Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

15/11/2022

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 First Minister

Good afternoon. We are ready to begin our meeting, and the first item is questions to the First Minister. The first question is from Joel James. 

Hydrogen Fuel

1. What are the Welsh Government's plans for the use of hydrogen fuel for automotives in Wales? OQ58713

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. Right across Wales, from north to south and west to east, the Welsh Government works with others to advance practical plans for the use of hydrogen in the decarbonisation of transport in Wales.

Thank you, First Minister. Despite all the interest surrounding the potential for hydrogen to become a major game changer in decarbonising the automotive industry, we are at present yet to see any real evidence of this on our roads. I, like many here, I'm sure, believe that there's a huge opportunity for green hydrogen to become a major part of the solution in decarbonising the automotive industry, especially because it eliminates some of the reasoning people use not to change to electric vehicles. If this Government is serious in its intentions that green hydrogen becomes a major fuel, then we are not moving anywhere near fast enough in building infrastructure and creating the market conditions needed. Shell last week announced the closure of three hydrogen filling stations, citing a lack of demand from consumers, which is concerning because it shows that the market is not responding well enough to the potential of green hydrogen as a fuel source, and, therefore, First Minister, we need to be advocating more vocally that this is a worthwhile and long-term investment. With this in mind, First Minister, and given the potential for green hydrogen production from projects such as the Statkraft green energy hub in Pembrokeshire, what conversations have you had with industry to encourage further investment in green hydrogen production and filling station infrastructure?

I thank Joel James for that supplementary question, Llywydd, and I welcome him as a recruit to those of us who've always believed that it is the role of Government to step in where the market fails. So, it's good to know that that idea is alive on the Conservative benches. I agree with what the Member said about the potential for green hydrogen and the importance of this being a partnership between private businesses and public authorities. I'm not quite as pessimistic as he sounded about the potential for this to make a breakthrough into making an actual difference in the transport regime here in Wales. The Statkraft example that Joel James referred to, Llywydd, is a facility to produce green hydrogen, to store it as well, at Trecwn in Pembrokeshire. I've had an opportunity to discuss this with Statkraft representatives when I visited Ireland recently. I'll be meeting EDF, another major investor in renewable energy, with ambitions in green hydrogen as well, later today. Here in Wales, we are determined to work with those major investors to give them the confidence that they need, and to make sure that, where those investments depend upon a partnership between public authorities—the Statkraft investment in Pembrokeshire depends on a partnership with Pembrokeshire council because the plan is to make sure that the green hydrogen produced will power buses across Pembrokeshire and will help with rail travel as well—and where that partnership is key to unlocking investment and creating that green hydrogen future, then the Welsh Government will always be active partners in that endeavour. 

First Minister, the HyNet North West programme has the potential to radically change the way that we fuel our transport and business needs across the north-west of England and, of course, north Wales. The programme is being championed by the metro mayor of Liverpool city region, Steve Rotheram, and it's supported by Wrexham and Flintshire councils, as well as the north Wales business council. Would you join me in calling on the UK Government to accelerate delivery of HyNet in order to move transport and industry towards our carbon zero targets?

Well, Llywydd, I agree with Ken Skates that HyNet represents a major opportunity for the economy of north-east Wales, working with our partners in the north-west of England. Earlier in the autumn, I was able to discuss the development of HyNet with the metro mayor of Liverpool, Steve Rotheram. In an ecumenical sense of answering this question, I shall recognise the investment of the UK Government in HyNet. And it is an example of where we have been able to work with UK Government Ministers to play our part alongside them and elected representatives in the north-west of England to bring that project to fruition. I'm very grateful for the contribution that Flintshire County Council, in particular, alongside the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, have made. The ambition to have a key site for hydrogen generation and storage at the Deeside Industrial Park is one of the reasons why we have that investment, which reaches across that economy that combines north-east Wales and the north-west of England. And working together will offer us the best opportunity to do what Ken Skates said, Llywydd, and that is to accelerate our ability to maximise those opportunities.

13:35
A Home for Everyone

2. How is the Welsh Government supporting local authorities in South Wales Central to secure a home for everyone who needs one in light of the cost-of-living crisis? OQ58722

Llywydd, the cost-of-living crisis, and crises elsewhere in the world, generate pressures on the housing system. On average, over 1,400 people present to homelessness services every month in need of temporary accommodation. Over 6,000 people who have fled the war in Ukraine alone have been accommodated in Wales since March this year.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. I was contacted last week by a single parent with primary-school-aged children who have diabetes, autism and ADHD. Mam works as a school assistant, and has an expired eviction notice as the landlord is selling the house. The local council told her to seek private rental accommodation, but the cheapest she can find is £995 per calendar month. Estate agents said she needs to show evidence of a wage of £30,000, which is more than she earns. She will not be placed at the top of the housing list for a house until she has first moved into temporary accommodation. Mam is now on a waiting list for temporary accommodation, and a housing worker in a local authority told me that people stay in temporary accommodation for months at the moment, and we know that demand is only likely to increase as the cost-of-living crisis impacts more and more people. Temporary accommodation is not a suitable or healthy housing solution for a family with children. When children cannot access their basic human rights to a safe home, is it not time to accelerate and expand the agreed Unnos programme, to undertake house adaptation and house building on an unprecedented scale, to ensure children and adults have safe and suitable homes?

Llywydd, I certainly agree with Heledd Fychan that the Unnos project has a part to play, an important part to play, in allowing us to accelerate the building of long-term affordable homes for people in every part of Wales. That ambition will not help the person who has contacted the Member in their immediate difficulties, which is why it is right that we go on together investing in those measures that provide some immediate relief for people who find themselves with nowhere to live, and that includes the transitional accommodation capital programme. That will create over 1,000 new homes for people here in Wales. They will be places that people can call their own, they will be places that people will be able to plan the future of their lives. Beyond the transitional accommodation, there will be permanent accommodation to be found as well. And that's why, Llywydd, we invest in bringing empty homes back into use here in Wales—a £43 million recyclable fund that has already brought in 1,600 homes that otherwise would not be available for occupation, or where the physical conditions would be so difficult that people might be forced not to go on living in them. Over 1,600 homes have been brought into use in that way, and a further 1,300 occupied homes made safe for people to stay in as well.

There is an imbalance between the demand for housing in Wales and the supply of it. That's apparent to anybody who represents people who come to surgeries and tell us of the difficulties that they are facing. But, by increasing supply and supporting people so that when they do take up tenancies, they're able to maintain them in the best possible way, we have the plan in place in Wales that will get us to a better place for those people who, in many parts of Wales, face the same difficulties as the individual Heledd Fychan has talked to us about this afternoon.

13:40

First Minister, I recently met with Trivallis, the largest provider of social housing in RCT, and it was really good to receive an update from them on how they've been able to make use of the Welsh Government's transitional accommodation capital programme to bring empty homes back into use with the specific purpose of moving people and families out of temporary bed-and-breakfast accommodation. What sort of measures will you put in place to monitor this scheme and make sure that it delivers on the Welsh Government's objective for everyone in Wales to have a safe, suitable, permanent home?

Well, Llywydd, I thank Vikki Howells for drawing attention particularly to the transitional accommodation capital programme. It is an innovation here in Wales, it has £65 million now provided to it, and I am very impressed and encouraged by the way in which progressive local authorities and progressive housing associations have grasped the opportunity that the programme provides. That is why, within an 18-month period, we will bring more than 1,000 additional homes into use. We'll monitor it, Llywydd, through the normal grant awarding process, but I believe that where there are partners who demonstrate that they have the commitment and the capacity to use the funding we are able to provide to bring homes into use, to offer people somewhere that they can move on in their lives, we ought to trust them to get on with the job. And while it's right, because it's public money, that we monitor it and they account for it, I think it should be a trusted relationship with organisations such as the ones mentioned by Vikki Howells and the local authority in the area she represents. Where we have people on the ground who demonstrate their capacity to deliver, we ought to enable them to get on with that job.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from party leaders. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, it's good to see you back after last week being away with COVID. A timely reminder that, obviously, the virus is still out there and taking people out of their normal day's activities.

First Minister, last week—two weeks ago, I should say—the chair of the UK-wide COVID inquiry highlighted that the work that they would be able to undertake wouldn't be able to encapsulate all the matters that she would wish for to be taken into account here in Wales, given the volume of work that she has on her plate and the amount of work that is coming in to that inquiry, although she would, along with her colleagues in that inquiry, endeavour to undertake as full an investigation and scrutiny of the actions of the Welsh Government as possible. In light of her comments, do you not think it is now appropriate that we do have that Welsh-wide COVID inquiry, so that those who lost loved ones through the COVID crisis can get the answers they require to bring closure on what is a particularly dark time in their lives?

Llywydd, first of all, I thank the leader of the opposition for what he said. We know that he himself has had experience of just how difficult an illness COVID can be, and he's right to draw attention to the fact that thousands of people continue to fall ill from COVID every week here in Wales. That has an impact in those individuals' lives, and it has an impact on our ability to sustain public services and private businesses as well. COVID certainly isn't over.

I read what Baroness Hallett, Judge Hallett, said in opening that particular part of the inquiry. I don't think myself she was suggesting that she would do more if she could. She was simply explaining to people that, within the timescales available to her and her determination to produce a report within the timescale that can have an influence on the way in which future decisions are made, in everything that she does, she will have to focus on the issues that she believes to have the most potential to provide good information, answers and guidance for the future. I'm very happy to leave the inquiry to her now, and that's what we will be doing.

It is a matter of public record that those comments are there, that the chair of the UK inquiry did highlight the limitations due to the workload of the UK inquiry. It is a matter of record that, in the same interview or same comments that she was making, she highlighted that if an independent inquiry was to be established here in Wales, she would readily, along with her colleagues, work with that independent inquiry. The only person stopping an independent inquiry here in Wales is you, First Minister, or can you name another organisation that is actually against the principle of establishing an independent inquiry here in Wales to give answers to those people who lost loved ones through the COVID pandemic?

13:45

Llywydd, I've explained time after time, and I don't intend to take up the time of the Senedd this afternoon in repeating simply what I said on 19 October last year, 30 November, 25 January, 23 May—these are all occasions on which I have answered this question from the Member. You may not like the answer—I don't expect that you will do—but the answer doesn't change by simply going on and asking the same question. I believe that the best way to obtain the answers that people in Wales want to what happened here in Wales, including everything that will be provided by the Welsh Government—and I can tell you that the Welsh Government is disclosing hundreds of thousands of documents to the inquiry. The idea that it will not look at the matters that are important to Wales, I don't think will be borne out by the work of the inquiry. That is the way in which people will get the right, rounded, insightful answers that they quite rightly wish for, and that remains the policy of the Welsh Government. 

The question I put to you, First Minister, was: could you name another organisation that shared your belief that we shouldn't have an independent public inquiry into COVID here in Wales? I notice from your answer that you weren't able to put another organisation's name on the Record of the Senedd. And, please, take as long as you want, because I'm sure that the public will show great interest in your responses today. When I did raise this with you some weeks ago, you said, 'There is the impotency of opposition, and here is the potency of Government'. The potency of Government, in this case, is stopping an independent inquiry.

We will, in a couple of weeks' time, lay a motion in the Senedd to bring forward a Senedd committee to actually have an inquiry on this particular matter. Whether the Senedd votes for it or not, that is a matter of democratic accountability here in the Chamber, but that's what the opposition can do. Will you lift the whip on your backbenchers to support such a motion, because, certainly, when I'm speaking to colleagues from your side as well as the other end of the M4—Chris Evans, for example, from Islwyn—they want to see that independent inquiry because they believe it is the right thing to do, and it is only through your obstinance that we're not getting that inquiry here in Wales? So, let's see how the votes stack up here, and let's see whether you need to whip your Members to support the blocking of a COVID public inquiry here in Wales. 

Well, Llywydd, I'm not going to respond to a suggestion that I've never seen, when there's not a single piece of paper in front of me to explain what the leader of the opposition thinks he will be putting in front of the Senedd. Of course, when he makes his mind up and puts something down, then I'll look at it carefully and my group will decide what it is that they wish to do. But, the idea that you can treat matters of this seriousness in that casual way, that you think it is possible just to make a suggestion out of nowhere—nothing at all, not a single document to offer us on what would be the scope of such an inquiry, what powers will it have, how will it go about its business. When we have a serious proposition from you, then we will look at it seriously, but this afternoon, we've certainly not had that. And if he wants me to name an organisation with whom I've had discussions and who believe that the best way of getting answers to people's questions is via the UK inquiry, then I'll refer him, as I have many times before, to the conversations that I had with the Prime Minister, and that he supported at the time, because in my discussions with the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, it was clear that a UK inquiry able to mobilise all the necessary information and have the powers that it would need to make those inquiries, was the preferred way forward. I've told you before: I supported the UK Prime Minister at the time, even as you have constantly attempted to undermine them.

Diolch, Llywydd. Today marks 100 years of Labour's electoral dominance, making your party, in your words,

'the most successful party in the democratic world'.

I have to say, this morning, there wasn't quite that celebratory mood when I and other Plaid Cymru colleagues stood in the rain in solidarity with striking trade unionists to mark some other historic moments; the largest average vote in favour of strike action by the PCS union in its history, covering 126 separate workplaces, including this institution, the Senedd; the first time the National Association of Head Teachers have balloted their members for strike action over pay in their 125-year history; the first nation-wide strike in the Royal College of Nurses' 106-year history. Now, Keir Starmer has repeatedly refused to back striking workers, saying that he understands why strikes were taking place, but was not prepared to stand with workers on picket lines. What do you think Keir Hardie would have made of that? And more to the point, are you prepared to stand in solidarity with workers when your British leader, sadly, is not?

13:50

Well, Llywydd, I recognise the anger and the disappointment that many public service workers experience at the moment. When your wages have been held down through a decade of austerity, and you're now faced with wage rises below the level of inflation, then it is absolutely understandable why workers in those circumstances feel in the way that they do and why they vote to take action in the way that they have. And this Labour Government has no ambiguity at all in putting on the record our understanding of the way in which public sector workers have been driven to take the action that they do. I'm very happy to repeat that and put it on the record again this afternoon.

Sir Keir has said that the single most important thing he could do for striking workers is to usher in a Labour Government. And, yes, if that was a radical Government that can help deliver fairer funding for Wales and greater fairness all round through the kinds of progressive changes that our party's Westminster leader, Liz Saville Roberts, is proposing through her Tax Reform Commission Bill, it could make a very important difference to our lives. But in Wales, we need not usher in a Labour Government, we already have one. And it's the Welsh Labour Government that nurses, in a few weeks, joined soon by teachers, probably, will be striking against. To avoid the labour movement effectively being in dispute with the Government led by a party that shares its name, can the First Minister say if the option of using the income tax powers that we have in a progressive way, including, if necessary, the basic rate, is something that you will at least explore to avoid the hyper austerity that is quite probably soon to be meted upon us?  

Well, Llywydd, I agree with the leader of Plaid Cymru that nothing is more important to making a difference to the future of working people in the United Kingdom than a Labour Government in Westminster, and I look forward to doing everything that we can, as a party here in Wales, as we have for 100 years, to make the maximum contribution we can to that Labour victory at the earliest possible opportunity. My discussions with trade union colleagues—and I was having them earlier this morning—make it very apparent to me that they understand the dilemma of a Welsh Labour Government here. We have a fixed budget that we have to determine, and if we pay people more than we are funded to—and we have met the pay review body recommendations, in both health and education—if we pay people more than that, then that money has to come from somewhere else.

Now, I might, for a moment, just draw attention to the experience in Scotland. There, the sister party of Plaid Cymru has indeed offered health workers a higher increase than we have been able to here in Wales. Did it prevent the RCN in Scotland voting for strike action in every single health board in Scotland? No, it did not. And because the SNP are in Government in Scotland, they have to face up to the very difficult dilemmas that come with the decisions that they have made, and I respect them for the way in which they've made those decisions. But let us be clear, Llywydd, the SNP Government, in the last two weeks, has announced that it is taking £400 million out of the budget of the Scottish NHS in order to pay for the additional uplift in workers' pay within the NHS. That's a decision that the Scottish Government has made, and it's within its own political authority to do so. What we need to hear from Plaid Cymru is if they believe that the Welsh Government should increase the wages of workers in the health service beyond that for which we are funded, where would the money come from here?

13:55

I look forward to the First Minister allowing us to go through the books with him. Will he organise a briefing when we can actually look, line by line, at where we can reprioritise the budget in a progressive, socialist way?

Now, can the First Minister clarify one thing? You referred to discussions. Are you willing to enter into negotiations with the health unions in the pay dispute, and indeed with all the public sector unions that are balloting for strike action? The Labour Party in Westminster routinely calls on the Government there to get around the table in situations such as this. The Labour Party in Scotland is making that point as well. Are you prepared to get around the table? The Royal College of Nursing has told us that the health Minister has declined to negotiate with the Welsh Partnership Forum, a body comprised of trade unions, NHS leaders and Welsh Government representatives, which, according to the RCN, has a long history of productive social partnership on matters related to pay. Why are you refusing to meet with them, when social partnership is meant to be a core principle to you, and you are literally the Labour Party? I mean, is that what success after 100 years now looks like?

Well, Llywydd, first of all, I'm grateful to the leader of Plaid Cymru for agreeing to come to a detailed briefing on the circumstances that we will face here in Wales once we have seen the results of this Thursday's autumn statement.

Llywydd, all strike action ends in the end in negotiation, and that's the way I believe that the current difficulties that we see in public services here in Wales will be resolved. A Labour Government never refuses to talk to our partners, but it has to be done in a way that is fair to all partners in any partnership forum. The RCN is not the only union that represents workers in the health service, and other trade unions are consulting their members currently. You have to carry out these negotiations in a way that recognises the interests of more than one group or one organisation. But the principle that strike action is resolved in the end through negotiations is one that we absolutely understand, because this is a Government, despite the very difficult times we are in and will go on being in, that believes firmly and without hesitation that social partnership is the right way to make sure that very challenging issues can be resolved properly between us.

Community Allotments

3. What support is the Welsh Government providing for community allotments? OQ58686

Llywydd, our allotment support grant has allocated £750,000 this year across local authorities to help improve and increase allotment provision. In addition to this dedicated fund, other programmes such as the community land advisory service also support the development of allotments.

I thank the First Minister for his reply. I've got allotments in my constituency that have benefited from the grants that have been available, but there are still very many people who want an allotment but cannot get one. The public sector in Wales, both Welsh Government sponsored bodies, the Welsh Government itself and local authorities, have land that they own but currently have no beneficial use for. Will the Welsh Government promote the use of such land to be used for allotments, rather than just being left there?

Well, Llywydd, I guess I ought to declare an interest in this question. I was on my own allotment on Sunday. If you're picking raspberries in the middle of November then you don't need anybody to tell you that climate change is not affecting us in every part of our lives.

I'm glad to hear what Mike Hedges said about the positive impact of the allotment support grant in Swansea. Across the whole of Wales, it's already in a small pilot and 18 months of the grant itself brought 760 new plots, or allowed plots that were in disuse to be renovated and brought back into use. I was especially interested to see that, in the Member's own constituency, at the Cwmgelli allotments in Treboeth, for example, the local authority plans to develop a set of starter plots, and I think that's a really useful and important way. I'm very used, in my own allotments, to seeing people who arrive with huge enthusiasm, who put an awful lot of work in over two or three weeks, and then simply find that they can't sustain the effort over the longer run. And starter plots that allow people to build up their interest and capacity I think are a very useful way in which the allotment support grant can be used. 

And I think Swansea has also demonstrated that, as well as direct provision of extra plots, they're making their allotment stock more available to people by improving accessibility, security, recycling facilities on those plots. I recognise what Mike Hedges says, Llywydd: 16 of the local authority community allotment associations in Swansea all have waiting lists. So, our allotment support grant works alongside other initiatives, such as the Community Land Advisory Service, to look for other and new opportunities to increase the availability of land for those people who recognise both the direct benefits of growing food for your own consumption but also the wider health and social benefits that come with sustaining your own allotment. 

14:00

Thanks to the generosity of the Pembrokeshire Agricultural Society, over an acre of land has been gifted to the local community to grow their own fruit and vegetables, enabling some 40 Pembrokeshire residents from across all generations to tend to their own piece of land. The project has been spearheaded by Grŵp Resilience, a community-led operation, which aims to foster self-reliance and community spirit by working with individuals, Government organisations and businesses to promote a more sustainable way of life. Grŵp Resilience have been a huge benefit to west Wales, through both the development of over 25 community growing spaces or enhancing our understanding of greener, cleaner and self-sufficient communities. Given their success, First Minister, what steps is the Welsh Government taking to emulate their community model across all of Wales?

I thank the Member for that information. I think what it illustrates is something that you will see in every part of Wales, that the interest in community food growing is wider than just allotments and that it has an enormously enthusiastic group of people there who are interested in finding ways in which not just individuals on their own allotments but, if I think of my own constituency, just bits of marginal land that otherwise were having no purposeful use to them have been taken over by community groups who now look after them, grow food on them, make them available to that local community. And what you see happening in Pembrokeshire I think you will find replicated in that way in every part of Wales. It's why we are committed to the development of a community food strategy, because that will allow us to think of ways in which we can harness that enormous community effort, and, by offering some wider support through public authorities, allow them to do even more in the future.

Social Housing

4. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to address the increasing demand for social housing in Mid and West Wales? OQ58724

Well, Llywydd, thank you to Cefin Campbell for the question. We are committed to delivering 20,000 new low-carbon homes for rent in the social sector and we've allocated record levels of funding, with £300 million allocated this year. This includes a 40 per cent increase in funding in Mid and West Wales. 

Thank you very much. As you know, almost 90,000 households in Wales are on the waiting list for social housing at the moment. This has increased from 65,000 homes in 2018, and charities expect that number to increase further. And trends across Mid and West Wales are very concerning indeed, with the number of households on waiting lists in 2022 up by almost 50 per cent in Pembrokeshire and over 100 per cent in Powys, as compared to the figures of four years ago. However, I'm pleased to say that Carmarthenshire, under the leadership of Plaid Cymru, has shown a different pattern, with a reduction of some 12 per cent in the number of households waiting for social housing at the moment. What assessment has the Welsh Government made, therefore, of how Carmarthenshire County Council has succeeded in delivering this? Will the First Minister commit to looking into what lessons can be learned from the good practice in Carmarthenshire in other local authority areas in Wales?

14:05

I thank Cefin Campbell for that supplementary question. I have had one opportunity to discuss with civil servants who have looked at the experience in Carmarthenshire, because it does stand out, doesn't it? When you see what's happened in Carmarthenshire in the context of south-west Wales, the record in Carmarthenshire is different to that of other local authorities. What officials have suggested to me, just in that initial conversation, is that Carmarthenshire has been working in this field over the long term. They have purchased homes when homes come on to the market for sale, and they have a development programme that is deeper in breadth than that of other local authorities in the region. So, it is possible that there are lessons to be learned from the experience of Carmarthenshire.

Carmarthenshire has also collaborated with us as a Government, and Carmarthenshire was one of the original local authorities where we had lifted the right to buy social housing, and that has helped in Carmarthenshire in the longer term as compared to other local authorities. And they've worked with us to use the funding that we have provided to bring empty homes back into use for rental purposes.

So, I think it is important to look into the experiences in Carmarthenshire to see whether there is something different that the council is doing there, but also to place that in the context of the effort that we are making to help, to help to invest with local authorities as a whole and with other groups who do important work in the field.

First Minister, a recent freedom of information request showed that, in Powys, there are around 4,500 households waiting for social housing. I'm sure you'll agree with me that that's extremely worrying. I'm sure those individuals and those people on that waiting list, like I do, want to know today what you and your Government are doing to fix this problem, because, as you said earlier, funding is coming forward, but it's not achieving the results you want. So, instead of chasing headlines, First Minister, do you think removing things like the phosphate regulations imposed by Natural Resources Wales would go some way to unblocking the planning system?

Well, I certainly don't think that allowing greater pollution of rivers in Powys would be something that would be supported by the Member's constituents, and let us be very clear that when he says 'lifting the phosphate regulations', that is exactly what he means—it is exactly what he means—he cannot mean anything else. If you allow housing developments to take place knowing—knowing—that that will lead to greater pollution of watercourses and rivers, then that will be the impact of doing what the Member proposes.

Now, fortunately, most people who work in this area, including organisations in Powys, have a more constructive attitude to solving the dilemma that we face. Of course we need to be able to build houses in Powys and other parts of Wales; that means we have to find a sustainable solution that building those houses does not have guaranteed into them additional pollution impact on rivers that are already—already—over-polluted. A series of contributions will be needed to that: there will be a need for a contribution from the regulator; there will be a need for a contribution of Dŵr Cymru; there will be in need for a contribution from farming interests; and there will be a need for a contribution from housing developers who have techniques that they can use and are willing to use that would mean that, when you build new houses, it does not lead—

14:10

I'm really sorry, First Minister, but there are many backbenchers from at least two parties who are seeking to contribute in your place on this debate. I'd rather hear you than them—all of them. All of them. First Minister.

Llywydd, thank you. I was simply trying to explain to the Member that the problem he identifies is a real one, but the solution that he proposes only makes another problem, a very serious problem, worse. We will not solve the problem in that way. The only way we will solve it is by collecting together the contribution of many different agencies and organisations. That includes house builders. I think they recognise that. There are techniques that they can develop that would mean that house building can take place without the damage that would be done by the simplistic solution that James Evans offered us, which would undoubtedly lead to additional pollution.

The Autumn Budget Statement

5. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government regarding the main priorities for Wales in the forthcoming autumn budget statement? OQ58692

Llywydd, last week I had a constructive meeting with the Prime Minister, during which I set out a series of practical measures that could be included in the Chancellor’s statement on 17 November. Those practical measures would help the most vulnerable in our communities.

I'm truly glad to hear that Welsh Government has laid out its priorities in advance of the autumn statement. We know, as a matter of fact, from our constituents, from our local authorities and our third sector that mark 1 Conservative austerity tore the guts out of local government and has imperilled the continuation of the third sector, despite the best efforts of our local authority colleagues and despite the best efforts of volunteers and the voluntary sector out there. What reason on earth would we have to believe that Conservative austerity mark 2 would fare any better for the people of Wales and the public services on which they rely?

Llywydd, Huw Irranca-Davies makes a really important point. We have already had a decade of a flawed and failed experiment of austerity in the United Kingdom, which has left us all worse off than we otherwise would have been. And the facts simply speak for themselves, Llywydd. Between 2010 and 2021, every one of those years a year of Conservative Government at Westminster, gross domestic product per head in the United Kingdom grew by only 6 per cent in real terms. It grew by 11 per cent in Germany, it grew by 17 per cent in the United States of America. In 2010, disposable household income per head in the United Kingdom was 90 per cent of the German figure. By 2021, it had fallen to 81 per cent. The New Economics Foundation estimate that the direct impact of austerity is to make the UK economy £100 billion smaller than it otherwise would have been. Who ever would think of repeating the same experiment? It wasn't attempted elsewhere in the world. They had a different approach, they had an investment approach, they had a Keynesian approach, and they came out of the dilemmas of 2008 in a far stronger way.

We see the same pattern already repeating itself. Last week, inflation in the United States fell below 8 per cent. The Bank of France announced last week that the French economy will escape recession in the fourth quarter of this year. The German economy grew by 0.3 per cent in the third quarter of this year. Every single one of those things is not true of the United Kingdom under the stewardship of the Conservative party.

I don't often, Llywydd, quote The Daily Telegraph in answering questions here, but, if you had looked at The Daily Telegraph yesterday, you would have seen a very serious article that argues that tax rises and public spending cuts at this point in the economic cycle are exactly the wrong prescription for the UK economy. Here is an economy already in recession, according to the Bank of England, and now to have purchasing power drained out of it at an ever-accelerating rate, mortgage rates rises by the Bank of England, and money taken out of people's pockets by the UK Government as well. This will guarantee, it seems to me, that the recession that we are facing already will be longer, it will be deeper and, once again, it is those communities and those organisations that can the very least afford it who will be on the front line of another dose of Tory austerity.

14:15

I too welcome you, First Minister, back to the Chamber following your illness; it's good to see you. I don't doubt that the Chancellor has some difficult choices to make ahead of the autumn statement, so I'm going to try to be constructive. This will have an impact on the Welsh Government, which I am somewhat sympathetic to. As a former council leader of 13 years, I understand too well what it's like to set a budget when the funding settlement isn't quite what you'd like it to be, and I'll say no more in that regard. However, during these difficult times, it's important that we all work together, rather than against each other, to get us back on track.

I was very encouraged to see the First Minister and the Prime Minister join others at the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council. Presiding Officer, I would like to ask the First Minister whether he took the opportunity to discuss the uprating of pensions and benefits in line with prices with his UK counterparts at the recent meeting, because, as we know, this is something that on this side of the Chamber we agree with. And looking closer to home, what assessment has the Welsh Government made about the value of the devolved grants and allowances that it administers in light of the impact of inflation, as called for by the Bevan Foundation?

Well, Llywydd, first of all, I thank Peter Fox for his kind opening remarks, and I recognise, as I try always to do, the experience that he has as a former leader of a council having to make actual decisions when there are really difficult choices to be made.

Can I say, Llywydd, that I welcome the Prime Minister's decision to attend the British-Irish Council? He's the first Prime Minister to do so for a very long time. I think it was an important, symbolic decision, given the continued tensions in relationships around the Northern Ireland protocol, and given the pressures that are on the diary of any Prime Minister to give up the amount of time that he did to be there and to hold separate meetings with a range of different individuals. I think that's commendable and I hope, as I said in my original answer, that that constructive start sets a different tone for the future in terms of inter-governmental relations.

As well as bilateral meetings with the Prime Minister, he also chaired the first meeting of the Prime Minister's council. This was part of the inter-governmental relations review that was concluded in March of this year. No previous meeting of the council had been held. So, again, very early on in his tenure as Prime Minister, Mr Sunak made it a priority to chair a meeting of that council, and I was glad to see that as well.

I did, of course, take the opportunity, with others—the Chancellor of the Exchequer attended the council, as did Michael Gove—to raise the issue of the uprating of benefits, and the triple lock for pensioners, but I also was able to put on the record a set of modest in their way but very important in the lives of the people affected actions that I believe the UK Government could take in its autumn statement.

I argued strongly for the abolition of standing charges for prepayment meter customers. What can be worse than finding, when you finally manage to get some money together to put on a supply of electricity, that that money has already been eaten into paying a standing charge for all those days when you weren't able to use electricity at all? It's a deep economic injustice, and this Government could simply abolish those standing charges and make the companies absorb the costs, as the Government did when it said to the BBC that it had to pay the cost of free licences for the over-75s. They could take their own example and apply it to prepayment meter customers.

I argued for an increase in discretionary housing payments and the local housing allowance. Here is an absurd example of a Government saving some money with one hand—small amounts of money—by failing to uprate those allowances in line with inflation, and paying far, far more with another hand when those people find themselves made homeless because they can no longer afford the rents. It makes just sense from an economic, public purse point of view to put that money in a different place and to do better with it.

Then, I offered the members of the council to share the experience that we have had here in Wales, led partly by my colleague Jane Hutt, in providing guarantees against loss to credit unions, so that they are able to offer loans to people who otherwise would be regarded as too risky. In a normal assessment of risk, you wouldn't lend money to that person. Credit unions in Wales are able to do that because we offer them a guarantee against loss. The wonderful result, Llywydd, is this: of course you lose money when you lend to people who are in very, very difficult circumstances, but 80 per cent of the money that the credit unions loan to people covered by our guarantee comes back from the people themselves, because of the way in which credit unions operate. That's another area in which the UK Government, with modest investments, could really help those people who otherwise will be forced to go and borrow money in the most expensive and risky parts of the market.

14:20

Good afternoon, First Minister. Lovely to have you back. Croeso yn ôl.

I just wanted to focus in on social care. As we know, our local authorities across Wales are going to be struggling with their budgets going forward, in relation to funding social care—our most vulnerable people. That would help our health services as well. It's lovely to hear from you about the points that you have made to the UK Government, but to be honest, I have absolutely no faith whatsoever that the Conservative Government in London will meet the needs of the people in Wales, and will definitely not meet the needs of vulnerable people. But here in Wales, we do have an option, and I'd like to ask you: will the Welsh Government be raising taxes in order to fund social care here in Wales? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

I thank Jane Dodds for that question, Llywydd.

I think that this week is gearing up to be a very bad week for social care services across the United Kingdom. We await to see what happens on Thursday, but any piece of informed leaking from the Treasury is suggesting that the Conservatives are going to abandon their commitment to introduce their version of the Dilnot review. You will have seen the absolutely scathing comments of Sir Andrew Dilnot himself at this latest—well, I think 'betrayal' is the word that he uses—of the work that he did on behalf of a Conservative Government. And if that is the case, it has direct impacts on social care services here in Wales, as we know.

It has always been one of the great conundrums of trying to move forward on social care, and I'm very grateful for the work of the expert group that was established as a result of the co-operation agreement in this area. But the report does tell you that the interweaving of decisions made by a UK Government and the decisions that can be made here in Wales is very real. I'm afraid that, if the solution that the UK Government has to the real difficulties in social care is to say that council tax can be put up in England, it really is a desperate solution to what is a very serious problem indeed.

I have answered the question a number of times, Llywydd, about the powers that we have as a Government in relation to Welsh rates of income tax, and it's the same answer: we will make those decisions when we have the full facts, and in an orderly way, as part of the budget-setting process that we have set out for colleagues here in the Chamber. Let me say this, though, Llywydd: nobody should believe that putting up the basic rate of tax is an easy decision here in Wales. We are talking about taking money out of the pockets of people who earn £12,000 a year. I've already said this afternoon that I think that one of the great mistakes that is about to be made is that the recession we're already in is about to be made worse by taking purchasing power out of the pockets of people. That person earning £12,000 here in Wales is facing all the bills that we've talked about here in the Chamber—the energy bills, the food bills, the rent bills, all of those things. Nobody should think that a decision to take more money out of the pocket of that person is one that we would enter into lightly.

14:25
Public Sector Pension Funds

6. What discussions has the Welsh Government had regarding the disinvestment of public sector pension funds from fossil fuels? OQ58703

I thank Jack Sargeant, Llywydd. We encourage the Wales pension partnership to more and faster action in moving towards net zero. The Minister for Finance and Local Government has invited pension fund leads to address the partnership council for Wales during Wales Climate Week later this month, setting out their contribution to achieving net zero.

I thank the First Minister for that answer, and I'm grateful for the commitment from the Ministers in your Cabinet. Llywydd, I have declared an interest with this question because of my committed and continued involvement with the Wales disinvestment campaign, but the clock is ticking, First Minister, on the time that we have to avoid serious environmental catastrophe and the chaos, hunger and conflict that come with it. Huge amounts of our public sector pension money continue to be invested within fossil fuels, and I'm grateful to colleagues within the Senedd for the support for my motion earlier this year. If Wales does set these targets and public sector pension schemes disinvest by 2030, we would be the first nation in the world to do so.

First Minister, today we celebrate 100 years of Labour winning in Wales. We are still bold and we are still ambitious, and we have to be the bold and ambitious party so that our future generations and our younger generations, like those from Hawarden High School in my constituency in the gallery today, can go on to live successful lives in a sustainable world. First Minister, will you meet with me and fellow campaigners to discuss further how we can progress this bold proposal?

Llywydd, I congratulate Jack Sargeant on all the work that he carries out in this area. He led a very successful debate on the floor of the Senedd here back in May and he's right, of course, to draw our attention to the fact that it is the lives of our young people that will be most profoundly affected by these decisions. It was a pleasure to meet a series of students from Hawarden High School on my way into the Chamber earlier today.

In practical terms, Llywydd, the only public sector pension fund that makes investments in Wales is the local government fund. Other pension schemes—the health service pension scheme, the civil service pension scheme, and so on—don't have investments; they rely on today's workers to pay today's pensioners. The only pension fund that has investments is the local government pension scheme, and while we must encourage them to be bold and to be ambitious, and to set targets in the way that Jack Sargeant suggests, in the end it has to be their targets and their ambition because the Welsh Government has no statutory ability to impose any targets on them.

The good news, Llywydd, I think, is that there are strong signs that Welsh local government pension funds are moving in this direction and that they are doing the things that Jack Sargeant asks them to do. The Clwyd pension fund, in which he will have a particular interest, earlier this year has formed a partnership with an investment firm specifically in order to move its investments into clean energy production and clean energy production here in Wales. It has done what the Member suggests: it has set a target of net zero by 2045 and an interim target of carbon reduction of 50 per cent by 2030. The campaign would like them to go further and to go faster, and that's why campaigns are important. I'm very happy to give an undertaking that I would meet Jack Sargeant to discuss what further can be done to encourage pension funds to move in that direction. 

Agriculture (Wales) Bill

7. How is the Welsh Government ensuring that the financial sustainability of farms and rural areas is at the heart of the Agriculture (Wales) Bill? OQ58721

14:30

Llywydd, that objective is secured through the sustainable farming scheme, as established in the Bill. 

Thank you, First Minister. Will you today, and the Minister, obviously, sitting next to you, consider committing to a fifth objective being added to the Bill to give our farmers and rural communities the reassurances that they deserve? Whether it's the Farmers Union of Wales I spoke to last week, or farmers in my own region, it is clear that the agriculture Bill, and its potential to massively change farming in our rural communities in the future, is the main focus, and it's imperative that we get it right. Financial viability for our farms and rural areas must be at the heart of all decision making and considerations throughout this Bill. That fifth objective being included in this Bill would, crucially, act as a mechanism for farmers, unions and public bodies to hold the Government to account to ensure that this is just the case. Would you agree with me that this deserves further consideration?

I know that it is being given further consideration by the Minister, and that she remains in discussions over a fifth goal of economic resilience. I think there is a strong argument to be made that the four goals we have already identified have economic resilience running through them all, because the four goals are all designed to make sure that farmers can go on being paid for the production of the things that only farmers can provide. That begins with sustainable food production—that is the first goal that we propose in the Bill—but all the other things that farmers are able to provide, those public goals that mean that taxpayers will have a direct interest in making sure that investment continues in farming communities—clean air, clean water, sustainable agricultural practices—are already captured in the four goals that the Bill includes. They're there to make sure that farmers have ways in which, through the actions they can take, they can go on having incomes provided to them to achieve economic resilience. In the meantime, as I say, my colleague Lesley Griffiths continues to discuss with others whether a fifth goal would be something that would, in any meaningful sense, add anything further to the way the Bill is already constructed. 

Net Zero

8. What plans does the Welsh Government have to achieve its net-zero target? OQ58697

Good afternoon as well, Llywydd, to Dr Hussain.

Last year, we set out our ambition of net-zero emissions by 2050. The ambitious actions required are contained in 'Net Zero Wales'. Last month, the Minister for Climate Change informed Members of plans to create a public sector renewables developer—just one of the steps needed to achieve net zero.

First Minister, your 'Working Together to Reach Net Zero' action plan for 2021-25 sets out the range of ambitions and actions expected by working closely in partnership with a range of organisations. The Welsh Government's indicative budget for 2023-24 sets out £2.9 billion for climate change to invest in those areas of delivery where the Welsh Government could usefully lead the change we all want to see. We all appreciate the significant financial challenge ahead. In light of his discussions with Cabinet colleagues, how much of that finance for 2023-24 is now secure, and, if it isn't, what does this mean for your plan? Thank you. 

That's a very important question near the end of today's questions, because it goes to the heart of the dilemma that the Welsh Government will face after Thursday's autumn statement. If the Chancellor decides to solve his dilemmas by taking an axe to our capital budgets, then inevitably that will have an impact on our ability to invest the £1.8 billion that Dr Hussain mentioned. It's a targeted capital investment in our response to the climate and nature emergency. Our ambition will be to go on making that investment. If we are serious about the climate emergency, then we have to invest today in those infrastructure projects that allow us to make a better response to it in the future, whether that is in the investment we are making in flood relief, whether it's in the way in which we are able to redesign some of our twenty-first century schools projects to make sure that buildings play their part in reaching net zero. All of that is dependent upon the capital budget available to the Welsh Government. I can give the Member this assurance: when the Cabinet sits down to make what could very well be, as Peter Fox said, some very difficult decisions, we will always be guided by the principles of the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) Act 2015, which is that, in balancing the very challenging decisions of today, we always have in mind as well the impact that those decisions will have on future generations.

14:35
2. Business Statement and Announcement

The business statement and announcement is next. I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement—Lesley Griffiths.

Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to this week's business. The Business Committee has agreed to postpone tomorrow's debate on the Senedd Commission budget until next week. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Thank you, Trefnydd, for your statement. Can I ask for a written statement from the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership in relation to the action being taken by the Welsh Government to promote participation in the UK-wide veterans survey, which is currently ongoing? It's the first-ever survey of its kind, and we know how important it is to get as much data as possible about the veteran community in Wales, and, indeed, the families of veteran communities, so that we can best plan our efforts to support them in the future. I know that the UK Government is running this survey for the next 12 weeks, and I think it would be good if the Welsh Government could use all of its various social media channels, and any other efforts that it can make, with members of the expert group, for example, just in order to spread awareness around Wales, so that we can get as many people as possible taking part.

Thank you. The Member raises a very important point. I know the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership is very keen for our veterans and their families to be aware of the survey, and will be happy to do that and bring forward a written statement.

Trefnydd, greater horseshoe bats are amongst the rarest in the whole of the UK, and they're protected under legislation, including the Environment Act 2021. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 also places a duty on the Welsh Government to maintain and enhance a biodiverse natural environment. I know that the Welsh Government can't comment on planning issues, but the reason I'm asking for a statement on this is that, in my region, there is an application to build flats on Ruperra Castle estate, where greater horseshoe bats nest. This is a cause of great concern locally. I've already raised the issue with the Minister; I was grateful for her reply. She's explained that a decision on whether to call in the application will be made in due course. So, what I wanted to receive, please, was a statement of general assurance that the Welsh Government is absolutely committed to its conservational responsibilities, to give organisations like the Valleys Bat Group and the Ruperra Conservation Trust the confidence that their concerns for the welfare of this extremely rare species are shared across the Government. Diolch.

Obviously, the Government is absolutely committed to the conservation values that you refer to. I think you've done absolutely the right thing in writing to the Minister, and you say you've had her helpful response.

I would like to ask for two statements. The first one is on the number of organisations who provide only online help and online services, thus excluding those who do not have access to an online facility or cannot use online facilities. I would like to ask for a statement from the Government on how they're ensuring that those who cannot or do not want to use online facilities can actually access services via the telephone.

The second statement that I'm asking for—and I did hear what the First Minister said earlier—is on what progress the Welsh Government have made in ending standing energy charges for days when no energy is used. There are many people who do not use energy for days, but when they do use energy, the standing charges for the days when no energy was used is still charged. This is hurting the poorest people in society, who are paying for energy they have not used. I had an elderly lady tell me that she paid £2.50 to heat a cup of tomato soup because she used up five days' worth of standing charges.

Thank you. Digital now plays a significant role in our society, from allowing people to engage with health and public services, for instance, or reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation by maintaining contact with their friends and families, or, of course, continuing to work and access learning. But of course, there are people who choose not to participate, or see no need to, and, of course, there are those who can't afford the costs that are associated with being online. I think we know, during and since the pandemic, that many services have now moved to digital channels, so it is absolutely critical to those developing these services that they're aware and consider the implications for people who are digitally excluded, from an equalities aspect, as well, of course, as the impact on the economic recovery. You'll be aware of our programme for government commitment, our digital strategy for Wales, and that absolutely makes clear our aim to equip people with the motivation, access, skills and confidence to engage with an increasingly digital world based on their needs. As a Government, our role really is to engage with and continue to raise awareness of the need for service providers, be they public, private or third sector, to ensure that people are able to access services in a way that meets their needs. 

You mentioned that the First Minister himself mentioned that he'd raised the issue of standing energy charges with the Prime Minister at last week's British-Irish Council. We know we need a major investment in the grid to develop it into a net-zero energy system that's resilient to help us as well. Obviously, the system we have at the moment places the greatest burden on those who can least afford it. That has to change. The standing charge is an element of the pricing system that really does not take into account the ability of an individual person to pay. As we both just said, the First Minister raised it with the Prime Minister, but I know as a Government we continue to raise this in discussions that we have with Ofgem. But it really needs a fundamental change going forward for certain energy users—rather than concessions for certain energy users, to have this done at the expense of others.

14:40

Can I please ask for a statement from yourself as rural affairs Minister and the Minister for Climate Change on the eye-watering increases to the Natural Resources Wales regulatory fees and charges? As per the NRW consultation on permits and licences, the increases will be set out across several charging regimes from April 2023 and include a tenfold increase in the cost of new applications for land spreading of spent or unused sheep dip at a cost of £3,728. At a time when we're seeing costs soar across the board, this large increase could have a detrimental impact on the fight against sheep scab and needs to be addressed. Diolch.

It wouldn't be me; it would be the Minister for Climate Change, as she has responsibility for NRW. I know she's been having discussions with NRW around this, but I don't see that that would be for an oral statement. If there is any further information that the Minister feels she needs to share with us, I will ask her to do a written statement.

Trefnydd, can I ask for an urgent Welsh Government statement on police standards in Wales? We learnt last week that Wiltshire Police is leading an investigation into alleged misogyny, corruption and racism in Gwent Police. That comes on the back of the police watchdog's damning report on failings in the vetting process that allowed criminals and sexual predators to join the services in England and Wales. My constituents will have serious and, in my view, justified concerns about the propriety of the police investigating the police on these matters, and about their own safety, quite frankly. I appreciate that much of this is not devolved, but the consequences are devolved. I think we need a ministerial statement to shed light on these matters that both reassures the public and supports the vast majority of our police staff and officers who serve honestly and honourably.

Thank you. The allegations in the report are extremely worrying. I know the Minister for Social Justice was very pleased that the force was very clear about this. Obviously, as a Government, we stand against corruption, misogyny, racism and homophobia in all of their forms. You mention that policing is obviously a reserved matter for the UK Government, but, of course, as a Government, we work very closely with policing partners here in Wales. I know the Minister for Social Justice met yesterday with the PCC, Jeff Cuthbert, and the chief constable, Pam Kelly, to understand more about their response to these allegations and to emphasise the seriousness with which, as a Government, we view these allegations also. Chief constable Kelly did confirm that they are already working at pace to address the issues raised. It is vital for the force to take decisive action and, obviously, we're all aware of the independent investigation by Wiltshire Police that is under way. The force has made it very clear that firm action will be taken against anyone who's breached either professional standards or the criminal threshold, and I know that Gwent Police are working proactively to encourage both staff and victims to come forward with their experiences. 

14:45

Good afternoon, Trefnydd. I'd like to ask for a Welsh Government statement outlining the full economic costings of the introduction of the default 20 mph speed limit in Wales. Trefnydd, as you may be aware, last week councillors up and down Wales were sent a letter from Government regarding this scheme, and I quote from the letter:

'It's also estimated this will save Wales around £100 million in the first year alone, three times more than it would cost to introduce this scheme'.

So, the letter is seeking to highlight a £100 million saving to the public purse, which, I think it's fair to say, has failed to painting the full financial picture when communicating that with councillors because, indeed, the memorandum on the order states that, overall, an indicative central estimate on the monetised net present value of the policy is calculated to be a negative £4.54 billion—a saving of £100 million to the public purse, perhaps, but a cost of £4,500 million to the economy. So, in light of this, Minister, I would like the Welsh Government to make a statement on all of the costings relating to the introduction of the 20 mph default speed limits that reflects the savings, of course, but also the costs in particular to our economy, and allows our taxpayers to fully understand the costings of this proposal? 

I will ask the Deputy Minister for Climate Change to come forward with a written statement on that issue. 

Minister, delivering high-quality cancer care is vital to those people whose diagnosis would have been lost during the pandemic, and for those now waiting to start treatment. Last month, the health Minister attended a cancer summit with local health boards across Wales to tackle waiting times and address capacity problems within the Welsh NHS. It is vital that the health Minister provides an overview of the outcomes of the summit and the measures she plans to take to address these issues. Will the business Minister issue an oral statement before the recess to ensure that Members are updated on this and on the NHS cancer service action plan? Thank you. 

Thank you. I am aware the Minister for Health and Social Services led a summit of cancer service providers and leaders last month to make sure that we're doing everything that we can to recover cancer services from the impact of the pandemic. I know she continues to work with health boards to address the matter. 

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

3. Statement by the Minister for Economy: Statutory licensing scheme for all visitor accommodation in Wales

The next item is a statement by the Minister for Economy: statutory licensing scheme for all visitor accommodation in Wales. I call on the Minister, Vaughan Gething. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I am pleased to have the opportunity today to provide an update on the steps we are taking to help secure a sustainable and thriving visitor economy that supports and enhances communities across Wales. The visitor economy is rapidly changing, and the role of visitor accommodation presents major challenges for communities across the world. For example, the growth of online booking platforms has brought many benefits, such as new routes to market and increased consumer choice. However, we are aware of the concerns around compliance with existing requirements and the impact of short-term lets on housing stock and our communities.

Our plans to develop a statutory licensing scheme will be focused on levelling the playing field as part of a long-term response to the major challenges that we face. Our co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru commits to a statutory licensing scheme for holiday lets as part of a package of measures to address the negative impact second homes and short-term holiday lets can have on the availability and affordability of housing for local people in our communities. In July of this year, the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru confirmed plans to introduce a statutory licensing scheme for all visitor accommodation, including short-term lets, making it a requirement to obtain a licence, with the aim of raising standards across the tourism industry.

Prior to that, and over the course of the past year, we have been exploring and engaging with stakeholders how such a scheme could work in Wales. Contractors were appointed to undertake this work last year and they conducted interviews and focus groups with key stakeholders from local authorities, sector representative bodies and accommodation operators. They explored the benefits of such a scheme and the key considerations of how such a scheme could be taken forward and implemented here in Wales. A review of how other destinations globally approach such schemes was also taken into account. This initial work has shaped the consultation that the Government will look to be launching shortly.

But first, Dirprwy Lywydd, I'd like to outline the aims and proposed benefits of such a scheme. The primary aim is to establish a level playing field for all visitor accommodation businesses operating in the sector. The concern around the lack of a level playing field has been a long-standing area of discussion. Specifically, there are concerns that certain parts of the sector, for example informal short-term lets, do not meet or comply with their statutory obligations, whereas established, bona fide businesses do. A statutory licensing scheme could provide the mechanism to address this through requiring operators to evidence that they have certain requirements in place, such as the correct insurance, confirmation of planning status, evidence of fire-risk assessment, gas safety certificate, proof of electrical safety, to list a few examples. This scheme will help to ensure that there is a consistent standard that all operators should meet. Having a scheme where visitor accommodation businesses must meet a certain threshold of requirements conveys a very clear message to consumers that visitor accommodation businesses in Wales meet certain requirements on standards and safety.  

A scheme would also give us enhanced intelligence—a comprehensive database, which is not currently available, of exactly who is operating in the industry. It is currently not possible to determine how many visitor accommodation businesses there are in Wales or in any given community. Understanding the scale and the nature of the sector will be an important tool in developing future policies at either a local or national level. Establishing a statutory database of licensed visitor accommodation businesses would give the Welsh Government and other partners, such as local authorities, a mechanism to communicate on key issues relating to the sector. We saw how challenging it can be to reach all parts of the sector through our recent experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

We also recognise that a statutory licensing scheme will provide an important foundation for other policy areas. Having the information provided by such a scheme will provide data on the scale and nature of our tourism offer to inform policy considerations, locally and nationally, around evidence-led management of second homes, holiday lets and developing the visitor economy and infrastructure. It could also support the collection of a visitor levy. For the visitor levy, having a licensing system would provide a comprehensive list of all visitor accommodation providers in an area. This could support the ongoing administration of the levy, as those who will require a licence will likely be the same as those who will be required to charge and collect a levy. There are clear links between these proposals, and I would encourage contributions to the 12-week visitor levy consultation, which closes on 13 December.

As I previously mentioned, in looking to establish a statutory licensing scheme, we're also looking at similar mechanisms operational or in development across the world. In the UK, different approaches have been taken by our neighbours and are at different stages of development. In Northern Ireland, visitor accommodation providers must receive certification by Tourism Northern Ireland in order to operate, and this scheme has been in place since 1992. The Scottish Government has legislation in place requiring all short-term let hosts and operators to obtain a licence to operate, unless specifically excluded. Existing hosts and operators have until 1 April next year to apply for a licence in Scotland. And in England, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport recently closed a call for evidence on the potential introduction of a tourist accommodation registration scheme. The purpose of the DCMS consultation is to better understand the benefits and challenges of the increase in short-term and holiday letting in England, and to gather initial evidence on the potential impact of a range of possible policy responses. There are other examples too, such as the compulsory schemes operating in the Isle of Man and in the Republic of Ireland. We're looking to learn from these various examples, including what lessons can be learnt from the Rent Smart Wales model in terms of developing our own scheme.

Following a series of engagement sessions with key stakeholders over recent months, we will shortly be launching a formal consultation to seek views on the shape and nature of the proposed statutory licensing scheme here in Wales. Feedback on some of the aims underlying a proposed licensing scheme has been supportive, especially in relation to establishing a level playing field, developing better intelligence and increased consumer confidence. However, some concerns have been raised around the perceived regulatory burden that may accompany a licensing scheme. This includes the work involved in providing evidence of current use in relation to planning, and the role played by local authorities in meeting this demand.

Both the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru agree that a statutory licensing scheme offers the most robust mechanism for delivery in Wales, being an approach that sets a standard for visitor accommodation businesses to operate. However, the consultation will enable a range of views to come forward, including on the requirements of a licensing scheme. We'll be seeking views on how such a statutory scheme could operate, be that nationally or at a local level, or a hybrid model combining elements of both. In addition, we'll be looking to gather views on whether all visitor accommodation businesses should require a licence, or whether there should be any exceptions. We'll also look to test how frequently licences should be renewed, and the licence fees that might need to be charged. In deciding on any fee structure, we are of course mindful of the pressures on businesses in the current climate.

We believe that most people would want to operate within the law, therefore one of the aims is to develop a scheme that will ensure a high level of voluntary compliance. However, proposals for compliance and enforcement measures, including penalties, to ensure fairness will be tested at consultation. We will be launching the consultation in December and will be encouraging our stakeholders to engage in the process. Diolch yn fawr. I'm happy to take questions. 

14:55

Can I thank the Minister for his statement? Firstly, Minister, this policy of a licensing scheme was announced back in July, with the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru announcing it to the press. We're now in November and it's the first time that the Chamber has had to hear in more detail about the scheme. Those in the industry have said that there's been considerable anxiety caused in the sector since that announcement, and the months' long delay between the announcement and this statement today has been unhelpful at best. So, do you accept that there has been a considerable delay and that the uncertainty has caused anxiety in the sector? And can you explain why this statement has taken so long to come to the Senedd? 

Moving on to the scheme itself, I'll perhaps start by surprising the Minister by saying that I don't actually think that a registration scheme for visitor accommodation in Wales is a bad idea in and of itself. A scheme such as this could enable the Welsh Government to follow data across the board, to see whether there are areas where supply doesn't meet demand, for example, and it could also be used as a means by the Government to promote tourism businesses across Wales, as well as, as you stated, Minister, for compliance purposes for existing requirements, as you mentioned. You also say, and I quite agree, that,

'A scheme would also give us enhanced intelligence—a comprehensive database, which is not currently available, of exactly who is operating in the industry.'

Again, I agree with that; that's something to be welcomed, particularly after the pandemic has highlighted the need for such a database to help target those who need assistance the most. So, can the Minister confirm how he intends on using this register, who will have access to it, and whether any of the financial costs needed for businesses to register will be met by the Welsh Government?

But, I'm afraid to say that the launch of the scheme today by the Welsh Government is clear—and you admitted this yourself, Minister—that it's being used as the precursor to implementation of a tourism tax. It's just the latest in a long line of policies announced by the Welsh Government since you became the economy Minister that attacks the industry and could serve to make the industry less viable against our competitors, because we know that where a tourism tax has been implemented abroad, it's been used with the intention of being a suppressant to tourism in a particular area rather than to enhance it. I want to see more tourism in Wales, and I'd hope that the Welsh Government takes the same view, but the Government's actions suggest the opposite.

The industry has always warned that registration/licencing lite would lose support if it was seen by the industry as a means of collecting a tourism tax, rather than a mechanism for capturing quality-conscious businesses and weeding out second homes offering ad-hoc casual lets.

You mentioned in your statement on several occasions that this policy will be focused on levelling the playing field. This may be the case within Wales, but in a global and competitive market, this does not put Wales on a level playing field compared to other nations. We know that, as you've said, this is a pre-emptive measure. This pre-emptive measure is a precursor to a tourism tax—a tax that wouldn't be in place in other parts of the UK. So, how on earth could that be considered levelling the playing field?

There's an attitude, I think, in Welsh Government, that they know best, particularly when the industry tells you something else—the evidence on the self-catering changes, and just 1 per cent of respondents supporting your proposals would be evidence of that. But what we're talking about here today is a serious crossroad in the future of the tourism industry here in Wales. In a recent poll, 73 per cent of holiday let owners in north Wales said that they might quit. And a Labour backbencher last week, in this Senedd, referred to people like that who are worried about the future of this industry as 'naysayers'. But surely you must accept that when three quarters of people in an industry say that they may have to quit, it's time for the Welsh Government to sit up and to listen. And Richard Bond, who's the owner of Finest Retreats, said,

'a combination of regulation and additional taxation would have wider implications for regions reliant on domestic tourism'

and

'the potential detriment to local economies must not be overlooked'.

And then he went on to say:

'The only consistency is to seemingly punish the holiday lettings industry just when it needs wholehearted support to thrive'.

So, Minister, do you consider those comments, in addition to the thousands of others, to be the comments of a naysayer? Or do you think they are comments of an industry professional worried about the future of the tourism industry because of your anti-tourist policies?

15:00

Thank you. I'll deal with the constructive part of the Member's contribution first and, of course, your point about when the initial indication was announced by the First Minister and the leader of Plaid Cymru in July. Since then, as I said in my statement—you had a copy of it in advance as well as hearing me reading it out—contractors were appointed to undertake work exploring and engaging with stakeholders in how a scheme could work in Wales. And I also pointed out the interviews with focus groups and key stakeholders from local authorities, sector representatives, and accommodation operators. I appreciate that you've never been in Government, but you do have to try and test these things before coming to announce what you'd like to do, then engage with people, and we're now moving on to a stage of formal consultation, taking place next month is our objective.

I do welcome your points around the scheme and what it could mean. It's the point and the purpose of the scheme. It stands on its own merits in terms of levelling the playing field for all operators in this area. If you think about it this way: Rent Smart Wales has levelled the playing field with a set of standards for all landlords for longer term lets for main accommodation where people live. We're now looking at the benefits for this industry for shorter term lets, and there's a real logic to it, it stands on its own. But I do think that it's important to recognise that this might help us in other policy areas as well, and that's not unusual. There's nothing nefarious in that, we're not being underhand—we're being entirely open and transparent.

And when it comes to access to the register of licensed properties, I think we'd want to see that that was more broadly available so you could see, if you're staying somewhere, that it is actually a licensed premises. That's part of the point about consumers knowing that they're staying somewhere that is properly licensed and meets a level of minimum standards.

When it comes to fees to become part of the register, well that's one of the things that we're going to be testing, because in different parts of the world, they have different schemes that operate, and sometimes, they vary the fee by the size of the accommodation or whether they're in a larger group. So, those things we ought to test and understand, and that's exactly why we have a consultation and, indeed, the model about how the register should operate. And, again, we have experience with Rent Smart Wales with a system where local authorities do them—they have a lead local authority acting on their behalf. It's one of the things that we want to test and to understand. So, in that group of stakeholders, businesses—yes; communities and individuals may want to get involved; but also I'm very keen to hear from local authorities on their view on how a scheme could operate most effectively and serve the needs of their local communities, both as tourist destinations, where the economy is a big part of how the economy works in lots of parts of Wales. Whether it's Gwynedd, Pembrokeshire or Swansea or Cardiff, there are different sorts of tourism in each of those areas, but what that then means for the local communities as well.

And look, coming back to your regular point, I just think that if you want to publicly tell yourself and people this absurd fantasy that we are interested in attacking this sector of the economy, rather than seeing it have a healthy and sustainable future, then, of course, in a democracy it's your right to carry on doing that, regardless of how absurd it is. But I should gently remind you that, in a democracy, people in Government are here because of how people have voted and what they've chosen. At the last election, we were very clear on having proposals for a range of these issues within our manifesto and we've transparently come to an agreement in the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. And I know that it isn't always the case that Governments of different shades try to keep their promises, but we're determined to do that.

And when it comes to your accusation about who knows best, I would remind the Member that it was only a few weeks ago that you were trying to tell all of us that the people who knew best were the short-lived occupants of No. 10 and No. 11 and the chaos they've left behind. We are doing this by properly consulting right across the sector; we've engaged with them before. We're going to have a proper consultation, and we will then look to do something that I think will raise standards across the sector, and be good for both the industry and indeed consumers. And I look forward to carrying on supporting the visitor economy and recognising the significant changes that are taking place, and, as I say, making sure that there is a healthy and sustainable future for the economy and the communities that are home to it.

15:05

There is no doubt that tourism is an important contributor to the economy. Visitors spend £17 million a day, and that equates to over £6 billion a year, in the economy here. But this is just part of the picture, because what use is a strong economy at the expense of our communities? And if this money flows out of our communities, and, indeed, out of Wales, what use is that? We must pursue sustainable tourism, which is appropriate to the communities and brings them economic and social benefits. That is, therefore, what is at the heart of this licensing system that we're talking about today, and that's why we as a party have called for this to be part of the co-operation agreement between the Government and us in Plaid Cymru.

I have previously spoken on the floor of this Siambr about the huge growth in the short-term holiday lets sector, particularly via platforms such as Airbnb, Vrbo and others. The Bevan Foundation published an excellent report on the impact of Airbnb on our communities earlier in the autumn, demonstrating that over 14,000 of the properties on this platform are appropriate to be used as homes for families to live in. Indeed, the report noted that the properties on Airbnb that are appropriate for people to live in as long-term homes equate to a third, almost, of the private housing stock in Gwynedd, and one in five of properties in the private housing stock in Ynys Môn and in Ceredigion.

The sector has grown beyond all reason; that, truth be told, is what has undermined the holiday accommodation sector in Wales—a sector that has been part of the visitor offer here for generations but is now under threat from these online platforms. And, of course, this is a central part of the steps that are being taken to tackle the gentrification that has been taking place in our coastal and rural communities, as we see up to 40 per cent of properties in some communities lying empty for large parts of the year.

Of course, some of the concerns expressed with regard to these steps are based on the lack of full data available to us in terms of definitions and so on. So, does the Minister agree that, when this latest element is operational, the richer information that we will have about what constitutes genuine holiday accommodation and what is a second home will allow us to better target taxation measures and so on in future? Anyone who has truly engaged and consulted with the holiday accommodation sector, as I have done, will know that the sector has been calling for a licensing system for some years. Those providers who operate through effective and principled companies, like Daioni in my constituency, have to comply with strict rules—rightly so—to ensure that their guests receive the best and safest possible experience. Unfortunately, the same is not true of platforms such as Airbnb and Vrbo. Anyone can advertise a property on these platforms, and undercut and undermine those conscientious providers in the sector who strive to deliver the best possible provision.

A licensing system will drive up the standard of provision and will ensure that visitors who come to Wales have the very best possible experience on holiday here, with providers who have clearly invested in their businesses and are committed to the safety of their visitors. The requirement to have a licence and to maintain it will provide communities and visitors with greater control. We would wish to see a clear mechanism as part of the detailed proposals for a licensing system to enable communities to raise complaints about nuisance properties—for example, a property on a street that has been turned into Airbnb accommodation that is affecting local amenities due to noise or waste. Can you, therefore, confirm that the intention is that a mechanism of this kind to deal with concerns will be put in place when things go wrong? Thank you.

15:10

Thank you for the comments. I think there was one question at the end around a complaints mechanism, and that's part of the point about having a licence with registered properties that acquire a licence—to meet the standards and then to make sure that it's operating in a manner that's in accordance with its licence. That's the point I made towards the end. I think most businesses will want to comply with the conditions and will want to be within the law on operating their business and turning a profit. But, we do need in almost every system where we're looking to have some form of outline measures that are set out in statute, you need to have some way of actually trying to enforce those. So, that's what we're looking to test in the consultation. It will be important to hear both from communities and from stakeholders, because a number of businesses themselves, I'm sure, will have ideas about how they think it could be a fair way to deal with people. It's sometimes typecast as businesses won't want any kind of regulation that's effective, and yet, actually, lots of businesses want effective regulation that makes sure that they're not undercut by people with less scruples and less care for their impact on the local community. So, it's part of what we're definitely looking to test in the consultation. 

I broadly agree with a range of your points made in the contribution. We do want sustainable tourism, and it's the variety of the offer, whether it's major events, whether it's the good news that the Tour of Britain is going to finish in Wales, whether it's things like traditional family holidays, long weekends, whether in rural Wales, a city or a town, but to do that in a way that doesn't take away from community sustainability. And that's why we're at this point, because over the last two decades, there has been a significant expansion in the change of use of accommodation in different parts of the country. And in that sense, in Wales, we're just like other parts of the world. Barcelona themselves are looking at the impact on accommodation of short-term lets within their major city. So, we do need to look at things like Airbnb and Booking.com, and actually most of those people want to engage in the consultation because I think they recognise that it won't just be Wales having this as a policy answer, there will be answers around the world to try to get that balance: a healthy economy of which the visitor economy is a significant part but in a way that doesn't undermine community sustainability. And I'm quite confident that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport over the border in England will be looking with genuine interest at the answers that we'll be coming to and the impact and outcome of our own consultation. 

Minister, may I thank you for bringing forward this valuable statement today? I very much welcome it and, at the risk of repeating the excellent contribution by Mabon ap Gwynfor, I would just like to state that, in this part of north Wales, in Clwyd South, we do have a major problem in some communities, those popular tourist communities, including Llangollen, where there are many domestic dwellings being used inappropriately for holiday accommodation. It's depriving good, legitimate, high-quality businesses of customers, and it's also creating tensions within neighbourhoods, where properties are being basically crammed with visitors in an unsuitable way, and of course that leads to many cars being parked in neighbourhoods as well. 

Minister, can you assure people in Llangollen and across Wales who face this particular problem, that what you are proposing will go a good way towards solving the problem of unsustainable and unsuitable accommodation being used for holiday rental purposes? And can we seek assurance from you, Minister, that you'll be communicating with the sector as soon as possible regarding the measures that you have proposed today so that preparations can be made by those owners of properties and those providers of accommodation? Diolch. 

Thank you. It's a pleasure to see the Member, and some of this work, of course, follows on from his own time in Government and work alongside the visitor economy. But, in recognising, as he does, the impact on the constituencies is not all in one direction and there are times when the impact has a direct and negative impact on the host community, and, of course, many hosts recognise that they want visitors to come to their town, their village, their city, to enjoy it, to spend money there, to support the local economy, but it's the point about the footprint they leave during their stay and afterwards as well, and that's what we're looking to do, is to balance in moving away from unsustainable and unsuitable accommodation use to move to a sustainable way of seeing the system have a real future. And so I would encourage stakeholders within his own constituency and across the country to get involved, and including examples where things have gone wrong, but also where things can work well, because we have already had engagement with the sector ahead of my statement today, and as a signal ahead of the consultation that we expect to launch in December, and there'll be time for people to get involved in the consultation itself and the events around it, and we will then of course publish a summary of the consultation responses we've had to inform the next steps that we'll make as a Government. So, there's plenty of opportunity for people to still get involved until we come up with our final answer, and to work on a journey to come together. We want a system that is going to work in the best interests of everyone and address the balance, as the Member points out. And I look forward to contributions from Llangollen, and indeed visiting again with my own family in the not-too-distant future.

15:15

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and good afternoon, Minister. I would associate my remarks with Mabon ap Gwynfor and also with Ken Skates.

You know, on tourism, we just cannot stand still. We have a real crisis in some of our communities. Llangollen, we've heard about, and Dwyfor Meirionnydd as well. We really do need to come up to the twenty-first century in terms of the way that we approach tourism, which we value, as we've all said, here in Wales.

I do support the licensing scheme and also the visitor levy; I know we're not here to talk about that in detail. There are some issues that have been raised with me from hoteliers, for example, around the consultation—and I hear the statement—and the level of discussions that you'll be having. So, I'm just wondering if you can just outline some of the plans that you have to bring in some of those people who may have doubts and concerns around both the registration scheme and the visitor levy. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

No, I think that's a fair point about how we run the consultation as not just a paper-based exercise or an online exercise, and, of course, it will be open for everyone, so you wouldn't need to attend a formal event or be part of a particular business group or association, but I confidently expect that all the people engaged around the visitor economy and their representative groups—. I meet the visitor economy forum, made up of people in the wider hospitality world, accommodation bodies themselves and a whole range of other interests, so I expect all those organisations will respond to the consultation and take part.

I expect that people who run their own businesses, some of them will want to take part, to have their view. And I think that's the point about we want the fullest range of people to get involved, and, just as with the visitor levy, we've had in-person events; at least three of them around the country. They've been held with Welsh Government officials to try to ensure people can have answers in the event, but to know the Government is actively interested in listening, and we've worked with a range of people to get people both to those events, but also we've run an online event as well for people who couldn't get to one of the physical locations—so, the maximum amount of access. Because, if you think about this place, it's a young institution, and yet the visitor accommodation sector in 1999 is radically different to the world we're in now and what visitor accommodation looks like in most of our towns, cities and villages. So, it is about understanding the world as it is now, and having a system that is fit for purpose—as I've said, a thriving and sustainable visitor economy that is housed within thriving and sustainable communities.

4. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Services: Childcare Offer for Wales

Item 4 this afternoon is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Social Services, childcare offer for Wales, and I call on the Deputy Minister, Julie Morgan.

Diolch, and thank you very much for the opportunity to update Members about the childcare offer for Wales, including the expansion to parents in education and training. Affordable, available and accessible childcare helps parents to work, supporting our drive to increase economic growth, tackle poverty and reduce inequalities. That's why we are committed to funding childcare for more families where parents are in education and training or on the edge of work.

In September, we expanded the childcare offer for Wales to include parents already enrolled or planning to enrol in higher and further education courses of at least 10 weeks in length. This reflects the value we place on supporting people who are seeking to improve their employment prospects by gaining qualifications, retraining or changing career path. It also means we can support healthcare students, who are not always eligible for childcare support under existing schemes.

The expansion is already showing its potential. In one local authority, a family got in touch to express their thanks for the '10 out of 10 service', the mum being supported while she studies for a Bachelor of nursing degree. In the first term since the expansion, we've been made aware of 168 families now benefiting from the childcare offer, with more expected over the next few weeks as the applications for the January intake are received. Supporting parents in education and training with childcare costs means that more families, and especially women, will be able to benefit from improved employment prospects.

Dirprwy Lywydd, alongside this expansion of the childcare offer, we've also been scoping the support that is available through our higher and further education support programmes and our employability programmes, such as Communities for Work, Parents, Childcare and Employment and ReAct. This cross-portfolio work will identify the most appropriate way to provide additional support for parents, particularly those in adult learning, work-based learning, community learning, those undertaking English for speakers of other languages courses and those on short-term courses. It will make sure that we can provide maximum support to parents.

The latest independent evaluation findings, which were published earlier this year, once again showed our childcare offer has been supporting parental employment. As of June 2022, there were more than 18,000 children accessing childcare funded by the childcare offer. We expect this number will increase as more parents consider the options available to them in this cost-of-living crisis.

Almost one in 10 parents accessing the childcare offer said they wouldn't be in work if it wasn’t for the offer. A further 6 per cent said they would be working in a job with lower pay if the offer had not been available to them. For those families, the childcare offer is making a significant difference to their lives. But the childcare offer doesn’t just play a vital role in these families’ lives, it also supports many childcare providers as well. And to ensure it continues to support childcare providers, we've agreed a rate increase to £5 per hour following a review, and this represents an increase of 11 per cent.  

The amount childcare providers can charge parents for food under the offer has also increased, from £7.50 to £9 per day. This reflects the significant rise in both food prices and utilities, but it is a careful balance between what is affordable for the provider and, of course, what is affordable for the family to pay.

To help improve the process of delivering the childcare offer for providers, as well as making it easier than ever for parents to apply, we've recently launched our new all-Wales digital service. I wrote to Members last month, ahead of the launch, about this. Last week, I visited the Darling Buds Nursery in Cardiff, just over the road there, to hear directly about what the new digital service means for them and their parents.

The new digital service will make accessing the childcare offer even easier and provide a more consistent experience across Wales. It'll simplify the processes childcare providers have to follow to claim payments and will streamline the data-collection process for all, to further refine our understanding of take-up. The new service will be available online, with a range of offline support options available to users. As the service is available on any device connected to the internet, people will be able to access the service through free-to-access devices in public libraries, bearing in mind the pressures on people's budgets.

The new service has been designed with the Welsh language standards and security needs as top priorities. It'll be fully live from January 2023 and will completely replace the current systems by September 2023.

So, I'd like to ask the Senedd to join me in welcoming this expansion and the new national digital service, which is supporting those parents who have chosen to pursue their career goals through higher and further education. And of course, we are continuing to extend provision for two-year-olds via Flying Start as part of our co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. Diolch.

15:20

Thank you very much for your statement this afternoon, Deputy Minister. It's concerning that the Welsh Government has been so quick to work on a Wales-wide digital childcare service when the NHS has been waiting over 10 years for systems to be updated, and fax machines are still being used throughout the estate. And although it's the 100-year anniversary of Labour's dominance in Wales today, and your party is celebrating tonight, I believe, I'm sure the people of Wales would celebrate a Labour Party and Welsh Government that is able to move beyond the twentieth century and have some twenty-first century thinking when it comes to technology, Deputy Minister. And although the Welsh Conservatives fully support extending childcare provision across Wales, it's clear that the digital service launched by the Government may leave those who need the support the most not being able to access it, and poses a serious risk of leaving people unable to access childcare that they so desperately need. 

The digital age has allowed millions to have unlimited access to the internet, but this is not universal, and many are still without smartphones, computers, or tablets, for that matter. These are often the elderly and the poorest, and I worry that the potential lack of technology access will leave many people unable to access this service. And cost-of-living pressures have made many people in places such as Rhyl in my constituency, and others across Wales, struggling, and adding demands to buy new technology is not going to help ease pressures, when unlimited mobile data and tablets are a luxury to some. Equally, even well-off and rural families across Wales are often faced with the burden of a lack of internet access, 5G and broadband, which can also leave them unable to access this service. This shows that there are larger issues that the Government have to address before introducing a one-size-fits-all plan that gives the Welsh Government even more control over our local authorities.  

Although the plan is well intentioned, the Government's idea of the plan ensuring that parents and childcare providers across Wales have the same experience no matter which local authority they live in is not the case, and the Government has neglected to consider how a Wales-wide service does not consider these issues. Therefore, will the Deputy Minister explain how this plan will be extended across all of Wales's 22 local authorities? How much thought has been put into the geographical and economic divides many of these authorities face, and is a one-size-fits-all approach appropriate in the childcare sector? Thank you very much.

15:25

Thank you very much. I'm a bit bemused how Gareth Davies can say, 'Why aren't we advancing technology?', when, in fact, that's what I'm actually announcing today. We are announcing a digital solution for the childcare sector. I really think that he's seizing on things to try to criticise what is a very positive move forward. I'm pleased that he's noted that it's 100 years of Llafur today, and that we will be—. We will be celebrating tonight, and one of the things we will be celebrating will be the big input that this Government has put into childcare and recognising the needs for parents and children. And I think that Labour's success in Wales reflects the fact that we have looked at what people need and have tried to fulfil those needs.

I think he, obviously, makes an important point about those not able to access technology, and that has been taken very carefully into account, and there are means for people to get help if they're not able to access technology. For example, they're able to have a dedicated helpline, a phone line, and also in-person help as well, and that has been taken on board.

This service was delivered, actually, not through 22 local authorities, but through 10 different local authorities who acted on behalf of other local authorities. This will make it much simpler, much easier, for the providers and for the parents, in terms of being able to access the services. And it's interesting that, in our communications with the parents, we've actually found that there were very few who are not digitally connected. This is, obviously, a younger group of the population on the whole, but, nevertheless, I would accept that there will be some who won't be, and we have put measures in to try and address that. I think, in fact, there were more amongst the providers who may not have been digitally connected, and so effort is being put into that. 

The first week has shown that between 2,500 and 3,000 parents are already starting to apply to start using the childcare offer in January. In the first week, we had 2,000 parents actually in the process of registering, and we have already approved 400 of them. I tried the technology when I visited Darling Buds, and it was very easy and simple to do. The majority of providers are registered with the service to provide the offer. I think that Gareth Davies is bringing up other issues to try to diminish the success of what we're doing. Thank you.

15:30

Thank you, Deputy Minister. Childcare is an important element of the co-operation agreement, and I'm pleased to welcome this afternoon's statement. The facts that you have referred to demonstrate just why this is so important, and the impact that expansion is already having. I know of casework in the past involving people who would have benefited a great deal from what you have shared with us this afternoon, and who have had to give up Master's degrees because this support wasn't available to them. So, it is an important step forward, and it is something to be welcomed as the statistics show.

Universal free childcare has been recognised as the greatest of equalisers by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. While expanding access to free childcare directly benefits children in their formative years, it also—as you’ve acknowledged—has wider benefits in tackling poverty. As we know, it removes some of the barriers to help parents, particularly mothers, to return to work.

We know that a lack of childcare is one of the most frequently cited barriers to women’s employment, resulting in lower economic participation and curtailing women’s career options. In Wales, 86 per cent of single parents are mothers, and 63 per cent of mothers in two-parent households are solely or mainly responsible for childcare, compared with just 17 per cent of fathers. That is why this is crucial in terms of striving for a gender-equal Wales. That’s why, as you referenced, free childcare from 12 months, starting with implementation for two-year-olds in this first term—that’s why it was a key pledge for Plaid Cymru in the Senedd 2021 election, and that’s why it features in the co-operation agreement between our two parties.

As we know, the sector faces a very difficult period. Through COVID, childcare providers stepped up to the national emergency and turned themselves into childcare hubs for our key workers, meaning that nurses, doctors and teachers could continue to work. The sector now needs as much help and support as possible, as we face the cost-of-living emergency, so that their essential services remain available.

Access to free childcare is also strongly limited by serious gaps in provision across Wales. The Family and Childcare Trust childcare survey in 2022 showed that childcare sufficiency has decreased since 2021 for all categories in Wales, except after-school care for 12 to 14-year-olds. Less than a third of local authorities, 29 per cent, have enough childcare for the 30 hours of free early education entitlement under the childcare offer. There are significant shortages for disabled children and parents working atypical hours, with no local authorities reporting that there is childcare under these in all areas of their authority.

But, as you have also recognised, there is a huge opportunity and need to ensure that childcare through the medium of Welsh is provided across Wales. Childcare sits within the wider area of early education and care, and it is through early years services and childcare settings that thousands of children and families all over Wales gain their first experiences of the Welsh language and Welsh-medium education.

I would like to ask specifically today, just to follow up on some of the points there—. I was pleased to see the Deputy Minister reference digital exclusion and acknowledge some of the challenges there, because we are seeing more and more people choosing not to renew broadband, for instance, in their homes, as part of cost-of-living measures. In some areas, and that includes areas that are only a few miles from Cardiff, it can mean that you have a lack of access to a strong signal to be able to access digital services. So, I think that there is something in that.

Obviously, the opening hours of things like public libraries aren’t always flexible, because, often, parents might look at these options in the evenings or at the weekends. Some libraries are open on a Saturday, but not all. So, I would ask: how are we able to ensure that digital exclusion won’t be a barrier for many people who are struggling at present? I think that there are many things to welcome here, but I do worry in terms of those who can use the technology—it's not a matter of not being able to use it—but can't access it because of the cost-of-living crisis currently.

Also, can the Deputy Minister advise what steps the Welsh Government is taking to address the serious gaps in childcare provision, including provisions for disabled children, and, as mentioned, parents working atypical hours, and I think the points raised by the Member previously in terms of people living in rural areas, where access or transport can be a barrier to accessing childcare? So, how do we ensure that everybody who needs it is able to access it, when and where they need it?

And finally, if I may ask, in terms of the national digital service, I note that there was an evaluation undertaken and trials, and you've referenced this in terms of positive feedback. Can you please inform us where this is available in the public domain, because I haven't been able to find it, so that we understand from the evaluation and feedback from the trials perhaps some of the challenges that need to be overcome? Thank you.

15:35

Thank you very much, Heledd, for your warm welcome for these steps forward. I was interested to hear about the experience of people who were in education and weren't able to access the childcare offer, because I've had the same experience in my own constituency work, and I think it will make a significant difference to people who need to access that. I'm also very pleased that Heledd mentioned the wider benefits of tackling poverty and how absolutely crucial providing free, accessible childcare is for progress. And obviously, we are only a step on the way—I absolutely acknowledge that, that there is a long way to go—but I'm very pleased to be working with the designated Member to ensure that we do spread childcare as far as possible.

So, there are shortages. I absolutely accept that there are shortages in the system and I'm very pleased that we've been able to give support for developing Welsh-medium education, because I think that's absolutely crucial. I think, if we can get that embedded in the early stages, when children first start to attend anywhere—the one and two-year-olds—then I think we will be really moving ahead in terms of the Welsh language. So, it's really great that we have got this opportunity and, of course, we're being helped by Cwlwm to take this forward.

On disabled children, I know the childcare offer does take account of the needs of children and families with disabilities. And I believe there is extra help, actually, put in financially for that reason.

The points that you've echoed in terms of some of the things that Gareth said, about digital exclusion, that has absolutely been recognised in these proposals. And as I said, it will be possible for people to be helped to do it in terms of telephones and face-to-face contact—that has been specifically included. And of course, this won't be something that people will have to be doing all the time. Hopefully, they'll get it all set up and it won't be necessary for the parents, in particular, to be using this the whole time, but it will be necessary for the providers to be using it constantly, because they'll be claiming for the money, so it's really important that the providers are able to access it easily.

There was an evaluation, and this was done—. There was a group who prepared for the bringing in of the digital service, and the group included parents, providers, and it was very co-produced, and I'll have to get to you where you can actually access that.

Thank you very much for your report. I think one of the important things that you highlighted is that almost one in 10 parents accessing the childcare offer said that they wouldn't be able to work if it wasn't for the offer. And that's absolutely correct, because childcare is just far too expensive compared with the wages that most people can command. This is very much a work in progress for all of us, but I fully acknowledge the dedication and the passion that you put into this task, and we have to keep going.

One of the things I'd like to ask, which I wondered if you'd discuss with your colleagues, is that in the NHS the biggest challenge that they have is filling vacancies. One of the reasons that they can't fill the vacancies is because of the lack of childcare. Nurses, in particular, would struggle to work if they didn't have childcare. I just wondered if there's any consideration by the Government of thinking of offering free childcare to anybody who's working in the national health service.

Secondly, I just want to highlight the issue of accessibility. I agree with Gareth on some things, on the importance of ensuring that information is available in person as well as digitally, but it has to be accurate information. I was recalling the recommendation that the Equality and Social Justice Committee made around this issue earlier this year on the need to develop a one-stop-shop information service, so that parents could search whatever is available, depending on where they live. You referred us to the family information service, and for Cardiff that's provided by Cardiff Family Advice and Support—

15:40

So, I tried searching for care for two-year-olds from the place where I used to live in Llanedeyrn. Nothing came up within a mile. I then searched for support for childcare for a Llanedeyrn post code that's in the Flying Start area, and once again I was disturbed that nothing flashed up within a mile. That is not accurate. And, if it's not accurate, then it's extremely difficult for people who may not be in the Flying Start area, who therefore won't get that additional support from health visitors, to know where to go, particularly if it's their first child and they don't have those networks.

Thanks very much, Jenny, for those very important points. I think all the evaluation has shown that the childcare offer has really helped parents to get back to work, and it is parents who generally are on average or low earnings, because they would not have been able to afford the cost of childcare if they had to pay out of their own pockets. So, I think it has been very successful in reaching the people that we intended it to reach. The childcare offer is offered to everybody who fulfills the criteria of working the number of hours. So, there hasn't been any special provision for the NHS, but the extension to education and training that is now happening does mean that student healthcare workers will be able to access it, which they weren't able to do before. So, I think that is bound to help the problem in the health service. Then, you also raised the issue about the digital stuff, and obviously I think the same response, that we are providing help personally on the telephone to people who do have problems about digital access. The last point, the family information service, that is supposed to hold all the information, so I think it is something that should be followed up about why that wasn't there, and that's something I can do with my colleagues. Thank you.

5. Statement by the Minister for Economy: Qatar World Cup Engagement

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. On 27 September, I delivered a statement outlining our planned activities to promote Wales during the FIFA men's world cup in Qatar. With the tournament now just days away, I am pleased to present a further statement setting out the latest on our approach. As discussed previously, we have four key objectives for this world cup. These are: to promote Wales; to project our values; to ensure the safety of Welsh citizens; and, to secure a positive legacy from our participation.

At this world cup, when people see Wales, they will see our values. The Welsh Government believes in fair work, women’s rights, human rights, and that all of us should be free to live as our true authentic selves. Our values form a defining element of the nation that we are proud to promote.  Our vibrancy, diversity and spirit are inextricably linked to campaigns for the advancement of hard-won rights at home and abroad. For many, the unique Welsh contribution is synonymous with collectivism and solidarity, and these principles will fuel our presence at the world cup. 

Along with other progressive nations with teams in this tournament we have raised serious concerns about workers’ rights and LGBTQ+ rights in Qatar. The First Minister raised these matters directly with the Qatari ambassador to the UK. I have since written to the Qatari ambassador to the UK condemning the homophobic comments made by a Qatari world cup ambassador. Ministers continue to meet with stakeholders, including the international TUC and the Rainbow Wall fans group, to engage on these critical issues. We recognise the significance of these issues and that some fans will choose not to travel as a result. Our decisions do not in any way seek to minimise the injustices in question, and we will work to ensure that our presence leaves a positive impact.

With enormous audiences expected for the USA and England fixtures, we have an opportunity to project the values that we as a Government have been consistent on. We support the team’s commitment to wear the 'One Love' rainbow armband and commend the decision taken by those in the Wales camp to speak out on these issues in recent weeks. We are proud of the stance taken by the team. Wales is fortunate to be represented by this special group of players under Rob Page’s leadership. The FAW, players and fans are rightly looking to the Welsh Government for advice, support and leadership on these matters. We are working closely with them to help ensure that we deliver a distinctive and progressive Welsh presence at the tournament.

As we face our neighbours and sporting rivals England in the group stage, we also have a rare opportunity before a truly global audience to demonstrate clearly that Wales is a distinct nation within the UK. Earlier today, I was joined by members of Cardiff-based group Hoops and Loops while attending the final pre-world cup training session at the Cardiff City Stadium. This is an LGBTQ+ refugee and asylum seeker support group for people who have come to Wales to escape domestic violence, persecution and even the threat of death. Wales’s status as a nation of sanctuary matters. It is a core part of the values we choose to stand for. I am delighted that those who are building a new life here were able to join us as we mark this major moment in Welsh sporting history.

It is vital that the global game learns lessons from this tournament and does so urgently. With an audience of 5 billion people, we know that many of those watching the world cup will know very little, if anything, of Wales. As we introduce Wales to new audiences across the globe, we will promote an open, progressive nation and maximise opportunities to celebrate our values. Our programme of activity is now truly well under way. From Tylorstown Welfare Hall in the Rhondda Fach, Robert Page revealed his 26-player world cup squad to be led by our talisman and captain, Gareth Bale. We are in no doubt that they will give everything for the shirt and for generations of fans who thought these days may never come again. 

I am pleased to confirm four fresh additions to Tîm Cymru 22, with our new group of Welsh ambassadors. The ambassadors, under the banner of Lleisiau Cymru, are made up of a diverse mix of our voices that will promote the very best of Wales to the world. We are incredibly fortunate to have recruited Olympian, world champion and world record holder Colin Jackson, former Wales captain turned professor Laura McAllister, DJ and presenter Katie Owen, and the renowned chef Bryn Williams. As part of the wider Team Wales 22 approach, FAW ambassadors and Wales footballing legends Jess Fishlock and Ian Rush will also support our programme activities.

I have previously updated Members on the partner support fund, confirming the 19 successful projects. The work is supporting Gŵyl Cymru, a range of over 200 events celebrating arts and sport. S4C has organised a concert to take Wales to the world in New York, which took place last night and will be broadcast this weekend. The Urdd have delivered their biggest singing jamboree ever across schools, involving more than 230,000 children, and StreetGames Wales have reached out to our least well-off communities, delivering doorstep sports sites across 36 communities in Wales. This is just a snapshot of the activity that is already under way.

We're also implementing our enhanced marketing campaign, focused on target markets including the USA, key European audiences and the UK across brand, business and tourism, as well as a strong in-Wales campaign. Our activities will include a core digital marketing strand focused on tourism, as well as trade and investment markets. We are delivering activities across the world, working with Tîm Cymru 22 and through our overseas offices. We will be launching a Wales-specific art installation at the Corniche in Doha to promote Wales at the tournament. There will be Welsh content in the UK GREAT garden pavilion and festival, and a Welsh-themed reception on 21 November hosted by the British ambassador to Qatar with the First Minister as the chief guest. In the US, we are supporting a Soccer in the Circle event in Washington, a cultural stakeholder event in New York, an e-gaming event in Atlanta, and business events in Chicago and Los Angeles. 

To support our objective to promote a progressive Wales, the First Minister will attend Wales’s first group game for 64 years against the USA, and I will attend the England game. These represent the most significant opportunities for us to raise the profile of Wales, and make connections where we can share our interests and values. Welsh Ministers will not be attending the Iran game and will be supporting Wales from home. To ensure the safety and security of Welsh citizens in Qatar, we have engaged with the UK Government and with a range of Government agencies, as well as UK police forces. Regular channels of contact have continued for updates on matters of security and safety with the Qatari supreme committee, which is the committee responsible for managing the event in the country. We have also been in regular contact with the UK embassy in Qatar and His Majesty’s ambassador in the Qatar office.

To ensure that we secure a positive and lasting legacy, we will evaluate these activities in supporting the world cup to learn lessons from these interventions for future sports diplomacy opportunities. We are also committed to our investment priorities in sporting facilities here in Wales, with a capital budget of £24 million over the next three years alongside our investment in schools facilities. Dirprwy Llywydd, the Welsh Government does not underestimate the seriousness of the issues that this tournament has raised for our citizens, sporting bodies and Governments everywhere. I am pleased that our plans reinforce the values that make Wales. I am sure you’ll all join with me in wishing Robert Page and the team all of the best in this world cup—pob lwc, Cymru.

15:50

Can I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon? The football world cup in Qatar does present us with an opportunity to showcase Wales on the international stage, and it's right that the Welsh Government is actively using the event to develop economic opportunities and to travel to the event itself. I'm also pleased to hear that the Welsh Government has raised serious concerns about workers' rights and LGBTQ+ rights with the Qatari ambassador to the UK, and that engagement is taking place with the international TUC and the Rainbow Wall fans group to engage on these very critical issues. 

The world cup provides an opportunity to promote our values. The Minister has made it clear that, to support Wales and engage in diplomacy, the First Minister will attend Wales's group game against the USA, and, indeed, the Minister will attend the England game. He also says that they will work to ensure their presence leaves a positive impact, and so in the interests of transparency, the Minister must publish the Welsh Government's spend on these trips, along with the itinerary of meetings and events that he and the First Minister will be attending. Perhaps the Minister will agree to publish the full details and costings of these trips so that we can assess whether they have delivered their intended outcomes and provided value for money for the taxpayer. 

Only last week, the Welsh Government explained that it wasn't attending COP27 because it wanted to limit its air miles, yet it seems to have no problem justifying these particular trips. So, I hope the Minister can understand the confusion over the Welsh Government's thinking here, as there will be many, many people who will want to understand why this engagement is rightly appropriate but attendance at COP27 wasn't. I hope the Minister will clarify for the record exactly what criteria the Qatar trips have met that COP27 perhaps didn't meet. 

Today's statement refers to the enhanced marketing campaign that the Welsh Government has launched in relation to the world cup, which includes a focus on targeting markets in Wales, the USA and the UK, and provides us with more details on some of the projects and activity that is taking place. The statement specifically referred to the Welsh Government's core digital marketing strand, which will focus on tourism as well as trade and investment markets. I'd be grateful if he could tell us a bit more about the digital marketing campaigns that will be taking place. Today's statement also refers to Gŵyl Cymru and the range of events taking place that celebrate our culture, arts and language. It's vital that we build off this activity for the future. Therefore, perhaps the Minister could tell us a bit more about the discussions that he's having with organisations like Amgueddfa Cymru, the mentrau iaith and the Urdd to maximise the benefits that the world cup offers Wales.

Today's statement confirms some new additions to the team of Welsh ambassadors who will be supporting the Welsh Government's programme of events. It's great to see a real mix of voices to help promote Wales to the world during the world cup. Perhaps he could tell us what specific activity the ambassadors will be doing during the world cup and how he'll be measuring the success of Lleisiau Cymru more generally. Of course, it's right that the Welsh Government is seeking to create a positive and lasting legacy from the world cup, as it should from all major events. It's crucial that the Welsh Government doesn't embark on this agenda without significant engagement with the Football Association of Wales, Sport Wales and, indeed, other stakeholders. So, I'd be grateful if the Minister could update us on the latest discussions that he's had with stakeholders about creating a lasting legacy from the world cup once the tournament has concluded.

Today's statement refers to sport diplomacy opportunities, and the Minister will no doubt be aware of Professor Laura McAllister's report on developing a Welsh sports diplomacy strategy. That report rightly recognises that, currently, any benefits to Welsh society or economy are ad hoc rather than part of a long-term strategy and allied to Welsh or wider British policy objectives. It also noted that more needs to be done to digitally map, measure and evaluate sport and its contribution to the Welsh economy at home and abroad. Therefore, perhaps the Minister could tell us whether the Welsh Government is considering a sports diplomacy strategy. Also, can he tell us what work is being done to better quantify the contribution of sport to the Welsh economy?

Finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, it's vital that the Welsh Government learns from best practice in this area. We can certainly learn a lot from other Governments across the world. The Australian Government has done some significant work on how sport can help deliver its foreign policy goals. So, perhaps there's room here to commission work on how other Governments have approached this, so we can learn from best practice. I'd be grateful if the Minister would consider commissioning a paper on this matter. The Qatar world cup does offer significant economic opportunities and could be a way to open the door to further trade links with other countries, but we need to consider the whole picture of how sport can be an economic asset. So, I look forward to learning more about the specific initiatives that the Welsh Government is investing in and how they can deliver positive returns for the Welsh economy. Therefore, on that note, Dirprwy Lywydd, on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives, can I also say a huge 'pob lwc' to Rob Page and the team?

15:55

Thank you for the comments and a series of questions. I'll try to do as many of them as promptly as I can, seeing the Dirprwy Lywydd's beady eyes looking at me.

In terms of the spend of the trips and the details, we regularly publish, with every overseas visit that Ministers undertake, a written statement outlining the programme of activities and who has attended. We always publish the details of cost. That comes out in a range of forms. So, the cost won't be hidden. And in terms of the difference Ministers make, it's part of what we're doing in being proportionate. There are choices that lead Ministers make about whether they think that an overseas visit will make sense, and then the First Minister will need to sign off that he agrees that is a good use of time and resource. We made the choice that Ministers attending the two biggest games in the group stage is a good use of Ministers' time. That goes into your point about what our ambassadors will be doing when it comes to the operation of Lleisiau Cymru and how Ministers will add to that.

I think it's hard to understate the extraordinary level of media attention there will be in Qatar for teams that are there. They will have a multiplicity of voices with different issues to want to talk about and highlight. And of course, sports diplomacy and the interests of the wider sporting world—not just football but a range of others—will be important to us. Ministers will get access to different opportunities to meet people in different Governments and different stakeholders that not everyone else will be able to do. That, I think, makes a difference. And that does underscore why the choices were made by the Government to attend two of the group games. We'll have, I hope, a positive problem to address after the group stage, if Wales are into the knockouts. I'd much rather be talking about our continued success in the tournament.

When it comes, again, to the partner support fund itself, we are, of course, as indeed are our partners, going to maximise the impact of that spend, not just to demonstrate that the money has been spent in accordance with the projects, but then to understand the impact of that. I fully expect, not just in terms of the returns that we will want to see from the Government point of view, but Members have an entirely reasonable and legitimate interest in understanding what that impact has been at various points in time, because, for some of these, there will be an immediate impact in terms of the activity that's been building some of the excitement. For example, the Urdd jamboree is not something I think you'll say, 'Well, what will be the impact of that in six months' time?' but it is an important part of the sense of togetherness in a global event that none of us have experienced in our lifetime—looking around the room—and that any of us can recall.

The broader point, then, though, that, in some areas, you'll need to look at a longer time frame to see the impact of all the spend and the decisions that are made, and the Member will understand this too. That also goes to some of the points about digital marketing. We did offer a briefing for subject committees, but I appreciate that there's not always a lot of time available. We're more than happy to make sure that we share the marketing that is going out so that you can see some of the examples of what's being put out into different parts of the world. As well, of course, I hope that Members got to see 'This is Wales' online—the 'This is Wales' account on social media and some of the 'Welcome to Wales' content that's going out. Having seen some of the efforts that other countries are putting out, I think ours stands up very well in being a really positive window into Wales, as it should be.

When it comes to our ambassadors, in particular we're interested in the footballing world, the business world, food and drink, and it's really helpful that Bryn Williams, the renowned chef, is there—big opportunities in the region and wider. And, of course, the culture squad that we had, and Mace the Great, who, I should point out, Dirprwy Lywydd, to declare an interest, is a Splott boy, but they're not all constituents of mine. But, we've got a range of people who are on the cusp, I think, of real, international significance, and, again, showing the variety of our offer here in Wales, and some of it we could only do by being in the country as well as our activity elsewhere. Of course, there will also be some interesting conversations, I'm sure, around UEFA 2028, where there's been a previous public statement on the fact that there is a potential joint bid between all of the UK nations and the Republic of Ireland as potential hosts for that tournament.

When it comes to sport and promoting sport as an economic asset, we'll continue to consider the future of sporting events and whether we need a specific strategy as distinct from our major events strategy, which we're just in the process of recommissioning, a future approach, and the Member has spoken about that previously. We've launched our events strategy for the future as well, and I want to make sure that we're doing things that are consistent whilst learning from the opportunities of this significant event in front of 5 billion people. 

16:00

Thank you, Minister, for your statement.

I do not, in any way, want to distract from the opportunities presented by Wales qualifying for the world cup; it is a fantastic showcase—it's the biggest showcase we've ever had, and I think it's right that we are investing in this. I do, however, want to put on record that I do not believe that the world cup should be taking place in Qatar. I absolutely disagree with that decision. I was distressed but not surprised to hear Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, saying in a recent interview that Qatar is a mistake, the choice was bad. He also acknowledged that human rights weren't a part of the decision making. And, I think, the more that comes out, increasingly so, it does make me question why Welsh Government is now attending, with more and more people admitting that these things were not taken into consideration.

I also want to remind people why these are not just concerns, but the facts behind these. So, as we know, migrant workers' rights, in 2021, The Guardian published an article, and an analysis found that 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar since the right to host the world cup was awarded. The total death toll is likely to be significantly higher, as these figures don't include the deaths from a number of countries that send a large number of workers to Qatar, including the Philippines and Kenya, nor are deaths from the end of 2020 onwards included. Can we just take a moment to reflect on that? 

Further, homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, and officials continue to demand that visitors respect local customs and avoid public displays of affection. In an interview with Sky News, Qatar's minister of foreign affairs reiterated demands—demands—for visitors 'to respect our laws'. Asked what would happen if two men kiss or hold hands in the street, he said:

'The law actually doesn't allow a public display of affection, whether it's a man and a man, or a man and a woman. That's our law.'

And the UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, who will also be at the tournament, has been criticised after he said that LGBT fans who go to Qatar, where same-sex activity is illegal, should show a little bit of 'flex and compromise'. Can we also take a moment to reflect on that?

I must admit that the more that comes out, the more uncomfortable, as I said, I am that we will be there, attending. Obviously, I'm incredibly proud that Team Cymru will be there. I think that they are to be commended for taking that strong stance, and I'm proud that they will be wearing the 'One Love' armband. I'm proud of our players and Rob Page's stance, and that should be acknowledged. But let's remind ourselves also that FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, recently asked world cup teams to avoid discussions concerning human rights issues in Qatar ahead of the tournament by writing to association leaders of the 32 competing nations last week, urging them not to,

'allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists'.

Shocking. So, my question to you, Minister, you have said that the First Minister has raised concerns with the Qatar ambassador, and that you have written a letter concerning the homophobic comments and condemning them, but what response did you receive, and what response did the First Minister receive? It's one thing raising those concerns, but, by taking this stance, what will actually change in Qatar for LGBTQ+ people and migrant workers by the presence of Welsh Government there? What will actually change and what will be the legacy, not just in terms of economic value in terms of the Wales brand, but for those people who are affected and are being persecuted or are dying because of what is happening in Qatar?

I would also like to ask: why are we sending two men to represent Welsh Government? If you are going, why are we not sending a female representative from Welsh Government, as was originally planned? What message does this send to women's rights as well, which is also something that is a concern in Qatar? What message does it send that we are sending two men to represent our Welsh Government, if you are going?

I would also like to echo Paul Davies's point, in terms of COP27. I think it is a fair point to raise, in a climate emergency where we are saying, 'this is a priority', that we are prioritising attending two football matches to attending COP27. That is a question that needs to be addressed, and I would like clarity on that.

And, finally, may I ask what assurances you can give that our supporters will be safe in Qatar? And if you can't give them, what is your advice to any LGBTQ+ supporters who are due to go, but are concerned about their safety at this point in time? I think with more and more things in the press, saying that people have to respect customs, people are getting increasingly concerned, and they are due in Qatar imminently.

Similarly to Paul Davies, I think we need to know what measures are in place in terms of the investment, what the objectives are, what does success look like, and I would like to see that published as soon as possible so that we can see how that investment will change. But the most important thing is: how will this change things for people in Qatar? What will be that legacy?

16:05

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Thank you for the series of questions. Look, we have always acknowledged that the decision to host the tournament in any county is FIFA's. I don't think Sepp Blatter's recent interventions have been helpful, nor do I believe that they were designed to be helpful. There's a broader point that there are politics in every organisation, and there certainly are plenty of politics within FIFA.

When it comes to where the tournament now is, our choice is: now that we've qualified as of right, what is our choice in how we support our team, and what does that mean for the Welsh Government and Welsh Ministers? And that's what I've set out. It's what I set out in August, and then in the statement in the Senedd on 27 September, and what I'm reiterating again today in our regular engagement.

On LGBTQ+ rights, I think we've been clear about the fact that we, of course, have a difference, not just in our laws, but in our values, and that's part of our engagement with different parts of the world. And the First Minister set out the specific statement on engaging with countries where we don't share values. The challenge always is whether you engage or not, and if you engage, how you go about engaging in a way that is positive about who we are in this country, and to be proud of that.

It is a matter of coincidence as opposed to deliberate choice to have chosen all of the ambassadors that we have by, if you like, the fact that one of them is black, the fact that we've got two women, the fact that two of them are out. That's simply because they offer lots and lots: Laura McAllister in the world of sports diplomacy, she's really engaged in this world—you'll know this as well—across men's and women's football; Colin Jackson, with a huge international following, and he'll be able to bring lots with him; Bryn Williams, what he'll bring, a renowned chef, and food and drink is a real opportunity within that region but broadly across the world; and Katie Owen from Merthyr is someone who has got a significant appeal to a much younger audience—I'm afraid much younger than myself, typically, I must acknowledge that those days of me being young are long gone. But we're deliberately choosing people we think who can add to Wales and that goes alongside the FAW ambassadors as well. Ian Rush and Jess Fishlock are people who football fans around the world will recognise, and especially Jess Fishlock, being last year's most valuable player in women's football in the United States. Both Jess Fishlock and Laura McAllister have been very clear about their views and values, and I don't expect them to stop. We've chosen people who will add to Wales's brand and what we're going to be able to do on a global stage, and we'll be proud of each and every one of those, as well as the team.

When it comes to the assurances that we've been given, we've had the same message, actually, about public displays of affection between any couple, and when I visited Qatar previously, they were very clear that public displays of affection don't take place between men and women. That isn't their expectation. The challenge, though, is that the assurances that we've sought and have been given about the safety of our fans, and the very clear messaging from the people running the tournament, is that everyone is welcome. That's why I was appalled—. Well, regardless of that, I was appalled anyway by the comments of the football ambassador. It's why I condemned them immediately upon hearing them. It's why I've written to the UK's Qatari ambassador, because again, when the First Minister met him, he was given assurances that everyone is welcome. I haven't received a response. It's not unusual not to receive a response within a week. But part of the point is setting out very clearly our own expectations and the fact that we expect our fans to be able to be their true authentic selves, but understanding that some people will choose not to go there. And it's reasonable for people to say that they won't go there.

We're not in a position where we're saying that the Welsh Government's view is the only correct and acceptable view; different people will make different choices, and we need to respect their right to do so. When it comes to how people are treated, we want to see the assurances met and lived up to. It's why we've engaged with not just UK police forces but with the British embassy team in Qatar, both in my earlier visit and since then as well, and it's why the UK embassy is expecting to have more resources available to it; with English and Welsh fans appearing in the country and the wider region, they can expect to have more requests for consular assistance than they would normally expect at this time of year. So, it's a significant undertaking, and we'll carry on the engagement that we do have, and it's one of our key objectives to make sure that our fans are safe.

When it comes to future interest in the region, part of the reason we're engaging now is because we want to be ourselves, we want people to see Wales as it is today, and it's part of what we think we can do to help to change other parts of the world. We will also, though, want to maintain an interest in the future of the country and the wider region. And on workers' rights, Qatar has made more progress than other countries in the region. They've got an office of the International Labour Organization in Qatar; other countries in the region don't have that. When the First Minister met the international Trades Union Congress with the TUC—it was a meeting on our initiative and we asked for the meeting—they gave us an update on the position. They have made changes to employment law. Some of the cultural changes in how people treat workers will take more time, as it does in this country when we change employment rights. It often takes people time to catch up. But they say, the international TUC say that they are seeing progress in Qatar that they want to be recognised, but they want it to be built on. No-one, I think, is suggesting that the position on workers' rights today is as we would wish it to be in that country or that region forever. So, it's about maintaining our interest and amplifying the voice of organised labour within that country in any event. And again, that is part of what we will do.

When it comes, of course, to what we do ourselves, the FAW have been very clear: they want us to be on the journey with them. They want us to attend to support them in the country in the fixtures, and it was a real pleasure to be able to attend the final public training session of the squad today and be part of the send-off. But we also need to recognise that, as a distinct nation within the UK, it isn't just about whether Welsh Ministers are there, it is the reality that, if we are not there, there will be Government representation; it will simply be that the UK Government will be there in the region on our behalf and they would be taking all of the Government-directed engagements and interviews instead of the Welsh Government. I don't think that's the right balance; I think we should be there. We should be proud of the team and supporting them and engaging in the way that we said we would do. 

I'm proud of the fact that not only our football association but the other UEFA FAs, the 10 of them, responded to the FIFA letter, which I thought was poorly judged and provocative, and it got the response it deserved from UEFA nations. All of them are going to wear the 'One Love' armband, because it's a choice not for their associations but of the teams. And again that speaks to values that nations have been raising before the tournament and will carry on doing so during it. Our job is to give the players a platform to succeed, for them to raise issues as they have done already, and for the Government to support them and make clear that, actually, it's not their job to be politicians in all of this and there is a role for us in the Government. And look, I know the last time we had this conversation, on 27 September, you said you wished you could go on the plane with us to Qatar. There will be a conversation about what we all want to be able to do in supporting the team and how we do that, whether we're in Qatar or not, and wanting to see a legacy on the pitch and off it, in Wales, around the world and, of course, in the region.

16:15

Good afternoon again, Minister. I want to put on record my support to the Welsh team. I hope they come back with the world cup. Wouldn't that just be amazing? I hope we would see them first here in the Senedd. But you will know that the Welsh Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Democrats across the UK condemn Ministers going from Wales to the Qatari world cup, and I hope maybe Plaid Cymru would join us in that position as well. 

I have three questions for you in the time that I've got. One is being repeated for the third time, and I appreciate you've got lots of questions, but why is it that the Welsh Government did not go to COP27 on the basis that you were going to be expending air miles, and yet many people in this team are going off to Qatar? The climate emergency is our biggest threat, and also potentially our biggest economic opportunity as well. The second question: why is it that you made a decision not to attend the Iran game based on human rights, and still you're going to Qatar, which as you've heard outlined has one of the worst human rights records in relation to women, gay people and workers from other countries? And I understand you do want to raise Welsh values, but you've got an office in Qatar, you've had an office in Qatar for a number of years, and I understand you're going to continue with that. It does not require Welsh Ministers to go, and I urge you to reconsider that decision. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

I recognise the position that the Welsh Liberal Democrats have taken. As I say, it's entirely legitimate for people to have different views as to whether Welsh Ministers should be there or not. We are, after all, fortunate to live in a functioning democracy, where people do have different views, and we're here to discuss and debate them. When it comes to Iran, the choice was made about whether it was proportionate for Welsh Ministers to attend the Iran game. The two big opportunities to promote Wales on a global stage are the USA game, and the USA is one of our key markets where we're looking to expand and undertake more activity. I'll be in the US at the time of the US-Wales game, with a series of engagements in the media and meeting business development and investment opportunities. It's a really significant opportunity. And also, our First Minister, whoever it is after the men's team qualify again for the first time in 64 years—I do think it's right that our First Minister is there for our first game in this tournament. It is the biggest event in the world—bigger than the Olympics. And I think it matters that we are there represented by the First Minister of the Welsh Government, which of course didn't exist 64 years ago. 

When it comes to the proportionality of us attending, that's the choice that we've made about where we think we can derive the greatest benefit from our presence. And of course the game against England, I think, is a good one for us, not only because I'm positive about the results, potentially, on the pitch, but, if you think about the way that lots of the parts of the world actually see Britain, they often see the UK, Britain and England as being synonymous with each other, one and the same. Having a game against England in the biggest global event I think is a really positive way to highlight that Wales and England are distinct parts of the UK, and Welsh Ministers will have the opportunity to highlight that in our engagements in the region and indeed globally around the world. It's part of the reason our marketing campaign is important to set out who Wales is, where we are, and what the opportunities are to visit and, indeed, of course, to invest in the future of our country.

There's a point about what's proportionate and the balance in doing different things, but it also comes back to the point about COP27: what would we have achieved by Ministers going to that after the conference that took place here in Glasgow? And the balance is about the use of ministerial time and what we think we gain. We do think we'll gain from having Ministers at those two games, and indeed the other activity we're sponsoring. And part of the point of having an office there: having an office staffed by Welsh Government employees is not the same as having ministerial presence. When I went to Qatar myself, and previously when I went to the United Arab Emirates, there were a range of engagements we only secured because of ministerial presence, and it is the reality that it helps open more doors and to gain more conversation, and it says something about the seriousness with which you take the engagement and the response you get back from people. That isn't just business development; that is also the point about raising our issues, about living our values and the statements that we make. Having our office say, 'This is who Wales is', is not the same as having the First Minister or a different Cabinet Minister in the Government of that country making those statements, whether in Qatar or in the wider world. So, I do think that, with respect, there are good reasons for us doing so, as we are, but I accept that others are perfectly entitled to have an alternative point of view.

16:20

Minister, as well as promoting Wales on a world stage—which of course is essential, and which we fully support—it is imperative that we also capitalise on the new engagement and enthusiasm and take-up at home, to ensure the positive, long-lasting legacy that you talk about in the opening of your statement and of course we all want to see. Ideally, we'd already have the sporting facilities in place right across Wales to truly capitalise on what I'm sure will be increased take-up during and after the world cup. Minister, do you agree that we need to build on our sporting success? Sadly—. I'm sorry. Sadly, the success of this Welsh national team is in spite of this Welsh Government's lack of investment into sporting facilities over the past two decades, and not because of. Do you agree with me that we need to build on our sporting success, capitalise on this new-found enthusiasm that we're seeing and will see, and do you recognise the need to go far beyond what you've committed to grass-roots sporting facilities in Wales, to at least be in line with that of Ireland, England and Scotland and what they invest into their sporting facilities and finding future stars in their countries? And as chair of the cross-party group on sport, I hope, Minister, that you will consider attending the cross-party group on sport's world cup special, being hosted next month with the FAW, BBC and ITV, so that we can all come together and discuss how best we capitalise on this remarkable occasion. Pob lwc, Cymru.

I'll deal with the pointed questions, then I'll deal with the more unifying finish. Look, as Laura Anne Jones knows very well, we've committed in the capital budget to significant investment in improving sporting facilities. The programme of investment in twenty-first century schools—we've made sure that we deliver facilities that aren't just right for schools, but also for community use as well. We work alongside local authorities in doing so and are proud to do so. But, as the Member knows, our ability to invest more capital is linked to the capital available to the Welsh Government, and we've seen a funding cut in capital in the last spending review period. We've had a decade of austerity, and the Member can't turn up here, having been a long-term supporter of austerity and the cuts that were made, and then demand that more money is spent despite the real-terms funding cuts that we have received. If you want to invest more money in sporting facilities, then you need to try to tell us where that money comes from, rather than trying to magic it out of the air. I thought it was a disappointing party political shot that bears no relationship to reality, and I thought some humility from Conservatives after the disastrous interim reign of Truss and Kwarteng might be more appropriate.

When it comes to your final point, if I'm available, I'd be very happy to join Members to look at the wider legacy of the world cup, and, indeed, all of us, I think, can all agree: pob lwc, Cymru, Robert Page, and the whole team.

Yes, indeed. Pob lwc, Cymru. And that concludes that statement. Thank you to the Minister.

6. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: Water Quality

The next item is the statement by the Minister for Climate Change on water quality. The Minister—Julie James.

Diolch, Llywydd. Water is one of our greatest natural assets and an integral part of Wales’s culture, heritage and national identity. However, our water sector is facing immediate and unprecedented challenges.

Over the next 20 years, Wales faces wetter winters, hotter, drier summers, rising sea levels, and more frequent and intense extreme weather events. The need to achieve decarbonisation, climate resilience, reverse the decline in biodiversity and improve our water quality will require innovative solutions, behaviour change, and long-term investment in our water infrastructure.

The onus is on all of us to act. A team Wales approach is required to deliver at scale and pace to realise our ambitions for nature and the climate, and we must each understand our role for delivery. A thriving water environment is essential for supporting healthy communities, flourishing businesses and biodiversity. To enable this, we need to reduce the pressure on our water environment, for example, the nutrient pollution. Currently over 60 per cent of our most precious rivers are failing phosphate targets. While this is having a direct impact on wildlife and habitat, this is also constraining our ability to build the low-carbon homes our communities need at the pace required.

In July last year, the First Minister convened a summit where organisations pledged to work together to develop solutions to address phosphorus pollution. Since then, nutrient management boards have been established, for which we have been providing funding support of up to £415,000. A database of mitigation measures has been produced and is currently being considered by members of the special areas of conservation rivers oversight group. Carmarthenshire County Council have developed a nutrient calculator. We will work with Carmarthenshire, Natural Resources Wales and other local authorities to develop a national nutrient calculator that can be adapted for use across Wales. A task and finish group has been set up to consider the feasibility of short-term measures and will report back in spring 2023. A catchment consenting proposal has been developed and is being considered by Natural Resources Wales. A catchment market model project has been established and is working on a pilot trial in the Usk. And we have identified appropriate nature-based solutions and will begin to explore their suitability in specific catchments.

A follow-up summit will be hosted in February to drive progress, and we will publish an action plan to reduce nutrient concentrations and develop a suite of measures to enable sustainable development to meet the needs of the people and communities of Wales.

NRW undertake a multimillion-pound programme of capital works, funded by Welsh Government, to address the multiple challenges facing Welsh rivers, including impacts on water quality. The key pressures on the water environment come from physical modifications or man-made changes to the natural habitat; pollution from sewage and wastewater; pollution from towns, cities and transport; pollution from rural areas; and pollution from mines. The capital programme includes projects to address the decline in salmon and sea trout stocks, restore characteristic river habitat for multiple benefits, including water quality, plus contribute to the well-being of people. 

I am very keen to maximise investment and funding, and would encourage organisations to work together. Earlier this year, I published our strategic priorities and objectives statement to Ofwat, which provides the framework for water companies to support our strategic objectives. Focusing on the climate and nature emergencies, environmental improvements, resilience, asset health and customers and communities, it is essential that water company investment plays a part in driving down pollution.

There is no single measure that will solve this crisis and there is no quick fix. For example, tackling storm overflows is one of the many elements that need to be addressed if we are to improve river quality in Wales. The water companies have been working over several years to improve poorly performing assets. This includes improving monitoring to identify where further action is required and prioritising action to address environmental harm and impact.

Multimillion-pound investment will be required over the next few years to recognise our ambitions, and I am keen to ensure every penny of investment delivers for customers, communities and the environment whilst avoiding creating or exacerbating inequality. However, we all have our part to play. Flushing just a single wet wipe is enough to start a blockage and risks causing catastrophic flooding in homes, resulting in significant distress and cost. Every time we pave over a driveway or a garden, we are adding to the pressures on our drainage networks.

Our programme for government commits to improving water quality, which can only be done if we have full engagement and a team Wales approach, where Government, regulators and all relevant sectors work together over the immediate, intermediate and medium term to realise long-term results to improve water quality.

The number of people participating in water-related recreational activities such as open-water swimming has increased dramatically over the last couple of years. In Wales, the number of designated bathing waters has also increased, but I am keen to get people’s views on what more we can do to encourage this via an inland water swimmers survey and an inland water landowner survey in early 2023. We have identified five inland waters that we would like to use to pilot a new approach to bathing waters next year, and I look forward to seeing the outcomes of this work as we move towards designating inland waters.  

In May this year we commissioned an independent report to undertake a post-implementation review of the sustainable drainage systems regime in Wales. I am expecting this report in spring 2023 and will use this to identify policy options to ensure that SuDS schemes not only fulfil their role of slowing down the flow of surface water, but also provide wildlife habits. Increasing SuDS features across Wales will result in increased opportunities for wildlife, contributing to our biodiversity targets.

We are investing £3.1 million in our three-year—. Sorry, I'll put my teeth back in. We are investing £3.1 million in our three-year natural flood management pilot programme, which was designed to help us understand how natural flood management works and how we can best deliver these types of schemes. This programme contains 15 projects across Wales, which are expected to reduce flood risk to 800 properties on completion. The majority of these projects will also improve water quality.

I am also committed to marine habitat restoration in Wales. This is critical to ensuring the Welsh marine environment remains resilient for future generations. I support critical habitat restoration projects, such as the seagrass project in Wales, and welcome the continued dialogue with Welsh Government, which is crucial to interlace with the delivery of our programme for government commitment.

I've been really clear that we need to take an integrated catchment approach, focusing on multisector co-operation and nature-based solutions to drive water quality improvements. By taking this approach and improving community engagement, we will be better able to take account of local circumstances and priorities. Citizens and local groups can play a key role in helping to tackle water quality pollution through providing monitoring intelligence and public awareness.

I am keen to work with citizen scientists to understand how their work can support and inform a better understanding of the range of impacts on our water environment. All parties must work together and take this team Wales approach to tackle the multiple risks impacting our lakes, rivers and streams and deliver real improvements to the quality of our waterways. I urge all sectors and organisations to work together, to be transparent, open and adaptable, which is the response we need to truly tackle the water quality issues we face across Wales. Diolch.

16:30

Of course, we know and we opposed on these benches the Welsh Government introducing the—oh, thank you for your statement, by the way, Minister—the Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021. I believe that's a battle that we've lost, and I do feel sorry for those farmers. [Interruption.] Hold on. I feel sorry for those farmers who have no recorded incidents of agricultural pollution, because they do feel that they are being penalised.

Let me make it clear from these benches: we do not want to see pollution. I'm the shadow Minister for climate change and that includes the environment. And we all, as passionate Welsh Conservatives, believe that the pollution of our rivers, our watercourses, the sea and anything is unacceptable, and we've long called on these benches for you to take the water companies to task. But I have to also say that the points you've made about wet wipes and things like that—. I've been along many times when we've had lots of e-mails saying, 'There are hundreds of dead fish', so you go and—. Dŵr Cymru, to be fair, investigate, and it is just purely as a result, actually, in those instances—. All the pollution incidents in my constituency, since I've been here, have actually not been related to farming activities. Going back to that particular argument, it was never a given that £20 million would be enough.

I just have a question for you here. At a time when Jeremy Clarkson and, of course, my farmer in Llanfairfechan, Gareth Wyn Jones, are speaking out now, Minister, so eloquently on behalf of farmers, saying that they want these mountains of regulations that seek to micromanage every acre to be slashed, will you look, going forward, to see how you can work better with our farmers?

Now, of course, my colleague James Evans mentioned today about phosphates and the housing issue. You've made the argument to us: 'Look, you can't have it both ways. You can't say that you care about the environment and then agree to pollution.' We're not agreeing to pollution. What we are saying is that there are nearly 10,000 houses stuck in the planning system. Now, all I would say is, surely we don't want those high levels, but if those houses are not allowed to go ahead, put those developers out of their misery and say that they are never going to get planning. It's the fact that you have got gridlock in the planning system.

Sewage pollution is the top pollutant in Welsh bathing waters, according to Natural Resources Wales, and one thing that I wasn’t aware of until recently, when we have had some pollution incidents, is where members of the public, either through their developers or—. They do, if you like, illegal connections. I’m finding more and more of these cropping up, whereby the river Conwy is being polluted and then, when it’s traced back, it’s actually a private development or it’s housing somewhere, and the water companies can’t always identify it. So, what steps are you taking, Minister, to ensure that members of the public, when they are developing a property or redeveloping a property, know the dos and don’ts for tapping into the drainage system? Do you agree with me that we should be legislating now to ensure that water companies are not allowed to leave sewage discharge incidents unaddressed—some for several years?

You have claimed that it would cost £9 billion to £14 billion to remove combined storm overflows. There were 184 sewage pipes found to be operating without permits in Wales, reiterating what I have just said, with just one application for a permit made in Wales as of March 2022. Yet, in 2022, there were 3,299 discharge incidents from these pipes without permits, and that has increased by 43 per cent since 2020.

So, basically, what I am saying is that what’s happening now isn’t working. So, will you commit, Minister, to taking action on the rapid increase in discharge incidents, clamping down on those illegally discharging waste? And let’s have—. I don’t like the term 'holistic', but let’s have an all-encompassing, multifaceted approach, so that we stamp out, once and for all, the pollution to our waterways. Thank you.

16:35

Well, thanks, Janet. I mean, you know, once again, I’m afraid that I have to point out the contradiction in what you are saying. You don’t want pollution. You don’t want the agricultural pollution regulations. The idea that no agriculture in Wales causes pollution, that it’s all down to the water companies and the house builders is obviously nonsense.

Of course, what we want is exactly what I said in my statement, and what the First Minister emphasised in the summit at the Royal Welsh Show. Each sector needs to stop blaming the other sectors and look to put its own house in order. What we want is farmers who put the right nutrient in the right place at the right time, so that it doesn’t run off into the rivers. We need to help them do that. We need to help them do the soil testing on their land that makes them understand what nutrients are necessary. We also need to make sure that farmers are properly financed and, indeed, properly trained to understand what the difference is.

We see it all the time. I see it all the time, where I live. You see a farmer spreading muck near a river in the rain. Well, you can watch what happens when that happens. So, you know, that farmer isn’t wilfully trying to pollute that river, but they are using a practice that is bound to lead to that result. So, we need the agricultural pollution regulations in place because we need to get the farmers to understand what they are doing. It saves them money in the longer term. Nobody wants to put nutrients on the soil that are not necessary, and we need to protect the rivers from that.

Similarly, in terms of combined storm overflows, we have made it very plain indeed to Ofwat—and, indeed, to the UK Government—that in their instructions to Ofwat, and our instructions to Ofwat, they need to regulate the water companies, so that they are putting that investment in the right place. But we need the price mechanism to reflect that as well. These things are more complex than just telling people to do something. They need to have the investment strategies in place to be able to do that.

The other thing that we need to do is that we need people to step up to their own responsibility here. For a long time in Wales, you have needed planning consent to pave over your front garden, but most authorities don’t enforce that and most people don’t know that. When you pave over your front garden—Joyce is indeed in the Chamber now, and Joyce has championed this over a large number of years—people need to understand that that water is no longer just absorbed into the ground surrounding their house, but runs off into the gullies. Then, you have a huge problem with much, much bigger storm overflows that the water companies then have to deal with. So, again, we will have to step up to that. We have to make sure that we don’t add to that problem.

In terms of the house building that you mentioned, of course I’m not going to tell them that they can’t build those houses. What we’re going to do is what I set out in my statement: we’re reviewing the SuDS regime, we are reviewing what would need to be done if you wanted to build the houses alongside the SAC rivers that are in trouble, and we will announce what can be done to allow those houses to go ahead. I want them more than anyone else does in this Chamber, but I also want to make sure that the people who then live in those houses are not themselves polluting the river that, no doubt, they’d be very happy to live near, and that goes for all of our special areas.

As for illegal connections, one of the things that people can do is just make sure that their own house is not in fact illegally connected. I find it very difficult to believe that builders inadvertently and without realising it connect the house not to the sewer but to the local river. That is clearly a criminal offence. So, we will be working with NRW to be able to take better enforcement action against people who have done that. Unfortunately, a lot of these are historical, though. When I moved into my house, which is 30-something years ago now, that was badly connected. We’ve corrected it since. So, a lot of older houses are in that position, so we need people to actually be alert to that and be checking themselves what their household looks like.

And, yes, we all need to take some personal responsibility for what we flush down the loo. Lots of things that are in the films that we saw—I watched the George Monbiot one on the Usk recently; it’s enough to make you cry, if you haven’t seen it. But the stuff floating by are all things that should never have been put into the sewage in the first place. So, people need to be really careful about putting wet wipes and all kinds of other things down the loo. Dispose of them carefully in your waste and then we will deal with them appropriately and they will not cause pollution.

16:40

Thank you for the statement, Minister. Many of us were concerned and disgusted to hear earlier this year—and we’ve already heard the figures—how many instances of untreated sewage being dumped into Welsh watercourses there were. Now, as we’ve already heard, these numbers do not include the unpermitted storm overflows, or the overflows that are not monitored by water companies. So, do we know the genuine number of cases since those cases came to light? Do we know the scale of the problem and how serious the problem continues to be in terms of those hidden figures?

Other issues that cause concern in terms of water quality—and you’ve touched on this already, Minister—are the risks of pollution from increased rainfall because of climate change and urban expansion, which lead to increased risks associated with pollution run-offs, increased human waste, and a greater risk of flooding, with more people put at risk of coming into contact with polluted water. I’d like to know what assessment the Welsh Government has undertaken of the impact of climate change, population growth and urbanisation on water quality and water pollution risks. I’d also, Minister, like you to outline what action the Welsh Government is taking to address these impacts.

Now, the next issue I’m going to raise, I know this is something that we often discuss in the Siambr, and in committee. When we look at what is happening in Scotland—. I know that it isn’t ever the case that, 'Well, we always have to follow what happens in Scotland, because it is being done in Scotland', but it would be interesting to know about your assessment of what is happening. Environmental Standards Scotland has commenced its statutory role as an independent environmental governance body, and although Welsh stakeholders recommended equivalent actions for Wales, we don’t have a firm commitment in terms of a time frame for when we can close that governance gap in Wales. We need robust environmental governance in Wales. I think that would be something that could—. It wouldn’t be a silver bullet in any sense, but it would help so much. So, any additional information that you could provide in terms of the time frame would be very useful. And if you could commit firmly to bringing forward the promised legislation on environmental governance and principles, that would be useful.

Minister, the final point I wanted to make was actually about what you were just saying at the end of your response to Janet. The really tricky, difficult issues about people flushing things that they shouldn’t be flushing down the toilet, leading to disgusting things that shouldn’t be in our waterways getting into our waterways, increased risks of flooding, all these different things—. Firstly, how do you think we can—? Actually, no, not firstly—this is the question. I've just realised there wasn't going to be a 'secondly'. How can we get to the bottom of this really knotty, complicated issue that, for people, it's not always the case that they don't realise that this is the wrong thing to do? Some of them realise it's the wrong thing to do, but for so many different complicated reasons, do it anyway. I'm not talking about penalising people here. How can we increase a sense of communal buy-in into this? I know this is a really difficult question, but how can we get more people living in our communities, from when they're children, to want to do the right thing, to want to care more about the environment? Nobody wants all of this to happen, and yet the wrong things happen that lead to it happening. So, if there's any chink of light that you can give us on that, it would be useful. Thank you. 

16:45

Diolch, Delyth. In terms of the increased rainfall—. Well, it's not just the increased rainfall, actually. One of the biggest issues we have is hot, dry summers followed by extreme rainfall events. We still are in drought in most of Wales. We still haven't got our reservoirs up to where they should be, despite the rain that we've been having recently, because it's intermittent. A lot of it falls suddenly and then it's intermittent. You could say today was a rainy day, but large parts of today didn't have rain in them. So, we are watching climate change happen. And that's following a hot, dry summer where the land dried right out. So, instead of absorbing that water, it runs off, and that's a real problem. It's a real problem for us to make sure that we put resilient systems in place that allow better absorption of water when it finally does come. 

One of the reasons why we are really emphasising at the moment that what you do in your own home really matters is because if that water can absorb into the gardens—even the small front gardens that people have in urban areas—it makes a huge difference to the amount of water that runs off. And if I can just digress for one moment, please don't put AstroTurf down. Have a little read of what's in AstroTurf and what happens to children who play on it, and the chemical compounds that get into them afterwards. Amongst the very many things I hope from our plastics legislation, Llywydd, once we eventually pass it, is that we can look very soon at AstroTurf, because it is horrendous. What people are looking for is a lovely green lawn. It's not that hard to grow a green lawn, actually. So, we're really working hard with our schoolchildren as part of our new curriculum. These are the well-informed citizens of the world that we want, who understand the effect of their own actions on the planet that they live on.

The other thing we will be doing, of course, is banning a whole range of single-use plastics, so then they won't be able to be flushed down the loo—the classic cotton bud and stirrers and all sorts of other things that people manage to flush down the loo. And then, I go back to what I've often discussed in this Chamber as well, which I will be bringing up with the UK Government once again, which is labelling. I do think that we have real problems with labelling. Some things are labelled as if they're biodegradable or flushable, like flushable wet wipes. There is no such thing as a flushable wet wipe. Talking to the UK Government about what can be done to label it to empower people to make the right choices where they want to is really, really important. So, we will be doing that as well. 

In terms of the environmental body, obviously, we've discussed this many times. I'm absolutely determined to put an environmental body in place with the biodiversity targets to implement. We're very closely following what's happening in Scotland. We will learn the lessons from that, and so when we do it, we will have the benefit of having learnt those lessons. I'm very happy to say once again that we will do that. We're going, I hope, to COP15 in Canada, where we will hope to play a big role in what happens about the 30x30 targets, and how they might be implemented in what are called sub-national states for this purpose—sub-UN states. And the Under2 Coalition will be looking at that as well, so we will be able to help each other with that.

Just on that, we will also be looking to implement, as I said in my statement, a whole range of natural water solutions. We have some in action at the moment. I don't know if Mike Hedges is in the Chamber—he isn't. In Mike Hedges's constituency—you may have heard me mention it—

Oh, you are there. Sorry, Mike. Right behind me, Mike. We have a Tawe flood defence, which is a natural solution there. The Tawe floods out into what would have been part of its natural flood plain. It's a reed bed. It has the most incredible biodiversity that's come back to that part of Swansea, and it has prevented the Tawe from flooding along its length for a very long time. It's extremely successful and, actually, very important for local schoolchildren to go and look what happens when you do it. So, we have got these programmes in action, and the announcements I made during my statements are basically rolling that knowledge out across Wales as fast as we can go.

16:50

Diolch, Llywydd. Can I welcome the Minister's statement? The Minister is correct: over the next 20 years—in fact, the next 50 years—Wales faces wetter winters, hotter, drier summers, rising sea levels and more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Many of us growing up in the 1960s and 1970s were used to continual light rain; now we have long, dry spells, broken by very heavy rain, which can lead to flooding, often in areas that were never flooded before. Currently, over 60 per cent of rivers are failing phosphate targets, which is having a direct impact on wildlife. Pollution from sewage and wastewater is affecting rivers across Wales, including the River Tawe. Does the Minister agree that you cannot keep on putting phosphates, nitrates and sewage into our rivers without affecting both the quality of water and biodiversity? It doesn't disappear, it is still there. Tackling storm overflows is one of the many elements that need to be addressed if we are to improve river quality in Wales. Untreated sewage is regularly discharged at the Trebanos treatment works in the Neath constituency of Jeremy Miles and affects the River Tawe, causing problems for anglers and children playing in the river downstream, which includes your constituency and mine, Minister. Does the Minister agree that it's necessary to take action, including legislation, to stop the discharge of raw sewage into rivers? Unless we legislate, the water companies are not going to do anything.

Thank you, Mike. As I said before, we've been working with Ofwat to make sure that, in the next price review for water companies, both the ability and the need to invest in stopping sewage outflows into rivers, particularly the combined sewage outflows, is very necessary and that a programme of investment can be put forward. It's very important to us that the price mechanism is put in place to allow, in particular, Dŵr Cymru to invest, because Dŵr Cymru is a not-for-profit. So, we've been really pushing with Ofwat that the model of price that they put in place must benefit a not-for-profit company, so that it can invest more. Jane Hutt and myself had a very interesting conversation with them and with the water charities about the affordability of that, as well as the ability to invest. So, we certainly are on that, Mike.

Just in terms of the phosphates and the special areas of conservation, we have a whole series of capital programmes in place that we hope to roll out across Wales. We've got the north-west opportunity catchment project, which is targeting riverbank erosion caused by livestock access, poor riparian habitat condition and the impact of diffuse pollution on sensitive wetland sites. That's in Clwyd, Conwy and Anglesey. There's the freshwater pearl mussel project, which is about river resilience and developing benefits to water quality—and I can sneakily put in that I'm the native oyster champion there, Llywydd, so I'm very keen on that project as well. And there's the LIFE Dee River project, alongside the four rivers project, which is working with landowners to reduce the inputs of nutrients and sediments to the Dee SAC through providing for on-farm interventions. We have a range of projects of that sort, Mike, where we will be getting the learning back from them and then looking to roll them out right across the SAC rivers in Wales. Diolch.

I'm grateful to you, Minister, for your statement this afternoon. I was indeed particularly pleased to hear the reference to the number of current initiatives, including the one in Carmarthenshire County Council and this newly developed nutrient calculator and the restoration of critical habitats. As you note, a thriving water environment is essential for supporting healthy communities, flourishing businesses and biodiversity, and our agricultural communities can play a role in achieving this. Therefore, given the introduction of the Welsh Government's sustainable farming scheme and the agriculture Bill, what discussions have you had with your colleague the rural affairs Minister to ensure that farmers are rewarded for their efforts to restore critical habitats such as rivers, lakes and ponds on their own land? Diolch, Llywydd.

Thank you very much for that. Of course, my colleague Lesley Griffiths and I have been working very, very closely together, as have all our officials, on this. We can't do this without our farmers—that's the truth of it—without our landowners, so of course they're absolutely pivotal. We work with the farming unions and with groups of other farmers. I had farmers on my biodiversity deep dive, for example; they are absolutely fundamental to our ability to do this. This is to modernise our farming practices, to make sure that farmers use what's necessary and no more, to actually save them money, and to get the precision agriculture in place that we would like to see right across Wales. But it's also to encourage—[Interruption.] Yes; the sustainable agriculture initiatives—not just the SFS, but all the others as well—are all designed to reward farmers who do the right thing, and that's the whole purpose of them. In fact, we've learnt a lot from groups of farmers who came together outside of the scheme and put together projects that we've learnt from. It enabled them to do the hedges and edges project, for example. Also, I was very pleased, although a little bit sad, to go down and launch the very last European-funded initiative for Rivers for LIFE down in Carmarthenshire at the agricultural college there, to talk to the local farmers about how well that project has been received and what can be done when we all work together with our landowners to make sure that we put our rivers back into the pristine form that we would all very much like to see.

16:55

I too thank you for your statement, Minister. You'll be well aware of the value of the Gwent levels, Minister, having set up the working group that I'm very pleased to chair and done much other work. They're a great example of sustainable drainage dating from the Roman times. There are, in fact, some 900 miles of waterways on those Gwent levels, and, of course, they sustain some very valuable wildlife, including water voles, which have been a great attraction in recent times. There have, though, Minister, been issues about water quality and indeed flooding, and that's very worrying to those who live there. There are many villages that are cheek by jowl with those Gwent levels, so I've had quite a lot of concern from local residents and businesses around those issues, and sometimes it's rather confusing to find out who's responsible. Is it Natural Resources Wales, is it the local authority, is it Welsh Water, is it British Rail in terms of the waterways and the culverts and so on? I think the plea from people and businesses living and operating locally, Minister, is: can Welsh Government work with those who have responsibility to make sure that there's proper clearance of those watercourses, that maintenance is always what it needs to be, so that we avoid the adverse water quality and flooding issues as much as possible in the future?

Yes, absolutely, John. I was delighted to come along to one of the meetings, and I know that you've been working very hard there on the Gwent levels, which are a real green lung for the conurbation around them—very, very important for all kinds of biodiverse reasons, but, actually, very important for humans as well: they literally produce the air that we breathe. So, it's an important treasure that we really must do something about. 

There are a number of rules and regulations that I haven't had time in this statement to mention. Under the water framework directive, for example, Natural Resources Wales is required to monitor surface and ground water quality, and collect chemical, physical and biological data to classify water bodies. The directive promotes an integrated, holistic approach to water management based on river basins, the natural geographical and hydrological units. So, I can assure your constituents and the people of the surrounding towns and villages there that NRW is monitoring a lot of that.

There is a complexity, though, about who is responsible for some of the enforcement. We have three current reviews looking at that. We have a review that's part of the co-operation agreement into section 19 and winter flood reports; we have a review being done by our coast and water management committee into the regulatory framework; and we have another internal review going on, because, as a result of the way that leaving the European Union has meant that we've taken some of those regulations back in house, we need to have a review about whether they're best placed with us, with local authorities, or with NRW, or, indeed, with the water companies. So, there are three separate reviews currently going on, and at some point we'll bring them together to give some clarity. In the meantime, John, if you want to write to me about specific instances, I'll be able to point you at the right regulator for the particular example that you're giving. 

I certainly welcome your statement, Minister, today. I think it's a good statement, and I thank you for your engagement with me, because, obviously, rivers are an important part, and some of these issues are really resonating in my community.

I know that the Welsh Government are piloting drainage and wastewater management plans ahead of placing them on a statutory footing next year, and I would be interested to know more about how these pilots are progressing and what lessons you may have already learnt from them. Looking at the pollution side of things, there are regular suggestions that intensive poultry units in and around the Wye catchment in particular may be having an adverse effect. Yet, there seems to be conflicting evidence in this regard of exactly the impact that such farming is having on pollution levels, and I think we really do need clarity on that. I refer Members to my interest there, not that I've got any chickens at all.

In line with the team Wales approach also, I'd be interested to hear, Minister, how the Government and Natural Resources Wales are working with farmers around the Usk and Wye catchments to improve farming practices to help reduce pollution, and what work the Government has undertaken to analyse what impact intensive farm practices are having on water quality and how this can be mitigated. Thank you.

17:00