Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

08/03/2023

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 Economy

Good afternoon, and welcome, all, to this Plenary meeting. The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Economy, and the first question is to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, and to be asked by John Griffiths.

The TV and Film Industry

1. How is the Minister working with the Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport and Chief Whip to promote the growing tv and film industry in Wales? OQ59221

Thank you for that question, John. Both the Minister for Economy and I are committed to working together to maximise Wales’s growing reputation in the film and tv sector, and in promoting Wales on the global stage.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Recently, I visited a local industrial firm, a family industrial firm, in Newport, GD Environmental. They are diversifying at the moment, and we visited their film studio, in Nash in Newport, where Urban Myth film the Sex Education series. It's all going very well, and the relationship with Creative Wales has been very useful, Minister, which I'm sure you'll be pleased to know. But they now have plans to build another film studio, alongside the existing one, and also they're interested in building a film and tv hub, which would be a film school, really, in conjunction with higher education and further education. So, they really are quite ambitious, Minister, and I think it's part of that growing strength that we have in Wales around tv, film and media. And I wonder whether you might look at what further support you might offer the company to expand in the way that they plan, and perhaps to visit, yourself, at some stage.

Thank you, John, for that supplementary question. I think probably it would be helpful if I set out initially some of the support that Creative Wales has been giving to the sector. We've got a strategic objective of ensuring that there is a good supply of studio space throughout the nation, for the incoming and indigenous productions. And we've recently supported capital investment projects in Aria studios in Anglesey, the Wolf studios in Cardiff, and Seren studios in Cardiff. In addition, the Creative Wales production funding is regularly used in conjunction with projects that have been delivered from studio sites in Newport, which you've already highlighted. And I thought it was particularly interesting you talking about the cross-over with education, and that fits very much with our support for the national film and tv studios that we have based in Cardiff as well. Skills and training are absolutely crucial and central to everything that Creative Wales is trying to do. We've recently supported 17 projects through our Creative Wales skills fund. One of those projects is supporting three new screen academies, alongside studio complexes.

But, to deal specifically with the support that we could potentially give for the organisation that you're talking about, GD Environmental, what I would say is that Creative Wales do consider business cases for new investment and are happy to review those in detail when they're submitted. So, they can be approached for initial discussions, and it sounds as though, from what you're saying, that that's exactly what has happened thus far. Any formal application for support would obviously have to be assessed on its individual strengths and the impact to the industry, and we require an initial and, later, a full business case—all of that which I'm sure you and GD Environmental would fully understand. But we do have a huge ambition for this industry in Wales. It's one of the fastest growing sectors in Wales. It has a huge impact on the economy. And I'd be more than happy to come along and visit GD Environmental, talk to them about their plans and see what they're proposing to do, because this is very much the kind of investment that we're looking to see grow.

The culture committee provided a workshop for people within the Welsh creative industries as part of its inquiry into barriers within the sector. Participants noted that access to Welsh Government funding for small businesses who are in the industry was challenging and overly bureaucratic, with one noting that delays can cripple small businesses. Another stated, and I quote,

'Access routes to funding are difficult in Wales, especially when those in the creative industries aren't known by their ability to handle technical paperwork. Often, big organisations find it easier to apply for funding due to having dedicated staff, which is very different for small businesses'.

Yet another was concerned that every application is considered a new one. So, every time they apply, they need to prove themselves all over again. Furthermore, it was stressed that long-term investment from Welsh Government and planning for the future was needed to see substantial growth in the industry. Suggestions included targeted investment and potentially taking industries with Welsh Government to global fairs to amplify the creative industry in Wales. Therefore, Minister, what urgent action are you taking to ease the application process for funding for small businesses, and what measures are you taking to enable those in creative industries to receive long-term investment, so that they can be showcased globally?

13:35

I think that's a fair challenge, Tom. We've seen a number of small businesses, small industries, that want to grow in Wales, and some of them do find the grant process very difficult. By the very nature of the process, it has to be thorough. We are talking about dealing with public money at the end of the day. We can't just willy-nilly hand over money to organisations that we don't do due diligence on. So, I'm sure you and, I'm sure, the applicants that you're talking to would understand and accept that. But I'm always open to a conversation with any of these organisations about how we can streamline and make the process more user friendly. It's certainly very much the approach that we've taken on the investment review with the Arts Council of Wales—applications to the Arts Council of Wales will be considered by the end of March, but very much part of that review has been about how do we reach out to some of the smaller organisations, and how do we make the process of grant applications far less burdensome that it has been previously. So, I'm very happy to have that conversation with any organisations that feel that their involvement or the application process through Creative Wales is too difficult. And if any of them want to write to me and explain to me their experiences, I'd be happy to look at that.

Young People in Business

2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to encourage more young people to start their own businesses? OQ59203

Thank you. The Business Wales youth entrepreneurship service encourages the next generation of entrepreneurs in Wales. It supports entrepreneurial ambition, and provides practical advice to take their ideas forward. Since 2016, 5,000 young people have been supported with start-up advice, and almost 700 have started a business. This, of course, is now being enhanced by the young person’s guarantee.

Thank you, Minister. As you are no doubt aware, 95 per cent of UK businesses are microbusinesses or sole traders. With much of the focus of economic development policies on attracting large employers, and preparing young people for workplaces, we have to question whether we are doing enough to encourage self-employment. I was, therefore, pleased to see a scheme run by the Bridgend Business Forum, in conjunction with the Rebel Business School, to offer free training to young people on how to start a business. Minister, will the Welsh Government monitor the scheme and look at ways to either replicate it across Wales or even incorporate the lessons into the school curriculum? Thank you. 

I'd be very happy if the Member were to write to me with the detail of the scheme that he has identified. As I said in my initial answer, we have a range of support services that are available. Business Wales is still the front door, so if anyone is concerned or doesn't understand the individual scheme, they can go to Business Wales and they can help to guide people through, and, also, those people taking part directly in the young person's guarantee funded work.

We've got a range of Big Ideas role models—over 400 of them—who do go out and encourage people who want to start up their own business. And what's encouraging about the young person's guarantee in this area is that, as part of the national conversation, 28 per cent of young people indicated they would like to consider becoming self-employed or running their own business, and, indeed, 25 per cent of them wanted more information on becoming self-employed. So, part of our challenge is, with the enthusiasm that does exist, how to make sure we have the right support available to help those who can go from an idea and a desire to actually be able to have a business plan and then to start up. And that's also why, of course, we have a range of our start-up grants that are already available to support people with exactly that ambition. But I look forward to receiving the Member's correspondence. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Natasha Asghar. 

Thank you so much, Presiding Officer. Minister, it's estimated that around 7 per cent of adults in Wales are not on the internet. A large chunk of that 7 per cent are people aged 75 or over who have no connection to the internet. Just under 80 per cent of people with a limiting, long-standing illness, disability or infirmity use the internet, compared with 93 per cent of those without such conditions. So, I'm curious to know, Minister, how the Welsh Government's digital strategy will help reduce digital exclusion.

Tackling digital exclusion is one of the key aims of our strategy, and there's a number of different strands. There's our work with the UK Government on the reserved responsibility for infrastructure. I've had a number of meetings with my officials and, indeed, with the current UK Minister—I think it's Minister Lopez, in the newly rebadged DCMS—and we're looking at how they are going to meet their own obligations, and actually the fact there'll be a gap, because they expect to meet 85 per cent of the population. Now, we have to talk about how we get services and improved services to that extra 15 per cent.

As well as the connectivity and the width, we then have a range of schemes in place actually to deal with practical access, and some of that is attitude. My mother has a connection in her house and I have regularly tried to get her to use it, but that's just one of those things. She doesn't do it, whereas other people are more keen to do it. And actually, this isn't just a point about entertainment. As we all know, there's a point about work, and it's also about access to services as well. Many of our services are moving to a digital-first model, which I think is a good thing, but that does mean we need to constantly be thinking about how we equip users, the people using the service, to be able to do so effectively. That's not just the public, of course; a number of the people who need support to make sure that they're properly enabled and are able to use the system actually are staff as well. So, those are parts of the challenges we're looking to try to resolve, and I'm very keen to see further progress made in the rest of this term. 

13:40

Great, thank you, Minister. I really do appreciate the detailed answer.

Now, moving on to my second question, the UK Government's gigabit broadband voucher scheme is a fantastic initiative, helping people to combat slow broadband speeds in rural areas. Vouchers worth thousands of pounds are being given to homes and businesses to help cover the cost of installing gigabit broadband. Last year, the Welsh Government announced it was going to stop its top-up funding for the scheme because you, and I quote, said that you 'don't have the money'. How can it be, Minister, that you don't have the money to put towards this fantastic scheme, but yet the Welsh Government is happy to fork out in excess of £100 million for more politicians in this place? So, can you please elaborate on more information as to why this isn't actually happening? Thank you.

Look, I don't think it's particularly helpful or sensible to attempt to compare an entirely different issue with how we use Welsh Government budgets. If you want to have a conversation about the size and capability of this place, we could do that. When it comes to the reality of our budget, it's just undeniable—the reality is our budget is worth less in real terms, in cash terms. It's also a demand to use Welsh Government funds on an area that is plainly reserved as well. I actually had a conversation earlier today with one of your colleagues about what we are doing and what we will try to do to fill in part of that reserved responsibility where the UK Government don't intend to meet the needs of people. There are practical choices, as ever. I'd like to be constructive in responding to questions, but you really do need to recognise that this is a situation of the creation of your party in Government at the UK level. 

Okay, thank you very much for that, Minister. But it was also this Government that sent back £155 million to the UK Government because they didn't actually do their homework when it came to funding. So, let's not go down that road. I will carry on with my third question. 

Ofcom believes that approximately 15,000 premises cannot get a broadband service of at least 10 Mbps download speed and 1 Mbps upload speed. Openreach believes that it will be challenging to get those 15,000 properly equipped, and says it will require the industry and Governments to come together to find a solution. So, Minister, what is the Welsh Government doing to support the UK Government in ensuring that these 15,000 premises actually get an acceptable and adequate broadband speed? Thank you.

Well, I come back to this: this is a reserved responsibility. It is the responsibility of the UK Government. We are acting because we don't think it's acceptable to simply abandon those people. The UK Government's stated ambition is to provide access to 85 per cent of the population. There are a range of people who would be excluded if we did nothing in this reserved area of responsibility. If you want to look at the people responsible for not acting in this area, they're Conservative Ministers in the UK Government. That's just unarguable. It's the settlement, it's the reality. I will act with the resources that are available. I will be constructive with UK Ministers about what we can do, but Members need to recognise, in all parties, that every step we take in this area, every pound we spend will provide a benefit to people in Wales, but it'll be money that we cannot spend on areas where we are actually responsible. But we're doing this because we recognise the societal and the economic value of doing so. We could do so much more, of course, if the Conservative Government actually met their own responsibilities. 

Diolch, Llywydd. The Digital Inclusion Alliance Wales has published the second edition of its digital inclusion agenda, 'From Inclusion to Resilience', building on the first edition of the agenda that was introduced in early 2021, which outlined five key priorities to make Wales a digitally inclusive nation. Now, although the report outlines the very good progress that's been made by Welsh Government, despite the lack of support from UK Government, since its first publication—which has seen an expansion, of course, to include over 90 members holding six quarterly meetings with Welsh Government Ministers—it is clear that there is still some work that remains to be done.

If I can start with the first priority: embedding digital inclusion across all sectors. The report highlights the need for greater engagement with the private sector, especially small and medium-sized businesses and microbusinesses, to ensure that digital inclusion is evenly distributed across Wales. So, could I therefore ask the Minister what steps are being undertaken by the Welsh Government to encourage private sector, specifically SMEs and microbusinesses, to engage in the digital inclusion agenda? And, of course, the Minister rightly pointed out, this is all being done by Welsh Government despite the complete and utter lack of support from UK Government on this agenda.

13:45

Well, actually, the pandemic has forced a number of people to think about the way in which they work, and actually, we all know that a number of businesses had to go into the online world when they weren't necessarily there. They then had to think about the customers that will want to use that, because more customers had to use things online. And so, there's a point here about a business need and fulfilment and the fact that, actually, there's a broad trend—and there has been—of greater activity online. And that's a challenge for some of our physical infrastructure, and having vibrant high streets and places, but that trend has really accelerated as a result of the pandemic.

And I know that we talked about this before; there's both an opportunity and a risk, and the opportunity is, you're getting used to the way that there are successful, commercial operations available. You need to make sure that your staff are able to deal with that; you need to make sure that your own facility is able to deal with the demand you'll have coming in, and then think about how you're servicing the needs of your customers in doing so, and making sure that your customer information and your business information is actually secure. And it is one of the things that we do talk about with a range of business groups, who represent small and medium-sized businesses—one of their key risks is to make sure that they are capable in those areas and that they can understand where the help and support are.

Now, when you come to Business Wales, that is something that we can and do talk with businesses about. We also know that there is a growing cyber security industry in Wales. Some of those are, if you like, the big names and the big players, whether it's PricewaterhouseCoopers or whether it's Airbus or others. Whereas, actually, we also have a range of cyber security firms that specifically look to help those small and medium-sized firms to make sure that they can take advantage of the opportunities and, at the same time, keep themselves and their customers secure.

Thank you for that answer, Minister.

Of course, this work is going to be vital, especially when you consider the challenges facing SMEs up and down the country, and, of course, how do we balance that, then, with our need for a vibrant high street at the same time? Let's take a look at the retail sector as an example, the Welsh Retail Consortium announced that, despite some signs of recovery over the past 12 months, the footfall of the retail sector in Wales remains 10 per cent lower compared to this time last year. Now, couple that with the sector, like other sectors of course, being hit by high inflation and high energy costs, and all this results in a major drag for retail.

Now, we've discussed previously in the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee, the Government's intention to bring forward a strategy for the sector. When could we expect this to be published and, more importantly, how would the strategy be implemented? How will it take digital into account and will it have the necessary resources and funding to ensure that it is successful?

Yes, I'm more than happy to update—and actually, when we had a consultation event, which I attended together with the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership, with the British Retail Consortium and the Welsh Retail Consortium, and, indeed, with the trade union side, led by USDAW, it was a deliberate further engagement in our social partnership way of working. So, we looked at what this would mean for workers as well as for businesses and, actually, the survey they had at the time highlighted some of the points you've made. There's still a challenge in footfall. That isn't evenly spread out though. So, Cardiff city centre had actually done better, relative to other Welsh centres. There was also a much more significant recovery at some of the out-of-town centres as well.

So, again, it highlights some of our policy dilemmas and challenges about wanting to have vibrant city centres and high streets, and actually, that goes into some of the comments we have about where we site public services. It's one of the reasons—only one of the reasons—why, as health Minister, I was keen to invest in community pharmacy and optometry: it provides greater access to patients, but actually footfall for those centres as well. When it comes to the delivery plan for the retail strategy, I expect to publish that shortly after Easter, so early after the Easter recess, you can expect to have that published, and that will set out how we expect to deliver and how we expect to measure the success of that strategy that we have co-produced between the Government, businesses themselves and trade unions too.

13:50
Gilestone Farm

3. Will the Minister provide an update on the future use of Gilestone Farm by the Welsh Government? OQ59204

Thank you for the question. Due diligence on the proposal received from representatives of Green Man is in the final stages of assessment. I expect to receive advice from officials with regard to the next steps before the end of March.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. You've said, and other Ministers have said, on a number of occasions that the Government bought this site in order to secure the future of the Green Man Festival. However, it has come to light that the agreement that your Government is entering into is not with the Green Man Trust Ltd; it's a separate company called Cwningar Ltd, assigned to one person. That company is listed to buy or sell real estate, and it's also listed to operate leased real estate. So, can you explain how entering into an agreement with a company that, translated to English, equates to 'rabbit warren' is safeguarding the future of the Green Man Festival? To me and many others, Minister, it looks like the Welsh Government has really gone down a rabbit hole over this purchase.

I admire the consistent silliness of the Member's response to rabbits, but, look, when it comes to the opportunities around this piece of land, we've been clear about why we've entered into the purchase. We've also been very, very clear about the fact, as I said in my initial answer, that I will expect to receive final advice before the end of March, and I can then make a decision. The Member talks about what might happen; I will have a decision to make when due diligence is completed, and I will then not just make a decision, but I will also expect to face further questions in this Chamber in announcing any choice that I make. But, economic development in this part of Wales is the key purpose for the purchase, and that will be in my mind when I make the choice.

Thank you very much to James for tabling this question. We know that, in providing public funds to any organisation, the attention is to secure public good. We know that Gilestone itself is a collection of holiday accommodation with the potential of developing far more holiday units. Now, I'm not entirely confident that the response that you gave answered James's question, so if we could pursue that a little further. On 22 February 2022, just a month before the Minister agreed that the Government should purchase the farm, the owner of Green Man Festival established a company, as we've heard, called Cwningar Ltd. Now, this company is described as a company that is:

'Buying and selling of own real estate',

and further,

'Other letting and operating of own or leased real estate.'

Now, does the Minister therefore believe that it's an unfortunate coincidence in terms of the timing of this purchase, or does the Minister, or his department, know of any further plans for the use of Gilestone, which does relate to real estate and Cwningar?

Well, the end purpose for the use of that land is economic development. We're interested in how we secure an increase in economic activity within this part of Wales. It aligns with the ambitions that Powys County Council have for events, and the economic benefit that they'll provide for local people as well.

When I make a decision, I would expect, in the due diligence, not just the proposal and the business plan but the company structure behind anyone who wants to do that. And, as is usually the case, if we're looking at then a lease or a different arrangement, I'll then expect there to be targets and measures to make sure that that benefit is genuinely being realised. So, I can't comment much further on that because, of course, I haven't had the final advice from my officials; I need to see what that looks like, and I then may have questions myself on the advice, and I then will have to make a decision. And there is no guarantee of one definitive decision. I may decide not to proceed with what comes before me; I may decide to do so. Whatever I do, I fully anticipate, given the significant interest in this site, that I will need to not just make a statement to confirm what choice I've made, but also, inevitably, there will be further questions. I'm more than happy to do so.

Unemployment

4. Will the Minister provide an update on unemployment figures in Clwyd South? OQ59225

13:55

Yes. The unemployment rate for Clwyd South in the 12 months to September 2022 was 3.7 per cent. That is down 2.7 percentage points on the same period in 2013.

Thank you, Minister. It really is quite incredible and demonstrates just how relentless the Welsh Government has been in creating job opportunities for people in Clwyd South, and, indeed, across Wales. But, Minister, how concerned are you by the loss of millions upon millions of pounds in EU funding and the impact that it could have in terms of creating valuable high-skilled jobs in Wales? 

I'm deeply concerned still about the choices made by the UK Government, not just because they are a breach of successive manifesto promises, but because they leave Wales short of well over £1 billion over three years. In fact, Newsnight recently undertook an investigation where they thought the gap might be as much as £1.4 billion. The gap that that creates for Wales is not just a budget pressure; it's what it stops us from being able to do.

And it's not just what the Welsh Government are saying, the UK Government haven't listened to us, they haven't listened to businesses about not just the reduction in the money, but the delivery design of that fund. It takes money away from skills, in investing in the future of the economy. Local authorities haven't been listened to in the design of the funds, forcing them to compete with each other, not to work collaboratively together. They haven't listened to trade unions, further or higher education. If you think about what universities are saying, the vice-chancellor of Swansea University has been very clear that hundreds of high-quality jobs will not be in Wales if there is not an immediate about-turn in the budget next week. I still believe, though, the approach that we have taken in wanting to bring together different actors in different regions of Wales is the right one to undertake. If only we had a UK Government on the same wavelength prepared to invest in the future in a collaborative way, we could ensure that we make even further progress in creating good-quality employment in Clwyd South, and, indeed, the rest of Wales. 

The latest figures show that Wales, under a Labour Welsh Government in this case, has the lowest employment rate amongst the UK nations, that Wales was the only UK nation to see a fall in employment, and that Wales saw the largest increase in the inactivity rate compared with the same period last year. However, at 2.8 per cent, the unemployment rate in Clwyd South was lower than the figure for Wales as a whole. Will you therefore join me in welcoming the hard work of Clwyd South's Member of Parliament, Simon Baynes, representing in Westminster the needs and interests of companies, organisations and constituents in Clwyd South, where, for example, he's campaigned successfully for fertiliser companies such as Neatcrown Corwen Ltd in Clwyd South, to be included in the support given by the UK Government for high energy-intensive businesses. And, working in partnership with Denbighshire County Council and Wrexham County Borough Council, he secured the Clwyd South UK levelling-up fund grant of £13.3 million from the UK Government, which includes the installation of the new roof at Llangollen Railway's Corwen station, with the roof manufactured by Clwyd South firm, Plant & Robinson Construction Limited.   

Well, look, I welcome money that is being spent in any part of Wales to secure a better economic future, but I think the Member needs to look again at the design of the shared prosperity fund and, indeed, the levelling-up fund. Half of local authorities in Wales lost out in their bids—a competitive bidding process that took time, energy and effort. And he might want to talk to other authorities in Wales, including Wrexham, that lost out on bids altogether, or indeed, Flintshire County Council that has not been supported in any of its bids. This is a competitive process that wastes time, energy and effort. We would all be much better off if the UK Government took a much more collaborative approach, stopped competing and trying to take powers away from Wales. We deserve to have the opportunities to still have our responsibilities, voted for by the people of Wales, in two referenda, and a budget that matches up, rather than the loss of more than £1 billion. And it really would be positive if the Tories in this place could actually stand up for Wales, rather than making excuses for what is being done to Wales by their masters in the UK Government. 

High-street Businesses

5. What is the Welsh Government doing to support high-street businesses in south-east Wales? OQ59198

We have many programmes and initiatives for supporting our high streets, including business support, small business rates relief and non-domestic rates. Our Transforming Towns programme, which is providing £100 million over three years, aims to address some of the decline in our town and city centres.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. It sadly appears that the Labour Government's anti-business approach, which has been there for quite some time, has rubbed off on some of your county councillors. We on these benches believe that the high-street businesses that are out there are the lifeblood of our communities and we should be doing all that we can to help them flourish. However, instead of helping businesses, Monmouthshire County Council had been threatening their local businesses with a £3,000 increase in the fees to set up al fresco dining. After a huge backlash, the council's budget was rejected last week—the first time in the authority's history, apparently—and I understand that this proposal has now been dropped. So, Minister, do you agree with me that this potentially damaging proposal should never have been on the cards in the first place? And will join me in urging the Labour administration in Monmouthshire to work with the county's businesses and not against them, going forward? Thank you. 

14:00

I'm very proud of our record in the more than two decades of devolution in working with businesses. You've never heard a First Minister or an economy Minister here in Wales refer to disagreements with businesses by saying, as a previous, a former, Prime Minister who still wants to be the Prime Minister, referring to 'eff business' if you don't agree with them. That's not the approach we've ever taken here in Wales. We're much more collaborative. We recognise that, as the party of work, we could and should have constructive relationships with both businesses and indeed with trade unions. And of course the proposal from Monmouthshire was a proposal. They too want to see a successful future for businesses and jobs in Monmouthshire, and I look forward to working with the council to deliver just that. 

Default 20 mph Speed Limits

6. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change regarding the impact that default 20 mph speed limits will have on the Welsh economy? OQ59212

I have regular meetings and conversations with the Minister for Climate Change. 'Llwybr Newydd', our national transport delivery plan, sets out a vision for a transport system that is good for society, the environment and the economy. That will further help to support economic well-being through thriving towns, cities and villages.

Thank you for your response, Minister. I'm sure those regular conversations are enjoyable. You mention there the benefits to businesses and the economy of 20 mph, but of course you'll be fully aware of your own explanatory memorandum on the Restricted Roads (20 mph Speed Limit) (Wales) Order 2022, and, on page 32 of that explanatory memorandum, Minister, and I'll quote, it says:

'Overall an indicative central estimate of the monetised net present value of the policy is calculated to be a negative £4.54bn.'

So, in short, Minister, the Welsh Government's own explanatory memorandum to the Bill says that this default 20 mph speed limit will cost the Welsh economy £4.5 billion. This is people's jobs, it's people's businesses, it's livelihoods that will be impacted as a result of this legislation. It's clear, of course, that we do support 20 mph speed limits outside those areas where it's absolutely necessary, such as schools and hospitals, heavily pedestrianised areas. But this default limit is going to have such a detrimental impact on the economy, as the Minister for the Economy, I would have thought you'd be significantly concerned at the impact it's going to have. So, in your role, Minister, what do you say to residents up and down Wales, and what do you say to residents and businesses in my region in north Wales, who believe that the 20 mph speed limit as a default will slow down the Welsh economy? And where do you see the Welsh economy making up that deficit of £4.5 billion?

Well, of course the 20's Plenty campaign was predicated on an improvement to air quality and improvement to safety as well. I think pedestrians are five times more likely to lose their lives if they're struck at 30 mph compared to 20 mph. So, it's not just a simple one-off, and, of course, I don't believe you were a Member at the time, but, in 2020, in a debate, the majority of the Conservative group voted in favour of this, including the description of this as a commonsense and a safe move by your colleague, Janet Finch-Saunders, at the time. So, there has been widespread support until it comes to action. And this is a default move. Local authorities, who know their communities best, are in a position to change and to alter speed limits on some of those routes, and I think, actually, when you look at the additional one minute in journey times, that's what's then monetised and put into the way that we currently undertake the explanatory memoranda. I'm actually interested in some of the bigger challenges in the questions we've had earlier today. If you think about the over £1 billion lost over three years, if you think about the reality of what that does in terms of choking off growth and opportunities to grow parts of the Welsh economy, there are much bigger challenges facing the economy of Wales today and what we're going to be able to do in the future. I will continue to work constructively with all partners on what it means for the future of Welsh communities that make this a fantastic place to live and to work and to invest in.

The Economy in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

7. How is the Welsh Government supporting the local economy in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ59222

14:05

This Government is committed to backing Welsh businesses. As we emerge from the long shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, one of our priorities is to continue to support Wales’s economic recovery. We will take a team Wales approach to creating a fairer, greener and more prosperous Wales right across the country, including, of course, in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.

Llywydd, earlier this week, I met with the Welsh Wool Alliance and local Pembrokeshire knitwear manufacturer Monkstone to discuss the huge potential that is Wales's wool industry. As it stands, the UK-wide wool industry generates the fourth largest wool clip in the world, with Wales contributing over one third of wool to this figure. Through the support of 6,000 Welsh farmers, we generate three times more wool than the US and Canada combined. 

The Welsh Wool Alliance, Monkstone and others are working together to establish a traditional material and develop it into a national brand, in essence forging a kitemark equivalent for Welsh wool, capitalising upon its heritage, presenting it in a modern way and adding value to the raw product. Given the knitted relationship between wool and Wales, will you commit to meeting with the Welsh Wool Alliance to explore what support the Welsh Government can offer them to help establish this commodity and see its marketable potential fulfilled? Diolch.

Well, actually, I do maintain an interest, and I'm thinking about some of my own past, when it comes to wool. My mother used to knit our jumpers for going to school and my father was a rural vet, so I spent quite a long time seeing my father tend to sheep; it was fun, at the time, seeing my father going through what was then a sheep-dipping process as well. So, I do understand a little bit about this and what it means for the farmers themselves as well. I'd be very interested, if the Member wrote to me with more detail, to think about what is the appropriate interaction to take place. I would like to see a thriving and positive future for the wool industry, and, indeed, the variety of potential uses for wool produced here in Wales. So, again, I look forward to receiving the Member's correspondence.

Visit Wales

Thank you, Janet Finch-Saunders, for that question. There are no plans to reform Visit Wales. We have an exciting and ambitious strategy, 'Welcome to Wales: Priorities for the Visitor Economy 2020-2025', for the development of tourism. We're working closely with the sector to achieve those collective aims.   

Thank you. Well, speaking of the sector, it's actually the sector that has approached me and said, 'Visit Wales definitely needs some reform.' Now, the economic benefit of tourism to Conwy county is around £900 million, generated from 9.5 million visitors annually. Our local tourism and hospitality businesses have gone through so much with the pandemic and are still recovering now, but they do believe that they're losing out on potential revenue. Many are struggling with increased energy costs and a shortage of trained staff.

One thing that's been pointed out to me is, when people come to stay in Wales, or look to stay in Wales, they frequently use sites such as Booking.com—I don't; I always book, whenever I go anywhere, with the business itself, because the charges are quite high for businesses in this day and age. I just question why Visit Wales isn't doing what VisitScotland and Discover Northern Ireland are doing, in that they actually have a platform where you can book through VisitScotland or Discover Northern Ireland, and they actually promote coming to Wales—or Scotland and Northern Ireland. So, I think that's a lost opportunity.

But I would place on record how fortunate we are in north Wales to have Jim Jones and his team in Go North Wales. They do so much for north Wales tourism. Really, all I would ask, I think, is: rather than just saying, 'No plans to reform', will you look at increasing the remit, then, of Visit Wales and perhaps introduce this platform where potential visitors coming to Wales can go through that, and it is taxpayer funded, state funded, as opposed to these companies, like Booking.com, that, frankly, don't do anything to support the actual hospitality industry in Wales? Thank you.

Can I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for that supplementary, because I think she raises an important and interesting point? I've made it very clear that Visit Wales, as far as we're concerned, as part of Welsh Government, allows us much greater accountability for the work that Visit Wales undertakes. They're directly accountable to me, and, through Visit Wales, I have direct engagement with our tourist and hospitality industry in a way that VisitBritain, VisitEngland, VisitScotland, as agencies sitting outside of Government, don't have. So, I think the structure that we have is right. We have a marketing department that sits within Visit Wales, which is doing much of what you suggest that we could be looking at, in terms of trying to bring more visitors into Wales—that's clearly the overall point. But the point you've raised about a platform for accommodation is something that I'd be happy to explore, and I'd be happy to have a conversation, further conversation, with you about that, Janet, because, clearly, if there is a way in which we can attract more people into Wales at a lower cost, then that is something that we'd be happy to explore. 

14:10
Apprenticeships

9. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to increase apprenticeship opportunities? OQ59224

The Welsh Government is committed to increasing the number of apprenticeships undertaken by raising awareness of the programme. We promote the benefits to both employers and learners through a range of marketing and communications activities throughout the year, and, of course, there are regular topics and questions in the Chamber and beyond that help to raise the profile of the programme. 

Thank you, Minister. In Wales, degree apprenticeships are still in their pilot phase, and still only available in IT, engineering and advanced manufacturing. In Scotland, they offer far more. In England, they offer over 100 degree apprenticeships. This Government are really letting learners down that want to stay in Wales. Degree apprenticeships at NVQ level 7 still haven't been introduced, unlike in Scotland and England. So, why does Wales have to continually be behind the rest of the UK? You say you see the need and desire for degree apprenticeships, so where are the offerings? Adding two more after this pilot is just not good enough. When can we finally expect this Government to catch up with England and Scotland in this regard? 

Actually, when it comes to our apprenticeships programme, we're in a really positive position, compared to England, on the numbers comparatively, and also when it comes to completions as well, and, actually, we are expanding our programme. It's a regular topic of conversation whenever I go before the committee for scrutiny. You can guarantee that Hefin David will ask me about degree apprenticeships; you can guarantee that I will confirm yet again that we're committed to expanding our programme, but, more than that, the degree apprenticeships sit alongside other programmes of study, including supporting people to degree level within Welsh businesses, and it's a real feature. I saw this, today, in a manufacturing company that I visited in Islwyn, when they were looking at what they already do and how they're supporting their current workforce. But, more than that, the apprenticeships are part of the programme. They're going to invest in apprenticeships in this year. They've also taken up advantages and opportunities in the shorter, lean programme that we run for businesses here in Wales. They themselves support people to degree level qualifications for their business as well, and, actually, this is a key area for expansion and improvement right across the economy. Where is the appropriate level of the skills and the resource? How do you do that for new staff coming in? But, crucially, and this is often the way, how do you make sure you're supporting and reskilling and improving the skills of your current workforce? So, I'm a good deal more optimistic about what we're doing in all areas of apprenticeships here in Wales, and I look forward to reporting on the success of our expansion of degree apprenticeships and the areas and sectors they will be expanded to. 

Tourism in Mid and West Wales

10. What is the Welsh Government doing to help attract tourists to Mid and West Wales? OQ59226

Our strategy, 'Welcome to Wales: Priorities for the visitor economy 2020-2025', sets out our direction and ambition for tourism, and Visit Wales promotes destinations equally across Wales. Mid Wales and west Wales are integral to that activity.

Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Of course, our region has everything to offer, from stunning beaches to the international dark sky reserve in the Brecon Beacons, which, of course, will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. And that, I'm sure, is why Wales will, this year, welcome the highest number of cruise ships ever, with 91 ships expected to call at our ports in 2023, and the first will sail into Fishguard next month. Welsh Government investment in infrastructure has been key to securing this additional business. So, my question is: how might we build on that success story and capitalise on the economic benefits that these extra visits will bring? 

Thank you very much for that question, Joyce. And you're absolutely right, because the strategy that we're talking about, the visitor economy strategy, is about emphasising the importance of addressing the spread of benefits, encouraging increased spend in our economy, right the way across Wales. It's what the marketing strategy is all about, and that has led to the increase that we're going to see in cruise ship activity across Wales, and, as you quite rightly say, we're going to be getting one in Fishguard on 6 April. We're going into markets now where we're trying to market Wales on that global scale, by attending events like Seatrade global and Seatrade Europe. All these events are attended by the major cruise lines and itinerary planners, and that's probably key to it, that as the cruise ships come in, we don't just see them sitting in the dock, having a few drinks and sitting in the bars and restaurants on the ship, but that they get off the ship, that they move inland, and the itineraries that are attached to those cruise stops are important and integral to all of that work. So, that is all included in the strategy as well.

14:15
2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next item, therefore, is the questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the first question is from Russell George.

Wales Air Ambulance

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the recent decision of Wales Air Ambulance to maintain services in mid Wales for the next three years? OQ59209

I've noted the announcement made by the Wales air ambulance service. The Wales Air Ambulance Charity is an independent organisation, which does not receive any direct funding from the Welsh Government. As such, decisions regarding the configuration and operation of its services and bases are an operational matter for the charity and its board of trustees.

Thank you, Minister, but I don't agree with that. The Wales air ambulance operates through the service of the charity itself and also the Welsh NHS, and it's your responsibility as health Minister, of course, to ensure that we have adequate cover across Wales, which I know you'll agree with. I was very pleased that the Wales Air Ambulance Charity announced that they would keep using the Welshpool base up until 2026, and the campaign in mid Wales, and indeed Caernarfon as well, now moves to ensuring that those bases remain in place beyond 2026 and into the future. But we're currently waiting for the formal engagement process to commence.

The communications have been pretty abysmal on this, I have to say, during the last half of last year. We saw all organisations involved, and I include the Welsh Government in that, deny responsibility, passing over legitimate concerns and causing some serious worry as well. But I think, in part, that was recognised, which is why the chief ambulance commissioner was appointed to lead a review, then leading to a meaningful process and proper engagement.

Of course, you appreciate this is such an invaluable service to the people of mid Wales, as it is indeed to people in north Wales, but, Minister, we really need a date for the formal consultation to start. My constituents want to give their views on this proposal. It was supposed to start at the end of last year, and then it was January, and an e-mail drops into my inbox today from the chief ambulance commissioner, I'm expecting it to have the date when the engagement is going to start, and there's very little in that news update to date. It just tells me that they're still working on plans and the engagement material.

So, can I ask you, Minister, what is your assessment of why we've had to wait several months for the formal engagement process to begin, and, ultimately, when do you think that my constituents will be able to formally present their views on what they think about proposals to close the base in Welshpool, and indeed Caernarfon as well?

Thanks very much. Obviously, I know you'll be pleased that the current organisation configuration will be in place until 2026 and that a seven-year contract has been issued to Gama Aviation, but you're quite right, within the contract, there is a possibility to reconfigure if that's what's thought necessary. I think that it is important that we do continue with the review, because it's just good practice to make sure we just keep on looking at whether we are getting what we need from the service. So, I expect the formal engagement process to commence by the end of March. So, by the end of this this month, I hope that your constituents will have the opportunity to say their say. I know how passionately they feel about this, and I think it is important. I've been looking again to make sure that—. Actually, the criteria that we're looking at need to be the right criteria, so I have been having conversations around that as well.

Thank you to Russell George for asking this important question. In the response and the campaign on the ground, it's demonstrated clearly the importance of this charity and the place it holds in people's hearts. I attended a number of public meetings in Tywyn, Porthmadog, Pwllheli and Caernarfon, with hundreds of people turning out in the middle of winter to listen and to share their experiences. It's these people and the people who organised the campaign and gave thousands of hours of their own time, dozens of these people, who ensured that there was a change of view and that the air ambulance did listen. So, will the Minister join with me in thanking these campaigners for their work? But also, will the Minister work with other stakeholders in order to ensure that the air ambulance centres won't be centralised away from our communities and that we can secure their futures in their communities in looking to the future? Thank you.

14:20

Thank you very much, and I know that people in your area do feel very strongly about this issue, and it's evident that their voices have been heard, and I'm sure that they will be eager to respond to the consultation that will start at the end of the month. After the last discussion that we had in the Chamber, I asked the chair of the emergency ambulance services committee to ensure that he read what was said in this Chamber, because I think that there are strong feelings, and I think we have to ensure that the criteria for what we want out of that service are right.

Flying Start

2. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government proposals for Flying Start? OQ59206

Flying Start is delivering a phased expansion of early years provision to all two-year-olds. Phase 1 is nearing completion with services offered to over 2,500 additional children. Phase 2 begins in April and, over the next two years, will support over 9,500 more two-year-olds to access quality Flying Start childcare.

Can I thank the Minister for that response? I'm a vociferous supporter of Flying Start. It's not possible to overestimate the importance of a good start in life for a child. There are children starting nursery classes at three with a development age approaching four, whilst others have a mental age of just over two. How demoralising for them. Because of the way sensitive information is collated in lower super output areas, many children in some of the areas of greatest need miss out. Does the Minister agree that we need greater flexibility for local authorities to provide Flying Start for children, and is Flying Start's availability going to be changed following the 2021 census results?

I thank Mike Hedges for his question and for his enthusiasm for Flying Start. The Flying Start areas have been identified using the Wales index of multiple deprivation data from the Department for Work and Pensions and HM Revenue and Customs, and are broken down by lower super output areas. I think that this high-level approach to targeting remains fit for purpose, but there is the opportunity to give more flexibility to the local authorities. Under the programme for government, and working with Plaid Cymru through our co-operation agreement, we're expanding Flying Start, and this expansion started in September with over 2,500 additional children who are living in areas of disadvantage brought into the programme already.

But Flying Start outreach is a key element of the programme, which allows local authorities to be flexible in the way that they deliver Flying Start, because it obviously needs to be based on local intelligence and need. Flying Start outreach enables core Flying Start services to be delivered to high-need children and families who are living outside the recognised Flying Start areas. But, as I said, our ambition is that Flying Start that should reach all two-year-olds.

Thank you, Minister, and we welcome that expansion of it, because at the moment, there is a postcode lottery when it comes to Flying Start, and there are severe pockets of deprivation in rural areas that are seen as affluent, such as Monmouthshire, and that can't be good when there are families in need missing out, and I'm sure that you would agree with that, Minister. So, will that programme of expansion go into areas just like the ones I've just outlined? Thank you.

As I said in response to Mike Hedges, eventually, we hope that all two-year-olds will have access to Flying Start, but of course this has to be done in a phased way. So, each local authority is putting in its plans for the expansion of Flying Start, so Monmouthshire will have put in a plan, which I think we are in the process of approving. From April, stage 2 expansion will start and in the areas of deprivation in rural areas, areas of deprivation in constituencies that haven't traditionally had Flying Start, like my own constituency, where there is no Flying Start provision, but, as you say, there are pockets of deprivation, our aim is to reach all those areas, and phase 2 will take this further. And of course, another important element of our expansion is that we want to have an emphasis on the development of Welsh language places.

14:25
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Gareth Davies, to question the Deputy Minister. Gareth Davies.

Diolch, Llywydd, and I'd like to focus my line of questioning to the Deputy Minister for Social Services this afternoon. The subject I'd like to raise today is the sad and tragic death of Kaylea Titford from Newtown in Powys in 2022. As you'll probably be aware, Deputy Minister, her parents were recently convicted of gross negligence manslaughter. To give some background, Kaylea was a 16-year-old girl who suffered with spina bifida and passed away due to negligence over a sustained period of time, and was left in squalid conditions that wouldn't be fit for a dog, never mind a young girl with disabilities. Unfortunately, this is not the first time we've heard of such upsetting cases. We know there is a high chance that it may not be the last time that such tragic circumstances occur, as we see such cases all too often.

So, what is the Welsh Government's response to Kaylea's sad death, and do you believe, Deputy Minister, that due diligence was applied to Kaylea's case, and that Powys's social services department has the adequate resources to identify and act upon potential dangers to children and act on them before it's too late?

I thank Gareth Davies for that question, and obviously I want to express my deep sadness about what has happened to Kaylea, and I think that we've all followed the description of what led to her death, and we obviously will have great and deepest sympathy.

A child practice review has been set up, which is the normal way of proceeding with these cases, with these situations that come up, and that will take its course. A chair has been appointed, I believe, and when the case review reports, we will then look at what they recommend and will certainly be considering that very seriously. But a child practice review is the normal process to take after such a tragic case.

Thank you for that response, Minister. What is disappointing is the fact of the Welsh Government's reluctance to conduct a review of children's services across Wales. What we're starting to see here, Deputy Minister, is a bit of a trend coming in, because we saw the tragic case of Logan Mwangi's death in Bridgend, and Kaylea Titford's death in Powys. One was at the hands of evil parents, in Logan's case, and neglectful parents in Kaylea's, in two different local authorities in Wales. Therefore, will the Minister finally realise the need for a Wales-wide children's review across the 22 local authorities, to ensure that all of our councils are equipped to deal with cases such as Logan Mwangi and Kaylea Titford?

Well, I can't tell you, Gareth, how seriously we are taking all these cases, and that of course we are doing all we possibly can to prevent such things happening, but the issue of whether there should be a review of children's services in Wales was debated here in the Senedd on 7 December, and the vote was taken against holding such a review for a number of reasons, which were fully debated here on that date. We are already considering the findings of the independent review of children's social care in England, which was chaired by Josh MacAlister and was published in May 2022, and we've had a wide range of independent research, reviews and evaluation undertaken in Wales. And of course, we've also got the recommendations from the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse, which has specific recommendations for the Welsh Government, which we are taking forward and considering how we will do that. Of course, you have mentioned already Logan Mwangi, and we did debate the child practice review and discussed the proposals in this Chamber, and we have got specific recommendations to take forward from there. So, there is a lot of work that we have got. There are a lot of recommendations, and I can assure you that we are working hard to follow those recommendations.

Thank you again, Minister, for your response, but I am a bit disappointed, to be honest, Deputy Minister, as we can't continue to bury our heads in the sand any longer and pretend these issues aren't out there.

Kaylea Titford was living in squalor, with maggots, faeces, urine-stained bed linen and unemptied catheters. She was bedridden due to outgrowing her wheelchair, which hadn't been replaced by her parents, and died alone in her fly-infested bedroom. Her weight went from 16 stone to 22 stone in a short period of time. One of the most horrific details was the fact that, when she did complain about the flies in her room to her mother, she responded via text, jokingly, saying, 'They like you'. I'm sorry to be graphic, Deputy Minister—I don't want to upset anyone—but I think you have to realise the scale of the problem here in parts of Wales, and ask yourself the question as a Government what is happening here, why is it happening, and what can you do as a Government to act in the best interests of our people and protect our children and most vulnerable citizens. How do you know that the latest tragic case isn't unfolding under our very noses as we speak now in this Chamber?

I believe it's incumbent on the Government to commission a review of children's services across the 22 local authorities, to see what might be going wrong, to make sure that we minimise these tragic cases and make sure that nobody slips through the net. Therefore, what conversations is the Deputy Minister having with local authorities, childcare leaders and all relevant agencies on how we can further protect vulnerable children in Wales, to minimise the risk of such tragic cases happening again?

14:30

Thank you very much. It's awful that you have to highlight those dreadful things that have happened to Kaylea, and once again I want to express my deepest sadness that this has happened. But I think the response from the Government should be that we should respond calmly, and we should give consideration to all the points that have been made, in particular to what the judge said in his summing up, which I'm sure you will have read. The normal course of practice is to have a child practice review. That's what we will do. There will be a child practice review. We will see what the child practice review comes up with. Because the child practice review looks very intently at everything that happened, all the contacts that were made, and it's a very, very thorough procedure. I'm sure that you would agree that it's absolutely essential that that process goes through before we start giving our views about what the Government should do or should not do. We have a vast amount of things that we need to do in this area. I've referred to them already in my previous answer—the number of initiatives that we are taking with different local authorities on child protection. So I can absolutely assure you that we take this tragic case very seriously, and that we will be addressing it. After the child practice review, we will look at what their recommendations are.

Thank you, Llywydd. If what the Minister did with Betsi Cadwaladr health board last week was supposed to give people renewed hope, then I'm afraid that's not what happened. What we have is a population and a workforce who are holding their heads in their hands. We've been here before. In 2015, Mark Drakeford said that he was to place the board in special measures because of concerns about leadership. Last week, the Minister said that there were serious concerns about the leadership and the culture of the organisation. I'd like to be kind and say that Betsi Cadwaladr has been treading water for the past eight years, but, with mental health problems, vascular issues, Glan Clwyd emergency department, the board hasn't been keeping its head above water.

Why is the Minister so determined that this failing, dysfunctional health board is the best model that is available for the patients in the north of Wales? Why on earth wouldn't she share my wish to just start again, with two or three smaller health boards? And before she tells me that this would distract from the focus on improving the board, will she realise that I and the people of north Wales have no faith in this Government's ability to improve things now, when she and her predecessors have failed so many times before?

Thanks very much, Rhun. Obviously, you're speaking to very different people from those that I've been speaking to, because, actually, I've had lots of people say that the step that I took was the step that needed to be taken. In fact, yesterday, I spoke to a whole group of consultants in Ysbyty Gwynedd, who remarked how they understood what was happening was quite a radical step. I think it's really important now that we focus on the job in hand, that we understand that there is a huge amount of work to be done. I'll be meeting with the new chair on Friday in north Wales, just to make sure that there is an understanding of the huge task that is ahead in terms of turning around this health board. I think it is really important that people understand that there were real issues around leadership and management, real issues around board effectiveness and governance, real issues around organisational culture and patient safety, and those are the measures that will get the focus with the new board in place. 

14:35

Of course, the Minister is absolutely right that this is a step—putting it in special measures—that needed to be taken now. Of course it should have been in special measures. But the question is why we have a board that has, for eight years, needed to be in special measures. If the Minister won't share with me my ambition to look forward to a fresh start, with new health boards, how about having a proper look back to learn more about the lessons that need to be learnt? One former independent member of the board, effectively sacked last week, a highly respected individual, has suggested that there is more than enough grounds to have an independent inquiry now—the fraud investigation, the maladministration, the poor oversight of major contracts worth millions of pounds. They say they're convinced that the recent Audit Wales report in itself offers enough grounds for that. Eight years of a failing health board means eight years of poor staff morale, and I feel for every one of them. It means eight years of a population poorly served. We need to know what's been going on for those eight years and more, so we can protect the public. Will the Minister agree to my call for a public inquiry?

I'm certainly not going to agree to a call for a public inquiry, because I think we need to get on with the job. A public inquiry is going to distract people from the job that needs to be done. What I would argue is that, actually, this is a fresh start. For the first time ever in the history of Wales, not only have we put a health board into special measures, but we've also taken the unprecedented step of offering the opportunity to independent members to step aside. Obviously, their job now will be to read very carefully the Audit Wales report, which was highly critical of the executives. But we do need to make sure that their rights as employees are respected, and we have to go through proper due process. 

Access to Diagnostics

3. Will the Minister outline the steps being taken to improve access to diagnostics in the Swansea Bay University Health Board area? OQ59201

We have a diagnostic target that no-one should wait over eight weeks. The health board is finding it particularly challenging to meet this in Swansea, where 70 per cent of those waiting over eight weeks are waiting for a diagnostic endoscopy. The health board is receiving support from the delivery unit and working with Hywel Dda on a regional diagnostic hub.

Thank you, Minister. The planned diagnostics and treatment centre in Cwm Taf will be a huge asset to those living in the east of my region, but those living in Swansea and Neath Port Talbot will see no such benefit. However, one positive development in Swansea has been the introduction of pioneering blood tests to replace colonoscopies for those recovering from bowel cancer. There are around 4,000 patients in Swansea Bay who have been waiting years for a follow-up colonoscopy after they had bowel cancer or polyps removed. These blood tests will reduce the demand on colonoscopy services across the health board. Minister, this is a great service, but it will only be provided to around 200 patients, thanks to funding from the Moondance Cancer Initiative. Does the Welsh Government have any plans to expand the roll-out of these pioneering new tests?

Thanks very much. I think it is important that we embrace new innovations where there's a clinical indication that they are helpful. Obviously, we need to balance that off against our ability to pay for them. But in this space, we have actually spent a lot of money on diagnostics—£51 million to replace diagnostic equipment, £25 million to replace imaging equipment and £25 million for four new PET scanners. We will be publishing a new national diagnostic plan in April. I recently had a meeting with the people who'd developed the plan, not just in Wales. I wanted to be very clear what is happening elsewhere, and so I spoke to UK experts as well about, 'How does this compare to yours? Where do we need to go? Are we far behind? Are we ahead?' So, there are some very detailed conversations going on there. Obviously, you've heard the proposals to build a new diagnostic centre in Cwm Taf. As I mentioned in response to your question, we will be seeing some support and working to see if we can develop a regional diagnostic centre between Swansea and Hywel Dda.

14:40
Osteoporosis

4. What support is available for people in Wales with osteoporosis? OQ59195

The Welsh Government is committed to supporting those living with bone health conditions in Wales, and improving provision for people with osteoporosis is a priority. My written statement issued in February sets out our expectations that fracture liaison services must be available and strengthened within all health boards across Wales.

Thank you. On World Osteoporosis Day last October I met with the Royal Osteoporosis Society in the Senedd. I heard that people in Wales suffer 27,000 osteoporotic fractures every year; that there are an estimated 100,000 undiagnosed spinal fractures in Wales; that a quarter of people have three or more fractures before they're diagnosed; that mental health issues arise from the constant pain; and that as many people die of fracture-related causes as from lung cancer or diabetes. I also heard that the right therapies and medication exist, but the postcode lottery in diagnosis means that tens of thousands of Welsh people who need care are being overlooked.

This month, the Royal Osteoporosis Society e-mailed welcoming the Welsh Government's announcement that they're committing to 100 per cent coverage in all health boards for fracture liaison services—although I think in your response you said that was more of an aspiration than a commitment; I hope you'll clarify that in your response—which would see all patients aged over 50 with a broken bone after a fall checked and managed to lower their risk of future fractures. Why, currently, nonetheless, do only 66 per cent of people in Wales aged over 50 have access to fracture liaison services when the figure is already 100 per cent in Scotland and Northern Ireland? How will you address the existing hidden need in Wales I described?

Thanks very much. You'll be aware that osteoporosis is a very common and debilitating condition. About 18 per cent of the Welsh population are living with it, which is an incredibly high number. In fact, one in two of you over 50 around here are likely to break a bone in the future—that's for women—and there's a one in five chance for men over 50 to be breaking a bone. We've all got to be aware that this is something that is possible, and that's why it makes sense for us to put some preventative measures in if we can. What we know is that we have actually worked really closely with the Royal Osteoporosis Society in order to develop that national programme. Obviously, we had that conference back in October, where we had the inaugural facture liaison service national conference, and indeed the aspiration of that conference and the intention of that conference was to set out our expectation that that postcode lottery will end and that provision of services will be available across the whole of Wales.

Gambling Addiction

5. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the health challenges presented by gambling addiction in Islwyn? OQ59228

Public Health Wales was commissioned to produce a gambling health needs assessment for Wales, which was published last month. The report highlighted the extent of potential health challenges posed by gambling addiction across Wales, including Islwyn. These include stress, anxiety, substance misuse and, in the most tragic cases, suicide.

Diolch. ITV Wales's political programme Sharp End last week highlighted the issue of problem gambling in Wales, and the charity GambleAware estimate that the number of Britons who have a gambling problem is a staggering 1.4 million people. The availability and accessibility of gambling has never been greater. Today, there is no longer need to visit the bookmaker's shop in town centres, and every single person with a smartphone has accessibility and ease to gamble at the push of a button. The advertising of gambling is now all-persuasive, and its reach is even seen on gaming platforms, which is worrying for future generations. Public Health Wales have stated that they believe early education on problem gambling is urgently needed. There is clearly a tangible link between gaming and gambling. Public Health Wales have called for a system-wide approach that knocks down the barrier of shame and stigma, early education in schools, empowering GPs and other front-line services to identify and refer on to specialist services. So, Deputy Minister, what does the Welsh Government intend to do to assess our current ability in Wales to diagnose people with problem gambling, refer them to appropriate pathways for help, and what representations can the Welsh Government make to the UK Government on a much-speculated White Paper on the future of gambling in the United Kingdom?

14:45

Can I thank Rhianon Passmore for that supplementary question and for raising this very important issue in the Chamber? The Welsh Government is committed to supporting people affected by gambling-related harm, and continues to take an integrated and collaborative approach to gambling policy. We're committed to a public health approach to addressing the harms caused by gambling to protect people, in particular children and young people, and vulnerable people. My officials will continue to work with education officials and Public Health Wales to understand how to most effectively communicate the harm from gambling products to young people through a denormalisation approach.

Following discussions with stakeholders, we commissioned Public Health Wales to undertake a gambling needs assessment to inform our work. That assessment, published on 1 February, reviewed the needs of people experiencing harms from gambling to inform a public health approach to reducing gambling harm in Wales. It's absolutely crucial we make it as easy as possible to signpost those who need support at the earliest opportunity, and one of our recommendations from our gambling task and finish group was to look at the referral pathway and the potential for a specialist gambling treatment service for Wales. It's vital that pathways are clear and understood by professionals and by individuals who self-identify as needing support. We'll be looking at that this year, as well as working with the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee, to understand what place a specialist treatment service could have here in Wales.

And, coming to your last point, Rhianon, as you know, some of the most influential levers to reduce gambling harms are held by the UK Government. We've been waiting for a very considerable time for a proposed White Paper that would address some of the key issues, such as advertising restrictions and a levy on the industry. We've been promised that this is forthcoming on several occasions, and we're very disappointed that progress has not been made to date. We will continue to lobby the UK Government on this point.

General Practitioners

6. Will the Minister provide an update on the number of GPs in Wales? OQ59223

Statistics about the GP workforce are published on StatsWales. The latest snapshot, on 30 June, shows that there were 2,301 fully qualified GPs, which represents a full-time equivalent of 1,562. This includes partners, providers, salaried physicians, retainers and active locums.

I thank the Minister for that response. I held a public meeting in Tywyn a month ago to discuss the significant problems that people in that area are having because of the shortage of health services there. Pendre hall was full to overflowing, which is testament to the strong feelings in the area. The area did have excellent health provision up until around four years ago. Now they've gone from having four GPs working in partnership to having a surgery managed by the health board with only half a full-time equivalent GP. The rest of south Meirionnydd faces a similar future, with a number of GPs about to retire. If we're not careful, there's a real risk that there will be only two full-time GPs for the whole of south Meirionnydd. Indeed, around a quarter of all Welsh GPs are over 60 and are approaching retirement. We need at least another three GPs in the Dysynni valley and Tywyn, and more for the rest of Meirionnydd. I first of all want to invite the Minister to visit Tywyn, which is, of course, in her region, and then ask her whether she will work with the health board to develop an effective recruitment plan as a matter of urgency in order to attract GPs to the Dysynni valley and Meirionnydd. Thank you.

14:50

Thank you. Of course, we do hope that things like developing the medical school in north Wales will help and, of course, there will be an opportunity for people to do their practical work in places like Tywyn. And it's good to see that there's been a significant increase in the number of medical undergraduates in Wales. Forty-seven per cent of people studying in Wales now live in Wales, and 55 per cent to 60 per cent of those stay in Wales. So, we've seen a big change recently, and I think that's very encouraging. But, we then have to think about where people want to go to practise, and we have to ensure that we put teams around them. We have a similar situation in Solva, near to where I live—exactly the same kind of situation—but what we need to do then is to ensure that people can work in teams, where that's appropriate. But, at the end of the day, you have to have GPs who are qualified to do that work. It's important that people understand that it is possible for them to see other people, but, of course, ultimately, you do need a GP if you need that specific medical help that only a GP can provide.

Minister, there's no doubt we're facing a crisis in primary care, with one in five GP practices closing in the last 10 years. On the face of it, there seems to have been an increase in GPs during that time, but it's clear that practices are finding it hard to recruit GPs and therefore being forced to close. Furthermore, a Royal College of General Practitioners survey last year found that a third of GPs in Wales did not expect to still be in the profession in five years' time. The most recent annual Welsh Government data on full-time equivalent GPs showed that just half of GPs are indeed full time. In Swansea Bay University Health Board, a staggering 40 per cent of GPs are not full-time equivalent. In November, I asked the First Minister about constituents in Porthcawl being unable to get appointments, despite the practice working hard to see patients. He assured me that more clinician time would be released to help GPs, but my constituents are still finding it hard to get an appointment in Porthcawl. So, Minister, what urgent measures are you taking to ensure that GPs are attracted into full-time work at their practices and that patients, such as my own constituents, are freely able to see them in a face-to-face setting?

Well, thanks very much, and, obviously, the pandemic meant that GPs started to work in a different way, and I think lots of the public have welcomed this new way and new approach. So, we're not going to go back to a position where we insist that everybody is seen face to face by a GP, but what I will say is that, actually, we have a new general medical services contract in place, which means that, for example, the accessibility to GPs is written within the contract. There are some that are performing better than others, and, obviously, we need to look at best practice. But what I can tell you is that I don't think I've seen GPs ever working harder than they are now. There was a time in December where 400,000 contacts were made by GPs in Wales in a week—that's quite an extraordinary amount of work being done by them. And what I can say is that, actually, per head of population, there are more GPs in Wales than there are in England, and what we have seen is a 15 per cent increase from 2017 to 2021. And it is very difficult; you can't force people to work full-time. In fact, part of what we need to do is to make sure that people feel that they can work flexibly, because the last thing we want to do is to lose people who are prepared to work flexibly and give any amount of time. I think it'd be better to make sure that we keep them in the system in some way rather than lose them altogether.

Access to Dentists

7. Will the Minister make a statement on access to dentists in north Wales? OQ59211

Access to NHS dentistry in north Wales has improved significantly since the introduction of alternative activity measures in April 2022. Ninety-six per cent of dental practices who are offering NHS services have opted in to these reform measures, which include incentives to take on new NHS dental patients, and this has allowed 26,000 new patients to gain access to dental services in the first 10 months.

14:55

Thank you for your response, Minister. As one of those people who aren't registered with an NHS dentist in north Wales, last week I decided to contact every dentist in north Wales on the health board's website to see if they'd be willing to take on a new patient such as me. I contacted 69 dentists, spoke to 57 of those practices, and, staggeringly, just four of those practices in the whole of north Wales were looking to take on new patients, but those four who were willing to take them on were only willing to put me on a waiting list for up to two years. Along with this, one well-known group of dentists were advising callers that, due to Welsh Government's dentistry reform programme, they were unable to see NHS patients for routine check-ups, and they were openly saying this. Concerns have also been raised by the north Wales dental committee, stating that they're close to breaking point with NHS dentistry. So, in light of this, Minister, what assurances can you give that when you make your statement next week on dental reform, that will set out a route for residents in north Wales to access NHS dentistry in the very near future? 

Well, Sam, I commend you on the incredible research work you've done there, because that's a huge amount of research work. What I can say is that there are those 26,000 new patients. Now, obviously, we're getting to the end of the financial year and we'll be in a different situation in April again. The check-ups situation—. I think it's really important that people understand that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence said a few years ago that, if you've got healthy teeth, you shouldn't need to go for a check-up for two years, and yet what happens is that we're all on this treadmill where we go to dentists, and then you have to pay them to see healthy teeth. Let me be clear that I am following NICE guidance on this, and, obviously, that's much easier for dentists than seeing new complex patients. So, I understand there's a bit of resistance, and that's why I'll be meeting with the British Dental Association in the next few weeks just to listen to their concerns directly. 

Good afternoon, Minister, and, yes, I'm very impressed also with Sam Rowlands's research work. Can I also just echo some of the comments that Sam has made? It is a real difficulty for people being able to access NHS dentists, and I'm aware, Minister, that you're looking at options around this. But I wanted to just focus in on community dental services in north Wales and elsewhere in Wales as well. We all understand the huge value that they provide to our communities in meeting the dental needs of some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, and I echo my gratitude for the work of those professionals who provide that service. There are two parts to what I'd like to cover with you, please. Firstly, would you confirm that you are intending to ring-fence the funding for CDS so that its resources can be properly focused on the needs of the most vulnerable users? And also, could you confirm—and I have raised this with the Minister for Social Justice as well, who I can see is in the Siambr this afternoon—that the CDS is there also to meet the needs of refugees in Wales? Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Thanks very much. Well, I can flesh some of this out in the statement that I was hoping to make last week but I'll be making, I think, next week on dentistry. I think what's important is that we appreciate, as you say, the work that the community dental service has done, and obviously they have a role in providing care for people who are vulnerable and, because of that vulnerability, can't be seen in general dental services. So, vulnerability, I think it's really important, has to be seen as multifactorial, and should be considered on an individual needs basis. For example, we'd consider people with a learning disability as being vulnerable, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they receive care from a community dental service. So, I think it is important that we take every case and deal with them individually.  

Endometriosis

8. How is the Welsh Government supporting women with endometriosis in Mid and West Wales? OQ59227

I am committed to the priorities set out in the women and girls health quality statement, for which NHS Wales is developing a 10-year women’s health plan. This includes the expectation that all health boards will ensure equitable and timely access to appropriate treatment and support for endometriosis.

15:00

Thank you very much. As today is International Women's Day, and it's Endometriosis Awareness Month, as you will have heard me say in the past in this Chamber, I receive a great deal of correspondence from women in west Wales that demonstrates that the provision for women suffering endometriosis is nowhere near good enough.

In terms of the women and girls health plan, across the 29 conditions where gender inequalities exist, including endometriosis, you've mentioned that NHS Wales will be developing this women and girls health plan, but I am a little surprised, given that women's health exists in a far broader context than simply health alone—it relates to poverty, it relates to diet, housing, and so on and so forth—so I'm surprised that it's not you as a Government that's leading on this, as is the case in both Scotland and in England. So, can you confirm to us that this women's health plan will tackle issues in terms of closing gender inequality gaps so that women in Wales get far better support in future?

Thank you very much. I hope that the Chamber has understood how committed I am to this cause. I also want to note that it's International Women's Day, and I want to take this opportunity particularly to thank all the women who work in the NHS and in our care service. They are a large majority in terms of the numbers working in those services, and so I do want to take that opportunity on this very special day to thank them. 

As you say, we have the equality statement on women, which has shown exactly where we want to go and what our expectations are, but in terms of ownership, it's very important that the NHS has ownership of this, so that they feel the responsibility to ensure that they do deliver on it. So, I have ensured that they have ownership of it. We do understand that, when it comes to health, you have to look at all kinds of things, such as housing and poverty, but I think it is important to ensure that, within the NHS, we place the focus in a place where it hasn't been in the past, perhaps, ensuring, for example, that, when it comes to studies, we do look at how such and such a drug does affect a woman, and how people are treated when they visit a GP. It's evident and a lot of evidence shows that women and men are treated slightly differently. So, I want to ensure that they have ownership of this, because there is a greater chance that things will change if they have ownership of it and they develop it rather than I commission it.

3. Topical Questions

Before I call today's topical questions, I'm sure that our thoughts are with the families of the three young people killed in St Mellons over the weekend. One of them, Rafel, I remember watching playing rugby in the same team as my nephew in primary school, playing for CRCC, Clwb Rygbi Cymry Caerdydd—such a young, fast talent on the rugby field. On behalf of us all in the Senedd, our sympathies are with the friends and families of Eve, Darcy and Rafel, and our hopes are with Sophie and Shane for a full recovery. 

Peredur Owen Griffiths, then, to ask the topical question.

Diolch. I'd like to echo the Llywydd's comments and send my condolences to the friends, family and, indeed, the community affected by this tragic event. 

The Fatal Crash in St Mellons

1. Has the Welsh Government had any discussions with Gwent Police and South Wales Police following the fatal crash in St Mellons? TQ740

Diolch yn fawr, Peredur Owen Griffiths, and diolch yn fawr, Llywydd, for your comments as well.

This is a devastating tragedy, and my thoughts remain with the families and the friends of the young people involved in the crash on the A48. This will be an extraordinarily difficult time for all affected by this terrible incident. I understand that both Gwent and South Wales Police forces have referred the case to the Independent Office for Police Conduct for investigation. 

15:05

Thank you for that response, Minister.

There's been a great deal of public distress following the crash, which claimed the lives of three young people following a night out in Newport, and two other people remain in hospital fighting for their lives. The police response is now the subject of an Independent Office for Police Conduct inquiry. It would be wrong to pre-empt any findings of such an investigation, but you cannot ignore the public disquiet from the families and the friends of the crash victims.

Just this morning, the BBC reported that Winston Roddick, the former Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales, has commented on the police response. He was surprised about the lack of action, given reports that the phones and social media accounts of the young people involved had been inactive between their disappearance in the early hours of Saturday until they were found almost two days later.

Although policing is a retained function of Westminster, this is a matter that should involve this Government due to its implications for community safety. What input can you have into a police priority-and-escalation process around missing persons to ensure that episodes like this can be avoided in future and so that community safety can be improved? Diolch.

Thank you very much for that question. It is a situation where, with such an extremely tragic case, we just look on this and hope that we can do everything to support the families and friends of those who are affected. Can we just say, also, that we send our wishes, I know, across this Chamber, to those who were seriously injured in the crash? We hope that they make a full recovery.

Can I say that there has been regular contact with the police regarding this matter? Of course, criminal justice isn't devolved to Wales and it's the responsibility of the UK Government, but I do understand that Gwent Police and South Wales Police, as I've said, have referred themselves to the Independent Office for Police Conduct. They will look at exactly what happened, and what happened in terms of the circumstances around this terrible tragedy, covering the points that you've raised this afternoon.

I also think we just have to recognise that extraordinary public grief that was expressed at the vigil for the victims that took place at the site of the crash last night. Hundreds attended the sombre and reflective gathering, culminating in a two-minute silence to remember those who perished. But, I think, now, we need to await that Independent Office for Police Conduct investigation, which is ongoing. 

I identify myself with the statement that the Presiding Officer made, and my group, as well, identifies with that statement, and our thoughts and prayers are with all of the families.

I just want to raise with you, Minister, if possible—I understand, obviously, the referral to the police complaints authority, but this is a part of the trunk road agency, the road, the A48 is, close to the M4. When a missing persons alert is put out by the police, what agencies that the Welsh Government sponsors would be alerted to such a missing persons alert? I'm thinking specifically of the highways officers who, obviously, the Welsh Government pays for and provide, who travel this part of the road, to make connections to the M4. Looking at the pictures, they visibly show that there has been an accident on this site, with trees lying flat on the ground and the motor vehicle leaving the road and going off onto the embankment. So, are the highways officers who are part of the motorway and trunk road agency alerted when a missing persons alert is put out by the police? And if they are alerted, what actions did they take? 

Thank you, Andrew R.T. Davies. Clearly, in my response, I said that all of the circumstances around this terrible tragedy will be looked at by the Independent Office for Police Complaints. We know that South Wales Police is continuing to investigate this fatal road traffic collision on the A48 in the St Mellons area of Cardiff. Clearly, therefore, all of the circumstances around this will be taken into account in that investigation. 

This news has been absolutely heartbreaking, and my deepest and sincere condolences go to the family and friends of Eve, Darcy and Rafel during this utterly awful time, and my thoughts go out to Sophie and Shane, who are in that critical condition, for their speedy recovery. This tragic incident has reverberated around the country, and is felt keenly in Newport. Maesglas community is a close-knit community in my constituency, where Eve, Darcy and Sophie are from.

Gwent Police, as you said, and South Wales Police referred the case to the Independent Office for Police Conduct, and it's now for them to carry out their work and to piece together what has happened. It's important that we respect the families' wishes by giving them the privacy and space they need, at what is an absolutely devastating time. Minister, a vigil was held last night, and was attended by many of the local community in Newport and Maesglas. It helped to show how much the community feels the loss of those young people. Will the Minister assure me that you will keep a close eye on the work of the IOPC, and work with the police and crime commissioners and the community throughout this process?  

15:10

Thank you very much, Jayne Bryant, and really acknowledging what this means to you and your community, the people who you represent in Maesglas and across south Wales, but particularly for those families so tragically affected. And that was acknowledged and it was expressed in that vigil, wasn't it? This is something that is going to be with us in Wales, in the communities, and, indeed, in this Senedd, as we work through and as we learn what the outcome of the investigation is. I will certainly be keeping a close eye on the work, and, through my liaison with the police and crime commissioners representing us in Wales, we'll be asking for any updates that we can have in terms of the circumstances.

I also would say that it is important for the families, in respecting their privacy and their grief, but, I know, in recognition of the widespread support and grief and love for those showing their grief and love for those families and their friends, family liaison officers, I have been assured, are working with the families affected. 

4. 90-second Statements

The next item will be the 90-second statement, and the first is from Natasha Asghar. 

Thank you so much, Presiding Officer, for giving me the opportunity to contribute today. As we mark International Women's Day today, I hope that all Members will join me in celebrating the groups, organisations and businesses in Wales that are working hard to build a more balanced and progressive workforce, and I commend all of the women and men out there who are allies, when it comes to creating more equality for women. It fills my heart with joy to see women breaking barriers and smashing through glass ceilings in various walks of life all across Wales.

I attended the Openreach Wales reception in the Senedd last month, along with apprentices and engineers, to hear about the company's commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workforce. In an industry that has been traditionally very male-dominated, we are seeing more and more women on boards, and as directors here in Wales, who are very capable, experienced and very business savvy as well.

Today, I was fortunate enough to be part of Tata Steel's International Women's Day panel discussion, and it was fantastic to see so many men, actually, who are working hard in helping women succeed. Of course, there is still a long way to go, but it's fantastic to hear positive examples of industries, including our very own Welsh Parliament, that are making progress to improve equal access to employment, training and career development. Also a huge hats off to all of the sheroes out there, who are choosing to challenge stereotypes and helping to create positive change for women all across the board. 

I will always say to every woman who wants to achieve a certain dream, 'Do not ever let someone's comments, criticisms and negative feedback prevent you from the life that you desire, dream and aspire to achieve'. A wise man once said to me, 'Why should Mother's Day be only one day of the year? It should be celebrated every single day of the year.' And, I hope, that women are celebrated every day of every month of every year, going forward. So, happy International Women's Day to you. 

The eighth of March marks International Women's Day, and I'm delighted that the Heritage Hub 4 Mid Wales is marking this event in my constituency by paying tribute to Laura Ashley's legacy in mid Wales.

In 2015, the hub brought 175 members of the Ashley company in a grand reunion together, and it was from this event that came efforts to preserve the archives and memories of those who worked with the Ashley family. One of them made quilts from the original prints in the 1970s, some of which will be on exhibit at the Laura Ashley quilt exhibition in Newtown library, which is starting today and running until 1 April, and I look forward to attending myself. The chair of the National Federation of Women's Institutes has accepted their invitation, along with other WIs from across Wales and Montgomeryshire. The hub hopes that Wales will one day be home to a Laura Ashley museum that will become a global attraction, where her life and works will be curated for all of the world to see. Laura Ashley is one of if not Montgomeryshire's most famous of names. She opened her first shop in Machynlleth, above which she lived with her family before moving down the road to Carno.

As founder of the heritage hub and the driving force of this ambitious mission to preserve the legacy of Laura Ashley in mid Wales, I would like to congratulate and thank Ann Evans, who now has permission for the use of and loan of archives going forward. As a very successful businesswoman in post-war Britain, Laura Ashley is rightfully considered a female icon. So, I'm delighted to have the opportunity to commemorate her legacy, the work of the heritage hub and International Women's Day, all in one.

15:15

This week saw Helen Ward, Cymru's record goal scorer, announce her retirement from pêl-droed. Helen made a huge contribution to pêl-droed, playing 105 games for Cymru, and scoring 44 goals. She is one of only nine people to represent Wales in pêl-droed over 100 times. Helen brought us all, as football fans, so many special memories and moments over her career, and we owe her a huge diolch—thank you—for that.

Llywydd, what better way than International Women's Day to celebrate Helen's amazing achievements and recognise the huge role she has played as a role model to so many now and in years to come? Helen made us all proud to be Welsh, and I know she was proud to wear that shirt. Llywydd, if I may, I'll finish by quoting Helen's own words:

'The pride I feel every time I hear those words; "Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau" and the sense of belonging will never, ever leave me.'

Helen, from us here in the Welsh Parliament, the Senedd Cymru, diolch yn fawr.

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

5. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv)—Biometric data in schools

We'll move now to item 5, Member debate under Standing Order 11.21, biometric data in schools. And I call on Sarah Murphy to move the motion.

Motion NDM8131 Sarah Murphy, Jane Dodds

Supported by Carolyn Thomas, Jack Sargeant

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes that the prevalent collection and use of biometric data within schools across Wales is putting children’s personal data and privacy at risk.

2. Calls on the Welsh Government to introduce legislation that would:

a) ensure that Article 16 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child's right to privacy, is upheld within Wales;

b) ensure that schools and childcare settings are using non-biometric technologies for services, rather than using biometric systems that may compromise the security of children's biometric data;

c) ensure appropriate risk assessments and procurement processes of technology companies within educational settings are put in place;

d) acknowledge the potential harms from the unregulated use of biometric data;

e) acknowledge the lack of consent by young people and children within current usages of biometric data within schools.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you to Jane Dodds, who co-submitted this motion, and to Carolyn Thomas and Jack Sargeant who supported it. I move the motion.

I have requested a debate on biometric data in schools a few times since being elected, so this is a significant day, and I am pleased and optimistic that we can discuss the legal, regulatory and equality and human rights aspects together today. I would like to thank Pippa King and Jen Persson from Defend Digital Me and Madeleine Stone at Big Brother Watch for their consistent research and help with this, which I will draw on today.

I am calling for our education Minister to write to all schools in Wales for a moratorium on biometric technology and use of bodily data in schools until the Information Commissioner carries out an assessment of the use of children's data across UK educational systems—this would include face, fingerprints, eye scans, vein and palm scanning, gait and emotional detection and processing—as well as writing to UK Government to ask what assessment has been made that these technologies are in line with the UK Data Protection Act 2018 to protect children at scale from overreach in this sector, and I will set out why.

As with most data technology changes in our public spaces, I became aware of fingerprint data collection in schools anecdotally. I was told by parents that it had been introduced by schools in my constituency, and then, when I asked more widely of parents and students if and where this was happening in other schools, I was surprised to discover that it is extremely prevalent. I then asked if consent had been requested for this to be introduced in schools, and I was shown one letter that parents had been sent to sign off on their children's fingerprint data being collected and stored to be used in exchange for payment for school meals. It stated, and I quote, 'If you choose not to have your children on biometric system, a four-digit PIN code will need to be allocated. Please note that the PIN codes do not have the same level of security, and it will be your child's responsibility to remember the code and keep it secure at all times.'

Minister, I cannot emphasise this enough: biometric data is not safer than a PIN code or passwords. Passwords and PIN codes can be reset. Once your biometric data is compromised, it is compromised for life. It potentially stops the children for the rest of their lives from being able to use their fingerprint for security reasons or whatever they wish. This is partly because data hacks are not an uncommon occurrence. We have seen it within NHS England, the Metropolitan Police and Lloyds Banking Group. Public bodies with high levels of security have fallen victim to their data being exposed, often with unknown consequences. The reality is that a primary or secondary school is not going to be able to afford or oversee this level of security, and therefore cannot commit to children's personal data being safe. I'm not speculating that this could happen; this has happened. In September 2022, parents in the US have reported receiving a notorious explicit image in a meme after hackers targeted the school app Seesaw, which has 10 million users, including teachers, students and family members. I was told this week that the Seesaw app is being rolled out in a primary school in my constituency, as I'm sure it is across all of your constituencies too.

Some people have questioned the role of encryption and whether this can offer the safety required to secure students' data collected in schools, by ensuring that hackers cannot reverse engineer a password or key. But we must take into consideration that a child's biometric data must be secure for their lifetime—so, six to eight decades—and it is impossible to say under our current system that a child's biometric data can be secure for the next 70-plus years. The Home Office and police can actually do this now.

Under the General Data Protection Regulation, students’ data should be deleted when they leave school, but students returning to their schools after graduating have realised that biometric systems still recognise their fingerprints in many cases.

So, what have we done in Wales so far? Back in 2021, I reached out to the Welsh Government, who were unaware that schools were using this technology or who was selling the technology to our schools. In response, Welsh Government Minister for Education Jeremy Miles worked with schools and young people to clarify non-statutory guidance for schools in Wales, and that there are no circumstances in which a school or college can lawfully process a learner's biometric data without having notified each parent of a child and received the necessary consent. The Welsh Government also went further and produced a child-friendly version as a tool for young people to understand how their data is collected, their right to consent, and, crucially, their right to say no. It was great to introduce this at Bryntirion Comprehensive School in Bridgend, along with our education Minister, and I really do appreciate this proactive and collaborative approach to clarifying the guidance. However, this was only ever going to be a sticking plaster in anticipation of what is a very necessary and urgent wider conversation that needs to be had in this Chamber and in our communities, which is what I hope we can start today. Because a Survation poll conducted in 2018 on behalf of Defend Digital Me, a campaign group on children's rights and privacy, found that, of parents across England whose children's schools were using biometric technology, 38 per cent said they had not been offered any choice, and over 50 per cent had not been informed how long the fingerprints or other biometric data would be retained for, or when they will be destroyed. We do not have any equivalent studies here in Wales.

Defend Digital Me has also found examples of schools where the use of biometric technologies is mandatory for all pupils, or where pupils who qualify for free school meals have to use a biometric system in order to receive their lunch, while other peoples can choose not to. In 2022, they asked 10 trade unions across the UK with members in teaching and education, who said that they do not have any code of practice on this to assist staff about their own use and rights, or for pupils.

It also goes against article 28 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says children and young have the right to education no matter who they are; under the UNCRC article 16, no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, and also the child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference; and then also article 8 of the European convention on human rights, the right to privacy.

Based on all of this evidence, I have concluded that biometric data collection in schools is intrusive, it is unnecessary, it is disproportionate, and it does not comply with current legislation or human rights conventions. Biometric technology in schools is more prevalent than we realise. First introduced around 2000, over the last decade, the use of these technologies has increased dramatically, with around 75 per cent of secondary schools across the UK now using fingerprint technology, as well as it being extremely prevalent in primary schools. We know that in the early 2000s, many of these technologies were once UK-owned companies, selling ex-military tech to the public and private sector, but now research indicates that most providers are owned by US, Canada and Israeli companies. However, to whom, how and why private companies are selling this biometric data technology data to schools remains unclear. Researcher Pippa King, a campaigner on the use of biometric data in schools, together with Defend Digital Me, have requested freedom of information requests. Some schools responded, but there is still no clarity about which Government department or other bodies monitor if schools adhere to the Protections of Freedoms Act 2012, how many schools use biometric technology, how many pupils have their biometrics stored on school or supplier databases, or if the data is accessible and shared outside the school. Furthermore, the UNCRC's, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, general comment No. 16 says that:

'States should not invest public finances and other resources in business activities that violate children’s rights.'

In order to meet this standard, a human rights impact assessment is required. I do not believe that these are being done.

The Information Commissioner's Office does have a part to play here, and they did recently reprimand the UK Department for Education, following the prolonged misuse of the personal information of up to 28 million children. The ICO investigation found that the Department for Education's poor due diligence meant that a database of pupils' learning records was ultimately used by Trust Systems Software UK to check whether or not they were 18 when they wanted to use a gambling account. I welcome the ICO really taking this breach of the law very seriously, however I would now call on them to also ensure appropriate risk assessments and procurement processes of technology companies within educational settings are put in place to regulate widespread biometrics in schools. Because, as Big Brother Watch has highlighted, it is unacceptable that the biometric data collection technology is being sold to schools and parents by unscrupulous companies as a safer option. I met with the ICO recently and raised my concerns and offered to send over the evidence that I have presented today, and I hope that we can work together on this, going forward.

I have also met with the previous and current Welsh children's commissioner, and I would ask that the office also takes this on as a key part of their children's rights agenda to ask them how they feel about these technologies being used in their schools. It is not just fingerprint collection; biometric data may include information about the skin pattern, physical characteristics or a person's fingers or palms, features of an iris or any other part of the eye, or a person's voice or handwriting. In October 2021, more than 2,000 pupils at nine schools in North Ayrshire were enrolled to pay for their lunches by presenting themselves in front of a camera operated by the staff at the till. The system, installed by CRB Cunninghams, matched the children against the photos registered and deducted the day's spending from their account. The ICO responded quickly, all the data was deleted, and the resulting investigation exposed how organisations like local councils are ill-prepared for the task of capturing, processing and retaining personal data. However, the case was only able to be scrutinised through the lens of breaking GDPR and not looking at whether or not this should be introduced in the first place. Big Brother Watch has highlighted that other countries, like France, Sweden and parts of the US have outlawed this due to privacy concerns.

So, there is no ambiguity. I believe that, as politicians, we have a moral and ethical obligation to debate this issue and whether or not we want to have this here in Wales or the UK. The biometrics and surveillance camera commissioner, Professor Fraser Sampson, has warned that the use of biometric surveillance in schools requires careful consideration and oversight. He said:

'Somewhat ironically, biometric surveillance requires constant vigilance. To ensure its proper governance, avoid mission creep and irreversible erosion of freedoms this area calls for careful recognition—and anyone who believes it is simply about data protection hasn’t been paying attention.'

Again, we do have a responsibility as parliamentarians and in Government to scrutinise this. 

Finally, what is this doing to our children's view in our society? I'll end by asking these wider questions: what message is this giving to students, that their biometric data, their bodies, can be used in exchange for a monetary transaction? As adults, we don't have to give our fingerprints to access food, knowledge, rights to education, and we would hopefully, and rightfully, kick off if we did, but our children have to. How is this shaping how our children view their civil liberties? Because, as adults, as one person who wrote to me highlighted, the police force, under the authority of His Majesty and an Act of Parliament, can collect people's fingerprints without consent if they've been arrested, charged or convicted, but our children have to hand this over daily. And how is this biometric data collection in schools perpetuating the ideology that, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear—a dangerous ideology that comes from a place of privilege and is always used by the oppressor? Perhaps the question today should not be whether or not a tool is legal enough to use in educational settings, but whether it is respectful of human dignity and the aims of education, meeting the full range of human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and aims of the right to education. Diolch.

15:25

Thank you so much to Sarah Murphy for initiating this debate. I know that Sarah has been a real champion of the concerns around biometric data and of digital rights, so I do thank you for the opportunity to sponsor this and to take part in this debate. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

The collection and use of biometric data in schools raises real concerns about rights, legality and the appropriate use of such crucial data. In particular, we need to be assured that schools are complying with the expectations both of the Welsh Government and of the law as well. For me, there are two questions: whether the legislation is good enough to protect our children's rights, and whether schools are acting within the legislation and the guidance from the Welsh Government. It is extremely concerning to hear accounts of how schools are compromising the Welsh Government expectations and children's data. I don't think they're doing this through any malicious intent, but rather lack of awareness of what the expectations are, which can lead to worrying consequences. In doing so, they create an environment in which young people get used to the idea that their biometric data is something to be handed over as a matter of routine. We need to remember that systems are only as good as the people who use them, and we need to be aware of the risks that they will incorporate unconscious bias.

Although data protection is a reserved matter, how the rules are applied in schools is a matter, as we've heard from Sarah, of the Welsh Government, and it's really encouraging to hear of the work that's been done so far. So, we need to build on the Welsh Government guidance and expectations, given to schools in protecting our children's data, and in the creation of those expectations of the collection as well.

In Europe, we are seeing case law making it clear that the inequality of status between school and pupil is a factor in deciding whether or not the use of biometric data is lawful. In my view, this is a principle that must inform how schools operate in Wales as well. More generally, we need to be vigilant about data protection legislation. The Westminster Government's Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is currently stalled once again in Parliament. The Retained EU Legislation (Revocation and Reform) Bill, currently again in the Westminster Parliament, means that, among other things, a review of the data protection legislation in the UK, which is due, is based on that EU data protection law. I understand that the Westminster Government is expected to announce its proposals for a UK GDPR shortly. We need to be aware of the risk that this will be used as an opportunity to water down data protection law.

I'm confident that the Welsh Government will keep the Senedd informed of developments in this area, and will ensure that the need to protect children and young people's data in school, and elsewhere, is recognised and acted on. Once again, a huge thank you to Sarah for raising this issue, and I hope that we continue to debate this and keep our eye on any developments. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:30

Can I start my contribution as well, Deputy Presiding Officer, by thanking our colleague Sarah Murphy for bringing forward this motion to the Senedd today, but also by paying tribute to the tireless campaigning that she has undertaken in this area? I think that without Sarah becoming a Member of this Senedd and taking this work forward, this issue could very easily have gone unnoticed by this Parliament.

As the use of technology is spread through every single part of our lives, we've rightly become aware of the need to protect our own personal data. And for obvious reasons, regulation has not always kept up with the advancement of technology in this area, and we have numerous examples of how this has left people exposed. This is particularly dangerous in the case of biometric data—the issue we're debating this afternoon. As a guiding principle, I think caution should be at the heart of how we allow the use of biometric data in Wales, particularly within our schools. Because, after all, the important principle when gathering data is consent: consent to use the data from someone who is fully informed, but also informed of those potential pitfalls.

How can our young people give consent to this when the risk is simply not understood? And if you couple that with the fact that it takes a huge leap of faith—a huge leap of faith—to simply trust technology companies to do the right thing with our data, then you understand why so many of us are advising caution and why Sarah Murphy is leading on this issue. And, Deputy Presiding Officer, I say that as someone who's a big believer and uses technology every single day. But the reality is that data is money, and when money is the motivator, trust alone simply does not cut it.

In Wales, we are rightly proud of our record in promoting the rights of the child, and it's right that we are proud of that. But respecting those rights requires vigilance—the type of vigilance that Jane Dodds, our colleague from the Liberal Democrats, discussed earlier.

So, Deputy Presiding Officer, in closing, those are the reasons I was so keen to support Sarah's motion. I'm pleased that it's at the heart of Welsh democracy this afternoon. I'm pleased at the work the Minister has undertaken with Sarah on this. We are lucky to have Sarah, because this would have gone unnoticed without her, and we should recognise that, and we should use the knowledge and wealth of experience that she brings. And, finally, in closing, I do urge and look to backbench Members of all political parties in this Chamber today to vote in favour of this motion in front of us. Diolch.

15:35

Thank you very much, Sarah, for tabling this debate, which is indeed, as others have said, a very important thing that we need to consider, because, otherwise—. Technology is a wonderful thing in many respects; it can save lives. If somebody's gone into a coma with type 1 diabetes, they're not in a position to tell you what treatment they're going to need, but we absolutely have to apply the precautionary approach. But I think, at the same time, we shouldn't be throwing the baby out with the bath water.

In advance of this debate, I did consult one of the secondary schools in my constituency and asked about this, because I simply didn't know how much this was being used or what attitude I should be taking. So, it was very useful to hear that they indeed use biometric thumbprints in the canteen, because you won't be surprised to know that young people lose the cards on which they have the amount of credit they've got, and, therefore, they're not going to be losing their thumb. If you can imagine the speed at which young people have to be served during the lunch break, as well as the really important confidentiality that needs to be adhered to around who is in receipt of free school meals and who is not, a thumbprint doesn't tell you anything more, other than that this individual is wanting to apply to have whatever credit they've got on their account discounted by the amount of food that they are consuming. 

So, just to be a little bit more technical, this biometric thumbprint translates into a code—not a photograph, not a name. It's a series of numbers, which, to the rest of us, is a meaningless piece of information. But it tells the till operator, managing the money, what items need to be deducted that have been purchased by the individual. So, even if the school's account was hacked, the information that was held via the thumbprint wouldn't tell you about which individuals had had dinner that day and who hadn't. It is a stretch to think that a hacker would be hacking the school's account and the till manager's account at the same time. 

There are lots of benefits, therefore. There's confidentiality about who is in receipt of free school meals, which often doesn't get adhered to in other secondary schools where they are using cards, and where there's an exchange of information with the person managing the till, which is, sometimes, entirely inappropriate. And it's also about speed of throughput, because you're not having all the administration involved and the hassle of saying, 'I've lost my card', 'I've left it at home', and all the other issues that go wrong.

So, I think that this is really important, but I do sort of challenge that the motion is asking us to ensure that all schools and childcare settings are using non-biometric technologies for this sort of service, because what is the non-biometric service that's going to give us something as accurate and speedy as using a thumbprint? We all use a thumbprint, or in theory we do, to access our iPads, but I just need to understand what the worries are there. I absolutely agree with Jack and with Jane Dodds that we do need to proceed with caution on this, and we need to have all the data, but I do have some concerns about rushing into this and then throwing the baby out with the bathwater and not having the advantages of technology to manage important data in a confidential manner effectively. Thank you.

15:40

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and may I start by thanking Members for their contributions to this important debate this afternoon? Particularly, may I thank the Member for Bridgend for her ongoing work in raising awareness of the issues related to the collection and use of biometric data of young people?

I hope the Member will forgive me for saying that the Senedd, I think, is at its best when Members bring to the Siambr issues that may not always have the profile they deserve and pursue those questions with an equal measure of expertise and passion, in the way that Sarah Murphy has consistently pursued the issue of biometric data and young people.

There is a differing view, Dirprwy Lywydd, on the use of biometric technologies across all aspects of society. It is a complex and sensitive issue. Technology is developing quickly in our daily lives, and in using it in the right way it can provide undoubted benefits, making aspects of our lives easier, more efficient and safer. But it's important that the use of technology is properly considered and that legal responsibilities are properly understood by everyone who gathers and uses personal data.

The Welsh Government recognises the need for checks and appropriate balances in a system where personal and sensitive information is used to enable learners, and indeed any citizen, to engage in day-to-day activities. In 2022, as Sarah Murphy mentioned, I launched revised guidance on safeguarding biometric data in schools and colleges, and I did so in Bryntirion Comprehensive School, with Sarah, in Bridgend. The guidance does provide clear information to schools and colleges on their legal duties in relation to implementing and using biometric identification systems. This includes legal duties under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, the Data Protection Act 2018, the UK's general data protection regulation, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In updating the guidance, we consulted with the Information Commissioner's Office, the biometrics commissioner, the Children's Commissioner for Wales, and Defend Digital Me. I am grateful to them all for their valuable input.

The guidance sets out clearly that schools and colleges, before using a biometric system, should carefully consider whether there are other less invasive options that could provide the same level of service to learners. When a school does consider a biometric system, the school must be clear on the legal requirements that would be placed upon it.

Dirprwy Lywydd, as noted in the motion, schools and colleges must consider the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that's also clearly set out in our guidance. This includes the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them; to have their views considered and taken seriously; and the right to privacy. It's therefore vital that learners understand that participation in a biometric system is not mandatory. Alongside the main guidance, we produced a version specifically for children, as Sarah Murphy referenced in her speech, to help young people understand their rights in relation to this area. This document was developed with the help of young learners, including the children's rights advisory group and Young Wales, and I'd like to thank them as well for their valuable contribution.

Schools and colleges are required to obtain written consent from a parent or carer before any biometric data can be collected. They, or indeed the learner, have the right to opt out at any point. Schools and colleges must be transparent here, making clear that participation is optional, providing clear information on its intended use and data protection procedures. Where either a parent, a carer or a learner chooses to opt out, schools and colleges must find a reasonable alternative means of providing the service. This is an especially important point. Learners should not be disadvantaged or receive access to fewer or indeed different services because of a school's decision to introduce biometrics.

Schools are legally responsible for any data they gather and use. They must ensure that any biometric data is stored securely, is not kept longer than needed, is used only for the purpose for which it is obtained and is not unlawfully disclosed to a third party. This should be considered as part of a data protection impact assessment, which should be undertaken at the outset. Schools and colleges must ensure that they only award contracts to biometric suppliers that provide sufficient guarantee to implement appropriate measures in line with the general data protection regulation. Article 28 specifies minimum contractual requirements, which, in essence, ensure suppliers can only act on instructions of the school or college, and may not use the data for any other purposes. If a school or college were to procure a system without a fully compliant contract, then they would be likely to bear full legal liability for the actions of the system provider.

Where biometric systems are implemented, the school or college should monitor and review their effectiveness against their original purpose. This will ensure that the technology continues to be used for the reason it was intended, and that it meets the legal duties, the requirements and responsibilities under the data protection legislation. Any failure in meeting the required data protection requirements could result in referral to the Information Commissioner's Office, as Sarah Murphy mentioned in her speech. The ICO can provide advice and instruction to help ensure schools get this right, and serious breaches, obviously, can result in enforcement action.

Schools and colleges, I am satisfied, have the support and advice available to ensure they can properly implement the required data standards when adopting the use of biometric systems. At present, there is no specific intention to introduce general legislation for use of biometric data in schools due to the existence of a broader legal framework with relevant checks and balances. The decision to introduce a biometric system is one for individual schools to make based on operational needs, impact assessments, and in consultation with staff, learners, parents and carers. This is consistent with a principle of school autonomy, but within a clear regulatory framework.

The Welsh Government will object to the motion in order to abstain on it, as is its convention, but the Member has raised important points with me here in the Chamber today. As she has previously done this, it has allowed us to look together at what more we can do. As she has recognised, and I am grateful for this, the Government has acted. I give her the assurance that I will approach the request she has made today in the same constructive way and will update her and the Senedd accordingly. In the meantime, we will continue to remind schools of their legal obligations and keep our guidance under continual review to reflect developments in this fast-moving area.

15:45

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you very much, Minister, for those assurances. I really do appreciate it. I also want to say thank you very much to Jane Dodds. I totally agree, schools are not doing this on purpose—they have no guidance. Actually, if what had happened with the Department for Education happened now, they'd actually have been fined £10 million by the ICO, so we're actually leaving our schools wide open to absolutely enormous fines. They're sitting ducks for these huge foreign countries to target them and sell them this technology that they tell them is safer.

Jenny, I did address the very valid questions that you asked at the beginning, but you missed the beginning of my speech. I would ask you to go back and have a read of it, please, before you make your decision this evening. I will reinforce, though, that anyone with a toddler knows that they can remember the four-digit code to your smartphone. Children can remember a four-digit code to be able to have their school meals; that doesn't require them to compromise their personal data for the rest of their lives. And Jack, thank you so much for talking about the consent—children don't know what they're consenting to. They have no idea, as even many adults don't either. I think it's absolutely right that we have to hear their voice, which we do not have now.

I also want to say that I had a very interesting conversation with my colleague Cefin Campbell the other day about justice, and how, very often, in this Chamber we do talk about the legal, the practical, the outcomes, the results, the thresholds, the targets, but very little, sometimes, about ideology. Very often, it's dismissed as maybe being culture wars, and sometimes it is, but when it comes to this, it actually is really important that we do look at it through the lens of our values, our culture and our human rights—the children's human rights, and the power dynamics and the power exchange that is happening here on our watch, where our children, as we have heard, have no autonomy and no right to education free from surveillance. As the Manic Street Preachers sing,

'If you tolerate this, then your children will be next.'

But in this case, as we have heard, our children are actually being targeted first and we are tolerating it. The opportunity to share their very personal biometric data for whatever they wish has been taken from them because there is a lack of awareness, a lack of understanding, a lack of will, a lack of engagement with young people, a lack of basic data literacy to really grapple with the ramifications of this: how this is really changing our society, our children's perception of the world, their perception of themselves in the world and very much their futures.

Based on everything we've heard today, I do not believe that biometric data collection in schools should continue. Children have a right to education and a right to privacy under the UNCRC and, at the moment, they're not being able to do both at the same time. I also believe that this will lead to the introduction of live facial recognition technology within schools, which we have already seen in other parts of the country. I also believe that we wouldn't even be aware of its introduction. Once it is here, it will be almost impossible to roll back. So, I've brought this debate today and I thank everyone for participating in it. I hope that it's gone some way towards raising awareness. I hope now that we can put this on the agenda seriously, not just for children, for all citizens of Wales, and that we can work in conjunction with other devolved nations on this and that we can begin to take this very seriously. It is time to make up our own minds on whether or not this is something that we want to happen as a society. So, please vote for my motion today so that we can begin doing this. Diolch.

15:50

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I've heard an objection, therefore I will defer voting under this item until voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

6. Debate on the Petitions Committee Report, 'The Final Bend? P-06-1253 Ban greyhound racing in Wales'

Item 6 today is a debate on the Petitions Committee report, 'The Final Bend? P-06-1253 Ban greyhound racing in Wales'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion. Jack Sargeant.

Motion NDM8216 Jack Sargeant

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the report of the Petitions Committee, ‘The Final Bend? P-06-1253 Ban greyhound racing in Wales’, which was laid in the Table Office on 15 December 2022.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Deputy Presiding Officer. Fifty-three weeks ago, on St David’s Day of last year, a petition closed to new signatures with over 35,000 people having signed it, with 18,777 of those signatures from Cymru. That petition, submitted by Hope Rescue, called for a simple action: it called for a ban on greyhound racing in Wales. I can see that the lead petitioner, Vanessa, from Hope Rescue is here watching alongside supporters today, and I welcome them to their Parliament.

The Petitions Committee agreed to hold a brief inquiry, focusing on the welfare of greyhounds involved in racing. We took evidence from campaigners, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, and indeed the owner of Wales's only greyhound racing track. Subsequently, we published our report, 'The Final Bend?', and it's that report that we are debating today. Our report made five recommendations, but the headline conclusion was that a clear majority of the committee are in favour of introducing a phased ban on greyhound racing in Wales. I’m confident that today’s debate will show that a majority of this Senedd Chamber will also join those calls.

I must say, Deputy Presiding Officer, I was disappointed that the Valley track previously boasted on its website, and I quote, 'an eye-watering sharp first bend'. It was in evidence to us from Hope Rescue where they explained that in their experience, it was here where the most injuries occurred. The Presiding Officer knows I'm a dog lover, and as a dog lover myself, the images of dogs suffering life-changing injuries whilst racing at this track have stayed with me, including those images of Sienna, who badly broke her leg at Valley and sadly had to have it amputated. 

The sheer fact that in a three-year period the Amazing Greys programme had to step in to help over 200 racing greyhounds at Valley is truly heartbreaking, and it shows that Sienna's story is not simply a one-off. How anyone who has witnessed dogs in such pain can then take to their website to boast about the perilous nature of their track is beyond me. Wales should be leading the way on animal welfare, and this today is an opportunity for us to do exactly that. 

We already have an indication of what the wider public in Wales think. Opinion polling conducted by Panelbase in February of this year, and shared with me by campaigning organisation GREY2K USA Worldwide, suggests a clear majority in Wales would indeed support a ban. The polling findings concluded that 57 per cent think that the Senedd should vote to phase out greyhound racing, while only 21 per cent are opposed; 50 per cent would vote 'yes' in a referendum to phase out greyhound racing in Wales, while only 21 per cent would vote no; and 43 per cent have an unfavourable view of greyhound racing, while only 21 per cent have a favourable view.

In her response to our report, the Minister has confirmed that the Welsh Government intends to consult on proposals for the licensing of activities involving animals this year. That consultation will also seek views on how to improve the welfare of racing greyhounds in Wales. And crucially, it will include a question considering a phased ban, as the committee recommended. In our report, we were clear that becoming a licensed track would give additional protection to greyhounds, but it would result in a significant increase in the number of dogs racing every week. More races will lead to more injuries and more animals suffering.

During the last year, a number of organisations have considered their position on greyhound racing. These are organisations that have previously worked with the industry to support the animals, and they have changed their policy. They have now decided that in the twenty-first century, it's no longer okay that greyhounds should suffer for our entertainment. Their change of heart was crucial for me personally and many of the committee members. They no longer felt that they could mitigate and make better; they have come out in favour of a ban, and are calling for Wales to take the lead in the UK.

Wales does have a strong recent record on animal welfare, and the Minister has been clear in her response that she was always intending to consider licensing of greyhound racing as part of Labour's manifesto commitment. I'm pleased that the Minister has also agreed to include the phased ban proposed by the committee as a question in that forthcoming consultation. But I know that many here in the Chamber, many in the audience, and many watching at home will have one very important question, Minister: how long will it take to hold that consultation, and if the evidence on the other side of that consultation suggests a ban, how long will it take to introduce that ban?

Presiding Officer, banning things is something that we do not take lightly. There are processes that need to be followed, and thorough consultation with all stakeholders has to be a part of that on both sides of the story. I understand that, and campaigners understand that too. But, where there is a consensus for change, where the majority of people no longer see dog racing as an acceptable form of entertainment, there is an expectation of action. Minister, we called our report 'The Final Bend' because we think that's where we are—that this so-called sport is on its last lap. I hope that today, Minister, you'll be able to give greater clarity about when we will cross the finish line. Diolch.

16:00

From the outset, I'd like to thank the Chair, fellow committee members and the clerks in particular for their work in putting this together. I'd also like to thank those who gave evidence from both sides of the debate as well.

Now, I imagine the Chamber clerks had put me down to speak on this debate today before I even indicated that I wanted to speak, so it is, no doubt, of no surprise that I'm on my feet now. And one of the first visits I made when I was elected to the Senedd was to Greyhound Rescue Wales, a charity that I was already a member of prior to being elected. Now, whilst I had been on the fence when it came to racing prior to that visit, though admittedly I was leaning to the side that wanted to bring it to an end, the visit itself made me think further about the topic. And, since that visit almost two years ago, although it only feels like yesterday, I've continued to ask questions of the Minister in both committee and Plenary, held multiple events alongside Jane Dodds in this Senedd, to raise awareness around the welfare of greyhounds. I'll be clear: I support the petition wholeheartedly. But I also do support it in acknowledgement that this is a difficult debate for many.

Now, Members will argue for and against what's included in the petition, but I will seek to focus on a particular point. As was noted by the committee Chair, greyhound racing is not regulated here in Wales, so naturally, for some, this argument should begin and end with the regulation of the sport. But we only need to look over the border to see what regulation looks like. Regulation doesn't resolve the issue that is at the heart of the industry, and we can't safeguard dogs from the inherent risk of racing.

Figures from the regulated sector itself show that, over 2,000 greyhounds have died or have been put to sleep and that there were nearly 18,000 injuries in greyhound racing between 2018 and 2021. The regulated sector offers £400 to pay the costs of retired dogs, but in many cases, this is insufficient to pay for the real cost of re-establishing and rehoming racing greyhounds. For example, data from the Dogs Trust on veterinary costs to treat 14 injured greyhounds between November 2018 and April 2021 shows that veterinary treatment alone had varied from £690 to £4,800 for every dog. Even if we had the ability to ensure that every racing greyhound in Wales had a good life, with these figures, it would be very difficult to ensure that that is the case. It's also important to note that the industry crosses five different nations, with different regulatory provisions, and that 85 per cent of racing greyhounds in the UK come from Ireland. So, the ability to safeguard dogs from cradle to grave is very, very difficult—almost impossible.

In focusing on Wales, the evidence provided by the track owner in Wales suggests that the track is no more dangerous than any other track and that there are improvements in place to make it a GBGB-licenced track, which would improve safety. But, in doing that, the intention would be to increase the amount of racing in Wales. Even with an in improvement in safety levels, it's likely that an increase in the number of races would lead to an increase in the number of dogs injured.

Dirprwy Lywydd, as I participated in this inquiry, and as I made some further research, it was impossible for me not to come to the decision other than to prioritise the well-being of the dogs. I can't support any event that puts dogs at risk of injury, and that's why I'm supporting the petition and hope that the Government will take action in this area.

16:05

I'd like to thank so many people; I'd like to thank the Petitions Committee and I'd like to thank the organisations that I met with, including GBGB. If they are here or listening, I really think they do care about dogs and I'd like to thank you for your time, but I would particularly like to pay tribute to those animal charities. I couldn't actually do what you do. It would upset me so much that I think I'd be taking home a dozen animals every night. I'd like to thank, also, those racetrack volunteers as well. You do that role with such dignity when it must be so upsetting for you. 

This, for me, is about the sort of Wales we want. I don't want the sort of Wales where animals are produced on an industrial scale for sports. I don't want to be in a Wales where this promotes and encourages betting and gambling. I don't want to be in a Wales where animals are injured. I don't want to be in a Wales where, at the end of animals' careers in racing, they go to a dogs home where they wait for people to come along to take them away. That relies on charities, and those charities are here today. They get no funding for that, apart from through the GBGB rehoming bond. And let me just tell you a little bit about this. The GBGB rehoming bond will only go to homes who do no speak out against greyhound racing. That means that there is only one place in Wales that receives the Greyhound Board of Great Britain rehoming bond.

I want to just also cover a few other issues. Why not regulation? Well, because regulation is still about racing. Regulation is still about producing dogs at the end of that race that need to go a dogs home, and then need rehoming. And actually, regulation will still mean that dogs are raced in temperatures that, last year, on 12 August, were 32 degrees, when the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals were telling dog owners not to take their dogs out for walks. And yet, in a regulated track in Harlow in Essex, they were racing greyhounds. 

Based on animal welfare there, and you're talking about animal welfare, I've spoken to quite a few councillors with regard to planning applications and their frustration at not being able to turn a planning application down on animal welfare reasons. I'd like to ask the Government if they would consider changing planning laws so that animal welfare reasons might be a reason to turn down a planning application. 

Thank you. That's a really good point, and that really homes in on animal welfare issues. And we know, actually, that the only racetrack in Wales is looking to expand the number of dogs that they have, despite not having planning permission yet. They've been turned down twice, and yet, they are building right now; they are building not even kennels, they are building racks for 200 dogs to go into. And therefore, I do hope that the planning conditions do include animal welfare. I know I must move on, Dirprwy Llywydd.

The second issue is people may be asking: is this the thin end of the wedge? If we ban greyhound racing, are we going to move on to horse racing? And I would say 'No, we're not—it's a totally different entity'. Dogs for greyhound racing are produced on an industrial scale. They do not have owners who care for them and look after them, and that, for me, is the difference in greyhounds. 

I can't let this time go by without talking about Arthur. You all know about Arthur—it's probably the last time you'll hear about Arthur. Let me tell you about Arthur's experience as far as we know about it, because we don't know an awful lot. Arthur was from a puppy farm in Ireland. How do we know that? Because he had tattoos in both of his ears. Only dogs from Ireland who are going to be raced have tattoos in both of their ears. If they're from England, they have a tattoo in just one ear. Let me tell you how tender and painful that is. As an adult dog, if anybody went near Arthur's ears, he would yelp with pain. It was so painful for him. We do know Arthur sustained an injury on the racetrack—he fell on his neck. He couldn't have anything around his neck, and, indeed, he would yelp in pain if anybody touched his neck in any way. Arthur spent six years in a racetrack, and was found in quite squalid conditions by the dogs home.

He spent two years in the dogs home before we came along. At the time that we collected Arthur, there were 65 other greyhounds waiting for a home. Arthur stayed with us, as you know, for three years. The first year of his time with us was very hard. He was terrified and traumatised by many and most things. Taking him for a walk—a five-minute route—would be about an hour, because he would freeze at any sound or sight that he was anxious about. I know I have to finish, Dirprwy Lywydd, but let me tell you this: I would have Arthur back tomorrow in a flash, but I don't want any more dogs produced that had Arthur's experiences. So, I hope you'll support the ban today. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

16:10

I would like to start by thanking my colleague, Jack Sargeant, for bringing forward this debate today, as I think it's extremely important that petitions like this do come forward into the Chamber to help us really focus our minds on the issues that affect animal welfare in Wales.

In the course of this petition, I have visited Hope Rescue, I have spoken with GBGB and I have met with several other organisations, all of which represent both sides of the argument. But the issue, as with most things, is not as clear cut as we would like it to be. Charities, such as Hope Rescue and Greyhound Racing Wales, have worked exceptionally hard over the years to engage with Valley greyhound track, in order to improve the welfare standards of greyhounds racing there, and have met with little success. They have identified aspects of the track that are dangerous and can cause serious injury to greyhounds. They've repeatedly called for veterinary cover for every race, and have cared for, sometimes at an enormous expense to themselves, greyhounds that have been seriously injured or have been abandoned. I, therefore, completely understand why they would call for an outright ban of greyhound racing in Wales. 

However, what concerns me is that, if there was an outright ban, this doesn't automatically improve the welfare of greyhounds. In fact, there's an argument that it doesn't improve greyhound welfare at all. All those owners or breeders who commit animal abuse, or have poor welfare standards for their animals, will simply no longer be visible and will go underground. They will also have no qualms whatsoever with destroying their animals—

I just wanted to make the point in terms of the sport going underground, I was wondering if the Member realises the size of the track and the size of the ground you would need to be able to race greyhounds, essentially, and if he would be able to explain how that would be able to be hidden. 

Yes, in the very next paragraph. Sorry, Dirprwy Lywydd. So, where am I now? So, there is nothing stopping them from having illegal races, from using disused warehouses to setting up temporary tracks, whether straight courses or bends, in isolated fields, which will be even worse for those animals racing, and their illegal nature will mean that their owners will never, ever seek veterinary care for them. And, whilst there may be some who will say that this will never happen, just looking at the extent of illegal dog fighting in the UK tells us otherwise. Dog fighting is still prolific in this country, even though it was banned in 1835. Indeed, between 2015 and 2020, the RSPCA had more than 9,000 reports of organised fighting in the United Kingdom, and even though the maximum jail sentence is six years and five months, the people who carry out these dog fights just simply don't care, and I fear that greyhound racing in Wales has the potential to follow suit.

Speaking with GBGB representatives, I've learned how track registration improves the welfare of greyhounds racing, because it's compulsory for every race to have veterinary care, owners in races have a duty to meet welfare standards, which are monitored, and there are well-funded rehoming programmes if animals are injured or can no longer race. I'm not saying that this model is perfect, or that Valley track should be GBGB registered, instead of being closed. I instead think that there needs to be a proper investigation into all aspects of greyhound racing in Wales by the Welsh Government, covering ownership, breeding, transportation, racing and even aftercare. More engagement needs to happen with GBGB, and independent analysis of the implications of a phased or outright ban has to happen, especially in terms of animal welfare.

My particular issue and concern here is that the Petitions Committee, of which I am a part, have not done sufficient due diligence in order to make the recommendations that they have made in their report. As a committee that is recommending a phased ban, we haven’t even visited a greyhound racetrack, registered or unregistered, and we have taken no evidence whatsoever from those countries or Governments that have already banned greyhound racing, which would have given us a better idea of the unintended consequences.

16:15

Do you understand that Wales and the United Kingdom is an outlier globally, and that even the United States, in 41 states, has banned greyhound racing? And do you not understand that, by banning greyhound racing, you will eliminate immediate suffering and you will also go a huge way to eliminating illegal trade from Northern Ireland?

Well, my concern, as mentioned earlier, is, if we ban greyhound racing—. The concerns that we have in terms of the welfare standards are they are done by those who have no care whatsoever for their animals. So, if we ban greyhound racing, the concern that I have is that we will see a lot of dogs put down, and that is why I’m saying that much more needs to be done to investigate the implications of such a ban, and why taking evidence from those countries who have banned the sport would have been crucial in making a recommendation.

I acknowledge that this an emotive subject and opinions will be guided depending on experience. Some members of the committee have had that first-hand experience, whether by adopting former race dogs or even by growing up in a greyhound racing environment, and I fully understand and respect their point of view. However, when discussing an issue such as this, opinions need to be objective and independent, and I well understand that some Members here might not like hearing that, but it’s true.

So, Dirprwy Lywydd, whatever happens here today, and whatever the result, I hope that Members and the Government will understand that, from an animal welfare point of view, considerably much more work needs to be done. Thank you.

Diolch to the petitioner for bringing this matter to our attention. As a member of the Petitions Committee I’ve had the opportunity to take evidence from a number of stakeholders. I’d like to thank them all, as well as the clerks and my colleagues on the committee for ensuring ‘The Final Bend?’ report includes a balance of voices from those in favour of and those who oppose greyhound racing in Wales.

With a strong belief that animal welfare must come first, I fully endorse all five recommendations of the report. I’m in no doubt that there are responsible, caring and proud owners who do their utmost to ensure the welfare of their dogs. But, in a racing environment, there are no guarantees, and unfortunately there is clear evidence of dog owners who couldn’t care less for the welfare of their dogs. Valley track, an unlicensed track, has no requirements to ensure a standard of animal welfare. The Greyhound Board of Great Britain have plans for a licence from 2024, but the fact is that, even at GBGB tracks that are licensed tracks, with vets, there is still a need for freezers suitable for the storage of greyhound carcasses. Because, between 2017 and 2020, 3,153 greyhounds have died and 18,345 greyhounds recorded injuries. We also know that greyhounds are being euthanised on economic grounds and in cases where they are not rehomeable. Regardless of the number of races that take place without injury or fatality, how many injuries and deaths must we reach before the welfare outweighs the entertainment, before life outweighs death?

The animal welfare plan for Wales makes reference to licences being a requirement for animal exhibits and establishments, potentially including greyhound racing. With the knowledge of the number of dogs injured, dead or abandoned, even at licensed tracks, I don’t see how this is in keeping with the plan’s ambition for all animals in Wales to have a good quality of life.

We pride ourselves in Wales on being trailblazers, recognising where change needs to happen and placing ourselves at the forefront—the climate emergency, for example. But, when it comes to greyhound racing, we’re in the company of less than a dozen countries worldwide. I'd prefer to see us in the company of the rest of the world, and animal charities such as Dogs Trust, RSPCA, Blue Cross, Hope Rescue and Greyhound Rescue Wales, who have all moved away from the tried-and-tested working with stadiums and the racing industry to minimise harm to an outright ban.

As the report notes, there's no denying that there's a long tradition of greyhound racing in Wales, but there must come a time and a place to debate whether a tradition that started back in the 1920s is worth the injuries, the abandonment and the fatalities of innocent dogs. I, for one, am glad that we are able to have that very debate today, and I'll continue to campaign for the welfare of animals in Wales. Thank you.

16:20

Greyhound racing is cruel. It damages dogs; it causes them immense suffering; injures them, sometimes irrevocably, beyond any chance of recovery; and it kills dogs, sometimes immediately, sometimes years later—dogs who have become beloved family pets, who live shorter lives than they should have because of the trauma and fractures and chronic pain that dog their days. As Hope Rescue, the RSPCA, the League Against Cruel Sports and others have reminded us, this debate today in our Senedd offers us a chance to start to change that, to give momentum to the idea that greyhound racing should be banned here in Wales and that no more dogs should have to suffer in this way.

It isn't just death that awaits these dogs. From when they're born, profit dictates their fate. They're not socialised properly; they're kept in cramped kennels; puppies are tattooed when they're reared; oestrus suppressants are used to allow them to race; they're carted around in vehicles that aren't suitable and they often suffer dental disease. Probably most harrowingly, there are stories about the puppies who go missing between birth and racing registrations; they are referred to in the industry as 'wastage', a brutal word and a barbaric practice, because these puppies are considered as surplus, and would either— 

I'd like to thank Delyth Jewell for her contribution, but I'd just like to remind people in the Chamber about making generalised statements about people who keep greyhounds. Not every greyhound owner is a poor owner; some people really do care about their dogs, and I think making generalised statements doesn't really help this debate at all.