Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

22/03/2023

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 Finance and Local Government

Good afternoon, and welcome, all, to this Plenary meeting. The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and the first question this afternoon is from Siân Gwenllian.

Women County Councillors

1. How will the Welsh Government support the successful efforts taking place in Arfon and elsewhere to attract more women to be county councillors? OQ59302

I welcome the actions being taken across Wales to encourage individuals to put themselves forward for elected office. Diversity delivers better, more inclusive decision making. In advance of the 2027 local elections, work to encourage diversity includes the programme for government commitment to extend the access to elected office fund.

Since the county council elections a year ago, around 35 per cent of councillors in Wales are women. In Arfon, we succeeded in increasing the number of women standing for Plaid Cymru by 21 per cent. This was the result of intentional work by some of us, a great many encouraging conversations, training, mentoring, and the support has continued over the past year for them since the election. But do you agree that we need statutory measures to create the genuine change across Wales's councils to reach a position of equality? And what work is ongoing to create that statutory change that is needed?

A range of work is ongoing at the moment in order to try and ensure that we have a more diverse group of people putting themselves forward for election, for both town and community councils, and county and country borough councils, in future. And those include the reviewing of the access to elected office fund, which was very successful in supporting a number of candidates to become town and community councillors at the last elections, but also looking to see how job sharing, for example, can be extended to more roles within councils, to recognise how important that is for becoming a more attractive option for a wider range of people. We know that women, in particular, and those with caring responsibilities, find that particularly attractive. And we've also been exploring what more we can do in terms of widening the access to hybrid meetings as a way of working, which, again, supports a more diverse group of people. But in terms of making those things statutory—I suppose we're talking about gender quotas here—I think there is a conversation to be had about that, but it's not one of our key proposals at the moment in terms of reforms, but, certainly, something that we should be having a discussion about. I'm very keen to have more of a discussion with Siân Gwenllian about her ideas in that space.

I've been proud to host and speak at both the 2022 and 2023 Equal Power Equal Voice Senedd events, celebrating the Equal Power Equal Voice project, a mentoring programme aiming to increase diversity of representation in public and political life in Wales. Equal Power Equal Voice, or EPEV, is a partnership between Women's Equality Network Wales, Stonewall Cymru, Disability Wales, and Ethnic Minorities and Youth Support Team Wales. And I was also pleased to participate in last month's north Wales regional meet-up for the EPEV programme, at the Autistic UK office in Llandudno, meeting and getting to know more about the mentees in north Wales. Although most of those attending were women, both men and women also identified inter-sectional issues, including disability and sexuality, which combined to create barriers for them. What positive action is the Welsh Government therefore taking with people to address this, in order to increase diversity of representation in public and political life in Wales?

I'd like to begin, really, by joining Mark Isherwood in recognising the importance of mentoring schemes. I've been a mentor myself in one of the schemes, and I found that probably as valuable to me as to the mentee, so I would absolutely encourage all colleagues to look at opportunities to support those kinds of schemes. One of the things that we have been doing is trying to widen our evidence base, looking at protected characteristics, and we undertook a survey of members of the public about their perceptions of local councillors, but then, also, our candidates surveys. And those surveys do show that there is a real lack of diversity, and they did give us some kind of insight, really, as to what the barriers are, in terms of allowing people with protected characteristics—often, one or more of those protected characteristics—being able to participate fully in local democracy. So, building on that suite of research, we've been able to hold a range of workshops, whereby we invited elected members, but also representatives of a range of organisations representing diverse, protected characteristics, to talk in a bit more depth about the barriers that there are to people becoming involved in elected politics. And I think that those workshops have been really helpful. They've recently concluded, so now we're looking at all of the learning that we had from those workshops in order to try and help us set out the next steps in this important agenda.

13:35
Crematoriums

2. How is the Welsh Government supporting local authorities to provide access to local crematoriums? OQ59305

Local authorities are burial authorities and responsible for their own cemeteries and crematoriums. It is for local planning authorities to identify suitable sites for new crematoriums. Proposals for new crematoriums would be subject to planning and environmental law.

Thank you, Minister, for your answer. There is no crematorium in Powys. Many of my constituents have to travel into England, and the vast majority of my constituents have to travel over an hour to the nearest crematorium. So, clearly, this is not ideal for grieving families or friends, or, indeed, very sustainable at all either. Most crematoriums, of course, in Wales are owned and managed by local authorities, but I'm keen to know how the Welsh Government can support either a local authority or a private business to build and provide crematorium services in my constituency. And I ask the question in the context that there was an application in my constituency in north Powys from a private developer to build a crematorium. It was supported by the local authority in principle, and through the planning process as well, but it was rejected by Welsh Government after a call-in. So, what I'm very keen to understand from you, Minister, is how you can support, and Welsh Government can support, either a local authority or a private developer to build a crematorium and provide those services in my constituency, because a private developer isn't going to do that unless they know that their risk is minimalised and they have the support of the Welsh Government. So, can you perhaps give advice to me, and any private developer that wants to build a crematorium in north Powys, to support my constituents?

Thank you to Russell George for raising this issue this afternoon. I am aware of the particular application to which he refers, which was called in and then subsequently refused. The reasons for that are set out in the decision letter, and, because it is open to the applicant to challenge the decision in the High Court, I won't say any more about that application today. But I understand the more general request for information, and, I suppose, the advice would be for the interested private business to have discussions with the local authority in the first instance, because assessment for the need for crematoriums is locally led, and local planning authorities will need to take into account a range of factors, such as drive time, catchment for the existing provision—Russell George has set out some of the challenges there—the capacity of existing provision, and population and demographics, as well as planned housing developments in the area. And, obviously, the authority would want to take into account the views of the local residents as well. Guidance on the establishment of crematoria, including meeting the requirements under the legislation, is available from the Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities, and that might be another source of useful information for the individual concerned, and for Russell George. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Sam Rowlands. 

Diolch, Llywydd, and good afternoon, Minister. As I'm sure you'll gladly recall, earlier this month I wrote a letter to you regarding council tax exemptions, in particular relating to the 182-day regulations for self-catering businesses in Wales. In this letter, I asked for an update on what exemptions will be made in relation to those regulations, and I was grateful to receive your response following the explanatory memorandum published on 6 March. Minister, you will know that these new regulations, with such limited exemptions, will mean that many genuine, well-established businesses in Wales will now pay thousands of pounds in tax that they previously had not done, or had not had to plan for, some of that being retrospective, therefore making some of these businesses unviable. So, Minister, what is your assessment of this? 

13:40

The Welsh Government has tried to set out a position where we recognise the pressures on businesses, but also believe that the owners of properties should be making a reasonable contribution to the communities in which those properties are situated. We have recognised that some self-catering properties are restricted by planning conditions, preventing permanent occupation as somebody's main residence, and, in the regulations, which we laid on 6 March and which come into force on 1 April 2023, we recognise that in terms of the letting criteria and the maximum council tax premium. It is important, though, that where statutory exemptions are clearly definable in legislation and would be appropriate in all circumstances where they apply, that we use that as the format and the basis for taking our decisions, because planning conditions, I think, do satisfy those requirements as being clear and permanent and having their own legislative basis, and, where they apply, they apply in a consistent way. So that, I think, is an appropriate basis upon which to take decisions. I know that colleagues have provided a long list of other potential areas for exemptions, and we have looked at all of those in detail, but the regulations as laid, I think, set out a reasonable approach to move forward. 

Thank you for that answer, Minister. As you've outlined, the main exemption put in place in relation to planning conditions specifies properties may only be used for holiday lets et cetera. But you also noted in your response just then the other exemptions that were sought by these businesses in Wales, and, in particular, this included an exemption for registered charities that provide respite for carers and properties that cater for those people with special needs. So, in light of this, Minister, will you reassess your council tax premiums and look at introducing an exemption for those who provide respite care in Wales? 

We have looked at the case made by you and by others in respect of where a property is run by a charity, and I think that the circumstances will depend on the particular situation relating to that property. Some will already be covered by an existing exemption or by the new exemption, and, in cases where that's not so, authorities do have discretionary powers that they can use. The nature of charitable lettings can vary, and it would be difficult to define a specific category for this, but I think that there are cases where local authorities will be looking to the revised and refreshed guidance, which the Welsh Government is providing to help them take those decisions, when they believe that there is a real case for a individual property or a group of properties or a category of properties locally to be exempted. 

I thank you, again, for that response, Minister. I'm sure you would be the first to acknowledge the importance of these self-catering businesses in supporting our communities, both in the jobs that they create and sustain and the difference that they make to their communities, and I'm sure you'd also acknowledge and accept some of their anxiety and worry due to these 182-day regulations that they're facing at the moment, and many hoped that there would be some sensible exemptions to the premiums, but, clearly, this hasn't been delivered, and I think this needs to be reiterated here today. But, in light of this, Minister, will you today commit to working closely with this really important sector to ensure that we don't see these legitimate, hard-working businesses close, which would consequently result in loss of jobs and, therefore, an impact on our communities here in Wales? 

The Welsh Government does work very, very closely with the tourism sector, and we do listen very carefully to the representations that they make on behalf of their members. I think that Sam Rowlands will recognise that we are trying to strike a balance here between supporting the tourism industry and allowing that to thrive and supporting that to thrive, but at the same time recognising that there is an important issue in terms of underused properties, particularly in some of our more rural and coastal communities, where there's a great deal of tourism but not opportunities for local individuals to rent or buy a home. So, I do think that we are trying to strike a balance in what is quite a challenging situation. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. Minister, the Barnett formula all too often ends up being a rather convenient reason, some would say, for the Welsh Government to delay implementing transformative policies. The most recent case in point, maybe, relates to public sector pay here in Wales. Because we do know that, very often, the lack of action in England leaves Welsh Ministers sitting on their hands—you would say, 'having to sit on our hands', I'd imagine. Do you agree that the recent UK Government budget and the continued fiasco around HS2 funding, and now the even more absurd decision on no consequential funding to Wales from the Northern Powerhouse Rail work, has again underlined what Plaid Cymru has long advocated—that we need to move away from the current arrangement to a needs-based funding formula, delivered through an independent office of fair funding, which would have a legal obligation to deliver a fairer economic balance across the nations and regions of the UK, legally bound to ensure that public money delivers equality of outcomes right across the United Kingdom?

13:45

I would say that the Barnett formula and the fiscal framework that was agreed by the First Minister when he was in this role with the UK Government actually does provide some advantages to Wales in terms of the fact that the Barnett formula does recognise relative need. I think that's important and that's certainly something that we wouldn't want to move away from. I think that, where there are challenges—as the First Minister, I think, set out in First Minister's questions yesterday—is where the UK Government is the judge and jury in terms of the application of the Barnett formula. I think that that is where some of those real challenges arise, for example the classification of HS2 as an England-and-Wales project when it self-evidently isn't. HM Treasury's own analysis suggests that it will have a disbenefit to south-west Wales. I think that all of those things do lead us to the point where I think a more independent look at the Barnett formula and how it's applied is important. I think that the work that we've done in terms of inter-governmental relations is important as well. When we get to the point of testing some of this through the disputes mechanism, I think it will be an important moment for us to make those arguments quite clearly to the UK Government, using the process that we've agreed.

I'm not sure any of us would relish having to run through those processes, to be honest, because I fear that we maybe know what the outcome might be. But there we are; we won't go there.

Really, it sounded a little bit as if you were making excuses for Barnett earlier on in your answer, but we know that by placing relative need first and foremost within the arrangement, we'd then be able to direct more public finances to address some of the socioeconomic and environmental challenges that we face here in Wales. Needs arising from our ageing demographics, for example, would then translate into increased funding for health and social care. Low employment would incentivise increased spending on education and training. Climate adaptation would necessitate funding then for more green energy investment. Without such reform, Wales is just going to be locked into the current cycle where we depend on a UK Chancellor making spending commitments for England before we can then subsequently act here in Wales.

What commitment can you give, Minister, as a Labour Minister here in Wales, that any incoming UK Labour Government would actually overhaul Wales's funding settlement to achieve that fairer, economic balance across the regions and nations of the UK—something, of course, that would fiscally empower you as a Welsh finance Minister to deliver on our priorities here in Wales, rather, of course, than having to wait, as we do currently, for England to act before we can make the investment that we so desperately need here in Wales?

I'm really keen to impress upon UK Labour the same argument that we've been making to HM Treasury in terms of the fiscal flexibilities that Wales needs. Our borrowing powers are not fit for purpose, really, in the sense that we have such a limited annual ability to borrow. I think that that obviously needs to be addressed. The year-end issues really need to be addressed in the sense that our budget often changes very late on in the year and there are some real limitations on carry-over, so it does potentially lead you to taking spending decisions at the end of the year that might not be the decisions that you would make if you had the ability to carry that funding over into the next financial year. Again, that's just a simple thing I think that the UK Government could do, which would be a common-sense approach to the issues that we're facing. Obviously, we're having the opportunities to make representations to the UK Government. I don't think it's going to be making piecemeal announcements. As the First Minister said yesterday, they will obviously be considering the production of the manifesto for the next election. Certainly, I don't think that this would be the appropriate place for me to be making announcements on behalf of UK Labour in terms of what they would intend to do for a future UK Government.

13:50
Local Government Staff

3. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to encourage talented people to work in local government given the impact of the cost-of-living crisis? OQ59301

Local authorities deliver their essential services through their talented staff. While each local authority is responsible for its own recruitment, the Welsh Government continues to provide support through Academi Wales leadership programmes including the all-Wales public service graduate programme, personal learning accounts and our wider apprenticeship programme.

Diolch, Minister. I'm always pleased to see the work that my local Bridgend County Borough Council do to improve community. With Brexit's complexities causing an increased workload, to the regeneration of our community, to combating the climate and nature emergency, local government staff play a vital role in the day-to-day lives of everyone. However, according to research conducted by the Institute for Government, the average age of civil servants across the UK is 44, and whilst Bridgend County Borough Council has launched a graduate scheme—some members of which are in the gallery here today—Minister, this is a real issue. Therefore, considering the increased workload for local government, what work is the Welsh Government doing to encourage young people to fill vacant posts in local government, and will they encourage schemes like this across Wales? Diolch.

Thank you very much for raising this important issue this afternoon. I absolutely join you in recognising the vital role that our local government staff play in terms of serving their communities. I'm very sorry I'm not able to meet the Bridgend graduates in person myself this afternoon, but it's wonderful to see them at the Senedd.

I think that there are some really important things that Bridgend is doing in terms of the significant use of apprenticeships. I know there are 144 of them, and that's been particularly useful in ICT, social care and building control. Those are all areas where we need to be encouraging talented people to make a career in local government. I think that, as Bridgend is doing, really, all local authorities need to be thinking about how we can promote the benefits of working in the public sector. As well as having the opportunity to really make a strong contribution to your local area, there are also fantastic opportunities within local authorities to progress within your career. I think that the more we can do to start getting young people at school and college to start thinking about careers in local government, the better, because as you say, there are great opportunities, and it really is a job where you can make a huge difference.

There are many people in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities who have a range of skills that will benefit the delivery of local authority services, such as language skills and a deep knowledge of different cultural communities. Minister, what should local authorities do to improve the rate of employment amongst these communities to better reflect the people they serve?

I think it's really important that local authorities—and the public sector more widely—takes opportunities to look to attract a much wider and more diverse range of people to work in their sectors. They can do that by, for example, ensuring that the advertisements for roles are appropriately placed in places where people with more diverse characteristics are likely to see them, and also finding ways to make the interview process a more welcoming and inclusive way in which to find your new staff. And again, those mentoring schemes, which we were talking about earlier in terms of political roles, I think are really quite exciting and important within the context of the public sector as well. There is absolutely more that should be happening in that space, but lots we can learn, I think, from the work that we're doing to improve diversity in democracy, because I think that in many ways they're two sides of the same coin.

Fossil Fuel Investments

4. How is the Welsh Government working with local government colleagues to divest public sector pension funds from fossil fuel investments? OQ59293

We are working closely with colleagues. The Wales pension partnership discussed decarbonising local government pensions at the Partnership Council for Wales in November. Following your meeting with the First Minister in January, the WLGA has agreed to run an event in May with leaders and pension providers to discuss the next steps.  

13:55

I'm very grateful to the Minister for confirmation of that meeting and the session with the Welsh Local Government Association. The Minister will know that, in 2021, the Welsh Government produced the route-map for decarbonisation across the Welsh public sector by 2030, and it shows what can be achieved if the public sector works together on climate emissions. In the spirit of collaboration and in the spirit of the decarbonisation session with the WLGA, I wonder if the Minister agrees with me that that, there, is an opportunity where we can come up together with a new strategy to decarbonise the Welsh public sector pension fund by 2030.

I absolutely agree that working together to respond to the climate and nature crisis is the only way that we are really, really going to be able to make the improvements that have to be made. The whole pension system really needs to be responding to this agenda. It is true, of course, that local government pension authorities can be learning from each other and from across the public sector more widely. The meeting that I know, Jack, came about as a result of the work that you've been doing I think will be important in sharing that information. 

It's also important to recognise that pension owners are already taking some steps to decarbonise. So, it's important to recognise good practice where it is taking place. The local government Wales pension partnership announced a new decarbonisation initiative across £2.5 billion of its investments in April of last year. And again, I think that there are opportunities there to explore that good practice and see how it can be widened even further. 

I'm pleased this subject has been raised this afternoon. I have grave concerns over the decarbonisation of pension funds and how that will be implemented over a sustained period of time as a lot of public sector pensions rely on investments in fossil fuels. If you want a statement of fact, in the Member for Alyn and Deeside's own constituency, in Flintshire, they invested in renewables and clean tech way back in 2008 and 2009. So, you saw the perfect example in his own constituency of how a council can work proactively in decarbonising the pensions themselves without necessarily having the legislative framework in place to support that. 

But the question I want to ask, Minister, particularly around this is around the lowest-paid workers, some of whom fall within the Clwyd pension fund, which covers my constituency in Denbighshire. In terms of implementation, what would that look like in terms of protecting the lowest-paid workers so that we don't impoverish the lowest-paid workers who very committedly engaged in pension funds all their working career and want a reward when they do decide to retire? What steps is the Welsh Government taking to support the lowest-paid workers in Denbighshire in that sense? Thank you.

These would be matters, really, for the members of the pension board and the pension fund to be considering in terms of the investments that the fund makes. But that said, I think that green pension investments can be very good investments in terms of the way in which the current energy market is moving towards a greener and more sustainable way of delivering energy for the future. I know all of these things will be things that the pension scheme managers and so on are discussing with the pension board. Those specific investment decisions are really not for the Welsh Government, but for the pension boards themselves. 

The Private Finance Initiative

5. What assessment has the Minister made of the financial legacy of the use of the private finance initiative in Wales? OQ59320

There are now 20 remaining historic private finance initiative contracts in Wales. In 2019, the First Minister instigated a review of PFI contracts, encouraging contracting authorities to renegotiate or terminate PFI contracts where there was a value-for-money case for doing so. This work is ongoing.

Thank you for that. That's very helpful. Two of those cases that you've identified are in the Caerphilly borough. One is fully in my constituency, Lewis School Pengam, and the other has a campus in my constituency, which is Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni, and there are nine years left to run on the original 30-year PFI contracts. I don't think we would have had the schools without them, and they are very impressive schools, but Caerphilly County Borough Council believes that key benefits could be gained if the contract, which relates to the provision of building maintenance, cleaning, catering and grounds maintenance services is terminated early, and it's due to be discussed at full council on 19 April. So, in advance of that, I just wanted to ask the Minister: what support can the Welsh Government provide to Caerphilly County Borough Council, if they did decide to exit that PFI contract early?

14:00

Well, authorities are continuing to review their contracts to determine value for money, and contracting authorities that are undertaking reviews to renegotiate or to terminate a contract don't need Welsh Government approval to renegotiate or terminate that contract. Welsh Government does, however, review the business case, as we provide some revenue support cost for PFI initiatives. This stream of funding is considered as part of the value-for-money case for the overall public purse. So, in terms of Caerphilly County Borough Council, they have submitted a business case proposing the voluntary termination of their PFI contract for the two schools, as you just described, and I've approved the continuation of some revenue support for the remaining period that the contract would have run if the PFI continued. It is now for Caerphilly, of course, to make the decision as to whether or not it wants to voluntarily terminate.

Minister, as you know, the use of PFI has been calamitous, to say the least. You will know that many councils were caught in the grip of toxic PFI schemes, and as we know, Minister, at last count, I believe there were 23 PFI projects with a capital value of £701 million, which was sponsored by Welsh Government, and there were five projects sponsored by the UK Government. Minister, there will be times when access to private capital is essential. However, often, they've offered poor value for money and merely place a burden of debt on many generations to come. I just wondered what lessons has the Welsh Government learned from the experience of PFIs. What work is the Welsh Government doing in order to increase transparency and to ensure that taxpayers get the best value for money when engaging with the private sector?

Well, I will say that successive Welsh Governments have consistently avoided the pitfalls of PFI contracts, and as a result of our approach, liabilities relating to this type of scheme in Wales are much lower than in other parts of the UK. For example, the average cost per head of PFI schemes in Wales is around £40, and that's approximately a fifth of the cost per head across the UK as a whole.

In Wales, we've looked to develop a different kind of model, which is of course our mutual investment model. It does differ from traditional PFI in a number of ways. For example, it ensures that the businesses involved have to help the Welsh Government deliver on the objectives of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015; they will, for example, need to deliver very stretching community benefits, and there are remedies for non-delivery; they will need to commit to the Welsh Government's ethical employment code, and also build with long-term sustainability and environmental efficiency in mind as well.

So, I think we've seen some very good examples—during the construction of the A465, for example, where we've seen lots of new local jobs being created, lots of employment for people who have experienced long-term unemployment, or who are not in employment, education or training, for example, and, of course, a number of community initiatives have been supported through the community initiatives programme, which was set up as part of that as well. So, I think it's important to recognise that we have developed the MIM model, but it does differ significantly from traditional PFI.

The 2 Sisters Food Group Site

6. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Economy about additional financial support for Isle of Anglesey County Council following the announcement by the 2 Sisters Food Group regarding the closure of its site in Llangefni? OQ59316

The Minister for Economy, working with the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, is engaging across Government and working in partnership with Anglesey council through the 2 Sisters taskforce. Our collective focus to date has been on supporting affected workers and the community in Llangefni and beyond.

14:05

Thank you for that response. There does need to be a response in terms of additional funding on many levels. This is a huge blow to us on Anglesey. I, of course, am in contact with many of those who are losing their jobs as they face an uncertain future, and I am asking for an assurance today that the Minister will look favourably at any applications for support for workers and their families, both directly and by creating employment and training opportunities and so on too.

In terms of the county council, work is currently ongoing to identify the areas that will place most demand on them. They're looking at well-being and social needs, housing, the resilience of families, and so on and so forth. And the great concern at this point is that it won't be apparent what the impact will be until after the plant closes. So can I ask, once again today, the Government to work very closely with the community. and the council particularly, to secure sufficient funding to face the challenges that arise?

I'd just begin by reassuring Rhun ap Iorwerth that the Minister for Economy is working very closely indeed with the council on this issue, and the taskforce also continues to be meeting regularly to establish a way forward and also to understand those wider implications to which the Member has referred. The Minister for Economy has approved additional funding through the Welsh Government's Communities for Work Plus programme for Anglesey County Council and Gwynedd Council in 2023-24 to expand the capacity of their local Communities for Work teams, to support those who have been made redundant as a result of the closure of the Llangefni plant. And both of those teams are already on site, alongside Careers Wales and Job Centre Plus, to ensure that the staff at 2 Sisters get the full range of support that they need to find alternative employment.

With the plant's closure having now entered the next stage, consideration is being given to future options for the site, which remain with its owner. Alongside the local authority, we are engaging with them to ensure that this important and prominent site can once again provide local employment opportunities as soon as possible. As far as I'm aware, to date, no funding request for the site has been made to the Minister for Economy, and given that the taskforce's focus to date has been on the individuals affected, there hasn't been any additional funding request from the council at this time. But I appreciate that these are early days in terms of understanding the full impact of the closure.

Can I support Rhun ap Iorwerth in his request for the appropriate support to be provided to the local authority at Anglesey? I noted in your response there, Minister, that you rightly pointed to the important goal of the support for workers from the 2 Sisters site and also for the re-establishment of the site to be utilised at some point in the future as well. I also noted that, right towards the end there, you said that you hadn't seen any further requests for support from the local authority. But I wonder if you'd be able to expand on any other types of support that may have been requested to you, whether you've had sight of those, and what the options might be for supporting the community from other places, not just from the local authority.

The request for additional support, for example the additional funding that has gone through Communities for Work, was made to the Minister for Economy. So, I haven't had any particular approaches in terms of additional funding. But I do know that there was a meeting held on 15 March between Anglesey council, the Wales Office, Welsh Government and Amber Holdings who own the site, and that meeting secured an agreement to engage with stakeholders to agree a future use of the site in line with local needs, and also to engage with local businesses to determine the type of property required in the current market. And again, that would be a discussion led by the Minister for Economy. But I just thought that sharing that could be of interest to colleagues this afternoon as well.

Council Tax

7. Will the Minister make a statement on council tax rises in north Wales? OQ59306

The responsibility for setting the council's annual budget and, as part of that, decisions about council tax, are matters for each local authority and its elected members.

Thank you for that response, Minister. I recognise that local authority members themselves are responsible for setting council tax, but as you will know, in Conwy, local residents there are facing an eye-watering increase in their council tax bills of 9.9 per cent this year, which is the largest increase in Wales, and one of the largest in the whole of England and Wales. Such an increase would not be permitted if that local authority had the same opportunity to have a cap fitted on it by you in your responsibility as the Minister for local government. And, of course, in England, residents there who face excessive council tax increases cannot have them imposed upon them without a 'yes' vote in a referendum. Can I ask you, will you consider the introduction of similar legislation here in Wales, so that when things go wrong with significant increases like this at a time when there are cost-of-living pressures, people can have the opportunity to have their say on their local council tax?

14:10

The Welsh Government doesn't intend to introduce any legislation of that sort, because we do believe that capping an authority's budget would be a serious imposition on the responsibilities of those locally elected members. We do provide local authorities, of course, with flexibility when setting their budgets and determining their council tax levels, and that does allow them to respond to local priorities and pressures. We believe that's an important feature of local democracy and enables authorities to be accountable to their residents. Obviously, those local referenda in England are costly. Instead, we channel our funding to the front line of local government through the local government settlement so that authorities do have that greater flexibility in terms of allocating that funding according to their local priorities.

Tackling the Impact of Poverty

8. What consideration did the Minister give to funding interventions that enable Welsh councils to tackle the impact of poverty in preparing the Government's budget for 2023-24?  OQ59287

Supporting vital public services through these hard times was a key priority in the 2023-24 budget. I have provided an additional £227 million for local government, including funding for schools and social care, which sits alongside other directly funded cost-of-living support interventions, including £18.8 million for the discretionary assistance fund.

Thank you, Minister. I was really pleased to see that the budget for the discretionary assistance fund would be increasing by nearly £19 million, and that the cash value of payments would rise in line with inflation by 11 per cent. This news has been very warmly welcomed by, for example, the Bevan Foundation, as we know that the DAF is used by councils as a lifeline for families facing crisis. With our principal authorities being at the coalface during the cost-of-living crisis, how else is Welsh Government supporting councils so that they in turn can support their local communities?

Welsh Government sees the most important thing that we can do in terms of helping local authorities support their communities through this difficult time as providing as much support as we possibly can through the revenue support grant. Our settlement for 2023-24 is an increase of £227 million to the indicative allocations that were published at the last budget. That, in part, is due to the fact that we provided over and above the consequential funding that we received for both education and social care in the previous statement from the UK Government. And, as a result of the reprioritisation exercise that we undertook across Government, we were able to provide that more generous settlement. We think that prioritising local government and ensuring the best possible settlement is the absolutely best way to help local authorities help their local communities.

Question 9 [OQ59298] has been withdrawn, and Jayne Bryant isn't here to ask question 10 [OQ59321], so we'll move on to question 11 from Mike Hedges.

The Invest-to-save Programme

11. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's invest-to-save programme? OQ59284

Since its introduction in 2009, the invest-to-save programme has supported approximately 200 projects with an aggregate value in the region of £200 million. Most recently, it has provided funding for three new projects, helping us to deliver our programme for government commitment in respect of looked-after children. 

Can I thank the Minister for that response? I know that, at one time, it was being used by Natural Resources Wales to fill their gaps because of the cost of the merger. But, generally, I believe it's a very good thing, invest-to-save, and it is an opportunity to help the Welsh public sector and get as much as we can for what we spend. The question I've got is: how do we ensure that what works and is seen to work in one place is actually shared and followed up by other parts of the Welsh public sector, so that we can all benefit rather than just having some one-off successes instead of having successes across the whole sector?

14:15

Cardiff University undertook some work with us, which sought to have discussions right across the public sector where the invest-to-save programme had been used, and it's been used right across Wales in a range of ways to understand what the barriers were for the implementation and expansion of those good projects and the learning across Wales so that these kinds of interventions could be made without the need for the invest-to-save funding. So, we are still considering, really, the learning of that, and it was very much about ensuring that there are opportunities for collaboration and for sharing that information. But we are currently exploring and considering how the fund will operate in future, what activities it should focus on, and part of that will be considering the learning about the barriers to the expansion of good practice.

2. Questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

The next item, therefore, is the questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd, and the first question today is from Janet Finch-Saunders.

The North Wales Growth Deal

1. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Economy regarding the north Wales growth deal? OQ59294

I have regular discussions with the Minister for Economy about a range of north Wales matters, including the north Wales growth deal. At the last Cabinet sub-committee for north Wales, the Minister for Economy gave an economic update for the region, including progress of the deal.

Thank you. I'm sure you'll agree with me that the north Wales growth deal, made possible by funding from the UK Government, represents a fantastic opportunity for investment and jobs in north Wales. I also hope you'll agree that local businesses should be encouraged to do everything they can to apply for funding as part of this deal. This includes our rural and agricultural sector, who also play a role that's just as important in driving economic growth. Hedd Vaughan-Evans, head of operations at Ambition North Wales explains, 'We want to hear from businesses and organisations that can meet our funding criteria and work with us to deliver the benefits to the region from the growth deal. Our website has all the relevant information about funding and how to apply.'

Now, the deadline for submitting bids is 27 March 2023, however, many smaller rural businesses simply do not have the same time available and resources to devote to developing these applications, and they are rather complex business cases, easy for much larger businesses to do. So, what can you do, as the Minister, to increase awareness among rural businesses of these funding opportunities, and what help is being provided to smaller rural businesses to make the application process as easy as possible? Thank you.

I think it is really important that, obviously, the application process is as straightforward and, as you say, as easy as possible. I was aware the £30 million call-out for new growth deal projects did go live on 13 February for six weeks, which I think does take us up to 27 March. And I know Ambition North Wales is particularly interested in transformational projects that have investment ready and complement the programme objectives for agri-food and tourism, along with low carbon energy as well and land and property. I think the process is very robust, I think it's very fair and it's very transparent; I think that's really important. I appreciate what you're saying about the timescale, but I do think the process is important to get it right. Obviously, the responsibility for delivery of the growth deal lies with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, not the Welsh Government, but I know that my officials do have meetings with the board, and I will certainly ensure that the point you make around the small timescale for small business is raised.

Just a few minutes ago I was asking the Minister for finance for support for Anglesey as a result of the closure of the 2 Sisters Food Group works. Additional funding that is becoming available now through the growth deal could be a way to provide support to the food sector in Anglesey as well. I'm eager to see whether that funding could be delivered to provide the food park that I've been pushing for for several years, and whether, against the clock, we can put together a bid for establishing a food village on Anglesey. The demand is there, Coleg Menai say that they are ready to support that, working with their food technology centre, and the development that's going to be happening in Glynllifon too, which includes a food element. It would be good to have the Minister's support in principle to proceed with those plans, and any support that she and her officials could provide. But also I would appreciate a pledge that she will do everything that she can do to ensure, as a result of the closure of 2 Sisters, that the growth of food employment in Anglesey is a priority. 

14:20

Thank you. Obviously, we've met previously around your request for a food park. I'm actually visiting the food technology centre in Llangefni—I think it's during the Easter recess—so I'll certainly see where we are up to in relation to that. 

With respect to 2 Sisters, as the Minister for Finance and Local Government said, I'm working very closely with the Minister for Economy. I think it was—. Unfortunately, I think we could see what was on the cards when the consultation was announced, but it's really important we do everything we can. You may be aware that the Minister for Social Justice recently visited, and, as I say, I'm visiting the technology centre and other areas of Llangefni during Easter recess, so I'll certainly be happy to have further discussions with you around that. 

Minister, one of the key projects in the north Wales growth deal is supporting the work at the digital signal processing centre in Bangor University, where they're developing next-generation technology in digital connectivity. And Llywydd, I will at this point declare an interest as an unpaid member of the project board at the DSP centre. Minister, you'll know I want to see north Wales becoming a global innovator when it comes to digital technology, and, to do this, we need good collaboration from both the Welsh and UK Governments, as well as academic and industry partners. Will you, Minister, provide an update to the Chamber today on what conversations Welsh Government officials, both in your department and the Minister for Economy's department, have had with UK Government counterparts on the importance of investing in north Wales's digital projects?  

Thank you. So, it was actually the first project to be delivered under the north Wales growth deal, as you're aware, so I think it really does demonstrate the difference that the deal investment can make in the area. And I certainly share your ambition to see north Wales—and, in fact, all parts of Wales—become a global innovator when it does come to digital technology, and I'm very happy to amplify that ambition in any interactions that I have with the UK Government. But I know the Minister for Economy, who obviously leads on this—. There was a meeting between him and UK Ministers that focused on digital connectivity, particularly in relation to the UK Government's delivery of the Project Gigabit in Wales. So, the Minister has asked for his officials to be kept updated with that. 

Community Green Spaces

2. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government's strategy for the delivery of community green spaces? OQ59280

Welsh Government is committed to ensuring everyone has access to green spaces close to home. We are delivering this through programmes, including Local Places for Nature, community facilities, landfill disposals tax communities scheme and access improvement grants. Over 1,400 green spaces have been created by Local Places for Nature alone.

Thank you, Minister. Minister, almost three years ago, you established a green recovery task and finish group led by the chair of Natural Resources Wales. In their report to you, one of their key recommendations was reimagining urban areas and green spaces, building space for nature in the design of urban landscapes. There are many dreadful examples of urban development with little thought to green spaces for recreation and well-being. What specific actions will you take over the course of this Senedd term to address how, in your planning and development policies, this can be addressed? People want places to live and green spaces to enjoy, and not just buildings to sit in. 

Thank you. We have several projects that we are taking forward during this term of Government. I mentioned a couple of them in my opening answer to you; certainly, Local Places for Nature I think has been incredibly successful, and it is very well received by our constituents all across Wales. And we are continuing to support and expand on the valuable work of that specific programme, and build on its success. We've allocated approximately £10 million to all 22 local authorities and the three national parks; £1.4 million—I know you take a particular interest in Bridgend—has been allocated to projects in the Bridgend, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Swansea and Neath Port Talbot local authority areas to support that nature enhancement of community green spaces here in Wales. There are other, obviously, schemes—the community facilities programme I’m sure you’re very well aware of—and I think what is really important is that communities themselves take ownership of green spaces.

14:25

I absolutely endorse your ambition, and also NRW’s ambition, to reimagine urban spaces. At a time when people’s mental health is quite fragile, this is a really important thing. In my experience, it isn’t local vandals who are the problem—it’s people operating on grass-cutting contracts who, basically, mow down trees and flowers that people have planted to make their own area look nicer. I just wondered how the Welsh Government plans to ensure that everybody is engaged with this, with the importance of reimagining our urban green spaces. We don’t need to spray weedkiller to kill off weeds because it also kills off plants as well and it adds to the phosphorus problem. So, how do you think you might be able to ensure that, in urban areas, we have a complete partnership approach with our communities and with all our services that are being delivered, so that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet?

Thank you. I think you raise a very important point, and you’ll be aware of some of the campaigns as a Government we’ve brought forward. So, one of them is—. Carolyn Thomas, our colleague, has been working to develop and promote the ‘It’s for Them’ campaign, and that’s about helping local communities understand the importance of verges and green spaces for wildlife, for instance, as well as, obviously, planting wild flowers as well. So, there are a variety of schemes that we’re bringing forward. We’ve got the ‘Nature isn’t Neat’ scheme, which I think has been very successful as well.

Minister, as you say, community groups are doing some very good work in greening our local communities, and this is vital, isn’t it, in meeting the challenges of climate change, in connecting people more with nature, and gaining popular support for the transition that we need if we are really going to meet the environmental challenges of the future? One example of that, I think, is in the Maindee area of Newport East. On Saturday, the First Minister will be coming along to open the Triangle site, which is all about greening the local community—there’s a community café, there’s a performance space; some really, really good work has been done. So, Minister, will you continue to look at how you can support these community groups right across Wales, with their litter picks, with their planting, with their greening activity?

Yes, thank you, and certainly it sounds a great project in Maindee and, if the First Minister is attending on Saturday, I’m sure the event will be very successful. But I think it is really important that you work with communities about what they want in their open spaces and their green spaces, because then I think they’re valued more, and they’re respected more as well. So, certainly, working closely with my colleague the Minister for Climate Change, we will certainly look at what more we can do across Wales.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

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

Diolch, Llywydd. As the Minister for north Wales, can you tell us how the Welsh Government is ensuring that people across the north Wales region will benefit from the additional funding that was announced in the Chancellor’s budget for growth last week?

Obviously, those decisions will be taken across Cabinet, with the Minister for finance. You’ll be aware that we didn’t receive perhaps as much money as we had hoped to, but those decisions are taken on a cross-Government basis. Obviously, as the Minister with responsibility for north Wales, I will ensure that north Wales continues to get its fair share.

Well, I’m afraid that answer didn’t give me a great deal of hope, Minister. As you know, this is £180 million-worth extra that is coming to Wales, and this is on top of—this is on top of—£600 million that was announced in the autumn statement last year. So, that’s £780 million, £0.75 billion extra, that you have to spend in the financial year 2023-24. And we have a situation where the UK Government is determined to invest in all parts of the United Kingdom, levelling up across the country. I just wish that we had a Welsh Government that was determined to level up across Wales, because, unfortunately, north Wales doesn’t get its fair share and is constantly being left behind.

Now, we know that the Welsh Government has no plans at the moment to invest the extra cash into extending the universal free childcare offer to the under-threes. So, can I ask you again: what are you arguing for in these discussions that you're having with Cabinet colleagues in terms of investment in north Wales? Give me your shopping list.

14:30

No. I'll discuss that with my Cabinet colleagues, not with an opposition Member here in the Chamber. You will see, if you look, that north Wales absolutely gets its fair share, and you will have heard the First Minister say time and time again yesterday that we already provide much of the childcare facilities and care and provision that the UK Government are merely talking about and kicking into the long grass. They clearly have no confidence that they're going to be there after the next general election, and that's why they've said they'll do it in 2025. And as for levelling up, you look across north Wales and see how many bids were not successful in the levelling-up fund. So, please don't talk to me about the UK Government and the levelling-up fund in relation to north Wales.

Let's have a look at the evidence, shall we? Let's look at transport—let's look at transport: £800 million you're investing in a metro system in south Wales; north Wales, a paltry £50 million for the north Wales metro. Let's have a look at the airport that you're investing £250 million in, in south Wales; so far—so far—north Wales, diddly-squat. The roads review: you cancelled projects across the north Wales region, while you're still building a brand-new dual carriageway in the south. The evidence speaks for itself, Minister. And what the people of north Wales expect from the Minister for north Wales is someone who will fight for investment, to solve the crisis in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, to solve the crisis in NHS dentistry, to help people get themselves onto the housing ladder, to freeze their council taxes, where they're going up beyond extortionate rates, and to deliver those road improvement schemes that people want to see. These are the sorts of priorities that I would expect to be on your shopping list. So, will you adopt them?

So, as you said yourself, we had an extra £180 million. I was trying to add up in my head all the money that you think should be spent in north Wales, and, believe me, it comes to a lot more than £180 million. We are getting £1 million for capital funding next year—[Interruption.]—£1 million. If you look in—[Interruption.] Do you want to listen?

You know, as well as I do, how much money would be needed to bring our estate in Betsi Cadwaladr up to the standard that we all want. I don't know about you, but me, I use the NHS, and I get excellent healthcare from Betsi. If you use private healthcare, that's up to you. [Interruption.]

Thank you very much, Llywydd. Welsh wool is a sustainable product, it's multipurpose, and it's environmentally beneficial. There's increasing demand for eco-friendly produce, and Welsh wool is perfect for this end. As the Minister knows, Welsh farmers have an unswerving commitment to secure sustainable farming, and, of course, Welsh wool could play an important role as the sector tries to live up to its ambitious environmental commitment. But despite these positives, international wool prices have come under pressures, as high energy prices lead to loss of business, and buyers' confidence falling, which, in turn, cause problems for the providers of core materials such as wool. Will the Minister therefore commit to doing everything she can to assist the sector, and for the Government to show leadership, including by using procurement powers, noting the need to use Welsh wool in Government projects, such as using Welsh wool carpets in building and transport schemes? For example, how much Welsh wool is used in Transport for Wales vehicles? Thank you very much.

Thank you. I think you raise a very important point, and I'm certainly committed to doing all I can. I think I meet probably annually with the chief executive of the British Wool council, and I'm due to meet in the next few weeks, I think, again. And certainly, it's really good to hear from them their ideas for the use of wool. So, for instance, it was raised with me that one of the ways we could help would be to use it in insulation, but, actually, when you talk to the British Wool council, they said that wasn't the best use. But the point that you made around transport—so, in seats on transport—I certainly had some discussions with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change to see, as we were procuring the new trains, how much wool could be used for the seats. Obviously, I've had discussions with the Minister for Climate Change as well, and she's very keen to use more wool. So, I shall certainly continue those conversations, and I'll be very happy to update the Member.

Thank you very much to the Minister for that response. I want to move on now, if I may, to forestry. Around 15 per cent of Wales is covered with forestry of different sorts—around 316,000 hectares here. The trees are different, with various different species and different kinds of cover, individual trees, small woodlands or large forests. But the one thing that is common is that managed woodland does better than unmanaged woodland. Whether that management is for construction timber or fibre, biodiversity or habitats, flood management or leisure, you will need a timber permit in order to ensure that the woodland is managed at some point or another. 

The new agriculture Bill, as it currently stands, is going to significantly change the licensing system in this area. I would therefore invite the Minister to set out her vision for woodland and forest management in Wales. 

14:35

Thank you. So, you are quite right, part of the agricultural Bill—and, obviously, we've got Stage 2 tomorrow—does include new powers to allow for environmental conditions to be added to felling licenses, and to amend or suspend, or revoke any licenses that have already been granted. I'm having to look very carefully at the forestry element of it, as is often the case when you start a piece of legislation. As you go through the various stages, you perhaps need to look at providing more clarity in the legislation going forward. And I will certainly be looking to have more detailed provision at Stage 3.

Domestic Animals

3. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government's priorities for improving the welfare of domestic animals in Cynon Valley? OQ59286

The Welsh Government's priorities for animal welfare are set out in the animal welfare plan for Wales. The plan includes a timetable for the delivery of key actions against our four animal welfare programme for government commitments, alongside our other planned work.

Thank you, Minister. The second anniversary of the regulations introducing Lucy's law—the ban on third-party sales of cats and dogs being brought in here in Wales—is imminent. This was such an important step forward in terms of domestic animal welfare. So, I'd like to ask: how is Welsh Government working to monitor those regulations, and to ensure that its provisions are being enforced, and building this into its wider animal welfare work?

Thank you. I am aware, obviously, that Lucy's law is reaching an important anniversary next month, and Lucy, the spaniel who the legislation was named after, did come from a farm here in Wales. But that legislation only applies to England. As you're aware, our legislation, which was the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (Wales) Regulations 2021 goes further, and I hope that demonstrates and reflects my strong commitment to the welfare of dogs—in fact, all animals here in Wales—and my officials do monitor very carefully those regulations. 

I do accept, of course, that those regulations do not address all the problems that we have associated with puppy trading, and that's why we are bringing in further measures. As we look at that legislation, and we monitor that, we look at other measures to bring forward to ensure that we really have those high welfare standards in our dog breeders here in Wales. 

Minister, as you will be well aware, the purchasing of domestic animals as pets online is fraught with danger, and sadly, there are little to no safeguards in place that can stop buyers from unknowingly purchasing animals that have been bred in puppy farms and raised in horrific conditions. There's also the issue that dangerous dogs, with a known history of attacking people, have been advertised and sold online, which, tragically, has led to some horrific, and even fatal, attacks. 

Minister, as sad as this is to say, there is also the issue of dogs being advertised as 'free to a good home', and these dogs who may well be given to seemingly genuine people can end up in the hands of illegal dog fighters, who use these free dogs as bait to train fighting dogs. I believe—and I'm sure every Member here will also agree with me—that we cannot go on like this and allow such easy trade of abused animals. We need much tougher measures in place with regard to online sales and advertising.

Justice for Reggie, a charity set up to campaign for much tighter regulations with regard to the online sale and breeding of domestic animals, will have, during our recess in April, their Online Pet Sales Awareness Week. And with this in mind, Minister—and I'm conscious of your comments to my colleague Vikki—what commitments are the Welsh Government making to tighten regulations regarding the online sale of domestic animals in Wales by individuals and businesses? Thank you. 

Thank you. Well, as I stated to Vikki Howells, our legislation goes further than the legislation in England. I do think you raise a very important point, though, because we know that, unfortunately, people do still buy their pets online, and our legislation means someone should only go and purchase a pet where that pet was bred. So, it's something that we're continuing to monitor and, within the powers that we have, we're doing all we can. I'm also calling on the UK Government to strengthen its dog legislation, particularly around dangerous dogs, because I don't think it's fit for purpose, but to date they are not happy to do that. 

14:40
Protecting Bees

We recognise the worrying decline in pollinators. Our action plan for pollinators, the first of its kind in the world, aims to provide diverse and connected flower-rich habitats to ensure healthy pollinator populations. In Gwent, Nature Isn’t Neat is changing how verges and parks are managed to benefit pollinators.

Thank you, Minister. I asked what action is being taken to protect our crucial pollinators because of the emergence of a new threat, which I'm sure you're aware of, the Asian hornet. The invasive species preys on native honey bees and, as a result, is now causing serious concern, as several cases are reported in the south of England. With reports recording an estimated 23 per cent decline of the honey bee in Wales, we need to be vigilant against this new threat. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said it's absolutely essential that any possible sightings of the Asian hornet are recorded as early as possible to ensure swift action. Minister, I'm sure you'll agree with me that it's vital that the Welsh Government works in close collaboration with the UK Government to tackle this threat. Can you outline what steps your Government is taking to prevent this threat from escalating?

We certainly do work very closely with DEFRA. I'm not aware of any sightings in Wales, and I'm not aware of any sightings in England, actually, for quite a little while—I think certainly not this year. But when there is a sighting of one, obviously our officials work very closely and it's dealt with also very quickly, and it's not something that we do want to see in Wales. It's not something that I discuss frequently with DEFRA, but officials do work, as I say, very closely to ensure that, if there is a sighting, action can be taken.

Greyhound Racing

5. Will the Minister make a statement on the forthcoming consultation on the future of greyhound racing in Wales? OQ59319

Thank you. As detailed in the debate on 8 March, I will launch a public consultation regarding greyhound racing later this year. The consultation will gather evidence on the benefits and impacts of both legislating and banning greyhound racing in Wales.

The Minister will know, from private conversations and public, that I fully support the Welsh Government's consultation. In last week's meeting of the Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee, I asked you for a commitment, should the forthcoming Welsh Government consultation recommend anything that causes a restriction on greyhound racing in Wales, that the Valley Greyhound Stadium in my constituency in Ystrad Mynach would be considered, and that you would have conversations with the Minister for Climate Change on how flooding as a consequence of the potential track closure would be alleviated. We are concerned about the consequences for flooding there, should that go ahead. So, would you be willing to have those conversations with your ministerial colleagues and identify potential Welsh Government support through Natural Resources Wales, and, as things progress, to meet with me, perhaps on site, to discuss some of the concerns that I've got for those people living in Ystrad Mynach? 

Thank you. Well, as I said, last week, during the scrutiny session in committee, I'm very happy to speak with the Minister for Climate Change, and I'm sure she would be very happy to speak to you also, if any future changes in land use were likely to exacerbate flood risk to any existing homes or businesses in your constituency. I think it might be a little bit premature at the moment, but I'm sure, further down the line, if that was necessary, she would be happy to do so as well. I think there are a lot of variables at play here. I don't want to pre-empt any outcome of the consultation or the future of the race track.

Minister, the Valley race track in my constituency has clearly outlined that it will apply for a Greyhound Board of Great Britain licence. Now, you may want to ban greyhound racing or you may not, but herein lies the problem. We all want to have a higher animal welfare standard, but the question must be: how do we work with the industry going forward? GBGB has a number of strict animal welfare requirements, including monitoring greyhounds from when they are puppies, to when they are transported to races, to after they retire. I'm really pleased to hear about the millions of pounds that GBGB has provide to animal welfare charities to ensure that retired greyhounds are placed in loving homes.

Minister, you'll be no stranger to poor animal welfare legislation, so it won't come as a surprise to you that there is another big gap in Welsh animal welfare law. Essentially, we have not adopted the Welfare of Racing Greyhounds Regulations 2010. Now, these regulations help local authorities revoke or suspend greyhound racing licences, and also set out the conditions for disqualification from a licence. Furthermore, to get a licence, a vet has to be present before and throughout the race, conditions of kennels have to be of a high standard, the microchipping of dogs is required, as well as the maintenance of records of greyhounds participating in races and injury records. I think that it would be a really easy step for the Welsh Government to adopt and implement these regulations here in Wales. So, Minister, are you willing to work with GBGB to ensure that animal welfare is a top priority, or, unfortunately, is this going to be, in effect, where we are going to have a sledgehammer to crack a nut in this sensitive area, going forward?

14:45

Well, as I say, I don't want to pre-empt the consultation that I will be launching later this year. I have met with representatives from the Greyhound Board of Great Britain. I have met with other welfare organisations, and I have met with the owner of Valley Stadium to discuss welfare issues and plans for the Valley site. As you say, the site currently isn't up to GBGB standards. 

I'm glad that I followed my colleague Natasha Asghar because I really want to make it clear that I've also met with GBGB. Let me tell you two things that GBGB confirmed that they did, which I don't think you would want to see as high animal welfare standards. One of them is that we know that, at a GBGB track in Harlow last year, we saw racing of greyhounds at a temperature of 32 degrees centigrade, when the RSPCA had told domestic pet owners to keep their dogs indoors. And yet, at a GBGB track, racing continued.

The second issue is that GBGB do offer a rehoming bond, but only to those dogs homes who will not make comment on greyhound racing. So, they restrict their funding to dogs homes—and I'm calling them dogs homes. They are not rehoming centres. They have to go from there to a home. Sixty-seven per cent of the homes under GBGB—. Sorry, GBGB only rehome 67 per cent of their dogs through dogs homes. So, really, GBGB have a lot to answer for, and I'd love to have a chat with you, Natasha. But my point is—

I think that the Minister is being blissfully ignored in this discussion. [Laughter.]

My point to you, Minister, is as follows: going back to Valley racetrack, which Hefin has highlighted, I understand—and I hope that you would agree with this—that if greyhound racing was banned at Valley racetrack, we would only see a period of between nine and 12 months when dogs would need to be removed from there to be rehomed. Therefore, the potential closure—and I know that you can't comment on the ban—would not have a long-term effect on the dogs from that home. I know you can't comment on it, but I'm sure you would take that into account.

Thank you. Well, as I say, I cannot pre-empt any consultation, but, certainly, the discussions I have had—. I mentioned in my answer to Natasha Asghar that I have met with representatives of many welfare organisations on a range of issues. Obviously, housing dogs is something that I am particularly interested in. Clearly, nine to 12 months is not a huge amount of time. I am very grateful for all of the work that our animal welfare organisations do in Wales.

A Mother and Baby Unit for North Wales

6. What discussions has the Minister held with the Minister for Health and Social Services about a mother and baby unit for north Wales that would serve the people of Arfon? OQ59297

I have not had any specific discussions with the Minister for Health and Social Services regarding a mother and baby unit for the people of Arfon. I am, of course, aware of the plans to improve access to specialist mother and baby unit provision for the people living in north Wales.

According to a recent statement by the local health board, they are working with NHS England to provide a unit in Chester, with two beds in that unit for mothers from all parts of the north. I understand that it is in the Countess of Chester Hospital that this unit will be based. Could you confirm that?

In a report that was published last year by the Care Quality Commission, it was noted that maternity services at the Countess of Chester Hospital were inadequate, and that a lack of staff and equipment were problems that needed attention, as well as problems in terms of leadership at the particular trust. Do you think that establishing two beds over the border in England for mothers who would need to travel a long distance, and in a hospital that has a poor track record in terms of maternity care, is a wise and sensible plan in your view as Minister for north Wales?

14:50

What I do think is that it's really important that these babies have access to the very best care available, and my understanding is that the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee undertook an assessment of demand in north Wales and concluded there was a need to fund two beds in a mother and baby unit and, within their plans, they concluded the most appropriate approach to delivering this was for joint working between themselves, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board and NHS England to develop plans for that shared unit.

Can I welcome the question from Siân Gwenllian and also pay credit to her for her persistence on this really important issue for people in north Wales? Just to expand on the question already asked, Minister, as the Minister for north Wales and a Member, of course, in the region as well, I wonder what assurances you can give that the particular needs of people in north Wales, whether it's around language or whether it's around the distance having to be travelled to access these services, especially keeping in mind the potential fragility of the people who need to access these services—. I wonder what assurances you can give that the proposed provision will be suitable for the people of north Wales.

It's imperative that the proposed provision is what we would want for our constituents across north Wales. My understanding from the work that WHSSC undertook is that this was the best way of providing provision. I do take on board what you're saying about the language; it's very important that that is part of the consideration. But I think we have to be very pragmatic here and say that we can't have mother and baby units in every hospital, unfortunately. There just isn't the capacity or the capability to be able to do that. What I would want for my constituents, as you specifically asked me, and as the Minister for north Wales, is for our babies to have the very best access in the very best way, and I think that is having a specialist unit.

The Down to Earth Project

7. What assessment has the Minister made of the effectiveness of rural development fund spending on the Down to Earth project? OQ59296

Thank you. The Down to Earth project, funded through rural development programme, is due to submit the final claim in June 2023. The project is required to appoint an independent assessor to report on the impact and outcomes achieved, which will be assessed before the final claim is paid and project ends.

Thank you very much, Trefnydd. A number of constituents in the Whitchurch area of Cardiff have contacted me on the Down to Earth project. What they want to know and what I also want to know too is whether the Minister can explain why rural development funding is being used to build on one of the green sites in the north of the capital city, and how an urban area such as our capital qualifies for funding from the rural development programme. Thank you very much.

You'll be aware there are very strict criteria around this funding. So, the Down to Earth project is funded through the EU RDP co-operation and LEADER schemes, and it's absolutely able to do that. You're very well aware, I'm sure, of what the project will be working on—two specific schemes. RDP projects are subject to special conditions, and, as I said, this will be assessed. It has to be assessed by an independent external evaluator within six months of the project start date. Nothing has been raised with me of concern. If you have anything that you wish to raise with me, please write to me.

Minister, ensuring that RDP spending is effectively allocated and delivered is key to ensuring that it delivers value for money, while supporting the development of rural communities. In the most recent Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee meeting, you stated that you will no longer be setting up a rural development advisory board to advise on the content and delivery of the domestic rural support programme. I would stress the importance of reporting arrangements for replacement rural development funding in ensuring transparency and accountability to ensure effective monitoring, especially given the damning Auditor General for Wales report that RDP funding was allocated by the Welsh Government via direct payments with no competition. Therefore, what plans does the Welsh Government have to publish the proposed measures, budget allocations and commitments, and spend for each of the financial years in the transition period? Diolch.

Well, the report to which you refer was many years ago, and we’ve certainly learned lessons, and there’s been no criticism since that time, and I can assure you that will absolutely be put in place. The reason I said I wasn’t having a board any more is because we’re not looking to replace the RDP in the way that it currently is, and we’re focusing very much on bringing forward the sustainable farming scheme.

14:55
Cat Breeding

Our animal welfare plan for Wales details how we will deliver our programme for government commitments. A review of the Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs) (Wales) Regulations 2014 is planned and will include consideration of broadening the scope to include cats.

Wonderful. My colleague Huw Irranca-Davies, the MS for Ogmore, and I recently met with Cats Protection in their Bridgend adoption centre to discuss the work that they do to improve the welfare of cats in Wales and across the UK. According to Cat Protection's latest 'Cats and Their Stats' report, ownership of pedigree cats in Wales is on the rise, with 25 per cent of the cats purchased last year being pedigree breeds. While many pedigree cat breeds can live healthy lives, there are a few extreme breeds with genetic birth defects that can lead to a very painful existence throughout the cat’s life. For example, ultra flat-faced cats, such as Persians, will struggle with breathing problems throughout their lives, or Scottish Folds, the sale of which has now been banned in Scotland, suffer from severe cartilage deficiencies. Unlike dogs, cat breeding is currently unregulated, so does the Welsh Government have any intention in the meantime of bringing cat regulation up to the same as dog regulation in Wales? Diolch.

Thank you. Well, as I mentioned, a review of the dog breeding regulations is going to be broadened to see if there are any other species—and, absolutely, cats would be part of that—would benefit from being within the scope of the regulations, because I think we’ve seen it with dogs, haven’t we? You referred to the extreme breeds and, unfortunately, as you say, we are seeing it with cats as well. I was aware of your visit; I saw your photographs on social media. I think it is really important that we do look at what we can do to improve the welfare of cats in Wales.

As a cat owner myself, I'm delighted that Sarah Murphy tabled this question, and I welcomed the Welsh Government's introduction of Lucy's law 18 months ago, which seeks to ban third-party sales of cats and dogs under the age of six months. On reading your explanatory memorandum to the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (Wales) Regulations 2021—snappily titled—I was interested to see that you mentioned the regulations were drafted as a first step to ensuring that the welfare of puppies and kittens in Wales who are currently being bred and sold to third parties is improved significantly. However, as you will be aware, Minister, cat and dog breeders are subject to a licensing scheme enforced through local authorities. I also note you provided statutory guidance to local authorities on the regulations alongside creating a pan-Wales system for training local authority enforcement officers. So, how far are you in assessing the effectiveness of Lucy's law in Wales, and how well are enforcement and licensing officers applying it at local authority level, and what is the next step in protecting the welfare of cats?

Thank you. Clearly, the Member didn't hear my answer to Vikki Howells—we didn't introduce Lucy's law here in Wales; that's England-only legislation. We went beyond that; we brought forward the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (Wales) Regulations 2021, and, as I say, that went further than Lucy's law.

The point you make around the local authority enforcement project I think is a very pertinent one. What we did as a Government was give funding for a three-year project to make sure that our local authorities' inspectors had all the tools that they needed to be able to carry-out visits to dog breeding premises and ensure that they absolutely knew what they were looking for and that they could take forward the significant changes. And, certainly, the project has received some high recognition, and I've just extended the project for a further three years.

Reviving the Rural Economy

9. Will the Minister provide an update on the Government's efforts to revive the rural economy? OQ59312

Future rural development support focuses on delivering our core programme for government commitments. I have already announced a package of support through my rural investment schemes worth over £200 million to support the rural economy and our natural environment. 

Thank you very much for that. The question that I'm asking here is who is driving that work of reviving the economy. What is the focal point that draws together what feels like a plethora of bodies and projects and programmes and strategies into one strategic, co-ordinated package. Where's the wider strategy and who is responsible for that? In the past, the Development Board for Rural Wales would have filled some of that vacuum that I feel exists. The question I want to ask is whether you think that the time has come for us to look at creating some kind of entity or some kind of medium that will be responsible for driving that agenda forward, because at the moment it just feels like a series of disconnected programmes that don't pull in the same direction.

15:00

I don't think they're disconnected at all. What I've been really keen to do with the rural investment schemes is for our stakeholders to work very closely with us and that they tell us what they want. For instance, we had, I think, three schemes specifically around horticulture, because that's what I was being told people wanted. Of course, you can tell by the number of bids you get with particular schemes how popular they are and whether you need to put further funding into that. As I said in my answer to Sam Kurtz, we're no longer having a rural development board. It was something that I had considered, but my focus really now is on bringing forward the sustainable farming scheme and that transition to the SFS in 2025.

3. Topical Questions

The next item will be the topical questions. There is one question this afternoon, to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change. The question will be asked by Jack Sargeant. 

Northern Powerhouse Rail

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact on Wales of the UK Government's decision to class Northern Powerhouse Rail as an England and Wales project? TQ746

Thank you for the question. The UK Government should classify Northern Powerhouse Rail as an England-only project, with Wales receiving a population share of this funding. It would be completely unacceptable if the UK Government treats the funding for this project in the same way as it treats funding for HS2. 

I'm grateful to the Deputy Minister for his answer, and I agree with what he has said. As if it wasn't already bad enough for Cymru that Cymru has been denied the £5 billion it is entitled to from the HS2 consequential funding, it is now being suggested that the UK Tories are refusing us a further £1 billion from the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme, labelling it as a so-called England-and-Wales project. Six billion pounds we are now owed. Llywydd, I'm not sure if Members from the opposition here in the Senedd wish to provide the Prime Minister with a map, as it's clear that the Tories in Westminster don't even understand where Cymru is, let alone understand the needs of the people of Wales. Minister, do you agree with me that it is time to get rid of this broken UK Tory Government, it's time for a UK general election, and it's time to elect a UK Labour Government, working in collaboration with this Welsh Labour Government to deliver the infrastructure funding we need and we are owed?

Thank you. I agree with the analysis, clearly. For those listening who are not as familiar as my colleagues are with the way this works, when a project in a wholly devolved area is announced in England, we would expect to get a population share of that funding. So, when a £100 billion project like HS2 is announced, we would expect to get a 5 per cent share of that, some £5 billion, if it only applied in England. If it's classified as being of benefit to England and Wales, then we don't get any funding. The Treasury are stretching all credibility in saying that HS2, which doesn't have a single mile of track in Wales and whose own business case shows it takes hundreds of millions out of the south Wales economy, does benefit Wales. It clearly does not, and certainly with the chopping off of the leg to Crewe, any thin case they had to make has fallen away. It is diabolical. As the First Minister said yesterday, the fact that the Treasury can arbitrarily, on a whim, decide how this funding is allocated shows that the way that we deal with finances within the devolved settlement is clearly broken. 

There have been suggestions that the Northern Powerhouse Rail project will be similarly classified. That is not entirely clear yet. There are two options available to the UK Government: they could classify it as a Northern Powerhouse Rail project, in which case we would expect to get a Barnett share because it is an England-only scheme; or they could classify it as a Network Rail project, which would be outside of the Barnett consequential and we wouldn't get anything. We have not been able to establish which of these is going to happen. But the very fact it is opaque and not clear is in itself part of the problem. I met with the regulator this morning, the Office of Rail and Road, and it's clear right throughout the rail settlement that the decisions are made with an England focus and we then are given the crumbs from that decision. Our needs and our aspirations and our modal shift targets are not taken into account when rail spending across the UK is decided. So, this is yet another example of a broken system that needs to be reformed. And if the Treasury are foolish enough to do on the Northern Powerhouse Rail project the same as they've done on HS2, then they will continue to weaken the case for a sharing United Kingdom, because clearly they are not sharing, and it's an opportunity for them now to put it right.

15:05

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

On this side of the benches, it's our understanding that there has not yet been a decision regarding Northern Powerhouse Rail being classified as an England-and-Wales project. Today's topical question refers to rail, but the biggest rail story in the news today actually relates to Transport for Wales's announcement that commuters travelling between Pontypridd and Treherbert in Rhondda Cynon Taf will have to use a replacement bus service from the end of April until the start of 2024. This is going to cause huge problems for those trying to get on with their ordinary lives and get into work. This is all whilst the Welsh Government are trying to get cars off the road with the roads review and are cutting support for buses. [Interruption.] It's got a point. Of course we do support improvements in rail infrastructure, but I'd like to ask you today, Minister, why has this announcement been made with such short notice—[Interruption.] 

Can backbenchers give a chance to the speaker? I can't hear her. I'm sure the speaker is going to make sure the focus is on Northern Powerhouse Rail.

Thank you. I'd like to ask you today, Minister, why has this announcement been made at such short notice, and what assessment have you and Transport for Wales made of the disruption and inconvenience that this will cause? You mention the relationship between Westminster, but I'd like to know exactly what you are doing to build that relationship with Westminster if you want to see a change. You can't blame Westminster for everything, Minister. You're going to have to do something yourself to try and make sure that the needs of the people of Wales are projected to our colleagues in Westminster as well.

Dirprwy Lywydd, that's a poor response. I met with the Secretary of State for Transport in recent weeks, actually, and I'm committed to a constructive relationship with him, as our officials are. This is not about building a constructive relationship with Westminster. This is about the UK recognising the needs of Wales and the needs of the infrastructure of Wales. I thought her party had a change of heart and was supporting us in a cross-party case to get funding to Wales from HS2. Unfortunately, Natasha Asghar seems to find it irresistible to score petty points rather than focusing on the big picture.

On the point on which she had a topical question turned down but she's tried to ask anyway, on the decision to close the railway for metro upgrades, this is an example of investment by the Welsh Labour Government in modern infrastructure from within our funding to create a modern metro system for Cardiff and the Valleys. It is going to involve a transformational change of infrastructure for the upper end of the Valleys, which, for the huge inconvenience of the customers, will involve a temporary closure, for which there will be a significantly improved service. If she has engineering advice on how we can completely transform a railway line while still keeping it open, I'm all ears.

Thank you, Jack, for asking this question.

We knew the UK Government was without a moral compass, but the last few days seem to suggest they don't even own a compass. Ethical boundaries evade them; so too, it would appear, do geographical realities as well. Northern Powerhouse Rail cannot be classified as England and Wales. It would add insult to the financial injury of the HS2 fiasco. It would cost Wales, as we've heard, an estimated £1 billion, which is on top of the £5 billion cheque that we are owed from HS2. Wales will not benefit from these projects; it is a lie to suggest otherwise. Could I ask you, Minister—and I take on board what you've already said here—what conversations has the Welsh Government had to date with the UK Government about the possibility of this project being classified as England and Wales? And if they are not more forthcoming in their answer, would you please remind them where the boundaries of Wales actually begin and end?

Thank you for that. As I mentioned, we have been in touch with the Treasury, who simply tell us that this is part of the integrated rail plan that was published in November 2021. It remains unclear whether that will be administered through Network Rail or the Northern Powerhouse Rail project. As I mentioned, the consequences for us depend on that arbitrary judgment, which they don't feel the need to explain or elaborate on. I think that is part of the problem we have; we don't have a system of fiscal devolution and clarity and transparency on how decisions that affect the UK are made. As the First Minister has made the point time and time again, the UK Treasury should be for the UK, but it is in fact treated by the Government in London as a Treasury for England, and we have to suck it up. It's clearly not a sustainable position nor a defensible one. I've very sad the Conservatives in Wales don't see that and instead try and defend the indefensible yet again.

15:10

I'm grateful, Deputy Presiding Officer. The crashing irony of the Conservative position on this, of course, is that the reason the Rhondda line is being closed is because it's nineteenth century infrastructure there that needs to be replaced in the twenty-first century. For a century, that line has not had the investment it needs. If anything, it's a condemnation of UK Government policy as regards to Wales. The fact of that closure stands as a rebuke to the current way in which these matters are conducted. The Minister is absolutely right in his analysis and his approach. [Interruption.] I welcome the conversion of the Member for Clwyd West as well to these matters. We very much welcome him. I hope that he will be more persuasive with his colleagues in London than he is with his colleagues on the backbench. We look forward to seeing that.

But can I ask you, Minister, in taking this forward—? Because we can rehearse the arguments. We all understand the arguments. This is a dishonest UK Government putting its hands in the pockets of the people of Wales in order to fund pet projects for their own Ministers and their backyards. It's not the way to govern this country. Will the Minister look to take this matter to the disputes procedure in the inter-governmental arrangements to ensure that this is done in public so that UK Ministers can justify why Wales is now a part of Yorkshire, and can justify why Wales does not have the investment it requires? And we can see if this disputes procedure works for Wales's benefit, or if it's simply broken for the benefit of pet projects in England.  

I think there's an opportunity for the UK Government to take stock of the arguments here. There's certainly a role for the Conservative MPs elected from Wales to make the case in the Treasury to make sure that the tone-deafness is not repeated. Because, as I understand it, the decision does not appear to have been finally decided. If it has, they're certainly not telling us. But let's take them at their face value, that no final decision has been made yet. Here is a chance to put it right, to not repeat the mistakes of HS2, and to make sure we get a Barnett consequential for the investment between cities and towns in the north of England. Nobody can credibly argue that this has any benefit for Wales. The decision to suspend HS2 up to Crewe completely pulls the rug from the position of the Secretary of State for Wales, who argues that HS2 does benefit Wales because of connectivity between north Wales and Crewe. That is no longer a position that can be credibly argued, and there is no credible argument to defend the reports that they're going to make the same mistake twice. Here's a chance for Welsh Conservative MPs to show that they have the interests of Wales at heart, to make sure the Treasury doesn't repeat its mistake.

I have accepted a last-minute request to ask a supplementary question on the topical question. Darren Millar.

You have wholehearted support on these benches for consequentials from the HS2 project and the Northern Powerhouse project coming into Wales. That is our position, and that is very clear. Can I ask you what you're doing to make sure that there's a fair share of investment across Wales, and not just in south Wales, from your transport budget? We already had a discussion earlier on in this Chamber about the fact that £800 million is being spent in the south on the south Wales metro versus £50 million in the north. We know that you're spending a fortune on the Heads of the Valleys road, quite rightly, because it needs to be done, yet you're postponing and scrapping projects in north Wales. When will we get our north Wales consequential that we need?

I appreciate that Darren Millar is committed to his divisive narrative of trying to pit different parts of Wales against each other. The facts, I'm afraid, don't support his position. We do spend investment roughly equivalent to population shares across Wales. We did an analysis of this some years ago and found that north Wales had a fair share.

In terms of the roads review, he also knows the position that the schemes that were altered or postponed fell right across Wales, and he forgets to mention the fact that the M4 in south Wales was cancelled before the roads review began. I know it won't stop him from his tune, because he thinks it plays well to his core vote, but I'm afraid it's not based on reality. He has the opportunity to engage, as I believe he's begun to do, with the north Wales Burns commission, which will set out a programme of work and a programme of investment that will need to jointly come from the Welsh Government and the UK Government to make sure that north Wales has a modern public transport system to match the best in the country. That has to come from both Governments, and I hope that he will put his support behind that too.

15:15
4. 90-second Statements

Item 4 is the 90-second statements, and the first statement this afternoon is from Luke Fletcher.

'One Ring to rule them all / One Ring to find them / One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them / In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.'

Dirprwy Lywydd, though I haven't read the full verse, the Ring verse will be read by many people, not just in Wales but across the globe this Saturday as people celebrate Tolkien Reading Day. Why 25 March? It's the chosen date for the destruction of the ring, completing Frodo’s quest. Tolkien Reading Day has been organised by the Tolkien Society since 2003 as a way to celebrate and promote the life and works of J.R.R. Tolkien by reading favourite passages.

Tolkien had a deep understanding and love for Welsh, and it played a key role in influencing the names of people and places in middle earth. One of the language's most arguably well-known influences was to one of the Elven languages, Sindarin, notably in its grammatical number and mutations.

Tolkien said that,

'The names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modelled on those of Welsh.... This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.'

So, whether we are travelling from Bag End to Erebor or Hobbiton to Mordor and the Cracks of Doom—

—this Saturday, we should remember our language's influence on some of the world's most famous stories.

I'll close by sharing my favourite passage. It comes after Gandalf and Frodo have found the ring.

'"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo. "So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."'

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Yesterday, we marked World Down's Syndrome Day, a day chosen to highlight the challenges still faced by people living with Down's syndrome. The twenty-first of March was chosen specifically to signify the uniqueness of the triplication of the twenty-first chromosome, which causes Down's syndrome.

World Down's Syndrome Day raises global awareness, which has been officially observed by the United Nations for the past 11 years to highlight the fact that, all around the world, people with Down's syndrome are treated badly; they are denied a quality education; they are denied good healthcare; they are denied the chance to work and earn their own money; they are not allowed to make decisions about their own lives; their voices are not heard.

We're making progress here in the UK, but the voices of the around 42,000 people living with Down's syndrome in England and Wales are not being heard loudly enough. The theme of this year's awareness is 'with us, not for us'. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls for full and effective participation of persons with disabilities, but many organisations exclude people with Down's syndrome from taking part in their work. They take decisions for them, not with them. I hope that, here in Wales, we can do better. Diolch yn fawr.

5. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Prepayment meters and energy advice services

Item 5 is next, a Member debate under Standing Order 11.21: prepayment meters and energy advice services. I call on Jack Sargeant to move the motion.

Motion NDM8219 Jack Sargeant

Supported by Alun Davies, Carolyn Thomas, Delyth Jewell, Heledd Fychan, Jane Dodds, Jayne Bryant, Joyce Watson, Llyr Gruffydd, Luke Fletcher, Mike Hedges, Peredur Owen Griffiths, Rhianon Passmore, Rhys ab Owen, Sarah Murphy, Sioned Williams, Vikki Howells

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Believes that:

a) it is a national scandal that 600,000 people were forced onto prepayment meters in 2022 because they could not afford their energy bills;

b) energy regulator Ofgem has failed to protect vulnerable households by allowing energy suppliers to bypass proper checks;

c) those forced on to a prepay meter should be properly compensated by energy suppliers and switched back free of charge.

2. Notes that:

a) 3.2 million people were cut off from energy last year due to running out of credit on their prepay meter;

b) average household energy bills could rise even further, placing an additional burden on households already struggling due to the cost-of-living crisis.

3. Acknowledges the Welsh Government’s 2021-22 in-home energy advice pilot, providing proactive advice and outreach support to people who are, or at risk of being, in fuel poverty.

4. Calls on the Welsh Government to roll out an in-home energy advice service across Wales to ensure all households can access the support and advice they need.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Deputy Presiding Officer. 

This motion is the culmination of months of campaigning. Since autumn last year, I have been calling for a ban on the forced installation of prepayment meters. This was because customers on prepayment meters are forced to pay more for their electricity, but also because of the growing evidence throughout the year that people were being forcibly switched onto prepayment meters on a scale never seen before.

Late last year, campaigning journalist Dean Kirby of The i newspaper wrote a story where he described sitting in a courtroom, where nearly 400 warrants were issued to forcibly install prepay meters in less than three minutes—400 warrants in under three minutes. Dirprwy Lywydd, suddenly everything made sense: 600,000 people switched last year alone, with only 72 of these warrants rejected, and the month on month increases in people being forcibly switched. Dean's story exposed the reason behind these numbers. Absolutely no checks were being done to see if any of these people were vulnerable. As Dean explained, not even their names were read out on that day in court.

Dirprwy Lywydd, let's be clear about what is supposed to happen: energy suppliers should give anyone who classes themselves as vulnerable the chance to refuse a prepayment meter. Instead, Ofgem allowed energy suppliers themselves to define what is classed as a vulnerable individual, and this has been exploited with catastrophic consequences. The UK Government and Ofgem were asleep at the wheel, and whilst the statistics I have stated already came into the public domain, they did nothing. The regulator, Ofgem, only conceded wrongdoing when a The Times exposé caught agents working on British Gas's behalf breaking the rules on camera. Any regulator who witnessed this explosion in warrants issued last year, including over 20,000 of them in one court in Swansea, should have acted. And even the current moratorium on the installation of prepayment meters is happening voluntarily, simply because of those British Gas videos.

Now, Dirprwy Lywydd, I note Ofgem's recent national call for evidence on prepayment meters, but I must say that I share real concern about whether those who have already been so badly let down by the regulator will engage with that process. In February, I launched my own survey to gather evidence, and this was because, at that time, Ofgem told me in the meeting I had with them that there was no evidence of wrongdoing outside of British Gas, even though the statistics prove otherwise. And the responses I had, Dirprwy Lywydd, in my report, entitled 'A National Scandal: The true cost of pre-pay meters' were very difficult to read. They paint a clear picture of just how difficult life on a prepayment meter is for so many families. One response said, and I quote,

'My husband is an army veteran with reconstructed ankles, PTSD and many more health issues'.

They went on to add,

'On one occasion, I felt so embarrassed having to ring and ask if they could put some credit on my meters, which they took back as soon as I had the money to put on the meters, basically putting me back to square one. I never rang them again and instead went without'.

Dirprwy Lywydd, how in twenty-first century Britain are we failing those who have served in our armed forces so badly that they are left in the dark and in the cold in their own homes? This gentleman is a war hero. He risked his life for each and every one of us, and yet, in his time of need, the system has totally failed him.

Another couple, both in receipt of personal independence payments, with three young children, were switched by their energy company in January. They said, and I quote,

'We felt bullied onto a prepayment meter because they gave us a lot of debt out of nowhere that we couldn't afford to pay. We're currently paying £10 a day just for electricity, and we're struggling financially'.

Their situation, Dirprwy Lywydd, has become so difficult that they have been forced to borrow money from a family to top up. Very sadly, multiple other respondents expressed that they too have had to borrow money just to keep the lights on. The toll that prepayment meters are taking on the health of those forced to live with them is so shockingly clear in this report. One person living with severe arthritis had a prepayment meter forcibly installed at the end of last year. Another explained how they regularly run out of credit on their gas meter and the extended periods of cold have made their asthma much worse. 

As I've said in this Chamber on a number of occasions, Dirprwy Lywydd, this is a matter of life or death. One survey respondent said that, despite being reliant on a medical device that has to be plugged into the mains, they have been put on a prepayment meter. Every day, they are having to make the choice to limit their energy usage, just so that they can be sure that they can use their medical device. Can you imagine the stress and the anxiety this must cause this particular family? It is truly heartbreaking that families across the United Kingdom are having to live this way. 

Dirprwy Lywydd, it's sadly unsurprising that many of those who responded to my survey expressed how their mental health has suffered as a direct result of their prepayment meter. This anxiety has been made worse by the treatment they have been subjected to by their energy suppliers. The Minister will remember that I recently highlighted the case of a mum who was on hold for over an hour, sat in the dark, sat in the cold, after their prepayment meter stopped working. When she finally got through to her call handler and she explained that they needed help, and that their six-year-old son was obviously very upset, very concerned, crying at home in the dark, in the cold, the person on the other end of the phone laughed, and then hung up. It's nothing more than a disgrace, Deputy Presiding Officer. 

Every one of these people who have responded to my survey, every one of these people we've described in these statistics, they have been let down by their energy supplier. They have been let down by Ofgem, and they have been let down by the United Kingdom Government. I want to be absolutely clear, Deputy Presiding Officer, I have absolutely no faith in Ofgem, but there is a clear role for the UK Government to legislate. Colleagues will remember that, at the end of the 1990s, it was recognised that private companies should not be allowed to cut people off from their water supply. Energy, too, Deputy Presiding Officer, is life and death. We should follow suit and legislate to stop being cut off, and this includes people being cut off because their prepayment meter runs out of credit. 

Dirprwy Lywydd, in the meantime here in Wales, we need to look at rolling out the in-home domestic energy advice pilot to ensure that people are empowered with access to the best advice possible. And we need to look at what powers we have to stop landlords being able to force tenants onto prepayment meters as well. Deputy Presiding Officer, in closing, I want to say this: people have been badly let down by those who are supposed to protect them in the energy market. Let's hope we see an end to this national scandal, and let's hope it ends soon. Diolch.

15:25

According to the latest available estimates from energy regulator, Ofgem, there were around 4.1 million electricity and 3.3 million gas customers on a prepayment meter, or PPM, in Great Britain in 2020, with proportionally more households in Wales using PPMs than in England. Wales has the highest proportion of gas PPMs compared to other GB nations, and they're often used by some of the most vulnerable in society, as we heard, on low incomes and already in debt to their supplier. Anglesey has the highest level of prepayment meters in Wales at almost 29 per cent, followed by Gwynedd at almost 22 per cent.

Despite a concerted effort from Ofgem in 2020, including introducing new supplier license conditions for identifying vulnerability, offering emergency and friendly hours credit, and considering ability to pay when setting up debt repayment plans, the global energy price crisis exacerbated the severity of the situation, with the number of PPMs in operation across the UK rising. In January, before The Times investigation revealed that British Gas was routinely sending debt collectors to break into customers' homes and force-fit prepayment meters, even when they were known to have extreme vulnerabilities, the then UK business Secretary wrote to energy suppliers, stating that they should stop forcing vulnerable customers onto prepayment meters, and that they should make greater efforts to help those struggling to pay their bills. He called for the urgent publication of the energy suppliers' recent investigation into vulnerable customers, and the release of data on applications suppliers had made to forcibly install meters.

In February, Ofgem asked energy companies to suspend the forced installation of prepayment meters, and Lord Justice Edis ordered magistrates' courts in England and Wales to stop authorising warrants for energy firms to forcibly install prepayment meters with immediate effect. On the same day, the then UK energy Minister met the boss of Ofgem and told him that the UK Government expected strong and immediate action where suppliers fall short of their obligations. Ofgem's temporarily suspended forced installations of PPMs includes ceasing of installation by warrant, ceasing of remote-mode switching of smart meters to prepayment without explicit agreement of the customer, and ceasing new applications to court for installation warrants unless theft is suspected.

During last week's UK Government budget, the Chancellor announced that, from 1 July, prepayment energy charges will be brought in line with customers who pay by direct debit on a permanent basis. Climate Cymru has expressed concern that this does not affect the standing charges, which is where the majority of the PPM uplift happens. In this context, the UK Government has asked Ofgem to report back on options for ending the higher standing charges paid for by prepayment meter users. At the UK Parliament's Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee on 14 March, Ofgem confirmed that all suppliers are now extending the suspension of forced prepayment installations beyond 1 April, which won't be lifted until Ofgem establishes that suppliers are acting in accordance with a new code of practice.

National Energy Action, NEA, believes there's also an immediate need to ensure that enforcement action is strong, including reversing wrongful installs and compensating households affected, to strengthen protections and licence conditions, and for a root-and-branch review of prepay, reducing the number of traditional prepayment meters in use and addressing debt. NEA believes that the delivery of energy-efficiency measures should be promoted and delivered alongside independent direct advice and assistance to vulnerable households in or at risk of fuel poverty on improving home energy efficiency, maximising incomes and managing or reducing energy costs and accessing the broader support available in the energy market.

It's been a year since the Welsh Government consulted on the next iteration of its Warm Homes programme, and we urgently need to accelerate the improvement of energy efficiency in fuel-poor homes. NEA and Fuel Poverty Coalition Cymru would like to see the Welsh Government setting out a timeline for the next demand-led scheme to be operational before winter, focusing on the worst first—those on the lowest incomes, living in the least-efficient homes—and taking an appropriate multi-measure, fabric-first approach. A constituent e-mailed me, stating that prepayment meters were intended to prevent people from getting into arrears, and that the problem here is that the utility companies charge a higher rate to those people using prepayment meters, and that that needs to change. Punishing someone for paying in advance, and punishing someone for being on a low income, cannot be justified. We will be pleased to support this motion accordingly.

15:30

I welcome this debate. While fully supporting the motion's contention that it is a national scandal that 600,000 people were forced onto prepayment meters because they could not afford their energy bills, I would point out that, while the distribution and supply of gas and electricity and consumer protection are reserved matters, we will never be able to be fully confident that we can protect our citizens from this type of damaging and shameful action until powers over these matters are devolved to Wales. The present temporary ban on forced installation of prepayment meters is not 'job done', and, as yet, the code of practice of which Mark Isherwood spoke for suppliers is not legally enforceable.

As the motion makes clear, fuel poverty is at severe levels in Wales, and this could deepen even further. Those who have been forced onto prepayment meters are usually struggling not only with the cost of living, but also with debt. The first committee inquiry I was a part of after being elected was that held by the Equality and Social Justice Committee in the autumn of 2021 on debt and the pandemic. As with the COVID crisis, overwhelming debt will certainly be one of the awful consequences of this cost-of-living crisis, compounding the worrying findings of that report, which was published just as energy prices were beginning to rise. 

As well as ensuring proper compensation by energy suppliers for those forced onto a prepayment meter, National Energy Action are right to call for the UK Government to also fund debt amnesty, using the funds that have become available by recent falls in wholesale prices, perhaps. The motion also speaks to the need to ensure advice and support for those at risk of fuel poverty, which is most welcome, but must be accompanied with energy efficiency measures to help prevent fuel poverty in the first place. I have tried in this Chamber, by written question, and together with my fellow members of the Equality and Social Justice Committee, to get clarity on the timeline for when the next iteration of the Welsh Government's Warm Homes programme will be operational—not procured, operational. We must, as Mark Isherwood said, accelerate the improvement of energy efficiency in fuel-poor homes in Wales. What we've had thus far, from both the Minister for Climate Change, and the Minister for Social Justice, has been a commitment that a new, national, demand-led scheme, focused on homes in fuel poverty, will be procured by the end of the year, and there would be no gap in provision between the new and existing programmes. 

So, I would ask again, Minister: when will the demand-led scheme, which focuses on those on the lowest incomes, living in the least efficient homes, be operational? Please answer clearly, as I hope all Members and the Minister agree that it is crucial that those in the deepest hardship are helped as quickly as possible to live in warmer, healthier homes, before next winter plunges people into even more crippling debt and even darker, colder nights. 

15:35

It is very expensive to be poor; almost everything costs more. If I'd been having this discussion about 20 years ago, I would have said that everything costs more, but the German discount-rate retailers arrived, so not everything does cost more, but very few things don't cost more, for being poor. It makes good business sense for the energy suppliers to have prepayment meters. They get a guaranteed income for energy used. They do not cut people off, because they cut themselves off. Citizens Advice has found in the UK that more than 2 million people are disconnected at least once a month, and that approximately one in five prepayment meter customers cut off in the past year have spent at least 24 hours without gas or electricity. No thought for those without energy.

It is clear that disconnection as a result of running out of credit regularly impacts the lives of those living with prepayment meters. We cannot allow a system to continue that sees vulnerable people's lives put at risk because they're constantly faced with being cut off. These are disproportionately the elderly, the vulnerable and people with young children. Older adults can lose body heat fast, much faster than when they were young. Changes in your body that come with ageing can make it hard for you to be aware of getting cold. A big chill can turn into a dangerous problem—before an older person even knows what is happening, hypothermia is setting in. 

For children living in a cold home, they are at increased risk of asthma, respiratory infections, slower development and higher risk of disability, mental health problems, as well as low self-esteem, low confidence, poor educational attainment, poor nutrition and injuries. We do a lot of things talking about children and giving them an opportunity in life—starting off in a cold home puts you at a huge disadvantage. 

If you're on a tariff that includes standing charges, you will always have to pay them, regardless of whether you're actually using energy or not. No money for the prepayment meter means no energy. What does no energy actually mean? It means no light. It means no heating. It means no tv. It means no hot water for washing yourself or clothes, no washing machine, no hot food or drink, no cooker or a microwave, no fridge or freezer, and a return to getting up and going to bed depending on the light outside. This is a world far beyond the life of Senedd Members, but it is the life of many of our constituents. 

Then there is the added cruelty of standing charges. A payment has to be paid on days when you cannot afford to use any energy, charges levied if you've used no energy at all. As of April 2023, customers in the UK will be paying an average standing charge of around 53p a day for electricity, and 29p per day for gas. So, if someone is without gas, that means that, if they use no energy for three days, which isn't unusual, they'll make a payment on their prepayment meter and instantly the money available is reduced by over £1.50 before they get charged for using. 

I've had a constituent tell me that it costs over £2.50 to heat a bowl a soup. I had to explain that that was mainly made up of the standing charges. In this example, a £10 prepayment sees over a quarter gone meeting standing charges on days that no energy is used. I just think that is absolutely wrong, and it really hurts the poorest. I know I keep on going about it, and I'm sure people are getting fed of me going on about it, but it really is something that has to have something done about it. If they had just put the lights on, they'd have still used their £1.50. Also, when it runs out, you have to reset the boiler, which, with an older boiler, can take a number of goes to reset. I would add that standing charges should be abolished. If they cannot be abolished, they should be added to the tariff. If energy companies will not abolish and meet the cost from their profits, it should be added to the costs, so those of us who have energy every day, which is everybody in this room, are not being subsidised, effectively, by people who can't afford energy every day. We've got to stop standing charges on days that no energy is used and that's got to be a first priority. It is hurting people, it's damaging children's progress, it's putting elderly people's lives at risk. 

In energy supply, we moved from a state monopoly to an oligopoly, where profits are large and the consumer pays. Whilst I would like to see energy taken back under public ownership, for those who remember the adverts of, 'It is now—tell Sid', it should be now, 'Tell Sid he's going to be forced on to a prepayment meter and will go without energy for days.' 

15:40

If you are poor, life is totally against you. You have no chance of having direct debit to pay your bills, you have to put up with a higher standing charge, and now we know the scandal of prepayment meters. We use the word 'scandal' here quite a lot, but it really is a scandal that, actually, shamefully, has only just come to light recently, and which has only just been acted on. If you are a Centrica shareholder, the owner of British Gas, you don't have any problem with paying your gas bill or any bills at all. Let's just remind ourselves about what Centrica made last year. They made £3.3 billion in profit, triple the £1 billion that they made the year before, and we know what they did. They forced their way into people's homes in order to install prepayment meters. We know also that the UK Government could have done more earlier, and I'm pleased that they have eventually come out, but, as we know, this is going to take some time.

These predatory schemes will continue, and I'm really pleased to be able to support this motion today and to hear from the Welsh Government what they're going to be doing. It's only right that energy companies that have raked in billions over the last year, while many people have faced total misery in having to disconnect heating from their homes, not having fridges, not having anything in order to heat their homes—. They are the people who now need compensation and repayment. 

ONS figures show that 41 per cent of people on prepayment meters struggled to stay comfortably warm. So, we also need to do more about that, and I'm following on from my colleague Sioned Williams in raising the question to the Minister, if I may, around energy efficiency and when we can see that operational start to the Warm Homes programme in Wales. We have been waiting some time, and, really, we can't afford to wait any longer. Next winter will soon be upon us, and the understanding is—I'm not an economist, but the understanding is— that the financial situation of poor people next year will be even worse—can you imagine—than it is this year. We must really accelerate the development of the Warm Homes programme. By my own calculations, if we look at insulation, it would take 135 years to insulate all of Wales's fuel-poor homes, on the basis of the performance of the scheme in 2020-21. So, I do hope that we're able to hear very soon that there will be an acceleration of the programme, but also that we will learn from the previous programme about how we absolutely can get to those, and target those, fuel-poor homes. Rapid investment in our homes would benefit all of those in fuel poverty as well as ensuring that we address, partly, the climate emergency.

I welcome the opportunity to sponsor this scheme brought forward by Jack Sargeant. Thank you so much, Jack, you are a champion of people who are in difficult circumstances, and I’m proud to be able to support this motion. I do hope that we can hear from the Minister what steps we are going to be taking in order to address not just the issue Jack has raised in his motion, but also that of the Warm Homes programme. Thank you, diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:45

There have been many great points made in this debate already. The perversity of prepayment is in many ways the perfect distillation of callous Westminster politics and the rigged energy market that we’re burdened with in the UK. How did we ever get to this situation, where people’s homes were being entered without permission on an industrial scale to fit prepayment meters against their wishes? To add insult to injury, those on prepayment meters would end up paying far more for their gas and electricity than someone paying on direct debit. This means that a millionaire would pay less per unit of gas and electricity that someone in receipt of benefits, struggling to make ends meet. How was that ever legal?

Families have gone cold this winter due to this scandal. Older people have sat in the dark due to this scandal. People have died due to this scandal. All of this has gone on while our energy companies have been making record profits, profits that have been made on the backs of people in misery. In a crowded field, this is one of the most shocking examples of unfairness that we can see in the UK today. It is right that we’re debating this matter in the Senedd today, and I commend Jack for bringing this debate to this Chamber and for his tireless campaigning work on this topic. He has the full support of Plaid Cymru in shining a spotlight on the injustice that has been allowed to go on far too long in the energy sector.

While I support Jack’s proposals, I think there is a wider debate to be had about the way people in debt are treated. Earlier this year, I met with the Enforcement Conduct Board, who provide independent oversight for bailiffs, and they shared with me some horror stories about the charges that are applied to people in debt. I’ve mentioned this case before, but it’s worth reiterating. I was given an example of a woman who lives in social housing in Newport and receives universal credit and personal independence payments. She was subject to a High Court enforcement case on behalf of a utility creditor. She asked the debt collection company if she could arrange an instalment plan, but the company refused and insisted that they visit her to see if she had any assets they could repossess. This meant that, in addition to the £75 charge that was added to her debt because of the telephone stage of enforcement, a further £190 was added to her debt for the visit. If she had not been at home on that first visit, a second visit would have led to a stage 2 High Court enforcement fee of £495 being added on.

The way people in debt are being treated by bailiff companies has the hallmarks of the way people are being treated by having prepayment meters forced upon them by energy companies. I’m pleased to hear that the Welsh Government is now engaging with the Enforcement Conduct Board, and I’d welcome an update on that. I hope that greater regulation can result from these meetings in order to clamp down on rogue firms that take advantage of people in poverty and plunge them into even greater poverty. Diolch yn fawr.

It is an absolute scandal, is it not, that over half our energy is now generated by renewables, yet we are still submitting poor people to this sort of treatment? The energy system is absolutely broken.

I wanted to focus on how effective the method of getting payments to people was. So, I spoke to Ofgem, who assured me that companies are adding credit automatically, where possible, if customers have a smart prepayment meter—if it’s working correctly. It should automatically add that £45 a week to the household’s credit balance. If the meter is faulty, I’m told households are sent a code by text or e-mail, so that they can use that to then top up their credit online. As a last resort, a voucher is issued to a customer by post, and I’ll come back to why that is a last resort.

If a household has a traditional prepayment meter, they either get a credit when they top up at their usual top-up point—and it's good to see exactly how much information energy companies hold about individuals; Sarah Murphy is not in the room at the moment, but this is a big data protection issue—or they get a voucher through the post as a last resort. And the reason why I describe this as a last resort is that we have huge amounts of evidence that people who are struggling financially stop opening the post—that is the way they cope with it. So, they think that every single letter that isn't from their granddaughter is going to be another demand for money that they haven't got. So, they never find out about the voucher that they desperately need to help them pay for heating.

Now, no information as yet is available of the cost-benefit analysis of different delivery methods of support, but there's clearly a lot of work to be done. So, for example, in Cardiff Central, between October and December last year, nearly 105,000 households should have got their money, but for 2,000 of them, it was simply never delivered. So, 2,000 never got the payments they were entitled to, and that is the payment that Boris Johnson got and that everybody else in this room got—2,000 of the poorest people never got that money. What is the explanation for that? And, equally, where vouchers had been issued to 6,800 households, there were just over 4,000 households where those vouchers were redeemed; 1,600 people never got them. Nobody ever knocked the door and said, 'Did you get the voucher, missus, or should we reissue you with a new one?'

These are really important issues and, thank goodness, on top of that, we have the Welsh Government fuel voucher statistics as well to go on, because the £200 pushed out by the Welsh Government was targeted at those who actually needed it rather than at those who could afford to pay. And the Fuel Bank Foundation has had a huge increase in the number of organisations that are now associating with them. They issued over 17,000 vouchers to support people who weren't able to afford to top up their prepayment meter; 44,000 people, of whom, over 40 per cent were children—the children who couldn't afford to have a bath or a hot meal or read a book before they went to bed. I think what's a worrying statistic for me is that only 148 households received help to purchase off-grid fuel. What are local authorities in areas where a lot of the dwellings are off grid doing to ensure that people, who should be getting that help, are getting it?

So, I think that all of this tells us that we need to—. Just as we need to regulate local authorities who use unregulated bailiffs to collect council tax debts, we clearly need to regulate energy suppliers who use unlicensed bailiffs to break into people's homes. The Enforcement Conduct Board has got to be given some regulatory teeth to enforce that and, frankly, the energy companies need to have some controls put around them in the way that water companies cannot cut off people's water. We need to ensure that the minimum amount of energy is being provided to every household in this country—as I say, the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world.

15:50

Thank you, Jack, for proposing this important debate that relates to an issue affecting so many people in our constituencies and regions day in, day out. And I won't repeat the points raised, but I think it is that personal connection: we've all had people come to us who are struggling; we all know of organisations that are trying to provide that support and are just unable to meet the demands. And I think in the period before, where Citizens Advice and so on were able to offer solutions in terms of how you could reduce your energy costs and so on, we're at a point now where essentials are no longer affordable, and it's not just a matter of being able to tweak here and there. As we've heard already from other contributions, energy prices have just gotten out of control, and it is an absolute scandal to see these companies make these vast amounts of profit, while we know—as others have mentioned—that people are dying because they cannot afford to heat their homes. That’s the reality here in Wales today.

It's easy for us perhaps to become a bit immune to some of those statistics, but we have to ask ourselves: why do we have excess death rates currently here in Wales? What are the reasons for that? Why do we see an increase in child poverty? All of these are interconnected. So, I think that, for us—. I remember doing my GCSE in history, and looking back at when you were told about how terrible things were in Victorian times, et cetera. Well, the stories that we are hearing now are just as bad. People are dying because they can’t afford basics. This, for me, is something that we need to look at as a society.

Obviously, there is an issue specifically around prepayment meters, and the fact that they have been forcibly installed, and that people are being cut off. But, fundamentally, energy prices are too high, and people can’t afford the basics, and that’s something that we need to address. I think that Sioned Williams was perfectly right to say that we need to have the power over power here in Wales. We need to be able to ensure that essentials are affordable. There are things that we can call for from the UK Government, but ultimately, there are solutions here in Wales, and that’s what we should be focused on as well for the long term.

I think that the issue in terms of Warm Homes schemes—I certainly echo those calls. But I just wanted to share with you what this means currently for people living in South Wales Central. I recently held a cost-of-living event in January, where organisations were telling me about those that they have been able to help—individuals—through fuel bank vouchers, but that the demand was just extortionate, and how they were going to keep up with that demand was a concern.

They told me of people who were coming to them who had been stealing, just to be able to pay energy costs; of returning to drug dealing, to be able to pay for energy. This is the reality in our communities now, that people are having to take drastic action, and that people are choosing to take those drastic actions just to heat their homes. I am very concerned about those most vulnerable in our society who are just going without—those who just decide, 'I am not going to be able to afford anything. I don’t want to ask anyone for help.' So, even the support available, they are not accessing.

Another issue that I’d like to focus on, in terms of prepayment meters, is how difficult it can be to top up, even if you do have money available. We have had examples of post offices closing in communities, which are often used as top-up points, meaning that people have to travel further, perhaps sometimes a few miles, to be able to top up. We know how frequently you have to top up because of costs. Some stores then only take cash, but there’s no cashpoint, or it’s not working. That then means that you have to walk, perhaps miles, back to your home, not being able to top up. We will be discussing buses later on. We know that, in some communities, if you don’t have access to buses, and if they don’t run frequently or don’t turn up, what are you then supposed to do in terms of reaching those top-ups? So, I think that there is, fundamentally, a problem in terms of access as well.

Emergency credit varies from company to company. It’s very much up to a landlord if they do install a smart meter sometimes, which means that that emergency credit is not always available if you don’t have a smart meter. There are so many difficulties when you are cut off during the night or weekends, when shops are closed, and you are not able to have that urgent support that we are told is there, but in reality isn’t.

I’d briefly just like to mention it in terms of period dignity as well. I think about the fact that we are striving as a nation to be a nation of period dignity, well, not accessing warm water and not being able to wash does have a disproportionate impact. And I have heard some colleagues mention bath time—that parents are having to ration bath time, and so on. These are very real issues, and we need urgent solutions. So, thank you, Jack, for raising this, but now we need to act as a Senedd and ensure that those changes come through, so that people aren’t suffering, dying or just not able to do basic things that we take for granted.

15:55

As a named supporter of this Member debate, I want to place on record the work of Jack Sargeant in raising this very critical issue, as many have said, both in this place and beyond. And it is, as many have said today, the sick and the disabled and the elderly and the young who this issue impacts the most upon. It is a result of sheer profit over people, and it's the sick face of privatisation unregulated, with billionaire energy owners riding bareback on those who are most frail and vulnerable. Estimates suggest that up to 45 per cent of all households in Wales could be in fuel poverty following increases to energy prices and consequent budget impacts now.

The shocking revelations in The Times last month exposed that climate of fear, as many Members of this Senedd today have articulated, with people unable to pay their fuel bills, debt collectors let loose, as Jane Dodds and others have stated, and prepayment meters being forcibly installed. But the sheer scale and immorality—I'll use that really strong word, it is immorality—of this issue is so profound. My constituents, as Sioned has also said, tell me this weekly. Some 200,000 households in Wales are using prepayment meters for their main gas and electricity, and 45 per cent of social housing tenants are using prepayment meters.

I do want to thank Jack here for this campaign, and I also do welcome the work of Jane Hutt, Minister for Social Justice, who has called publicly for Ofgem to extend the ban on forced installation of prepayment meters beyond the end of March. We must, as Mike Hedges states, stop standing charges. Indeed, collectively, the Welsh Government has acted strongly in its united response, with £90 million to provide support to vulnerable households to meet rising energy costs, including a £200 fuel support scheme on top of the UK Government's fuel support payments. This has come from other Welsh Government priority areas. And further, to meet the need, social justice Ministers have secured an extra £18.8 million in the draft budget, increasing the total discretionary assistance fund for this coming financial year to £38.5 million.

But it is a source of sadness that this is needed today, as others have mentioned, in a G7 country where we as the UK are languishing at the bottom. It is imperative that the UK Government now step up to the plate and use those resources available to them for those in fuel poverty in Wales who have all been made poorer by each consequent action of this callous UK Government. I know that the Minister will continue to lobby the UK Government, Ofgem and energy suppliers to finally rise to the moment and fulfil their moral obligations to the poorest in society, but, sadly, until we get a Labour Government in Westminster, working with us, the Welsh Senedd, it will continue to fall on marble as ordinary people continue to freeze. I say, 'Shame on Ofgem', and I say, 'Shame on the UK Government.'

16:00

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I welcome today's debate on prepayment meters. It's a national scandal the way consumers, often the poorest in our communities, have been treated. Jack Sargeant has been at the forefront of the campaign to expose this scandal, and the Welsh Government not only welcomes, but supports this motion today. I thank all the Members who've spoken today and contributed. It's good to see the whole of the Senedd—you've united us all behind your motion with such powerful speeches.

The cost-of-living crisis is having a detrimental effect on all of our living standards, but it's having a more devastating effect on the households who are least able to pay. And yet the energy supply market, which provides an essential service, operates in such a way that vulnerable households, already struggling to pay their bills, face the threat of having prepayment meters forced upon them. In 2022, approximately 200,000 households in Wales relied on prepayment meters for their mains gas and electricity, and this represents 15 per cent of all households. Twenty-four per cent of tenants in the private rented sector use prepayment meters, and almost half of social housing tenants rely on prepayment meters. Dirprwy Lywydd, we were all shocked, weren't we, and appalled to see households, including those who are clearly vulnerable, being transferred to prepayment meters against their will.

Alongside Jack Sargeant's representations and other campaigners', it's of further concern that it took a journalist to highlight the issue, as Jack has said, when the regulator Ofgem has the regulatory role to prevent this occurring. It’s clear that the existing rules and how they are enforced and not working. This has been reflected in contributions this afternoon. They’re not protecting the most vulnerable in society. I’m meeting Ofgem on Monday, and I will reporting back in full on the contributions made on this motion today. I’ve been consistently clear: householders who’ve been subjected to forced use of a prepayment meter—either through the wholly flawed warrant process, or because they were encouraged to do so, perhaps not appreciating alternatives available to them—must be offered the opportunity to revert to their previous meter at no cost. I think that call is also being supported this afternoon.

As a result of the exposure of this scandal, the practice of forced installation of prepayment meters was halted, but only temporarily. It was halted and we welcomed that, but it was only temporary. I’ve regularly made the point to the UK Government and to Ofgem that it was premature to allow the warrant process to continue from the end of this month. If you recall, it was just halted to the end of March, risking further vulnerable households being forced onto meters against their will whilst the Ofgem investigation was ongoing. So, I think, colleagues, it is important to record today that Ofgem’s chief executive announced on 14 March that they will continue that ban and they’ll only lift it when and if firms follow Ofgem’s new code of practice. I shall be pressing for that ban to continue indefinitely. It’s been commented on about the code of practice—I think that ban has to continue indefinitely, and I’m sure you would support me with that.

It is vitally important that Ofgem regulate the industry effectively. I’ve sought assurances at board level and I’ve asked that if they don’t have sufficient powers and interventions, then we would like to help them to press for those powers. 

16:05

In your meetings with Ofgem and indeed with the UK Government, can you establish that the other scandal around prepayment meters, which is the so-called prepayment premium, which forces people to pay even more, is actually going to end in July? Can you get some assurances for that, if you haven't had them already, categorically?