Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

01/03/2023

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 Social Justice

Good afternoon and welcome, everyone, to this Plenary session. The first item is questions to the Minister for Social Justice. The first question is from Peredur Owen Griffiths.

Debt

1. What is the Government doing to help families in South Wales East who have fallen into debt? OQ59162

Thank you very much. Happy St David's Day to you all this afternoon.

During the first half of this financial year, 16,553 people accessed our single advice fund services in South Wales East and were helped to have debts totalling £1.1 million written off and to claim additional income of £8.1 million.

Thank you for that response, Minister.

In the recently published Bevan Foundation document, 'A snapshot of poverty in winter 2023', debt was found to be a significant problem. More than a quarter of people surveyed borrowed money between October 2022 and January 2023, with 13 per cent being in arrears on at least one bill. Furthermore, more than one in 10 were also worried about losing their home over the next three months, with mortgage holders becoming increasingly concerned. We all know who is largely to blame for this. Even the Tories in this Chamber know this deep down, but the question is: what are we going to do about it?

I'd like to know what developments have been made in the campaign to crack down on energy companies forcing households to have prepayment meters. It's obscene that families are being plunged into fuel poverty at a time when gas and electric operations are making record profits. And I'd also like to know what dialogue and progress has been made in tandem with the Enforcement Conduct Board to crack down on rogue debt collection companies since I raised it last month. Diolch.

Diolch yn fawr. We can't underestimate, can we, the financial challenges being faced by so many households across Wales. In fact, today's figures are estimating in the millions—2.5 million again into fuel poverty. What we're doing is targeting financial support to households to help maximise income and avoid falling into debt. But, I mean, clearly, there are issues that also lie very much within the responsibility of the UK Government, and I'm particularly concerned about the impact on the most vulnerable households, which, as you say, are often those who are on prepayment meters.

I think this is where the work that we've been doing yesterday—. In fact, I met with Ofgem officials, and I met with the Ofgem board only a few weeks ago, and pressed Ofgem to consider Wales's most vulnerable households when using their regulatory powers to review energy suppliers' practice. I also said, in terms—. I asked them questions about their review into British Gas. I asked them about reviews into other energy suppliers. I also said that although they are banning the installation of prepayment meters until the end of March, that should be extended. I called for it to be extended because they are undertaking some reviews on other suppliers, I understand. And I called for the social tariff.

Can I say that I'm very pleased to have met with the Enforcement Conduct Board and also raised this with Ofgem and suggested—and I'm making this clear to Ofgem and the UK Government—that debt collectors employed by energy suppliers should be accredited by the Enforcement Conduct Board?

I'd like to wish you and all of my colleagues here in the Chamber and beyond a very, very happy St David's Day. Minister, I know that you've probably heard this line from many of my colleagues over time and over many years, but it's no secret that Labour has sadly been running our NHS into the ground, with nearly 600,000 patients languishing on waiting lists. We also have more than 45,000 people waiting over two years for treatment. Many of those stuck on waiting lists can't take the pain any more and are in fact turning to private healthcare. Quite a few of my constituents, in fact, in south-east Wales are landing themselves in extremely difficult financial situations because they have no choice but to go private. One constituent had to pay privately for a laparoscopy because their mental health was suffering so much as a result of the pain that they were going through on a daily basis. The patient has said, and I quote, 'I am lucky I could do this, although it has left me in £4,000-worth of debt.' Another individual from south-east Wales took out a personal loan for private surgery and then it was discovered that she had stage 4 endometriosis. Unfortunately, she could not afford any further treatment and is still paying off her loan. So, Minister, my question is: what do you say to the patients who are falling into debt and financial difficulty as a direct result of the Welsh Government's failure to address NHS waiting times? Thank you.

Well, I find this an extraordinary question, I have to say, Natasha—an extraordinary question—when we have our national health service, which we are proud of, born in Wales, free at the point of access, and delivering day in, day out care and treatment to thousands of people across Wales, including your constituents. Yes, I'm concerned with people who are falling into debt, and falling into debt because of the UK Government's policies, I would have to say. And will you join me, Natasha Asghar, and your colleagues here, in calling for the UK Government not to increase the energy price guarantee from £2,500 to £3,000 in April, and to ensure that vulnerable householders are protected from disconnection, as happens in the water industry? This is something that your Government can do, and then, of course, it would help people, for whatever reason that they may be falling into debt.

13:35
The Roads Review

2. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that the road review outcomes will have on promoting prosperity and tackling poverty in north Wales? OQ59168

Thank you for your question. 'Llwybr Newydd' and our response to the roads review set out a vision for a transport system that is good for society, the environment and the economy. Our national transport delivery plan is aligned with the programme for government, promoting prosperity and tackling poverty.

Thank you, Minister, for that response. As you will know, almost all major road building and upgrade projects across north Wales have been scrapped with this roads review, which is quite staggering for my residents in north Wales. Communities and residents that I represent have been let down again by this Labour Welsh Government. Minister, private road transport is the only practical option for many of my residents in north Wales because of the rurality and the lack of public transport options. Eighty-five per cent of people rely on a car or motorbike to go about their daily lives, including going to work, tackling poverty, which I know you're passionate about as much as I am. And the Confederation of British Industry Wales have outlined that, when supporting our environment, we need to ensure that the solutions don't damage the economy, because these decisions need to both protect our environment and promote prosperity and tackle poverty, which this roads review is not going to achieve. So, in light of this, Minister, what is your response to the legitimate concerns from my residents that this roads review will hold back the people of north Wales even further, whilst having a negative impact on promoting prosperity and tackling poverty?

Thank you for that question. I would like to refer to the comments that were made by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change when he gave his statement last week. He did say, and we recognise, that as people drive more, fewer people use public transport, resulting in fewer services being viable, leaving people with even fewer alternatives. And this, in terms of tackling poverty and inequality, disproportionately disadvantages women and people on low incomes. We know, from the data, that they're the most dependent on public transport. And we know that people are often forced into being dependent on running a car to access work, and it can be punitive in terms of that cost. So, we need to make sure that we are making that change that will stop doing the same thing over and over, because it's not working, and we need to invest in real, sustainable alternatives—and, of course, that is rail, bus, walking and cycling projects—if we are to reach net-zero targets. This is about tackling climate change after all. It's the huge commitment that, across the Chamber, but led by the Welsh Government, we want to achieve.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

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

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, thank you for attending the cross-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency meeting in November, when concern was raised by Gwynedd Council's fuel poverty officer that there are high levels of non-compliant stock with the Welsh housing quality standard in Gwynedd. When he asked you whether you could comment on the high levels of non-compliant stock with the Welsh housing quality standard, or WHQS, in Gwynedd, you noted the point for officials to take back to the Minister for Climate Change. When I subsequently raised this with the Minister for Climate Change in this Chamber, she asked me to send her further details, which I did. And in her response, she stated that,

'As at 31 March 2022, 100 per cent of social housing dwellings were compliant with WHQS, 78 per cent fully compliant, but 22 per cent were only compliant subject to an acceptable fail'.

Given your overarching responsibility for fuel poverty in the Welsh Government, how do you respond to official figures showing that almost 30 per cent of the social housing stock in Gwynedd is termed 'acceptable fails', equivalent to the level in Flintshire, and rising to almost 42 per cent in Denbighshire, that Anglesey has the highest level of prepayment meters in Wales, at almost 29 per cent, followed by Gwynedd at almost 22 per cent, and to the statement made to me by Gwynedd Council's fuel poverty officer, when I met him last week, that, in Gwynedd and Anglesey, where the rent is the same and yet energy costs can be significantly higher, this appears to be linked to broader rural off-gas and older property issues? 

13:40

Clearly, this is an issue where across Government, working with my colleague the Minister for Climate Change, Julie James, we are leading on this all-important issue with our Warm Homes programme, which, of course, is now moving into an iteration for its next development, which will be about a demand-led approach. And, of course, that will help to address these issues. 

I'm glad that you've raised the point about the fact that a great many people are very vulnerable on prepayment meters, and I hope you also will have heard my call again, and, actually, I think even Grant Shapps is saying he's sympathetic to the prospect of, actually, the UK Government not increasing the energy price guarantee from April. I think this is a key call that we must make across this Chamber today, because we need to make sure that we can support those most vulnerable households on prepayment meters. And, also, I hope you will be supportive of my calls for a social tariff as well, which, indeed, the UK Government and Ofgem have said that they are beginning to look at. But we have a serious issue here in terms of those who are most vulnerable, and, also, of course, the work that is being undertaken in terms of the retrofit of social housing is moving at pace with the allocation of funding this year and next. 

Thanks. Well, I'll leave the primary point you made for the topical question later, which, of course, is on that very subject. But this month's Bevan Foundation State of Wales briefing states that the energy efficiency of properties varies greatly across Wales, and that, although all social housing in Wales was deemed to comply with the Welsh housing quality standard, more than a fifth has at least one acceptable fail. Again, given your overarching responsibility for fuel poverty in the Welsh Government, and, as we move forward to WHQS 2023, how do you respond to Gwynedd Council's fuel poverty officer who asked me,

'How can we move on if we haven't finished the homework from the last granulation of WHQS, especially given the cost of retrofit for pre-1900 property',

and who stated,

'I had another quick glance at WHQS 2023. I didn't spot the magic words "acceptable fail", but there seems to be a healthy peppering of caveats, no clear acknowledgement of the differing starting places on the grid, and that getting an off-gas ex-Forestry Commission cottage from 1910 to SAP 80 is rather tricky'?

Well, I'm sure all of those you've engaged with in north Wales, including local authorities, will have contributed to the latest consultation on the Welsh housing quality standard. The Welsh housing quality standard has been very important in terms of the standards in social housing, which you will recognise across Wales have been second to none. But it has had to be revised and reviewed in terms of the circumstances, and also our ambitions in terms of moving to net zero with the 20,000 social housing target that we've got. And, of course, that does mean that the Welsh housing quality standard is taking into account all of the issues that you raise. 

But, as I said, the budget has been there. The funding has been made available by the Minister for Climate Change, in terms of the investment in retrofit for our social housing, and, indeed, the Welsh housing quality standard will move forward as a result of this consultation. 

Well, thank you. Again, I remember debating these issues 20 years ago in the predecessor Chamber, with similar responses, albeit in a different financial context. Unless points raised with me by Gwynedd Council's fuel poverty officer are addressed, the next Welsh Government's Welsh housing quality standard and Warm Homes programme will be starting on a false premise, and aiming for standards that cannot be achieved where needs are greatest, without creative presentation of data. Given your overarching responsibility for fuel poverty in the Welsh Government, how do you respond to the proposal by Gwynedd Council's fuel poverty officer for the next Welsh Government's Warm Homes programme to join up the Welsh Government's Nest scheme with the UK Government's energy company obligation scheme? And, given the climate change Minister's statement that she expects to procure a new, demand-led replacement scheme, which tackles both the climate emergency and fuel poverty, before the end of the year—there'll be no gap in provision between the new and existing programmes—how do you respond to concerns within the Fuel Poverty Coalition that this will allow the current Nest scheme to run into, say, April 2024, after next winter, before the next demand-led replacement scheme starts?

13:45

Indeed, Mark Isherwood, I think you would have appreciated the discussion and scrutiny that I had on Monday at the Equality and Social Justice Committee about these very issues and the assurance I gave that there would be no gap between the Warm Homes schemes in terms of the existing scheme and the one that will move forward, which will be procured by the end of the year. And, of course, it will take on board lessons learnt, but it is also clearly ensuring that we work in collaboration wherever possible, not just indeed with our local authorities, as is crucial to the delivery of it, but also with the UK Government as well.

Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Peredur Owen Griffiths, and the questions will be answered by the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership. Peredur Owen Griffiths

Diolch, Llywydd. I welcome the mention of the real living wage in social care in your statement on fair work yesterday. Plaid Cymru has been a strong campaigner for many years for a pay increase for those dedicated and absolutely essential staff working in social care. One-off payments, like the one we saw during the pandemic, are welcome, but they are no substitute for being paid what you deserve. My concern is that cash boosts may not always filter down to those staff on the ground, including those third sector providers who have local authority contracts. What mechanisms or processes are being put in place to ensure that any cash injection to local authorities to improve the pay of social care staff is being passed on to those it is intended for, including those third sector partners?

I welcome the Member's interest in this area and very much share what he said in terms of the—whilst one-off payments are welcome, it is about the implementation of the real living wage, but actually the real living wage is just one part of an element of a fair work package and what we're seeking to do through the social care fair work forum to sustain the sector well into the future, as well as, what we discussed, as you said, in the statement around fair work today—yesterday, sorry; I'm losing track of days.

I'm working very closely with my colleague Julie Morgan to make sure that actually, clearly, we have the access more directly through local authorities, but also working through those commissioning services and the infrastructure that's in place to ensure that those payments are made promptly. And the Deputy Minister for Social Care and I did attend, just prior to the recess, an event not far from here in Cardiff, to celebrate the payment of the real living wage and the new uplift for social care workers. But, quite rightly, community groups there and care workers were holding our feet to the fire to go further and to actually support the real living wage right across Wales, but also across the sector as a whole, and it's very much something we're committed to in a sustainable way.

Thank you very much for that answer.

Back last month, your Government unveiled a new LGBTQ+ action plan. You also signalled intent to start negotiating with the UK Government to devolve powers related to gender recognition. This is a positive step and it is something that, in principle, Plaid Cymru supports wholeheartedly. The current Tory Government is the most regressive and hate-filled Government in generations. The further we can distance ourselves from them, particularly on matters of equality, the better. Unfortunately, your position was undermined just a few days later on the Sharp End programme, not just by the Tory David T.C. Davies, but also by his fellow panellist, and your colleague, Jo Stevens. She said that she would not approve of giving gender recognition powers to Wales because, and I quote,

'equalities legislation is UK-wide legislation'.

Deputy Minister, what is the position of the Welsh Labour Government on the devolution of powers on gender recognition? How disappointed were you by those comments of your party colleague, whose constituency lies only a stone's throw away from our Parliament?

Can I first of all thank Peredur Griffiths and Plaid Cymru for the work we've done collectively on the LGBTQ+ action plan and that solidarity and collaborative working, which are so important on these fundamental issues of equality and human rights and dignity? The Welsh Labour Government's position with regards to supporting the trans community and the devolution of gender recognition powers remains as it was; it is the same. It is a commitment in our programme for government and in the co-operation agreement, and it's also one of the 46 actions within the LGBTQ+ action plan to trigger the request to devolve those powers, and then it will be a matter for this Senedd, if that was successful, to determine how those powers are applied. I hear what the Member says in terms of the—. I regret the kind of party political element of that. [Interruption.] We have disagreements within—[Interruption.] We have—

13:50

You can carry on with your answers. You don't have to take any notice of anybody who's speaking in the Chamber.

Diolch, Llywydd. Thank you for that. I think one of the dangers of this discussion—the topic—is that we degenerate into party political point scoring and matters. I think, if a future UK Labour Government was going to legislate on this and gender recognition reform, I'd be very happy to work collaboratively with that to ensure that we do support the trans community here in Wales and across the UK. And I think we all have challenges within our own parties, whether that be elsewhere or in Scotland at the moment during the SNP leadership contest as well.

Gypsy and Traveller Sites

3. What is the Welsh Government’s strategy for tackling the shortage of Gypsy and Traveller sites across Wales? OQ59178

We are reviewing the Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessments submitted by local authorities, and we'll be working with them and our Gypsy and Traveller communities to support plans to address the current shortfall and help overcome any barriers, which may be impeding progress.

Thank you, Minister. I attended the excellent event, hosted by the Llywydd, which was celebrating how people fleeing persecution have found sanctuary in Wales. But we cannot deny that some communities are more welcome than others, and the Gypsy and Traveller community do not feel welcome; they feel persecuted. And it is disappointing that local authorities are proactive in proposing new sites for motor homes and camper vans to park, but produce no proposals for new Gypsy and Traveller sites, or indeed for upgrading existing ones.

So, Minister, thank you very much for the written statement you issued earlier this afternoon, where you talk about working with local authorities and the Gypsy and Traveller communities to identify the extent of the requirements and understand the barriers that still exist to prevent progress. I want to question why this work has not gone on before. But I would also like a timescale for the end of those discussions, and then the detailed discussions that need to take place with local authorities on where we are going to now make progress on delivering the sites that are so desperately needed, particularly in light of the new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which criminalises people for stopping on unauthorised sites.

Thank you very much, Jenny Rathbone, for your question and for your leadership on this issue, which is crucial, as chair of the cross-party group and also Chair of the Equality and Social Justice Committee. Can I also thank the Llywydd for hosting this inspiring event this afternoon as well, where we heard from refugees, the Welsh Refugee Council speakers and Ukrainian guests and friends? And a wonderful event it was, but also a recognition that we must not be complacent in Wales. We seek to be a nation of sanctuary, but we must not be complacent. That's why we've got the 'Anti-racist Wales Action Plan', which actually has a whole section on addressing this issue—this shortfall in terms of delivery for our Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community.

And just to confirm, as you say, that this is in legislation, the Housing (Wales) Act 2014—I was here then—requiring every local authority in Wales to prepare a Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment, and also to report on the need for additional pitches in their areas, such as permanent residential land and temporary transit. I did issue a statement for Members to be aware, at 1 o'clock today, to just explain that I am undertaking an examination of all of the latest audits that are coming through. They have to produce assessments of where they are, the needs and gaps in sites and pitches across Wales for Traveller communities. Although there are challenges in terms of finding the right sites, et cetera, I do expect all local authorities in Wales to ensure that sufficient sites and pitches are provided, and that they identify the needs of Gypsy communities across Wales. And I expect them to be accurate assessments of needs, with clear actions to be taken to address the gaps that exist, and I will be meeting local authorities. By local authority, I will meet them this year, within the next few weeks, to ask them questions about their assessments and their delivery for the needs of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities.

13:55

I'm pleased this subject has been raised today, and where the Member for Cardiff Central and the Government think we have a shortage of Gypsy and Traveller sites, I think we have too many, especially in the north Wales area in particular. The Welsh Government have dictated from here, in Cardiff Bay, that every local authority needs to have at least one Gypsy and Traveller site in place to satisfy their woke agenda, but Travellers aren't travellers in the sense of the word if taxpayers' money is being spent on fixed sites in places where they don't contribute to society or pay their way.

In Denbighshire, they tried this approach back in 2018 and wanted a site on Green Gates Farm in St Asaph, and then in Rhuallt, but it was rejected time and time again through planning, and quite rightly so, by the people of Denbighshire. And the simple message is that we don't want them. So, when is the Welsh Government going to wise up, get real, and act in the best interests of people who pay their council taxes and charges, because Conwy, Flintshire, Gwynedd and Wrexham all have sites, so why can't we adopt a more regional approach and say, 'North Wales has enough already'?

Well, I am shocked by that question, I have to say. Yes, you weren't here in 2014, and I appreciate that Gareth Davies. We had legislation passed by this Assembly, passed by your Members, requiring every local authority in Wales to prepare a Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment. That's what they need to do, and where there are shortcomings and where they are not available, I will be meeting with every one of those authorities and asking them why.

I think you should rethink the things you've said today following the inspiring events that we've had this week in terms of us being a nation of sanctuary and recognising the racism that Gypsy Traveller people in Wales have faced for too long.

Can I thank the Local Government and Housing Committee who've done an excellent report on this with challenging recommendations? I've accepted them all. I don't know which Member of yours is on that committee, but they accepted them as well.

Community Safety

4. What assessment has the Minister made of the effectiveness of Welsh Government policies to ensure community safety in Cardiff? OQ59173

Thank you very much, Rhys ab Owen. Crime and justice matters are reserved to the UK Government, but we are committed to working with the police and other partner organisations to promote community safety across Cardiff and Wales as a whole. This includes our commitment to funding police community support officers to keep our streets safe.

Last month, the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, announced that a Labour Westminster Government would bring in respect orders, a new form of anti-social behaviour orders popularised by Tony Blair in the late 1990s. Does the Minister agree with me, therefore, that the announcement by Yvette Cooper is likely to mean that the jagged edge of different approaches to policing and justice will remain, even if a Labour Government is elected in Westminster?

Well, I am proud of the achievements and indeed the manifesto commitments of this Welsh Labour party, which led to us committing funding to maintain our 500 police community support officers and increasing their number by 100. I know that the work that we've done and the work that we're doing indeed, even though policing isn't devolved yet, with our neighbourhood policing teams, with our PCSOs, is playing a critical role in helping to keep communities safe. Of course, this is about prevention, isn't it? This is about engaging with our communities and, yes, having to recognise that we need to tackle issues around anti-social behaviour, but on the basis of a preventative approach and community cohesion. I do also want to say that we share, of course, with colleagues across the UK and show partnership working with police on these issues, particularly in terms of working on our youth justice board. We're very much looking forward to the devolution of youth justice, which is crucial to this point, as well as our work on tackling violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. That's what we're focusing on here in Wales.

14:00

I'd like to thank my colleague Rhys for raising such an important question. Minister, I recently listened to a Safer Communities podcast with the Prevent community engagement officer for Cardiff Council where incel ideology was brought up. Worryingly, common incel themes of self-loathing and grievance are more often than not transformed into misogynistic violence and the degradation of women, and are linked to perceived inadequacies in forming sexual relationships. I'm sure you're aware that this ideology is particularly fuelled by extremely low self-esteem, isolation, anxiety, and issues surrounding body image, which are exacerbated by mainstream media programmes such as Love Island, which reinforce the incel belief that women are hard-wired to automatically reject them because they do not have similar muscular physiques. In terms of community safety, incels are a credible threat to communities in the UK. There was a recent Plymouth shooting by incel member Jake Davison, and others have been arrested in connection with terrorist offences connected to incel involvement. Minister, what assessment has this Government made of the incel movement in Wales? What conversations have you had with the Minister for Education and Welsh Language regarding the need to help promote better body image in Welsh schools and to implement action to help young people become more resilient with issues surrounding body image? Thank you.

Thank you very much, Joel James, for raising this. Incel ideologies are having a corrosive impact on our young people and our male population, where the ideologies that have led to the horrors that you've described, Joel James, need to be addressed. I think this is where Rhys ab Owen's question is important, because it is, 'How are we going to develop these relationships?', which I believe goes back to school, education and the curriculum, and particularly our relationships and sexuality education theme that's going to be part of our rolling out of the curriculum. But I'm glad you've raised this issue, because this is where we do again work in terms of violence prevention. I think our schools programme is very important, which we fund with the police. We're funding not only our police community support officers, but also, with our police and crime commissioner funding support as well, we're funding a schools programme where police come in and talk with schools. They're very much linking to our curriculum as well. So, I agree. Thank you for raising this. This is where we need to work together to make sure that we have safer communities and our education has that impact in our schools. 

I'm very glad that this issue has been raised, because whilst policing is not devolved, I'm absolutely sure that the police are as concerned as we are about the way in which hateful views are exposing our young people to harmful images and extreme right-wing views. Yes, the RSE is very important to counter the hateful and self-harming images that young people are becoming exposed to, but clearly we need some regulation of what goes on online. I wondered if you'd had any conversation with the UK Government about the delays in implementing the online and related harms Bill so that we have some teeth to prevent people pushing all these hateful messages out online. 

Thank you very much, Jenny, for that follow-on question, because we have been engaged with UK Government counterparts as that Bill has progressed through Parliament. It's now back on track, I understand. The UK Government is progressing the Online Safety Bill again, and particularly—and the point you make is so key—regarding the enhanced protections it proposes for our children. But I think it is also important to recognise that we have our role and responsibility. Keeping people safe whilst they're online is incredibly important. Joel James mentioned the role of the Minister for Education and Welsh Language; well, we have our digital resilience in education action plan. It's important to mention that now. It's a cross-Government programme to protect young people from harm online. This is where I think working to ensure that there are additional protections, particularly for women and girls online, by including controlling or coercive behaviour in the list of priority offences within the Online Safety Bill, is welcome.

14:05
Misogyny and Sexual Misconduct

5. Will the Minister make a statement on the report into misogyny and sexual misconduct in the North Wales Police force published by the North Wales Police and Crime Commissioner? OQ59183

Diolch yn fawr. Misogyny and sexual misconduct have no place in the police service. It's essential for North Wales Police to continue their urgent work to identify those officers who do not live up to the values the public rightly expect, and to take decisive action.

I thank the Minister for that response. I'm sure it was concerning for you, like me, to read that there were 24 members of staff, not just police officers, having inquiries into them because of cases of domestic violence, sexual misconduct or violence against women in North Wales Police. We're expecting reports from other police forces relatively soon too. Of course, the report was commissioned in light of the appalling case of David Carrick from the Metropolitan police, but we won't forget the appalling case of Sarah Everard either. And it follows a particular complaint made by the Centre for Women's Justice and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism back in 2020, which showed that police forces weren't carrying full inquiries into cases of domestic violence and abuse that involved the police. The Welsh Government funds part of the police activity here in Wales, such as PCSOs, so what steps is the Government here taking in order to ensure that the employment process is entirely transparent and thorough and that women in Wales can have confidence in the individuals represented in our police forces?

Diolch yn fawr. That is such an important question for us this afternoon. Although policing isn't devolved—it's the responsibility of the UK Government—we are engaging, as you say, Mabon, in every way we can, to work with the police, to influence the policies and delivery and, indeed, to fund large sections of the delivery of community safety in Wales in particular, and in our schools. It is vital that our police demonstrate the integrity and values the public expect from them. I very much welcome North Wales Police's approach. They've taken a very transparent and decisive approach to this issue, recognising the need to ensure that a minority of officers who don't deliver high standards that the public expect have no place in a police force in Wales.

Can I just say that we discussed this at the policing partnership board, which I co-chair with the First Minister? We discussed it in December, and we talked about the issue of trust in policing, which of course you've touched on. We're going to have this as a standing agenda item on the board, because Welsh policing leads committed, at that meeting, to standing against inappropriate behaviour, ensuring staff who have behaved unacceptably are identified with swift action. As colleagues will know across the Chamber, all police forces across England and Wales are reviewing urgently records of all staff, to establish if there are any other cases that need to be addressed. I'm very pleased that the North Wales police and crime commissioner and chief constable Amanda Blakeman came out publicly about this. They've got to have this information by the end of March. Can I just take the opportunity to remind colleagues of our Live Fear Free helpline, a free 24/7 service for all victims and survivors of violence against women?

And finally, just to say that PCC Dafydd Llywelyn and I co-chair the national partnership board for the delivery of the next stage of our national strategy to strengthen our approach to violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. This is working very actively with our police forces and our police and crime commissioners. We have work streams, including workplace harassment. The workplace harassment work stream is co-chaired by Shavanah Taj from the Wales Trades Union Congress and Mark Travis from South Wales Police. I do expect this to come out with recommendations and address the issues that you've raised this afternoon. 

14:10

The actions of serial rapist David Carrick, the murder of Sarah Everard by Wayne Couzens and the abhorrent treatment of the bodies of sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman by police constables Deniz Jaffer and Jamie Lewis shocked us all, and it left those police departments' reputation in tatters. Of course, as my colleague has mentioned, North Wales Police now has 27 conduct investigations ongoing relating to 24 individuals, and 13 of these cases relate to violence against women and girls, including sexual misconduct and police-perpetrated domestic abuse. My colleague Joyce Watson has done so much within this Chamber about domestic abuse. At this time, 21 cases are assessed as gross misconduct and six are assessed as misconduct. Dismissal is only available as a sanction if a gross misconduct panel makes a finding for gross misconduct. Personally, I do not believe that any officer who displays unacceptable conduct, misconduct or inappropriate behaviour should be allowed to serve again; the confidence will have gone. Therefore, will you, as part of your round-table discussions, undertake discussions with the UK Government to see if misconduct could be grounds for dismissal? 

Thank you very much, Janet Finch-Saunders. Thank you for raising these points following on from that question from Mabon this afternoon. I think it is really important that North Wales Police have taken the lead. At the board that I co-chaired with police and crime commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn, Amanda Blakeman, who is new to the role, was absolutely clear that she was going to be rigorous about ensuring that her police force was fit for purpose. We welcome that report released by Andy Dunbobbin, the police and crime commissioner, in February, because it looks at the prevalence of cases of misogyny in the force—numbers of cases and investigations, as you say—measures in place to protect the public, and ensuring the correct vetting of officers. 

I am joining Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, who's written to the Home Secretary asking her to urgently push through new laws allowing police chiefs to sack rogue officers on the spot. We know that the Home Office is reviewing dismissal processes because of the failure to remove Carrick as a serving officer. But I agree with Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, that existing laws mean that the Met and other police forces can still employ officers who've committed serious offences, and we need to make that change. I'm sure you will all back me in that call alongside Sadiq Khan. 

Fuel Poverty

7. How does the Welsh Government support South Wales Central residents who are facing fuel poverty? OQ59172

Diolch yn fawr, Heledd. The Welsh Government’s current £420 million package of support includes the Warm Homes programme, which improves the energy efficiency of lower income households. Eligible low-income households are also benefiting from our £200 Welsh Government fuel support scheme and our Fuel Bank Foundation vouchers for those experiencing fuel crisis.

Thank you, Minister. Evidently, you've already referred in your response to Peredur Owen Griffiths to this issue, and you've outlined in your answer to me a number of things that are being done. But the truth is, of course, that this does not go far enough, and that there are individuals and families in my region, and throughout Wales, who cannot afford to heat their homes. As research from Citizens Advice has shown, 32 per cent of people who use prepayment meters have chosen to be disconnected, with 29 per cent using a blanket or personal heater instead of heating their homes. Others continue to go into debt, and face severe financial hardship just in order to heat their homes. So, with prices increasing again in April, what practical support will be available from the Welsh Government to residents in South Wales Central, and what discussions is the Welsh Government having with the UK Government regarding this issue? You referred earlier to the meetings with Ofgem, but what were the outcomes of those discussions?

14:15

Diolch yn fawr, Heledd Fychan. I think it is important to recognise that we are facing—. For people in fuel poverty, from 1 April, they're facing incredibly difficult and uncertain times, but these are people who are already in fuel poverty.

I do want to just address some of the issues about my meeting my Ofgem, but I do also just want to say, in terms of what we're doing, as you request, I think it is important to go back, perhaps, to earlier questions that were raised this afternoon—that in terms of improving home energy efficiency, that's crucial; that's one part of the work that we're doing through the Warm Homes programme. And, actually, up until the end of March of last year, £420 million had been invested to improve home energy efficiency, and also £38 million to support our winter fuel support scheme up until last year. Then, of course, we've had our latest winter fuel support scheme payment of £200, which has reached so many people. Actually, for your region, a total of 74,254 households in South Wales Central have received support.

I also want to say that we have the Fuel Bank Foundation partnership now delivering the fuel voucher scheme, and that's also providing crisis help to households. As far as I understand, the issue that I hope we will unite across the Chamber on, which we really need to address now, is to get the UK Government to recognise that they should not increase the energy price guarantee from £2,500 to £3,000 in April. They've got the money to do it, we know that. We know what the economy and the public finances are like. They should not do this. This would have a huge impact. And I pressed Ofgem when I met with them yesterday; I asked what are they doing about the most vulnerable households, and have they got the powers to review energy suppliers' practices, particularly in terms of the shameful way that pre-payment meters have been put into people's houses. So, I think we need to do what we can with our initiatives and our funding, even though we've had a very poor settlement from the UK Government, but we also need to all call today on the UK Government to protect households in this one way particularly, in terms of not increasing the EPG from £2,500 to £3,000 in April. 

Ukrainian Refugees

8. What steps is the Minister taking to provide adequate support for Ukrainian refugees? OQ59174

Welsh Government continues to work in partnership with local authorities and the third sector in welcoming Ukrainian people to Wales, helping them move on into longer term accommodation and continue to be supported. As part of our draft 2023-24 budget, we are investing £40 million in our Ukrainian humanitarian response.

Thank you, Minister. You'll be aware that, only recently, we brought forward in this Chamber a Welsh Conservative debate on Ukraine, and I had to raise then that Ukrainian refugees who have to leave their sponsor homes have been told that welcome centres are not an option for safe accommodation. In cases such as Swansea, refugees have been forced to leave a particular hotel and left with nowhere to go after being told they were ineligible for social housing. Local authorities are advising Ukrainians to look at the private rental market, but some landlords are now appearing reluctant to take on refugee tenants due to concerns over stability of future earnings. We cannot allow refugees from Ukraine to be forgotten about and become homeless for a second time. Minister, if Wales really is to be a nation of sanctuary, what discussions are you having with local authorities and the Ministers for Climate Change and housing to prevent these horrendous situations occurring? Those people have trusted Wales and its people to come here and feel supported, so it's important that we find safe and stable accommodation for them. Thank you.

Thank you very much for that question. Can I make it absolutely clear that no-one, no Ukrainian guest, has been forced to leave a welcome centre? And they will not be. It is very important to recognise that we've welcomed in Wales—and we had a fantastic event on Monday morning where we had Ukrainians speaking about their views and their thoughts, marking that terrible anniversary, as we did last Friday, of Putin's invasion, where we recognised that Wales is a nation of sanctuary. And we've welcomed just over 6,400 Ukrainians under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, and almost 3,400 have been sponsored by Welsh households, and many of the hosts came to that event on Monday; the Llywydd was there as well at the welcome. And we have sponsored over 3,000, the Welsh Government.

When we looked at this a year ago, the horrors of the invasion, we said that we thought we could, through our supersponsor scheme, support 1,000, but, actually, we've supported 3,000. We also have more with visas, and if they come, we will support them and we will get them into temporary initial accommodation, which are our Welsh welcome centres. So, no-one has been moved out of a welcome centre, no-one is going to be made homeless from that initial temporary accommodation. Indeed, what is good news is that 1,300 of those that the Welsh Government have sponsored have moved into longer term accommodation, and more than 800 have settled in Wales.

14:20

Minister, I really welcome the support that has been given by Welsh Government and local authorities and local communities, indeed, and voluntary organisations to all of our Ukrainian friends. It's a gift that we receive in providing hospitality, not a burden that we assume. My own two lovely guests—indeed, our friend—who fled the conflict from eastern Ukraine and, in doing so, helped in taking many young children to safety in Poland now live with us and enjoy life here in Wales, whilst also working, paying tax and learning.

Minister, would you agree with me that we need to extend a welcome and sanctuary to all people who flee terror and persecution? Would you also agree with me that the language that we use is very important, recognising people as people, individuals and families, not 'them' and 'us', not 'migrants', and that compassion and tolerance are universal, not selective? This extends also to those in the Traveller community who have been historically persecuted and vilified. Our words are important, including in this Siambr, as are those of Pastor Martin Niemöller in his work that begins, 'First they came for'. We should remember them, including in this Siambr. Travellers' rights are not part of some 'woke agenda', Llywydd; they are not. They are not 'them' and 'us'; they are us. [Members of the Senedd: Hear, hear.]

Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr, Huw Irranca-Davies. I think you speak, certainly, for the majority of us and, hopefully, all of us here in this Chamber.

Thank you to the Minister. I've received some complaints about the language used by one Member, who has now left the Chamber, during his questions earlier on. I've been reminded by Huw Irranca-Davies of the exhibition that is upstairs at this moment, talking of those who sought refuge from Nazism in the last century. Our code of conduct here demands that we do not use discriminatory language, and, therefore, we cannot discriminate amongst who we welcome and who we don't welcome. I consider that Gareth Davies's comments this afternoon broke that code of conduct. I will expect him to apologise to me and to Members here who complained to me that his language was discriminatory, and will expect that apology, and I'm sure I shall receive it.

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

We'll move on to the next item, and the next item is—and my screen has frozen. Cwestiynau—yes, thank you for waving at me, Counsel General, it's your questions—to the Counsel General and Minister for Constitution.

The first question is from Delyth Jewell.

Women's Pensions

1. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Minister for Social Justice regarding the steps the Welsh Government can take to assist women who were born in the 1950s that were refused their pensions? OQ59187

Thank you for your question. The Welsh Government has repeatedly expressed concerns to the UK Government about women who had their state pension age raised without effective or sufficient notification. We await the full report of the ombudsman’s investigation, which will recommend actions for the Department for Work and Pensions to remedy the injustice found.

14:25

I declare an interest because my mother is one of the Women Against State Pension Inequality women. The WASPI women—women denied their pensions—have been campaigning for seven long years and still await the parliamentary ombudsman’s resolution report into the DWP’s handling of their situation. The report is due to be released very soon, but information that has reached the press has garnered significant concern that any compensation given to the women will be very little, reportedly just a few hundred pounds for all of the 1950s women. That is far short of what has been snatched from them. If these reports turn out to be true, it will represent a catastrophic injustice done to these women, discriminated against and targeted because of their gender and their age.

Can you please set out what your legal advice will be to the Welsh Government in these circumstances as to how they can support the WASPI women in their campaign? What routes of legal redress would there be for them? Could they legally challenge the ombudsman’s findings, and could you please release, Counsel General, all responses you’ve received to previous letters that you have sent to the UK Government about this campaign?

Thank you for that supplementary question. Just by way of general comment to your question, I think the treatment of women born in the 1950s by successive Conservative Governments remains a national scandal. Since the launch of the WASPI campaign in 2015, more than 200,000 WASPI women have died without ever seeing or receiving pension justice, so the women who continue to be affected by this issue have already been disadvantaged as a result of two hikes to the state pension age, and now we learn that the current UK Government is considering doing it all over again. Can I say that, since 2016, the Welsh Government has been writing to the UK Government to highlight our concerns regarding the communication of changes to the women’s state pension age? I will continue to make those representations. I will have to access the correspondence in respect of the replies that we have had, and I can write to you separately about that.FootnoteLink

What I can also say though, is, of course, the latest findings from Stage 2 of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman report are that there was a maladministration in the DWP’s communication about national insurance qualifying years, and complaint handling. And I believe that it must be the case that, for those who’ve been so adversely affected, the finding must be that that damage must be rectified and people must be properly compensated; the many thousands of people who had to carry on working year after year, despite the fact that the contract that they agreed—many, many years ago in their youth with regard to their pension age and what their entitlements would be—was broken. It was a sad breach and I believe they’re entitled to be properly compensated for that.

Ministerial Legal Advice

2. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Minister for Rural Affairs, North Wales, and Trefnydd regarding the Trade in Animals and Related Products (Amendment and Legislative Functions) and Animal Health (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Wales) (EU Exit) Regulations 2022? OQ59181

Thank you very much for the question, Mabon.

These regulations, which came into force in December 2022, are complex and they were subject to an urgent drafting window. We are very grateful to the work of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee’s report on these regulations, and we've taken steps to address the points that were raised by the committee, including an amending instrument which will be brought forward shortly.

Thank you for that response. You will recall what appeared to me, at least, before Christmas, as being a farce in this Chamber as we were forced to vote on legislation that was entirely inappropriate. It was said at that point that it would be corrected at the first possible opportunity. We’ve just heard that it hasn’t been corrected and we are over two months into the new year. Are you content that the new regulations will be fit for purpose in legal terms, and could you give us a date as to when they will be corrected?

Well, I certainly am content that the regulations will be fit for purpose, and that any adjustments or alterations that need to be made will be done in the appropriate way. The regulations themselves provide, obviously, for the continuation of the existing legal framework within Wales and Great Britain for the importation of live animals and animal products, so they are important regulations. They were made in December 2022. As you know, your committee made a number of recommendations in respect of those. I wrote to the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee on 18 January 2023, and again on 15 February 2023. The correspondence is in the public domain. It details the process that will be used when correcting drafting deficiencies and the use of correction slips.

14:30
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, will you provide a statement on the budget for the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales?

There have been previous statements and responses to questions that have set out the budget—that's all in the public domain. I don't think there's any dispute or any lack of any transparency about what that budget amounts to.

Can I welcome you back from your recent mission to Ukraine, which we were all cheering you on with, along with Alun Davies, our other Senedd colleague, and wish you a very happy St David's Day?

I appreciate the response that you've given, and we have crossed swords on this issue of the budget on a number of occasions in the past. But we know that one of the things that you have asked the constitutional commission to do is to consider how it can develop progressive principal options to strengthen Welsh democracy and deliver improvements for the people of Wales. Now, you've set out in the draft budget for the Welsh Government for the next two years, an extra £2.2 million that is going to be spent, and many people are asking me—and I'm sure they're asking people on your benches too, Minister—whether that's a good use of public money, given the other challenges that Wales is currently facing. As you well know, the Welsh Government receives £1.20 for every £1 that's spent on a devolved matter in England, and the public, it seems to me, want that money spending on issues like schools, hospitals, roads and other priorities, all of which you appear to be disinvesting in. You're spending it, of course, on this commission—a commission to support what we perceive to be an attempt to do some power grabbing from Westminster. So, the commission is scheduled to complete its work by the end of this calendar year—by December of this year. Why on earth have you put more money in that budget line, to take it through to March 2025, if it's going to be finishing its work this year?

Well, can I firstly thank you for your comments about my recent visit to Ukraine, and thank you, and also the other Members, for the support that was given? You may have seen from social media that the considerable materials that were taken over were on the front line in Ukraine within 24 hours, and that perhaps highlights the urgency but the importance of support, and also the fact, of course, that I think there are more Welsh flags flying on the Ukrainian front line at the moment than from any other country. But I think the recognition of that connection—. Bearing in mind Donetsk, where much of the fighting is taking place, of course, was developed by a Welshman, and formerly known as Hughesovka, after John Hughes. So, we have a connection there. So, thank you for those particular comments.

In respect of the independent commission, as you say, it has another 12 months' work or so to go. It has to publish a report. So, obviously, a significant amount of expenditure will be involved in completing that, particularly as, when I met with the members of the commission, they were outlining very clearly the work they were going to do, which was to try to get to those aspects of communities, people and individuals that are very, very difficult to engage with. I don't think this is a waste. It was Aneurin Bevan who said that the trouble with the Conservative Party is that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I put a very high value on our democracy, and I think there is a challenge over our democracy, in terms of turnouts, in terms of engagement, in terms of the way in which people perceive politics and believe that their voice actually counts. So, I think what is happening at the moment, and at a moment of constitutional instability—that what we are doing is very, very important. It's very important to look to the future of our democracy, our governance, how we engage with our communities, how we're perceived by the communities and how democracy works within Wales. So, I think you will find—. I'm absolutely convinced that, by the end of this, you will stand up and you will say, 'Well, I made all these comments in the past, but I'm satisfied now that this has been real value for money for the future.'

14:35

Well, I always reflect on my comments, but I can't, still, understand why on earth, given that the commission is supposed to complete its work in the current calendar year, you have allocated expenditure that takes it through to March 2025. You still haven't answered that principal question. Why is a commission, which is due to be finished, having in your budget line—in the Welsh Government's indicative budget for 2024-25—this £1.1 million further? It seems to me that that is a waste of resource, and, particularly, when we have people across Wales right now struggling with the pressures of the cost-of-living issues that they face, when we know that our NHS continues to be under significant pressure, when people have still, unfortunately, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment—not me, Joyce Watson—the worst education system in the UK, and the lowest take-home pay? Why is it that you would allocate a further £1.1 million for this, what we regard as an unnecessary commission, in the year after it has completed its work? We still haven't had an answer to that question, and I would request one once again. 

Well, I'll give you the answer. I think the answer is that, once the commission has produced its report and its findings, that isn't necessarily the end of the matter. There is a process, then, of engagement. There is a process of involvement to actually turn the conclusions—well, to explain the conclusions, to engage with those who've participated, but also, then, to seek how you can convert those conclusions into practical change. And I think that's a process that doesn't suddenly end in one January, the moment the report is actually delivered. 

If we really want to see this report being more than just another document that analyses all the problems and the issues that we've raised with regard to our constitution, I think there has to be a process that engages. If, of course, the work ceases before then—if that work is actually concluded earlier—then, obviously, that money won't be spent. But unless you've actually budgeted for it, it can't happen, particularly if it needs to happen. 

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which was only introduced in September of last year, has been an unmitigated disaster—designed to remove all remaining retained EU law from the UK statute book by the tenth anniversary of the Brexit referendum at the very latest. The Bill introduces a sunset clause, whereby the majority of retained EU law—thousands of pieces of legislation—will be automatically disapplied after 31 December 2023, unless it's otherwise preserved as assimilated law. 

On 18 November, the independent Regulatory Policy Committee issued its view that the Bill's impact assessment is not fit for purpose. The committee rated aspects of the impact assessment, such as its rationale and the cost-benefit analysis, as either 'weak' or 'very weak'. In early January, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy admitted it had spent £600,000 on staffing costs alone in just two months as part of its review of the Bill, despite holding responsibility for only 318 pieces of retained EU law.

In light of this brief snapshot of the cost to the UK Government of this ill-thought-out Bill, what is the Welsh Government's current estimate of the resource demands, both in terms of cost and staffing, arising from the ongoing review of Welsh-specific retained EU law?

Thank you for that question, and it's a very important question, and it's a very difficult question to answer. If I start, perhaps, with the resource part first, it's very difficult to say what the precise resources are. These are conversations and discussions that I will be having. I've been having discussions; they are ongoing. It's a bit difficult to evaluate the resources that are necessary to deal with what we don't know. There is so much we don't know in terms of, firstly, what the UK Government is going to do in those aspects of retained law. We obviously have to analyse ourselves, and I've obviously been looking at a list of all the Welsh retained EU law that we would want to consider. It's difficult to consider what might happen to that, because, to some extent, that depends on what decisions might be taken in England, because so many of these areas relate to, for example, issues of enforcement, common governance and so on.

So, there are many unknown factors that are actually involved. So, we're trying to do that evaluation. We're also uncertain precisely as to what the precise nature of the Bill is going to be. The view of the Welsh Government is that the Bill should be withdrawn. It serves actually no real purpose whatsoever. It is really the most appalling way of dealing with legislation. The idea that you can suddenly just wipe out thousands of pieces of legislation by a particular deadline without any real time to consider what the implications of those are and what the implications are for devolution—.

The House of Lords is currently discussing the Bill. So, it's at Committee Stage; it will go to Report Stage within a couple of weeks. There are obviously areas there where we would like to see amendments being made to it. We'd like particularly the issue of concurrent powers to be resolved, that UK Government will not exercise powers in respect of devolved areas without consent of the Welsh Government. I think the other area is, of course, in terms of the time period. If UK Government has a get out of jail card in respect of being able to extend the sunset deadline, we will ask for that as well. Why should we not have that exact opportunity as well? So, there are many factors to this Bill that are undecided at this stage, and the issue of resources is going to be a significant one. I'm sure there will be further questions to me on it. I will update the Senedd, of course, in due course, when I'm able to say more about precisely what is going to happen, and it may well be a couple of weeks yet before we know the precise format of the Bill.

14:40

Diolch. Yes, as you say, time is running out with it, because it's a hard deadline, and, as you say, I'd be very interested in understanding what extension is possible and what we could do here to help with that cliff edge. The rushed nature of this Bill raises the very real prospect of critical regulations in a range of policy areas being either replaced by substandard alternatives or dropping off the statute book completely. We must also bear in mind the limited capacity of the Welsh Government to consider the full implications of repealing, amending or assimilating Welsh-specific retained EU law. As such, and in the light of the fact that the UK Minister has alone possessed the ability to extend that sunset clause of December, a degree of pragmatic prioritisation may need to take place to effectively manage the workload in the remaining months available to Welsh Ministers. What specific regulations or other policy areas is the Welsh Government prioritising in its review of the Welsh-specific retained EU law? 

Thank you for the further question. Just to say, by way of starting off, all the issues and concerns, many of which the Member has raised and so on, have been raised at the Interministerial Standing Committee. I have raised those. I chaired the recent meeting and, of course, those things are being looked at at UK Government level, as part of the intergovernmental arrangements that we have. We'll have to wait and see what the outcome of those are.

In terms of pragmatic prioritisation, it does come back again to not knowing what you don't know, and obviously one thing we would clearly want to priortise is our own legislation—the legislation that's been approved by this Senedd. But, of course, the difficulty on that is also trying to understand when we're prioritising what the implications are when you don't know precisely what may happen on the other side on similar legislation at the UK Government level as well, and the way that may interreact or impact. I mentioned the example of enforcement earlier, because, often, there are common enforcement arrangements and so on, and so all those things have to be taken into account. Probably, I can't really tell you very much more than that at the moment. I've obviously attended quite a number of Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee meetings on this. It is very much work in progress at the moment, and I will, of course, do everything I can to answer further questions and update when we are clear about what is happening. There is a lot of work that is under way at the moment, trying to understand the extent, the 4,000 or so pieces of other legislation, aside from the Welsh legislation, which have to be evaluated and what are the parts that we want to prioritise, and if there are any ways of actually trying to streamline that process. Either way, it's not going to be easy. Either way, it is going to be chaotic and, no doubt, will lead to all sorts of unforeseen consequences, but we have to deal with it as it is at the moment. Until we know the final shape of the Bill, there are still quite a number of uncertainties.

14:45
Devolving Responsibility for Courts and Sentencing

3. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the costs associated with devolving responsibility for courts and sentencing to Wales? OQ59179

Thank you for your question. We have not yet undertaken an assessment of the costs of devolving specific areas of the justice system, such as courts and sentencing. Ultimately, our aspiration is that devolution would reduce pressures on the justice system and save money in some areas, above all by reducing the prison population.

Thank you, Counsel General. Obviously, this is a work in progress. I just want to draw your attention to the fact that the Equality and Social Justice Committee's inquiry into women involved in the criminal justice system has revealed that less than half the magistrates surveyed by the Magistrates Association had heard of the women's justice blueprint, which aspires to reduce the number of women in prison. It is very worrying to hear from Eastwood Park prison that women from south Wales are far more likely to be sent to prison than those in Devon and Cornwall. Therefore, I wondered whether you could tell us what you are doing, and your officials, to ensure that everybody involved in sentencing both men and women is aware of the initiatives that the Welsh Government is involved in, in partnership with other organisations.

Thank you. You raise a number of really important issues. Those issues go to the nub of the reason why we need justice devolved to us. I've worked very closely, as you know, with the Minister for Social Justice, and, of course, we were visitors to Eastwood Park prison recently. I suppose what matters—. It is, of course, of concern in terms of the awareness within the magistracy of the blueprint. But, of course, that awareness of the blueprint isn't the key determinant in itself. What is important is the understanding of the various opportunities and options that there are in terms of sentencing itself.

Clearly, there is ongoing engagement with the judiciary, I think, to help them understand the impact of regressive and unnecessary short sentences. I know the Minister for Social Justice has quoted this and I've said it several times: when we were at Eastwood Park prison, the director of the prison informed us that every woman in that prison was a victim. That in itself, I think, highlights the nature of the way we've gone down the imprisonment road, as opposed to the problem-solving road and the justice road.

The women's justice blueprint leads have delivered a series of engagement events for sentencers, focused on raising awareness and confidence in the community-based options for women amongst sentencers, legal advisers and key court decision makers. Over 270 individuals have been reached through this work, which has also been supported by His Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service. So, that process of engagement is ongoing.

Tendering Process

4. Will the Counsel General please provide an update on the tendering process for the level 7 legal apprenticeship programme? OQ59170

Thank you for your question. In December, we issued a tender to assess the need for solicitor apprenticeships in Wales. No bids were received when the tender closed in January, and we are now considering next steps.

Diolch yn fawr, Cwnsler Cyffredinol. Could you please outline, perhaps, the process you used in the first tendering process and how this can be changed to ensure a wider audience for the re-tender? Diolch yn fawr. 

Thank you for that. I think it was disappointing that the tender didn't receive any bids. We're evaluating how it was carried out and, basically, how it can be broadened out. I think that the substance of what you're suggesting, really, is that we need to look at a far wider group in terms of the invitation-to-tender process. That is being looked at.

The solicitor apprenticeship issue, I think, is an important one. We've done a lot of work already in terms of the apprenticeships for level 3 and level 5, for the paralegal level, and, of course, the first cohort of students started in September 2022 at Coleg Sir Gâr in Carmarthen. So, this is really the next stage, but it's one that's more complicated, because if we're putting public money into supporting apprenticeships, we want it to go to filling in those gaps, the desert areas that exist within legal services, and also look at how we might actually improve something that I think is quite important, and that is the law centres—effectively the two law centres we now have—and how we could look at extending that and how this might actually be something that could look at servicing that, an area that I think is well worth developing. I will, of course, update the Senedd in due course when we've re-evaluated how to continue or how to promote the tendering process and any further developments on the solicitor apprenticeship objectives that we have. 

14:50
Ministerial Legal Advice

5. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Minister for Climate Change ahead of the decision to scrap several major road projects in north Wales? OQ59177

Thank you for your question. The Welsh Government’s response to the roads review panel’s report represents a major step forward in our commitment to tackling climate change. This is not the end of road building in Wales. We will still invest in roads, but only where they are the appropriate response to the transport problem.

Thank you. Now, according to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, each public body must carry out sustainable development, which is the process of improving the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales by taking action in accordance with the sustainable development principles aimed at achieving the well-being goals. Those goals, of course, include a prosperous Wales, a healthier Wales, a Wales of cohesive communities. Now, the decision that 19 schemes should not proceed, such as the Flintshire corridor improvement, A55 junctions 15 and 16, and the third Menai crossing, will no doubt harm the prosperity, the health and connectivity of communities right across north Wales. Effectively, the scrapping of key north Wales schemes does, in my opinion, show a lack of understanding by the Welsh Government of our infrastructure, our economy and our communities to the point that questions must be raised as to whether there has actually been a breach of the well-being of future generations Act. Counsel General, will you assess whether the Welsh Government's decision not to support major schemes in north Wales is a breach of this duty? Diolch.

Well, can I say that the issues that you have raised are a matter for the Minister with the portfolio responsibility to answer, but to confirm that, on 14 February, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change made an oral statement to the Senedd on the roads review report, the national transport delivery plan and our new roads policy statement. The report, plan and our response were published the same day, setting out how we deliver against the Wales transport strategy. Questions have been put, answers have been given, but I must stress that I think it's important that these matters are directed to the appropriate Minister with the appropriate portfolio responsibility.

Legal Advice for the Welsh Government

6. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government regarding its policy on gender self-identification following the UK Government's decision to block the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill?  OQ59176

I will reiterate that this is a dangerous moment. The UK Government’s approach has set a worrying precedent. We will do everything we can to protect our devolution settlement, the laws passed by this Senedd, and we remain determined to support our transgender communities.  

Thank you. I refer to comments made by both the First Minister and the finance Minister in relation to the UK Government's use of a section 35 Order to protect the Equality Act 2010 from the SNP's Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. The finance Minister has repeated Nicola Sturgeon's false claims that those who criticise self-ID at 16 are somehow using transgender people as a wedge issue. So, I do hope now, in light of the resignation—and many believe that this issue encompassed Nicola Sturgeon—it will make your own Government think again. Of course, members of the transgender community should be treated with the utmost respect at all times. It simply isn't good enough, though, to shut down free debate regarding self-ID laws for children as young as 16 by labelling anyone critical of these proposals as fighting a so-called culture war. This isn't a partisan point. Labour MPs, such as Rosie Duffield, have already been clear about the risks to women's safety, as has Gower's Welsh Labour MP, Tonia Antoniazzi, and they have said that the UK Government's intervention was necessary. Therefore, Counsel General, do you agree with the comments made by these members of your party, and will you commit to ensuring that the Welsh Government upholds the protections for women set out under the Equality Act 2010? Diolch.

14:55

Well, thank you for your question. What I do, of course, and what my primary responsibility is is to uphold the constitution of this Senedd, the basis on which we were established and the powers and responsibilities that we have. And that's why my initial comments were concern about really what is an undermining of the constitutional principles on which decisions are taken on which legislation is passed.

Now, as you know, the legal position in Scotland is different to that in Wales. The powers available in Scotland are not currently devolved to Wales. Gender recognition is a reserved matter as far as Wales is concerned, but we've made it clear that we will seek these powers as set out in the programme for government. Legislative use of these powers would be a matter for this Senedd to determine, and were that to be achieved and were this Senedd to determine a position on that, I'm sure you, like me and everyone else in this Senedd, would respect the constitutional integrity of this place.

St David's Day

7. What discussions has the Counsel General had with UK Government law officers about ensuring that Wales has the powers to make St David's Day a public holiday? OQ59171

Well, thank you for the question. The creation of bank holidays is not a devolved matter. We have asked the UK Government, on more than one occasion, to designate the day as a bank holiday in Wales or to give us the power to do so ourselves. Unfortunately, these requests have been rejected.

On the first St David's Day of the National Assembly, back in 2000, there was a debate proposing that St David's Day should become a bank holiday. Like the debate last year, this we supported by all Members of the Assembly, as it was then. However, in 2002, Paul Murphy rejected the bid, and Peter Hain did likewise in 2005. Would a future Labour Secretary of State give a different response to Mr Murphy and Mr Hain?

Janet Finch-Saunders took the Chair.

Well, thank you for that. I cannot predict what a future Secretary of State for Wales might do. I am pretty confident, though, there would be considerable sympathy and support for our ambition. Dydd Gŵyl Dewi, Wales's national day, should be a bank holiday, as is the case in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who have bank holidays for St Andrew and St Patrick respectively. The UK Government's refusal to grant this, saying that Wales has different histories—economic, social, cultural and legal systems—in my view just doesn't wash. We have our own self-identity. It is every bit as strong as in the other countries of the United Kingdom and, in my view, it's time for the United Kingdom Government to wake up to that.

We have in the UK the lowest number of public holidays in Europe, so making St David's Day a bank holiday is a genuine opportunity to level up with workers across Europe. So, I very much support the sentiments of the Member. I'm happy to reiterate our whole-hearted support for the creation of St David's Day as a bank holiday, and I will continue to assert the case for the devolution of the powers to the Senedd.

Income Tax Bands

8. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding devolving powers on income tax bands to Wales? OQ59182

Thank you for your question. No discussions have been held with UK Government on devolving income tax bands to Wales.

Thank you for that succinct response. The Government here has refused to accept the need to increase taxes in Wales, which will certainly lead to seeing our public services being squeezed and creaking, and some services disappearing. Of course, politics is about making difficult decisions. That is a decision that you as a Government have taken, and each and every one of us will have to live with that decision. Now, I understand that the Government doesn't want to see those people on the lowest incomes paying more—nobody would want to see that, naturally. One way of avoiding that is to have the powers to adapt income tax bands to protect those on low incomes but enable a gradual increase for others. This would bring Wales into line with Scotland. Can we therefore expect to see the Westminster Government under the Labour Party devolving these powers to Wales? Or, in taking your response to the previous question, when you said that you couldn't anticipate what a future Labour Government might do, would you and your fellow Members here be pushing for such a change? Thank you.

15:00

Well, what I can say certainly is that the issue of income tax powers is an extremely complex area; it's complex in the context of the tax threshold base that we have within Wales. There is a distinction between the issue of increasing the rates of taxation and the issue of the banding of taxation, and that is certainly an area that would be far more beneficial, probably, to Wales than it would be in respect of individual rates. The one thing we don't want to see is taxation that would effectively impose a further burden on a society where we have so many people who are in the low-paid category who would be bearing a significant part of the burden of that taxation. So, any decision to seek more powers in the future would be considered as part of our broader long-term strategic tax policy priorities, rather than in response to the specific and immediate financial challenges. And I think that any argument to seek further powers cannot be divorced from the need to address the overall current inadequacies of the devolution arrangements that we have at the moment.

3. Questions to the Senedd Commission

We now move to item 3, questions to the Senedd Commission, and the first one will be answered by Joyce Watson, but I call Peredur Owen Griffiths.

Senedd Estate

1. What is the Commission doing to ensure that the Senedd estate is fully accessible for disabled people? OQ59165

Thank you for that question. The Commission is committed to ensuring that the Senedd estate is accessible to everyone. Accessibility was one of the key considerations during the design of the Senedd building, and we also considered accessibility when completing equality impact assessments for all subsequent building improvements on this estate. Officials recently met with a representative from the Royal National Institute of Blind People to discuss improvements to the external environment around the Senedd, and the resulting audit was positive and its recommendations are being considered for implementation. We've received recognition from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the National Autistic Society for work that's been done to improve accessibility, but we are aware, however, that we can never be complacent and will continue always to strive to be a Parliament that is open to everyone.

That's very good. Thank you, Commissioner, for that answer. It's good to hear that progress is being made. Through Equal Power Equal Voice, I've been fortunate to have a keen political activist come to my office for an internship. Kevin, who is an aspiring councillor, is disabled and requires the use of a mobility scooter to get around. During his time in the office, I've seen first-hand how our estate is not fully accessible for people in wheelchairs and mobility scooters. For example, doors to the walkway between Tŷ Hywel and the Senedd building are not automatic on both ends of the walkways, and need to be pushed outwards. This makes it inaccessible for wheelchair mobility scooter users. Unfortunately, this has meant that unless Kevin is accompanied, he has to travel out of the main building at Tŷ Hywel to get to events, out to the front of the Senedd and go outside the building. I'm sure that you'd agree with me that this is not ideal in cold and wet conditions, or at any time at all. Furthermore, coming out of the lift to go down to the walkway that leads into the canteen, there is not enough clearance for a mobility scooter or a wheelchair to properly turn, coming through the door. There are further examples around the estate. Can the accessibility of the Senedd estate be looked into with immediate effect to ensure that this place is as welcoming to disabled people as it should be, and that disabled people have the independence that they not only want, but deserve? Diolch.

15:05

I thank you for highlighting what you have highlighted and the inadequacies that currently still exist. I finished my first part by answering you, saying that we're not complacent and that we will always strive to be inclusive, and that of course stands. The Senedd was designed to provide good access for disabled people, and we did have an access adviser employed during those design stages. There are wheelchair-accessible toilets across the estate and we have accessible parking spaces next to the Senedd and within the Tŷ Hywel car park, including a recently introduced electric vehicle access parking bay. The entrance to the Senedd, as you've pointed out, can be accessed via steps, ramp and a lift, and all assistance dogs for disabled people are admitted. And we do have designated wheelchair spaces in all public galleries, and there are wheelchairs available for members of the public and sufficient spaces in public areas to accommodate wheelchairs.

I think what is happening here is the design of the building not accommodating this individual's, and others like this individual's, ability to use a different type of vehicle to move around—different to that which was clearly assessed in the first design of this building. I'm very happy to work with you, and with anyone who wants to, to see if there are things that we can do to limit the inconvenience of those things that we aren't able to do. So, I look forward to working with you yet again, to make sure that we can improve the accessibility of this building. Thank you.

We now move to question 2, to be answered by the Llywydd, and I call on Sioned Williams.

The Digital News and Information Taskforce

2. What progress has the Commission made towards fulfilling the recommendations of the digital news and information taskforce's report? OQ59164

The taskforce made 27 recommendations in June 2017, based on the theme of putting the citizen at the heart of our work and creating content that is easy to understand. The report formed the foundation of the communications and engagement strategy for the sixth Senedd, which was approved by the Commission in April 2022. We now use the public's experience of services to highlight the work of committee inquiries and feature their stories on our social media platforms

Thank you for that response, Llywydd. Clearly, our democracy has progressed a great deal, even since 2016, with young people of 16 and 17 years of age now having been given the vote in Senedd elections, but it appears that other aspects have made retrograde steps—more local newspapers and journalist positions having been lost. And on the basis of a survey carried out by this group recently, the figures in terms of the understanding of our citizens of the governance arrangements of Wales are concerning to say the least: 35 per cent of respondents believed that the Conservatives had Ministers in the Welsh Government since the May 2021 election; 44 per cent believing that Plaid Cymru had Ministers; and 78 per cent of respondents couldn't name a single policy introduced in Wales over the past year, when they think of the Senedd and the Welsh Government.

Do you agree that it's crucial for the health of democracy in Wales that there is a broad understanding among the public of the basics of how democracy works, for example, how power related to their lives is exercised, what party is in Government and what are the different responsibilities of the various levels of government? What more can the Commission and Senedd do, therefore, to develop their role as a producer of content and stories, in line with one of the main demands of the taskforce report to influence the population-level understanding of the work of the Senedd and how power is exercised and who exercises that power? Thanks.

Yes, I do agree that it's important in terms of the health of our democracy that people who elect us here to the Senedd are familiar with our work and are familiar with the Senedd more generally. And it is a concern for me to hear some of the percentages that you mentioned in terms of people not being aware of the day-to-day work of the Senedd, or the work of the Senedd more broadly. That's true for Wales, and it's probably true for nearly every country in the world to a lesser or greater extent, but because we're a new democracy, that causes additional problems for us. 

As you mentioned in your contribution, how people receive their media now has changed since 2017 when the report was published. Social media offers a different opportunity for this Senedd to communicate with the people of Wales, but it also offers challenges as well. And so, in response to you, I'm very pleased as the Llywydd, and while representing the Commission, to listen to any experience or ideas that Members have within this Senedd about how we can develop, improve and refine our work in this area further. We have a responsibility as a Senedd, we all have a responsibility as individual Members of the Senedd, to communicate directly with the people of Wales, and in the spirit of what Joyce Watson said in her answer, we need to continue to improve and to think about new ways of working always in this context. And I'm very prepared to co-operate with Members on how we do that. 

15:10
Key Performance Indicators

3. Will the Commission provide an update on the extent to which it is meeting its key performance indicators for the sixth Senedd? OQ59186

The Commission's key performance indicators were reviewed at the beginning of the sixth Senedd. The key performance indicator data for the current year, namely April 2022 to March 2023, is currently being collected, and will be published in the annual report and accounts for 2022-23 in the summer. 

Thank you very much for that confirmation. Therefore, the figures are on their way, and I look forward to seeing those. And I'm particularly interested, as I'm sure many in the Chamber are, in the Commission's attempts to increase the spending of the Commission on Welsh providers in order to use the public pound for the benefit of our local communities and the people of Wales. There are many examples of this, such as Castell Howell in my area, in terms of the provision of food. I particularly welcome the target in the last Senedd to increase this percentage to 43 per cent, and the fact that the Commission had succeeded in the last financial year to go beyond that target, with 45 per cent of expenditure made with Welsh providers. 

So, Llywydd, can you confirm how the Commission defines a Welsh provider, because some organisations have argued that this is very complex and difficult to do? Clearly, the Commission doesn't have any difficulty in setting and measuring such a target. And also, in terms of the KPIs for the sixth Senedd, can you confirm what the new ambition is in terms of Welsh procurement, so that we can support even more businesses and jobs, which are the backbone of our economy and communities?

You asked two questions there, and I can answer one of them, but I'll have to write to you with the answer to the other. The answer to the question in terms of what is the Commission's target in terms of expenditure on Welsh suppliers, because we met our target in the last Senedd of 43 per cent, the target is now 50 per cent for the sixth Senedd, and I hope that we will be able to report on that, as I said, in our annual report. So, 50 per cent is the target.

How exactly do we define produce and expenditure on Welsh produce? I will have to write to you on that, Cefin Campbell, because I don't have that answer to hand. So, I'm happy to confirm that in a letter to you, and I hope that that will provide a clear explanation to you and to anyone else who wants to know how the Commission and Senedd define Welsh goods and services.

15:15
4. Topical Questions
The Energy Price Cap

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of Ofgem's new price cap on residents in Wales? TQ732

Thank you, Jack Sargeant. Welsh householders will not be directly impacted by the price cap due to the energy price guarantee currently set at £2,500. However, we are deeply concerned by the potential impact of the UK Government's energy price guarantee rise to £3,000 in April on Welsh households if wider UK Government support does not continue.

Can I thank the Minister for that answer? Despite the fall in the energy price cap, I share your concerns about energy bills and the fact that they are on course to rise by £500 in April. Martin Lewis himself described the rise, and I quote, as an

'act of national mental health harm'.

Ofgem, of course, have announced the market review into the behaviour of suppliers, but, acting Presiding Officer, I will place on record today that I do not have confidence in that review. Ofgem have spent months ignoring overwhelming evidence that suppliers are forcing vulnerable people onto prepayment meters.

A survey my office has carried out reveals examples of how extreme that problem is. One anonymous respondent detailed how they need constant access to electricity due to medical devices, yet they are on a prepayment meter. Another was a veteran who sustained injuries serving his country and now suffers with PTSD and was forcibly switched onto a prepay meter by these energy suppliers. A third, Presiding Officer, had a fault with their prepayment meter. When they phoned their energy supplier they were placed on hold for over an hour. When they finally got to ask an adviser what was happening, they explained that their six-year-old son was obviously very upset, they explained that they were sat in the dark, and the adviser on the other end of the phone for the energy supplier laughed. I'm going to be clear in this Chamber now that these are not laughing matters—these are people's lives, and this is a life-and-death situation.

Minister, these are vulnerable people, vulnerable people who should not be on prepayment meters in the first place. Can I ask you, Minister, for your view on Ofgem's review into energy suppliers' behaviour? Can I also ask you to meet with me to discuss further the findings of my survey, to send that consistent message to the UK Government that they must tackle the inequalities that this scandal has caused?

Thank you very much, Jack Sargeant. Thank you for raising this topical question and for consistently raising these issues over the past months and indeed years in terms of the plight of people in fuel poverty, forced now, more recently, onto prepayment meters without permission—shocking behaviour by suppliers. I just want to say that I will meet with you. I want to meet with you to hear more about your survey. I will share that survey, and I will raise these issues with Ofgem. I met Ofgem yesterday and I met the Ofgem board in February. 

I also recognise that, when people like Martin Lewis describe it in this way, the possible rise—. I've been calling all afternoon, haven't I, for the UK Government not to make that £500 rise. I call on them again not to make that £500 rise in terms of the energy price guarantee. I pressed Ofgem when I met them yesterday about the most vulnerable households. These are the ones that are on prepayment meters and those who've been forced onto prepayment meters. I pressed them about their regulatory powers—were they strong enough, are they using them. 

As far as the review is concerned into British Gas, which I asked them specifically about, they told me that they have an independent auditor looking at the issuing of warrants for prepayment meters, and also the remote switching, of course, which is happening, of customers onto smart prepayment meters. I asked them about other suppliers: 'You should be able to tell from court warrants—are there other suppliers?' They told me they were undertaking a review of 15 other suppliers to ensure their compliance with the regulations. I will, obviously, go back to them in terms of getting the outcome of these reviews.

Also, I made the point yesterday when I met them that they had what they called a voluntary ban agreed to stop the imposition of warrants for forced installation of prepayment meters till the end of March. I said that this has got to be extended. I called for it to be extended until the outcome of their investigations into British Gas and those other 15 suppliers. I called for it to be extended for as long as necessary.

Thank you, again, for raising these issues. Of course, I raised a number of other points when I met them yesterday. I called for action and moving forward on the social tariff, but also, again, going back to this point: 'If you haven't got the powers, we want to know.' We will support extension of powers, particularly around the issues about protection from disconnection, which, of course, in law you can't do in the water industry.

15:20

The Llywydd took the Chair.

The question tabled is about Ofgem's price cap, and although it's good news that the energy regulator, Ofgem, announced that its price cap will fall by almost £1,000 from April due to a fall in wholesale prices, the UK Government energy price guarantee is set to increase, as you indicated, from £2,500 to £3,000 a year from the same month. National Energy Action estimates that 1.5 million UK households would fall into fuel poverty as a result. Households in Wales will be particularly hard hit, given that Wales has the lowest prosperity per head, lowest wages, lowest employment and highest child poverty in the UK, dare I say, after 24 years of Labour Welsh Government. However, UK energy Minister Grant Shapps said yesterday:

'I completely recognise the argument over keeping that price guarantee in place, and the Chancellor and I are working very hard on it. I’m very sympathetic to making sure that we protect people.'We’re looking at this very, very carefully.'

I know in your answers earlier today you alluded to that statement yourself. In that context, what constructive engagement are you therefore having with the UK Government accordingly?

Thank you, Mark Isherwood. I think from what you're saying you are also sympathetic to this call that the UK Government should not increase the guarantee to £3,000. Yesterday, Grant Shapps, the UK Government's energy security Secretary, said that he was sympathetic to calls for cancelling the rise. Of course, sympathy isn't enough. He and the Chancellor must now act to protect the most vulnerable in Wales and across the UK.

I would say also that today myself and my colleagues Julie James and Vaughan Gething have written to Grant Shapps on a range of issues, including, I have to say, non-domestic provision, as well as domestic provision, funding needs, longer term transition relating to all our portfolio responsibilities. But I think we have got to recognise that this is a time when we can unite across this Chamber to say that we call on the UK Government not to make this rise to £3,000. They can afford it, and let's see some action now.

Minister, we on the Equality and Social Justice Committee have heard very serious evidence about the depths of debt in Wales and that energy costs are fundamental to that. I've raised with you in the past the lack of progress in terms of delivering on the fuel poverty targets of the Welsh Government. The target was 5 per cent of Welsh households living in fuel poverty by 2035, but 45 per cent are now living in fuel poverty. Whilst wholesale prices are starting to fall, household bills will increase from April if the Government in Westminster proceeds with this increase in the energy price guarantee, and bills will still be significantly higher than they have been historically. Minister, do you agree, therefore, that we need to accelerate improving home energy efficiency through the Warm Homes programme? Because it's unclear from what we've heard from you and the Minister for Climate Change whether the new demand-led programme will be operational before the end of the year. Can you give us a clear answer on this today?

Thank you very much. I was very pleased that this was subject to scrutiny and inquiry on Monday by the Equality and Social Justice Committee. Can I again just confirm that there will be no gap in terms of the transition from one to another in terms of the Warm Homes programme? And can I also thank you for your support for the calls that we've been making, and I know that you have supported them as well, in terms of recognising the adverse impact of the energy price guarantee increasing from £2,500 to £3,000?

I do just want to comment on your point about the Warm Homes programme, because again, as I said earlier on today, the Warm Homes programme includes the demand-led Nest scheme. That'll continue until September of this year. The area-based Arbed scheme ended, of course, as you know, in November 2021, but Welsh Government funding in 2022-23 has been increased by £3 million to £30 million. The consultation concluded with the Warm Homes programme, and it is now moving forward. And of course, the Minister for Climate Change, who is responsible for this as the lead Minister, made that statement on 8 November about how we're going to approach the challenges or opportunities to respond, in terms of the climate emergency, but how it affects all housing tenures. So, I reassure you in terms of the way forward for the Warm Homes programme, and also assure you in terms of the funding that's being made available next year.

15:25

I just want to remind us all that every single household with a pay-as-you-go meter has already received £400 via the UK Government into the account that they hold with the energy companies, whilst it’s a very much smaller proportion of the generally much more vulnerable households on prepayment meters who’ve received either the UK Government’s or the Welsh Government’s voucher towards their heating costs. In your discussions with Ofgem, can you ask why the energy companies, who all know exactly where all these prepayment customers are and many of whom are making a killing from the spike in gas prices, cannot be made responsible for getting customers on prepayment meters the support for even their more expensive energy costs, rather than leaving it to the vagaries of the postal service, the mobility challenges and the mental health needs of our most vulnerable citizens? This is absolutely unacceptable, and Ofgem need to step up to the plate or be replaced.

Thank you very much, Jenny Rathbone. On that question, I’ve met with energy suppliers on a number of occasions, as you know. I’ve raised this issue about ways in which they need to reach out to ensure those vouchers do reach those on PPMs. I mean, everybody else got their £400, and those who are most vulnerable were not getting their £400. I got assurances that they were going to be reissued, that they’re trying every other means—if it’s not post or delivery, it's certainly digital contact, if that hasn’t been successful. I asked for the latest uptake in terms of reach of that payment; I was told by the UK Government it was now 71 per cent, but what about that 29 per cent who haven’t got it? I’ve called for them to be reissued until they get a better uptake. It’s a lifeline for vulnerable households at a time when, of course, they are the most vulnerable on PPMs.

I thank the Minister. The next question is to be answered by the Minister for Health and Social Services and to be asked by Adam Price.

The Pay Offer for NHS Workers

2. Will the Minister provide a statement following RCN Wales’s rejection of the Welsh Government’s additional NHS pay offer for 2022-23? TQ734

I issued a written statement yesterday to update Members, following a meeting of my officials and trade unions yesterday afternoon. I’m pleased that the Wales partnership forum have collectively narrowly accepted the enhanced pay offer proposed by the Welsh Government for 2022-23.

Does the Minister accept that the fact that over 80 per cent of members of the RCN that participated in the vote on this proposal had voted to reject it shows the crisis of morale within the nursing profession at the moment? And of course, that isn't the only measure we have, really. We have the increase that’s been seen in the number of vacancies, we have an increase in sickness levels within the NHS workforce, we have an increasing number of people leaving professions, and the numbers applying for nursing courses dropping, and so on.

Is the Government willing to look, once again, at this eleventh hour, at using the powers that you have, at least for income tax, in the higher and additional bands, in order to offer a better settlement for our nurses? May I ask the Minister also: you mentioned the partnership forum, and a majority had voted in favour of the offer; can you tell us, apart from the RCN, which other unions within the NHS are still in a pay dispute with the Government at the moment? And, through the statement that you mentioned, are you now proposing to implement this pay rise for everyone, or only for those unions that have accepted the increase? Can you also give us an update on the elements other than salaries that you referred to in the written statement on 8 February? Has there been any progress made in terms of those elements of the package that you had discussed? May I ask finally, the UK Government, in looking to next year, has said to the pay review body that a 3.5 per cent pay increase next year would be affordable, and that anything above 5 per cent would be unaffordable. Do you as a Welsh Government agree with what the UK Government have told the pay review body, and, if you do not, then do you intend to provide additional evidence to what you’ve already provided to that body?

15:30

Thank you very much. I think it’s very important that we do recognise that even though this is a situation where the unions collectively have agreed to accept the offer, we do understand that the offer has only been accepted by one vote, and we also understand that there are a lot of people within the unions who are still very angry about the situation. That’s why, during the coming weeks, we will be renegotiating with the unions about how we will undertake the implementation of this money, which has now been agreed. And what I can tell you is that all members of the unions are very happy to continue with those discussions, and that’s what we’ll be doing in the coming days.

Just in terms of what happens next—are we going to raise income tax in the higher bands? No. We’ve explained clearly that, if we raise 1p in the £1 to those paid more than £150,000 a year, we would raise £3 million. If we raise 1p in the £1 to those who pay the higher rate, we will raise £33 million. That’s not enough money to even cover 1 per cent of what’s needed, so we won’t be going down that path. What we do understand is that the unions have the right to continue with their strikes—that is, that individual unions can make decisions, but we do hope, of course, that, in the negotiations, we will continue to ensure that there is a glimmer of hope, for us to see whether we can do anything further to see these strikes called off. Obviously, we’re in a situation where the dispute is ongoing, and that's why we will continue to engage in discussions. 

In terms of the non-pay elements, nothing additional has been put on the table, but, evidently, we will be having discussions over the coming days on the implementation that's been agreed. 

Regarding the independent pay review board, we've given evidence to that. We haven't presented an amount that would be affordable, and we did underline the fact that people have been suffering in the wake of inflation, and we've emphasised that the cost-of-living crisis is impacting on people. But, of course, it's also important that we do emphasise that next year's budget is very tight when it comes to health. 

15:35

Can I thank you for your answers, Minister? One thing I just do want to try and get an understanding of is that you've talked about further discussions over the weeks ahead, and I just want to understand what the plan is now in those discussions that you referred to. I think you just said in your answer to Adam Price that you can look at what else you need to do further, and there'll be further engagement and discussions, but you've also said that the last pay offer was the final one. So, I'm just trying to understand. It appears to be a contradiction—perhaps it's not—but I'm just trying to understand what's behind that. And, perhaps you can explain whose court the ball now sits in in order to have those further discussions with the unions, and the RCN also. 

And, can I ask: do you feel that the RCN—? You've obviously had productive discussions with some of the unions, but of those parties that didn't accept the offer, including the RCN, do you think, in some way, that they've been unreasonable to reject the offer? I've always had good relationships with the RCN, but I'm just trying to get a sense of whether you think that the RCN have been unreasonable, and what your relationship, I suppose, is with the RCN and the others who didn't accept the offer that you put to them as a result of your statement yesterday.

Thanks, Russell. Obviously, we are always keen, in the Welsh Labour Government, to work in social partnership, and I would suggest that we actually have a very good and constructive relationship with all of the unions. Obviously, there are times when we disagree on aspects of detail, and we acknowledge that there is a genuine sense of grievance at the moment. That's why we want to make sure that we continue those discussions, looking at how we will implement what is now an agreed position. What I won't be doing is giving a running commentary on exactly what will be happening in those discussions. 

What I can tell you is that the way the system works is that there are around 15 recognised health trade unions, and, in terms of the way that the vote took place, those unions have a vote that is proportionate to the size of the membership. And that's why they got to a position where it was accepted by one vote. And, obviously, we are pleased to see that it has been accepted, and I think, it's important that you go and ask the trade unions themselves in terms of whether they want to disclose who did what. What I can tell you, for example, is that the physiotherapists accepted the offer, and their threat of strike has been withdrawn. The RCM—the Royal College of Midwives—rejected the offer, but they will honour the agreement and have withdrawn their strike action. 

So, people are responding differently. That's why what we need to do now, in the next few days, is to just sit down and see what else we need to do in this space in terms of seeing whether we can do anything more to avoid strike action in future. 

5. 90-second Statements

Thank you, Minister, for those answers. The next item is the 90-second statements, and the first statement today is from Jenny Rathbone. 

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I understand that our patron saint, Dewi Sant, told Welsh soldiers to wear the leek on their helmets so that they could distinguish their comrades in battle from the Saxons who wore similar armour. This suggests that leeks must have been much more plentiful in the first century than they are in the twenty-first century, if they were being used for decoration rather than food. 

Whilst one of the supermarkets I visited on Monday evening had run out of leeks, the other two did have them. But the one I bought in the supermarket, and the other from my local street barrow were grown in Lincolnshire. Nevertheless, there has been progress in growing these iconic Welsh vegetables in Wales since I raised this matter in the Chamber on St David's Day last year. For example, in Morrisons, who currently sell both Blas y Tir leeks and Lincolnshire leeks, from July this year, the Lincolnshire leeks will be replaced by Welsh leeks in all of the Morrisons Welsh stores. And, like many other supermarkets, they are promoting Welsh leeks and other locally sourced products, including Welsh daffodils, as part of their St David's Day celebrations.

Puffin Produce and its trademark Blas y Tir remain the Welsh market leader for leeks and many other vegetables, and its leek production is expanding from 1,600 tonnes this season to 2,600 tonnes in the next season—being planted in the next couple of months. Now, this really welcome development is supported by a £1.2 million capital investment in a state-of-the-art leek washing and packing line, 40 per cent of which is being covered by a Welsh Government food business investment grant scheme— 

15:40

Fascinated as I am—[Laughter.]—by the new processing of leeks plant, this is a 90-second statement. 

Okay. I will just complete by saying we now have protected geographical indication status for Welsh leeks since last November, so there's a lot to celebrate about the Welsh leek.  

And I'm sure that you'll carry on your campaigning for Welsh leeks into the future. Thank you, Jenny Rathbone, for that cause. Sarah Murphy. 

Diolch, Llywydd. This Monday marks the beginning of Eating Disorder Awareness Week, a time to emphasise that eating disorders are not all about food itself, but about feelings. The theme this year is recognising and raising awareness that men get eating disorders too, because Beat eating disorders charity did a survey, finding that one in three had never accessed treatment and one in five had never spoken about their struggles. So I would ask all of my colleagues and people watching to please visit Beat's website to read their stories and help men get help too. The cross-party group for eating disorders will be re-established this week to address this and many other issues. I want to thank Bethan Sayed, who served as the previous chair, as well as Jo Whitfield and Amelia Holt, from Beat who have been excellent secretariats.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who has reached out since I spoke in the Senedd about my own lived experience with an eating disorder, whether that's to offer support or to share their own story, including Georgia Taylor from Bridgend, who is working with me now to share our experiences, so that others can understand and feel less alone. An eating disorder is never the fault of the person experiencing it, and anyone who has an eating disorder deserves fast compassionate support to help them get better, because we can get better. Diolch. 

6. Plaid Cymru Debate: Industrial relations

The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Darren Millar, and amendment 2 in the name of Lesley Griffiths. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected.

The next item, therefore, is the Plaid Cymru debate on industrial relations, and I call on Luke Fletcher to move the motion. Luke Fletcher. 

Motion NDM8210 Siân Gwenllian

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Expresses solidarity with public sector workers throughout Wales who are undertaking industrial action in response to years of real-term cuts to their wages.

2. Believes that the ability of workers to undertake strike action to improve their pay and conditions is a fundamental democratic right.

3. Believes that the UK Government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is a full-frontal attack on working people and the trade unions they organise within.

4. Regrets that the Bill would give the UK Government significant coercive power to curtail trade unions' and workers' ability to engage in lawful industrial action.

5. Regrets that the Bill also conflicts with the aims of the Social Partnership and Public Procurement Bill, particularly the commitment of making Wales a fair work nation.

6. Supports all trade unions and public sector workers in their efforts to resist the Bill.

7. Calls on the Welsh Government to open discussions around the devolution of employment law to secure the collective rights and bargaining powers of workers in Wales.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd. Let's be clear, from the onset, the UK Government's Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is nothing more than an attack on working class people, not just in Wales but across the UK. A draconian, fascistic attempt to erode the fundamental rights of workers and the trade unions that represent them, and we all know why this is happening.

The past year has seen workers in all sectors reject the politics of austerity, reject stagnant and real-terms cuts to wages, reject attacks on working conditions and reject the idea that this is as good as it gets. And in crippling fear of that, those at the top, aided by their willing partners in the Tory party, are now looking to put us back in our place. Well, good luck, because class solidarity is back, and we have a hell of a lot of catching up to do. In the face of a common struggle, workers up and down the country refuse to be divided by where they're from, what job they do, what they look like, and we, as a Senedd, must play our part in strengthening that struggle and empowering working people against the tides of Tory tyranny. No worker, no person deserves to be left using a foodbank, deserves to be left poring over every single pound and penny to decide if they can afford to heat their homes while companies are raking in profits on an astronomical scale. 

But before we get into the implications of the Bill and how we should respond to it here in Wales, it's worth reminding ourselves of the circumstances that gave rise to this. This is coming off the back of crisis after crisis: the 2008 crash, then the austerity that followed, then the pandemic, and now the cost-of-living crisis. We are in the midst of a perfect storm of soaring energy prices, high inflation and a new wave of Tory-driven austerity that is pummeling our public finances.

Meanwhile, the public sector workforce has had to put up with over a decade of squeezed wages, with average public sector pay in Wales being 4 per cent lower in real terms compared to 2010. In some professions, such as nursing and teaching, the picture is even more grim—nurses' salaries down at least 20 per cent in real terms since 2010; teachers' salaries down 23 per cent since 2010, alongside a staggering 27 per cent cut for support staff.

Now, turning to the Bill and its implications, the Bill gives UK Ministers and employers the power to force workers within six sectors to work during strike action. Through the new work notices system, employers are able to dismiss workers who refuse to comply with the order to work during strike action, thus circumventing statutory rights against unfair dismissal that are enshrined in the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. It also obliges unions to enforce these strike-breaking work notices, making them liable to up to £1 million in losses if they cannot force compliance amongst their members. This raises the very real prospect of trade unions being sued into bankruptcy, which would be the case for the first time since 1906.

Article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966, to which the UK is a signatory, affirms the right of everyone to form trade unions and join the trade union of their choice. It also affirms the right of trade unions to function freely. As numerous union representatives and employment law experts have pointed out, the anti-strikes Bill is in direct contravention of these fundamental rights. To quote a recent European Trade Union Confederation statement, this would push the UK

'even further outside the democratic mainstream'

on labour rights.

Of course, this Bill is merely the latest in a long line of Tory-driven legislation to undermine the rights of workers. The Industrial Relations Act 1971, introduced by the Heath administration, for example, diluted worker protections and put up new barriers against collective bargaining. This was followed by a succession of Employment Acts under Thatcher's rabidly anti-union Government, which, amongst other things, restricted the ability of unions to picket and outlawed solidarity strikes. More recently, the Trade Union Act 2016 imposed higher thresholds on organising and undertaking industrial action, while last year's repeal of the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Business Regulations enabled employers to hire temporary agency workers to undercut strike action.

The effect of all of this has left the UK with the most repressive anti-union laws in Europe—a point underlined by the fact that, while 60 per cent of workers in the EU are covered by collective bargaining agreements, a mere 26 per cent of UK workers are covered by such agreements. Such facts clearly expose the hollowness of Tory rhetoric on over-mighty union barons and their attempt to dress up this Bill as a measure that will bring the UK in line with European norms. 

But, of course, today our motion goes further than just expressing solidarity. Our motion calls on this Senedd and Government to support and campaign for the devolution of employment law. The simple fact is that we can't rely on Westminster to protect the rights of workers. It's a given when the Government is blue, but, sadly, you could say the same if the Government were red. Between 1997 and 2010, did Blair or did Brown repeal Thatcher's anti-union laws? No; in fact, when introducing the Employment Relations Act 1999, Blair wrote in The Times:

'The changes that we do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world.'

Now, I admit that I have more faith in the Welsh Government to protect workers' rights than I do in Blair, Brown and Starmer, but it's because of this lack of belief, and it's because of the fact that Welsh values, when it comes to industrial relations, don't always align with Westminster, that we should be chomping at the bit to bring these powers to this place. Now, the Government's amendment was genuinely disappointing, in the sense that it removed our call, but I hope, throughout the course of this debate, the Deputy Minister might change her mind.  

15:50

I have selected the two amendments to the motion, and, if amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected. I call on Joel James to move amendment 1. Joel James.

Amendment 1—Darren Millar

Delete all and replace with:

Welcomes the action being taken by the UK Government to amend the legal framework governing industrial action to ensure that minimum service levels are set in key sectors during periods of strike action. 

Amendment 1 moved.

Thank you, Llywydd, and I move this amendment in the name of Darren Millar. It is clear that the motion presented by Plaid Cymru seems to have completely misrepresented the UK Government's policy on minimum service levels by claiming that it is an attempt by the UK Government to gain sufficient coercive power to curtail both trade union and worker ability to engage in lawful industrial action, when this is clearly so not the case and not the purpose of the legislation. But then again, Llywydd, Plaid Cymru members do have their social media channels to think about.

The Conservatives believe wholeheartedly that everyone should have the right to strike, but when it comes to the NHS and to the fire and rescue service, it is not right that those who are in desperate need of emergency care cannot get an ambulance or rescue service because of strike action. The measures proposed in the minimum service levels Bill are designed to protect lives and ensure that people who face an imminent threat to life or limb have quick access to care and treatment. And it is mind-boggling to me how anyone could not want such care to be received. At present, the minimum service levels for life and limb protection are individually negotiated by various services across the country, which leads to considerable inconsistency. In Wales, there is likely to be a different minimum service to England and Scotland, and legislating a pre-agreed national minimum level across the entire United Kingdom will help to improve consistency. 

Another reason, as many in this Chamber will very well know, is that current legislation on striking services does not require people to say whether or not they intend to strike, which creates situations where people organising rotas have no knowledge of who will actually be available for work, making it very difficult to plan even minimum services for shifts, and it's vital that, for health, fire and rescue, transport and education, these sectors are able to plan. 

In my mind, there is nothing wrong with introducing legislation that provides minimum service levels during strikes so that the most vulnerable—those who are in life-threatening danger—have the service that they need. The International Labour Organization, which the TUC subscribes to, recommends appropriate minimum service levels in both vital and non-vital services, and similar minimum service legislation is already commonplace in several European countries, such as France, Germany and Italy.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has published its impact assessment of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill and drew a broadly favourable picture of this legislation—

—concluding it would boost public confidence around access to vital services during walkouts.

Go on.

You say that you want us to follow the French and Italian models, and the legislative framework around employment laws are different there. Not only do they have different laws around strikes, but they've got better representation of workers on their boards. So, if you want us to have the same rules around employment as they do in France, why don't we have the same rules with getting workers on the boards of those companies as well here in Wales?

Well, I'm sure that's a question you can point to the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership.

—a broadly favourable picture of this legislation, concluding it will boost public confidence around access to vital services during walkouts, and stated that there would be economic benefits that would result from less disruption to day-to-day business activity. I will, however, concede that there will be a need for more consideration to certain aspects of the minimum operating requirements: for example, in Rhyl, where, whilst trains can be reduced to one per hour instead of three, there are some services such as signal boxes that are binary, and, in aviation, air traffic control is either open or closed. But this will, I am sure, be addressed in the secondary legislation accompanying the Bill. 

There is no doubt in my mind that this Bill is about fairness and balance—nothing more, nothing less. If a trade union notifies an employer of a strike in accordance with existing normal rules, this Bill means that employers will be required to consult the trade union on the minimum number of workers needed and that work will be undertaken, and they must have regard to the union's views before issuing any work notice. Therefore, the notion that this Bill is

'a full-frontal attack on working people and the trade unions'

is nothing more than political posturing by Plaid Cymru. And I would urge everyone here in this Chamber to vote against this motion and instead support our amendment, tabled in the name of Darren Millar. Thank you, Llywydd.

I call on the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership to formally move amendment 2.

Amendment 2—Lesley Griffiths

Delete all and replace with:

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Acknowledges and respects the strength of feeling demonstrated by trade union members through strike ballots and industrial action taken.

2. Believes that the UK Government’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is an attack on trade unions and a workers' fundamental right to strike.

3. Regrets the complete lack of engagement by the UK Government on this legislation prior to its introduction and notes the position of the Welsh Government as set out in its Written Statement and Legislative Consent Memorandum.

4. Supports the Welsh Government, and all trade unions and public sector workers in their efforts to resist the Bill.

Amendment 2 moved.

Diolch, Llywydd. As we've heard from my colleague, Luke Fletcher, the UK Government's anti-strike legislation is a draconian swipe against workers seeking a fair wage for their services. What is also apparent is that this measure has worrying implications for the legislative agenda of this Senedd. Over the past few years, we've become well accustomed to the centralising tendencies of the Westminster Government as well as their thinly veiled contempt for devolution. Brexit has seemingly fuelled a form of muscular unionism that frequently rides roughshod over devolved areas of competence. This is exemplified by the introduction of measures such as the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 and the retained EU law Bill. As the First Minister alluded to earlier in the year, breaches of the Sewel convention, once unheard of in the context of devolved-UK Government relations, have become commonplace in recent years. Meanwhile, the use of section 83 powers to block the Scottish Government's gender recognition reform Bill underlines the sheer fallacy of the union as a partnership of equals.

Now, it appears that anti-strike legislation will conflict with an area of work that the Senedd has been working on, namely the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Bill, and in particular its aim to make Wales a fair work nation. As Members will be aware, the Fair Work Commission was established as a precursor to the development of the Bill. One of its primary recommendations was the need to embed fair work practices within the legislative framework. Fair work practices were defined by the commission as a state of affairs

'where workers are fairly rewarded, heard and represented, secure and able to progress in a healthy, inclusive environment where rights are respected.'

On the basis that the Bill will contain a statutory social partnership duty on public bodies to seek consensus or compromise with trade unions, overseen by the social partnership council, which will include trade union representation, it's difficult to envisage how these fair work goals can be compatible in any way with the anti-strike Bill legislation, which is designed to seek antagonism and coercion over consensus and compromise. As I've already alluded to, the supremacy of Westminster and the disregard of this Tory Government for devolution mean the fair work agenda here in Wales is in considerable jeopardy.

Whilst we acknowledge the fact that matters of employment law in Wales are almost fully reserved to Westminster, there are some steps that could be taken to futureproof the fair work agenda from Westminster's recklessness. For example, the Scottish Government recently established a fair work and trade union modernisation fund, which is used to embed practices of fair work in industrial relations. With the implementation of the social partnership Bill, this approach should be replicated in Wales to ensure that the ambition of providing trade unions with a stronger voice in the development of economic and industrial policies is consolidated on a long-term, practical basis. This would also go some way to revitalising union presence within our private sector and amongst young workers. There is a clear discrepancy at present between union membership in the public and private sectors in Wales—just over 60 per cent in the case of the former, and just under 20 per cent in the case of the latter. Furthermore, only just over 30 per cent of workers in Wales aged 25 to 34 are members of a union, compared to 45.4 per cent of workers aged 50 and above. Clearly, there's a need to address these imbalances if the objectives of the fair work agenda are to benefit the whole of Wales.

Finally, the Welsh Government should consider introducing an accreditation scheme, whereby a public-facing fair work Wales standard would incentivise employers to participate and uphold the objectives of the fair work agenda. Diolch yn fawr.

15:55

Any dignity that is inherent in our society comes from the aspirations we hold not for ourselves but for others. That is the glory of the trade union movement and its grace: the fact that it's upheld not by individual greed but by collective endeavour, the resolve that rights can be achieved for all. We have all benefited from workers' rights hard won by generations that have gone before us: paid sick leave, holiday leave, weekends. Our lives are incalculably richer and happier because of those struggles. We owe it to the workers of today and of tomorrow in Wales to repel Westminster's attempt to erode those rights and to fight for the powers to cement them in Welsh law. 

I am so proud that I was born in the Welsh Valleys, but it is a landscape that still wears the scars of an exploited workforce—the coal miners who were paid in dust and disease and disdain. But our past wasn't only distinguished by disasters—there was comradeship too. The days of Mabon, tireless champion of the miners, who secured holidays—the first Monday of every month, known as Mabon Days. And that same drive for the common good breathed something new into the lungs of our towns and our villages, places so choked of investment, of care, of concern.

The miners' halls that still stand in Blackwood and Bedwas speak to those communities' memory of a time when meetings and concerts brought families into the warmth of social events. Miners' welfare parks and gardens were nurtured and grown. Our choirs and eisteddfods gave workers the chance to soar above the blackened hills in song. So much was achieved in our Valleys by collective action, not just in industrial terms, but in the very fabric of our society. Nye Bevan said he was happiest when he was chairman of the book selection committee for the Tredegar miners' library—a library that, in the 1930s, circulated some 100,000 books a year. But the libraries have shut, Llywydd. So many of those halls have fallen into ruin and disrepair. Too many choirs no longer meet because there isn't the collective space to meet and sing.

But we in Wales can still snatch back the collective ethos we once had. We can build on that proud history and ensure that no more workers in Wales will be undervalued, exploited, will have their pride ripped from them by devolving employment law and securing collective rights for all. Because workers' rights in the UK, as we've heard, are already so much lower than the European norm. In Italy, 97 per cent of workers are covered by collective bargaining. In France, 90 per cent. In the UK, only 26 per cent, 27 per cent of workers enjoy this privilege. Even in Russia, the figure is higher. Union rights in these islands have been eroded purposefully since Thatcher and since, I am sorry to say, New Labour failed to restore those rights in their 13 years in power.

We need these rights in Wales to make right the wrongs of our past. Because in Wales our past should be our guide. It is a familiar feeling for the trade union movement. You think of the words sung about Joe Hill, the hero of the workers in the mines of Nevada, framed with an allegation of murder—there are echoes of Dic Penderyn and Merthyr there for certain. But the song says:

'Where working men are out on strike / Joe Hill is at their side'.

Llywydd, when women and men are on strike, they don't just do that for their own rights, their own wages; they do it for the rights of workers yet to enter the workforce, they do it to uphold the rights of people and generations yet to come. And the workers also stand in solidarity, Llywydd, with the generations that have gone before, because when working men and women are out on strike in Wales, Dic Penderyn is at their side, William Abraham is at their side, or the choruses of voices from our rich and wanting past—they're lending their voices to their song. On picket lines, just like Joe Hill, they stand alive as you and me in their proud memory. Let's make this right for Wales.

16:00

I make my contribution today also in my role with the PCS cross-party group. Thank you very much, Delyth, particularly for your contribution. I think we must all bear in mind that we've all benefited from what's been achieved by those that have battled before us—each and every one of us have benefited from that as compared with our forefathers. And that's what is under threat here. Certainly, Joel James, it's not to get any likes on social media. That's not why we brought this debate forward, but because we are on the picket lines, we do speak to workers, we do listen to them and we are here to make arguments for them because they have the right to strike at the moment, and many are doing so for the first times in their lives. Members of the RCN have chosen to strike for the first time ever in the history of their organisation because they have simply had enough; they've had enough of not being paid fairly, of not being treated—. That's because of the measures put in place by the UK Government, but also in terms of the Welsh Government now. They have the power to do things differently, and we must consider what this legislation and the changes made by the UK Government will mean for workers in Wales, and what we can do differently if we have the powers here.

We've already heard about the correlation between high levels of union density and positive outcomes in terms of high wages and productivity, and this is corroborated by numerous international examples—Mabon and Delyth have already beaten me to it on this. But, consider Sweden, where 88 per cent of employees are covered by collective bargaining rights, and it has an adjusted net national income per capita of $44,552, compared to the UK's $36,000. It is also ranked seventh out of the 146 countries in the world happiness index, and scores highly on global equality metrics. The key to Sweden's successful model of labour relations has been its implementation of collective bargaining on a sector or industry level. This ensures high rates of collective bargaining coverage, particularly across the private sector, which stands in direct contrast to the company or employer level at which UK agreements usually take place, which invariably lead to low rates of collective bargaining coverage and stark discrepancies between the public and private sectors.

Similar models are in place in the fellow Nordic countries of Iceland, Denmark, Finland and Norway, all of which have the highest rates of union density in the world and are amongst the world's wealthiest, most equal and happiest of nations. Collective agreements cover 98 per cent of French workers, who enjoy 10 per cent higher disposable incomes compared to the average UK worker, and a shorter working week. As such, sectoral bargaining is a model that other nations are seeking to emulate, and with good reason. For example, New Zealand recently passed its Fair Pay Agreements Act 2022, which facilitates collective bargaining for fair pay agreements across entire industries or occupations. This at a time when the UK Government want to oppress trade unions. 

We cannot ignore what the UK Government is trying to achieve through this. Our communities have suffered enough. We've heard clearly from Delyth, Luke, Peredur and others. We know that, having spoken to workers on the ground. We know that people aren't happy in our communities. They're working hard, yet they can't afford to buy food or to warm their homes. They're working harder than ever, working longer hours than ever, missing out on opportunities to be with their families, with young children and so on, they're having to work every hour of the day and still they can't afford food and energy. That's the situation in Britain today, and in Wales today.

Things do have to change. We need the powers here in Wales to change things for the workers of Wales. There is more that the Welsh Government could do, most certainly, and there's more that the UK Government should do. This is about the rights of each and every one of us—each and every one of us—and, as Delyth said, it's about future generations too. We benefited greatly from the battles fought in the past, and we must now fight for those rights to continue. 

16:05

Diolch, Llywydd. I welcome this debate, and thank most Members for their contributions. The Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill is an attack on workers, workers' rights and trade unions. The Welsh Government opposes the Bill in the strongest terms, as set out in the Government amendment. In particular, the Government amendment highlights the written statement containing the First Minister's letter to the UK Government and the legislative consent memorandum that will be laid before the Senedd. These are clear and publicly available statements setting out our position and our significant concerns about this Bill.

We categorically do not believe the right response to industrial unrest is to introduce new laws that not only ride roughshod over the devolution settlement, but make it even harder for workers to take industrial action. We believe that the right response is to work in partnership with employers and trade unions to resolve disputes collaboratively. So, it should not come as a surprise that we do not support amendment 1 in the name of Darren Millar. The way to resolve industrial disputes is by negotiation and agreement, however challenging that may be at times for all involved; it's not through ill-conceived legislation that will do nothing to help resolve current disputes, will do lasting damage to industrial relations across the UK, and will interfere with devolved public services in Wales. The irony is that this same legislation comes from a Conservative Government that has repeatedly failed to produce its promised employment Bill to extend workers' rights and is now set to do the absolute opposite. It seems parliamentary time cannot be found to enhance workers rights, but there are no issues with finding parliamentary time to take those rights away.

Turning to the point that Luke Fletcher made with regard to the devolution of employment law in Wales: you'll be aware that there is work undertaken at the moment by the Wales TUC and a commission on that, and we await those findings. And we'll work with the Wales TUC on those findings, and anything that we would do in Wales would be to work in partnership, to look at not only the opportunities, but the potential challenges that may come in the future.

In responding to the motion today, I want to reiterate why we oppose the UK Government's Bill. Firstly, we oppose this Bill on principle. It's an unnecessary and unjustified attack on workers' rights and trade unions, and stands in sharp contrast to our approach to trade unions in Wales and, as you've heard, our ambitions for Wales and fair work. Secondly, there was a complete lack of engagement with devolved Governments prior to the UK Government hastily announcing their intentions through a press notice on 5 January. Whilst consultation documents are now being published on ambulance services, rail and fire and rescue services, this is all happening after the Bill has been introduced and whilst it is going through parliamentary scrutiny.

Thirdly, we oppose the Bill because a number of devolved public services are in the scope of the Bill and the Bill contains Henry VIII powers, which gives a Secretary of State sweeping powers. Quite simply, supporting this Bill entails handing the Secretary of State a blank cheque. When even supporters of the Bill, like the infamous Jacob Rees-Mogg, criticised the Bill as a 'badly written' Bill that fails to

'set out clearly what it is trying to achieve',

we know the Bill is definitely not in a good place. Fourthly, we clearly share many of the concerns voiced by trade unions and others about the effectiveness and the impact of this Bill. Our ability and, indeed, the ability of the UK Parliament to properly scrutinise those issues were seriously hampered by the absence of an impact assessment. The impact assessment was belatedly published just last week; an impact assessment the Regulatory Policy Committee immediately described as, I quote, 'not fit for purpose'.

16:10

I'm glad to hear that you're saying that you're opposing what's going on in Westminster at the moment, and very strong words being said, but do you share my disappointment that your Labour colleagues aren't here today? Can you tell us where they are? Because if we're really feeling so angry about this and we want to make our voices heard, we need your colleagues here to share their voices as well, so that this Senedd's voice is collectively heard and that Westminster hears what we've got to say. Can you tell us where your colleagues are, please?

I can certainly speak on behalf on my colleagues in the Labour group and say we are fundamentally, wholeheartedly and collectively opposed to it and we will work with our partners across the Labour movement in Wales, and the UK, to oppose such attacks on workers' rights.

And we oppose this Bill because the rationale the UK Government has tried to present for the Bill as bringing the UK into line with many other European countries simply does not stack up, as we've heard from the Plaid Cymru benches. The international comparisons overplay similarities between this Bill and the operation of minimum service levels elsewhere. As you've heard, minimum service levels are typically the product of an agreement between employers and trade unions, sometimes with independent arbitration used as a backstop. In contrast to that, this Bill offers a prospect of imposition of minimum service levels through diktat backed up by the threat of workers being sacked if they do not comply. And it's not just us who say that the international comparisons with countries like France, Italy and Spain are false. We heard the General Secretary of the European Public Service Union, which protects 8 million public service workers across Europe, wrote to the Prime Minister, in a publicly available letter, to say: 

'In a debate in the Commons, you claimed that a Government unilaterally opposing minimum services should not be controversial and cite the legal framework in other countries. This statement is not correct and you take the legislation in other countries out of context.

The letter explains why that is the case and goes on to say:

'your government is rushing through a new law that will impose minimum service levels in key sectors, including the possibility that strikers will be sacked if they fail to comply with notices to work. This will be challenged under European and international law to which the UK is party.'

The UK Government has also tried to create a smokescreen that the International Labour Organization is supportive of the Bill. The director general of the ILO himself has confirmed he was not aware of any discussions between the ILO and the UK Government about the legislation. He did, however, confirm that the ILO has been in discussions with trade unions about making a complaint about the Bill. To say that the ILO supports this Bill is simply inaccurate at best. 

Time and time again, the UK Government's claims about this Bill and international support and international comparisons have fallen apart on their first contact with the facts. We do not want this Bill in Wales and we do not need it. I'm pleased that there is a majority opposing this legislation in Wales. It is unnecessary, unjustified and most likely unworkable. We are committed to opposing this pernicious, ideologically driven legislation, and working in partnership to do so. 

In closing, Llywydd, I want to say there's never been a more important time to join a trade union. Trade unions are not only good for workers—they're good for workplaces, and they're good for Wales. Diolch. 

16:15

Diolch, Llywydd. As I close this debate, I'm reminding myself of what I'd said in my opening to the debate around having faith in the Government to be better than UK Labour and Conservative Governments. I have to say, though, it is quite disappointing to not have a single contribution from the Members of the Labour backbench. There was an offer of solidarity on behalf of the Labour group, but they should be here giving that solidarity and saying that solidarity themselves in this Chamber, in a debate on an attack that members of that party have vocally opposed and condemned. 

This debate has demonstrated today through Plaid Cymru Members, and the Deputy Minister as well, to be fair, the case and need to protect workers' rights. Heledd set out how much we owe to the trade union movement and things we take for granted: maternity leave, minimum wage, the weekend, all things we take for granted these days. If the Tories were truly committed to delivering a high-growth and high-wage economy, as they keep promising, then they would support this cause rather than persist with an increasingly out-of-touch ideological crusade of antagonism and attrition against working people. 

I'm sorry, Joel, that you drew the short straw on this debate. I mean, you know, tell me you're a member of the Conservative Party without actually saying that you're a member of the Conservative Party. I would seriously encourage Joel to go and speak to the Royal College of Nursing, for example, about what happens on a strike day, and I think you'll find very quickly that what he set out in his contribution was factually incorrect. To be fair, I don't think many people on that side of the Chamber, if any at all, have been within a mile of a picket line, but just try it once and I think you'll see a lot of the things that you believe happen are simply untrue. 

While the Welsh Government's social partnership Bill and its fair work agenda provides a useful foundation, we do also acknowledge the limitations of devolved competencies over employment law in Wales, which is almost entirely reserved to Westminster. But it is for this very reason that we call on the Welsh Government to redouble its efforts in seeking further devolved powers over employment law here in Wales. As is apparent throughout so many aspects of current devolved settlement powers, though, the Welsh Government has ample scope for policy design in a number of areas, including industrial and economic strategy, but lacks the ability and the mechanisms to effectively enforce and consolidate its policy delivery. This is particularly problematic when, as is the case presently, the respective priorities of the Welsh Government and Westminster are increasingly polarised, as Peredur alluded to.

When trade unions are strong, we all win. For me, our economy should be the result of the kind of society we want to create. For me, that also reflects the history that Delyth alluded to—a society that is one of compassion, solidarity, one where no-one is left to fall behind. I'll borrow from the film Pride for a moment. They're at Castell Carreg Cennen and Dai is telling Mark about the lodge banner, the symbol on that banner of two hands. That is what the trade union movement means: I support you, you support me, shoulder to shoulder, hand to hand, solidarity. That is in stark contrast to what's on offer from Westminster’s division and poverty. More demands will be made, more ballots will be put forward, and more workers up and down Wales will join. Plaid Cymru will be right there alongside them, with solidarity with all workers fighting for better pay and working conditions, not just in Wales, but across the globe.

16:20

The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There are objections, and we will therefore defer voting under this item until voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

7. Welsh Conservatives Debate: The Welsh language

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

The next item is item 7, the Welsh Conservatives debate on the Welsh language. I call on Tom Giffard to move the motion.

Motion NDM8212 Darren Millar

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes the Cymraeg 2050: Work Programme 2021 to 2026.

2. Expresses concern that the 2021 Census revealed that the number of people who say they can speak Welsh decreased by more than 20,000.

3. Believes that the Welsh language is a cultural asset which brings many benefits to Wales.

4. Recognises the disparity in confidence amongst Welsh speakers.

5. Calls on the Welsh Government to explore opportunities to expand and promote the day-to-day use of the Welsh language.

Motion moved.