Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

08/02/2023

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 Climate Change

Good afternoon, all, and welcome to this Plenary meeting. The first item on the agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Climate Change, and the first question is to be answered by the Deputy Minister, and to be asked by Siân Gwenllian.

Public Transport Costs

1. What plans does the Welsh Government have in place to help the young people of Arfon with the costs of traveling on public transport? OQ59096

Diolch. One of the aims of 'Llwybr Newydd', the Wales transport strategy, is to reduce the cost of sustainable travel for everyone in Wales, including young people. We are working towards an accessible transport system across the nation and have a number of initiatives aimed at younger travellers.

It's good to hear that there are plans in the pipeline, and, of course, we need to extend them and to bring new plans forward too. But in rural parts of my constituency, it's not the cost of travelling on buses that's the only problem. There's a lack of bus services in the first instance, with some communities without a way to travel at all at times, because there are no trains, metro, appropriate cycling routes, nor are there bus services at some times of the day. Now, Yr Orsaf in Penygroes is developing a project to support residents, including young people, who face barriers because of a lack of public transport in dyffryn Nantlle, with the support of the dyffryn Nantlle community transport partnership. Is community transport an area that you as a Deputy Minister want to see developing in the future, and, if this is a priority for you, how much funding has been earmarked for encouraging this kind of transport in the Government's draft budget for the next financial year?

Thank you. A number of points there. I'm familiar with the work of Partneriaeth Ogwen and have visited some of their schemes—they're an outstanding organisation. I was particularly struck by the scheme we've been funding them for to retrofit bicycles, to add a battery to them, which, particularly in rural areas, particularly hilly areas, is a really practical thing that we can do to help people who don't have easy access to a car or to public transport. We know that, for generations, we've been favouring investment into road schemes, for those people who have cars, and, over time, have been neglecting public transport, and we've seen usage decline, we've seen routes shrink and we've seen fares go up. So, that is one of the reasons why we're bringing forward our bus Bill, to redesign the service, and it's one of the reasons why we'll be publishing the roads review next Tuesday, to, over time, shift resource from car-based schemes to schemes for everyone.

In the meantime, we do have some really difficult financial challenges, and we are seeing bus schemes being withdrawn, which illustrates the problem we have with the privatised system, because there is no strategic overview to this—it's being done randomly by bus companies. And then, we have the further problem, particularly in rural Wales, where bus companies are struggling to keep their business model going, and the cost of energy is really stopping them being able to run routes, and they're not tendering for fresh services. So, we have a range of challenges facing us, but the fundamental problem is the lack of investment that we have. Because we have prioritised other things, including as part of the co-operation agreement. We could have chosen to prioritise public transport; we chose other things, and we have to do the best we can with what we've got. But, clearly, as part of our modal shift and the net-zero targets, we need to shift resource far more into public transport.

I just want to echo the comments raised by the Member for Arfon, and recognise that this important focus is required on public transport, especially for rural areas, in areas like Arfon and across north Wales—the region I represent, of course. Deputy Minister, I'm sure you are an avid reader of the Welsh Conservative manifesto, especially the one for the 2021 Senedd elections. In that, we as Conservatives called for free bus travel and discounted rail travel for 16 to 24-year-olds, to help our young people access education, training and employment. This of course could embed that modal shift that you and I are so keen to see, whilst also supporting our environment, so importantly. So, in light of this, Minister, what consideration have you and the Welsh Government given to this type of idea, to see that free access to buses for our young people, so we can see that modal shift whilst also supporting our environment? Thank you very much.

Well, there's no doubt that, if we had lower prices, we'd have higher use. There are schemes right across the world, including free bus use in Normandy and elsewhere, and free bus schemes in Wales, in Cardiff and Swansea and Newport, for short periods, which have shown an uptake in usage. So, we know that, when fares drop, people are more likely to use it. There's no shortage of opportunities and ideas to increase usage and to reduce fares, and incentivise people to use public transport. The challenge always is the resource. So, I'm not sure how the Conservatives plan to fund that initiative that they had in their manifesto, but there are no easy options that I'm aware of to do just that.

We do have an offer on buses where people aged between 16 and 21 have a third off an adult bus ticket, and we've been doing a lot of work, as part of our commitment to a fairer fares regime, to model what we could achieve if we had much lower bus fares. And the figures are all very encouraging; the resource is the challenge. 

13:35
Flooding in Coastal Communities

2. What support is the Welsh Government providing for coastal communities facing the threat of flooding? OQ59079

Thank you, Janet. The Welsh Government is investing £293 million in reducing flood risk to coastal communities across Wales through our coastal risk management programme. This will reduce flood risk to over 15,000 properties, and includes, for example, more than £19 million of investment in Aberconwy. An interactive map showing our investment is published online.

Thank you, Minister. I'm sure you're aware that, in 2014, our lovely sandy beach, north shore, Llandudno, received, without any notice, the dumping of some 50,000 tonnes of freshly and dirty quarried rock. At the time, it was described as 'shingle'. The town was in uproar, with residents, visitors and business owners still angry to this day. I can recall our sea washing up a white, milky froth for around three weeks, whilst this was described at the time as 'clean and inert shingle.' 

Now, in 2023—well, sooner than that, actually—we're now aware of the several options that have been brought forward to you to bring forward a new sea water flood defence scheme. One of the options is to implement a scheme that would replace sand, and stage 1 was even supported. I cannot overemphasise my immense disappointment that this scheme now will not be supported, as you feel that the cost outweighs the aesthetic benefits of using sand renourishment. Llandudno is the queen of the Welsh resorts, and the jewel in the crown— 

I'm going to have to call you to ask your question now, because I'm about to ask you to ask your spokespeople questions, of which there are three. So, can you ask your question?

Okay. What steps, Minister, can you take? How do we move forward on this? What steps will you take to ensure that we have the right sea defences we need, but that, at some stage, we can see our sandy beach restored in Llandudno? Diolch. 

Yes, thank you, Janet. So, just to be really specific, the Welsh Government have recently awarded grant funding to Conwy County Borough Council to develop a full business case for Llandudno, based on maintaining and improving the existing cobble defence on the north shore. The alternative sand option provides no additional flood benefit, at a much greater cost to the coastal risk management programme, and that's the problem. So, whilst I completely understand what you're saying about the sandy beach, the coastal risk management programme is for coastal risk management; it's not for tourist attractions and other aesthetic value. I'm not denying the value of that; I'm just saying that's not what the programme is for. 

So, if Conwy County Borough Council want to get an alternative sand option at Llandudno north shore, they really need to look for alternative sources of funding. There are some other sources of funding available, but, in all conscience, I cannot take a coastal management programme that's specifically designed to protect places from flooding and use it for a completely different purpose. So, whilst I have some sympathy with what you're saying, this is not the right programme for it. And, you can tell from the amount of money that we've invested around the coast of Wales that we are really trying to get as many properties protected from actual flooding as possible. Clearly, we do try to do that in the most environmentally and aesthetically pleasing way possible, but, in the end, it's down to how many properties we protect. So, I'm sure you'll be able to work with the council to get a better option, but not through this funding model.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Diolch, Llywydd, and thank you, Minister, Now, there is no denying that the UK Government is taking decisive action to tackle unsafe buildings. The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP has sent all developers legally binding contracts that will commit them to pay to repair these unsafe buildings. This contract will see developers commit an estimated £2 billion or more for repairs to buildings that they've developed or refurbished over the past 30 years, and protect thousands of leaseholders living in hundreds of buildings across England. In England, the UK Government is looking to prevent developers from operating freely in the housing market if they fail to sign and comply with the remediation contract. Will you do the same for those operating in Wales who either refuse to sign or breach the terms of the Welsh Government's developers pact?

13:40

Yes, Janet, I'm very well aware of Michael Gove's various pronouncements. I very recently met with the then Minister for housing, who's now the Minister for culture, media and sport, I believe—it's quite difficult to keep up—to talk about this. I have asked for a meeting with Michael Gove as well, but I haven't had one since his reincarnation. 

The programme here is virtually identical in every aspect that you just outlined. We have worked with the 11 major developers in Wales. They have all agreed to sign up to the pact. The legal documentation is with them at the moment. Clearly, they're looking to see what happens in England with the legal documentation there. Our documentation is different because the legal framework in Wales is different, but, nevertheless, the import is the same. Here in Wales, though, we're going slightly faster than that. We have two of the big developers already starting to remediate. We're very, very well on with our programme of surveys. We've only a few buildings left to go. The ones that are left to go that haven't been completed for the full intrusive survey are all because we needed a complex set of agreements from various freeholders and so on, which I won't go into, but there are complex management issues in some of the buildings. The others are where a whole main road has had to be closed in order to access the building to do it, and we've had to work with the local council to figure out a traffic management scheme to be able to do that. Other than that, they're all done. The reports are all pending. We'll be able to start the remediation works as soon as we can.

We're also working on a programme for what are called orphan buildings. There isn't, as far as I'm aware, a programme like this in England. We have 16 to 23 orphan buildings—it does slightly depend on what you call it. An orphan building is one where there is no responsible developer, insurer or managing agent who can be held responsible, and we'll be able to take forward a programme for actually doing the remediation for them.

But, I think this is the most important point here: I have always thought that the Government should step up to responsibility in this regard. We don't want to leave it to individual leaseholders to have to take legal action against the developers, which is what the English building Act does. I understand why they did that, but we don't think that's right. So, the contract here will be with us, and, if it isn't fulfilled, it will be down to us to take action against the developers. That's how it should be, in my view. I will also be exploring whether or not we can, for example, prevent builders from taking up planning consents that are existing and continuing on. That's a second phase of the work. But, I'm quite pleased that developers here have come along this journey with us.

And then the last thing I'll say on this point, and it's worth bearing this in mind, is some of the buildings, some of the loudest people in the campaign—and who can blame them for having a campaign; it's a horrible thing to live with—some of the loudest people are in buildings where there is extensive litigation under way in which we cannot interfere. So, we are hamstrung ourselves by some of the processes ongoing. But my heart continues to be absolutely with the people living with this. And the last thing I'd say to you, Janet, is if you know anyone who really is in dire straits with this, please recommend to them the buy-out scheme, because we haven't had as much interest in that as we'd have liked, and I'm hoping to get as much publicity to it as possible.

Thank you for that comprehensive answer, Minister, it's really appreciated. I'm sure you would agree with me that the longer it takes to resolve this crisis, the greater the mental and financial pressure for these vulnerable residents. I'm sure you'd agree with me too that we shouldn't be allowing other people to get on the back of this and actually benefit financially. The reason I'm mentioning this now is that individuals have written to me explaining, in some instances, that the service fee, since all this, for a three-bedroomed apartment has increased from £2,500 to around £5,000 a year. Alongside that, it's been alleged to me that as least one managing agent is charging an in-house brokerage fee for insurance, also serving section 20 notices, not carrying out the works, charging admin fees on top of the management fee, and that some have no corporate policy for proactive maintenance or for the regular checking of singular compartmentalisation of escape routes. That strikes me as an abhorrent management regime. Would you be prepared to look into this further by means of a review or some form of inquiry to establish how exactly each managing agent in Wales has responded to this cladding crisis and if there is any sign that some could actually be profiteering from this situation?

13:45

Yes, I'm very well aware of this as well. I've had one of the biggest managing agents in to see me very recently. I have a constituency full of people who have got this problem, so I'm dealing with it locally as well. It's sometimes difficult to separate the building safety from building structure issues, which can be complicated as well. So, we’re looking to see whether we can solve building structure issues, which are not necessarily building safety issues, simultaneously, as two lots of work obviously is nonsensical. But I also, in the conversation with Lucy Frazer, will be continuing this with the officials and I’ll obviously seek a meeting with the new housing Minister as soon as I know who that is. But we discussed with her and her officials the leasehold reform programme that the UK Government is taking forward.

You’ll know, Janet, that the complexity of the devolution settlement in this area is a difficulty. I know people hate me talking about how complex this is, but there’s no getting away from it. Whether or not the Welsh Government can in fact regulate managing agents is one of the things that we’re looking at and there are some complex legal issues there. But what’s really clear is that most of the big managing agents work across England and Wales, and so we need to make sure that we have a proper programme—I think you’ll agree with me there.

So, I very much hope, and we are working very much towards the UK Government legislating for managing agents and leasehold reform, and I hope they will add in estate agents at the point of sale, because various colleagues around this Chamber—Hefin David in particular comes to mind—have brought up the issue of estate management fees on a number of occasions, and they’re dealt with by the same body of people. So, the answer to your question simply is: yes, we’re very well aware of it. Yes, we’re getting the managing agents in to speak to us. I will be hosting a meeting for all of them in Wales, including the small ones, very soon. But really what we need is a system of regulation that sets out their professional qualifications and what they can charge for.

And, Llywydd, at the risk of trying your patience with the length of my answer—and I apologise; it’s a very complicated area—just to say that we also feel that there should be coverage for this in the building reform piece that we will be bringing in front of the Senedd, so that when we have new builds in future, it will be very clear who can and who can’t be a managing agent.

Thank you, again, Minister. I can't argue with that response at all.

Now, my final point: in the budget for 2023-24, building safety funding is set to receive a 37 per cent reduction in resource. Despite the indicative budget setting aside £9.5 million for 2023-24, the draft budget allocation has dropped to £6 million. I'm just a little baffled and maybe you could explain better. So, how can you on the one hand say that building safety is one of your top priorities, but you're cutting it at the same time?

So, it's a multi-angled programme, basically, and so, what we're having to do is calibrate the budget out to the point where we're doing the remedial work. So, you'll see that we're spending less at the beginning of the programme because we're doing surveys. We have done some remediation. We've obviously done remediation in social buildings that meet the criteria, for example. We're about to start the orphan building remediation that I discussed. Some of the buildings that are in private sector ownership will go into remediation. But it's quite clear that this programme will run over several years—four or five years for this kind of capital programme, generally speaking. So, you need to look at the budget in the round.

Plaid Cymru spokesperson now, Mabon ap Gwynfor, to ask his questions to the Deputy Minister. Mabon ap Gwynfor.

Thank you, Llywydd. I want to start by acknowledging that there's a great deal of work going on at the moment with public transport services in Wales. The recent report by the North Wales Transport Commission was very interesting, for example, with one particular interesting statistic, which stated that two-thirds of the journeys of people in north Wales were 15 km or less, but that data was heavily weighted towards the more populated areas obviously.

A number of metro schemes are also in the pipeline, and if we look again at north Wales, there is significant talk there about developing train links from Llandudno and Wrexham to Liverpool and Manchester. The Swansea bay metro in south-west Wales talks about the urban centres, again. But what is notable in all of this is the total absence of plans for rural Wales. Where are Ceredigion, Powys, most of Gwynedd, and the heartlands in these metro programmes? So, what are the Government's ambitions in ensuring that residents in rural Wales can access public transport?

Thank you very much for that important set of questions. In fact, the data published by the Burns commission for north Wales showed that, even in rural areas, the majority of journeys were relatively short and, in principle, many of them could be replaced by public transport and active travel if the services were there. I have been conducting a series of round-tables with local authorities and others across different parts of Wales, and what's striking is that when you map rural areas, there are rural areas in every county of Wales. It's not just a mid Wales issue, or a north-west Wales issue; rurality is everywhere, and the issue of accessibility and choice is a real challenge across the country.

We know from other countries that where different choices are made, you can have a viable public transport system in deep rural areas. If you look at Sweden, Germany or Switzerland, even the small villages have a bus service every hour. So, there's no reason in principle why we couldn't make a much better offer for rural areas. It's a question of resource and political choice. Now, if we are going to meet the climate change targets that we're all committed to, we clearly need to see modal shift, people moving from cars to sustainable transport in all parts of Wales. One of our foci is to say, 'How do we make what we know is the right thing to do the easiest thing to do?', because human nature is to do the easiest thing, and, at the moment, in many parts of Wales it simply isn't easy, or in many communities it's not possible at all after 5 or 6 o'clock at night to catch a bus. So, we know we're not starting from a great place, and we know that this is going to take some time to happen.

As part of the co-operation agreement, we are looking at transport corridors in west Wales. The designated Member Siân Gwenllian and I have agreed a programme of work with Transport for Wales to assess the possibilities for primarily bus corridors in west Wales, but also looking at how, in planning terms, we can preserve the old railway line between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. But, at some point it's going to become a choice of where we put the scarce investment we have and where the priority is. That, I think, is our dilemma, because from a carbon point of view we're always going to want to achieve the quickest reductions and the largest reductions in carbon. Clearly, investments in rural areas will be more expensive and have a smaller carbon impact, and there's going to be that tension that we need to resolve. But I'm very clear that unless we address the rural issue, we're not going to be able to succeed in our overall vision.

13:50

I thank the Deputy Minister for that response and the warm words in supporting provision in rural areas, but further to that, it's been brought to my attention that the bus emergency scheme that was introduced during COVID is to be redirected to meet other requirements within Government, and that this funding will come to an end very suddenly indeed.

A number of bus providers have contacted Members on these benches over the past few days saying that this BES scheme, which was supposed to extend for another year, is to be dropped at the end of this financial year. This, of course, has destroyed the plans of these bus companies and means that they can't give necessary notice for bringing particular routes to an end. These are local and relatively small providers in the most part, that don't have great reserves to compensate for some of these routes. As a result, they warn us that this will mean that many routes will disappear, and some businesses may also go bust. Those bus providers are tuning in to this session today, listening in to hear whether the Deputy Minister can give them an assurance that the budget and grant will continue to support these bus routes. So, can I ask the Minister to give us an assurance that the funding for bus services in Wales, which means the bus emergency scheme, will not be cut, and that it will continue for the next financial year?

Well, it's more than just warm words. We have spent £150 million since the start of the pandemic in saving the bus industry in Wales. So, let's be very clear about that: without the help and intervention of the Welsh Government, the bus industry would have gone bankrupt; there wouldn't be any bus services. So, I think it's only fair to reflect that we have put our money where our mouth is.

Now, the whole point of the bus emergency scheme—the clue is in the title—it was for an emergency; it was never meant as a long-term piece of funding, and it was always intended to come to an end. Now, the challenge we have is that the patronage levels have not returned to the pre-pandemic levels. So, we are supporting a bus network that no longer has the same behaviours as the one that came before. So, in a sense, we're ossifying a bus network. Even the industry agrees that we do need to rationalise and re-look at the bus networks in Wales.

Now, we've been doing this far more generously than England has; we've sustained a far greater use of bus provision than has happened the other side of the border. I think any fair look would look at the cuts that are being made in England right now, where the bus industry has faced a cliff edge right across the UK because of this disconnect between the reality, the behaviours, and the economics of the use of public transport. So, we've got a genuine problem here, in that usage rates, particularly amongst pensioners, have not returned to the rates that we want to see. And we simply do not have the money to keep sustaining the bus emergency scheme at the levels that were true during the height of the pandemic. So, we have a problem.

We are working closely with the industry. Julie James and I met with the operators on Friday of last week. We've been meeting right throughout this week, and we'll be meeting again with them this Friday, because they've hit the deadline of when they have to give notice to the traffic commissioner for handing back these contracts. We've spoken to the traffic commissioner about offering some discretion about when that trigger point is reached, and they are certainly open to being pragmatic about that. And what we want is to taper off the scheme, not face a cliff edge. But we do have to end the support, sooner rather than later. So, we're trying our best to come up with a solution that does not see lots of routes being surrendered, but the financial position we're in—our budget—is very, very, very challenging, and we're working through this week to see what we can do.

13:55
Electricity from Renewable Sources

3. What progress has the Welsh Government made towards its target of meeting 70 per cent of Wales's electricity demand from renewable sources by 2030? OQ59073

Thank you, Natasha. In 2021, renewables projects in Wales generated the equivalent of 55 per cent of our electricity use. Evidence published alongside our review of energy targets shows there is a pipeline of projects in development to meet our 2030 target, an ambitious but credible route to our proposed 100 per cent target by 2035.

Thanks, Minister. I recently met and received a presentation from the developers behind a proposed solar energy farm at Craig Y Perthi near Uskmouth power station. Solar power, I'm sure you know better than anyone, is currently one of the cheapest forms of energy generation, and with schemes like Craig Y Perthi solar farm in the pipeline, there is a real potential for solar energy to address not just our energy demands, but also provide support for people suffering with high energy bills at present. So, Minister, can you advise us here in the Chamber today and beyond what progress is being made, specifically, on increasing the number of solar photovoltaic projects here in Wales? Thank you.

Thank you, Natasha. Obviously, I won't comment on individual projects because I'm the planning Minister as well, so I'll make some general remarks about that.

Quite clearly, we do want solar to come forward, alongside a raft of other things in the renewable energy market. What we want is to get as many different outcomes from energy projects as possible. So, we're particularly interested in solar that doesn't take up good agricultural land, solar that's placed on land that doesn't have high-grade agriculture. We are hoping that the solar farms will take into account potential for co-located biodiversity or tree planting. There are some excellent examples around Wales. The panels aren't necessarily fixed—they can be raised from the ground, they can be at different angels, they can even move and all the rest of it. So, in general, we're trying to encourage as much solar as possible in the right place. We're trying to discourage it from the wrong place, as we do with all other energy projects as well, and we're asking the developers to tell us a whole range of things as they bring the schemes forward, including how much energy they'll generate, obviously, how it would connect into the grid, or whether it's a closed-loop system.

There's a great one down in, I think, my colleague Rebecca Evans's constituency, or I might be wrong, as it might be in my colleague Mike Hedges’s constituency, but it powers Morriston Hospital, and that's a closed-loop system. Is it yours?

I wasn't quite sure where the edge was there. It's an excellent project, and one of the things we discussed when we were there—I had the great privilege of opening it, so it's now powering the hospital, helping with their energy and carbon footprint—but one of the big things about it is that it has a hedges-and-edges project around the edge for trees, and it's underplanted with a biodiverse meadow. What's not to like?

So, the short answer is, 'The more things it can bring forward at the same time and the space it can occupy that can't be occupied by other beneficial uses, the better', and then we can get the projects consented.

In addition to the laudable target to achieve 70 per cent of Wales's electricity demand from renewable sources by 2030, of course by 2035 we're aiming for 100 per cent renewable generation. But we also have to find, and it's within your plans there, a fivefold increase in electricity generation from those renewable sources by 2050. It's an enormous challenge, but it's a great opportunity, particularly if we can make sure that communities have a stake in this, and also local government, our great municipalities, and also that the Welsh Government has a stake in this as well. Because there is the size of the challenge, but what an opportunity, finally, to get all of us involved in this as well. So, how are we going to take that forward, both at a community level but also at a Welsh Government and a national level?

14:00

Thank you, Huw. Llywydd, I'm in danger of needing to give an hour's lecture as the answer to every one of these questions. I won't try to your patience too much. Suffice to say, Huw, we've already announced that we'll make a state-owned energy development company. Part of the point of that is to build exemplar sites with a lot of community ownership and to exploit the resources we already have. We've worked very closely with the Crown Estate to bring forward the floating wind in the Celtic sea and the fixed wind off our north coast. That alone is a 2 GW opportunity immediately, with much more to come. The big issue for us is grid. We're having a discussion with the grid on the new holistic network design, which I think will bring forward the opportunity for a large number of small projects right across Wales, including the 'homes as power stations' type thing that we look forward to seeing. Great restraint there, Llywydd—I hope you agree.

Building Safety

4. What recent discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding building safety? OQ59080

Thank you, Rhys. I have regular contact with the UK Government and other devolved administrations in respect of building safety. I engage with my counterparts in the UK Government and devolved nations through the inter-ministerial group meetings, in which I discuss matters including building safety.

Diolch yn fawr, Weinidog. I was disappointed in hearing your answer to my colleague Janet Finch-Saunders that you're yet to receive a response to your request to meet Michael Gove. I hope he will respond to you very soon. Minister, I read your article in Welsh Housing Quarterly, and in that you set out further action on building safety. I was pleased to see that some remediation work has happened with at least two developers. When do you expect the other developers—11 in total—will commence the remediation work, and how many developers are yet to engage or have refused to sign up to the pact? Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you very much, Rhys. I met Lucy Frazer. Unfortunately, she changed jobs pretty immediately afterwards. I'm not going to take that personally. I'll have to look to meet the new housing Minister as soon as I know who that is. I do meet Michael Gove regularly at the higher level inter-ministerial group meetings, in which we discuss these matters as well, but I haven't had the opportunity to do that in the last month or so. We have 11 developers signed up to the pact, so we're really pleased that they've done that. We're in the process of agreeing the legal documentation that goes alongside that, and we've been working with them to make sure that they can commence in advance of that. Two of them, Persimmon and Bellway, have commenced work in developments in advance of the legal documentation. We're working with others to see if we can accelerate that. I would encourage them right now to start those works as soon as possible, but nevertheless we'd like them to sign up to the legal documentation.

Without giving too much up in the way of commercial confidentiality, the range of things we're discussing are, for example, whether the Government can help with cash flow problems by paying upfront and being repaid, whether the work can be shared in some way, and also what the supply chain and employment chains look like. Because with the best will in the world, we'll all be fighting over the same resource if we're not careful. So, we do need to make sure that it's calibrated. We also want to take into account the outcome of our surveys, including the intrusive surveys, so that we're looking at a 'worst fabric first' approach here in Wales. But as I said in response to Janet Finch-Saunders, I will also take a very dim view of any developers who don't sign up and get started as soon as they can.

I'd like to thank my colleague Rhys for raising this issue. Minister, I understand that PRP, the company instructed by the Welsh Government to complete site surveys of the 163 buildings in Wales registered as affected by cladding issues, will not release any reports until all of the surveys are completed. The timescale for completion was indicated as sometime in October, and we are now four months over that original completion date. As the Minister will no doubt agree, this issue is extremely important for many people who own flats, because they are unable to sell or remortgage properties until these site surveys have been completed and any potential work highlighted is undertaken. Therefore, Minister, can you provide a provisional date by which you expect PRP will have completed all site surveys and make available their reports? Thank you.

14:05

Thank you, Joel. As I said, we are very aware of what the position on each site is. We understand what the difficulties have been. The remaining sites, the ones that are not yet completed, all have either a complex management structure and it's taken us some time to get all of the consents in place for the intrusive surveys—I believe we've got all but two of those sorted now—and the others require the closure of a main thoroughfare or there is some other utility issue associated with actually commencing the work. So, it's not that we need to put an end date on it; we understand what the issue for each of the buildings is and we're working with them to make sure that we can overcome that, including speaking to local authorities and engaging in that way.

I'm very aware that this is taking longer than we'd thought. Unfortunately, it's even more complicated than I thought, and I get absolutely trolled on social media every time I say that, but it doesn't take away from the fact that it is complex. We will be bringing forward a building reform Bill, which makes it a lot less complex and makes people step up to their responsibilities. I hope that the Senedd will help us pass that when it comes forward. We are learning a lot from the complexity that we're encountering in doing this in terms of helping us craft the Bill and make sure that the system that we put in place for the future makes sure that this does not happen again.

Good afternoon, Minister. I firstly want to say I am sorry that you've had the experience of being trolled on social media; that's absolutely unacceptable, and I'm sorry to hear that. I just really wanted to ask two very short questions, one from your response to Janet Finch-Saunders. It was good to hear about the buy-out scheme. You said it was actually not being taken up, so, my first question is: I wonder what the communication process is, how you're advertising that. And the second is something, again, that you touched on: is there a pact or an agreement in place to engage with developers who are pursuing leaseholders in court? We all know that that's extremely stressful for people who have taken steps perhaps early in the process in order to try to seek remediation. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

On the leaseholder support scheme, I said when we launched it in June last year that we'd continue to review it on a three-monthly basis, and we've continued to do that. We've reviewed and slackened the eligibility criteria each time in order to reach a wider range of people. Now, we've included the rising cost of energy in the hardship factors that are taken into account, and we've allowed displaced residents to be eligible. So, basically, if you're a pensioner couple and you've bought the flat as your pension income, then we're allowing you to take advantage of the scheme now, which wasn't the case when we started.

We've communicated it through the managing agents and through all of the various routes that we are aware of, including the leaseholder groups that we do engage with. Some of the leaseholder groups have refused to engage with us, unfortunately, but we still try to communicate with as wide a range of them as possible. And, Llywydd, anyone who has anybody in this situation in their constituency or region should definitely get in touch as soon as possible because we're anxious to help as many people as possible. But more importantly, we want to help all leaseholders.

I've taken the view that individual leaseholders should not have to sue individual developers for this, but that the Government should take responsibility for that, and that's the basis of the scheme we've taken forward. Unfortunately, where there is ongoing litigation, we cannot intervene in that. That's the problem. So, if there is ongoing litigation, my hands are completely tied. I wish that wasn't the case, but it is. We've already offered to pay for surveys that have been undertaken in the correct way retrospectively, and there are a number of other things that we can do. But where there is litigation ongoing, I'm afraid my hands are tied. 

I think you've seen just how much of a problem this is for very many of us representing constituencies. As the Minister is aware, I have two high-rise developments in Swansea East, Altamar and South Quay. In fact, the Minister might drive past them on her way in some mornings. There is serious concern being expressed to me by the residents in those blocks. In Altamar, they're concerned that Bellway are refusing to meet with them. They believe that implementing sections 116 to 125 of the Building Safety Act 2022 would get action taken. Why will the Welsh Government not put forward a legislative consent motion and allow the legislation to be used in Wales?

14:10

Thank you, Mike. I just don’t agree that it would allow action to be taken. We’re actually very well aware of those buildings. Both of them are in the intrusive survey stage; one of them is complete. One of the buildings has not asked us to pay for a survey that they’d already had done. I’m more than happy to discuss the detail with you if you want to meet with me about it. We'd like them to bring that forward. I hope that both buildings will go into remediation soon. If there is a problem with one of the developers not engaging, if you want to write to me, I’m very happy to intervene.

Planning Permission

5. What criteria does the Minister apply when deciding whether to overturn a local authority’s decision to refuse planning permission? OQ59082

If a local planning authority refuses an application for planning permission, the applicant can appeal to the Welsh Ministers. Planning law requires planning appeals to be determined in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Minister, in 2017, the Welsh Government overturned Caerphilly council’s decision to reject an application to build 260 homes in Hendredenny. The application was opposed by residents, ward representatives, the local MS and MP, yet the Welsh Government overruled the local consensus. In the decision letter, the Minister at the time recommended a condition that the plan should include strategic drainage features and a scheme for disposal of surface water and land drainage flows, placing responsibility for approving the plans on the council. But six years later, we have NRW investigating reports of water run-off polluting a local resident’s land, with fears this may have also affected a nearby river, Nant yr Aber. In addition, fears about traffic chaos have been realised, and concerns about the ability of local services to cater for hundreds of new residents continue. I know you won’t be able to comment on an individual case, Minister, but could I ask if you understand the frustrations of local people when schemes like this are imposed against their wishes? What changes do you believe could be made to the planning system to give communities the power to make decisions that affect them without fears of being overruled by Cardiff?

Thank you, Delyth. I absolutely do understand the frustration of that, and it’s deeply felt in a number of communities. The difficulty is that this is—as I know you know—a quasi-judicial process. This isn’t about your best judgment; this is about following a quasi-judicial process. I’m not going to talk about an individual application; I don’t have the details in front of me. But in general, the frustrations are usually around that people haven’t understood that the local development plan allows a development of that sort and didn’t object at an early enough stage in the development plan, or that the development plan is now out of date to the point where it isn’t able to bite and speculative planning consents can come forward, or that there haven’t been sufficient objections of a number of statutory consultees in order to take it forward; there are a range of things of that sort. I’m not familiar with the one, off the top my head, I’m afraid, that you’re talking about, but Caerphilly would not be the only council that had had trouble getting its new LDP in place. So, it may well be that a range of those factors were in place.

The solution to it is to make sure—and we are making enormous efforts in this regard—that communities have a real opportunity to comment at LDP stage, so that they understand what kind of development could come forward in their community if they don’t make their wishes and views known at that stage. So, I think that’s the point: because it’s a plan-led system, if it’s not in the plan, it’s very much harder for an appeal to come forward. If it is in the plan, then obviously, the developer can be—. The whole point of the plan is to allow the developers to have some level of certainty about what might be permissible. So, that’s the point: to make sure that we make huge efforts at the early point of the planning process. We do fund Planning Aid Wales to help communities do that, and I’m more than happy to have a conversation—I’m sure a number of Members will have this problem—with you about how we can make sure that communities are engaged at that early stage.

Thank you very much, Llywydd. Minister, I welcome very much the Welsh Government's commitment to ensure—

Electricity Pylons

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's policies regarding building electricity pylons in Mid and West Wales? OQ59095

Diolch, Cefin. We need a strategic solution to updating our grid infrastructure to achieve our net-zero commitments and give people access to clean heat and transport. National planning policy states our preferred position that new power lines should be underground where possible and expects public engagement to mitigate their impact elsewhere.

Thank you very much, Minister. Yes, I do welcome the Welsh Government's commitment to ensure that the electricity needs of Wales in the future will be met from renewable sources, and that by 2035. But my question is related to how we intend to transmit that electricity across rural areas. Now, as you said, in areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks there is an expectation for these electric cables to be buried underground, but there is no commitment that that should happen in areas outwith those designated areas. Over the past few weeks, I have heard about plans for the construction of new pylons in the Tywi valley—and I have to declare an interest, I do live in that area—to carry cables from mid Wales down to Carmarthenshire. I do say that the area is one of historic significance and beauty, and there are examples in European countries where they have placed cables underground. So, my question, without sounding too much like a Nimby, is whether the Welsh Government will commit to develop and implement a new set, a wider set, of measures with regard to placing electricity cables underground?

14:15

Thank you, Cefin. The policy is that electricity transmission cables should be placed underground where possible, not just in designated landscapes, but where possible. Sometimes, it's not possible, even in a designated landscape. We don't anyone digging up our peatlands, for example. So we would expect developers to find the best route. Sometimes, that's not the shortest route, and then a conversation ensues about what the best route is, and by 'best', as I say, I don't mean shortest. The best route is the best environmental route; the best route for the communities that need the electricity. So, we expect the developers to undertake a series of public engagements, both with the communities affected and with the local authorities and with us, about what that best route is, and with the national grid about the connections, and we expect to come to a conclusion about the best route and the need for the electricity in that area. So, it's a complex interweb.

We're also working, and have been for some time, on this new holistic network design process, because we have long believed—for 40-odd years we have believed—that a planned grid is a better grid. So we also work right across Wales in designing a future energy plan, so that we can help the grid design where it needs to be, and then take into account things like where you could underground, what kind of cable, what voltage of cable, all the rest of it, where the sub-station should be, for example. There's a whole series of other things; it's not just about the transmission lines. And we believe, and, I think, probably everyone in here believes, that that plan is a far better way of doing it than each individual developer attempting to connect their particular development in the shortest possible way that they can, which, obviously, there's an economic imperative to do that. So, just to reiterate, therefore, we require the consultation at all levels, we need the grid to step up to the case on this to make sure that it complies with the plan, we need the communities to be involved, and we need to make sure that the electricity is actually the electricity that we need and in the right place for the right thing.

I personally have another goal. I don't want any community in Wales to be able to see a renewable energy facility and not be able to take advantage of it. So, I declare an interest myself here, Llywydd: I can look out of my window at home and see two windfarms, and I'm on off-grid oil. That's a situation that we really need to address. I think the communities are much more able to understand what's going on if they're benefiting directly from it. So, we also need to work on that. 

Question 7, Jane Dodds. Question 7, Jane Dodds, on Ffos-y-Fran. 

That's a no. 

Question 7 [OQ59091] not asked.

Roads Review

8. How is the Welsh Government engaging with local authorities in regard to the roads review? OQ59077

Thank you. Engagement has been undertaken with local authorities to discuss the roads review and its implications. The tone of those discussions has been positive and pragmatic, with an emphasis on collaboration with local government on the development of schemes that support modal shift and the decarbonisation of transport.

Minister, that's very positive and good to hear. You'll have seen in the last 24 hours, of course, the chaos that's caused across the local road network in and around Wrexham, when the A483 is closed or when lanes are reduced, and it shows how reduced capacity on the trunk roads impacts on traffic volumes through adjoining towns and villages where there are local roads. So, will you work with local authorities in assessing the impact of not proceeding with trunk road improvements, in terms of traffic volumes, emissions and safety, adjoining local roads and communities, and will you commit to publishing such impact assessments?

14:20

Thank you. I was grateful to meet with Ken Skates yesterday to discuss his concern about air quality around the local roads in his constituency and the implications of what might come out of the roads review. We'll be publishing that next Tuesday, the fourteenth, along with the national transport delivery plan and a new roads policy in the future. Ken Skates will remember that when he and I both published the Wales transport strategy two years ago, we committed to putting tackling climate change at the heart of our transport policy, and we now need to follow through on that. That is often uncomfortable and involves doing things differently, and that clashes sometimes with local expectations, which have been built up over many years. But we now have a progressive policy on planning, 'Future Wales', we have 'Planning Policy Wales', we have Net Zero Wales and we have the Wales transport strategy all telling us that we need to move the dial, and that's what we intend to do through the publication of the review.

Clearly, there are transport problems that exist, and he's highlighted some in his own constituency. The situation in Wrexham was unfortunate, because of some overrunning maintenance work that was meant to have been done overnight, but dragged on. There are always going to be incidents like this, whatever capacity you have on the highway network, that are going to cause inconvenience and delays. We need to build a resilient transport network, for sure, but that is resilient not just against short-term pressures, but also against medium to long-term ones that the climate and nature emergencies present. But we will continue to work very closely with local authorities and with Members to make sure that we develop schemes that both help local people and put us in a position to withstand the challenges that are coming towards us.

2. Questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language

We have the questions to the Minister for Education and Welsh Language next, and the first question is from Adam Price.

Welsh Speakers in Carmarthenshire

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the decline in the number of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire according to the most recent census data? OQ59088

Developing Welsh-medium education and improving the language outcomes of all our pupils as well as understanding better what lies behind the further decline in Welsh-speaking communities is a priority. Language use is at the heart of this. We will undertake further analysis when further data are available.

The Minister will have seen the figures, of course, and they are concerning, aren't they? It varies from a fall of a little under 3 per cent among the youngest cohort, 3 per cent of those between 16 and 64, but 9 per cent in those over 65. There are different factors, of course, driving those different statistics, but, certainly, they paint a picture that is worrying. I know that the Commission for Welsh-speaking Communities is going to be driving progress across communities and will make recommendations as to which areas should be designated as areas of linguistic sensitivity. But can the Minister tell us more now on the kinds of interventions you as a Government think would be appropriate for the situation that we're facing in Carmarthenshire? And as we await the commission's report, would you be willing to meet with myself and other elected members within the council and other stakeholders to discuss what can be done immediately to tackle the challenges we're facing in Carmarthenshire?

Thank you for those important questions. I met with the education director and the council leader of Carmarthenshire last week to discuss their strategic plan, and the message of the county council was clear, in that they see themselves that there is a need for action to be taken in a purposeful and deliberate way without delay. We have full faith that they will do so. The cabinet is unanimous in support of the plans that they have, which is very much to be welcomed.

As the Member said, the picture is a complex one in the sense that different cohorts in terms of age groups have been impacted in different ways. There is a geographical element too, with specific concern regarding the Amman valley, for example. So, understanding the data in its context is important. There are positive elements too in what the county is doing, specifically in terms of investment in immersion and the ambitious plans that they have to move 10 schools along the linguistic continuum to provide more increasingly through the medium of Welsh. I'd be willing to meet with him and others. I was intending to have a series of regional meetings in different parts of Wales to discuss with local stakeholders, and it would be very appropriate to do that in Carmarthenshire too, I think.

14:25

Minister, one of the best ways of increasing the use of the Welsh language is to encourage its use in informal settings. Working with organisations such as the Young Farmers across Carmarthenshire could be a key part of ensuring that we meet the target of Cymraeg 2050. I recently raised with the Minister for rural affairs the fact that the only financial support that the Young Farmers receive from the Welsh Government is through the language grant. Although this is to be welcomed, I do think that more could still be done to support other community groups to promote and use the Welsh language. So, how are you working with your Cabinet colleagues in order to ensure that financial support for organisations such as the Young Farmers and other groups can support their success and promote the Welsh language simultaneously? 

I thank Sam Kurtz for those questions. The contribution made by the YFC to youth work in our rural areas is priceless. I'm very pleased about the financial contribution of almost £125,000 that we provide to the Wales federation and the county federations to ensure that their important work can continue. The enthusiasm and commitment of young people in the world of agriculture and wider rural communities in Wales is inspirational.

We already provide a source of funding for other bodies in different sectors. I announced a fund last week, or the week before, increasing those this year as a result of the cost-of-living pressures and inflation on those budgets. As the Member will know, we are currently reviewing our grant programme to ensure that that aligns with the Cymraeg 2050 project. I know that he'll welcome that. 

Post-16 Education for People with Additional Learning Needs

2. What support does the Welsh Government provide to young people with additional learning needs who wish to attend post-16 education, and their families? OQ59089

For the first time ever, we have a unified system for supporting learners from nought to 25 with additional learning needs. We are making a new investment in the coming days of £2.1 million to further education colleges to support the roll-out of this system for young people.

Thank you, Minister. It was helpful to hear that. Minister, you will be aware from the case work that I have previously written to you about, which touches upon my original question—. The main issue that was raised with me was that there generally isn’t straightforward signposting available for young people with additional learning needs and their families who wish to attend post-16 education. I’m sure, Minister, that you’ll agree that there should be a process to ensure that a young person’s needs can be met. But, from what I understand, there are frustrations that this process isn’t as clear as it should be, and that there can be a lack of communication as to why certain decisions have been made.

I appreciate that the additional learning needs Act looks to improve the support that is on offer to young people with additional needs. But, can the Minister outline how the current reforms are being extended to better help young people with ALN and their families, with the transition into post-16 education, and to ensure that they can access consistent, straightforward advice and support, so that we can remove any unnecessary barriers and open as many doors as possible for young people with additional needs?

I thank the Member for that question. He has, as he said, corresponded with me in relation to particular issues on behalf of constituents. While I’m sure that the response wasn’t what he was hoping for, at least I hope that it was a clear explanation of the decision that was taken, and the impact of the appeal process, if that’s the reference that he’s making in his question. The ALN system is designed to strengthen young people’s rights and to ensure that their feelings and views, and those of their families, are listened to and taken fully into account. It’s designed to ensure that the right support is put in place quickly in a way that best reflects the needs of those young people.

In the context of post-16 reforms, we have adopted, as the Member may know, a flow-through approach to move young people from the SEN system through to the ALN system. So, those currently in year 11 and below will flow through into FE with their existing IDP at that point in time. The Welsh Government is, at the moment, working with local authorities to devolve the budgets to support local authorities making those judgments into the future, so that there’s a local connection between the needs of young people and the provision that is available. He makes an important point in relation to the communication of the availability of services to young people. It's an important principle of the code and the Act that that is, obviously, working effectively. Most recently, at the end of last year, we published a series of guidance documents for young people about the system and the code, and the ALN pathfinder website, which aims to help young people with ALN, should, I hope, be a useful tool, so that young people know what rights they have and what support there is available to them.

14:30

At the beginning of January, I raised the issue of a lack of Welsh-language assessments in a timely manner for children and young people who are neurodiverse. I have a few cases in my constituency of children who need Welsh-language assessments and are having to wait years for those assessments. One, for example, has been waiting for assessment since February, and an initial online assessment by the Healios company was conducted some weeks ago. The child's first language is Welsh, and it was decided by the assessor that the assessment should be held through the medium of Welsh in terms of fairness, but the only Welsh-medium assessor is on maternity leave. The case was referred to the local neurodevelopment service; the result of that is that they'll have to wait two or three years for a Welsh-medium face-to-face appointment. So, does the Minister believe that it's acceptable that people who have Welsh as their first language have to wait far longer for assessments, and what cross-departmental work is happening in order to improve the provision and ensure that this situation is improved?

Well, I don't think that it's acceptable that that happens, of course, and I'm sorry to hear the example that the Member brings to the Chamber today. One of my priorities, in terms of the reforms within the education system, is to ensure that we have expertise in this field in the Welsh language. We are commissioning resources to support that at the moment, but we haven't reached where we need to be—I accept that fully. But work is in train to commission more resources and to provide provision across Wales, so that there is leadership in the system to be able to respond to the kinds of challenges that the Member mentions. If the Member wishes to write to me about that specific example, I'm happy to look at that, but I can also work with Julie Morgan on how this works in the health system too and bring the example to the attention of the Welsh language lead that we have in the system already.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Laura Anne Jones.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, since 2017, 40 per cent of school support staff registered with the Education Workforce Council have left. There's clearly a massive retention problem at the heart of Welsh education, which is causing the industry to lose experienced staff at this rate. Because of this, cash-strapped schools are having to put even more of a strain on their budgets, having to recruit and train more staff. Why have you allowed this issue to go on for nearly six years now, and just when will your Government fix this retention crisis, which has presented itself particularly under your watch?

Well, I recognise that we need to do everything we can to support in the system support staff, who deliver a very, very important service to our young people and are indispensable in our schools. The Member's question does not recognise the work that I've done since becoming Minister in relation to this matter. She will recall, because I made a statement in this Chamber last year, that I've commenced a programme of work to support the very people that she's referring to in her question. That involves a process of work led by teaching assistants in relation to the standardisation of roles and consistent deployment of TAs across local authorities and schools in Wales. It's also coupled with an entitlement, for the first time, for a programme of professional learning to teaching assistants. The professional learning grant will now be weighted to reflect the number of TAs in schools. Those are all new developments that have come into place over the course of the last year. I recognise that it's really important that we fully value the role that teaching assistants and other support staff play in our schools, and I absolutely am doing that.

Absolutely, Minister—it's an invaluable role, and it's better late than never, I suppose. It's not just a crisis with support staff though, is it? From my conversations with the Education Workforce Council and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, it's blindingly obvious that we have a crisis in recruiting and attracting core subject teachers. Last year, you hit under 50 per cent of your own target for mathematics teachers, and just under 30 per cent for physics and chemistry. You can't even attract Welsh-medium core teachers, fundamental to your roll-out of Welsh-medium education. Things aren't just adding up, are they? Since 2011, we've seen a 10 per cent drop in teachers' numbers, as they leave the profession in droves. Recruitment and retention of high-quality teachers is fundamental to ensuring that our children and young people in Wales receive the best education that they deserve. From these figures, it's blindingly obvious that you're failing miserably and worryingly in your objectives. Minister, just why have you and your Government allowed this persistent issue to turn into a full-blown crisis?

14:35

If the Member wants to know what a demoralised teaching profession that doesn't feel valued by its Government looks like, she just needs to look over the border at what's happening in England, which is cataclysmic in terms of retention and recruitment generally. So, that is what a Conservative education policy looks like. We can see it happening before our very eyes. 

What we have in Wales—[Interruption.] The Member is muttering; I'm happy to answer the question. What we are doing in Wales, as she will know—we've debated in this Chamber many times, and I know that she has strong, if sometimes perhaps not fully-informed, views on this—is we have a 10-year plan to recruit Welsh-medium teachers, working together with our partners across the system, and which is creative and tries new approaches to improve the numbers of Welsh-medium teachers coming into our profession.

We have financial incentives to encourage those in difficult subjects, where recruitment is a challenge not just in Wales, not just in the UK, but internationally. So, some of those are in maths, some of it is in some of the science subjects. We have arrangements in place to encourage young people into the profession to teach in those areas, because I want to make sure that, in the areas that I agree with her are key areas, we have a full complement of staff able to make sure that our young people get the education they need. 

Minister, education is devolved. You peddle out the same old excuses when you have levers at your own disposal. Even though the aims of the suggested new supply teacher central portal are the right ones—and I will credit you on that—even people like the Education Workforce Council have said, in practice, it's just not going to work, given there's no incentive, no driver, to make them move over to the central system, because they're not competitive financially with the private sector offerings, and it's purely dependent on local authorities and staff signing up for it; it's just not mandatory. It's yet another sticking-plaster solution, isn't it, that will not solve the critical problem of your own making that we're facing. 

Quite frankly, it stinks of 25 years of a stale old Government that has run out of ideas and is shooting in the dark and hoping for the best. You're not attracting core subject teachers. You are not retaining support staff, and your party, the party of the unions, can't even avert teaching strikes with levers at your own disposal.

Minister, I want to know what exactly you are doing to solve this urgent, self-made, teaching staff crisis.

Well, I'm not sure if the Member listened to the two previous answers that I've given, but I've outlined in great detail what we are doing. The question of retention and recruitment is a challenge in all parts of the world. What we are doing in Wales is specific to our needs in Wales. I've outlined a list of issues to her that she clearly has disregarded in her third question. What we are doing in Wales is making sure our teaching profession recognise that they are valued.

If we want to see how Conservatives treat this profession, we can look over our border. We are in the middle of a dispute with teachers in all parts of the UK. We will continue to work with our partners in a way that respects them rather than seeks to legislate to restrict their rights. If she thinks that's the right approach for encouraging teachers into the profession, I'm afraid I think she's very badly mistaken. 

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, yesterday, during the debate on the draft budget, I asked the Minister for finance to consider the budget implications in terms of the target of a million Welsh speakers, and, specifically, whether there are any plans to support free entry for local families or low-income families to the Urdd Eisteddfod and the National Eisteddfod this year. Last year, you invested in free entry to the Urdd Eisteddfod for everyone in the organisation's centenary year, as well as 15,000 free tickets to the National Eisteddfod. Both schemes were a success, with the Urdd reporting an increase of 31 per cent in the number of attendees, with 20 per cent of visitors coming from 40 per cent of the most deprived areas in Denbighshire. Do you intend to continue with this investment, to ensure that local families on low incomes can continue to enjoy what both of these festivals have to offer, and to benefit from what they have to offer too as part of the target of reaching a million Welsh speakers?

Well, as the Member said, in 2022-23, we increased the core grant of the National Eisteddfod to ensure that it had the resources to stage future Eisteddfodau in a time of financial uncertainty. We are to allocate additional funding to the Eisteddfod in 2023-24 in the draft budget, in order to strengthen their community engagement structures, which are so important to their work as a festival. This will mean an allocation of £1 million to the Eisteddfod during the next financial year. We're also supporting a social inclusion pilot project to run alongside the next two Eisteddfodau in areas where we see great in-migration and great demand for second homes. 

In terms of our support to the Urdd, the Urdd does excellent work in the Eisteddfod and more broadly as an organisation. Officials across Government collaborate with the Urdd in order to ensure that the Eisteddfod continues to be accessible, to ensure that everyone can enjoy Europe's largest youth festival, and we support the Urdd in many different ways too.

14:40

Thank you, Minister. I'm still not sure whether that means there will be free entry for low-income families to the Urdd Eisteddfod and the National Eisteddfod this year. I would ask, if you're not sure of that yet, it would be good to have clarity as to whether that will be able to continue in any way. Because, as has been demonstrated, there is a whole host of benefits to the Welsh language from ensuring free entry, which means there's an opportunity for some people to enjoy a Welsh-medium event in their area for the very first time ever. That does encourage people to send their children to Welsh-medium provision in terms of their education. So, can I ask you to reconsider or look again at the question I asked?

Secondly, you'll be aware, I'm sure, of the proposed plans of some local authorities to close or scale back some cultural services, such as the Cardiff museum, and library services in various parts of Wales. A number of arts projects like this are under threat as a result of significant financial challenges. A key component of the new curriculum, of course, is the expressive arts, and the guidelines state that this is vitally important so that learners can gain an understanding and an appreciation of cultures and societies in Wales and in the world. With the future of a number of cultural and artistic venues at risk, are you concerned about what the impact will be on this element of the new curriculum, and have you asked local authorities to look at the impact that cuts of this kind will have on educational opportunities for our children and young people?

We encourage schools to look at all experiences available to our young people so that there is a diversity of experience, particularly through the medium of the Welsh language. As I mentioned earlier, we have a grant programme that supports, in terms of Welsh language policy, a number of organisations that provide a number of educational, interesting and attractive prospects for our young people. We are currently reviewing that grant, but I will refer her to the draft budget, which shows what we intend to do in this area.

Curriculum for Wales

3. Will the Minister provide an update on the roll-out of the Welsh Government's Curriculum for Wales? OQ59074

Yes. [Laughter.] In September, all schools and settings will be working with the Curriculum for Wales as it rolls out through to the 2026-27 academic year. Our ongoing support to the profession is key to successful implementation, and my annual report each July is how we communicate widely on progress and priorities.

I'm very grateful to you, Minister, for that answer. Since the introduction of the Curriculum for Wales, the Welsh Government has emphasised that the purpose of pupil assessment is to inform the way that teachers support pupils. However, the lack of an identifiable and clear assessment framework has left one local headteacher in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire concerned about the pupil transition from primary to secondary education. To ensure a correct path for pupil progression and learning, a clear assessment framework is key to establishing distinct targets, yet some teachers are finding the CfW's progression code and six areas of learning and experience ambiguous. Given the concerns of this headteacher in my constituency, what is the Minister doing to reassure teachers over smooth pupil transitions to key stage 3, and how is the Welsh Government intending on levelling the new curriculum with the existing GCSE exam system? Diolch.

Well, I would encourage the headteacher in his constituency to engage with the Camau project, which we are funding through the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, which provides resources to support schools in their development of new assessment approaches. It's fundamental, really, that at the heart of the new curriculum is that assessment is there to support the progression of individual learners. It's not there for accountability. That's a very fundamental shift. It's crucial to the curriculum, but it does involve changes in pedagogy and in teaching and learning practice. I would encourage him as well to work with his cluster to make sure there's a consistent approach to assessment and progression across the cluster, and I'd also encourage him or her to engage with the national network conversations, which have been and will continue to be a source of further information and professional learning in relation to assessment.

Minister, I hope you enjoyed your visit to our excellent schools in Ffaldau and Llangynwyd last week.

When we were there we visited in Llangynwyd the arts lesson that was going on, and what struck me with the new curriculum was that they were using that art session to develop issues around identity, around mental health, as well as actually teaching very good skills in art. And then they were incorporating that into other aspects of the curriculum being taught in other lessons. It was, I think, quite a revelation in the way the school had really taken on board the new curriculum. So, partly in answer to Sam's question, but also partly to ask for your reflections on that, how do we make sure that the very best practice in developing the new curriculum, and integrating it with that flexibility across the school, is done, just as they were doing in Llangynwyd?

14:45

Well, I think that's a really important point and, as you say, it reflects one of the points that Sam Kurtz was making in his question as well. There is a balance to be struck, isn't there, as you're changing an entire system between central direction and the kind of flexibility and devolution, if you like, to schools of the ability to design and implement a curriculum that works for their communities and their learners. And, in a sense, there's an inherent tension there. 

I'm clear that it's a curriculum for Wales, and so the professional learning and resources available to teachers in any one part of Wales through their consortia, for example, should be available to those in any part of Wales. So, one of the initiatives that we've taken at the end of last year is to provide a common access point so that any practitioner in any part of Wales can access all of that professional learning and resources. I think that's an important part, but it's not the end of the story. The other aspect is to make sure that there's a consistent framework for accountability across the system, which is what we have with the new approach that Estyn is rolling out, either through the national network, as I mentioned earlier, or, crucially, through the work of clusters.

And I think we also saw, by the way, very effective cluster working in our visit to Llangynwyd, when we met with a primary school head as well. I thought that seemed to me to be a very strong set of working relationships, and that's what we need to see. If there's any head in any school in Wales that has reservations about whether their cluster is working in the way they would want to see, I would really encourage them to make that a priority, because I think it's pretty fundamental to the success of the reforms.

Educational Standards in Islwyn

4. What action is the Welsh Government taking to raise educational standards in Islwyn? OQ59097

The Curriculum for Wales remains key to raising education standards for all learners. Our school improvement guidance aligns with the principles and practice of the curriculum, setting out a framework for the education system to support schools to provide the best possible learning experiences and outcomes to their learners.

Thank you for that response, Minister. Markham Primary School sits in the constituency of Islwyn, built over 110 years ago in 1913, serving the local community. It's a green but not a leafy suburb. Will you join me in congratulating Markham's headteacher, Mrs Lindsey Pritchard, her staff, governors and pupils for a glowing report from Estyn that extolled praise on the school in its recent inspection report? The school's motto is, aptly, 'Making the Most of Every Day'. Estyn observed Markham primary as a

'nurturing and vibrant place for pupils and staff',

which children felt 'proud to be a part of', and 'ambitious' staff help pupils make very good progress in their time at schools, and all classes have 

'a strong focus on developing literacy, numeracy and digital skills'.

Minister, what message, then, can you give to the community of Markham about their proud school? And will you make every endeavour to visit Markham primary during your busy schedule in 2023 to see for yourself how the partnership working of Welsh Government, local education authorities and proactive community schools can transform communities and change the lives and pathways of Welsh children forever? Diolch.

Yes, I'm very happy indeed to extend my congratulations to Mrs Pritchard and the staff and pupils of the school. I thought it was really telling, the phrase that the Member used, I think reflecting what Estyn said, which was the school had a focus on making children feel proud to be a part of it. And the reason that's so important is because it reflects how important the agency of young people is in our schools and in the new curriculum in particular. And what better mark of success of a school than that the pupils who the school is there to support and to serve feel proud of being part of that school community?

I also gather there is a very impressive digital education offer at Markham, including a fully equipped radio station, so I'll be very keen to come along and visit the school at some point later on this year. 

14:50

Minister, you've read a lot of reports; I've read a fair number of reports now on education, having had many questions with you over the past few years. Now, statistically, we all know that children growing up in poverty and disadvantaged areas are less likely to do well at school. Research from the Education Policy Institute into the impact of educational inequalities reveals that, sadly, Welsh schools suffer a wide disadvantage gap compared to English schools. They go on to say that progress is narrowing this disadvantage gap, and it has, indeed, been modest over the last 10 years, and that local authorities in Wales need to learn from deprived areas in England with similar demographics, such as Barnsley and Salford, which have managed to achieve smaller disadvantage gaps over time. So, Minister, what action are you taking now to address the disadvantage gap in Wales to raise educational standards for pupils in Islwyn, and, ultimately, throughout Wales? Thanks. 

The report to which she refers in her question is an important contribution to the discussion and to the debate, and it certainly reflected, at least in broad terms, our own understanding of the challenges that we face in parts of the system. She will recall, perhaps, in the many reports that she's read, the speech that I gave to the Bevan Foundation last year and the statement that I made in the Chamber, which outlined a very extensive programme of actions that we are taking to close the attainment gap in Wales. The most recent of those, she may have seen in the press a few weeks ago, was the announcement of our cohort attainment champions, of heads who've shown particular success in their schools in closing the attainment gap and making sure that every single young person in their school has the opportunity to flourish. They are now working with other heads to share that best practice in the way that we just heard earlier is so important. That is one of a range of interventions.

We are also, as she may know, commissioning research into mixed ability teaching, and also what more we can do to encourage teachers to some of those most disadvantaged areas so that we make sure that young people have the support that they need. I am, in fact, planning on making a statement to the Chamber in the coming weeks that will set out in detail progress against the whole range of items that I set out last year, and I'd be very happy to answer any further questions at that point. 

The Skills Gap

5. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Economy regarding how the education system can help to address Wales's skills gap? OQ59084

Discussions with the Minister for Economy have principally focused on how the education system supports the skills agenda and the young person's guarantee. Also just this week, Cabinet discussed the question of net-zero skills, including the role of education in achieving our ambitions in that important area. 

Thank you for your response, Minister. 

Recent work from the Construction Industry Training Board has shown that, over the next five years, Wales needs 9,100 additional new entrants into construction, with bricklaying, electrical roles and roofing being areas of particular high demand. With the draft budget, there is a chance here to build on how the education system supports people into these industries, but, as I referenced yesterday, conversations I've had with the sector highlight the challenges learners face during their education that may undermine their progress to a career in the industry. More often than not, these challenges lie within the ability of low-income students to fund their education, and what colleges are seeing is students leaving education to access more readily accessible jobs that pay higher wages initially, but don't ultimately fulfil the long-term needs of our communities. Retention will be key to ending those skills shortages. So, how does the Minister envisage addressing these very specific challenges, and does he think that increasing the educational maintenance allowance offers a potential solution? 

I look forward to the debate that we're going to have in the forthcoming weeks in relation to education maintenance allowance, in particular. He will know from my previous appearances at these questions and in the discussions we've had that the real pressure on budgets has meant that we've not been able to increase education maintenance allowance, but we are very happy to have been able to maintain it, which hasn't been the case across other parts of the UK, as he will know. I have also been very pleased to be able to increase the funding available to further education colleges in relation to the financial contingency fund, which, as he knows, is available to support students in further education who are facing particular pressures. I think it's very important that we do everything we can to support students in that position in the way that I know that he does as well. He will also recall that we have, over the last couple of years, sharply increased the funding available to further education colleges in order to be able to offer that broader range of skills that he sets out in his question, and which I agree with him are very, very important. 

Minister, it is tough to imagine what the workplace of tomorrow will be like. If someone had said this time last year that artificial intelligence would pass the interview for a level 3 programme engineer at Google, we would have thought them crazy, but that is exactly what ChatGPT did just a few days ago. The swift rise of artificial intelligence brings a whole new set of challenges for the future job market. However, it also brings a whole set of new opportunities for today’s learners. Minister, how will the education system adapt to ensure young people can embrace these new and emerging technologies and be prepared for whatever tomorrow throws at them? Thank you.

14:55

Altaf Hussain makes a very important point in relation to the changing nature of our economy and how difficult it can be sometimes to anticipate those changes. What that tells me is that we need to make sure our young people are equipped for any change in society, and that what we need to be imparting to them, as much as knowledge, are the skills and the experiences to be able to navigate a changing economy in a way that puts their interests at its heart and enables them to flourish.

I think he's right to highlight that there's a particular set of opportunities, and challenges also, in relation to the digital transformation of our society, and AI is one of those examples. He'll know that at the heart of our new curriculum is a set of digital competencies that are cross-cutting. He'll also know of the significant investment that we've made as a Government in recent years to ensure a very, very widespread level of access to computers, laptops, tablets and other devices, and the broadband connectivity that supports that. The challenge now is to make sure that, in our schools, the full functionality that that offers is able to be taken advantage of, and we are working with our profession to ensure that that is the case.

Good afternoon, Minister. I want to ask about personal learning accounts. These were developed by Kirsty Williams in the fifth Senedd to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to learn here in Wales. May I ask for an update on these? How are you working collaboratively with the Minister for Economy to ensure that young people here in Wales do develop the skills that they need, particularly for the green economy? Thank you very much.

Well, I thank Jane Dodds for that question. The accounts are something that I'm a great fan of personally, and I've increased the budget for them substantially. It is important that we continue to provide opportunities whereby people in work can renew and transform their skills. Two of the areas where we've focused funding on are digital skills, as Altaf Hussain mentioned, and also green skills. As we look at increasing the budget for PLAs, one of the greatest priorities is to ensure that we reflect the needs of the economy. So, discussions with the Minister for Economy are certainly moving in that direction.

In this financial year, I allocated almost £18 million for the PLA programme, and what we have seen happening—and this has happened during COVID too—is that we've been able to provide funding and then ensure that we support people in accessing new skills in a very short period of time. The ability to move quickly is so important in a changing economy.

Community-focused Schools

6. Will the Minister provide an update on support for community-focused schools? OQ59083

Certainly. Community-focused schools are at the heart of our agenda to tackle the impact of poverty on attainment. In 2022-23—this financial year—we provided £3.84 million for family engagement officers, £660,000 for community-focused school manager posts, and £20 million for capital improvements to schools. We have also in recent weeks published two sets of guidance for schools as well.

My question was specifically about that £20 million of capital funding for community-focused schools. It was referenced in the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations Committee—if I've got that right—which looked into how that money should be spent. The 'Levelling the playing field' report is the one I'm thinking of. I also met recently with Dr Nicola Williams-Burnett of Cardiff Metropolitan University, who has got a great deal of research expertise in this area and is keen to see those community-focused aspirations realised. So, with that in mind, I'd like the Minister to provide more detail at this stage on the delivery of the capital programme and where that funding's being directed, and particularly what practical benefits have emerged and what evaluation will there be of those outcomes.

15:00

Well, it's very important, isn't it, as well as being able to allocate significant funding, that we make sure it's being spent in a way that is both effective and also provides good evidence to others of how to best spend that money. Of course, the funding is being made available in this financial year, so the assessment of impact clearly will follow from here. But the kinds of things that we've seen investment in include—this is the capital grant—improving external lighting in sports areas, providing storage for equipment for extra-curricular activities, outside shelters, security measures to segregate school and community-use areas, and then modifications to changing rooms, to toilets, and so on, to facilitate community use.

In relation to how that money has flowed through the system, obviously the responsibility for distribution lies in the hands of local authorities, but we expect them to focus the funding on small to medium-scale projects and to take full note of the guidance that we've issued in how they go about doing that. That, we think, is the best way of making sure that schools can adapt and effectively open their premises outside traditional hours. In terms of how it was funded to local authorities, it was distributed on a formulaic basis, dependent on schools and learners in each individual local authority and, as I mentioned at the start, we'll be evaluating the outcomes of that funding in due course.

Cost-saving Measures for Schools

7. What assessment has the Minister made of potential cost-saving measures for schools? OQ59092

Well, the cost-of-living crisis is having, and will continue to have, significant financial impacts on all public services, including our schools. School budgets are, of course, for local authorities to determine. They are best placed to work with their schools, as many are, in proposing reasonable cost-saving measures where they are appropriate.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Powys County Council are looking at making education cost savings of over £1.7 million. Proposals for schools from the council include turning off laptops and ceasing photocopying. I'm not exactly sure how much of £1.7 million will be saved from stopping photocopying in schools, but this seems an inadequate way of treating our teachers and our children, and the cabinet just tinkering around the edges. Minister, to make efficiencies in schools we need to make sure that the buildings are as energy efficient as possible, so what support is the Welsh Government giving to schools to make them more energy efficient, so that can help school budgets?

Well, as he knows, we make available funding to local authorities in relation to the decarbonisation of the school estate—I'll have some more to say about that in the coming weeks, as it happens—as well as making sure that all new schools built using Welsh Government funding are net-zero schools, both in terms of embedded carbon, but also in terms of operation. I think it's really important that we can make sure our school estate is futureproofed in terms of its energy needs in the way the Member suggests.

Neurodiverse Pupils

We continue to support neurodiverse pupils. Both the additional learning needs system and the Curriculum for Wales put children and young people's needs at the centre through person-centred planning and supporting individuals' progression.

Thank you. I'm still contacted regularly by parents of pupils with diagnosed or suspected neurodiverse conditions, many of whom have diagnosed neurodiverse conditions themselves and most of whom live in Flintshire. In recent months alone, e-mails received from Flintshire parents include the following: 'We attach evidence showing behaviours that are autism related and are held in her education file, yet she's without a formal assessment and diagnosis of autism.' Another neurodiverse mother said, 'If anything, we're excluded from anything such as when social services recently went into my daughter's school. How is that an equal partnership when you live in fear and cannot trust?' Another wrote, 'My son is autistic and had complained of extreme bullying by pupils and a teaching assistant at his previous school. The council dismissed any request for support.' An advocate for an autistic mother wrote that her client's son came home from school with some bruising. The social worker that visited said that she could see no bruising despite his mother taking photographs of the bruising that day. And finally, only last week, a mother wrote that her autistic daughter's school had put many referrals in place for her daughter, only to be knocked back. How can you ensure effective implementation of Welsh legislation to prevent such clear and repeated breaches from happening?

15:05

Well, none of us want to hear the sorts of examples that Mark Isherwood has described in his question today, and if there are any of those that he wishes to write to me about specifically, I'd be happy to take that up.

In relation to ensuring the reforms are effective, we are making sure that there is additional funding in the system, both this year and for the next two years. We are now a little over a year into a three-year implementation period for the very significant additional learning needs reforms. He will also know that we have recently published significant new material, which is guidance for pupils and their parents about their rights and the services that they are entitled to. And in relation to supporting the workforce to understand the needs of pupils with additional learning needs, in both initial teacher education and now continuing professional learning for teachers in practice, obviously meeting those needs is a priority, and supporting learners with ALN is part of a student teacher's core studies. We've also developed an online ALN national professional learning programme, aimed specifically at additional learning needs co-ordinators, but also teachers and lecturers, so they can develop their own ability to support teachers with ALN. And in addition to our work to support all learners with ALN, we fund the national autism team to provide relevant support and resources to the education sector as well.

3. Topical Questions

The next item is item 3, which is the topical questions, and the first question is to be answered by the Minister for Social Justice and is to be asked by Jack Sargeant.

Prepayment Meters

1. In light of the Ofgem announcement of a halt in the forced installation of prepay meters, what representations has the Minister made to the UK Government regarding support for those facing disconnection as a result of being forcibly switched already this winter? TQ722

I've written twice in the last two weeks, urging UK Government to end the abhorrent practice of forced installation of prepayment meters. I call on them and energy suppliers to remove any meters installed by force this winter, and I'm urgently seeking a meeting with the Secretary of State.

Can I thank the Minister for that answer, and again thank her for her leadership on behalf of the Welsh Government in bringing these issues to the attention of the UK Government?

The UK Government, Ofgem and the courts have watched this national scandal develop for over a year, seemingly simply trusting energy suppliers and debt collection agents to do the right thing. Thousands of warrants for the forced installation of prepay meters have been passed without scrutiny; the only check being that the debt collection agents simply state that nobody impacted is vulnerable. We know that that is not true. Just last week, we all would have seen the footage of the results: vulnerable people's houses entered, often broken into, and prepay meters forcibly installed. The courts have now finally ordered a halt to this, but for me, it's far too late for the thousands that have already been switched.

Minister, we need meaningful compensation, we need a ban on the remote switching, and to allow those already switched—forcibly switched—to switch back free of charge. In your meetings with the UK Government, if they accept your invitation and your calls, will you express the importance and urgency of the calls I've said today? And will you also investigate whether the Welsh Government and this Senedd could support the development of rules similar to those put in place for water back in the 1990s—those rules that don't allow people, people right across our society in Wales and the United Kingdom, to be simply cut off and disconnected?

Well, I'd like to thank Jack Sargeant for his relentless and effective campaign on what are the prepayment meter scandals that have emerged over recent weeks. You have raised this consistently over the past year and helped to expose it, for us and for the Welsh Government to respond, and indeed the whole Senedd and our fuel poverty cross-party group, which Mark Isherwood chairs, and I assure you that this is at the forefront of my agenda at the moment as Minister for Social Justice, to address this shocking scandal.

So, in recent correspondence and contact with the UK Government and Ofgem, including a meeting that I held with the Ofgem board this morning that happened to be in Cardiff, I've stressed the need for energy suppliers to not only stop forced installation, but also to revert any prepayment meters that have been recently fitted, and I continue to seek that meeting with the Secretary of State to make clear the urgency of this call. I have had a response from the energy Minister, and I'm happy to share that with colleagues in the Chamber in the Senedd today.

The existing rules, of course, were intended to protect the most vulnerable in our society, but they have not worked. They're clearly not working as intended, and we have to look at that. So, I did ask that question of the Ofgem board today. They have got to regulate the industry effectively, and in my meeting with them, with the chair and board of Ofgem this morning, I did say to them: are they making effective use of their existing powers as regulator? Are they using those powers? Are they sufficient to effectively regulate the sector? Do we need strengthened legislation? What can we do in terms of further powers needed to regulate the sector? And also, in their response, I will share with the Senedd today that they said that they've launched a robust investigation into the activities of British Gas, the debt collector collecting agency that they were using, and they're looking internally at their compliance activities. They did say that they're using all their current powers to full force, but obviously we need to hear from them, and I think it's due within the next couple of weeks, the outcome of that investigation.

Just finally, on your point about water, heat and power are vital services for our households. As with water, energy supply companies should not be simply able to disconnect users, and I'm going to raise this particular point, as I did today with Ofgem, with the UK Government.

15:10

Last month, prior to your 31 January and 2 February letters to the UK Government and before The Times investigation revealed British Gas routinely sending debt collectors to break into customers' homes and force-fit prepayment meters, even when they're known to have extreme vulnerabilities, the then UK business Secretary Grant Shapps wrote to energy suppliers, stating that they should stop forcing vulnerable customers onto prepayment meters and that they should make greater efforts to help those struggling to pay their bills. He called for the urgent publication of the energy suppliers' recent investigation into vulnerable customers, and the release of data on applications suppliers had made to forcibly install meters. Last week, Ofgem asked energy companies to suspend the forced installation of prepayment meters, and on Monday, Lord Justice Edis ordered magistrates' courts in England and Wales to stop authorising warrants for energy firms to forcibly install prepayment meters with immediate effect. On the same day, the UK energy Minister, Graham Stuart, met the boss of Ofgem and told him that the UK Government expected strong and immediate action where suppliers fall short of their obligations.

In light of your call for an outright ban, what consideration have you given to concerns of a consequent increase in bailiff action, which I believe is the only thing that's held the UK Government back? And how will you work with British Gas to promote their ring-fenced prepayment customer support fund, targeted to help prepayment and vulnerable customers, who must apply, nonetheless, for this? Thank you.

Thank you, Mark Isherwood, for your questions, and I hope you will back my call for a meeting with the Secretary of State. Of course, I have written to the Secretary of State and I have had a response from the energy Minister. I think what is very clear is that we've got to recognise the scale of this: 200,000 households in Wales use prepayment meters for their mains gas and electricity; 15 per cent of all households, 24 per cent of tenants in the private rented sector, and almost half of social housing tenants use prepayment meters, and they're on the lowest incomes. We are talking about those who are most vulnerable.

What I've said to the UK Government is that, yes, we're pleased to see energy suppliers halting the practice of forced installation, but what did it take? It took the investigation of The Times, and politicians like Jack Sargeant, and indeed Ed Miliband, I would say, to expose what was going on. Enforcement didn't work. The UK Government isn't acting enough to look at the new legislation that probably needs to come forward. There is a lack of Ofgem safeguards in place. I said to Ofgem, 'We will support you if you need more regulatory power; we need to support you to do this.'

We have to await the outcome of that investigation into British Gas. I've met with energy suppliers on a number of occasions. They've given me assurances about the way they're treating and supporting vulnerable customers. I find it very hard to actually take on board some of the assurances they've given me when we hear particularly of their use of these unscrupulous debt collection agencies. I am meeting the Enforcement Conduct Board next week, and I will be able to report back on that, because we need to look at their work. I was glad that that was raised yesterday by Peredur in terms of their use and in terms of looking at how accredited enforcement agents are key to this. I will certainly be responding to and updating the Senedd on these issues. 

15:15

In the cross-party group on consumer rights, which I chair, we heard on Monday from Which?. Their latest report, published this week, showed that 92 per cent of Welsh consumers are worried about energy prices higher than in England and Scotland, and that consumers are engaging in cost-saving behaviours that may be detrimental to their health. We know it's detrimental to their health: 78 per cent putting the heating on less, 18 per cent having fewer cooked meals. The Welsh Government must take action to do what it can to safeguard its citizens. Citizens Advice Cymru in that same cross-party group shared the frustration. Their graphs were showing plainly what was happening as regards prepayment meters, and they were completely frustrated that it took The Times to be able to get some action from the UK Government on this.

The distribution and supply of electricity and the supply of gas are, of course, both reserved to Westminster under the Government of Wales Act 2006. Consumer protection is also a reserved matter. Given this, what representations has the Welsh Government made to get these powers devolved, so we can ensure that the ban we need is implemented and maintained? Will the Minister call on the UK Government to devolve these powers? Also, we've heard, I think it was just yesterday, on the news that the take-up of vouchers available for prepay customers under the UK Government's energy bills support scheme is well below what was expected. Has the Welsh Government approached the UK Government to ensure any unspent or unredeemed money is used to support those vulnerable households here in Wales who are in fuel poverty and on prepayment meters? 

Thank you very much, Sioned Williams, for reporting on that CPG on consumer rights. I'm shortly meeting with National Energy Action and Citizens Advice, who are key to inform us, and inform us regularly, of the evidence and also of the policy moves that we need to take. I think this is time when we do look to what powers we've got, the ways in which we can intervene when so much is reserved, which is why we have to press the UK Government on these issues. I think this is about the most vulnerable people. I've mentioned the numbers who are on prepayment meters. We have intervened in ways that we can, not just with our winter fuel support scheme, but with our partnership with the Fuel Bank Foundation, to make sure that people can access fuel vouchers through these difficult months.

Again, I said to Ofgem today—they were meeting in Cardiff—'You have got to show to us what the impact of your investigation into British Gas will be' in terms of their use of those debt enforcement agents, which is so shocking and appalling. My colleague the Counsel General is questioning the courts and the ways in which the courts have forced through these warrants. Worryingly, as he identified, over the past three years, over 22,000 warrants have been issued through Swansea magistrates' court, not just for people in Wales, we understand. This actually makes a strong case for the devolution of justice, doesn't it, in terms of the way forward.

But I finally want to say, and it is important, that I raised the issue about how can citizens on prepayment meters redeem their vouchers. Citizens Advice has said that all of the efforts to reach those customers are still not effective, as you've identified. I did get a response from the UK Government and, indeed, from energy suppliers saying that vouchers can be reissued, and we expect them to continue to do that even if the 90 days have expired. But, again, we will use this opportunity to promote the ways in which people—the suppliers and indeed customers—can access those vouchers. 

15:20

This scandalous exploitation of individuals who have the least and who need to keep warm, like everybody else, really exposes that we have a completely broken system. So, if you ever get the chance to talk to the UK Government about their failure to act on this—. It's been over three months that Jack Sargeant has been raising this in the Senedd. And what have the magistrates been doing when they issue these licences? Have they been asking whether these individuals are vulnerable and are able to get to the shop in order to top up their credit? It seems to me that what we need, Minister, is a complete overhaul of the regulatory system—Ofgem has been exposed as a paper tiger—and we also need to put a stop to this business of charging those on prepayment meters more than those who are paying by direct debit. It's absolutely scandalous, given that there is no service. You don't have to go and look at the meter to see how much people have used in the way of energy, they know that. So, it seems to be absolutely—. So, will you have discussions (a) with the Ministry of Justice, as to how they're going to increase the awareness of the magistrates of how ordinary people live; and (b) will you urge the UK Government to completely overhaul the regulatory system, otherwise known as Ofgem?

Certainly I will follow up all of those points, Jenny Rathbone, Chair of the Equality and Social Justice Committee, with the UK Government and, indeed, with Ofgem. I said, 'You need a complete overhaul of regulations' to Ofgem, and we'll see what impact their enforcement powers have in terms of their investigations in terms of British Gas.

Yes, it did take Lord Justice Edis, as Mark Isherwood said, to stop those applications for warrants for prepayment meters in magistrates' and district judges' courts, so that's what the Counsel General is following up as well. They've ceased to be listed, but when you hear of the way that they were going through the back rooms of courts, people with no representation—£22, I think the Counsel General has been saying; the money that was made by the courts out of this—we need a review of the legislation. In fact, that is actually something that Lord Justice Edis said himself. 

I think the point is, finally, that it is the most vulnerable and the poorest in society who are on prepayment meters. They should be scrapped. Yes, it is a choice for some, but one of the questions that has been asked, and I'm sure it has been asked in your cross-party groups, is: has remote installation stopped? No, I don't believe it has. Enforced installation has stopped, but remote installation is still going on. 

Finally, I have asked for suppliers not to be making standing charges. They're the highest in north Wales in the whole of the UK, and very high in south Wales. And even if people cannot even feed their meters, they're still subject to the standing charges, so when they get their fuel vouchers, perhaps via us, they actually are paying off the standing charges. Isn't that an absolutely shocking situation, which we've got to address?

The Minister has answered part of what I was going to raise, because the Minister is quite used to me talking about the problem of people having standing charges. I understand from The Observer last Sunday that standing charges can be up to 50p a day. Most of us don't consider having to spend a day without putting on any lights, without putting on any television, without putting on any heating. That is the life of a number of my constituents, where they have to not use any energy, and then when they do—. As one constituent told me—I've mentioned this to the Minister before and I'm going to keep on mentioning it—she had not used any energy for four days, she heated or warmed a tin of soup, and her energy costs went over £2 because she hadn't used any energy for four days. Does the Minister agree that we've got to get standing charges ended and that we need to get them ended now? Because what is happening is the poorest are paying more and more for less and less. It is a scandal; it is a scandal that should not have been allowed, and certainly one we need to bring to an end.

15:25

Can I thank the Llywydd for enabling more Members to make the points and ask the questions today to this topical question? Yes, the standing charges are an outrage in terms of the impact they have on people's lives.

Can I just go back to the point that was raised by Jack Sargeant in his supplementary question? We need the sort of legislation we've got in the water industry to prevent customers being disconnected even if they are in arrears, and we need to get Ofgem to take on those powers to safeguard vulnerable customers. But I will continue to press for the end of those standing charges, which energy suppliers, with all the profits that are being made, can afford to cut and cover. 

Thank you, Presiding Officer, for allowing the question. Minister, I’m grateful to you for your answers so far today on the abhorrent practices that we saw last week. I do not absolve the UK Government from responsibility in this; they do have responsibility. They’re ultimately the Government that sets the legislative framework. But one thing I do think is a fundamental weakness here is the point that Jenny Rathbone made and others have made: Ofgem is completely not fit to purpose. I speak from a business point of view, and I declare an interest in that I’ve had interaction with Ofgem. I’ve raised it with the First Minister himself here on several occasions in First Minister’s questions about Wales having its own place on the board of Ofgem—a dedicated board member, so that Welsh interests can be truly represented.

I understand the Welsh Government meet periodically with them, as you’ve done today. Did you pose the question to those board members today? Do they consider, in light of the evidence over the last 12 months, that they themselves are fit for purpose, given the blight that we’ve seen on people’s lives with the revelations that came out last week, but also the impotency they seem to have in face of what’s gone on in the electric and energy market over the last 12 months in particular, where businesses and consumers have felt helpless at the hands of many large companies who’ve shown no respect for the wishes and concerns of people and the situations they find themselves in? 

Thank you very much, Andrew R.T. Davies. I was standing in for the First Minister today at the Ofgem board. They were meeting in the UK Government offices in Central Square, where they actually have an Ofgem office, which actually, they told me, is being expanded in terms of their presence here in Wales. The chair of the Ofgem board is actually representing Welsh interests. They’ve been here for two days making visits to Tata and to local energy initiatives as well. I think your points are very well made. We have to see now whether or not they are using their powers, which they say they have got, in terms of a root-and-branch review of what is happening, what the scandal is, and then question what their role is. Diolch.

I thank the Minister. The next question is to the Minister of health. Russell George.

The Pay Offer for NHS Workers

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the new Welsh Government pay offer put to NHS workers? TQ725

Thanks very much. A written statement has literally just been issued on this topic, but I’m happy to set out some aspects of the offer to NHS workers in order to stave off industrial action, if that is helpful.

Thank you, Minister, for your answer this afternoon. I do hope, of course, that a solution is found and agreed that can lead to further industrial action not taking place in Wales. I have asked my topical question this afternoon because I had further questions following your written statement on Friday. Of course, in the last 10 minutes, a further written statement has landed in the inbox of Senedd Members. I'm glad that the topical question has brought forward this written statement, which perhaps answers some of the questions that I had, but also perhaps provides some more questions that I have as well, given this opportunity now, Minister.

But can I first of all ask: do you believe that the source of funding for this proposal is sustainable? And the reason I ask that question is that the finance Minister told the BBC that it was being funded from reserves. But what about future years, and how will the year-on-year pay settlement be funded? I looked very quickly, Minister, through your written statement over the last 10 minutes. With regard to working hours, you talked about a working group that's being set up and reporting by the autumn. That sounds positive, but perhaps you can outline what the remit of that working group is. 'Flexible working'—that was another headline I was pleased to see, Minister. Perhaps you can say a little bit more about your retire and return strategy that you've outlined in your statement this afternoon. I was very pleased to see the headline of 'Reduction in use of agency'. I suppose the question there is: how? There wasn't a great deal of detail in the statement, so perhaps you can expand further on that. And I was particularly interested in your point in your statement this afternoon, Minister, on pay restoration, and you're talking about influencing the UK Government, the pay review body. But can I ask: what about the influencing that you might have on your own pay review body in that regard as well? Thank you, Minister.

15:30

Thanks very much. And as you know, we've been negotiating very diligently over a very long period of time, very intense negotiations, and I'm really pleased that we were able to come to a conclusion on Thursday night. That was put, certainly to the officials within those unions, and the vast majority of them, I'm delighted to say, called off their industrial action, which is not insignificant—and we're talking about the RCN, the RCM, Unison, CSP, GMB, BMA, BAOT, and SOR. They all agreed not to continue with industrial action whilst they put this package to their members. So I'm really pleased that we were able to do that. I think that there's a lesson here for other Governments across the United Kingdom that, actually, sitting down and discussing can lead to some positive conclusions.

Now, what I'm absolutely clear about is that this is not over. The decisions on this will ultimately be for the rank-and-file members of those trade unions, who will now need to determine whether they want to pick up that package that has been so carefully worked out. It's not been an easy process; it's been a very challenging process. And just in terms of some of the points that you made—. And you're quite right, it is literally this minute that this has come through. That's not actually because of the topical question but because, literally, we have just finished negotiating with the trade unions, so it was absolutely down to the wire, and I'm glad that it's coincided with your question, Russell.

But, just in terms of the sources of funding, I just think it's really important that people understand that we've said, the whole time during this process, that there is an amount of money for this financial year, and what we've done is we've raided our reserves to get the money to pay for this financial year. Next financial year—and the unions were very clear with us—there are some red lines, and their red line, in relation to health unions, was that they wanted to see at least an element of this being consolidated into future years. So, the truth is that we've gone at risk on this. And you asked about agency nurses, and I know this is something we're all keen to see, but now, through working with the trade unions, I think it will be much easier for us to try and deliver on making efficiencies in relation to agency workers next year. But the truth is that we're going at risk to the tune of about £60 million next year. So, if we're not able to find those savings, then I am going to have a very difficult decision as health Minister to find cuts from other areas. But, we have looked at this in quite a lot of detail, we think we can do it, it will be much easier to deliver this if we do it with the trade unions, and, obviously, with the health board managers.

The other thing you talked about is working hours. As you say, yes, we'll be establishing this working group, and that group will be reporting by the autumn. The retire and return—there's an element of this, obviously, which is in the hands, effectively, of the UK Government, because some of it is about pensions. So, again, I have already written to the UK Government, just to ask them to consider issues in relation to pensions for those who are ready to retire. 

And pay restoration, just as a principle, I think we all acknowledge that there has been an erosion over the years, and, of course, in an ideal world, we'd like to see a move towards pay restoration. 

15:35

May I first of all comment on the proposed salary increase of 1.5 per cent, because it's only that that's being considered as a pay rise, not the bonus, of course? I am convinced that it isn't enough to make up for many years of pay cuts in real terms, and it's quite right that the union members themselves will now decide whether to accept it or reject it. 

In terms of this issue of pay restoration, it's good to hear a commitment in principle; what I would like to hear from the Minister is a plan to tackle the fact that we have seen a decade and more of pay cuts. 

We've just seen the proposals in terms of the issues not related to salaries. It's very important indeed that we have more detail on what's been offered, because a failure to deal with so many of those elements is a large part of what's driven more and more people to work for agencies, of course. I just want to focus on agency working. I have a copy here of a contract between NHS Cymru and all of the agencies providing health staff in Wales. Nursing—148 agencies have signed this agreement. Some of them are specialist, but what we have here is proof of the scale of the privatisation that has happened of the workforce within the NHS—148 companies making profits on the back of nurses and the NHS in Wales. And the contract states clearly how much they're paid—between £30 and £48 an hour, plus VAT, for band D nursing staff. The nurses themselves are paid from £20 upwards, so that's 30 per cent and more of a cut going to the agency. So, when will we see real movement away from this kind of contract, which sucks money out of our health service in Wales? How much money, and within what timescale do you need to spend that money in order to fund the small pay increase that you've offered now?

We need to ensure that the national nursing bank is something that is made a reality for the benefit of nurses, patients and the NHS, and in order to deliver higher and fair salaries in years to come. 

Thanks very much. This hasn't been an easy offer to negotiate, and what we have managed to do is to get a situation where, on top of the £1,400, which was the recommendation by the independent pay review body, what we've done now is we've found an additional 3 per cent—1.5 per cent of which will be consolidated and 1.5 per cent that will be non-consolidated. And what that actually means in practice is that, if this package is not accepted—and I think it's really important that I'm absolutely clear that this is the only deal in town—if this offer is rejected, we will be unable to make any higher pay offer for 2022-23. That is the reality or the situation. So, it's this or nothing. It's really important that people understand that that is what we're talking about here. 

So, just in terms of the reality of what that means, those on the bottom of band 5, which includes nurses and other healthcare professionals just starting their careers in the NHS, they will have received a total pay increase of 8.62 per cent for this financial year. And our lowest paid staff will have received a pay increase of 14.15 per cent. So, I think it's really important that people hear those figures, because that is not an unreasonable place to settle. 

Now, in terms of the agency, look, I think we're all committed to cutting down on the amount of money that we spend on agency workers. We've been firefighting for a very long time; I don't think anybody can deny that. We are going to have an absolute focus on this now. That's why you will see some of the detail that we want to do set out in the workforce implementation strategy that I announced last week, and that all-Wales bank will, of course, be a part of that.

15:40

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

Thank you, Minister, for your statement and also the update on questions that you've taken this afternoon. I notice from the unions listed that Unite aren't listed there as party to the discussions, but I understand that on Sunday, you did have discussions with their national general secretary. Are you able to update us on what was involved with those discussions? Given that they're not party to this statement and the organisations contained in this statement, how do you see yourself being able to resolve the dispute with Unite, because obviously that is a continuing dispute across the health estate?

Thanks very much. I did carry out some very informal discussions with the general secretary of Unite who happened to be in Wales on the weekend. I think it's really important that I emphasise that these were informal discussions because Unite, by not calling off their industrial action, have excluded themselves now from the negotiating table. So, everything that's been negotiated this afternoon in relation to the non-pay aspects of what we're talking about, Unite were not in the room when that was being negotiated. I think that's really important. Obviously, we are very keen to get to a situation where we see no more industrial action in relation to health in Wales, but we will work with the coalition of the willing to make sure that we can move ahead where that is practical.

4. 90-second Statements

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. We all recognise the health and well-being benefits of getting out into the great outdoors, and walking is a great way to do that. But, we're not all going to head up Pen y Fan or Eryri, and nor should we have to. What if there was a way to work with people right across Wales to improve nature and access to walking in their local areas? That's a great idea, and it's well under way.

Throughout 2022 and 2023, the Paths to Wellbeing project has given 18 communities across Wales the tools and training to improve nature and access to walking in their local areas. Ramblers Cymru's flagship £1.2 million project is improving access to local green spaces, working on the ground with volunteers to give the tools and the free training needed to identify and design new routes and to enhance and upgrade existing ones. They're also working alongside the 22 local authorities, Wildlife Trust Wales, Coed Cadw, the Woodland Trust in Wales, and others to enhance the local environment for nature to thrive. With activities such as tree planting, wildflower sowing and wildlife activity days, there are plenty of activities for all ages and backgrounds to get involved with. It is led by the community for the community. By investing in local volunteers to manage and undertake practical path and habitat maintenance and improvements, community engagement, paths and green spaces will be strengthened, and the health and well-being benefits of nature and outdoor physical activity realised too. So, my thanks to Ramblers Cymru, of which I'm the proud vice president, and to all partners for this groundbreaking project right here in Wales.

Next Monday is the hundredth anniversary of radio broadcasting from Wales. It was launched in Cardiff from a room above a music shop on Castle Street and it was the first broadcasting venture outside London. Astonishingly, people from Pontypridd, Rhymney, Newport and Gwent all managed to tune into radio 5WA's inaugural broadcast. Astonishing, because, unless you could afford the equivalent of two weeks' wages to buy a wireless, you had to rely on some polymath amateur who'd mastered adapting upside down telephone microphones to build a crystal wireless, or perhaps you could have attended a listening party, such as the one that was held in City Hall in Cardiff. 

The wireless orchestra, all seven of them, had a repertoire that included contemporary favourites like Ivor Novello's My Life Belongs to You and Dafydd y Garreg Wen. The latter, sung by Mostyn Thomas from Blaenau Gwent, fresh from his 1922 Eisteddfod win, was historic because it was the first time ever that the Welsh language had ever been broadcast.

Now, these amateurs—they were all amateurs initially—burnt through five station managers in the first six weeks on air. The pioneer uncle Fred lasted all of two days. Uncle Arthur, on the other hand, had staying power. Arthur Corbett-Smith was very keen to ensure that the BBC for Wales and the west country was going to have a much more relaxed tone than what was broadcast from London. Though he fully subscribed to the Reithian principles of 'educate, entertain and inform,' he wanted them to take place in the same programme, not in silos. So, talks were billed as chats; London had Children's Hour, but Wales had The Hour of the 'Kiddiewinks'. If you want to learn more about this, hear the concert that's going to be broadcast on Monday, which I attended last Sunday when it was recorded. Equally, you can listen to the BBC's The Ministry of Happiness, a sitcom that's being broadcast at the moment that was launched in memory of these pioneering broadcasters.

15:45

I would like to take this opportunity to raise awareness of National Apprenticeship Week, which aims to celebrate and promote apprenticeships in Wales as a valuable pathway into work and the benefits that they bring to both individuals and employers. I would particularly like to highlight the work of ColegauCymru, which co-ordinates the network of 13 further education colleges to deliver high-quality apprenticeship programmes in a wide range of vocational areas, from junior to foundation level and higher apprenticeships. Wales's colleges have strong links to industry and highly established support systems for learners, including dedicated employment and enterprise bureaux that are now in every college in Wales. The FE sector is well placed to help deliver the skills necessary for learners to embark on successful careers and produce and retain a skilled workforce to help meet current and future demand for businesses and the Welsh economy.

I also want to take this opportunity to highlight two success stories from colleges in my region. Arjundeep Singh, a BTEC mechanical and electrical engineering student at Coleg y Cymoedd, has been awarded the student of the year and best work awards, as well as apprentice of the year at the Caerphilly Business Forum Awards. He is now due to start a full-time job at British Airways. Ffion Llewellyn, who is doing her A-levels at Cardiff and Vale College became their Welsh language ambassador, setting up weekly coffee mornings for the college's Welsh learners club, took a lead on the college's Learn Welsh TikTok account and has taken part in Welsh language well-being podcasts as part of Jason Mohammad's media academy. Ffion is now doing a Welsh language production apprenticeship with the BBC.

The apprenticeship programme is an essential element of the FE vocational offer, supporting college-based learning and delivery of support for skills and employability within the community. It is vital that we continue to work together to raise the profile and make clear that different pathways exist to accessing apprenticeships and allow our students access to the wide variety of roles that are available to them. Thank you.

5. Debate on the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s Report—'Pupil absence'

Item 5 this afternoon is a debate on the Children, Young People, and Education Committee’s report, 'Pupil absence'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Jayne Bryant.

Motion NDM8195 Jayne Bryant

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the report of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, ‘Pupil absence’, which was laid in the Table Office on 14 November 2022.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. I'm very pleased to open this debate on the Children, Young People, and Education Committee’s report on pupil absence. We undertook a short, focused inquiry last summer to try to understand the impact of the pandemic on school attendance.

We knew that, prior to the pandemic, there had been a strong focus, both at school and national levels, to tackle school absence. We wanted to build on the Welsh Government-commissioned report on school absence, done by Meilyr Rowlands. Our findings very much chimed with the findings of his report, and we hope they're very helpful to Welsh Government.

I'd like to thank my fellow committee members for their diligence in undertaking this work, as well as those who gave oral and written evidence. In particular, I'd like to thank those families and young people who came to our focus groups to discuss their experiences. Our strategic plan places a huge emphasis on the importance of hearing directly from children and young people, and we remain committed to hearing and placing these voices at the forefront. Please be assured your voices really helped to shape our work. I'd also like to thank the Minister for his positive engagement with our work on this issue.

We made seven recommendations in total, all of which were accepted or accepted in principle. We know the Welsh Government are currently reviewing their attendance guidance, and we're glad to see the Minister commit to this review, encompassing the exclusions and behaviour guidance, as these issues are so closely linked. We also welcome the commitment that the revised guidance will be child-centric and underpinned by trauma-informed practice and evidence of what actually works.

We heard very clear evidence that everybody has a role to play in promoting and supporting sustained attendance. Therefore, it is good to hear from the Minister that this guidance will set out the roles that all partners can play, going beyond just the school staff, but also encompassing local authorities, governors and, of course, parents and carers.

During the pandemic, the type of attendance data that was collected and published changed, which makes it difficult to compare the data on attendance available pre pandemic and the data that’s available now. But the broad trends indicate that attendance has decreased since the pandemic-related school closures. When we published the report, the average attendance for the current academic year was 91.4 per cent. As of the most recent Welsh Government data, published this morning, the average attendance for this academic year had declined to 89.3 per cent. The data also shows that the attendance rate is lower for those learners who are eligible for free school meals than those learners who are not.

We heard anecdotal evidence that the cost-of-living crisis was creating an additional barrier to children and young people attending school. While this was anecdotal, it builds on long-standing concerns about the impact of the cost of the school day and the barriers it can create. It was also anecdotal evidence that all stakeholders seemed to agree with. And we're very clear that no child should be missing out on school because their family cannot afford for them to attend. This is baking in already existing disadvantages, and fundamentally unfair.

We therefore made recommendation 2, which called for an urgent study into how the current cost-of-living crisis is impacting on school attendance. We were concerned that, because this evidence is currently anecdotal, it's making it more difficult to create effective solutions and policy interventions. We called for this to be done within two months of the Welsh Government’s response to the report, and for it to be supported by an action plan.

In responding to this recommendation, the Welsh Government said it was challenging to meet the timescale outlined. They said that they are in informal discussions with a local authority about a research proposal, which would take an in-depth look at attendance in secondary schools, with a focus on which approaches and interventions have the most impact on lower-income families. Now, while this sounds like a promising piece of work, it does not meet the ambition of our recommendation. We set a really challenging timescale for this recommendation because we felt the urgent need to understand how the current crisis is affecting school attendance right now and to identify what actions can be taken quickly to address that issue. We're concerned that, if children and young people start missing school because they can’t afford to attend, this will make it more difficult to re-engage them in schooling the longer they are absent.

We also note that this research proposal would only be looking at secondary school attendance. It's also unclear if this proposal would look at the picture across Wales. Perhaps the Minister can outline what work he plans to do to look at the evidence in primary settings. And, Minister, can you also confirm if the research proposal would cover all of Wales, and perhaps, if you're unable to support the research proposal cited in the Welsh Government's response, what work could take its place?

Closely linked to the cost-of-living issues was recommendation 3, on learner travel. Both from our work on this committee but also as individual Members—which we did debate yesterday as well in the budget debate—we're acutely aware of the barriers that some children and young people face in accessing appropriate and affordable travel to school. We called for a pupil-first approach to learner travel decisions, where the needs of the individual pupil are the most important factor, and not cost. We acknowledge that this is a big ask of local authorities in difficult financial times, so we called on the Welsh Government to ensure local authorities have sufficient funding to deliver on this approach. We also called for the current review to be radical in looking for innovative solutions to this long-standing issue. Children’s attendance at school should not be hindered because they do not have affordable or safe transport options.

In responding, the Minister outlines the current review and the forthcoming changes to bus service delivery. However, we are concerned that, as with the previous recommendation, this does not reflect the urgent need to tackle this issue in the here and now. So, when will the review of the Learner Travel Measure (Wales) 2008 be completed, and when can we expect to see the actions from the review being implemented?

Finally, I'd like to seek some more clarity from the Minister on the response to recommendation 1, which called for a national campaign focusing on the positive impacts of regular school attendance. We believe that this should be delivered in conjunction with more tailored local campaigns at local authority and school level, which would complement a national campaign. In responding to this recommendation, the Minister said that Welsh Government will be increasing communications to emphasise the importance of going to school. Please can he provide us with more detail on what format these communications will take, and will it be the national campaign that the committee wants to see?

So, in closing, Deputy Llywydd, I would like to thank all those who contributed to our inquiry once again, including those who provided written and oral evidence, my fellow committee members, and the Minister and his officials for engaging positively with our work. I look forward to hearing what colleagues and the Minister have to say. Diolch.

15:55

I'd like to start off by giving thanks to our excellent Chair, Jayne Bryant, and also my fellow committee members, of course, and the clerks, staff and people who gave evidence and who made this vital report a reality—and, of course, the Minister for his co-operation as well. It is critical that we address soaring pupil absence, the problem having been exacerbated, as we’ve already heard, by the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. The report, I believe, is a thorough one and I’d like to focus on just a few key issues from it today.

We have seen that additional learning needs pupils often do not get the right, timely support, which results in persistent school absence. The National Autistic Society Cymru found that 43 per cent of autistic students were persistently absent, which is a worrying statistic. We also see that students in poverty, as has already been said, make up a high proportion of those absent from school, and this was very, very clear throughout the report.

The annual child and family poverty survey 2021 found that 94 per cent of practitioners in Wales said that poverty had an impact on a child’s school experience, which of course has now been exacerbated by the cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic. Current trends are a cause for alarm, and we need to ensure that we make it as easy as possible for students to attend school, and that we are as supportive as possible to individual learners for their individual needs, to ensure that they don’t miss out on the education that they all deserve.

It’s clear from the recommendations that we need a multi-pronged approach to ensure that we stop this worrying trend. Recommendation 3 of the report says that Welsh Government should ensure that local authorities have sufficient funding, as our Chair has already outlined, to ensure that children and young people have that access to appropriate school transport options to get them to school safely. This is absolutely vital, particularly when local authority budgets are so tight in the current climate.

However, the Welsh Government’s approach is only to accept this in principle, and bundle it in with the ‘One Network, One Timetable, One Ticket’ White Paper, which in my view diminishes the importance of this issue and only delays real action being taken. As I said in committee—and I see these issues in my own region, as we all do, far too regularly—we need this pupil-first approach that has been put forward by the committee. It needs wholesale reform, and not just tweaks.

But we must remember that there are children now who need help with school transport, and we cannot wait for the White Paper to turn into implementation years down the line. We need to see immediate action in expanding the offer of school transport, whilst reducing the cost for parents, as, for now, many can’t afford school transport, and they can’t afford to drive their children to school either. This creates a situation of despair for parents, and of course affects the learners and affects the level of absence that we are seeing. I completely agree with Jayne Bryant that this should not be a barrier to learning in this day and age.

Recommendation 4 looks to address the students who are most likely to absent, and why. As we know from the report, it can vary from ALN needs to mental health issues, and mental health issues that are not being addressed adequately and supporting learners to be able to stay in school. Whilst I'm pleased that the Welsh Government has accepted this recommendation, and that they'll consider absence and exclusion data to inform the support of the well-being of learners, it is essential that, where the support is needed, it’s urgently delivered on the ground to where it is needed. The data is meaningless without the proper support following it, and I’m disappointed that Welsh Government have committed to this without accepting the recommendation.

We also need to know how the Welsh Government will monitor the delivery and its success or failure. I’d also like the Minister to address how the Welsh Government will ensure that this generation of students are able to access school transport, not just focus on the next generation, and explain how he’s ensuring that home-schoolers aren’t being conflated and bundled in with school absence, as it’s crucial we ensure this medium of education is kept open and untarnished. But it is important that Welsh Government—. We do need to understand why there has been such a significant rise in home schooling since the pandemic began.

The report before us highlights the urgency in addressing this, as our Chair has outlined, so I’d like to hear from the Minister how he is working now with local authorities and school leaders to ensure that we reverse this worrying trend of pupil absence. Yes, it’s come down slightly, but the figures are still far too high. Thank you.

16:00

I too would like to thank the Chair of the committee and my fellow Members, the clerks and everyone who contributed, as well as the Minister. This was a very important inquiry.

As has already been outlined, we are all aware of the importance of attendance in terms of pupils’ development at school, not just in terms of their academic attainment, but their social, cognitive and emotional development. But the fact is, across Wales, too many learners are missing out on important opportunities due to absence, and what we as a committee were eager to understand  better was why this was the case.

As mentioned previously, this was a problem before COVID, but certainly the situation has deteriorated since then. And if the situation doesn’t improve soon, then a number of learners will have missed out on a whole host of opportunities, which will then have an impact on them for decades to come. That is why this report is so vitally important.

I welcome specifically the Government’s response to the second recommendation, and the agreement to commission research to understand better the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on pupils’ ability to attend school. Certainly the children’s commissioner was clear about the link between absence and poverty, and with child poverty increasing here in Wales, we must gain a better understanding of why this is happening and what we can do to ensure the very best start for every learner who attends school.

One matter raised with us as a committee, which has been raised already today—and it's been raised with me a number of times as a regional Member for South Wales Central—is the barriers related to transport costs, and that is the thrust of the committee’s third recommendation. I am pleased to see that the Minister has accepted this recommendation in principle, but again, it is a cause for concern for me that it is taking so long to resolve this issue.

I have raised several times with the Minister and the Deputy Minister for Climate Change a case in my constituency at Llanishen High School, which has been raised by Ruben Kelman, Member of the Welsh Youth Parliament. There is clear evidence from the school that the cost of bus travel is preventing some pupils from attending the school regularly. Despite this, the situation remains unresolved. How many more young people are affected like this? And why haven't councils such as Cardiff Council responded immediately to provide a solution to these situations, when we receive evidence that children can't afford to attend school?

I’d also like to focus on one other key area that came to light during our inquiry, and that was staffing capacity, or rather lack of, and how it is one of the biggest barriers to tackling pupil absence. As we heard, it is a problem that was made worse because of COVID-19 related staff absences, and difficulties in securing supply staff to cover, but there are other challenges too, linked to the draft budget, which we discussed yesterday. We’ve already been warned by teaching unions that school budgets are going to be under strain, with heads warning that they will have to look at cutting back on teachers and teaching assistants, as well as additional support for pupils and their families.

However, our report concludes that there are already significant concerns about staffing capacity and resilience to support pupil attendance. Some of this was specifically in reference to supporting blended and flexible learning as well. Ultimately, there are specific groups of children and young people who face additional barriers to attending school, many of which they do not have control over. Blended learning, an innovation developed during the pandemic, may provide an effective option to help these groups of learners maintain attendance. A return to normal simply isn’t going to work in this situation, and being able to use these innovative practices may help support those learners.

Finally, I welcome the Minister’s acceptance of the need to improve data collection as well as the publication and analysis of pupil absence data. The need for disaggregated data is crucial in identifying trends of absence for particular groups of learners. We need to send a clear message to all that, for pupils who attend school, attendance isn't optional, and if there are barriers that are affecting attendance, especially costs, then we need to urgently act. Education is a right and no child or young person should be losing even a day of school because their families can't afford for them to attend.

I very much look forward to seeing the recommendations being implemented, and once again ask all who can help turn these into reality to urgently put them into action. Every day lost in school by a learner is a day that widens the attainment gap. We need to act now.

16:05

I'd like to start by offering my thanks to the committee, its clerking team and the witnesses for what I think is a very robust piece of work. For my contribution, I'll be focusing on a couple of the key recommendations.

Firstly, recommendation 1 around promoting the importance of school attendance. We all know that it's important that children and young people attend school, and it's key that we get that positive message out there, especially after all the disruption and uncertainty that has been experienced over the past few years. I welcome the response from Welsh Government, saying that it will increase communications to parents and carers, both to address concerns and emphasise that positive rhetoric on the importance of going to school. I'm pleased at the mention of family engagement officers within the Minister's response, and their role in creating strong partnerships and offering bespoke support. I know these officers are doing really great work in Rhondda Cynon Taf, and I just want to pay tribute to the significant impact that they have.

Secondly, I want to touch on recommendation 3 regarding learner travel. I endorse the committee's call for a learner-centred approach. Perhaps in this context it's worth briefly paying tribute to RCT council's offer for free transport. This applies if a child in primary school lives 1.5 miles from their nearest suitable provision, or 2 miles if attending secondary school. So, RCT already goes beyond what is set out in the Measure, focusing on the individual and trying to remove barriers to attending school.

I understand the Welsh Government's comments around active travel as being important, but this will not be suitable for all children and also it would not be the choice for all parents and guardians. The comment in the Welsh Government's response that the proposed bus Bill offers a chance to also look again at school transport is a very important commitment. I hope this consideration will include a pilot study around free bus travel for children and young people, although I appreciate that it's something that the Minister might not be able to give today. There is lots to support this, and breaking down any barriers to attend school is, for me, a key factor. I appreciate the work Welsh Government already does to make transport more affordable for children and young people, but the Bill is a perfect chance to find out if taking this next step is feasible and desirable. That's a call that I know I and others have made before, but it is also one that both the previous Children's Commissioner for Wales and the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales have also supported.

Thirdly, recommendations 4 and 7, and these relate to the use of data and how it triggers interventions and offers a call for greater consistency. I'm really pleased by the responsive comments from the Minister in relation to these. From my own experience of holding a pastoral role in a secondary school, I know how important it is to track and monitor attendance, so that any issues can be picked up, resolved by support with early interventions, and thereby preventing many problems from spiralling. Attendance data is perhaps the most valuable tool that schools have to identify pupils in need of support for things like mental health, and I completely agree with the quote from Professor Ann John in the report, that 'what gets counted matters'. And I endorse the children's commissioner's view of persistent absence as a red flag, suggestive of both symptom and cause, and I welcome the commitment to a consistent approach in any revised framework. I really would like to see a gold standard embedded across Wales.

Finally, recommendation 5 on publishing information on the links between attainment and absence. I do have sympathy with this, but I feel it must be approached in a sensible way so that lessons are learned from previous approaches. Anecdotally, based on my own experiences, I'm thinking of previous systems where just a 4 per cent margin on attendance could see schools categorised at the extreme ends of the scale as either green or red. Sometimes the raw data doesn't quite tell the whole story, and I note the evidence given by NASUWT Cymru to the committee that while schools have a role to play, it is relative to the role that other organisations must play.

I'd like to close by thanking the committee again for this piece of work. It's a really important subject to ensure that our children and young people get the best start, and problems are identified. But I'd also like to thank the Minister for his positive response, and I look forward to following the next steps as this work is taken forward.

16:10