Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

07/12/2022

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

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Social Justice

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary session. The first item is questions to the Minister for Social Justice, and the first question is from Peter Fox.

Poverty

1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to tackle poverty in Monmouth? OQ58833

Diolch yn fawr, Peter. People across Wales, including Monmouthshire, are experiencing the biggest fall in living standards since records began. We will be spending £1.6 billion on targeted cost-of-living support and universal programmes to tackle poverty and put money back in people’s pockets. And I do call on all Members to promote our 'Claim what's yours' campaign.

Thank you, Minister, for that response, and I welcome the range of support that is being provided by Welsh Government, aimed at tackling poverty in our communities. I recognise that tackling poverty is a difficult task, but the recent report from the Auditor General for Wales highlights some important areas that the Government and local authorities can improve upon to help increase the effectiveness of those schemes. For example, the report notes that the councils are reliant upon short-term grant funding, provided by the Welsh Government, which is often administratively complex, whilst there are weaknesses in guidance provided as well as grant restrictions. Meanwhile, only a third of local authorities actually have a lead member and officers for addressing poverty, whilst a mix of approaches taken by councils mean that there is a complicated delivery landscape with differing priorities and a focus according to each area. Finally, the report notes that there are a lack of targets and indicators, both nationally and locally, which make it difficult to assess the impact of existing schemes. Minister, could I ask how you will be responding to the auditor general's report? And can I ask what progress has been made on the child poverty strategy and whether this will feed into a wider national poverty action plan, as has previously been called for? Thank you.

Thank you very much for those questions. What is clear from the auditor general, and indeed from the research we commissioned from the Wales Centre for Public Policy, is that there are deep-seated issues and needs, and all partners need to play their part, particularly local authorities. For our Wales Centre for Public Policy, they said that we should look at key issues that actually affect poverty. Income maximisation was one area, and partnership and also making sure that we address issues like the environment and infrastructure. Of course, local government comes into that very clearly. We've got to take a long-term approach to tackling poverty and the root causes of poverty. But I do think that local government is very engaged in this. I'm meeting with them fortnightly with the Minister for Finance and Local Government to talk about the cost-of-living crisis. They're engaging proactively with us and, indeed, they're helping us to deliver what has now been a very successful fuel support scheme. You know that we launched that at the end of September. Already, 266,000 payments have been made, and I'm pleased to say that 5,633 Monmouthshire households have already received this vital support.

It's been five years since the decision to close Communities First was taken. It was the Government's anti-poverty strategy and it hasn't been replaced. Since then, levels of poverty have increased and they will get much worse due to the cost-of-living crisis, which is becoming a full-blown emergency. Why doesn't Wales have a specific anti-poverty strategy, Minister, and do you agree that we need one now more than ever?

Well, thank you very much, Peredur. As I said, we commissioned the Wales Centre for Public Policy to enable us to look at what are the key levers. Clearly, the key levers that will have a huge impact are tax and benefits, which rest with the UK Government. And, indeed, we have to face the fact that, in terms of the UK Government tackling poverty, people are facing incredibly difficult decisions to make and this is as a result of, I would say, the UK Government's mishandling of our economy, which has been a travesty. And now we are moving into the position where we know that not only are people having to choose between heating and eating, which is appalling in this day and age, but also we see that the rate of unemployment is expected to rise. So, we are playing our part in terms of what we can do with the winter fuel support scheme, supporting our discretionary assistance fund—these are short-term interventions—Warm Homes spaces and also, indeed, developing our communities policy, which is a cross-Government initiative to tackle these long-standing issues.

13:35
Basic Income Pilot

2. Will the Minister provide an update on actions taken since the Senedd passed a motion in July calling on the Welsh Government to consider establishing a basic income pilot amongst workers in heavy industry as part of Wales's transition to a zero-carbon economy? OQ58839

Thank you, Jane Dodds. We are prioritising the basic income pilot for carers, as you know. The evaluation of that pilot will explore potential benefits for care leavers and the wider Welsh population. But the climate change Minister’s officials are leading work to ensure we understand the impacts, challenges and opportunities relating to the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you so much for that response, and may I thank you for your commitment, and your team's commitment, to piloting a universal basic income, and to looking into this? I'd also just like to throw out another fact here in the Senedd: I learnt last week that three out of four active applications to extend coal mining in the United Kingdom are actually here in Wales. So, we really have to move quickly on this issue. It is a little bit disappointing to hear that no further work has been done on that particular aspect of the pilot. But I am pleased to hear that the Minister for Climate Change will be launching a call for evidence on a just transition, including gathering evidence of need for our communities. Because a real, immediate economic safety net needs to be in place for those workers, in the form of a basic income, coupled with a tough approach against coal extraction. They can both safeguard communities and our planet. So, could you tell me and outline the plans that are in place, and the timelines, and how we can get to this just transition through a basic income pilot? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Diolch yn fawr iawn. This is key work in terms of our Net Zero Wales plan, linking it to the plan for 2026. As I'm sure the Member will be aware, there has been a call for evidence that's gone out today by the Minister for Climate Change to test early thinking about how we shape the future work programme, which, of course, is where your call has come in. But I think that call for evidence is going to look at work packages, and inform activity, and, obviously, we want everyone to get involved in it. The just transition framework has to build on an evidence base and research, it has to look at issues like how do we tackle inequalities in terms of a just transition, and it has to maximise integration across all sectors and bodies. But I am aware of a meeting with the Coal Action Network, relating specifically to your question, at the end of November, to discuss basic income and transition to a zero-carbon economy. We've got to understand the issues, look at the impacts, and I do think our groundbreaking Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 is the foundation for approaching that just transition. But the call for action will provide these opportunities to feed into these points.

Minister, a number of my constituents in Aberconwy have raised concerns that, in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, you still continue to pursue the idea of a universal basic income. UBI by its very nature is a hugely costly experiment and is no substitute for a genuine decarbonisation plan. Only this morning, we took evidence in committee, whereby the decarbonisation of homes across all sectors is going to be a very costly thing for the Welsh Government to implement. When it comes to UBI, Welsh Government Ministers frequently reference the experience of other countries. However, in Ontario in Canada, the provincial Government there cancelled their basic income pilot scheme in 2018, citing it as a waste of taxpayers' money, and, in Finland, trial results of UBI given to unemployed people found no statistical difference in work status between the recipients and the control group. So, this actually refutes the entire argument that UBI helps people into employment, or that it even helps workers to transition into other work. In light of these results, Minister, will you clarify what lessons you have learnt from these failed UBI schemes around the world, and will you do a u-turn on this, please?

Well, Janet Finch-Saunders, I'm very sad, in a way, that you couldn't have met the young people we met. I believe, actually, we met them in your constituency, in Llandudno recently. We met young people who are now able to take up this basic income pilot. What inspiring young people—care experienced and care leavers, who have been given the opportunity, at long last, in their lives, the respect by the Welsh Government, to be part of a basic income pilot. I have to say, you're on your own on that side of the Chamber as far as the basic income pilot is concerned. You're on your own in terms of the 500 young people who are going to benefit. Obviously, it's up to them if they take part, but there's very good take-up.

But I just want to say that, importantly, we evaluate it—absolutely right. The Member is right to say, 'Well, how are we testing it?' It's early days; it started in July, but we have appointed an evaluation team. It's led by Cardiff University's Children's Social Care Research and Development Centre, and they're drawing on expertise—those who have an understanding of what it means to be in a position as a care leaver in terms of poverty, welfare, homelessness, job opportunities. The pilot's being closely monitored, and evaluation will look at the impacts, but, so far, in terms of the experience and the interaction we've had with young care leavers engaging, I think it's one of the most important policy initiatives that we are doing in this Welsh Government, backed by the majority in the Senedd, I believe. 

13:40

Minister, as a trained engineer, I'm always keen to use data to develop an evidence-based approach to policy, and the Welsh Government's basic income trial does present us with that opportunity to test the effects of a basic income within the United Kingdom. Can I ask you how that data will be made available to the likes of me and Jane Dodds, who are keen to promote a universal basic income, but also to the non-believers on the far side of the benches to us, perhaps so they can realise the data and change their tune?

Well, thank you very much, Jack Sargeant, and thank you for your continuing support. Actually, it was from a debate that you initiated in the last Senedd term that we are in this place—that we as a Government took the decision to treat this as a priority. And it is an investment in these young people—it is an investment in their lives, in their futures, and the contributions that—. Julie Morgan, the Deputy Minister for Social Services, and I heard how these young people are so responsibly thinking of ways that they would be able to use this income, and this will all, of course, be tested in terms of the evaluation. 

I'll just finally say that we obviously work very closely with the team who are evaluating. I've already announced who that will be, but it will be young people themselves, and I'll provide detail on the early findings pf the analysis of the pilot, which I will share, obviously, in this Senedd with you all, and I'll issue a written statement in the new year. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Joel James. 

Thank you, Llywydd. Can the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government supports applications to the National Lottery for funding for good causes in Wales, and provide an update on how often the Welsh Government meets with stakeholders to provide oversight for funding distribution? Thank you. 

Well, thank you very much, Joel James. We don't have any influence on how and who the National Lottery funds. We meet regularly with both the director and, indeed, the Wales representative for National Lottery funds. The overall responsibility actually lies with my colleague Dawn Bowden, the deputy Minister, in terms of overall understanding and liaison in terms of the use of the funds. 

Thank you, Minister. It's my understanding that, up until 2020, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the lottery, Wales had received about £1.75 billion of funding for good causes. Whilst I acknowledge that this is an enormous amount, I'm nonetheless conscious that it only represents around 4 per cent of the total amount of funding provided in the UK, which was in the region of £40 billion. Even if you look at this from a percentage of population point of view, with Wales having about 5 per cent of the UK population, it would seem that Wales has not received a representative share of the money available. 

Minister, I don't think that this was intentional on the part of the National Lottery, and it feels more likely due to either a low number of applications or a high number of poorly presented applications. So, with this in mind, will the Minister outline what steps the Welsh Government has taken to increase the number of applications to maximise the success rate? Thank you.

13:45

As I said, we meet regularly. I certainly meet regularly with the National Lottery in relation to those areas of policy relating to social justice. We also visit projects. I visited a very exciting and innovative project in Plas Madoc, in my colleague Ken Skate's constituency, where we saw a really innovative partnership with children and young people, and older people as well. This was us looking at how important the National Lottery funding and investment is. I don't have that information, Joel, in terms of how they are encouraging more applications, but we work very closely with them, and I will ask them to report. I'd be very happy to write to you to give you an update on the awards they've made most recently, on the themes, which they do look at—for example, the cost of living is a key area for criteria at the moment—and, indeed, how they, as we do, encourage people to take up applications.    

Thank you, Minister. I look forward to receiving your letter. With regard to the change now with the National Lottery to Allwyn Entertainment Ltd, which is scheduled in 2024, has the Welsh Government had any engagement whatsoever with Allwyn Entertainment Ltd with regard to funding distribution in Wales? Do you anticipate any changes to the funding of good causes in Wales as a result of this new ownership? Thank you.  

No, I haven't had any engagement, but I certainly will respond to that when I correspond about lottery application take-up and distribution. 

Diolch, Llywydd. A UK-wide public consultation on the interim service specification for specialist gender dysphoria services for children and young people closed recently on 5 December. Although published by NHS England, the proposed changes will impact on young patients who are the commissioning responsibility of NHS Wales. Concerns have been raised by Stonewall and others that access to the interim service will include an additional consultation stage for young people before joining the waiting list, which may cause even further delays to accessing care or even deny access to it completely. There's no reference either to the newest international best practice guidelines for trans healthcare. One of the most worrying aspects is that the service specification seeks to treat social transition as a medical intervention, which is only recommended after receiving a diagnosis and experiencing clinically significant levels of distress. Do you agree, Minister, and Deputy Minister, that social transition, such as changing one's name, pronouns and/or gender presentation, is not a medical intervention?

As you know, the Tavistock gender identity development service—GIDS—is closing next spring. Two regional centres are expected to open: one in London, one in the north-west of England. But there are concerns this will lead to further gaps in provision and lengthen waiting times, which are already high. I'd like to know if the Welsh Government is aware of these proposed changes. Have they been raised with the Welsh Government? Has there been an impact assessment as to how this will affect Wales and children and young people in Wales needing to access gender dysphoria services? How will these changes impact the LGBTQ+ action plan? Did the Welsh Government contribute to the consultation? It obviously will have an impact on young people in Wales seeking support and care. Diolch.  

Thank you very much. This is very much a cross-Government responsibility—principally my colleague the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership, but also the Minister for Health and Social Services as well. We are aware of that interim consultation on gender services for children and young people, and it will have a direct impact on NHS Wales services for the same groups. I think we can update—. In fact, perhaps I will—. Llywydd, can I ask my deputy to update on this?  

No, you can't. That request should have come from Plaid Cymru before the question started.  

Perhaps if I can just say that we'll feed that back. I think what is important—that I can respond to—is the fact that we have got our Wales gender service developing. It was launched in September 2019 and that's a multidisciplinary Wales gender team, based at St David's Hospital in Cardiff. It is very important that it actually has shorter waiting times for first assessments, which is what you raised as a concern.

13:50

Diolch. Of course, the service we have in Wales here is for people who are over 18, isn't it? That's the difference. I recently met with the British Medical Association to discuss their 'Sexual orientation and gender identity in the medical profession' report, which highlights that LGBTQ+ doctors are regularly suffering abuse and discrimination. While it is concerning that this is even taking place, it is equally worrying that these staff often report they feel unable to voice their concerns with management for fear of being labelled troublemakers or that they may be outed. Both Scotland and England have independent mechanisms in place across their hospitals for staff to voice concerns about this and other issues in a safe way, but there is nothing in place across Wales yet, despite a 'freedom to speak up' framework being worked on. Could I therefore ask the Minister to liaise with the health Minister to ensure this framework is developed and implemented as soon as possible so that front-line LGBTQ+ healthcare staff get the support that they urgently need?

Thank you very much for that really important question as we lead towards the launch of the plan in the new year, the LGBTQ+ action plan. We had a huge response to the consultation, and I'm sure that this response and concern was part of that. What is important about the plan is it is a cross-Government plan, very much similar to our 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan', so virtually every Minister has a role to play, including of course the Minister for Health and Social Services. We will be able to take this up with her in terms of that feedback you had with LGBTQ+ doctors recently with the BMA.

The Voluntary Sector

3. What support is the Welsh Government providing to the voluntary sector in North Wales? OQ58829

Diolch yn fawr, Sam. I have agreed funding for Third Sector Support Wales of £6.98 million per year for three years. Just over £1 million of this funding goes to the six county voluntary councils across north Wales to help local voluntary organisations with fundraising, good governance, safeguarding and volunteering.

Thank you, Minister, for your response and for the support that has already been given to the voluntary sector in my region in north Wales.

Last month, I had the pleasure of visiting Freshfields animal rescue centre in Nebo near Caernarfon. I must say, I met a wonderful kitten there called Benji, who I was very tempted to take home with me. They carry out fantastic work in supporting abandoned and neglected animals across north Wales, a great example of the voluntary sector doing their bit in our communities. Three things struck me from the visit whilst I was there. The first is the increasing demand for animal rescue centres and the support for those abandoned animals. The second was that a number of animal rescue centres fell between the cracks when it came to COVID funding over recent years, and they weren't able to access the funding that perhaps other organisations were able to access. A third area is some of the challenges at the moment in terms of recruiting and retaining volunteers.

On that point, Minister, I wonder if there's an opportunity for the Welsh Government to work more closely with the voluntary sector to ensure that recruitment and retention of volunteers is able to happen in a better way. Perhaps that can be done by highlighting some of the great work that volunteers do in our communities, making such a difference to the places where we live.

Thank you very much for that question, a very important question, highlighting again the adverse impact of the cost-of-living crisis. It's very good for us to hear about the work of Freshfields, the animal rescue centre. We can replicate those charities working like that across Wales and concerns now that there's a great deal of demand for these rescue centres. I think your point about recruiting and retaining volunteers is crucial. Of course, this is something that we discuss when I meet with the third sector partnership council, which I chair. At the last meeting in November, we had an item on the cost-of-living summit. We heard directly from the sector. We have done what we can to support them. There is concern in terms of the third sector, and this would affect even these rescue centres, about the fact that they are going to face high energy costs as well. I hope that you will support us in terms of representations to the UK Government that there needs to be support beyond April in terms of the costs faced by the voluntary sector. But we are looking towards supporting the county voluntary councils that co-ordinate and recruit volunteers and support them, because like they were in the pandemic, volunteers are going to be crucial and playing a great part not only in terms of foodbanks, but in the warm spaces that are now opening across Wales to respond to the cost-of-living crisis.

13:55
Care Leavers

4. What conversations has the Minister had with Cabinet colleagues about supporting care leavers? OQ58832

Thank you, Jack Sargeant. On 3 December, I and other members of the Cabinet held an inaugural summit with care-experienced young people to develop together a vision for the future. The summit is part of our work, led by the Deputy Minister for Social Services, to take forward our programme for government commitment to explore radical reform of children’s services.

I thank the Minister for that answer and the ongoing commitment of the Cabinet, and of course the leadership of the First Minister in supporting care leavers in Wales. I’m particularly proud of the summit that you mentioned this weekend, but also proud of the Welsh Labour Government delivering the world-leading basic income trial, and the role I played in pushing this policy. Minister, on a recent visit to a jobcentre to talk with staff in my constituency, I raised the subject of care leavers and, in particular, the basic income pilot. The staff were keen to talk about the support and how the Welsh Government could further enhance their offer to care leavers, and they suggested the possibility of a care leavers covenant to create meaningful opportunities in five key areas in care leavers’ lives, from independent living right through to the importance of mental health. Could I ask you, Minister, to continue those conversations with Welsh Government colleagues and to ask the question about how a Welsh Government-backed covenant for care leavers could be taken forward?

Thank you very much, Jack Sargeant, for that important question. It’s really good to hear that this was actually raised by jobcentre staff. I’m actually visiting my local regional jobcentre as a constituency Member later in the week. I think this just shows—. Because they are working with young people and seeing what opportunities the basic income trial will have in terms of job prospects.

Turning to the summit, it was a unique opportunity for me. The First Minister attended, obviously the Deputy Minister for Social Services, Lynne Neagle the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being, as well as Jeremy Miles as Minister for Education and Welsh Language, and myself. We spent the day listening to young people. It was sobering—I think that was the word the Deputy Minister for Social Services said—to hear of their experiences. What they said to us is, ‘We’re here to contribute, to tell you what we feel could be done to improve the lives of young people in care’. These were care-experienced young people. There were so many things that we knew, but actually, there were some practical things we could do. Some of it is about culture, awareness, training, but the basic income pilot has given them a real belief that we actually do want to consider their lives and prospects. I think this will be fed back into a declaration that will be signed in the new year, with a shared vision about how we can radically reform these services.

I’m pleased that the subject of care leavers has been mentioned this afternoon as it’s important that the skills that they do acquire over their period in care are recognised, and that they can indeed access training and opportunities and transferable skills that they could apply to a career in social care if they so desire. With such pressures and understaffing in social care services, could the Minister outline what work is being undertaken by the Welsh Government to attract care leavers into careers in social care, so that their skills and experiences can be rewarded, rather than them just being automatically funnelled into the welfare and benefits system, as the Member for Alyn and Deeside is suggesting?

I hope we can get you onside with the basic income pilot. This is actually giving young people the opportunity to really consider their options for the future. Obviously, those options actually apply to all young people in Wales. The young person’s guarantee is crucially important—18 to 25-year-olds, every young person, a job, training, education, apprenticeships, setting up a business. We heard all of those things from our care-experienced young people. That’s what they want to do. That’s what they will be able to do. I think we move forward now in terms of the statement that’s going to be made, the declaration, which is going to look at every aspect of life. The Deputy Minister for Social Services, I know, will be able to speak more on this when we get to that point. 

14:00
Fuel Poverty

6. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to tackle fuel poverty in Dwyfor Meirionnydd? OQ58835

Our Warm Homes programme for lower income households saves an average of £300 a year by improving energy efficiency. Eligible low-income households are also benefiting from our £200 fuel support scheme. Our 'Claim what’s yours' campaign helps people to claim the benefits they are entitled to.

Thank you very much, Minister, for that response. 

With a hard winter now starting to bite, energy companies must prioritise the needs of vulnerable customers struggling to pay their bills, and so, I must admit to feeling very angry when I read the research by the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets that found that three energy suppliers—TruEnergy, Utilita Energy and Scottish Power—were found to demonstrate severe weaknesses in the way that they deal with customers having payment difficulties, with Utilita and Scottish Power being issued with enforcement notices. Scottish Power has historically been the major provider for my constituents in Dwyfor Meirionnydd, and, indeed, across most of north Wales. So, what action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that the energy providers ensure that their customers, especially the most vulnerable, get the required help they need from these highly profitable companies to pay their bills? 

Thank you very much for that really important question, because, like you, I am horrified by what I have read and the poor practice of energy suppliers. I met Ofgem last week and we talked about the identification, as they have, of those companies, Mabon, that are delivering this poor practice. We heard more of that in the press this week. I've held several discussions, actually, with energy suppliers. I held one on 21 November and on 28 November, and, in fact, I met with EDF Energy today.

We've been focusing on and asking them three questions. I just want to repeat those quickly. We've requested data on the number of households supported with their energy bills, how are they supporting them if they're vulnerable, and why—we don't want them to do this, but if they're being transferred onto pre-payment meters, the reason for doing so. We've asked that they do not move people onto pre-payment meters when they're in arrears, and there are concerns that people with smart meters are being moved onto pre-payment meters without their knowledge. And we're requesting them to remove standing charges for pre-payment customers. I'm just about to do a written statement on this to give some feedback. Some of them have agreed to share data with us, and we want to link them up to Advicelink Cymru so that all Citizens Advice and everyone else are aware of where there is vulnerability. We want to really press upon them that they should not be moving people onto pre-payment meters, which are more expensive, and then the standing charges apply even when they haven't got an energy supply. And when they start feeding the meter, they're paying for standing charges. I don't know if everyone knows this, but this should be a united call for the UK Government to stop standing charges for pre-payment customers. Approximately 200,000 households in Wales rely on pre-payment meters. 

Just finally, Llywydd, to say that we have our Fuel Bank Foundation partnership; we've already got 6,000 vouchers that have gone out via partners working across Wales to help people with their pre-payment meters. 

Thank you again, Minister, for attending last week's meeting of the cross-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency, at which you, amongst other things, stated that the Welsh Government's focus is on improving the energy efficiency of Welsh homes, noting, amongst other things, improvements to the Nest scheme, and that the Welsh Government will seek to maximise opportunities presented by ECO4. What engagement have you or your colleagues therefore had, or will you be having with the UK Government regarding the new ECO Plus scheme, known as ECO4, which aims to see hundreds of thousands of homes receive new home insulation, saving consumers around £310 a year, extending support to those in the least energy-efficient homes in the lower council tax bands, as well as targeting the most vulnerable, and extending support to those who do not currently benefit from any other Government support, to upgrade their homes?

14:05

Clearly, my colleague the Minister for Climate Change is very engaged in this and engaged with the UK Government in terms of seeing what benefit this ECO4 is going to have in terms of our situation. Because, obviously, energy efficiency and energy efficiency in terms of our Warm Homes programme, is crucial to actually addressing fuel poverty. But I think this is something that, again, it's for the Minister for Climate Change to report back on current discussions, but also to recognise what we are doing with the Warm Homes programme, the demand-led Nest scheme, which actually doesn't end till next September, and you know that she's now come forward, in her oral statement on 8 November, about a new approach, which is a fabric-first, worst-first and low-carbon approach.

I just wanted to follow up Mark Isherwood's question, because I think it's about empowering local authorities and ensuring that they've got the resources to apply for this ECO4 Flex system, because it's similar to 'Claim what's yours'. We need to ensure that Wales is claiming what it's entitled to, to retrofit some of our many homes that are really far too cold and people are living in fuel poverty. So, I wondered if you could have a conversation with your colleague the Minister for local government as to how we can ensure that local authorities have the resources to ensure that they have the capacity to apply for this funding.

Well, I think I've already mentioned this afternoon that I meet regularly with the leaders of local government. We have cost of living on the agenda, and I will be raising this with them. But, clearly, also my colleagues the Minister for Finance and Local Government and Climate Change also engage with local authorities to ensure that they take up any opportunity.

LGBTQ+ Action Plan

7. Will the Minister provide an update on the LGBTQ+ action plan for Wales? OQ58821

As a Government, we stand with our LGBTQ+ communities. That's why LGBTQ+ rights are embedded in our programme for government, and why we are developing our bold LGBTQ+ action plan. After reviewing more than 1,300 consultation responses, we aim to publish the revised action plan in February 2023.

Thank you, Minister, for your update. I recently met with Ollie Mallin, who represents Carers Trust Wales on our Welsh Youth Parliament. Ollie is also a constituent of mine and has been an advocate of LGBTQ+ plus issues for young people. Ollie has spoken candidly about homophobia faced by young people in schools, and the culture that, sadly, is still so present, which can start off with negative comments and connotations of gay stereotypes, but as we know, it perpetuates prejudice and discrimination for LGBTQ+ plus people across all sections of our society.

I fully support your work on the LGBTQ+ action plan. I know that Welsh Government wants Wales to be a nation where everyone feels safe to be themselves, to be open about their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics at home, leisure, work or school without feeling threatened. It really is going to take a proactive approach, reflection and consultation, especially in an environment like schools, to ensure that the things young people are seeing—that they're actually seeing these positive changes. This is ultimately about making schools safe for an LGBTQ+ pupil to not have to worry about this prejudice, simply because of who they are. So, Minister, on this point, what discussions are you having with the Minister for Education and Welsh Language to ensure that schools are responding to the action plan? Diolch.

I thank Sarah Murphy for raising this, and also for your support for the LGBTQ+ action plan. As you said, it's an incredibly important piece of work that we're doing and, obviously, it's not just about having that plan, it's the difference it actually makes in practice. And can I also pass on my thanks and recognition to Ollie for speaking so candidly about this and sharing the experiences of young people, which, sadly, is still happening, not just in schools but in different settings across Wales? It makes me particularly sad, because I was bullied at school because—I think I've said in here before—other children saw something in me that I hadn't recognised myself.

You talk about those negative connotations and slurs, and, if you remember that old saying, 'Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me', well, that's definitely not true—names do hurt. One of the things that sticks in my mind, and I've actually shared it with some of my colleagues, is that they called me 'Lesley'—I think they meant 'Lesley the lesbian'. So, as well as being incredibly cruel, bullies are also very unimaginative as well. But, they say the personal is the political, so this LGBTQ+ action plan is really, really important to me on that level as well, because I want to see this change for generations that are in school now and generations to come, and I think the work that Ollie's doing is really important. I'd be very happy to meet Ollie along with the Member. 

But, on the action plan itself, there are a series of actions in there, and I'm looking very closely with the Minister for education about how we not only support young people in schools, but support their educators and support the teachers to be able to handle and address these things with care and with confidence as well, because I think there is still that hangover, that legacy of section 28, where people are still, unfortunately, nervous to tackle these issues. So, we need to offer support for the teachers and the teaching staff as well as for the learners.

14:10

Minister, one of the actions in the plan is to explore ways that unnecessary personal identification, such as name, age, and gender markers can be removed from the documentation, particularly in recruitment practices. This could also prove helpful in reducing the risk for discrimination against someone from an ethnic minority background. To what extent have you succeeded in delivering on this action? Have public bodies, such as the NHS, now advanced this objective, and can you evidence any improvement at all?

Can I thank the Member for his contribution there? The point he refers to is one of the points that we consulted on as part of the draft action plan, and I don't think I'm jumping the gun by confirming that it will be there and expanded on in the action plan itself when it's published early next year. You raise a really valid point in terms of actually things that you can do to tackle that discrimination and to take away the risk of it as well. So, I'd be more than happy, once we're formalising the final action plan, to update the Member in more detail on the work that's happening across Government on the issues that he raises.

The Post Office and Royal Mail

8. What discussions has the Minister had with the Post Office and Royal Mail regarding ensuring the continuation of of their services in South Wales Central? OQ58828

Post Office and Royal Mail matters are not devolved, although I am of course interested in any issues that affect Wales and Welsh communities. My officials stay in regular contact with both organisations. I last met with Post Office in October and with Royal Mail in July.

Thank you very much, Deputy Minister. Our postal service, of course, through the Post Office and the Royal Mail, is an essential service for so many people in our communities. In my region, a number of post offices have closed or have reduced their opening hours, and there are specific concerns regarding the future of Pontypridd post office—an extremely busy post office in Pontypridd town centre that is due to close on 23 December with no certainty yet if it will reopen.

Furthermore, and as you'll be aware, there is an ongoing dispute involving the Royal Mail employees, and today I'd like to send a message of support to those employees who are fighting for their working conditions and the future of the service. We heard evidence in the media last week regarding how the service is run. Letters are no longer being prioritised, and there has been a reduction in the number of employees, meaning that some people are missing important mail such as vital medical appointments because letters are not reaching them in time. I would therefore like to ask: what specific discussions have you or your officials had with the Post Office and the Royal Mail in terms of these elements of their services, and specifically in terms of the Royal Mail, the dispute, in order to ensure that the workers' demands are being addressed by management and that this vital service is safeguarded for the future?

I think this is a matter that the Member follows quite closely, and has been in touch via correspondence previously. And, I know that it's something that impacts on all of our communities, particularly the more rural communities in Wales that are dependent on the universal service obligation. I think the first thing to say in terms of the Post Office and the Royal Mail is that they're obviously distinct and separate companies. But, I'm aware of the issue that the Member mentioned with regard to Pontypridd post office, and that they are currently seeking alternative post, but I know it's a challenge that faces many communities and it's something that I will pick up again with Post Office and perhaps follow up with a further meeting and update the Member.

And I'm sure the workers at Royal Mail will certainly appreciate the support from Members in this Chamber for the current industrial dispute. Because it not only threatens to impact on those who provide those services and the workers in Wales, but also the services that we receive in Wales as well. It's not just looking at weakening the position of workers, but weakening that service and, potentially, moving away from that universal service obligation that so many communities depend on. So, I think the CWU are right when say this dispute isn't just about pay and conditions—it's about an institution that we've depended on for many, many years. So, I can say to the Member I am due to meet again with CWU very shortly and I'm happy to update following that.

14:15
The Rights of Disabled People

9. What action is the Welsh Government taking to strengthen the rights of disabled people? OQ58838

Diolch yn fawr, Hefin David. The Welsh Government has set up the disability rights taskforce and working groups to respond to the 'Locked Out: Liberating Disabled People's Lives' report produced during the COVID-19 pandemic and is progressing actions under the 'Action on Disability: The Right to Independent Living' framework and action plan.

Unison has designated 2002—sorry, 2022—the Year of the Disabled Worker, and tomorrow I'm hosting an event in the Senedd, which will be an exciting opportunity to showcase the skills, experience, qualities that disabled workers bring to the public sector workforce and to society. And the event will concentrate on speaking out against disability discrimination, challenging negative stereotypes and highlighting the work that can be done to remove barriers preventing disabled people from achieving their goals. In your statement two weeks ago, Minister, you made clear the Welsh Government's support for embedding the social model of disability in all areas of society. Can you, therefore, agree that one of the most effective ways we can do this is to focus on creating a society where disabled people are valued, helping them to become more active in public life, and also, importantly, in trade unions and in their workplaces?  

Diolch yn fawr, Hefin David. I'm really looking forward to joining your event tomorrow, as a proud member of Unison and also Minister for Social Justice, but I do agree that the most effective way of ensuring that disabled people are valued in all aspects of life, including public life, the workplace, unions, is to embed the social model of disability. We're working towards training all our staff on the social model, and also public services across Wales, to promote it so people understand what it means: that we are disabling people and we have to address those barriers. And I'll be reinforcing our commitment to that tommorrow at your event.

2. Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution

The next item therefore is questions to the General Counsel and Minister for the Constitution, and the first question is from Rhys ab Owen.

The Devolution of Justice

1. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Lord Chancellor on the devolution of justice? OQ58814

Thank you very much for the question.

My ministerial colleagues and I have made the Welsh Government's position on the devolution of justice very clear to this Lord Chancellor, his predecessors and many other UK Ministers, and most recently Lord Bellamy, the Under-Secretary for justice, this Monday. It does remain deeply disappointing that the UK Government will not seriously engage with this question.

Diolch yn fawr, Cwnsler Cyffredinol. We've had the tenth Lord Chancellor in 12 years; I think beforehand we had 10 in half a century. But the opinion polls consistently suggest that, after the next general election, there'll be a Labour Lord Chancellor in Westminster. As was highlighted yesterday, in the 2017 Labour Westminster manifesto, it supported full devolution of justice. In 2019 that commitment had disappeared. The recent Brown report recommends the devolution of youth justice and probation. Now, whilst I welcome any further devolution to Wales, the Thomas report made strong and persuasive arguments against piecemeal devolution. The recommendations of the Brown report will only shift the jagged edge slightly, and the underlying issues of the justice system in Wales, which is with the worst in western Europe, will still remain. Therefore, Cwnsler Cyffredinol, is the Welsh Government still committed to the full devolution of justice, and will you make your views clear to Labour in Westminster?

14:20

Well, what I can say is that the position of the Welsh Government remains the same. We support the recommendations of the Thomas commission, and we also support, specifically within that, the devolution of justice and the devolution, in particular, of criminal justice. What I can say is that the devolution of youth justice and probation will be very significant steps forward.

I think you have to be careful about taking out of context aspects of the Gordon Brown report, which of course is a report that was commissioned by the UK Labour Party. It does say within it, I think, some very, very important messages. Firstly, it says that:

'As a matter of principle, devolution to Wales should be constrained only by reserving those matters which are necessary to discharge the purposes of the UK as a union'.

It also says there is absolutely no reason why matters that are devolved in Scotland, including new powers proposed, could not also be devolved to Wales. And he specifically refers to the recommendation for the devolution of youth justice and probation. But I think the most—. In many ways, the most important part of this section of the report is that he also says

'that the Welsh government has established a Commission to examine various constitutional issues, and its work is ongoing. Once the report...is received, we expect a Labour Government to engage constructively with its recommendations.'

I think it is really important that that report recognises what we said very early on when we talked about the establishment of the independent commission, that it would be in this place that we would decide what the future of Wales should be, that it would be in this Senedd and for the people of Wales to decide what that should be. And whilst that commission is there, I think it's important that that report makes that deference to the fact that there is that commission, and the recommendations and views that the commission comes up with are ones that we as a Senedd will then consider. We'll decide ourselves what is important and we'll then aim to engage constructively for the devolution or for the changes and reforms that we consider are necessary in respect of Wales, based on that commission's recommendations.

I'm very interested to hear what you have to say on this, and I just want to raise with you the concerns that we've heard about the disjunctive nature of the criminal justice system at the moment. For example, when we had the legislative and constitutional committee, chaired by Huw Irranca-Davies, meeting with Lord Bellamy, he was highlighted the importance of the Visiting Mums project, as if this was something funded by UK Government, when in fact it's funded by the Welsh Government. Equally, we've had some concerns raised by evidence we've heard from the Magistrates' Association. We don't have any control over the Magistrates' Association, and the holes through which people in the criminal justice system fall, particularly women, where we are determined not to send people to prison unless it's absolutely necessary, indicate that we really have got to push hard on this one, because it's a completely dysfunctional situation at the moment.

Well, thank you for those comments, and I don't disagree with the points that you've made. Many of them are points that we've made very much within our 'Delivering Justice for Wales' paper, and of course the recent research by Cardiff University, the publication, The Welsh Criminal Justice System: On the Jagged Edge, I think is really important.

What is important in terms of the engagement that we do have with UK Government over the Thomas commission is of course that they are supportive and they've accepted the points about the disaggregation of data that we actually need to have the breakdown of data for Wales, because in order to formulate policy you actually need to know what is happening. I think we were all, weren't we, absolutely astonished and shocked, I think, by some of the data from Cardiff University, that per 10,000 of the population 14 in prison would be white and 79 would be from coloured or ethnic backgrounds. That is an absolutely shocking set of figures, and the disaggregation of information enables us to understand why that is, why we have a higher imprisonment of Welsh citizens within the justice system, and things that we need to understand. And it goes exactly into the reasoning as to why we want the devolution of justice. What is important, I think, about the Gordon Brown report—and of course I will look forward to, eventually, the full report from our own independent commission—is that there are no doors closed. 

14:25
Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign

2. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government on how it can support the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign? OQ58831

Thank you for the question. I wrote to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Bellamy, in August of this year, to call for full disclosure from public bodies during public inquiries or criminal proceedings. I believe that a Hillsborough law would benefit the demand for a public inquiry into events at Orgreave.

Can I thank the Counsel General for that answer and his commitment to a Hillsborough law, something that I've used my time in questions to the Counsel General to highlight, and highlight other areas of injustice? Because it is far too hard for working-class people in the United Kingdom and in Wales to access justice. The Orgreave miners, including many from Wales, were victims of a gross injustice. On the day, many were victims of brutal and sustained unlawful assault, and what happened subsequently is a real stain on the British legal system. Counsel General, these former miners deserve justice, and it behoves all of us who care about justice to keep raising this matter. Can I seek your assurance that you, as Counsel General, and Welsh Government Ministers, will take every opportunity you have to raise this with UK Government counterparts and take every opportunity to speak out and keep the flame for justice for Orgreave burning?

I thank you very much for that and for raising that. I don't know whether you're aware; I was of course one of the lawyers in the Orgreave trial and riot cases, in which we actually obtained an absolute non-committal, a 'not guilty', in respect of all 90 of the cases of persons that I was involved in, and we then actually took civil action against the police for malicious prosecution and wrongful arrest. All of those civil actions were completely successful. What was important about them and what is important about this issue is that it relates to the exercise of power by the state. And my belief is that there is evidence and there will be documentation that is yet to be disclosed that will show that the decisions taken at Orgreave—and, of course, it relates to other matters that we're aware of with regard to Hillsborough, but those matters, those decisions—were actually taken at the very highest level, at prime ministerial level. That is my belief in that, and that is my belief as to why an inquiry won't be carried out by this Government. I am very pleased that the next Labour Government has given a commitment that it will carry out an inquiry into Orgreave, that those documents will be disclosed, not because it's something of raking over history, something that happened a long time ago, but, with all abuses of power that occur by a state, it's important that those are made public and that those are dealt with in the proper way. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.

Diolch, Llywydd. Building on what you've said in your previous responses, although we cannot support Gordon Brown's constitutional reform recommendations announced by the UK Labour Party on Monday in their entirety, there are elements that, in our view, merit consideration, including proposals to ensure that Wales has a permanent voice, not just in the House of Commons, but in the second Chamber, if this would lead to proper bicameral scrutiny of devolved legislation; proposals to seek greater co-operation between the four UK Governments to deal with shared problems, such as pandemics and pollution; and proposals to enhance the role of Members of this Senedd so that they could enjoy the same privileges and protections as Members of Parliament in relation to statements made in their proceedings. 

We also note the statement by Labour's Lord Blunkett that Sir Keir Starmer's plans for an elected second Chamber risk US-style gridlock and should not be a priority, and that, despite the First Minister's statement here last week, that the transfer of responsibility for justice matters, which is the policy of his Government, was contained in the Labour manifesto in the 2017 and 2019 UK general elections, UK Labour now only proposes to devolve powers over youth justice and the probation services to the Welsh Government. How do you therefore respond to this, and do you agree—I think I can judge the answer; it's a rhetorical question—but do you agree that this now puts to bed the wider devolution of justice and policing to Wales?

14:30

Thank you for the question and you covered some very interesting points within there. And I'm very pleased, and I think we commonly recognise, don't we, the importance of changes that have occurred: the fact that we are a primary law legislature and the importance that we actually have a permanent, recognised place within the Supreme Court. I think the old arguments in terms of jurisdiction are actually outdated.

I think where you have parliaments that are legislatures and you have matters that are constitutional, and the Supreme Court plays a constitutional function, it is absolutely right that Wales should be specifically represented. I think this is being represented almost through the back door by ensuring that there is a Welsh judge there, and I'm very pleased that Lord David Lloyd-Jones is there in the Supreme Court—a Welsh-speaking Supreme Court judge; the first one ever. But I think it is important that that becomes something that is formalised and becomes part of our structures, so that, as with Scotland, as with Northern Ireland, and as with England, there is a specific Welsh judge in the Supreme Court. So, I'm very pleased we made those. And also, the recognitions in terms of the importance of co-operation and inter-governmental improvements. The importance, I think, of the recommendation within the Gordon Brown report in terms of the establishment of an irrefutable structure in respect of Sewel is something that we've long argued for. In whatever format, it would be something that would be a significant step forward.

But I don't agree with what you say in terms of justice. The Gordon Brown report doesn't close any particular doors; it is a report that makes recommendations to the UK Labour Party as a whole, but it is one that gives very specific reference. The bits I read out earlier, I think, are very, very clear that it is deferring to the independent commission and that, when that commission has reported, it calls for constructive engagement. And the report makes it absolutely clear that there are no doors closed and that the basis of further devolution should be based on subsidiarity: that is, it is only those items that are necessary in terms of interdependent governance within the UK as a whole that should be dealt with by UK Government, and the rest should be devolved. So, it does represent a very significant transfer and I don't believe it says what you're suggesting at all about justice, and I am confident in the inevitable devolution of justice to Wales.

Well, thank you. It's my understanding that there are voices in senior UK Labour leadership who do grasp the east-west axis of crime and criminal justice across the Wales-England border and recognise that full devolution accordingly could be counterproductive.

However, responsibilities you hold as Counsel General include matters relating to legislation passed by the Senedd and accessibility of Welsh law. As you will be aware, provided that a Member of the Senedd is acting within the expectations of a constituent, the Member has a legal basis to request information from a public body when representing the constituent. Section 24 of the Data Protection Act 2018 allows an elected representative to receive information from another data controller, including a local authority, in relation to an individual for the purpose of a casework matter where they're acting with authority. However, after I wrote to—I won't name it—a north Wales local authority regarding social services matters on behalf of neurodiverse parents, the response from the local authority's social services chief officer included, 'These appear to be issues raised by you as a Member of the Senedd about an individual case, and therefore outside of the parameters we would disclose to a third party.'

What action can you therefore take within your remit to ensure that senior officers in such local authorities understand that responses regarding individual cases should be provided by council departments when replying to correspondence sent by a Member of the Senedd—this Welsh Parliament—in a representative capacity?

Well, obviously, we do want the maximum of co-operation between Members of the Senedd and any public bodies, and, indeed, private bodies as well, where they reflect upon Senedd matters and Senedd duties and constituency duties. I think the only way I can refer you, in terms of the matter that you raised and of which I have no specific knowledge, is that the rights and entitlements are set out in the Data Protection Act. Where an individual is dissatisfied with the response they've had to a Freedom of Information Act 2000 request, there is a process where it can be referred to the data protection commissioner, who will then basically consider the legal position on that and whether that is something that should or should not be disclosed. And I think that is the appropriate course of action that should be being taken there.

14:35

Thank you. I did respond accordingly. But of course, this wasn't a freedom of information request, I was making representations—as we all do—on a neutral basis, representing my constituents at their request, and with their written authority, so it was an alarming response. And in that context, as I trust you're also aware, the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, Part 10, code of practice, relating to advocacy, states that local authorities, when exercising their social services functions, must act in accordance with the requirements contained in this code, and that it is open to any individual to exercise choice and to invite any advocate to support them in expressing their views, wishes and feelings. However, after an autistic adult recently asked me to attend a meeting with the same local authority, as an advocate for her—as I've done scores of times with constituents and public bodies; I'm sure you have also—she received a message from the local authority this weekend, stating, 'I'm not able to invite Mark to the meeting as I've been informed by higher management that if Mark has any issues regarding yourself or your son, he needs to access customer services.'

I hope you'll agree that these and other similar responses by a local authority's senior management are serious matters, with potentially damaging repercussions. So, again, what action can you take to ensure that repeat offenders, such as this local authority, both understand and operate within both UK and Welsh law?

Thank you for that. In respect of the particular circumstances that you raise, I think those are ones that could and probably should be referred to the Minister, who I'm sure would respond. There is of course another course of action, in terms of reference to the ombudsman, in terms of the way in which the local authority that you refer to has acted. I just think it would be improper for me, on something that I have no direct knowledge of, to actually give any specific further comment than that.

Diolch, Llywydd. My first question this afternoon is about a matter in my region causing consternation for constituents, but has a national implication. The application of Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd to continue coal extraction operations at the Ffos-y-Frân mine, beyond the original deadline, and mine for another three years, has caused considerable distress to residents due to concerns over air quality and noise pollution. The site is located just meters away from homes, schools and playgrounds. Can the Counsel General confirm whether article 67, section 26A of the Coal Industry Act 1994 gives Welsh Ministers the ultimate responsibility for approving bids for coal mining operations in Wales? Would the Counsel General also confirm whether the December 2018 notification direction obliges councillors to refer bids on coal or petroleum operations to Welsh Ministers? And based on these pieces of legislation, would the Counsel General give a view on whether the Welsh Government is able to refuse the application by Merthyr (South Wales) Ltd to continue coal extraction operations at the Ffos-y-Frân site?

Thank you for raising that. You raise some very specific matters that relate to, obviously, planning matters and the powers of Welsh Government. And of course, there are issues that have been raised, for example, in respect of another coal extraction area, and the issues relate, often, to what powers the Welsh Government has, and whether it's in respect of existing planning permissions that have been given or whether it relates to new planning applications, and so on. Look, in respect of the circumstances there, the detail you asked for is not something I can give you today; I think, if you write to me separately, if there are matters I can reply to you specifically on, I will happily do so. But I think it would be improper without knowing the background to it, knowing what stage it might be in the planning system, what other issues there might be, as to whether I can actually respond and in what detail I can respond to you on.

Thank you, Counsel General, and I'll certainly write to you on that.

Since the last round of Counsel General's questions, we have received the verdict of the Supreme Court that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum. Does the Counsel General concur with the remarks made by the First Minister in the summer, that there is an unambiguous moral and political case for allowing Scotland to hold an independence referendum? And do you also agree that every nation has a right to self-determination, if that is the democratic wish of the people? Finally, what is the Counsel General's assessment of the impact of sections 60 and 64 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 on the ability of Welsh Government to hold an independence referendum?

14:40

Well, thank you again for a number of important questions that are there. Can I just say, firstly, in terms of the general principle of self-determination? I think that's one that the First Minister and I and others have made clear in the past, that nations do have the right to self-determination. Our position in terms of referenda and what would happen with a Government that had a majority for a referendum is set out in 'Reforming our Union', and I think it was referred to very specifically in First Minister's questions the previous week. So, that position remains the Welsh Government's position, and is absolutely clear.

In a recent series of lectures—one by Professor Ciaran Martin that I attended, of course—there was the significant constitutional issue raised in terms of what the routes should be for a country, for a Government that has a mandate, and that is, undoubtedly, part of the ongoing constitutional debate. In terms of the Supreme Court judgment, I do have, I think, two questions that are about to come that are specifically on that, so, if you don't mind, I'll refer to that specifically when those questions actually arise.

But in terms of the point that Professor Emyr Lewis has raised, I've noted his comments with interest. He is, of course, correct to point out the differences that do exist between the Scottish settlement and the Welsh Ministers' executive powers. I would also say that there are, of course, significant differences between the powers of the Lord Advocate—my counterpart in Scotland—and their powers to be able to refer on constitutional matters, a power that is not a power that I specifically have in the Government of Wales Act. He also points out, of course, that these matters are incredibly complicated.

My own very preliminary view on it—and, of course, we're still giving thought to some of these issues as they arise—is I think it's unlikely, in respect of section 60, section 62 and section 64, that they would actually legitimise the holding of a poll that asked specifically the sort of question that the Scottish Government put in their Bill, which clearly does relate to a reserved matter in terms of the constitution of the United Kingdom. The Supreme Court was very clear on that particular point. Any poll that we would have, I think, would need to relate to intra vires powers—powers the Welsh Government or the Senedd actually have. And, of course, in many ways, we've exercised those powers by the establishment of the independent commission, which looks broadly at the well-being of Wales within a constitutional context.

The Supreme Court's Ruling on a Scottish Independence Referendum

Thank you, Llywydd. I understand that you've agreed to group questions 3 and 5, but if I could follow on from my colleague Peredur with his question—

You should ask the question on the order paper. You can read your question—

3. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the implications for Wales of the Supreme Court ruling regarding Scotland's right to call a referendum on its constitutional future? OQ58827

5. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government following the Supreme Court ruling that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence? OQ58834

Thank you for the question. The judgment was specific to the situation in Scotland. I do not consider that it will have any implications for the interpretation of the Welsh settlement. The Supreme Court was very clear that it was not departing from its previous approach to the consideration of such issues.

Thank you for that response. Well, back in March 2021, the First Minister said—and I'm going to quote in English:

'We have to demonstrate to people how we can recraft the UK in a way that recognises it as a voluntary association of four nations, in which we choose to pool our sovereignty for common purposes and for common benefits.'

Those were the words of Mark Drakeford. So, following the Supreme Court that stated that Scotland cannot legislate to hold a referendum on its own constitutional future, and that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and the leader of the opposition there, Keir Starmer, have declared that they won't allow Scotland to hold an independence referendum, does the Counsel General believe that the UK is a voluntary association of four nations, and what is the Government here doing to demonstrate to people how it's possible to redraw the UK in a way that shows that it is a voluntary association?

14:45

Thank you. You do raise an important constitutional point. And it's very interesting, in Gordon's Brown report, that he very specifically describes the United Kingdom as an association of nations, so in recognition of the make-up of that. That is certainly my belief, as to what the real position is, because, if you have a parliament that elects people, that has a mandate from an election, from the people, then sovereignty cannot be anything other than shared. The point, I think, that we would make is, of course, that we have a constitution that is outdated and is dysfunctional, and that is why, I think, we are having all these constitutional debates, because, as the interim report of the independent commission, who published their report today, has said, what exists at the moment is not working—the status quo is not working. That, in fact, is something that's been repeated consistently by the inter-parliamentary group, which I previously attended and, I think, the Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee now attends. On the numerous occasions I was there, the statements were put out, and these were cross-party statements that, basically, the arrangements are not working and there is a need for substantial reform. I think there was a need for a very, very radical reform. I'm considering very carefully the independent commission's interim report, but I'm also considering very carefully other reports, other commentary that is being made, but including the report from Gordon Brown, which does set out a very, very radical critique of the current system, that says very clearly that the status quo does not work, and puts forward a series of principles and proposals in respect of radical reform, one of which is, in fact, the abolition of the House of Lords and the replacement of it. I think there is much in those principles that warrants very serious consideration, and I'm hoping to be able to make an oral statement to this Senedd in January, where we will have the opportunity to actually debate and consider, I think, substantively a lot of these important issues. It's not about the constitution, per se, but the constitution is how power is exercised. It is what affects the lives of people day in, day out. It's important to the quality of life of the people of Wales, and that's why it's important to us, and why we have the commission and why we are having these discussions. 

As Mabon said, questions 3 and 5 have been grouped. Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Of course, my original question was what legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government following the Supreme Court ruling that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to legislate for a referendum on Scottish independence. Now, this outcome has huge constitutional significance for Scotland and Wales, I believe. It essentially means that Wales cannot hold an independence referendum without Westminster approval. Indeed, as Professor Aileen McHarg has stated, the union and the UK Parliament are also reserved under the Government of Wales Act 2006, and the approach to whether a Bill relates to reserved matters is the same.  

Every time the independence question has been put to the people of Wales, and it was, most recently, in the 2021 election last year, the party that made those offers came a distant third. The people of Wales have spoken with one voice, saying they want to remain in a strong United Kingdom. So, do you agree with me that, unlike Plaid Cymru, who continue to speak about further devolution and independence on almost a weekly basis, no further resources and time should be wasted on this constitutional question, and that we should now be focusing on using Welsh Government and the parliamentary resources therein on making the best of the powers that we do have? In other words, sorting out our failing health service, sorting out the low standards in education—

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

—sorting out our infrastructure, our transport. I could go on and on and on, but he won't let me. 

—that face the people of Wales and less on this vanity project for Plaid Cymru?  

Well, I believe we are attending to the issues that affect the people of Wales. And you're absolutely right, in terms of your interpretation of what the Supreme Court judgment means with regard to the carrying out of a referendum under the referendums legislation. Where I think you're wrong, though, is in saying that that therefore means that everything is fine and there aren't major constitutional problems and constitutional reform issues that need to be addressed. The purpose of looking at constitutional reform is, firstly, when it is very clear and recognised across parties, by very senior people in all political parties and by many other commentators and members of the public as well, that what we have at the moment is not working, it is not adequate, it is outdated and it needs reform. The reason why these matters are important and why we need to attend to them is because, ultimately, our constitution and our powers is the way in which Government operates is about considering those, about how we can do things better, and about how we can change people's lives for the better. That is governed—[Interruption.]

I'm sorry to hear you respond in that way to what I've just said, because that is why we're having these discussions—that is why they are important. If you thought that discussing issues around constitution is not important, then we wouldn't have the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, we wouldn't have the retained EU law Bill, we would also not have the Bill of Rights legislation that is being proposed, and we would not be consistently talking about the issues that have emerged over the last six years with regard to Brexit. Those are all constitutional matters and they do impact on people's lives. What we are doing is looking at the way in which our relationship with the rest of the UK works, but also how we exercise our powers, how we obtain the powers that we need in order to deliver on the mandates that we get from the people of Wales, how we improve our governance, and how we improve the engagement of the people of Wales within our politics.

14:50
Reform of Welsh Tribunals

4. Will the Counsel General provide an update on the reform of the Welsh Tribunals? OQ58818

Thank you very much for the question. 'Delivering Justice for Wales' sets out our intention to take forward reform to create a modernised tribunal system for Wales. We are shaping detailed proposals for reform, drawing on the evidence base for change and our conversations with those affected by the reform agenda.

Thank you very much, Counsel General. Many people say that there is no justice jurisdiction in Wales. Well, that's not true. There is a small justice jurisdiction in Wales, which is through the tribunals system. Given that it's a year since the publication of the Law Commission's report on how to improve the Welsh tribunals, and given it's entirely within the powers of the Welsh Government to do that and to help a great number of users of the tribunals, could you now, after a year, provide a definitive timetable as to when we will see the new structure for the tribunals, and when we will see, for the first time in centuries, the first appeals system in Wales? Thank you very much. 

Firstly, thank you. There is obviously work that is under way in respect of the policy work and the legislative work with regard to the recommendations of the Law Commission in respect of tribunals. With regard to the point you raise on jurisdiction, I think there's always been a rather simplistic analysis of jurisdictions as to what a jurisdiction actually is in practice compared to what it is said to be. Because, yes, tribunals are very a significant court of administrative justice, and we look forward to legislation, and my intention will be to carry on that work. There will be an announcement in due course in respect of legislation and a timetable with regard to the creation of a first-tier tribunal, but, equally so, the creation of an appellate process for that. Any administrative court needs to have an appeals system, and this would be the creation of an appeals system. I think it would be a very significant part of the development of the devolution of justice as a whole.

Of course, there are other areas as well. I, of course, have to authorise prosecutions under Welsh law. I think that is part of our jurisdiction—that is part of our judicial process. I think, when the youth justice and probation is devolved, that will be yet a further extension, and, in due course, there will be further constructive discussions over the further devolution of the justice system.

14:55
The Devolution of Youth Justice

6. What discussions has the Counsel General had with other law officers regarding the devolution of youth justice to Wales? OQ58819

Thank you. I have regular meetings with the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Bellamy. I have made, and will continue to make, the case for the devolution of youth justice to Wales during these discussions.

Counsel General, thank you for your update on this. I recently met with Professor Kevin Haines and Professor Jonathan Wynne Evans, two pioneering experts for youth justice, who talked to me about how, in Wales, our approach is children first and offenders second, and they actually called this way back in 2013 the 'dragonisation' of youth justice. And this is all about making sure that the child is first and then the offence is focused on second. Evidence shows that promoting the welfare of children and young people reduces the risk of offending and reoffending, and doing so protects the public as well. So, it's incredibly timely to see that the devolution of justice was one of the recommendations of the recent Gordon Brown report. I'm aware that this is a matter that the Counsel General is also in discussions with UK Government on, and could we have an update on those discussions and their significance for the devolution of youth justice and probation to Wales, please?

Thank you for the question, and it is a really important area, and I'm as pleased as you are about the very specific focus on youth justice, because that is the most glaring area where there is such a jagged edge. Youth justice, whilst it remains non-devolved, devolved services, nevertheless, such as housing, education and healthcare, do play such a fundamental role in diverting young people away from the criminal justice system in Wales, and, as you say, they are key to enabling prevention and early intervention.

Of course, we have the youth justice blueprint for Wales that was published in July 2009. That sets out our vision for youth justice in Wales as agreed with the UK Government, which does take a children first approach, and this means working in a sort of child-centred rather than a service-focused way with, I think, a focus on trauma-informed practices, preventing children coming into contact with the justice system and meeting the individual needs of children within the justice system. That is why it is so important to us.

I know the Minister, my colleague the Minister for Social Justice, raises this on every occasion at every ministerial opportunity they have. I also raise it, and in the context of the devolution of justice, and as we did jointly within the 'Delivering Justice for Wales' paper. So, I raised it, as I said, with Lord Bellamy yesterday. I'm meeting tomorrow with the president of the Law Society for the whole of the United Kingdom, and I'll be raising that again, because having that support from the legal profession, from those who practice within that area who are experts, is, I think, vitally important and important in people's understanding of why this is so important to us, and why it must happen, and why I'm convinced that it actually will happen.

The Legislative Consent Process

7. What assessment has the Counsel General made of whether the legislative consent process is fit for purpose? OQ58836

Thank you very much for the question. Primary legislation that can be made in Wales should be made in Wales. There may be occasions when it is sensible and advantageous for provision within the Senedd’s legislative competence to be made in UK parliamentary Bills, but this must always be with the Senedd’s consent.

I thank the Counsel General for that response. I agree with your opening sentence: that legislation for Wales should be made in Wales, and there should be a full stop there. I've been an elected Member of this Senedd for 18 months now, but already—and it pains me to say this—I am losing confidence in the devolution process as it's currently being implemented here at the moment. It is entirely clear to me that the settlement we have is entirely unacceptable.

As a member of the Local Government and Housing Committee, we've received a number of LCMs, and then a supplementary LCM, a second supplementary LCM, a third and so on and so forth. These LCMs relate to legislation for England that have an influence on Wales, but there's very little time available for us to scrutinise these. This is legislation that's going to impact upon the lives of the people of Wales, but we have some quarter of an hour here and there to scrutinise and to ask questions, never mind the fact that the people of Wales have no input whatsoever. It's entirely unacceptable, and we cannot continue to operate in this way. It's a perfect recipe for poor legislation. So, in the absence of independence for our nation, we must have a clear devolution settlement, and England must also have its own Parliament with clear separation between who is responsible for what, with no ambiguity. Does the Counsel General therefore share my frustration, and what steps is this Government taking to resolve the situation?

15:00

Thank you for that. Of course, this is something I've commented on on a very regular basis before the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and in questions in this Senedd, because the effective engagement by UK Government, Welsh Government and devolved Governments over legislation is fundamentally important. The failure of that to operate as it should and in accordance with the devolution memoranda and so on is one of the biggest obstacles to having an efficient, effective and scrutinisable legislative process. When information is not shared, when drafting is not shared in good time, it not only creates considerable pressure on those who then have to analyse and understand it, it also is, in my view, an absolutely enormous waste of resources that could well be used in other ways.

We have been pressing for a more consistent and more effective system of engagement. We've had promises, of course, and we get the assurances that that will happen. Of course, we do have a new inter-governmental arrangement that is still not properly up and running, but that may improve the situation. But I believe that there is a need for more substantive constitutional reform. I think that constitutional reform has to include the justiciability in one way or another of Sewel, the entrenchment of Sewel, in a way, because many of the problems that emerge through these processes are, of course, Sewel-related ones.

In terms of the LCM process, of course, we don't have any significant control over that, because we have to operate in accordance with Standing Orders when legislation arises. If it impacts on the Senedd, or on the functions of Welsh Ministers, then, of course, it has to be considered with regard to its impact on this place, but also in terms of the exercise of our powers and whether we should give consent to any of those items. That, obviously, involves a very tortuous process of negotiations and discussions over legislative amendments and so on, a back-and-forth process. It is wholly inefficient. It is a whole waste of resources in the way these things are actually done.

Again, I'm sorry I keep referring to it, but I was very impressed with some of the recommendations and analysis that appear in the Gordon Brown report, which actually would give that justiciable status to Sewel, but would also create a specific constitutional structure in terms of inter-governmental relations with a justiciable disputes procedure. If that existed, that would be a very significant step forward in dealing with the points you raised. There was nothing new, in fact, in those things—these are things we've been saying in various forms for quite some time—but they are things that need to be addressed, and until they are addressed, the dysfunctional structure we have at the moment will continue.

Access to Justice

8. What assessment has the Counsel General made of access to justice in Wales? OQ58817

The cost-of-living crisis means that it is vital that legal advice is accessible to safeguard everyone’s rights, yet the UK Government has eroded justice to such an extent that the accessibility and the affordability of civil justice in the United Kingdom is now below the global average of the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index.

Earlier this year, Counsel General, you will know that—it seems like two or three Prime Ministers ago now, in fact—the committee that I chair actually carried out a stakeholder engagement exercise on access to justice to Wales. One of the points that came out on that was the well-known impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and the effect that has had of diminishing access to legal aid. Despite what was welcomed by stakeholders in terms the investment of the Welsh Government, it also picked up on the impact of the reduction in access to courts and tribunals, and the geographic disparities that we have in Wales as well denying access to justice. It also picked up on the accessibility of Welsh law and the need to have clarity in Welsh law, particularly in areas that were regarded as progressive—on aspects of social law and so on. Can I just briefly ask him—? One of the respondents said to us:

'This is the problem with us not having a devolved legal system...the trouble is, legal aid is controlled by the Ministry of Justice in London'.

And this is a direct quote from a practitioner:

'they don’t care about what goes on in Wales frankly...and in actual fact, sometimes legal aid is refused on grounds which are not relevant to Wales'.

Counsel General, do you agree with me that these issues will continue to cause scars within Wales on society at this jagged edge of justice, and that, frankly, ignoring this will not make it go away?

15:05

I do agree with you. The Thomas commission recommended the devolution of justice. I've made many comments in the past about the failures over many decades of the approach to legal aid and its importance in the empowerment of people. And, of course, the recent World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, I think, on average, put the United Kingdom now at fifteenth in the world, but when it came to access to and the affordability of civil justice, the United Kingdom was ranked eighty-ninth out of 140 countries, putting us behind the Russian Federation, Romania, Belarus, El Salvador, Paraguay, Botswana, Côte d'Ivoire and many other countries. That is a mark of shame that the Government has. 

What I find very, very difficult, of course, is that we now have an Under-Secretary for justice, Lord Bellamy, who has been very respectful and has been very engaging—he was visiting here yesterday; he gave evidence to your committee—but then we also have a Lord Chancellor who has totally trashed big chunks of and key elements to the Bellamy report on the review of legal aid, to such an extent—. I'll just quote this comment from the Law Society in respect of the decision just the other day by Dominic Raab. It says:

'Numbers of duty solicitors and criminal legal aid firms continue to fall at an alarming rate—with several police station schemes on the verge of collapse.'

We know that in our Valleys, our advice deserts.

'Access to justice—including the fundamental right to representation at the police station—is in serious peril and the government is ignoring the threat.'

It says the reckless decision is

'likely to prove to be a fatal blow to a criminal justice system that used to be the envy of the world.'

I very much endorse that particular analysis. The £11 million that we've put into our single advice fund is a vital cog in at least giving some representation to the people who most need that access, but it is not a substitute for a properly funded access-to-justice system.

3. Questions to the Senedd Commission

Item 3 is questions to the Senedd Commission. The first question is from Heledd Fychan, and will be answered by Joyce Watson.

Free Period Products

1. What is the Commission's policy on the provision of free period products on the Senedd estate? OQ58820

2. How is the Commission ensuring that staff can readily access free sanitary products on the Senedd estate? OQ58824

I thank you for the question. The Senedd Commission strives to be an exemplar in the delivery of its dignity and respect policies and actions. I am pleased to confirm that, further to the excellent work by trade union officials, the Commission has agreed to provide free period products on the Senedd estate for anyone who needs them, with effect from 2 December, to promote period dignity across Wales and act as an exemplar for other organisations. Those products are available within all the toilets on the Senedd estate, including signage to promote that service. 

Thank you very much. I have to admit, it's great to see the products available in the toilets since the beginning of this week. I wanted to ask as well, when will the vending machines be removed from the toilets? Because that is a mixed message, given that we still have the vending machines in the toilets. Will we have more permanent signage? Because I understand that these are temporary signs. I understand that this is a new issue, but, in order to ensure that this is a permanent development, is it a policy that has been confirmed? Finally, how will the fact that these products are available be communicated to people who visit the estate in terms of updating the website and so forth? Because it's extremely important that all visitors know that this is available. We need to do more to celebrate and promote this, in the same way that the Parliament in Scotland does.

15:10

I absolutely agree with what you're saying. I'm sure that the message has been heard about updating the website to make sure. The 39 vending machines that you refer to will be removed. They cost £110 per annum each, and the total is £4,290 per year. There was a cost of £1 per box of products, which, of course, is way outside what you would pay anywhere in a shop. Those vending machines, as I've just said, are now being replaced with free sanitary products in all of the toilets. The estimated cost of doing that is around £3,000 per annum, based on what Scotland has done, so we've put a budget provision to that end in place. I will take on board very much what you say about making sure that everybody, not just us here, knows of that availability and that we have toilets that treat people with dignity and respect. We must make sure that they know about that.

Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thanks for agreeing to group the questions. Commissioner, I thank you for your response to Heledd Fychan. The reason I tabled this question was following a conversation I had with a staff member. They approached me to ask whether I had a £1 coin to use in a vending machine in Tŷ Hywel. I didn't—not many people do, these days. She explained to me how frustrating and disruptive to her day it could be when a basic necessity was not easy to access. So, I'm glad, now, since these questions have been tabled last week, we are in a position where free sanitary products are available.

Can I ask the Commissioner—I thank the Commissioner for the work she's done on this—two things? Is this a permanent fixture in the Senedd, in the Welsh Parliament? Can I also ask you and the Commission to give consideration to providing environmentally friendly sanitary products to staff in the future? 

Again, I thank you, Jack, for your interest in all things equality. There were two questions. Is it permanent? I believe that it is permanent. In terms of sustainable products, you will find that there's a mix of products already out there in our facilities. The aim is to test those, to see the use and to move into that space of 100 per cent sustainability in our products, which, of course, is in line with our wider policy on moving to environmental sustainability in all that we do.

Reducing Energy Bills

3. Will the Commission provide an update on its strategy for reducing energy bills on the Senedd estate? OQ58837

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you again to my colleague Jenny Rathbone, because this is not the first time—it's fair to say that you are very proactive on making sure that we do reduce our energy on this estate. I’m pleased to confirm that the Commission has agreed to implement a range of additional energy saving measures on the Senedd estate to support its 2030 carbon neutral strategy and in response to rising energy and utility costs. These include reducing the heating setpoint across the estate by 1 degree centigrade to 20 degrees centigrade; switching off the heating in lift lobbies and in areas that are unused on some days, such as Siambr Hywel; switching off heating to areas that have low or no occupancy on some days, in both Commission staff areas and Welsh Government areas; and encouraging those staff to use smaller heated areas. Changes have also been made to building operational time schedules at the start and end of days where applicable. It is estimated that these changes will enable a 15 per cent energy saving. The Commission is obviously keeping this issue under constant review, and I have more notes on it if the Member would like me to circulate these notes to you, as to greater detail in terms of everything that's happening on this estate.

15:15

Thank you, Janet Finch-Saunders, for your response. I think it's really important that we are seen to be doing what we ask other people to do. So, I think there's much more progress being made on making the electric lights only turn on when we actually need them, and I have noticed that we're not now heating parts of the estate where we're not actually needing to sit or have a meeting. Many of our staff are actually not turning on their heating at home, because I had a conversation on this only this morning, about everyone being with a blanket on them, because so many people are terrified of turning on the heating.

So it's great to see that you hope that you're going to make a 15 per cent energy saving. What I would really like, in due course, would be to capture the energy saved between December and February, which are the coldest months, compared with December to February last year. It won't necessarily be a financial saving, but hopefully it will be an energy saving.

As I say, there are a lot of positives as to what everybody's doing here. What we say, though—as well as these measures being introduced, it's down to all of us as building users to play our part in assisting with energy-saving measures. I take the point that you said about January and February, because they are, I think, for everyone who budgets for a household, the critical times. Members themselves can adjust the heating and cooling set points in their offices to further reduce energy and utility usage, and they can also ensure that equipment in their offices is turned off when not in use. We already have, as a Senedd, a number of systems that are controlled by movement sensors—for example, in office areas, lights will automatically switch off when movement is not detected—and similarly, in dining rooms, air conditioning will switch off when movement is not detected. This, of course, all helps to play a significant role in ensuring that energy is not wasted in unoccupied areas. These changes have been communicated and agreed with a range of stakeholders, including chiefs of staff, us as Commissioners, trade unions and networks, and information about these changes has been communicated on the intranet. 

As the Commissioner for sustainability, it's important that we make real certain that it's not just the fact about the energy and our climate and carbon objectives; it is about cost as well, because, at the end of the day, when people, as you rightly say, are frightened to put the heating on at home, it would look really bad if we were wasting energy to any degree here. So I can assure you that I'm working with the department to ensure that we run the Senedd estate in the most efficient way possible. Thank you. 

And finally, question 4 will be answered by Ken Skates, and I call Huw Irranca-Davies to ask his question.

Electric Cars

4. What progress has been made on a salary sacrifice support scheme for electric cars for Commission staff and staff of Members of the Senedd? OQ58815

I'm pleased to say that excellent progress has been made on the implementation of a salary sacrifice scheme for electric vehicles for Members, for Members' staff and also for Commission staff. The executive board has given in-principle approval of the scheme, following detailed background work, and final arrangements are now under way to set up the necessary systems and processes within the Senedd and with the scheme operator. I'm pleased to say that we anticipate that these are going to be finalised very soon in readiness for the scheme to be launched next month. Implementation of the scheme will support, of course, the Commission's 2030 carbon-neutral strategy and sustainable travel targets. 

That's really excellent news, and it's good to hear that it's coming forward very soon indeed. I should point out that electric cars, in my view, are not the be-all-and-end-all solution. Many people who will travel here to work or around the constituency will do it by walking, cycling or public transport, but they are a means forward to tackling our climate change emergency, our crisis. But the commissioner will know that we will anticipate that, in future, places in Wales may be subject to congestion car charging—who knows? In which case, we want to give people options of how to avoid that and do it with clean vehicles. Could I ask how you will communicate that to staff here in the Commission and to Members' staff when it is brought forward in January or February?

15:20

Can I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for raising this important question, and for his keen interest in the subject? He's absolutely right, of course, that, whilst electric cars are much better for the environment in terms of their day-to-day operation, they still carry with them problems concerning brake and tyre particulates, so they're not the be be-all and end-all, as Huw Irranca-Davies has said. Nonetheless, they will improve the carbon footprint that we have collectively here in the Senedd. 

We are proposing to put together a frequently asked questions paper that will be available to Members, to Members' staff, to Commission staff—that will be available on the intranet. And in January, we'll be launching pages on the intranet with information about the scheme, the costs, the models, the scheme operator, and so forth. So, all information regarding the scheme will be available to Members, to Members' staff and Commission staff in the next month.  

4. Topical Questions

Item 4 this afternoon is topical questions, and the first question is from Heledd Fychan to be answered by the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language. Heledd Fychan. 

Welsh Speakers in Wales

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the 2021 census data about Welsh language skills which shows that the number of Welsh speakers in Wales has decreased for the second decade in a row? TQ694

Although this data is disappointing, our commitment to increase the use of the Welsh language and to reach a million by 2050 remains. We must look in detail at the census and all other data sources, particularly when the annual population survey shows an upward trend and the census shows a reduction. 

Thank you, Minister. Given that it's Welsh Language Rights Day today, I think it's very appropriate that we are having a discussion, and, obviously, there is more data to be released in terms of the census as well, and I greatly hope, given that our parties are co-operating on a number of very important elements in terms of Cymraeg 2050, that that dialogue can continue. And, evidently, we need more time to analyse and understand that data in detail. But the truth is that there are fewer Welsh speakers compared with 10 years ago. We can argue in terms of the skills between three and 15 years old, but that's what the census shows us for the second decade. That means therefore that we are further from reaching the target of a million Welsh speakers today than we were when the target was established. 

I'd ask you therefore that we do look—. We do know from the past in terms of targets such as eradicating child poverty by 2020 and what the reality is of that in Wales, that we have to ensure that slogans or aims such as Cymraeg 2050—. We've always said that it is ambitious, but we've also seen over recent years, time and time, again a number of local authorities, through the Welsh in education strategic plans, not reaching the targets that they had set for themselves in terms of reaching that aim. So, I do think that we need to look seriously, as the new WESPs come into force, at how we then monitor. 

Evidently, a very important element in terms of the co-operation agreement is the Welsh education Bill, which should ensure that young people can leave school with the Welsh language. I think we need to look seriously at the strength of that Bill in terms of ensuring that that fundamental right is available to everyone, because if we are serious—we say time and time again; you say time and again, Minister, and I endorse that—that the Welsh language belongs to everybody, if only 20 per cent of our children can have the opportunity to be taught through the medium of Welsh fully, how can the Welsh language truly belong to everyone? 

I've met a number of young people who are 16, 17-years-old, who say already that they regret that they haven't learned Welsh, and they're not confident leaving school in terms of their Welsh language skills. So, there are things in the co-operation agreement in terms of investing in that age cohort, and there are some encouraging things in terms of people over the age of 16 in terms of the Welsh language, but we can't take that for granted. And I would ask as well—. One of the things that we have discussed, time and time again, in this Chamber is the importance of having equal access to the Welsh language and what does local provision mean. And time and time again, we've discussed barriers in terms of transport and new English-medium schools being built in areas where there is a great need for Welsh-medium schools, and these are schools that are funded mainly by the Welsh Government. So, the Welsh education Bill has to be one that ensures that that doesn't continue, if we are serious about ensuring equal access.

The feeling and the pride that people feel towards the Welsh language in light of the world cup—

15:25

Heledd, you need to ask your questions now, because we've got many other questions to ask too.

Okay. Thank you very much. That feeling is extremely important, but could I ask, therefore: what are the Welsh Government's plans in terms of ensuring that that national feeling and the engagement with the Welsh language does ensure that everyone has the opportunity to proceed in that fashion, that we don't just leave that as a battle for Welsh speakers, and that that is something that is important to everyone, wherever they are in Wales? There is work to be done, and we're ready to co-operate on this, but the Welsh education Bill certainly has to have teeth, which means that there will be a drastic change in the next decade.

Well, I'll try and respond to that broad range of comments and questions. The Member started by saying that the figures clearly demonstrated that we're further away from our target. We must look at the census, but also the other data sources, which, as I said at the outset, show an upward trend whilst the census shows a downward trend, so we need to look carefully at all of the data, not just part of the data. But, at the end of the day, it's not in regulations and reviews and forms that the Welsh language is going to prosper. The figures in Ireland show that far more people speak Irish than use the language. What we want to see in our schools, our hospitals, our public services, our workplaces, our pubs, our sports clubs, is that the Welsh language is used confidently and naturally in all contexts.

Now, the Member made a series of comments on Welsh-medium education and the Bill—well, we have a commitment in the co-operation agreement to tackle that issue, so the process is ongoing at the moment, as the Member knows. And people are calling for different things; it's our function as a Government to try and deliver on our real agenda, and there's an invitation for Plaid Cymru to join us in doing that. There is more that can be done than just making demands. There is an opportunity to help deliver, so I would invite you to do that too.

But, at the end of the day, as you heard the First Minister say yesterday: we all want to ensure that Welsh-medium education is available to all children in Wales who wish to access it. But, at the end of the day, what yesterday's figures tell me too is that we need to unite the education system, the Welsh-medium and English-medium around a commitment to ensuring that every child can leave school, whether you're in Welsh-medium schools or English-medium education, with fluency in the Welsh language. That's the opportunity here. Whatever kind of education you access, you should leave as a confident Welsh speaker, and to close that gap that certainly exists at the moment between Welsh-medium education and those learning Welsh in the English-medium sector. There are some excellent examples in the English-medium sector of people learning Welsh, but it is inconsistent, and we need to improve standards generally. So, that's the aim.

The Member concluded by asking what we're going to do to build on the pride felt in the Welsh language, and I agree entirely with her, and that's why we shouldn't be disheartened. The context of these figures is very different to the context 10 years ago. I was looking at Twitter this morning, from Beth Fisher, who said:

'There's a lot going around about the decrease in the figures but here's my opinion as someone who put no to all the questions. Despite knowing very little but desperately trying to learn I've actually never felt more connected to our language. Of course I'd love to be fluent but now it doesn't feel like the 'them & us' camp like it did in the past but instead it genuinely feels like we're all in this together & there is little judgement but more of a feeling that a little is better than none'.

She goes on to say:

'So perhaps as well as the "can you understand, speak and write..." questions on the census maybe there should be a question like "Do you feel a connection to the Welsh language." And for that',

she says,

'I would have definitely said "Ydw dwi yn".'

15:30

I speak Welsh every day, but, as Members here know, not very well. I also know that children in primary schools across Swansea also speak Welsh every day at school. Two questions: are we asking the right question on the census? Should we ask how often people speak Welsh?

And, in English, what is the correlation between the number of pupils attending Welsh-medium schools between the ages of three and 18 and those who are showing as being able to speak and write Welsh?

I thank the Member for the question, and it’s a very important question, I think, if you do want to tackle what’s being demonstrated in these figures. The census doesn’t tell us anything about Welsh language use, and it doesn’t tell us anything about people’s perception of what it is to be a Welsh speaker. So, it asks a question that it is binary, at the end of the day: do you speak Welsh, or do you not? But my personal view is that we do need to look at these figures in their context, as I said. That is, if you get an official document from Government, which you must respond to, and respond to honestly, and that asks you a question as to whether you speak Welsh, then there are questions of perception, questions of confidence, that come into your response to that question. And if you look at where the reductions have been, it’s happened in local authority areas where there is a smaller concentration of Welsh speakers, so that would be consistent with the ideas I’ve just outlined. But also, the annual survey does ask more questions that can draw out the detail that Mike Hedges mentioned. That’s why it’s important that we look at the whole context as we discuss this important area.

I thank Heledd Fychan for tabling this question. I’m sure, Minister, that you share my concerns that the figures announced yesterday are deeply disappointing—you said that on Twitter, and also in responding to Heledd. My concerns about accountability for the target are confirmed once again by these figures. As I’ve said before, ‘Cymraeg 2050’ is a target that none of the current Ministers in the Welsh Government will be accountable for when we reach the year 2050. In 28 years’ time, who should be accountable if that target is met or not? And, more importantly, who or what would be blamed today? As we’ve said in this Chamber previously, it’s important that we do send out positive messages about the language, showing that the language is cool and modern and can be used in our day-to-day lives. Only through tackling the challenge in this way can we ensure that the most beautiful language on earth can prosper in our country. So, will the information from the census see the Welsh Government changing any part of its Welsh language policies? Thank you.

Thank you. I agree with Sam Kurtz—it’s important that we do find ways of promoting the Welsh language, and continue to find creative ways of doing so, so it is cool and modern for those who will hear those positive messages. But there are many different ways of doing that. I had an interesting and constructive discussion with the Welsh language partnership council this morning as to how to respond to some of the results that were published yesterday.

In terms of the ‘Cymraeg 2050’ strategy, to be honest, I don’t think the figures that we saw yesterday tell us much about what’s happened in terms of that strategy. If you think about it, it’s only some two years since the policy was started and then COVID took hold and then the census took place. So, I think we also need to look at the broader context. And a range of things have also happened since the census last March. But, certainly, I’ve said from the very outset that we need to look again at the trajectory towards 2050 whatever the figures would be today, whether they showed an increase or a decrease, and that’s certainly the objective still.

15:35

I thank the Minister.

The next question is to be asked by Laura Anne Jones and to be answered by the Minister for Health and Social Services.

Group A Streptococcus

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the increase of cases of group A streptococcus in schools? TQ695

Strep A infections cause a number of common childhood illnesses. It's not unusual to see cases associated with nurseries and schools. Nurseries and schools have received guidance from Public Health Wales, and parents of unwell children are being advised to seek medical advice for diagnosis and treatment.

Thank you, and a massive thank you to the Presiding Officer and Deputy Presiding Officer for allowing this topical question today, and thank you for an initial response, Minister, and thank you for the written statement last night, although I know many across this Chamber were disappointed that there was no oral statement yesterday, so that Members across the Chamber would have the opportunity to ask questions on this. Of course, it's important that it was brought to the floor today, so thank you again. And, of course, it's crucially important that concerned parents and carers across Wales are kept up with current developments. There has been some obvious concern, with the sad deaths of nine children across the UK, one of which was in Wales, and our thoughts go out to those families for the loss of their child. And I believe it's just been announced in breaking news that there's been an outbreak in Carmarthenshire, with two seriously children and 24 cases reported of scarlet fever in the primary school there.

Minister, it's obviously, of course, crucial that we don't cause any sort of panic, but it is important that schools and nurseries are extra vigilant and that there is a universal awareness of what to do and what steps to take. And on that, I’d like to ask you how you’re working with the UK Government and Public Health Wales to ensure that schools are acutely aware of what to do and what steps to take to minimise the spread of strep A, and what the protocol is for them when this happens; it would be useful to know.

There was, of course, some concern also over the amounts of antibiotics available, and I believe that you’re working with the UK Government on that, so an update would be fantastic. I also understand the reason why antibiotics will be given to whole schools if there is a certified case, but there is some understandable concern from the medical profession about giving potentially healthy children antibiotics, because, of course, we want to prevent healthy children from having antibiotics and ensure that's kept to a minimum when they’re younger so that they don’t get immunity to them.

My colleague Altaf Hussain has also said that perhaps it would be a good idea for schools that are affected in the way that I’ve just announced to have access to a paediatrician straight away to confirm the diagnosis and whether they actually do need to have those antibiotics, rather than a blanket approach. But I’d appreciate your thoughts on that, because I understand, obviously, why parents particularly would probably like their children to have them. But, practically, would that be even possible due to the number of paediatricians we have in Wales, of course?

I just wanted to ask one more question: whether, now, if anyone presents in A&E with strep A symptoms, they'll have immediate access to paediatricians rather than having to wait the usual times in A&E. Thank you, and thanks again for bringing this to the floor.

Diolch yn fawr. Can I add my expressions of condolence to, in particular, the family who've recently lost a child? I think we all understand the real concern that many parents are suffering today because of the increase that we are seeing in strep A in our communities.

Public Health Wales issued advice to schools and nurseries at the end of November. Staff should be aware of the possibility of this infection in children who become ill with a fever, sore throat or rash. So, already that advice has gone out. Parents of unwell children are being advised to seek medical advice for diagnosis and treatment.

A child who's got scarlet fever will be asked to withdraw from the setting for 24 hours after the commencement of appropriate antibiotic treatment. Where there are two or more cases of scarlet fever in a setting within the same 10-day period, schools and nurseries have been asked to notify the local health protection team for further guidance. It is at that point that they will take a judgment as to whether you do need to give out antibiotics to the entire class or just to people who've been in close contact. Obviously, they'll make an assessment of whether there's a need for a paediatrician at that point.

So, I think it's really important for us to understand that there are degrees here and, obviously, it's only when it becomes very complex that the real danger kicks in. It's when you get invasive strep A that we really need to be concerned. But, obviously, taking those antibiotics at an appropriate time means that people can be helped.

In terms of the shortage of antibiotics, the good news is that all of the relatively mild illnesses caused by strep A can be treated with common antibiotics. Obviously now we have seen an increase in demand for antibiotics to treat those suspected cases of strep A, and that has led to some pharmacies in Wales experiencing shortages of stock. Now, we're confident that suppliers are working to address any supply issues, and, if people find difficulty obtaining a prescription locally, they may need to visit a different pharmacy, and, if they're still not able to, then they can go back to the GP and they can prescribe an alternative treatment. So, we are working with the UK Government medicine supply team and other partners to make sure that pharmacies in Wales have the supplies that they need.  

15:40

Thank you for that response from the Minister. I also wanted to ask about the shortage of antibiotics. I think we've had quite a comprehensive response there from the Minister. Two other questions from me, again on communication. I was pleased to see the statement coming last night. I've shared that on my social media, in my constituency, and I'm sure other Members are doing likewise, and the information is being provided to parents through schools. But what's the communication plan as we move forward? I think it's important that we understand that there is a communications plan in place in order to ensure that information is shared consistently, because this concern is not going to go away. And the other element I want to ask about is the additional pressure that I understand there is on A&E departments in hospitals. Because of a lack of understanding and information perhaps, it's quite easy to understand why more parents would take their children to A&E when there's any sign of something that they're concerned with, but, if that puts additional pressures on those departments, what plans does the Government have to ensure that there is additional support provided to enable hospitals to deal with that additional pressure? 

Thank you very much. Well, Public Health Wales is leading on ensuring that information is available to the public. I've contacted them today to ask them to simplify the language, because I think, sometimes, it becomes too technical in nature. People perhaps don't understand the difference between strep A and iGAS, and people use terms that the public don't understand. So, I've asked them to look again at that. I think it's important also to understand that scarlet fever does occur in Britain usually, but what we've seen is quite a large increase, and it's strange to see that kind of increase at this time of year. It usually happens in the spring. We're seeing this increase now, and the risk is when this happens when the children have other problems, so if they have chicken pox or another problem at the same time. That's when there are complications. 

Of course, there's great pressure on A&E departments at present. So, we will be ensuring that children have another route through the system. What we saw over the weekend was a very great increase in the numbers who were phoning 111 for support. I think it's important that people do call that number, because there is a difference between something that's simple and something that's looks a lot more complex, and 111 can help people though that system to understand what to look out for in terms of symptoms. 

So, regarding scarlet fever, people should be aware that you're talking about a sore throat, headache, a fever, nausea, being sick, and then you have a rash perhaps on your chest or on your stomach. But what happens with iGAS, which is a lot more complex, is that your temperature rises a lot, and you have muscle aches. So, it's important that people understand that that's when they should be perhaps getting more information from their local GP.  

15:45

I'd like to thank my colleague Laura Anne Jones for bringing this forward. Yesterday, I tried to bring forward an emergency question simply because of the fact that I was receiving so many enquiries. It's been touched upon, the availability of antibiotics. My concerns are it's not long now before the holiday period, and I know that parents and grandparents and carers are very concerned that if a child goes ill at the moment, it can take some time for certain symptoms to arise. Of course, we're in that season, aren't we, where children do go down with common ailments? So, it's how those can be distinguished and, just again, some reiteration that, with your working with the UK Government, we will not run out of any type of antibiotics for whichever strain they may be required for.

Also, I've heard the first-hand experience of a constituent of mine with two children who were waiting in A&E for nine and a half hours. At the moment, there's a hospital in north Wales whereby the board says 10 hours' waiting time. But, they were so worried they waited, to be told, 'You could have gone to see your GP', and then other parents are telling me that they're going to see the GP, who's saying, 'If you're that concerned'—because our GPs are overstretched as well—'then you're better going to A&E.'

So, would you be able to put out some clear guidelines? Like my colleague Rhun ap Iorwerth, I've shared your statement, but I'm sure there are other Members who are not here today who might appreciate, maybe next week, an update on where we're at then, because obviously the numbers have increased across the UK, per se. So, we want to be sure that people know exactly what they're dealing with, when to worry and when not to worry, so to speak, when to take action and when action at A&E isn't the right choice. I think that's it. Thank you.

Thanks very much. As I set out in my statement, parents who suspect their children have scarlet fever are advised that they should contact their GP or they should contact 111. Those facilities are available and people are using them. I would suggest at this point that they don't go to A&E, unless they are directed by 111 or their GP.

I think it's important, we've obviously put a lot of additional funding into 111. Obviously, as you say, we are working very closely with UK Government to make sure we don't run out of those antibiotics. We think this has happened because perhaps of the lack of social mixing over the past couple of years. What we're seeing now is a number of cases of this common bacterial infection—let's not forget, this is quite a common infection, it's something that many people just live with—circulating at the same time as that wide range of winter respiratory infections, and we think that's what's resulted in the increase in the number of those rarer and more serious invasive strep A diseases. Thankfully, we're still at fairly low numbers, but we don't know what's coming next, so it is obviously a very concerning time for people with young children.

The Minister for Health and Social Services will also respond to the final topical question. Rhun ap Iorwerth.

Industrial Action in the NHS

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the Government’s response to threats of industrial action across the Welsh NHS, and on its plans to try to avert such actions through negotiation? TQ696

I'm saddened that our health workers have got to a point where they feel they need to take industrial action. I fully understand and sympathise with their situation, but, without additional funding from the UK Government, there is simply no money to increase our pay offer without substantial cuts to staffing and essential services. I'm meeting with representatives of all healthcare unions next week to explore if there is any possibility or alternative that might help us to avoid industrial action.

Dirprwy Lywydd, we're facing multiple disputes. Multiple unions have balloted on strike action. Ambulance staff are, of course, the latest to prepare to go on strike. The Minister has said again that it's all down to UK Government cuts, and I agree about their economic vandalism and the harm of their ideological-driven cuts to public spending. But, whilst pay is clearly central to these disputes, the truth is that much of this stems from health staff feeling over a prolonged time that they haven't been supported, and, on that, both the UK Conservative and Welsh Labour Governments have to take a long, hard look at themselves to realise that opportunities have been lost time and time again to show that support.

Now, today, I'm asking the Minister again: when is she going to negotiate? We have a Labour Government refusing to negotiate with trade unions. She said again that she is meeting unions; I meet unions. What we need to see is the opening of meaningful negotiations to try to avert the strikes. Now, let me quote the Labour Party leader to you on breakfast news this week. He said,

'These disputes are quite capable of being resolved',

and, on Monday, at a Labour event, Keir Starmer said, 

'Government has been sitting on its hands throughout these disputes, rather than resolving them. Go to Wales and you will see a different government taking a different approach and some not dissimilar disputes have actually been resolved.'

Now, does the Minister know what he's talking about there? Because I don't recognise that as a reflection of this Labour Government's position on the current disputes—nurses don't, ambulance staff don't. As one Royal College of Nursing member told me, 'At this point, there's very little difference between the English and Welsh Governments. Neither are supporting the workforce, no social partnership, no communication, the same pay award. So, why should anyone vote for a Labour Government when nothing is different?'

What is the Labour Government here doing to try to resolve these disputes in Wales, and when does the Minister plan to start negotiating?

15:50

Thanks very much. It's all very well for you to say, 'Da iawn'. The fact is, we've got a set amount of money. That's it. Right? So, we've got a choice: you either cut services or you cut the number of people in order to give a pay rise. Now, I don't think that's a space that the trade unions will want to enter, but obviously that is an option. That's an option. But, I think we've got to be absolutely clear here: there is no more money. There is no more money. We're in Government—I think it's really important for people to understand—and we are working in a system that was agreed with the trade unions; it's an independent pay commission where everybody gives their evidence, they all say what they'd like to see, and this has gone on for years, and suddenly we're in a different place. Now, I understand we're in a different place because, actually, inflation is very, very different from what it's been in the past. So, I completely understand why these workers are upset. But, let me say again, let me be absolutely clear: it's not just about one group of workers; this is about all of the workers in the NHS. So, you can't single one group out and say, 'Nurses are more important than porters.' There is an 'Agenda for Change' and I am meeting with representatives of the health unions next week to see whether there is any scope anywhere for us to address this issue and to avoid that industrial action.

Minister, the RCN informed me today that you have still not met with them specifically to discuss nurses' pay, and that you've not opened negotiations with them or through the Welsh NHS partnership forum, which I think is extremely disappointing. Frustratingly, you still point the finger to Westminster rather than take responsibility for your actions here. Now, this is your decision. They're your responsibilities. You've got to cut the cloth here as you see fit here. We've got 3,000 nurse vacancies, and a spend on agency nurses of £140 million. Well, that's due to your management of the NHS and your predecessors. These are decisions that you make here and you've got to take responsibility for what is within your gift. You had an additional £1.2 billion in the autumn statement. Now, the Scottish Government have offered band 5 nurses an 8.7 per cent pay award, which has paused strike action in Scotland, and the RCN are going out to ask members if that is acceptable. So, if the Scottish Government can get around the negotiation table and make an offer, why can't you? What is different here in Wales to the position in Scotland? Rhun has mentioned Keir Starmer. Keir Starmer is saying and implying that the disputes here have been resolved. That's what he's saying. So, can I ask you, Minister, have you corrected Keir Starmer or does he know something that we don't know?

15:55

Can I just be clear that the Scottish Government work within a different framework from the framework that we have? So, we have signed up to the independent pay commission. That's something that all the unions—they all agreed to do that. They all gave their evidence. We gave our evidence. They take independent evidence from people who know about the economy, inflation and all of those things, and then they come up with a conclusion. The system in Scotland is different. So, that is one reason why they're different.

And the other thing you've got to remember is they have offered a greater amount of pay and that has come at a significant cost when it comes to services. So, they've taken about £400 million out of the services. So, when next week you're having a go at me because of waiting lists, you'll understand that, actually, we've got to make sure that we're not only supporting people who work in the NHS, we're also supporting people who are waiting to be treated on the NHS, and that's the balance you have to strike as a Government. And we think it's right that we have to understand that there are people across the NHS who deserve a pay award, we've gone as far as we can, but I think it's really important that people understand that, however much we'd like to go further, if we were to respect and to give an inflationary pay award, it would cost us about £900 million. Now, that is a significant amount of money to come out of front-line services. That is a very, very difficult call, and I've got to make it clear that I don't think the public would be in a position where they'd say, 'We are happy for you to cut our services in order to pay that.'

5. 90-second Statements