver, the message I'm getting is that the Welsh Government really needs to make it clear what councils are expected to prioritise when it comes to protecting key services.

13:50

Well, I've had the opportunity to discuss these issues in depth with the local authority leaders very recently. So, as you've heard, we have now fortnightly meetings with local authority leaders. In last week's meeting, actually, one of the substantive items was budgetary pressures, and they were able to give those figures to me at that meeting. We also had, last week or the week before, a meeting of the finance sub-group, which again delved into those figures in greater detail. Obviously, they are extremely concerning in terms of the pressures that are being faced.

So, I'm being told that key areas include pay inflation, energy costs, schools, social care, the response to the situation in Ukraine and wider migration issues, alongside housing, homelessness and, of course, capital investment and the associated investment in climate change—so, lots of important areas there. Some of them aren't statutory, but nonetheless absolutely vital. So, we are having discussions with local authorities to see what we can practically do to support them. One of those things might be to assist them in terms of the prioritisation exercise locally. We're also looking at the grants that we provide to local government. So, £1.2 billion of grants are provided to local government every year, and local government is making the case that perhaps some of those should go into the revenue support grant rather than through particular grants, so I've said that I would broker discussions with whichever relevant Ministers need to be involved in those. And also looking again to see around the capitalisation of some costs—they've asked us to look at that. So, we've returned to local government asking for some more detail on those discussions. So, we are being as helpful as we possibly can be, obviously, to local government at what is a really worrying time for them and for us.

Okay, well, that was very nearly everything that you're prioritising, so I'm not sure whether that's possible, but I am glad that that engagement and that discussion is happening, because the message is coming through clearly that they need to know what the Government's priorities are in terms of what you're asking them to deliver under these circumstances. 

I'm glad that you said that you're looking at what you 'can practically do'—your words—to support local councils, because they are very conscious as well that additional responsibilities and roles and duties are coming in their direction from Welsh Government through regulations, through legislation et cetera. They see things such as enforcing the single-use plastic ban, which I know all of us—very many of us—want to see implemented. That may well lead to additional costs. Dare I say it, implementing the 20 mph speed limit as well does bring with it additional work that needs to be done. So, councils are making it clear that, without additional resources, something else has to give.

So, can you confirm whether you're committed either to providing those additional resources to meet the new duties that the Government is asking local authorities to deliver, or, if you don't provide those additional resources, are you discussing what else they do not need to do in order to free up that capacity to deliver those additional duties, or, indeed, whether the Government is taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture and proactively profiling the implementation of new responsibilities in order to smooth out the workload?

13:55

I can see that the Plaid Cymru spokesperson and I have been having the same conversations with local government leaders in recent times, and that you're hearing very much the same message as I am, which I think is a positive thing. Again, that's one of the other things that we're looking at in terms of what we can practically do to support local government around the additional expectations that we're placing on local government, the additional things that we're asking them to do, exploring with them now what specifically—. So, you've named a couple of those specific areas, but we've asked officials to explore with local government what specifically they're finding to be putting extra pressure on their resources, on their time, on their finances and so on, to see if there are things that we can practically do to help them in that space as well. So, just to reassure you that those discussions are very live at the moment. 

Increased Energy Costs

3. What consideration has the Welsh Government given to how it can help local authorities to devise contingency plans to mitigate against increased energy costs? OQ58616

Rising energy costs are significantly worrying for local communities and we call for the UK Government to take action to stem the increases. Welsh Government delivers support across the public sector through investing in skills, energy efficiency, research, innovation, decarbonisation and a renewable energy future for Wales.

Diolch, Gweinidog. Huw has already mentioned the joint meeting that us South Wales West Members attended with council leaders across our region, and I would thank Mike Hedges for setting up that meeting. The reality of the situation is dire. We are facing wholesale cuts of council services. Bridgend County Borough Council face, for example, an unprecedented financial challenge over the coming years and estimate that spending reductions of up to £20 million in the 2023-24 financial period may be required to balance the budget. Now, whilst I live in hope that the now-delayed budget will bring some relief—I like to think that I'm optimistic every now and then—what work is the Welsh Government doing with local authorities to help them manage their budgets, but also to help our third sector providers and volunteer organisations manage theirs? Times are tough, they're about to get tougher, but times like these also require co-operation across all levels to protect our constituents.

I join you in also thanking Mike Hedges for facilitating the discussion. I can tell that it was a very impactful discussion, based not only on the order paper for questions today; I see that those discussions that you've had with local government have really had an impact in terms of giving you a real idea of the kinds of pressures that they're under and the holes in their budgets that they are looking to deal with. I know that you're particularly concerned about the cost of energy, and we are working really closely with local authorities. Local authorities themselves this financial year are in a better position in the sense that most of them purchase their energy from the Crown Commercial Service, so they're protected in this financial year from the volatile global energy prices. But what we're doing at the moment is assessing the impact on prices and budgets for 2023-24, and our Welsh Government procurement professionals are currently working with suppliers and the Crown Commercial Service to support local authorities so that they can plan at least with a level of confidence in terms of the numbers for the next year. 

As many of the local authorities' contracts have already been agreed, I think that we're less worried, as I say, this year, but our real concerns are for next year, and this is why it's really important that the UK Government's energy review concludes rapidly, so that we can provide that confidence, but also that it really does consider the impact on local government and on the third sector, as you've referred to, as well, in terms of allowing them to keep on providing the vital services that they do. I'm sure we've all had discussions about the cost of just keeping the lights on in schools, for example, which has gone through the roof for future years. So, I know that those discussions are live, and just to reassure you that our procurement team are involved in that. 

Minister, local authorities are responsible for agreeing school budgets, and energy is one of the big costs our schools face. In many schools we see big old boilers that are very expensive to run. What assessments have you made, together with local authorities, of the costs now facing schools as we look to the next six and 12 months? And what measures are you considering to ensure that our schools can keep warm? Thank you. 

14:00

Well, of course, the best thing that could happen to keep schools warm would be for the UK Government to step into this space. [Interruption.] I hear the Conservatives groaning out loud, but that is going to be the real answer in terms of ensuring that there is an affordable price for energy within schools. That's not the Welsh Government abdicating its responsibility. It's not the Welsh Government's responsibility to step in on energy prices. Welsh Government couldn't introduce a windfall tax, even if we wanted to, because we don't have the powers to do so. That's something that the UK Government should be stepping in to do at this point.

Fortunately, we have had discussions about reserves earlier in this question session, and reserves within schools are looking healthy. So, some schools will be able to make investments and be able to consider how they use those reserves in respect of addressing the cost-of-living crisis. That said, I am very mindful that the positive situation for reserves in schools isn't uniform across Wales, and there are schools that don't have those significant reserves that they'll be looking to rely on.  

Statutory Services in South Wales Central

5. How is the Welsh Government supporting local authorities in South Wales Central to maintain their statutory services? OQ58625

This year, the Welsh Government is providing unhypothecated revenue funding of over £5.1 billion, and over £1 billion in specific grant funding in support of local authority statutory and non-statutory services.

Thank you, Minister. I was referencing, in particular, the authorities within my region. 

One essential statutory provision is social services, and, specifically, care. We know that there are huge problems when it comes to recruiting carers. As a result, more and more individuals are becoming unpaid carers in order to look after their loved ones, and they face financial hardship as a result. Have there been any discussions with the Welsh Local Government Association in terms of extending the financial support for living costs to all unpaid carers, not just the 10 per cent who currently receive carers allowance? Furthermore, can more be done to promote the fact that it’s possible for unpaid carers to receive direct payments for providing care, even if they are living in the same household, if it is not possible to find alternative care? Many families are under the impression that this is not possible, but the truth is that local authorities have the right to allow this with appropriate evidence. So, have there been any discussions with the WLGA about this?

I know that the Minister for social services was at the recent meeting regarding budget pressures that local authority leaders were at, and they were able to have at least some starting of the discussions in terms of the specific concerns and pressures around social care. But I think the point that you make really does speak to the 'Claim what's yours' campaign that we're undertaking at the moment, because, as you say, there are plenty of people who are not aware that they're able to claim carers allowance. There are lots of people who aren't aware that they are able to claim direct payments, so it's important that we undertake as much work as we can to ensure that people are claiming everything to which they're entitled, especially at this difficult time. So, yes, we will absolutely redouble our efforts in that space.

Minister, as you're aware and has already been brought up by several Members in this Chamber, local authorities in Wales have vast usable reserves in their coffers. At the end of the 2020-21 financial year, this totalled over £2.1 billion, an increase of £600 million on the year before, with some local authorities, such as my own of Rhondda Cynon Taf, having just under £208 million in usable reserves. You will also be aware that the calculation for the amount that local authorities will receive from the revenue support grant assumes that there is no use of, or addition to, these financial reserves. This ultimately means, Minister, that local authorities are incentivised to keep increasing council tax rates year on year, and hoarding money without any financial impact on the RSG from the Welsh Government. This also means that council tax payers are hit hard year on year with higher and higher council tax bills, just so that councils can keep increasing their financial reserves. With this in mind, Minister, what assessment have you made of limiting the amount of usable reserves that a council can hold before the RSG is affected? And what impact assessment have you made of the detriment that households face when local authorities continue to increase their council tax rates when they have such substantial usable reserves? 

I'm not sure whether the Minister is able to hear. Were you able to hear that?

There was a lot of conversation going on on the same benches as the Member who was asking the question. Did you hear?

14:05

You can answer the question. They're now falling out over who was having the conversation. [Laughter.] Minister. Minister.

Okay. So, to answer the question on reserves: I think it is a positive thing that local government has significant reserves when we move into a cost-of-living crisis. And let's remember, when we were discussing the budget last year, we were talking about that improved settlement in this first year of the three-year spending review, which gave local authorities over 9 per cent of an increase in their budget. But we talked, even at that time, when we had no real concept of the size of the cost-of-living crisis coming towards us, that years 2 and 3 of the spending review period were going to be difficult, so I think it's entirely right that local authorities now are looking to see how they can use their reserves in an appropriate way to help manage some of that particular pressure. I do think it is for local authorities to decide at what rate they set their council tax; it is a really important part of local democracy, and I think that we would only step in in extreme circumstances to tell local authorities what to do on council tax. I do believe it's an important tool that should be used on a local basis.

The Funding of Local Authorities in South Wales West

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the funding of local authorities in South Wales West? OQ58621

I will continue to prioritise funding for all local authorities in Wales through a transparent, equitable and jointly produced distribution formula for the local government settlement with our local government partners.

Diolch, Weinidog. Minister, the leader of Neath Port Talbot Council asked me, in a recent letter, to press for sufficient additional resources to enable the council to continue to support its communities through the current crises. He compares the current cost-of-living crisis with the COVID crisis, when local government demonstrated time and time again how it is uniquely placed to respond to local needs. But NPT estimate that they are facing unfunded in-year pressures of £10 million, and £24 million during the next financial year. At the same time, of course, the continued impact of the pandemic and current economic crisis have created unprecedented demand on services. For example, presentations to NPT's housing options service are 400 per cent higher than pre pandemic, contacts with children's social services are 300 per cent higher, and I attended that same regional WLGA meeting last week, in which the same bleak situation was repeated and outlined. So, how is the Minister going to ensure that our local authorities are able to maintain core services? We know the door of No. 10 Downing Street is shut firmly in Wales's face, so what answer will council leaders of South Wales West get from Cardiff Bay? Raising council tax isn't a progressive option, so what other ways are there to raise the required revenue?

Thank you very much for the question, and I do recognise that similarity in terms of the crisis of the pandemic and the crisis of the cost-of-living crisis. What's different, of course, is that the pandemic attracted significant additional funding in terms of helping us to manage that, whereas the cost-of-living crisis has not provided us with significant additional funding to help us manage the crisis. And I just want to be really clear that we have allocated all of the available funding. So, you'll have seen our budget this year: we had a small contingency reserve for in-year this year. Next year, we've allocated everything, so we will be managing any additional spend through the Wales reserve and that alone, and the same for the following year.

So, we've also got an over-programme on capital, which is obviously very stretched in the first place, and at the time we set that, we didn't realise that UK Government would be taking £30 million back in respect of supporting the arms for Ukraine. So, the budget is extremely stretched; there's no additional significant funding to be allocated, so it really is going to be a case now of hoping that the UK Government does the right thing at its spending review—sorry, at its autumn budget when it appears—and does provide the additional funding that authorities are calling out for, and I have to say, the health service is also calling out for in this situation as well. So, we await that with interest. It's a shame that it's been pushed back, because that makes our own budget planning much more difficult, and it makes it more difficult then for us to provide the kind of reassurance, or at least assurance, that the leader of Neath Port Talbot, and other leaders, are seeking from us at this time.

Tax Policy

7. What consideration has the Minister given to revising tax policy due to the cost-of-living crisis? OQ58603

14:10

The Welsh Government is committed to supporting the most vulnerable through this cost-of-living crisis using our fiscal and policy levers. As part of the budget process, I will consider how we can continue to support our most vulnerable people through the cost-of-living crisis.

Diolch yn fawr, Gweinidog. Our friends in Scotland have greater levers than us to use. They have a progressive income tax system, introduced by the SNP Scottish Government, which ensures that those on lower income pay less tax than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, supporting stronger public services whilst also safeguarding those on lower incomes; a fairer tax system where those with the broadest shoulders are taking most of the weight. I hope, Minister, that you will raise this with your counterparts, with the shadow Cabinet at Westminster, so that Wales will also have the powers to vary the tax bands. Would the Minister agree with me that we shouldn't be left behind by our Scottish friends as they create a fairer nation up there?

Well, it is the case that we have a different system, and, of course, our system was only agreed in 2016. We've only been collecting Welsh rates of income tax for a couple of years, so it is important, I think, at least in this first instance, to let the system bed in, but also, I think, to understand what the implications would be of us having a more progressive, as you say, banding system. So, it's an interesting discussion that we should be having, whilst also considering what the implications would be for our overall tax take here in Wales and what options might be available to us. So, you know, there is work going on in terms of considering the future of the United Kingdom, including fiscal levers, and I think that that plays in well to those particular discussions.

Building on the tax powers that you have, finance Minister, are you in a position this afternoon to inform us, for every penny that you might seek to raise, if that was your advice to Cabinet at the budget-setting period, how much extra money would come into the Welsh Government coffers in the 45p and 40p threshold, and, conversely, every penny you might take off, what that would lose to the Treasury here in Wales? And, any behavioural concepts that you might have modelled into your advice to Cabinet, would you make that available so that Members are in possession of the full facts when considering the tax powers?

Well, Llywydd, we do have the Welsh rates of income tax ready reckoner, which was published in 2021, so it's there for all colleagues to be looking at and using. It's available on the Welsh Government's website, and that does show the effects of changes to the Welsh rates of devolved income tax revenue. So, you're able to play around with it and look at different things. But, just for clarity, the basic rate of income tax for next year, if we were to raise or lower it by 1p, that would have an impact of £220 million; for the higher rate, it would be £33 million; and the additional rate, £5 million. And, of course, there will potentially be behavioural impacts. We don't have a very clear view of what the behavioural impacts would be; those behavioural impacts, I think, would probably only come into play in the additional rate, in any case, because those people tend to be people who are potentially more mobile and who would have different options in terms of structuring their tax affairs. But, of course, I know that the former Finance Committee did an interesting piece of work that did look at the potential of people moving across borders to avoid an increase in additional rates of income tax. So, all of that information is available, and I do commend the ready reckoner to colleagues who want to find out a bit more about what the implications of different choices might be. But, I should say that any choice that we make will be announced alongside our draft budget on 13 December.

The UK Government's Fiscal Statement

8. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the UK Government's fiscal statement on Alyn and Deeside? OQ58609

Despite the reversals made on many elements of the mini budget, the damage has been done. Households and businesses in Alyn and Deeside and elsewhere are facing higher borrowing costs and greater economic uncertainty. We now face the prospect of more austerity in our already hard-pressed public services.

Thank you for your response, Minister. The Tory party want us all to pretend that it was a different Tory party that crashed the economy with reckless giveaways. [Interruption.] Whether they're Conservatives or Tories, they're all under the same hat. Now, they crashed the economy with their giveaways to millionaires and billionaires just a few weeks ago. Minister, you're right; the damage from the most disastrous fiscal statement is done. They then were determined to cause more uncertainty in the budgets with their so-called Halloween statement, only for it to emerge today that they'll scare us sometime towards the end of November. But in the meantime, with all this nonsense on the corridors of Westminster, with the power struggles they have, residents in Alyn and Deeside are struggling. They require certainty, Minister. Do you agree with me that the very last thing they need is the additional dose of Tory austerity coming their way?

14:15

Yes, I absolutely agree with Jack Sargeant, and I agree with his analysis as well, because we have a new administration in Westminster, but we absolutely don't have a clean slate, because the Prime Minister and the Chancellor's fingerprints are all over the economic crisis that we're all facing at the moment. And Jack Sargeant is right again; it's his constituents who are feeling the pain. They'll be feeling it through the increases in their mortgage payments, and they'll be feeling it if benefits don't rise in line with inflation. So, I think that absolutely the last thing that we need is further austerity at this time, but whether or not the UK Government is even hearing that is another thing entirely.

Post-EU Funding Arrangements

9. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding post-EU funding arrangements? OQ58617

The UK Government has bypassed the Welsh Government and this Senedd with post-EU funding. The impact of their flawed schemes and a £1.1 billion funding cut is seriously impacting on a range of sectors, and jobs and growth. I have repeatedly raised this with UK Ministers and I'll continue to do so.

The Senedd's Finance Committee reported this month that Wales is in danger of losing out financially if the UK Government fails to co-operate with the Welsh Government on post-EU funding. That's despite repeated Tory promises that Wales would receive not a penny less as a result of Brexit. Clearly, we must have that co-operation from the UK Government and the Tories must honour their pledge. But do you agree with me, Minister, that Wales is already losing out? The former Governor of the Bank of England has pointed out that in 2016 the British economy was 90 per cent the size of Germany's. It is now less than 70 per cent. And analysis by the Economic and Social Research Institute calculates that Brexit has led to a 16 per cent drop in trade from the UK to the EU. So, as well as a fair funding settlement for Wales, do you agree with me that we need urgently to rebuild Britain's economic ties with our biggest trading partner and reduce barriers to trade?

Yes, I do agree with those points, because in my view the impact of Brexit has been very much camouflaged by the pandemic and now by the cost-of-living crisis. I think that the example that you've given, which compares our position with Germany, really does spell out the damage that has been done by Brexit and that will continue to be done unless the UK Government takes a different approach to trading with our most important trading partners.

I think the issue around replacement EU funding, as well, is an important one. We were promised that we wouldn't be a penny worse off. Well, that's true; we're £1.1 billion worse off in terms of the lack of available European funding. The shared prosperity fund has just been an abject failure in terms of being a replacement. As well as having that funding gap, no funding has reached Wales yet, whereas of course if we were still in the EU those EU programmes would have already started in January 2021. And not only that; they would have been programmes over a number of years, which would have allowed more strategic deployment of that funding, rather than funding small pet projects across Wales, decided by Ministers in Westminster. [Interruption.] I hear the Conservatives behind me, but I find it quite hilarious that anybody is still willing to defend the current situation, where we are worse off financially, and also our reputation across the world has been damaged, probably irreparably for some time, by the Conservative Party.

2. Questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs, North Wales and Trefnydd

The next item is questions to the Minister for rural affairs and north Wales. The first question is from Samuel Kurtz.

Responsible Dog Ownership

1. What support is the Welsh Government providing to encourage responsible dog ownership? OQ58618

The Welsh Government's code of practice for the welfare of dogs informs owners of their obligations relating to controlling their dogs and the governing pieces of legislation, of which there are many. We are working with the UK Government on introducing further safeguards through the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.

14:20

Thank you, Minister. I recently had the opportunity, and the pleasure, indeed, to visit Dogs Trust Cymru at their state-of-the-art rehoming centre here in Cardiff Bay. The team do a marvellous job of rehabilitating, reassuring and rehoming the dogs, which, for a variety of reasons have been left unwanted by their previous owners. Whilst at the centre, I met several good dogs that had been, sadly, abused and suffered mistreatment. Indeed, another charity, the RSPCA, have long called for their investigation and prosecution activities to be placed on a formal basis, which would empower front-line officers to intervene sooner, reducing the reliance on local authorities and police forces. Given this, can I urge you to consider this proposal so that our much-loved family pets receive intervention before the worst-case scenario occurs? Diolch.

Yes, absolutely, this is something that we are considering. I've had several meetings with the RSPCA and officials have also met with them. We've been looking at examples where other countries have had those powers with their third sector. Just to say I absolutely agree with you around Dogs Trust Cymru; it's one of my favourite places to visit. 

Bird Flu

2. What is the Welsh Government's plan to reduce the risk of bird flu cases in Denbighshire? OQ58600

On 17 October, the Welsh Government, along with other UK administrations, introduced an avian influenza prevention zone. This applies to all of Wales and places legal obligations on bird keepers to follow strict biosecurity measures. Good biosecurity is the best form of defence for preventing AI in kept birds.

Thank you very much for that answer, Minister. I'm sure you're more than aware of the risks bird flu poses, and I welcome the action from the Welsh Government to stop the spread by imposing the 10 km surveillance zone around the infected premises. As we saw with COVID, immediate and tough action early on can ensure that the problem does not get worse, and I call on the Welsh Government to work closely with the UK Government to tackle this outbreak head on. Although bird flu affecting humans is rare, the damage it can do to the supply chain of poultry can add to the inflation of the prices of eggs and chicken at a time when the cost of these products is increasing due to cost-of-living pressures. Therefore, what is the Minister doing to ensure that bird flu does not spread across Wales, to ensure that the supply of poultry is not disrupted and that prices do not increase further for my constituents in Denbighshire? 

I should probably just say at the outset that there have been no cases of AI in kept birds in Denbighshire during the 2021-22 period or, indeed, in the current 2022-23 outbreak period, but it has been relentless across the UK. We have not had a break at all. Normally, you do get a bit of respite in the summer months, but we have absolutely not had any break at all. I can assure you I work very closely with the UK Government in relation to this. In fact, I wrote to George Eustice, back in February or March of this year, when we saw some significant outbreaks in, I think, Lincolnshire in England, which I was particularly concerned about and wondered if there was something we could do to work together. Clearly, we've had another two DEFRA Secretaries of State since that time, but it is something that I will be raising immediately with the new Secretary of State, because I do think it is something that we need to look at across the UK.

You mentioned public health, and clearly the risk to public health from the virus is very low, but it does have an impact and it has an impact also on free range, for instance, when we've had to house birds. So, I can absolutely assure Members that this is something that daily we are looking at. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservatives' spokesperson, Samuel Kurtz.

Minister, can I firstly begin by paying tribute to Christianne Glossop, who served as Wales's chief veterinary officer for 17 years before standing down earlier this month? She has served under a number of rural affairs Ministers, and I'm sure that you will join me in putting our gratitude for her service on the record and wishing her the very best for the future. I'd also like to refer Members to my register of interests.

Two weeks ago, in debating the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee's nitrate vulnerable zones report, I asked several questions that did not receive an answer, specifically surrounding the impact of TB breakdown incidents. Given this, can I seek clarification that farmers with movement restrictions will be permitted to exceed the 170 kg per hectare nitrate limit? As you will know, farmers under TB restrictions are unable to move cattle, meaning stock numbers will inevitably increase, thus seeing the farmer contravening your water regulations. Obeying one set of rules could see them failing another. Are there any dispensations for breakdown herds, or is this something to be considered in the licensing consultation for the 250 kg per hectare derogation? And on the consultation, when are we expecting to see it open, as time is marching on?

14:25

Thank you. I would like to thank the Member for his kind words about Christianne Glossop leaving her post as Wales’s first chief veterinary officer after 17 years. She’ll certainly have big boots to fill. I know she will be very pleased to have heard your comments.

In relation to the question around farms that are in TB breakdown, this is something that we are considering, and will be considered in the scheme that we will be bringing forward. The consultation will be launched next month. We are still working with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement to get that consultation together.

I’m grateful for that. Secondly, in scrutinising the agriculture Bill, very same committee that I sit on have taken evidence from farming unions and environmental non-governmental organisations, where despite there being differences of opinion, there is a general consensus and agreement. But having taken evidence from the Tenant Farmers Association and the Mynydd Eglwysilan, Mynydd Meio and Craig Evan Leyshon Commoners Association, there is a deep frustration that there is limited reference to tenant farmers and common land in the agriculture Bill itself. Whilst a tenancy working group has been established, can you commit to creating a working group for common land, to ensure that those who farm and enjoy common land, which makes up nearly 10 per cent of Wales’s landmass, can contribute and shape the agriculture Bill?

I think it’s been very good to see not just, as you referred to, the farming unions and the ENGOs, but the cross-party approval, if you like, of the way that the agriculture Bill has begun. I know there will be amendments brought forward, and again, we’re working with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement to bring forward some Government amendments at the next stage.

Tenant farmers is a really important part; you’ll know a great number of our farmers are tenant farmers here in Wales. That was part of the reason for bringing the working group together. Because certainly, my discussions with them over the past six years as we’ve been bringing both the sustainable farming scheme forward and the agriculture Bill is that tenant farmers have very different and specific concerns around it.

In relation to common land, we haven’t thought about having a specific group, but it’s certainly something I can look at. I’m not saying I will bring forward another group, but I think, again, there are issues that are very specific to common land, and I’d be very happy to make sure my officials talk to people if they think they have anything that hasn’t been considered already by us.

I would say to you and your officials that the evidence given by the Member representing common land at the committee last week was exceptional. I would really urge you and your team to look at that as a starting point as to the concerns of those linked with common land.

Finally, Minister, I’m sure that you share my joy in seeing the growth of Wales’s food and drink manufacturing sector, with a 2021 turnover that increased by 10.2 per cent, from £4.9 billion to £5.4 billion. Despite the disruption of the pandemic, the sector has ploughed on, growing and helping local economies thrive and create new jobs for local people. I also recently attended an event in Downing Street to mark the export of Welsh and British lamb, following a 30-year hiatus, to the United States of America, the first shipment coming from Dunbia in Llanybydder in Carmarthenshire—Welsh lamb back on the menu in America. The NFU’s ambition is for UK agri-food exports grow by 30 per cent by the end of the decade. Do you share this ambition, and if so, what provision exists within the agriculture Bill to ensure Welsh food and drink exports continue to grow?

I don’t think there’s any greater cheerleader than me for the Welsh food and drink producers that we have. I’ve made sure whilst I’ve been in portfolio that we’ve always put them absolutely at the fore. We’ve just been in SIAL in Paris, and last night there was an event in Qatar, ahead of the world cup, to make sure that people are aware of Welsh food and drink there also.

In relation to your specific question around the US, I was very pleased to see that we’re able now to export Welsh lamb to the US for the first time for 30 years. Unfortunately, it’s five years, probably, later than we would have wanted. We were nearly there when Donald Trump became President, so it’s great that we’ve managed to do it now. I work very closely with, as you know, and support, Hybu Cig Cymru to make sure they are working with the US to ensure that we absolutely make the maximum benefit of ensuring our Welsh lamb is everywhere in America, I think it’s fair to say. Obviously, the agriculture Bill has food absolutely at the heart of it—sustainable food production as well. So, this is all-encompassing for every meat, and for all our Welsh food and drink.

14:30

Diolch, Llywydd. The new ministerial advisory group for Welsh fisheries met for the first time in July. Among the priorities discussed was the fisheries funding scheme—the replacement for the EU fisheries fund. But there are concerns that the proposals for a Welsh fisheries funding scheme fall short of the previous European maritime fisheries fund scheme and the equivalent fisheries and shellfish scheme in England. The Welsh fisheries funding scheme in only in development and is already behind England in terms of implementation. Fisheries and aquaculture businesses are therefore at a disadvantage here and there are further concerns that the Welsh fisheries funding scheme does not reflect the targeted support and interventions required to achieve the statutory objectives of the UK Fisheries Act 2020.

The current proposals offer revenue funds thereby limiting the scope for Welsh fisher people and other producers of seafood to contribute to the requirements that effectively enable transition to meet the fisheries Act objectives and wider net-zero commitments. Does the Minister recognise these concerns, and how will she ensure that the Welsh fisheries funding scheme directs the necessary targeted support and interventions required to achieve the statutory objectives of the UK Fisheries Act 2020?

Well, ensuring the replacement to the EMFF is correct, is appropriate, is pertinent—it goes where we need it to go. It's one of the reasons why I changed the format of the ministerial advisory group. I thought that was really important to make sure—. The previous one had been in being for about 10 years and obviously, the world has changed and I thought it was really important that we had a group that would advise me and officials on how we replace the EMFF. 

As you say, the group did meet on 14 July. The next meeting is next month. I will make sure that the complaints or issues that you've just raised with me are considered, if they're not being considered, although I think it's very unlikely that the replacement for the EMFF is not on the agenda, but I will ensure that it is. Because you are right: it needs to be done in the most appropriate way. But for me, what's really important—it's a bit like the sustainable farming scheme—is that we need to do it in co-production with our fishers and with the wider sector. And, absolutely, the reason to have that ministerial advisory group is to make sure that everybody can contribute.

Thank you for the response. Well, carrying on on the theme of funding for fishing and aquaculture, the UK seafood fund has funds of £100 million under three pillars: science and innovation, infrastructure, skills and training. The Welsh fisheries funding scheme rightly highlights the need to maximise leverage of the £100 million UK seafood fund into Wales. In principle, this sounds sensible, however in practice, neither fisher people in Wales nor the fishing representative bodies are equipped to navigate or cash-flow the UK fund's processes. So, it's unlikely that the sector will benefit from it. Wales should benefit from £8 million of this UK fund, which, combined with the Welsh funds of £6.2 million, would be transformational for the Welsh seafood offer and the whole supply chain. 

The science and innovation pillar of the UK fund certainly provides an opportunity for the fishing sector, however, other pillars are limited to ports, harbours and processing facilities and training organisations, leaving little for our catching sector. It's difficult to see how the Welsh scheme would lever any funding from the UKSF pillars. The Welsh seafood industry could be seriously disadvantaged by barriers to accessing the UKSF, which could result in unspent funds reverting to the Treasury or other administrations. So, does the Minister agree with the concerns expressed by the sector and, if so, how will the Welsh Government help ensure that the Welsh fishing sector can maximise the benefits of available funding under the UKSF?

Yes, I absolutely recognise that, and those concerns were raised with me very early on—probably this time last year, when the UK Government announced their seafood scheme. I think it's really confusing, because what would have been better is if they'd just given us our share of the funding that we were entitled to and we could decide what we did with that funding and how we worked with the sector to allocate that funding. So, I think it did create a lot of confusion at the outset. So, what we've done is agree an approach on how we access that UK Government funding so that our fishers don't miss out on that funding, and that work is being undertaken at the moment.

The Sustainable Farming Scheme

3. How will the new sustainable farming scheme benefit young tenant farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire? OQ58614

Thank you. The sustainable farming scheme has been designed to reward all types of farmers, including tenant farmers who manage the land, to deliver environmental outcomes alongside the sustainable production of food. This will ensure that we have a sustainable and resilient agricultural sector for future generations.

14:35

Thank you for that, Minister. Many young tenant farmers in my constituency believe that the proposals as currently drafted within the sustainable farming scheme are still very much leaned towards land ownership. Tenants, usually young farming families on the first rung of the farming ladder, have to deal with different types of landlords, from the local farmer who's retired, up to the big organisations, like the National Trust. Many young farmers rent land, whether that's on grazing agreements or farm business tenancies, and the tenants are the ones who carry the financial business risks on the land. So, Minister, are you content that the proposals set out in the sustainable farming scheme allow tenant farmers to enter that on the same level as land owners, and that the scheme protects young, active tenant farmers and their families from potential evictions by some landlords, so that they can offset their carbon and meet environmental targets?

Yes, I am, but I will point out that we're still looking at designing the sustainable farming scheme. The survey is still open until 21 November, so please do encourage all of your colleagues to make sure that they complete the survey and let us hear their views. I've said all along that if it doesn't work for tenant farmers, it won't work for anybody, because they are just as important as land farmers, as you say; they make up a third of our land here in Wales, so it's really important. And I've been very, very clear the scheme must work for them.

You mentioned young farmers in particular, and the reason that we're bringing forward the support in a different way to how it was when we were in the European Union is because we know that our next generation of farmers are going to be farming in a very much tougher climates and conditions than we are now. But I do want to continue to work with tenant farmers—I want to make that very clear. And you will have heard me say in an earlier answer to one of our colleagues that we have got the tenancy working group, specifically to look at how the actions—. So, you'll be aware of the pyramid of actions that we have in the sustainable farming scheme. It's really important that all actions work for tenant farmers, just in the same way as those who own the land.

Greyhound Racing

4. Will the Minister provide an update on the Government's position on greyhound racing? OQ58630

5. What progress has the Welsh Government made in relation to its stated intention to consider regulating greyhound racing? OQ58627

Llywydd, I understand that you've given permission for questions 4 and 5 to be grouped. I have made no secret about my desire to address concerns relating to the welfare of racing greyhounds in Wales. Our animal welfare plan sets out how we will consider introducing further measures. I look forward to the outcome of the recent petition, currently being considered by the Petitions Committee.

Thank you for that response, Minister.

I would like to thank the Minister as well for her continued engagement on this issue. No doubt, the Minister is aware of the current plans in Caerphilly to change the independent track there to a Greyhound Board of Great Britain-regulated one. A concern I have, which is shared by other Members in the Chamber, as well as Hope Rescue, Greyhound Rescue Wales, Dogs Trust, Blue Cross and the RSPCA, is that regulation, especially if it's a copy-and-paste job from what we have in England, will not stop the injuries and deaths. We know, for example, that, between 2018 and 2021, 2,000 dogs died, and a further 18,000 were injured on licensed tracks. What I and others are looking to understand is where the Government is leaning right now—is it towards regulation, or is it to a ban?

Thank you. I appreciate you also keeping the pressure on in relation to this issue, and I look forward to meeting you and Jane Dodds, I think it's the week after recess, to discuss the situation in more detail. I am aware, obviously, of the plans of the one greyhound track that we still have here in Wales. As you know, I wrote to the owner back in March, and haven't received a response. This week, I've written to the new manager, to raise some questions there, and also to ask for a meeting with him. Obviously, there is a planning application before Caerphilly County Borough Council, and that will be a matter for them to look at, and, obviously, I can't comment in relation to that.

As you know, as part of our animal welfare plan, which I published a year ago—we're coming up to the first anniversary of that—which set out what we're going to do in relation to animal health and welfare over the term of this Government, we were looking at licensing activities involving animals, and that includes racing greyhounds. As I say in my answer to you, I'm aware that there is a petition—sorry, I was looking for the Chair—in front of the Petitions Committee; I understand that it's got 35,000 signatures at the current time. So, you can see the strength of feeling amongst people in relation to that, but, obviously, as a Government, we will have a look at that. So, I think, while it's awaiting a response from the Petitions Committee, it's not really appropriate to comment any further. 

14:40

Greyhound racing is an issue that concerns lots of my constituents. I've lost count of the number of e-mails that I've received about the plans to expand the only track in Wales in Caerphilly county. As you've said, Minister, 35,000 people—more than that—have signed a petition calling for a ban. The concerns they've raised include the fact that hundreds of greyhounds die in Britain every year due to the practice. Thousands get injuries that lead to amputations. The absence of a qualified vet at the track has the potential to cause unnecessary suffering, and thousands of dogs have to be rehomed every year, with the costs covered by charities and the public. 

You said, Minister, after your appointment, that you would prioritise this issue early in the Senedd term, and I've been listening to what you've said to my colleague, Luke Fletcher. What action are you taking to persuade the council about the need to uphold Welsh Government commitments to animal welfare as part of the planning process, and can you confirm that if you're not satisfied that the welfare of dogs is being prioritised, you will be willing to take direct action to protect them?

The planning application is a matter for Caerphilly County Borough Council. It would not be right for me, or any other Welsh Minister, to interfere. I think what is really important—and this is what I've sought assurance from Caerphilly council around—is that the unannounced inspections are continued. And I know, to date, in between February 2020 and August of this year, there have been eight unannounced inspections, and I think it's really important that they continue. I know that, on occasion, vets have also gone along to those unannounced inspections, and I think it is really important that the local authority continues to do that, and that any issues of concern are obviously raised and dealt with. 

But I think that you do raise a very important point, and you can see from your own postbag as a Member of the Senedd—and we said that the Petitions Committee have had 35,000 signatures—the strength of feeling about this issue. I've always had my concerns, especially for the welfare of the dogs, and the injuries and the suffering they can and do sustain. And, sometimes, there are very grave consequences. So, as I say, it is something that we're looking at very closely, and we will see what comes forward from the Petitions Committee as well. 

Minister, you don't need me to remind you that, in Great Britain, over 2,000 greyhounds died and nearly 18,000 injuries occurred between 2018 and 2021. In 2021, there were 4,422 injuries on licensed tracks, 307 deaths in Great Britain, and 39 per cent of those were at the track. We've mentioned the one independent racing track. Since April 2018, Hope Rescue and their rescue partners have taken in almost 200. You yourself have mentioned how you feel for these dogs. Now, enough is enough. I would say that there's cross-party support for this. If I was Minister, I wouldn't be having a member of the opposition asking me: why have you not done anything up until now? Thirty-five thousand on the petition—that's a large number of people across Wales. Enough of this cruelty. Will you now go forward and implement a ban? Thank you. 

Well, if you were Minister, you would recognise that you can't just go around banning things; you have to have evidence and you have to have consultations, and this is one of the things that we are looking at. You'll be aware of the petition. Having been Chair yourself, you'll be aware of the process that we go through with that. You will have read, I'm sure, the animal welfare plan that does include the licensing of activities, and that does include racing greyhounds. 

I do have, and certainly, my officials keep in very close contact with Caerphilly County Borough Council around inspections. I've met with the chief executive of the Greyhound Board of Great Britain. I'm trying to get a meeting with both the owner and the manager of Valley racetrack. I think I've written to the owner twice, and I haven't had the courtesy of a response. So, please be assured that I am continuing to do all that I can within the restrictions that are also placed on me. 

Good afternoon, Minister. I must declare an interest. As you know, I own a rescue greyhound myself—10-year-old Arthur, who we've had for just over two years now. Arthur could not be rehomed because of his high levels of anxiety. Arthur came to us with significant injuries; he has a neck injury from falling at the racetrack, and we are now seeing, sadly, his back legs giving way, which means that Arthur will not be with us for very long, and that is due, probably in a large part, to the cruelty he experienced at the racetrack.

We know that the Greyhound Board of Great Britain want to take over Valley racetrack. GBGB, last year—this year, sorry—. In July, many of us were at the Royal Welsh Show. Temperatures at the Royal Welsh Show were—what were they—25, 28 degrees C. In that week, GBGB raced on two tracks; they forced the dogs in that heat to race. GBGB are not interested in looking after their dogs; they are cruel to their dogs through this process. So, I would appeal to you, what is it that is stopping the Welsh Government from banning greyhound racing, as they have done fantastically with snares and glue traps? Let's show the world what we can do. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you.  

14:45

Thank you. I certainly look forward to my photographs that you'll send me of Arthur, and I'm sorry to hear of his condition deteriorating, because, as you say, it's not just the deaths, is it, but it's the injuries that these animals sustain. I think I've answered part of your question in my answer to Janet Finch-Saunders. There is a process that we have to go through. We are committed to licensing, but, clearly, as more and more concerns come before me—. And I'm very sorry to hear—. It was actually 38 degrees C the week of the Royal Welsh Show, so you can see, if you're forcing dogs to run in that heat, it's just completely inappropriate. 

Minister, these gentle, sensitive animals deserve our best protection, which is why both the Welsh and UK Governments must work together to protect and safeguard the welfare of these loving animals. The UK Government recently introduced the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022, which will ensure that all policy decisions are to be considered regarding the impact on the welfare of animals as sentient beings. What action are you taking to ensure that the Welsh Government considers the impact its policies are having on sentient animals like greyhounds? Thank you. 

Thank you. Well, officials have been working very closely with the UK Government on this piece of legislation. We absolutely recognise that animals are sentient beings, and I don't think I can really answer in any more detail to previous answers. 

Community Green Spaces

6. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change to ensure that new housing developments have community green spaces? OQ58602

Thank you. I have regular discussions with all Cabinet colleagues about matters relating to my portfolio. The Minister for Climate Change is committed to the promotion of quality places and for new housing developments to have adequate infrastructure, including green spaces.

Thank you, Minister. I saw recently an announcement in Madrid that they were going to have open, green spaces around that city, and a local campaigner, Steffan Webb, is trying to do something similar here. We have great parks in Cardiff, but the vast majority were opened in the Victorian era. It is possible to create new parks in Cardiff, in places like St Fagans and St Mellons, and this would create beautiful places for local people, and it would ensure a green belt around the city, and it would also provide a natural protection against floods. How, Minister, can you collaborate with others to ensure that we do have new parks in the twenty-first century in Cardiff?  

Thank you. I always think that Cardiff is a very green city. As you say, there are many beautiful parks here. I haven't had any discussions around any local authority coming to me in relation to new parks since this, obviously, came back into my portfolio, but certainly we would be very keen to look at the merits of any proposal that came forward. 

Minister, as you are no doubt aware, a new sewage pumping station has been proposed on the community green space of Hailey park in Cardiff in order to service the needs of the new Plasdŵr development. Proposals have come about because the developers of the new housing estate have failed to make adequate provision, and the proposals have met with fierce opposition from local groups, such as YGC Rebel Mams, who have been forced to fundraise over £50,000 to take the local authority to judicial review, all because they want to protect the limited green spaces that they have available to them for their children and for their community, and because they feel that they shouldn't be forced to pick up the slack for Cardiff Council's inability to work with developers to plan out the needs of new housing estates. Minister, green spaces in Cardiff are at a premium, and Cardiff Council is determined with all its might to remove them whenever and wherever possible in the face of fierce resistance from residents who know that these spaces will be lost to them forever. So, I ask, Minister, will the Welsh Government commit to encouraging Cardiff Council not to lease the land at Hailey park to Welsh Water so that sewage works can be stopped, and will you offer a commitment that the Minister for Climate Change will work with local authorities to better plan developments, which in turn should stop them from removing the last of our community green spaces in our urban areas? Thank you.

14:50

You would have to raise that directly with the Minister for Climate Change. Obviously, the issue you refer to is a matter for Cardiff Council; they are the local planning authority. It wouldn't be appropriate for any Welsh Minister to comment on the merits of any proposal, for instance, as it could come before Welsh Ministers at some point in the future.

Bird Flu

7. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's measures to tackle the spread of bird flu in Mid and West Wales? OQ58624

When avian influenza is confirmed at any premises in Wales, stringent disease control measures are immediately put in place to stop further spread. The Welsh Government introduced an avian influenza prevention zone on 17 October, which makes it a mandatory requirement for bird keepers to follow strict biosecurity measures.

Thank you very much. Those measures are, of course, welcome because the current strain of avian influenza is recognised as the worst to have affected the UK, with the recent news in Norfolk that some 0.5 million chickens have been destroyed a result of the inflection, and concern in the industry that this will have an effect on the number of turkeys available for Christmas. 

But, in addition to the agricultural sector, the spread of avian influenza and the impact on wildlife can be very serious, with some 10,000 sea geese having been killed by the disease last year as they migrated from the Arctic to the UK. We've recently heard about the impact of this on cormorants on Grassholm in Pembrokeshire. We know of the importance of the west Wales coast in terms of seabirds and important nature reserves. So, with concerns about the spread this winter and the relationship between the agriculture sector and wildlife, can the Minister provide an assurance that efforts and resources to tackle bird flu in the agriculture sector go hand in hand with steps to safeguard our wildlife too?

Yes, absolutely, and I work very closely with the Minister for Climate Change in relation to this issue as well. She published the mitigation strategy for avian influenza in wild birds in England and Wales back in August, I think it was, and that was to enable conservation charities and land managers— obviously, that includes the agricultural sector—to take an effective and consistent response to AI in wild birds. 

As I understand it, there has been a case of avian influenza in my constituency, and it's crucial, therefore, that everything is done to stop the disease spreading further across Pembrokeshire and indeed across the rest of Wales. Of course, it's vital that the Welsh Government works collaboratively with other Governments across the UK on this matter. Therefore, can the Minister update us on the latest discussions that the Welsh Government has had with other UK Governments regarding avian influenza outbreaks in the UK, and what more can be done to monitor this specific disease across the UK because, as you're aware, diseases, of course, naturally don't recognise boundaries?

You may have heard me say in an earlier answer to Gareth Davies that it is very important we work with other UK administrations, particularly the UK Government. As I said, we were working on this with George Eustice back at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, the DEFRA Secretary of State who just left Government yesterday, I didn't meet with, but I will certainly be writing to Thérèse Coffey on this issue. Biosecurity is the most important defence we have in relation to avian influenza. Certainly, some of the outbreaks we've seen, and I mentioned the ones in Lincolnshire, were all in big premises at the start of the year, so we were all very concerned about that biosecurity element of it. So, if there's any message I can give, because it's clearly a massive issue where we haven't had any break at all really—we've continued to have new cases of AI throughout the summer, and the new counting season starts on 1 October, and we've just gone straight into that—. So, I think that message is really important, but it is a very serious point that we have to work together, because, as you say, birds fly; they don't see those boundaries and it's so easy for that disease to transmit, and, clearly, in wild birds as well. I mentioned the work that the Minister for Climate Change is doing around that, but I am hoping we'll have an inter-ministerial group as a matter of urgency, and it will be something that I will raise, and I'm very happy to report back to Members.

14:55
Post-common Agricultural Policy Financial Support

8. Will the Minister provide an update on post-common agricultural policy financial support for Welsh farmers? OQ58611

Thank you. In July, I published an outline of the proposed sustainable farming scheme. The scheme's proposals signify a major change in the way Welsh farmers will be supported. The scheme will be key in supporting Welsh farmers to play a leading role in delivering a more resilient environment and a more resilient rural economy.

My question arises, as some other questions have today, from the scrutiny we're doing of the Wales agriculture Bill in committee. Particularly, one of the issues that were raised last week was funding for the supply chain in addition to that directly targeted at farmers, and we know that the supply chain is diverse—it includes abattoirs, meat packers, food and drink processes right to the customer. What we were asking our witnesses about, and what, perhaps, I'd like the Minister to comment on today, is how that funding will be spread across that supply chain, and how she will ensure that, post CAP, that funding won't be spread too thinly and will be targeted in the right places.

Thank you. I think I was certainly asked about that, I think it was Sam Kurtz who asked me about that in the committee, and it is a very important point. But you'll appreciate at the moment I don't even know what my budget is, so it's very difficult to give you any assurances. It is important that the money that we have is directed to farmers, but, of course, the ancillary activities that we refer to will be part of that supply chain, and as we look at the actions within the sustainable farming scheme. I suppose it's a bit like pillar 1 and pillar 2 now; we will look at how we allocate that funding. But, as I say, it's just too early at the moment, because we don't know what our budget is, to say how we can allocate it. For me, the person that has to ultimately benefit is the active farmer.

Sam Kurtz and James Evans have already talked about the tenant situation, and I must draw Members' attention to my interests as I am an active farmer. But Sam also mentioned common land, and I'd just like to push a little further on that, because common land is currently an eligible area for the purpose of the basic payment scheme, which is vital to many businesses across Wales. Farmers are asking, 'Will common land be included in the universal tier of the new scheme, recognising that it will not be possible for common right holders to deliver many of the proposed universal actions on common land?' Minister, I was just wondering what steps the Welsh Government is taking to ensure that the new scheme continues to promote active management of common land through grazing and other sustainable agricultural measures.

I go back to what I was saying in an earlier answer: we are still in the co-design phase of the sustainable farming scheme, so now is the time to make sure everybody puts their views forward. I mentioned the survey—that's open till 21 November. Please ask anybody who contacts you with concerns to ensure they complete the survey.

We have the three tiers, as you say, and the universal tier, I think we can all safely assume, will be the biggest tier of the three. So, it's absolutely vital that anybody who was part of the basic payment scheme—. I want as many farmers as possible to be able to access the sustainable farming scheme, and, obviously, that includes farmers on common land.

The Sustainable Farming Scheme

9. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the Welsh Government's sustainable farming scheme on the Gwent levels? OQ58623

The proposed sustainable farming scheme will support farmers and other land managers to work together to deliver nature-based solutions at a landscape level. The Gwent levels are a great example where the adoption of sustainable land management practices can support resilient farm businesses and improve the environment for people and wildlife.

Thank you very much, Minister, for the recognition of the value of what's been happening on the Gwent levels. Last month, I was pleased to speak at the Sustaining the Gwent Levels conference in Redwick, a small and historic village in the Newport East area. The Gwent levels, of course, was reclaimed from the sea in Roman times, and has a unique and historic watercourse system that contains a diverse range of habitats, including the water vole at Magor marsh. It also has a lot of productive farmland. It's important we work closely with farmers and other organisations on the levels to produce the food needed, restore nature, tackle climate change and improve water quality. This includes the restoration of the reens, willow pollarding, orchard restoration, but also restoring species-rich grasslands and creating herbal leys. Minister, can you say how the Welsh Government's sustainable farming scheme will help achieve these goals?

15:00

Thank you. Well, I would imagine the collaborative tier—. We've just been referring to the three tiers of the sustainable farming scheme, and I would assume that the collaborative layer of the scheme will be able to offer support to projects at a landscape level at the Gwent levels, as you just referred to, or within the supply chain, so that they can deliver on those local and national priorities that you've just referred to. I know we are—well, you as chair of the Gwent levels working group are—looking at a strategic enhancement plan, which I think will be available in the new year, and then we will come out of the co-design phase. I think it's really important that we look at that plan to see how it will fit into the scheme.  

Animal Welfare Standards

10. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's work to improve animal welfare standards? OQ58604

Thank you. Our priorities for animal welfare are set out in our animal welfare plan for Wales. It includes a timetable for the delivery of key actions against our four animal welfare programme for government commitments, and actions for our other animal welfare priorities.

Thank you, Minister. The Welsh Government's commitment to regulating animal welfare establishments is very welcome and has received support from animal welfare organisations to help ensure the adoption of best practice. The regulation of these establishments is also important, as it closes a loophole in Lucy's law that third party sellers can exploit. Given the importance of this regulation, are you able to provide any updates on its progress?

Thank you. I can't give you any specific update, because, as you know, we are working with key stakeholders at the moment to develop a document within the animal welfare plan to look at all existing animal welfare focused licensing legislation—as you can imagine, that's quite a significant piece of work, but what that will do is gauge where the gaps are—and then set out proposals for the licensing amendments going forward. There will be public consultation as necessary and, obviously, I don't want to pre-empt the results of that exercise. 

I thank the Minister.

And as has been said already by both Samuel Kurtz and the Minister, may I also add my thanks to the chief veterinary officer as she moves on from her role? As a one-time rural affairs Minister myself, I know exactly of the 100 per cent commitment that Christianne Glossop showed to her role, but also, of course, in working across political parties and with committees and the Senedd as a whole, and I'm sure, on behalf of the Senedd, that we wish her well with whatever comes next, because I'm sure there's much to come.

So, thank you to Christianne Glossop for her excellent work.

3. Topical Questions

We'll move now to topical questions, and today's question is from Sioned Williams and is to be answered by the Trefnydd. Sioned Williams.

Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council's Education Plans

1. Will the Government make a statement following the High Court ruling on Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council's education plans? TQ670

Diolch. There is a constituency link for the Minister for Education and Welsh Language, so I am responding on behalf of the Welsh Government. I understand the council has noted the court's judgment in respect of the Swansea valley proposal and are considering their next steps. The council has a period of time to decide if it will appeal, so any further consideration needs to await the council's decision.

Thank you. Following a request for a judicial review from Rhieni dros Addysg Gymraeg, the High Court ruled that the decision of Neath Port Talbot Council to open a huge English-medium school in Pontardawe was unlawful because they failed to assess its impact on the Welsh language and particularly on Welsh-medium education. The ruling has been described as being of national importance by Gwion Lewis, the barrister who brought the case forward, because it means, according to him, that plans that don't relate directly to the Welsh language and Welsh-medium education will need to assess their impact on the Welsh language. Whilst the ruling is good news for the Tawe valley, it does raise questions on the stance taken by the Welsh Government on the issue.

The Government's response to the case was that it was a matter for the local authority, but, before politicians like me and bodies like RhAG and Dyfodol i'r Iaith drew attention to the issue, in approving the outline business case the Government was clearly content, initially, with the way the consultation was carried out and agreed with what the judge called a misinterpretation of the Government's own policies in terms of school organisation and the 'Cymraeg 2050' policy.

I would, therefore, like to ask the Government to look into the fact that there wasn't an understanding in the education department of its own policies and to ensure that practical, cross-departmental support is available for the 'Cymraeg 2050' policy. How will the Government ensure that all of the Welsh in education strategic plans and the capital programmes include appropriate consideration of the impact of all developments on the Welsh language and also secure an understanding and capacity within local authorities in terms of planning the growth of the Welsh language across all departments?

Finally, in order to support the change of direction required in this particular case, will the Government commit to consider allocating the funding pledged to this flawed and damaging proposal to plan alternative provision that wouldn't damage the Welsh language in such a way, as long as those plans meet the needs of the sustainable learning communities programme?

15:05

Thank you. Well, going forward, obviously, the Minister for Education and Welsh Language's officials will work with the local authority. They will have to, obviously, consider what comes forward from Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. As I say, the next thing is for them, obviously, to respond. My understanding is that officials did look at and consider WESP plans in the way that you suggested. In relation to funding, I think the Welsh Government have made it very clear to the local authority that, should the project change, they would, obviously, need to resubmit a business case and then the Minister's officials would again consider it.

Minister, I think it's important that we stress here that this was due to be a twenty-first century state-of-the-art school with local facilities for children with additional learning needs and a new pool as well, which is much needed in the community. But what must be made clear is the fact that local authorities perhaps need clearer guidance when consulting on issues such as these. This judgment—and it's worth noting that it was on one of the three counts—was that the council had acted unlawfully in, quote, 

'failing to consult further after receipt of the Welsh language impact assessment with its consultation.'

End quote. So, what we need now is a clearer indication from the council on its next steps, so that it can provide clarity for schools, pupils and parents currently at Alltwen, Llangiwg and Godre'r Graig schools. So, given this ruling could have further implications for other school reorganisations across Wales and twenty-first century schools programmes in other council areas, what assurances can the Welsh Government give that this judgment will not affect future plans in the pipeline elsewhere, and what lessons can be learnt from this judgment on Neath Port Talbot Council? 

Well, as I stated in my answer to Sioned Williams, the next step will be for the council to respond; it's a matter for them, then, to come to Welsh Government with their next steps. I'm sure the Minister—. As I mentioned at the outset of my answer, there is, obviously, a constituency link for the Minister for Education and Welsh Language, so, obviously, if it's something specific to do with the constituency, the First Minister will consider it. But, on your general point around guidance, I'm sure the Minister and his officials will have a look at the guidance to see if there is anything that could have been done to avert this. Whether it will have—. I'm sure that lessons can always be learnt, can't they, from anything like this. And again, I'm sure that officials will consider that.

4. 90-second Statements

The next item is the 90-second statements. There is only one today. Natasha Asghar.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Having been a Member for a short period of time, I have no doubt that the Members here believe in the great benefits of a multicultural and multifaith society, which is why I'm pleased to be able to illuminate the Chamber on the importance of Diwali here in Wales. Better known as the festival of lights, derived from the Sanskrit Deepawali, which means 'row of lights', Diwali is known for the brightly burning clay lamps that celebrants line up outside, or, weather dependent, inside, their homes. This year, Diwali began on Monday 24 October. Widely observed amongst more than a billion people from a variety of faiths across India and its diaspora, including Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs, and, although each have their own individual beliefs for its origins, the holiday still represents the same symbolic victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance.

Day one signifies Dhanteras, which is dedicated to the goddess Lakshmi. Day two—it is believed that, on that day Kali, the goddess of Shakti, or strength, killed the demon Narakasura. Day three is the largest of the five days of Diwali. Day four of Diwali marks the first day of the new year, and day five, the final day, is called Bhai Duj, which celebrates the bond between brothers and sisters. All five days of Diwali are marked by prayer, feasts, fireworks, family gatherings and charitable giving. Whilst the different regions of India and its faiths have different legends of heroic actions of the incarnations, the celebration of Diwali represents the inner light that protects each household and individual from spiritual darkness.

It is such an important celebration for the Hindu community, who are an integral part of all the communities here in Wales, so, on behalf of all the Members of the Welsh Parliament, diwali ki dheron shubh kamnayein, which translates as 'Happy Diwali to everybody celebrating'. Thank you.

15:10
5. Motion to elect an Acting Chair of Plenary Meetings

The next item is the motion to elect an acting Chair of Plenary meetings, and I call on a member of the Business Committee to formally move the motion. 

Motion NDM8114 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 6.23A, elects Paul Davies as Acting Chair of Plenary Meetings.

Motion moved.

Formally.

Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object?

Was that an objection?

Aelod o'r Senedd / Member of the Senedd 15:11:33

No, I was waving to—[Inaudible.]

Oh, okay. Okay. [Laughter.] Perhaps you should consider the timing of the wave for next time. So, just to confirm, there are no objections, and therefore the motion is agreed. 

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Motion under Standing Order 26.91 seeking the Senedd's agreement to introduce a Member Bill—Outdoor Education (Wales) Bill

The next item is a motion under Standing Order 26.91 seeking the Senedd's agreement to introduce a Member Bill, the outdoor education (Wales) Bill. I call on Sam Rowlands to move the motion. Sam Rowlands. 

Motion NDM8069 Sam Rowlands

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 26.91:

Agrees that Sam Rowlands MS may introduce a Bill to give effect to the information included in the Explanatory Memorandum published on 17 August 2022 under Standing Order 26.91A.

Motion moved.

Diolch Llywydd, and can I first say what an absolute pleasure it is today to seek the Senedd's agreement for me to introduce my Member Bill, the outdoor education (Wales) Bill? As Members will be aware, back in July I was selected from a Members ballot to bring forward a Bill. Clearly, since July not a huge amount has happened in politics in the UK, but I've certainly been very busy, working with representatives of the outdoor education and activity sector, universities, councils, Members of the Senedd, schools and pupils in bringing forward what I think is not only an extremely exciting Bill, but also one that will deliver a range of long-lasting benefits. 

Back in July I had the pleasure of publishing a 16-page explanatory memorandum, which looked into the policy objectives of this Bill and the support received for the Bill, along with the financial factors to consider. I'm sure all Members already know this, as I'm sure we've all it read it from back to front; nevertheless Members will be happy to note that I'll discuss the points from the explanatory memorandum through my contribution today, in which I will firstly outline what the Bill is, secondly, I'll outline why outdoor education is so important, I'll explain why this Bill is needed, I'll explain the financial aspects of the Bill as well, and, finally, I'll outline what I believe are the next steps in taking this proposal forward.

So, in short, the Bill will establish a statutory duty on local authorities to ensure that Wales's young people have the opportunity to participate in a week-long, four-nights residential outdoor education visit at some point during their school career. This will be put into practice by ensuring funding is put in place to enable local authorities and schools to deliver these experiences for all our youngsters, which would be, as I say, for at least one week—four nights—at some stage during their school years. 

Of course, I'm sure many Members will be thinking: out of all the policy proposals that I could have sought to introduce, why did I choose outdoor education? The main reason behind this is my basic conviction of how important outdoor education is to a child's education and overall development. It's my aspiration, and, I believe, that of many Members of the Senedd, that, regardless of a child's socioeconomic background, additional learning needs, cultural background or geographical location, they should get to enjoy the fantastic and long-lasting benefits that come from outdoor education. In addition to this, I and Members from across the Chamber have worked with the outdoor activity sector through Huw Irranca-Davies's excellent chairmanship of the outdoor activity cross-party group, which helped myself and members of the cross-party group truly understand the benefits of outdoor education. I'm sure many Members of the Senedd will remember outdoor education residential visits that they went on, creating memories, building confidence and preparing ourselves for decades to come. Sadly, I'm also sure that there are Members here who will not have had the chance to have this incredible experience themselves.

15:15

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

Indeed, recent Welsh Government-commissioned research, published via Hwb, has outlined that outdoor education has well-established benefits for children and young people in both their physical health and well-being, but also their mental health and well-being. In addition to this, Welsh Government-commissioned research found that outdoor education has exceptional benefits for personal and social learning, cognitive development and appreciation of our environment, and with our climate crisis, this is more important now than ever before.

Along with this, research from across the world has further outlined that if a child experiences these benefits at a young age, they will carry it through for the rest of their life, making a lasting difference. Furthermore, the Curriculum for Wales's health and well-being area of learning and experience contains statements of 'what matters', which place importance on responding to experiences, decision making and social influences. These are all fundamental within outdoor education, as fully realised through an outdoor education residential experience. 

I'd now like to move on to why the Bill is needed here in Wales, and what the published research and statistics are telling us. I'd firstly like to put on record my thanks to those schools and organisations through which we currently see outdoor education taking place, with fantastic work being carried out to enable this to happen. The main rationale behind my Bill is that all this good work that schools and organisations are currently doing simply doesn't go far enough, because it's seen as enrichment rather than an essential part of education, with many parts of our communities missing out due to financial constraints, where they live or their family background, and I'll go into that a little bit more shortly.

As Members will be aware, last week, with the help of the outdoor education sector and the Senedd's research team, I produced a statistical paper that briefly outlines what we currently see with those who participate in outdoor education, as, regretfully, there were no official statistics about the number of outdoor education residential visits or how many of our children and young people in Wales are gaining the clear range of benefits that they provide. This statistical paper has surveyed 350 schools across 18 of Wales's local authorities, and working with the Outdoor Education Advisers Panel Cymru, I collected data that shows four key findings. 

Firstly, in over a third of Welsh schools, of those children offered the opportunity to participate in outdoor education residential visits, fewer than 75 per cent of children take part. Secondly, 60 per cent of schools surveyed cited financial reasons as the main barrier to participation in outdoor education residential visits. Thirdly, over one in five Welsh schools do not offer a subsidy to those families who are financially constrained. And fourthly, initial research has also suggested that more affluent areas will see more children participate in outdoor education visits, while those in less affluent areas participate less.

Indeed, those survey results found that in Blaenau Gwent, 65 per cent of schools indicated financial constraints as an issue; in Caerphilly, 70 per cent of schools indicated financial constraints as an issue; and in Rhondda Cynon Taf, 75 per cent of schools showed that financial constraints are an issue, whilst in Monmouthshire, it was 45 per cent outlining this as an issue. In addition, during this process, a key thing that struck me is the fact that, regretfully, an outdoor education visit may, in fact, be the only time that some of your youngsters actually have the opportunity to see beyond the communities that they live in, and experience something new. 

So, along with my statistical paper, I'm sure avid followers of my Twitter and Facebook pages saw two key articles that I shared this summer in relation to outdoor education. Firstly, new research from Swansea University, published via BBC Wales, found that children in Wales were among the world's least fit, with researchers giving Wales's youngsters an F for fitness. A second BBC article, featuring research from Sport Wales, found that children are doing less sport than they were four years ago, with 36 per cent of children not doing any activities outside of their school physical education lessons, compared with 28 per cent just four years ago. I'm sure all Members from across the Chamber can agree that it's simply not right that a significant proportion of our young people across Wales don't have the chance to participate in something so beneficial, due to either where they're from or their family's financial situation. I believe that we cannot stand back and look at our children becoming unhealthier and our young people not engaging in outdoor activities, and for us to sit here and not to do anything about it is simply not acceptable.

Moving on to the financial costs, which I know Members are keen to understand further, and I think it's only fair that we address this issue as well. The initial research and understanding has shown that this would cost between £9.9 million and £13.6 million to fund, which is around 0.06 per cent of the Welsh Government's total budget. Nevertheless, following the Bill's implementation, I believe we would actually see cost benefits from this Bill, with savings to public services through improved health, well-being, mental health services and education outcomes, along with an enhanced appreciation of the environment. Furthermore, the introduction and support of this Bill would contribute to four key purposes of the Welsh Government's Curriculum for Wales: we would see even more ambitious and capable learners who are ready to learn throughout their lives; we would see enterprising and creative contributors who are ready to play a full part in life and work; we would see more ethical and informed citizens who are ready to be citizens of Wales and the world; and finally, we would see healthier and confident individuals who are ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

I'd also like to just update Members as to how this is working in other parts of the United Kingdom. As some will be aware, there's an outdoor education Bill currently working its way through the Scottish Parliament, and it's been extremely useful to talk to colleagues there and understand that there is cross-party support there too for such a proposal. It's also important to outline the support coming from the outdoor education sector when it comes to this Bill, because despite working on this for the last three months, I can't claim at all that I'm an expert, unlike those who are in the outdoor education sector, who live, breathe and work outdoor education day in and day out. And Members will note, as I'm sure they've read the explanatory memorandum, in section 41, the sheer support from leading outdoor organisations across Wales, including Urdd Gobaith Cymru, the Institute for Outdoor Learning, the Wales Council for Outdoor Learning, the Outdoor Education Advisers Panel and Ramblers Cymru. Deputy Presiding Officer, there are a number of organisations that I could go on to list, but there's a huge amount of support out there for this Bill.

I'd also like to express my understanding and reality that a lot more work needs to be done with this Bill. Over the past few months, I and many others have found lots of significant work and data around why the Bill is needed, but there is of course more that needs to be done to understand this fully. And that's why I believe there's a crucial role for opposition and backbench Members of this Senedd to be able to work cross-party to bring forward positive and lasting changes that will complement the work being carried out by the Welsh Government. It's also crucial to note that, by supporting today's motion, it allows me to start the process of working tirelessly over the next year, hand in hand with the outdoor sector, to gain more evidence and data regarding the need for outdoor education residential stays, and consequently present this to the Senedd in a year's time. But it's important to reiterate that today's vote can be used as an opportunity for a backbench and opposition Member to seek to introduce important legislation that will deliver lasting changes and complement the work of the Welsh Government.

So, in closing, Deputy Presiding Officer, I'd like to thank all the organisations and staff who've worked tirelessly in helping me produce the Bill's explanatory memorandum, the statistical paper, along with a summary of the Bill. But I'd also like to thank Members from across the Senedd for taking the time out of their busy schedules to discuss this Bill with me, along with the Minister for education, who I look forward to hearing from later in this debate, and his positive discussions so far. I look forward to Members' contributions to today's motion and welcome discussions and questions regarding my proposals. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:20

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. Outdoor learning is a fundamental element in terms of the well-being of our children and young people. It's a way of helping them to keep physically healthy and can help with their mental and emotional well-being too. It allows them to relate to the world around them, giving them an opportunity to experience the wonders of nature. That's why our new curriculum emphasises the role of outdoor learning across the curriculum, in areas such as health and well-being, science and technology, humanities, and the expressive arts. This is all made entirely clear in the statutory guidance that every school must take account of as they develop their curriculum.

It is crucial that children and young people have the experience of outdoor learning throughout their time at school, and for those experiences to be interesting and memorable. Statutory guidance for the Curriculum for Wales does emphasise the importance of the learning environment as a key motivator in the curriculum, and notes that learners of all ages should have valid learning experience indoors and outdoors. The pedagogical principles outlined in the guidance also emphasise the importance of outdoor learning and teaching. There’s a clear expectation, therefore, that learners should enjoy the outdoor space regularly.

Our statutory guidance on ensuring a whole-school approach of looking at emotional and mental well-being also draws attention to the link between physical and mental well-being, the benefits of outdoor learning, and having access to outdoor spaces. I am therefore very eager to work with the Member and others who have an interest in this issue on ways of strengthening, supporting and continuing to develop the contribution that outdoor education makes to the right to learn in Wales, and the development of our children and young people.

It is, of course, important, Dirprwy Lywydd, to emphasise that different learners have different needs. We want to empower schools to choose the outdoor learning experiences that best support their particular learners in their particular context. That will—and rightly will—look different for different learners, with different contexts at different ages. To be successful, our efforts to promote outdoor learning, which we are all agreed are vital, must recognise this. 

We also need to ensure that learners' access to outdoor learning is something that happens throughout their time in school. We need learners to have ongoing memorable and engaging experiences of outdoor learning that will develop the behaviours and attitudes that instil a lifelong love of the outdoors.

The first concern I have with the proposed Bill is that it intends that one approach to providing outdoor learning and experience should be made a statutory duty. Our new curriculum approach in Wales is to ensure that the experiences of the learner reflect as nearly as possible the needs of that learner. That is not reflected in the approach that the Bill proposes. 

My second concern, which the Member has anticipated in his opening contribution, is that the costs are significant. The Member's explanatory memorandum estimates the bill for this to be around £10 million to £13.6 million. Our early analysis would put it closer to the £18 million mark. Either way, given the current economic climate, this creates another very significant pressure on an already highly pressurised funding pot. We all know that the outlook for public funding over the next few years is extremely bleak. The inflationary pressure on our current funding from the UK Government means that we are getting considerably less for our money now than we would have when it was allocated, and there is little to no sign that this pressure will be eased in the short to medium term. Indeed, there is a very real scenario in which we face even deeper cuts to our budget.

At a time when we are doing everything we can to reduce the financial burden on schools and parents, I cannot add more pressure to the public purse, however sympathetic I am to the broad aims of the proposed Bill. In future, when we reach a point when the funding choices aren't, perhaps, so stark, we might be able to have a different sort of discussion, but in the current climate, it is simply not possible.

However, having recently met on more than one occasion with the Member and with members of the cross-party group for the outdoor activity sector, I know that there is an enormous amount of energy, experience and expertise available to us. The proposal has brought a renewed vigour to the discussion of the merits of outdoor learning, and I would like to work with the sector, alongside my officials and our school practitioners, on ways to encourage more outdoor learning, including outdoor residential experiences, in a way that is practically deliverable.

Areas that could be explored, for example, could include improved professional learning support for practitioners, initial teacher education, resources and supporting materials, and the sharing of good practice, including to help address some of the barriers that schools face or perceive. Such an approach would make practitioners central to a conversation about what works best for outdoor learning, and how this can be done. With the best will in the world, there will of course be less capacity to do all of that good work if we are also engaged in working with the Member on the Bill, but I would hope we could make at least some progress. I know from our discussions with the Member that he would be keen to work together, and I welcome that.

In conclusion, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Government cannot support the Bill, but we are proposing an alternative approach, within the principles of our curriculum, to work instead with the Member and others on developing a package of measures that can be implemented quickly, in the here and now, aimed at strengthening the impact of and access to outdoor education for all of our learners in Wales, without putting an unwelcome pressure on its already pressured funding pot. Diolch yn fawr.

15:30

My thanks go to Sam for bringing forward this legislative proposal. It gives a really much-needed airing here in the Senedd to the benefits of outdoor education and activity. It's very timely on the back of the new curriculum, which has been shaped by the heightened realisation of the wide benefits of learning in the outdoors. Indeed, the Welsh Government curriculum guidance states that learning outdoors can lead to high levels of well-being, confidence and engagement; that it supports social, emotional, spiritual and physical development; that it provides opportunities to inspire awe and wonder, to engage and connect with the natural world, to explore the concept of sustainability in a practical way; and to explore a young person's physical potential, develop their ability to assess and experience risk, helping to develop resilience and confidence. So, we're on fertile ground, where, from Welsh Government to front-line educators, there's a drive towards taking our pupils, our young people, into the great outdoors.

The habits of early years are ingrained. If we develop active participation in the outdoors as a child, it sticks with us. In primary school, I was lucky enough to visit Llangrannog for a week, and also an outdoor education centre in the Gower, learning about oxbow lakes and prehistoric burial mounds. In secondary school, we went to Bala, and we canoed and we climbed. Our geography teacher took us scrambling over the mountains and valleys of north Wales, to study glacial moraines, arêtes, drumlins and cirques. We learnt hands on through the Duke of Edinburgh awards, to gold level, how to safely venture into the outdoors in all conditions, and read maps and the hills in front of us, old style. And by the time I left school, I could trust myself, and be trusted by others, to walk back in the snow and the full moon along the Fan Hir ridge, or even to hike those Alps that I never got to as a youngster because there was a fee to do so. I've been there now, and I've literally got the T-shirt. Now, at nearly 60, I still get itchy feet to get out of the Siambr and up high on the mountains, or on our great Wales coast path, or even canoeing the Cleddau. Residential stays are even more profound for a young person than even the best, the most brilliant day excursions. Staying away from home with your peers, with expert and experienced tutors and teachers, is a deeper and more lasting experience. It's the difference between dipping your toes in that mountain stream and full head-and-shoulders immersion in that mountain lake.

With my own background, but also as the current chair of the cross-party group for the outdoor activity sector, of which Sam is a prominent member—and, in fact, many of Wales's outdoor organisations are members, and probably helped him in drafting the legislative proposal—I have an intuitive warmth towards this. But there are, and Sam will acknowledge this, some real and difficult questions to face, which are not to do with the good intent or principle of the proposal, but they go to the heart of the practicality at this moment in time. Not least amongst these—and the Minister touched on them—are costs and legislative time. The proposal isn't clear on costs yet, understandably. It estimates £10 million to £15 million, but it could be more. The costs have a heightened significance right now, at a time when we know that schools, local authorities and the Welsh Government itself are under intense pressures. We anticipate that things could get a lot worse. To mandate schools, local authorities or the Welsh Government to even find another £10 million or £15 million, or more, for residential stays right now—a cost that, I have to say, in better times, would be considered money well spent—is I suspect currently money not available easily, when, at the same time, schools may be this autumn facing decisions on whether to lay off staff, not just whether they can afford an uplift in salaries.

The second issue is that of legislative time and the immense legislative load of Government and the Senedd, and, indeed, the Commission. There's the made-in-Wales legislation, which is ramping up as the programme for government and the co-operation agreement commitments kick in; the unprecedented number of LCMs flowing from the made-in-England and Wales legislation, originating from Westminster; the long tail continuing of the post-Brexit legislation and the pandemic legislation—all this and the pending Northern Ireland legislation and the headlong rush to remove EU retained law from the statute book by December 2023, involving an estimated 2,400 regulations, but we're not sure of the exact number. The legislative workload has never been so stretched; school and public finances likewise. There has never been, Sam, a more challenging time to bring forward a Bill, and I say that as somebody who is supportive of seeing more backbench legislation forming part of our legislative programme. 

If the reality I describe is correct, Minister, then it does fall to you to explain how the spirit, if not the letter, of this well-intentioned proposal can be taken forward. You've started to flesh that up. If we don't have the cash or the legislative capacity right now, that will surely not always be the case. I and others would advocate that our children and young people should have access to the outdoors as a rite—and I say this in capitals—of passage into safe lifelong enjoyment and exploration of the outdoors with all the benefits it brings. 

Minister, you've acknowledged in your statement that a residential outdoor experience could indeed be part of every child or person's life, and that if the timing is wrong now, and the door is not being shut forever on such a proposal, that Government will embark on a new phase of work with the organisations behind the proposal, and the proposer, Sam, and the cross-party group on ways to encourage greater uptake of outdoor experience, and this will look at removing real or perceived barriers to outdoor residential uptake from schools, but immediately, ways in which the sector can work with the new curriculum to maximise opportunities for them and for learners. 

Finally, Minister, if I could simply ask you in closing to make every effort—. I know you've engaged constructively with Sam, and likewise, it's been reciprocated. I want you to continue that dialogue with Sam, with the wider outdoor education and activity sector, and also, dare I suggest, with the cross-party group as well, because this is a well-intentioned piece of legislation, even if the timing is difficult. 

15:35

Thank you, Sam, for bringing this forward today. 

I don't avidly follow your Twitter or Facebook, I have to admit; I like to look after my blood pressure. [Laughter.] But I have seen the research that you've referenced, and, certainly, we can all relay the countless benefits there are from outdoor education. Many of us, as Huw mentioned, have had the pleasure of being in Llangrannog, Glan-llyn—all those are invaluable experiences, and we would like to see, I'm sure, every child and young person have that opportunity.

We will be supporting you in taking forward the Bill. We think it's important that some of the issues raised are explored further. Of course, we have questions around the funding. There are some questions I've outlined when we've met and discussed in terms of some of the practicalities there, but we think it does deserve having that additional time and additional focus, for us to understand currently who does and who doesn't have access to this opportunity, what risks there are from the cost-of-living crisis with local authorities in terms of those currently having these experiences missing out, because we can't take that for granted. The thing that really convinced us was, in particular, the fact that we see from the evidence that it indicates worryingly that double the percentage of children who live in the most affluent local authorities attend an outdoor education residential visit compared to those pupils in the local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation. If we're talking about ensuring that every child has the best start in life, then surely it cannot be that it's only the most affluent, those that can afford. So, even if it is looking at how we provide for those families who are currently in receipt of grants in terms of school uniform et cetera, we would love to see this expanded so that more children and young people can benefit. 

I think there are also things that we can tie in with the target of a million Welsh speakers, and our agreement to be working on a Welsh language education Bill, because key to this as well is the opportunity outdoor education provides for children and young people to enjoy through the medium of Welsh, to be able to be in Glan-llyn in a canoe and enjoy through the medium of Welsh, to have all those enriching experiences. Because these outdoor education experiences aren't just for those in Welsh-medium education at the moment. If we're serious about the Welsh language as a single continuum, then this provides a great opportunity to introduce the Welsh language outside of the classroom, in a fun and engaging way. I know that the Urdd have embraced the opportunities provided by this Bill in particular. Wouldn't it be amazing if every child in Wales had the opportunity to go to either Gwersyll yr Urdd in Cardiff here, or Llangrannog or Glan-llyn, and have that fun experience through the medium of Welsh? All of this is possible.

We do believe there are some things—. Of course, finances are the most challenging things. Determining the budgets for residential visits, drawing up a comprehensive plan, are all important, but we agree with the principle that, regardless of family income or demographic, all children and young people should have this opportunity. We need to be mindful as well, of course, in terms of teacher engagement. Teachers, very often, organise such initiatives in addition to what they're doing already. It obviously takes time away from the classroom as well, but they see it as worthwhile, so we would like to see teaching unions engaged in the work as it progresses. But we wish you luck and we look forward to engaging more positively, if this is taken forward. 

15:40

I'm more than happy to stand here and support this Bill today, and I'd like to thank my colleague Sam Rowlands for bringing it to the floor. I was delighted to hear the positivity coming from across the Chamber from Plaid Cymru as well. I was delighted when I saw that this Bill was drawn, as I know, just like myself, that the Member for North Wales is passionate about ensuring that every child and young person has this opportunity—I certainly did, when I was younger—to participate in a week-long residential outdoor education visit at some point during their school journey, ensuring that they too can learn new skills and maybe an appreciation for the outdoors, as well as benefiting from it in terms of physical exercise. It is essential that this Welsh Government and governments that follow give the sort of ring-fenced money to deliver this aim, so it ensures that our local authorities and schools are able to deliver these exciting experiences for our youngsters, even when we face tough economic times.

The benefits of residential outdoor education visits for young people are clear for all to see. As well as the obvious enjoyment on the faces of our young people, they are a way to bond with their peers, to share experiences with friends, to promote healthier lifestyles, to improve mental health and, often, to improve educational outcomes. It isn't right that young people from less affluent areas miss out on these opportunities, like in many parts of my south-east Wales region, and it shouldn't depend on where you live or what school you go to. Many of us, like myself, often take for granted the opportunities and experiences that we had growing up, when many children and young people across Wales haven't had these same experiences. This Bill goes a long way to levelling that playing field across Wales, ensuring equality of opportunity, ensuring we don't have a postcode lottery, council by council, to have experiences like this. 

As Sam Rowlands said, if every child were to be fully funded to partake in these activities, initial estimates put the cost between £10 million to £15 million, less than 0.06 per cent of the Welsh Government's budget, although you predict it to be more, Minister. It certainly seems to me that it would be a relatively small price to pay for the education and well-being outcomes for our children that would result from it. Obviously this money needs to come from the centre, and not be put on our local authorities. But we have seen, particularly post pandemic, the investment in outdoor facilities and outdoor spaces, and the increase in outdoor learning, and schools using those learning environments far more now, and the benefits that they have had across Wales. 

As shadow education Minister, I am pleased to see ideas like this coming to the Senedd, which enhance what is already there, and I'd like to thank Sam Rowlands for presenting this Bill today. I put my support fully behind it. I now hope that the Chamber can work constructively on the Bill to ensure that young people don't miss out. I just want to make one final point, actually. I just wanted to make sure that it's made clear that this is an out-of-school opportunity that Sam is proposing, not in-school, as you outlined, Minister. Both are important, and, as Huw quite rightly said, it's a deeper long-lasting experience that is being proposed here. I urge you all today to support this motion and the Bill that Sam has brought forward. Thank you. 

I stand here as someone with a very open mind. I'll be honest, I haven't made a decision on how I'm going to vote, and I do understand that my vote may mean that this continues or doesn't today. So, I'm standing here giving some views. On the one hand, thank you, Sam, for doing this. I like the universality of it. I like the fact that it appeals to everybody, rich or poor, and that there's no discrimination. In fact, that's what some of us believe in relation to universal basic income—that we should all have that income floor. So, I would support the universality of it. I think nobody here—nobody here—disagrees with the principle, so there's no need, in my view, for any further evidence. There's no need for any further arguments that tell us all how either we've benefited from the ability to go away or others have benefited from it. 

I'm just reflecting on Huw Irranca-Davies's experience in Llangrannog. I did go to Llangrannog, but I have absolutely nothing that I could bring from that experience into my adult life. That's not to say that I didn't love it, and I think everybody should have it. It's great that you've got that. I just think there are massive challenges here. Sam talked a bit about it, but we all have houses that we run, and the Welsh Government and Cabinet Ministers are here to balance the budgets. If we spend money on this, what goes? Eighteen million pounds, and possibly more, because it is about capacity, not just the capacity of the Welsh Government staff, but also the capacity of our local authority staff could be going on this. So, I really would appreciate hearing more about that in this debate in order for me to make a decision.

Right now, let's look at what is facing schools, not just here—well, in Wales, we have specific issues—but across the UK. We don't have enough teachers and we want to pay them more. We don't have enough classroom assistants and we want to pay them more. We know that, in schools—and this is a pet project of mine—children have very bad tooth decay, and we actually want to see that happening better at the grass-roots level. Even with the Designed to Smile programme in Wales, between 2 per cent and 5 per cent of children under seven are going to hospital—double the amount are going to hospital to have their teeth removed. They're having anaesthetic and a hospital admission. So, these are some of the priorities. 

Some of us went to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association reception and we heard about habilitators. They are people who should be working with children who are blind or have visual impairments across our schools in Wales in order to help them to be able to get on in life. There are only 10 in Wales at the moment. That means that children with visual impairment or who are blind actually don't have the ability to get on in life. Those are some of the challenges that are being faced across the UK.

In addition, and I am pleased to support this, Wales has committed itself to free school meals for children. I just don't know how we're going to be able to fund not only those challenges but what you put forward, Sam. So, I would like to really hear from you, as you summarise, what is going to go—literally, what we're going to ditch, what we're going to jettison, if we are going to support this. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you very much. [Interruption.] Oh, sorry. Yes, you can intervene.

15:45

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I congratulate Sam Rowlands on his success in being drawn in the ballot and I'm grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on his outdoor education (Wales) Bill.

As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up in rural Pembrokeshire with the countryside just outside my front door, I was always fortunate to enjoy the full extent of our natural world. Indeed, that important link with our environment is one that we shouldn't underestimate. Not just because it nurtures growth and reflection, but because it develops a respect and a learning about the importance of our countryside, rural life, food, farming and wildlife—developing our understanding and strengthening our efforts to protect and preserve. 

Unlike some of my classmates, my love for the outdoors was developed from an early age, but not all children are able to experience the countryside in the same way as I did. Let's make no mistake, to take education outdoors is to bring the natural world into the classroom, and by doing so, you can take a child's education and enhance its quality, value and worth. But, it is for this reason that we need to ensure that every child has equal access to the outdoors. For me and many of my classmates, it was trips to Glan-llyn and Llangrannog, which other Members have mentioned today, Urdd residential camps, that saw them fully appreciate the value of nature. Therefore, I'm really pleased to learn from Sam that the Urdd are supporting this Bill. This was not just the first time that me and my friends had been away from home, but, for many, the first time that they had a chance to experience the real outdoors. From kayaking across Llyn Tegid, as Heledd mentioned, to nature walks and bushcraft in Llangrannog, these opportunities played a critical role in the development of not just myself, but also my friends who weren't as fortunate as me, who hadn't experienced the joys and benefits of our natural environment.

However, not all young people are afforded this opportunity. By granting consent to this Bill, we can ensure that every child, no matter their background, can discover and fall in love with the countryside. And as we've heard from colleagues, the benefits of this are second to none. Whether that be improving physical health and mental well-being, developing better personal and social learning, alongside the growth in cognitive development—all enhancing educational attainment and teaching standards. The impact that an outdoor education can have on our young people goes far beyond what can be learnt in a classroom. Discovering our outdoors brings the world of our countryside, farming, wildlife and rural life right into the classroom and, at this moment, we can ensure that every child has limitless access to these opportunities, of the kind that our education provides.

In responding to the previous Member, Jane Dodds's concerns around this Bill, I would plead with her to offer Sam your support at this stage so that further work can be done on this to see how this can be done, and I think those benefit savings that Sam mentioned at the beginning in opening this debate, where moneys would be saved elsewhere by having healthier children, more educated children—I think that's where there's real value within Sam's Bill today. So, I plead with you to give him support at this stage so that further evidence can be collected and more discussion can be had around this. I commend Sam for his diligence, his dedication and determination in getting this Bill moving forward, and I have no hesitation whatsoever in offering him and the Bill my full support. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

15:50

I must say that this proposal does have laudable aims, and thanks, Sam, for bringing this forward for a discussion. I think trying and learning new skills in our wonderful outdoor environment of independence, bonding with others in a day at camp or an outdoor activity are ones you do remember, and it's great for physical and mental health and well-being. I don't remember going to one with school, but I went with the Brownies and Sunday school, and I remember reading to children who were missing their parents, and I know that that is an issue that has been brought up—being away from parents as well is a bit of an issue, but it is good to build that confidence. I think it's so important for children to connect with nature, because if they don't do so as a child, then they won't do as an adult. So, that's really, really important going forward. And I think, with there being a nature emergency as well as a climate emergency, I would like any programme and the curriculum to educate and teach children about the importance of the variety of wildlife and habitats, connecting to nature, and I think that the forest schools initiative is really good.

So, I think it's a really great proposal if there was the funding, and the situation is dire. And according to the new Prime Minister, it's going to get even worse, and I think that there needs to be a reality check here. As you know, I was a Flintshire councillor for 14 years and I was a member of the education scrutiny committee, and I recall that, when we were looking at funding cuts over the years, we looked at the cost of giving that funding to the outdoor education centres. I know that each authority used to give towards Pentre-llyn-cymmer and Nant Bwlch yr Haearn, but, in the end, we had to look at the core funding of education, so we had to remove that funding bit by bit, which was terrible. I remember, under that austerity, every year, we sliced 30 per cent off each budget, and I remember being in the chamber facing opposition members as I was trying to introduce garden waste charges and car park increases, but I was being told by my fellow cabinet members, 'It's either do that, or we cut education.' Now, I couldn't cut education, because it's so important, but I know that other local authorities did and, I'm afraid, Sam, Conwy did cut the core funding for education and caused dire issues there, where they’ve had to cut teaching assistants and staff, and I just can't support this if there isn't that money going forward.

Councils are facing even more funding cuts now because of what's happened over the last few weeks, because of fuel increases, inflationary pressures, and people are talking about going out on strike. I know that Cardiff is facing a £53 million funding gap, Flintshire £26 million, Conwy is about the same, and I think Denbighshire is about £10 million. It's really, really worrying. They're looking at rationalisation of play areas even—play areas; we need them on doorstep play. Closure of swimming baths, public rights of way maintenance, and countryside services—that was on the table to be cut when I was a cabinet member—access to rights of way and country parks. So, without those, what are we going to do? And those are what are on the table now. It's so worrying. We're in such a dire situation. Children are going hungry and cold. It's a matter of priorities, and this is why—. Thank goodness we've got these universal free school meals coming forward; that's so much more important. Schools are looking at wrap-around care, providing that childcare so that mothers can go out to work as well—[Interruption.] Sorry, I'm in full flow at the moment—and becoming warm hubs. That's so important. Further education are providing breakfast because people are turning up at those hungry. These are young adults starving—[Interruption.] I'm sorry, that wasn't a proper intervention, so I won't reply to that.

Speaking briefly to the WLGA education member—

15:55

I think the Member has indicated that she is not going to take the intervention. Let her complete her speech.

—he has said to me that the Welsh Government, though, does provide PDG funding, so they do use that money to enable those who are on free school meals to visit education centres at the moment. So, if the Minister could let me know if that funding is being cut, because it is essential.

As I said, schools do not have the resources. Now is not the time for this. The UK Government, the Tory Government, are talking about more funding cuts, and it's those funding cuts that are causing issues here. The Welsh Government spends over 90 per cent of its budget on public service funding. [Interruption.] Absolutely not. And I hope that Sam Rowlands and the Conservatives will support public service funding, not further cuts going forward. This is why I always speak against austerity and cuts to public service funding. That's why I wanted to become a member of this party—to shout out about it. Now is not the right the time. I do support the idea of it, but now is not the right time, and I hope that I got these points across, because I feel very strongly about it. Thank you very much.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'd like to start by saying that I will be supporting this motion today, and I very much welcome the proposal that has been tabled by Sam. Knowing myself how much work goes into designing a Bill from scratch, I really feel that your explanatory memorandum was excellent and really sums up why we need this forward-thinking legislation.

Deputy Presiding Officer, as has been stated in the debate, outdoor education is such an important part of a young person's development. The practical skills that are gained from such an experience are beneficial for later life. It also helps to improve their physical and mental well-being, but also to develop their independence. So, young people should not be forced to miss out on such opportunities. I know personally how my—[Interruption.] Sorry, I thought you were.

Thank you very much for taking the intervention, because as the former leader of Monmouthshire council, you'll be aware that the PDG is one of the ways in which funding is supposed to be directed at giving opportunities to young people whose families can't afford to pay for it themselves. So, having listened carefully to what Sam Rowlands said about the inverse care law going on here, which is that some of the most deprived local authorities are the ones that are having the least outdoor education, it clearly is a major problem. But we have to surely ask, 'Are schools properly using their pupil development grants?' as well as, we have to consider how well we are addressing the inverse care law when it comes to the numbers of voluntary organisations that are supporting schools to enable these sorts of outdoor trips to take place, because we know that charities are far less likely to be operating in poor areas than they are in better-off areas.