Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

27/09/2023

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

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Climate Change

Good afternoon, and welcome to this Plenary meeting. The first item will be questions to the Minister for Climate Change this afternoon. The first question is from Mark Isherwood.

20 mph Speed Limits

1. What policy analysis did the Welsh Government undertake before implementing the 20 mph speed limits? OQ59961

Thanks for the question. The policy was four years in the making. We've examined international evidence, benefited from the work of an expert taskforce, and trialled the policy in eight areas ahead of a national roll-out. We estimate that the policy could result, every year, in six to 10 lives being saved.

Thank you. Well, the Welsh Government has stated previously both that local authorities have the discretion to change the 20 mph limit and that, in Spain, where they have 20 mph as their default position, urban deaths and road accidents have fallen by 20 per cent, and the number of cyclists killed in road traffic accidents has been reduced by 34 per cent. How do you therefore respond to the Flintshire county councillor representing part of your Buckley 20 mph pilot area, who wrote last week, stating,

'Unfortunately, Welsh Government don't appear to have learnt any lessons from the pilot. The powers given to authorities are not clear, and making a case why the road should be excluded is difficult for our council officers'?

And, noting that Spain had more road deaths per million inhabitants than the UK in 2022, how do you respond to the statement by the Spanish Interior Minister in January, comparing the figures for 2022 with 2019—the last pre-pandemic year without mobility restrictions there—that 2022 represented more deaths than in 2019, and, quote,

'When it comes to cyclists, the number of fatalities also increased'?

Well, in terms of the pilot we ran in Flintshire, the whole point of a pilot is to try things, and part of trying involves failing and learning from the failure, and I don't see any problem with that. In fact, that's the whole point of doing it. Now, we decided in different settlements to trial different approaches. So, in some areas, we trialled monitoring, in some, we trialled enforcement. In the case of Buckley, we decided to trial the exceptions procedure. Now, there was a debate about whether or not we should allow some exceptions within Buckley as part of that trial, or to take an area-wide approach, and it was decided, for the purposes of testing that approach, to take an area-wide approach. Now, I think that Buckley has shown that an area-wide approach does not work, and the exceptions procedure is best used, particularly for communities like Buckley, where part of the road goes through almost a semi-rural area, where there aren't any houses, and another through Liverpool Road, through far more dense population. So, it's a really tricky example—we probably couldn't have chosen a more difficult area to pilot the exceptions, frankly.

We also had some real difficulties with the local authority, who were very nervous about moving away from the strict letter of the guidance, because they have had a number of legal challenges from retired highway officers, and they wanted to make sure that there was no room for further challenge on their part. Now, I'm pleased to say that, as a result of the whole process of working with them closely, we have given them confidence to apply a number of exceptions through Buckley that the pilot project showed us were worth while. I'm disappointed they haven't felt able to apply their own process themselves through the rest of Flintshire, and they still require, I think, some confidence about the extent to which they might be liable to legal challenge in the event of a collision. And that's one of the issues we now need to work through in the next stage. But it's not the case that they're not able to apply exceptions, because, if they had, how could they have applied the ones they have applied in Buckley?

Urban Tree Planting

2. What work is the Welsh Government doing to promote urban tree planting? OQ59972

The Welsh Government continues to encourage and support urban tree planting. The My Tree, Our Forest campaign offered a tree for every household in Wales. Other schemes in urban areas include the Coetiroedd Bach scheme and Local Places for Nature, which continue to fund hundreds of community tree-planting projects.

Thank you for your response, Minister. Firstly, I'd just like to take a moment to plug Wales's only entry in the Woodland Trust's Tree of the Year 2023 competition. It's a 484-year-old sweet chestnut tree in Wrexham's Acton Park. I'm delighted the team from Wrexham is looking to promote this tree, so I would encourage anybody to get on the Woodland Trust website and vote for that tree in Acton Park.

Minister, you of course know that trees being planted in the right places make such a difference to our communities. They've certainly been proven, in urban areas in particular, to improve physical and mental health and well-being, reduce noise, improve air quality—so many benefits of having trees planted in our urban areas. And I know, Minister, you would agree that local government has an important role to play in ensuring this takes place. I know, with my previous hat on, there was a project in Conwy that saw new trees planted across Llandudno, Colwyn Bay, Abergele, Kinmel Bay and Towyn, for all those good reasons and benefits that we're aware of. So, I'd be interested to know, Minister, if you have any plans in place at the moment, in working with local authorities in Wales, to ensure that they are looking to plant those trees in our urban towns and city centres across Wales. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

13:35

Yes, thank you, Sam, I'm very happy to—. I didn't realise we had a Welsh entry this year, and now that I do, I will be very happy to back it. I'm very keen on the Tree of the Year campaign, actually, because one of the points of it is to make people aware of what a tree can do for your neighbourhood. And even a single tree of that sort, especially a beautiful old specimen tree, as they're called, is a whole biodiverse ecosystem all by itself. So, it's really important to do that.

Now, we're really, really keen to include urban trees and urban planting schemes in our national forest for Wales plans, and we have woodland liaison officers working with urban projects, including local authorities, right across Wales, to bring the urban trees into the national forest. We want people to understand that the forest consists of single trees in urban environments, as well as planted, bigger schemes, and, of course, we have the Tiny Forests programme as well, where we're looking to bring a whole biodiverse forest that is the size of a couple of tennis courts, with six different species in it, into urban environments, so that people can understand what that brings to an ecosystem.

So, I couldn't agree more. I know you're very enthusiastic about it, and it was a pleasure to work with you before, and we are definitely working with our local authorities. And the only other thing I would say, Llywydd, in both urban and rural environments, is to just encourage people to let the trees in our hedgerows grow, to turn them into trees—there is no real need to cut them off. Sometimes, along the highway, there's a need to stop overhanging branches so that we can avoid collisions, but, mostly, they can be allowed to grow. And those trees count very much towards our biodiverse goals as well. 

I introduced the council's urban tree woodland strategy at Flintshire. It's a 15-year-old plan, and, I must say, in partnership with the Welsh Government's policies and funding, biodiversity officers have been retained there, and the planting of trees as well as wildflower meadows have continued. We called trees 'nature's health service', because the benefit is unbelievable for physical and mental health. They create canopy ecosystems, intercept rainfall, moderate air temperatures and reduce flooding, so the benefits are just unbelievable. 

A Wrexham study estimated that the annual ecosystem benefits that the town's urban trees provide is £1.44 million, and, in financial terms, the benefits are immense. Minister, I hope that, when you're looking at the financial constraints, biodiversity and the planting of trees and wildflower meadows will remain a priority, and that, also, developers will be encouraged, when doing any engineering works in town centres, to make sure they plant trees as well. Thank you.

Yes, I'm very happy to endorse all of those, and I'm very grateful for your work as well on the 'edges' scheme, so we can get as many edges to be mown as infrequently as we can manage, and with local wildflowers as well. It's actually very important that they're native wildflowers too, so that they self-seed, and that they feed our pollinator population, because, obviously, they're adapted to use local wildflowers. And that's the same with trees. So, trees produce enormous amounts of food for our insects, and, without our insects, we cannot have the birds that we're all so fond of. So, I won't be able to quote this accurately, Llywydd, but a single pair of swallows eats tens of thousands of insects. So, if you think about how many insects you need to have good environments to live in, if you want swallows and swifts in your urban environment, then you see how important it is to make sure that the trees that provide those habitats are protected and enhanced. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

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

Diolch, Llywydd. Prynhawn da, Minister. Wylfa and Trawsfynydd are two key sites for nuclear projects in Wales. Now, we know the UK needs four times as much clean power as we have now to hit net zero by 2050, and nuclear energy at both Trawsfynydd and Wylfa are ideally placed to be at the heart of a massive nuclear revival here in Wales. In the face of such Plaid Cymru negativity about nuclear, I am proud of the championing and leadership of Virginia Crosbie MP, in her efforts to bring jobs to Wylfa, and considerably more well-paid jobs. So, Minister, how is your Welsh Government working with the UK Government and Great British Nuclear to ensure that we see more investment in new nuclear power, especially at Wylfa and Trawsfynydd?

13:40

Well, Llywydd, this is actually my colleague the Minister for Economy’s portfolio, but, nevertheless, we are working very hard indeed to make sure that in particular small and medium-sized nuclear reactors can be sited at various points. Trawsfynydd is one of them. I had the real pleasure of visiting that site to look at both the decommissioning works that are there and the potential for small nuclear—we’re very keen on promoting that.

In terms of Wylfa, the reason it's in the Minister for Economy’s portfolio and not mine is because it’s obviously an enormous inward investment project. Also, Janet, I don’t share your sanguinity about this. We could have had that project up and running by now if we’d had any kind of either industrial or decent investment strategy.

So, correct me if I'm wrong, however, you are the Minister for Climate Change and the environment and we know that all projects for renewable energy of any type do fall under you. So, I would expect you to be briefed on Wylfa. So, it is essential that we have enough clean baseload power across Wales to ensure energy security and as a deterrent against fuel poverty. Nuclear energy provides the lowest carbon emissions, with 24-hour energy available. In fact, Wylfa, at the time, generated energy for 1.1 million homes over 44 years. Both you and I know that grid capacity is a barrier to many clean energy projects being delivered and we also know that Trawsfynydd had exceptional access to grid capacity and would be a great base for small modular reactors. So, what steps are you taking to highlight this to the UK Government to ensure that nuclear development is undertaken at this site as soon as possible?

Right, well, I have to say, Janet, I don’t really think I should give you a lesson in how to discover which Minister is responsible for what, but they are published on the website and you can look it up.

However, of course I understand what’s happening at Wylfa. It’s an inward investment project. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we're not currently generating any electricity, which is why it’s not in my portfolio. And so, the answer to your question is of course we talk to the UK Government about the grid; we talk to the Minister until we’re blue in the face about the grid. However, we have yet to see a single penny of investment in encouraging the grid into mid Wales or indeed across north Wales or indeed the upgrading that we need in south Wales to get the Celtic sea. So, if you want to add your voice to mine on that, please feel free.

With all due respect, Minister, this tells me that you’re not really interested in nuclear because you’re passing it off as being in someone else’s brief—

No, Llywydd, she's saying it's not her portfolio. At the end of the day, this is the Minister responsible for climate change, the environment. We are talking about the environment, we're talking about carbon zero, so I would expect a more courteous reply and for her to actually address the concerns that many raise with me. 

Now, it can take 14 years to build new grid infrastructure. There are enough projects in the UK waiting to be connected to generate over half our future electricity needs. The UK Government is tackling the problem head on through the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, bringing forward comprehensive new reforms to energy infrastructure. So, what representation have you made already, because we had some slight information lapses during some of the last questions when you were on your feet, Minister, where one minute you were saying that UK Government doesn't engage with you, and then the next minute, in response to Huw Irranca, you apologised and said that that dialogue—

You'll get your chance to respond now. And you need to come to your final question.

I am, Llywydd. What representations are you or will you be making to the UK Government to ensure the reforms that we need to deliver the new grid capacity—that we have them here in Wales?

So, just to say, Janet, I apologised to Huw Irranca-Davies for not bringing forward a legislative consent motion in the time that he wanted me to. I made no apology for what I said about the UK Government. You can check the Record as I have. And if you really want me to report you for continuing to say something that's not true, you keep it up. I said no such thing.

The UK Government and I have had many meetings. I have seen several Ministers off. They don't stay in post long enough to actually understand what's happening with the grid. I've had many meetings with UK Government Ministers on this. I've had many meetings with the National Grid on this, including one only a couple of weeks ago where we discussed the paucity of grid rid right across Wales and what that project might look like. We are fully involved in the holistic network design and electricity network operator processes, and I've met with the distribution system operators. So, I have done plenty here. What has not happened is that the UK Government has put any investment strategy at all in to back its numerous empty promises.

13:45

Minister, remaining within the 1.5 degrees or even 2 degrees thresholds that are set out in the Paris agreement to avoid catastrophic climate change—that requires substantial emissions reduction now. But today we've heard that the UK's largest untapped oilfield has been approved by regulators, an oilfield that could produce 200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. It is a decision that has been welcomed by the UK Government, but the consequences of inaction in the face of climate catastrophe are too dire for us to ignore. The urgency of curbing fossil fuel emissions and peaking by no later than 2025, if we hope to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees—that's never been more important. So, Minister, I'd ask you, given that the UK Government seems intent on throwing us off course on our journey to net zero by 2050, do you agree that Wales must now move more quickly to reach net zero before 2050?

Yes, the decision on that oilfield is very alarming indeed, and the idea that it's something to do with energy security is put the lie to when you realise that the company that's exploiting it is actually the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, and nothing to do with Britain. That oil will be sold into international markets. It does not increase our security in any way. It's an absolute fallacy that getting more oil out of the ground somehow increases energy security here. It just simply locks us into very expensive international prices for oil and gas. So, I had a very heavy heart when I heard that announcement. This is the same Government, of course, that says it wants to do net zero, but at the beginning of the Conference of the Parties biodiversity summit last year announced the opening of a new coal mine. So, they say one thing and do something quite different.

We have, as I think you know, Delyth, as part of the co-operation agreement, a taskforce looking into whether we can accelerate net zero, and I'm very much looking forward to their report. The designated Member and myself have a meeting next week. They've already announced several plans for action, and we really hope that they will produce us a viable and practical solution to accelerating our own course.

Thank you for that, Minister. Of course, this comes as the Prime Minister and his Government continue to renege on absolutely vital policies to combat climate catastrophe, and again I use that word 'catastrophe’' because that is what's facing us. I've raised this before—I'm worried about how net zero seems increasingly to be becoming election fodder, a means of drawing clear water between the two UK parties. I'm not accusing your Government of that in any way, Minister, but on a UK level, in the run-up to the general election, looking to what Government will be in power after that election, UK Labour has stated it doesn't plan to bring back the 2026 deadline for beginning the phase-out of all gas boilers. And while they have said they won't grant new licences for oil and gas exploration, I understand today UK Labour have stated they wouldn't revoke the Rosebank licence if they win the next election—[Interruption.] I don't think it is good. Do you agree with that decision? I'm guessing that you probably won't. Is there anything that the Welsh Government can do to influence and to try and get them to change their minds?

So, we do try very hard to influence the UK Government, of whatever stripe, in order to reach our mutual goals to reach net zero by 2050. Obviously, they are statutory goals, so we are currently exploring whether our own statutory goals are affected by what's happened at UK Government level. We would do that with any Government of any stripe because, actually, we're co-dependent. We need the UK Government to do the things it has set out in its net-zero pathway in order for us to be able to do the things that we can do. So, we're very concerned about that, and we are taking some advice about whether there's anything we can do with that.

I can't comment on whether or not you could or couldn't revoke the licences, because I, frankly, don't know enough about the legals or how that works or anything else. It may be that they're written in such a way that that's not possible. I just simply don't know. But I can tell you, absolutely honestly, that I was really, really depressed at hearing that announcement, because it just puts the UK, once again, back in the role of someone who’s the dirty man of Europe, not a world leader at all, and just absolutely determined to exploit the world's natural resources, and, frankly, mortgage the souls of our children and grandchildren.

13:50
Tree Cover Across Wales

3. What is the Welsh Government doing to increase tree cover across Wales? OQ59956

The Welsh Government is supporting the planting of 43,000 hectares of new woodland by 2030. We will do this via the woodland creation offer launched last year, increasing tree cover on farms through the sustainable farming scheme, and our national forest will create a network of woodlands throughout Wales.  

Well, thank you, Minister. Extensive work is being conducted by an expert group on the wood panel industry, which included representatives from the Scottish, UK and Welsh Parliaments, and recommendations on how to increase tree planting for industrial use have been outlined in that report. I'd be incredibly grateful for the Welsh Government's observations on those recommendations, and perhaps for a discussion on how the future work of the group can assist the Welsh Government's excellent ambitions for increasing tree cover across Wales.

Thank you very much, Ken, for sending me the report, which I was very interested to look at. The wood panel sector, as you say, positively contributes towards net zero, and locks up carbon in long-term use products. I know that you know this because I work with you very closely, and I bang on about it all the time, but I very much want to see Welsh wood used in the construction of housing and to encourage more trees to be planted as a crop so that they can meet the growing need for sustainable, low-carbon building products that don't come from extractive industry or depend on non-renewable sources. We will be bringing forward an industrial strategy for trees. Also, we are very clear that a productive woodland—well, woodland designed as a crop—is still part of the national forest; it still plays a role in the national forest, and people need to understand that some trees are there as crops, but they play their role in the carbon sink that we need to create for the world. 

Minister, farmers manage approximately 80 per cent of Wales's land, playing an irreplaceable role in safeguarding and protecting our national countryside. Therefore, the agricultural industry is uniquely placed, and I see you nodding along, as an emissions sink with unique potential and a key role in tackling climate change whilst also providing food security. And, absolutely, trees play a vital role in this, and it must be the right tree, in the right place, for the right reason. However, we have seen land prices artificially inflated by multinationals purchasing Welsh agricultural farmland above market value for greenwashing, offsetting their conscience, rather than their carbon, and being supported by taxpayers' money to do so. So, given that we know that the interim Habitat Wales scheme, which replaces Glastir and the Glastir woodland creation scheme from January, will be a smaller pot of money, what discussions have you had as a Minister with your Cabinet colleagues, including the rural affairs Minister, to ensure that what funding is available is targeted directly to farmers, and isn't accessible for multinational companies? Diolch, Llywydd.

So, obviously, that's very much part of the discussion that we do have. If you have an example of that, I'd very much like to see it, because we're always told that these exist, and I've not yet found one. So, if you want to send me that, please, in a letter, I'd be very grateful for that.

What we do have often in Wales is agricultural land changing hands because a large part of our farmland is tenanted, so the holding companies look like multinationals, but, actually, they're using it as an asset base. Now, I don't personally approve of that either, but it's not the same thing as purchasing the land in order to increase tree cover. We do not fund schemes where agricultural land that should be used for food is used to blanket tree cover. We do have schemes to allow tree cover to be put into land in Wales, but they have very strict rules around the number of species and where they can be planted. Quite clearly, we also have a programme for restoring peatland, for example. We don't want trees planted on our peatland, especially the peatland we've worked hard to restore.

What we want is for people to do, as I was just discussing earlier with Carolyn and Sam—we want people to allow the trees that exist already in the hedgerows to grow, to actually turn into full trees, and to stop the kind of tidying of them that we see, and we're asking farmers to consider planting another row of trees alongside that in order to give a better corridor along. That covers, for most farms, 10 per cent of the land. So, obviously, we'll work with farmers. Some farms won't be suitable for that; other farms will be suitable for really productive crops of timber, which I've just been talking about with Ken Skates, which is a vital part of what we want to do in Wales. So, it is, you're absolutely right, the right tree, in the right place, for the right purpose as well. So, some of those trees will be there for generations to come as biodiverse reservoirs, but others will be crops, and the farmers can make an income from that as well as from food production. So, this is about making sure that we shepherd the land in the right way, for the right sort of production, in the right place. And I couldn't agree with you more, that we can't do that without our farmers.

13:55
The A494 Trunk Road

4. Will the Minister make a statement on road safety on the A494 trunk road in Pwllglas? OQ59965

Yes. Thank you. We take road safety very seriously and regularly review police collision data to inform the need for additional measures. We are currently updating the 'Setting Local Speed Limits in Wales' guidance and will review the speed limits across the trunk road network, following publication of the updated guidance.

Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. You'll know that I've had some correspondence with you on this matter over quite a long period of time now, and that the village of Pwllglas is going to benefit from a new fun and fitness park on one side of the trunk road, where all of the residents effectively live on the other side of the trunk road, alongside the local community centre, the village shop and a local nursery. Now, clearly, access to the new facilities is important for villagers, and they have asked if a crossing, ideally, could be installed on the trunk road, and failing that, if a reduction in the speed limit could be achieved from the current 40 mph to 30 mph. I appreciate that work is ongoing to review the national guidance, but, clearly, it's going to take quite some time before all of the roads across the trunk road network are actually reviewed. Can I request that you intervene in order to require your officials to undertake an assessment of the road safety in this village as soon as possible, so that people can enjoy the benefits of this new facility without being concerned about road safety?

Thanks. Well, I'm very sympathetic to what the Member says, and as he mentions, we've had correspondence, and I've already agreed to carry out a pedestrian assessment at Pwllglas. I'm afraid, because of austerity pressures, we don't have funding in this financial year to be able to do it, but we will do it as soon as we are able to find the resource.

This is obviously a very familiar argument about what the best speed limit should be where people and traffic mix. Outside play areas and where people live, obviously in urban areas, where the speed limit is currently 30 mph, those will default to 20 mph, precisely for the reasons that the Member sets out, which is why I'm slightly puzzled by the dogmatic attitude his party is taking on the issue of speed limits. In this case, of course, it's a trunk road, where the speed limit is currently 40 mph, and that, therefore, wasn't covered by the process to look at speed limits. Now, we are looking, therefore, at the guidance, because currently the guidance suggests, unless there are levels of casualties, we aren't able to change the speed limit. And I've had letters from a number of Members in this Chamber, including a number of his colleagues, asking me to look at cases in rural areas where roads pass through villages, and it should be lower. So, that's what we are doing. We want to bring it in line with our broader road safety and transport strategy, and I would expect to see, in cases like this, the speed limit to be able to come down.

Can I just point out to him that when I've said that we are doing this and we are reviewing speed limits for this purpose, the Conservative transport spokesperson has said,

'Labour will continue to wage this socialist, anti-worker, anti-road and anti-motorist agenda, causing damage to the Welsh economy and removing people's freedom to drive their cars',

because we want lower speed limits where children play? Now, I think there's a complete hypocrisy on the benches opposite of when they decide they want to support speed limits and when they don't. So, we are going to update the guidance, as he's asked me, but when I mentioned that on an interview recently, the Conservatives decided this was the latest culture war they could ride and started their screaming campaign of how this was a next agenda I had at anti-motorists. All I'm doing is what he's asking me to do, so perhaps they would rethink their position to avoid hypocrisy.

I too support calls to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety in the Pwllglas area, particularly those who are eager to use the new playing area—[Interruption.]

I'm sorry. I'm sorry. A Member is contributing virtually and cannot be heard when there is too much noise in the Chamber, so if we can listen to Llyr Gruffydd.

Carry on, Llyr.

Thank you, Llywydd. I too support the improvement of pedestrian safety in Pwllglas. Clearly, the new playing area is going to attract people, but not just those from the village. I know from experience that children, and young people in particular, are travelling from nearby communities to use this new resource—places such as Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd and Ruthin itself. And the road into Pwllglas from the north, the A494, is very narrow, it has several turns in it, there's no pavement, it's very dangerous to cycle on it. So, can I ask the Government to look at safety beyond Pwllglas itself and look at improving the safety measures, be that road signage or even investigating the possibilities in terms of cycling and walking routes across the old railway, for example, to safeguard against accidents? Because, as it appears at the moment, it's only a matter of time until somebody has a serious accident on that route. 

14:00

Thank you for the question and I'm sure Llyr Gruffydd, like many Members here, have a great number of concerns raised by constituents about the speed of cars and the danger traffic poses to pedestrians. It certainly has historically been one of the biggest issues constituents have raised with me, and that is the reason why we are, with the support of many parties in this Chamber, reducing the speed limit in built-up areas. And on those roads outside of the current 30 mph, we are looking, as I said, at the guidance that we can issue to go alongside it. We're also later this year going to be consulting on a new road safety strategy for Wales, because the current version has lapsed, and we'll be bringing speed limits in line with our other policies and our Wales transport strategy. As the Member knows, we are investing heavily in safe routes for walking and cycling away from roads as part of our active travel investment. So, I think we are doing a great deal on this agenda, and I'm grateful for his support and his party's support for the action that we are taking. 

Wales's Canal Network

5. What measures is the Welsh Government taking to protect and enhance Wales’s canal network? OQ59985

Canals contribute to the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales. Whilst canals are non-devolved, the Welsh Government has funded projects to enhance the network. These include supporting biodiversity and other environmental enhancements along the Montgomery canal, as well as active travel routes along the Swansea canal.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Our canal network is a critical part of our national infrastructure. Canals bring the benefits of green spaces and nature corridors into urban areas, reaching thousands of people for whom access to nature is at a premium. They create wildlife corridors, contribute to flood defences and drainage and transfer water to support public water supply. In my constituency in Newport West, the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal has served residents since being built in 1799. Initially for industry, it now is a sanctuary for walkers and nature lovers, with the wonderful Fourteen Locks Canal Centre in Rogerstone providing an excellent base for visitors.

Our canals are an asset to be cherished, but the recent long-term funding settlement by the UK Government for the Canal & River Trust, which includes Glandŵr Cymru, represents almost a halving of real-terms public funding for canals compared with recent years. According to the trust, it will lead to a decline in the condition of the canal network and the alarming prospect of canal closures. Minister, what conversations are you having with Westminster on the impact of this decision, and what can the Welsh Government do to protect our canals and ensure that our canals remain the asset that they are? 

Yes, diolch, Jayne Bryant, for that question. As you've just said, the UK Government has taken a decision to change the funding model for the Canal & River Trust, and moves from a 15-year period to a 10-year period, with annual downwards tapers. I'm sure you know all of this, but it was set up in 2012 and the UK Government agreed to provide around £740 million through a 15-year grant as the charity established itself. It was always the case that they were expected to gradually reduce the reliance on public funding, but it was over 15 years, and that's been reduced. During 2022-23, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs carried out a review of its grants to inform the position. We contributed to the early stages of that review and highlighted the important role the canal network has in all areas—all the ones you've just mentioned; outdoor recreation, active travel, tourism and biodiversity being high up there.

So, they've announced that it will reduce each year. They think that the reduction can be matched by increases in other funding, such as water transfer charges, boating and mooring charges and other income, but I'm afraid we've highlighted a number of risks as a result of the reduction in funding, and we fear closure of some parts of the network, including some active travel routes, a negative impact on biodiversity if the canal can't be kept free running, because it's the free running of the water that contributes very much to that, and obligations for historic grants for assets to be maintained and to provide public benefit coming into play if the trust can't produce enough money in order to meet its obligations, and then, as a result of that, the reduced maintenance of listed assets.

So, it's very concerning indeed that this has happened, and we are very keen to preserve our canal network, and indeed to extend it, as we still hope we will be able to do. We have some lines in 'Planning Policy Wales' that set out policy considerations for canals and inland waterways, and, basically, in summary, it says that planning authorities should seek to promote the use of inland waterways by the protection of or provision of access to them. That's with a view to making sure that communities can access the waterways, and indeed make use of them. And also it's very obvious that, in the last 10 years, people have had a very different view of canals and rivers. So, it wasn't uncommon at all 15 years ago for housing estates to be built with their back to a river, and a wall built in between. Now it's very obvious that it enhances the value of the land if you turn it around and make it look at the river. I don't know, Jayne Bryant, if you've had a chance to do this, but, if you get a chance to look at the Lee valley on the Olympic park in London, and what happened when the Canal & River Trust was able to influence how they pursued the inland waterways of that site, and what it has done for the community locally, then it's well worth looking at. So, it's a real false economy once more from the Conservatives to do this for an asset that is both a heritage asset and a huge investment in biodiversity.

14:05

Minister, of course one way the Welsh Government can help to enhance Wales's canal network is by continuing to support work in terms of the restoration of the Montgomery canal, which you referred to in your earlier answer. Now, you'll be aware of the significant UK Government levelling-up funding that has been awarded to secure this project, and I certainly believe that the canal restoration in Montgomeryshire will be of huge benefit to improving the tourism offer, as well as helping in levering in that private sector funding as well. Now, I very much hope, Minister, that, through the mid Wales growth deal, additional funding can be levered in as well, because this is a key project within the mid Wales growth deal, which I know is a partnership, of course, between the Welsh and the UK Governments. So, Minister, I would like your support in principle for additional support through the mid Wales growth deal to support the final elements of the restoration of the Montgomeryshire canal, as I'm sure you'll very much agree with me that this is a very important strategic regeneration project for mid Wales. 

Yes, I do very much agree that it's an important regeneration and strategic project. As I was just saying in response to Jayne Bryant, it's very obvious it has a dramatic effect on land values, for example, and it's very definitely an increased tourism offer, both, actually, for use of the towpaths as well as the actual boating, and we're very much in favour of that. I can't comment on the finances of the mid Wales growth deal—that's in my colleague's portfolio—but we are as a Government supportive of the mid Wales growth deal, and very keen to ensure that historic assets of this sort are enhanced. 

Biodiversity

6. How does the Welsh Government balance the need for development against its commitment to protect and enhance biodiversity? OQ59977

The Welsh Government balances the need for development with our commitment to protect and enhance biodiversity through the implementation of our terrestrial and marine planning policies. These provide a framework to ensure our natural resources are used in a way and at a rate that maintains and enhances ecosystem resilience.

Thank you, Minister. I have been dealing with concerned residents at two potential developments, one a solar farm and the other a housing development. Both sites have one thing in common, however—they are both havens for wildlife. Both sites sustain a range of rare flora and fauna and both are threatened by development. Glais, which is home to rare birds and butterflies, could be destroyed to meet our energy needs, and Clyne Common, which is home to many rare plants and insect species, is to be paved over to accommodate the need for affordable housing. Minister, we have a nature emergency, so why are we allowing the destruction of natural habitats to meet short-term energy or housing targets? Surely there are plenty of brownfield sites around to allow developments to go ahead while at the same time protecting our biodiversity. Thank you.

Well, I'm very pleased to see the Member championing biodiversity over development. That's certainly not something the Government of the same colour as him is doing the other side of the border. Here in Wales we have a plan-led system. I obviously can't comment on individual sites or planning applications for obvious reasons, but any development that comes forward must comply with 'Planning Policy Wales', it must comply with the provisions set out in the LDP, and all of those have sustainable development absolutely at their core. So, as long as the planning authorities are correctly implementing the plans and correctly implementing 'Planning Policy Wales', then we have an enormous amount of protection and enhancement, so that we do get the right balance. But I obviously can't comment on individual sites because I may well have a role in the planning system for them.

14:10
The Menai Crossings

7. Will the Minister make a statement on the latest steps the Welsh Government is taking to improve the resilience of the Menai crossings? OQ59966

Diolch. The North Wales Transport Commission is drafting its report on improving resilience of the Menai crossings, and we hope to receive this as soon as it is ready. I understand that the commission will recommend a range of actions to be taken to achieve this, and that report will, of course, be publicly made available.

The closure last year, and now the long-term lights on the Menai bridge, have, of course, highlighted the lack of resilience of the Britannia crossing. The reason I ask the question today is because it honestly feels as if Welsh Government has given up on doing anything for the long term to help with the resilience of the crossing. I thought that I had come close, a decade ago, to getting support for a three-lane peak flow system. That couldn't be done. We continued campaigning and, wow, we were promised a new bridge. Then, that was scrapped. 'Use the bus', we were told. Then, buses are cut. 'Use active travel'—the bridge would have been the new route for active travel. Now, I've put forward practical solutions. I wrote in July. I suggested using a three-lane peak flow system as a rapid deployment interim measure. The Minister has written back to me, saying now that that can't be done, that it would take years. Where is the intention to try to get to grips with the problems that we are facing now? The Burns commission, I fear, doesn't have a wide enough remit. The Deputy Minister, Llywydd, I fear is giving us nothing here that shows us that the Government is serious about making real changes for the long term. With storm Agnes on the way, I have very, very nervous constituents again, worried about the island being cut off.

Well, I completely understand the frustration, and I'm disappointed by the slightly churlish comments that the Member has made there. I would have hoped that he would have thought that, in terms of my commitment and relationship with him—[Interruption.] The suggestion that we are not taking it seriously to provide a long-term solution is, I believe, churlish. I think I've tried very hard to work with him and given a lot of time to try to find solutions to do this. These things aren't straightforward. It is my job, as it's his job. I continue my disappointment with the tone that he is taking.

Now, my concern is, having engaged closely with the engineers on this—and he's met with them himself on a number of occasions—it is not as simple as he is making out, unfortunately. I wish it was, because I support what he's trying to do. I was very sympathetic to trying to put in the zipping system that he suggested, and the engineers are very cautious about that. I understand that the report that we have had back—working with the Burns commission and making engineers available to them—shows that it is going to be very difficult to put that in as a permanent solution, which is very disappointing. We're not giving up on it, and I am certainly asking them to make every effort to try and make that a pragmatic solution. I would be very happy for him, again, to meet with them to go through the detail of that.

As I say, the Burns commission will be producing an overall plan for north Wales. Unfortunately, Lord Burns has had a cycling accident and has taken a knock, and so there might be a delay to the report being published, but we hope to keep that to a minimum. I maintain my commitment to work with the Member to try and find a solution for his constituents.

Suitable Living Conditions

8. How is the Welsh Government working with local government colleagues to ensure that people in temporary accommodation have suitable living conditions? OQ59980

We remain committed to our long-term ambition to end homelessness, and are investing over £210 million in homelessness and housing support services this year alone. The code of guidance on the allocation of accommodation and homelessness sets out guidance for local authorities on the use and the suitability of temporary accommodation.

Thank you for that response, Minister.

As of June 2023, there were 10,869 people living in temporary accommodation, of which 3,346 were under the age of 16. Now, my office has seen an increase in the number of constituents coming to us from this setting expressing to us how unsuitable the accommodation is, especially for families. When we raise this with local authorities, very clearly, the pressure is on them. Response times, on average, have taken up to two months, no doubt because of the increased numbers needing temporary accommodation. So, my question is twofold. Firstly, what support is Welsh Government providing to local authorities to deal with the numbers that are needing temporary accommodation? And secondly, what advice would she give to us as Members in terms of the best way to support our constituents?

14:15

Yes. Thank you very much for the question. We're obviously working in collaboration with Plaid Cymru on this matter, because homelessness is part of the co-operation agreement. We continue to take a 'no-one left out' approach, with over 38,600 people experiencing homelessness supported with temporary accommodation since March 2020. We just updated our ending homelessness action plan, which reflects our ambition to reduce dependency on temporary accommodation, as authorities transition towards rapid rehousing.

But Luke Fletcher is quite right: prevention has to be the main focus, and our priority is to reduce the flow of people needing temporary accommodation, so we've provided an additional £6 million to local authorities for a discretionary homelessness prevention fund. We've also tried to increase move-on from temporary accommodation, so we've put something in place called the transitional accommodation capital programme. We established that back at the beginning of last year. It's open to new applications now to deliver more homes for people in temporary accommodation. This is very high-quality temporary accommodation and if the Member would like to visit some, I can certainly arrange that. So, this is accommodation that isn't quite at the spatial standards that we expect for permanent accommodation, and some of it is on what we call 'meanwhile' sites. I recently visited one at the gasworks here in Cardiff, for example, that will become a permanent housing estate, but it will take three to five years for that to happen, and in the meantime, we have very-good-quality temporary accommodation there for a number of families who would otherwise be in much poorer bed-and-breakfast accommodation. But there is absolutely no doubt that we are facing unprecedented numbers of people presenting as homeless. We still have over 1,000 a month right across Wales presenting as homeless, driven, I'm afraid, by the cost-of-living crisis and the effect that that has on family break-up.

So, we've been investing significantly in prevention services and if the Member is having people who present in that circumstance, the two things that we've been asking people to do are, first of all, to make sure that both housing and other public services in your area—so, mental health, substance abuse, social services support—are available if they're still in their homes, and that the council or the people running the housing options in your area are cognisant of the fact that they can do things to keep people in their homes. There are a large range of options available to keep people in their homes, including help with rent arrears, for example, and other issues. And where it's not possible to do that, that they present at the earliest possible opportunity to housing options, so that the maximum amount of time can be taken to find suitable alternative accommodation. And we have enabled councils to provide a range of suitable accommodation; it won't be permanent social housing for rent, in many cases, but it will, nevertheless, be perfectly acceptable accommodation.

We continue to work very hard. In the last figures that I have available, we had just over 1,000 people a month present, back in September, to homelessness services, and about 562 of those households were moved on into permanent accommodation. So, Llywydd, I always say this, I want to pay tribute to the people who work in homelessness services across Wales, who are really working absolutely flat out to try and help people in these circumstances. But I do emphasise that we are very much in the business of trying to keep people in their homes in the first place and to prevent the descent into homelessness, because of the trauma and, indeed, the sheer financial aspects of that.

2. Questions to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language

The next item will be the questions to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language, and question 1 today is from Paul Davies.

Vocational Courses

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the delivery of vocational courses? OQ59959

I published the report from the vocational qualifications review on 11 September. I am considering its recommendations, alongside others, to ensure a joined-up approach across a range of strategic developments. I will provide a further update in due course.

I thank the Minister for that response. Now, earlier this year, Qualifications Wales launched a consultation on three proposals for 14 to 16 qualifications, alongside GCSEs. I met with Pembrokeshire College earlier this year to discuss the consultation and the need for more collaboration between schools and colleges to provide vocational skills in my area. Now, I know that there are concerns about the capacity of some schools to provide additional vocational courses, and there are concerns as to whether some schools will have the appropriate facilities to provide some of these courses. Now, I understand that the results of the consultation are to be published in the new year, but, Minister, can you tell us what discussions you've had with Qualifications Wales on this work, what steps will the Welsh Government take to ensure that these vocational courses can be provided appropriately in schools, and what are you doing to help to facilitate more collaboration between schools and colleges to provide vocational skills here in Wales?

14:20

I thank the Member for those very important questions. This work by Qualifications Wales shows how much of a priority ensuring vocational education is, and the relationship that is so important, as the Member said, between schools and colleges to ensure that there is a pathway for learners that is flexible and an easy one. The work that Hefin David did recently on education in terms of employment and work in schools is also pushing in that direction: better collaboration between schools and colleges. The work has been taking place in connection with the Welsh Government, of course, we have had conversations with Qualifications Wales about this, and I've also discussed this with further education colleges too to see what the practical implications are of the kind that the Member mentions. We have an opportunity now, over the coming years, to prepare for this new suite of qualifications, so I will want to see over the coming year, when the results of the consultation are made public, what the demand is on the ground to ensure that that pathway is a smooth one, but I can provide an assurance that this is a priority for us as a Government.

Minister, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development highlights the vital importance of vocational education and training. They say this ensures skills development in a wide range of occupational fields, through schools-based and work-based learning. It plays a key role in ensuring lower school drop-out rates and facilitates the school-to-work transition. In a changing world of work, well-designed vocational education and training systems can play a crucial role in developing the right skills for the labour market, not only for youth, but also for adults in need of upskilling or reskilling. Minister, we know the world of work is rapidly changing with the development of technology such as artificial intelligence, and I welcome the review of vocational qualifications chaired by Sharron Lusher, and the subsequent report just published in July. Given the importance of that report, Minister, and the number of recommendations to make vocational training more effective here in Wales, could I ask for an update on progress with those recommendations and their implementation?

I thank John Griffiths for that question. I share with him the welcome for the report that Sharron Lusher and the other members of her steering group were able to provide to us as a Government. It's a really thoughtful and a very considered report, and has some very clear recommendations for the Welsh Government, but also for other key organisations like Qualifications Wales and the Commission for Tertiary Education and Research, of course. Obviously, I can't speak for those organisations, but my aim is to try and work strategically as we develop our response to the report.

I was keen to lay the report in front of the Senedd at the earliest opportunity, because I know how much interest there is amongst Members in this important area of policy. There is a recommendation, as he will be aware, in the review around a national strategy for vocational education and training, and I think we can take the guidance from that to look at how we better synergise, if you like, education, skills, economic policies and strategies across the Welsh Government.

I think there were some interesting points in there as well about how we approach the question of made-for-Wales qualifications in the future, to do exactly what the Member was encouraging us to do, I think, which is make sure that we have a suite of qualifications that are easily navigable for the learner, but also reflect the needs of what, in some sectors, is a very rapidly changing economy. I think the point he makes about this being an opportunity not only for younger people, but for people throughout their working life, is one that I absolutely endorse. 

14:25
School Transprt

2. Will the Minister provide an update on improving school transport for students? OQ59982

The Deputy Minister for Climate Change and I have received the report of the independent review of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 and associated guidance. We are currently considering that report, and when that work is concluded, we will publish our response to it.

Thank you very much for that, because as you know, in several parts of Wales, if you want to access Welsh-medium education rather than English-medium education, you have to travel further, because there may be only one or two Welsh-medium schools in some counties, and the lack of provision of transport to Welsh-medium schools causes unfairness and inequality and leads to students leaving Welsh-medium education. So, what are you as a Government doing to provide certainty that sixth-form students in particular, who don’t receive statutory school transport, will receive the support that they need so that they can continue with their education through the medium of Welsh? Because there are a number of cases I’m aware of by now where students have had to move from Welsh-medium education because of the lack of provision of transport, and that of course undermines the Government's aim of reaching a million Welsh speakers.

I agree with the Member in terms of prioritising this, and I’ve had discussions myself with headteachers in Welsh-medium schools over the last few months who share the concern that both he and I share. The work that we’ve been doing internally over the past few months, as I’ve said, has resulted in a report provided to myself and the Deputy Minister. But because of the fundamental reforms in terms of transport services and bus services particularly, and the financial situation on the other hand, we don’t see in the short term, at least, that there is an opportunity to amend the legislation itself, but there will be an opportunity to look at the statutory guidance to tackle some of the challenges outlined by the Member in his questions. We will also ensure that the pupil voice and the voice of staff in our schools are also heard as we undertake that work, but there will be an opportunity for us to set out more detail in due time when the work of reviewing that piece of work is concluded.

Minister, I’ll ask a question around the learner travel review also. In Powys, there are proposals to move Ysgol Bro Caereinion in Llanfair Caereinion from a bilingual school to a Welsh-medium school. There are a number of feeder schools where children are taught through the medium of English that would be affected in this regard. As it currently stands, the local authority will not fund school transport for some children who learn in the medium of English to their nearest English-medium high school. So, this has of course given further concern now, given the proposals that I’ve just outlined. So, will the learner travel Measure review address this issue, and would you agree with me that from an equality perspective and parent-choice issue, this is an issue that needs to be addressed?

The learner travel Measure is there, designed in many ways to try and address those questions of equalities that the Member highlights. As I say, I don’t foresee an opportunity to amend the learner travel Measure itself, but there is likely to be an opportunity to address some of the issues, much like some of the points the Member has just made, which have arisen in that internal review, an opportunity to address those in a review of statutory guidance, and that’s what we’ll be looking at over the coming months.

I represent an urban constituency, so I wonder if you could tell us what proportion of the education budget is being spent on school transport, because I have heard as high as 25 per cent. As we’re about to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013, what work are you doing with local education authorities in urban areas like Cardiff to get more pupils to walk, scoot, or cycle to school? Because that would be good for their health and it would be good for reinvesting the savings into teaching and learning.

I thank Jenny Rathbone for that timely question, given the anniversary that she rightly points to. Obviously, the level of funding that is devoted to school transport will vary from local authority to local authority for obvious reasons, but it can be very significant indeed, in the way that she was suggesting, but I think the focus that we want to bring recognises the importance of active travel, as I know that she is herself very committed to. So, for example, the work that we do around requiring schools to develop active travel school plans: we know that helps, obviously, with safety, but also with healthfulness. We know that it helps in terms of classroom focus. And we're moving to a situation where having a plan in place will become a condition for accessing a range of other funds as well. The work that we do to promote school streets and the active journeys programme, but also in relation to the new-build programme that we have, which, as she knows, is very significant, we've strengthened the active travel planning requirements for any new school development. The chair of the active travel advisory board has been working closely with us on making sure that those requirements on authorities, as they bring forward plans for funding, are robust and really meet the objectives that we have for them.

14:30

I'd like to alert the Minister that school transport in north Wales is at risk again as it's tied in with public transport. The proposed network being put forward by the joint working groups has said the transition fund is not enough to cover proposals, costs are increasing, and passenger numbers are not returning. They're really concerned when it comes to an end in March. Bus Users UK are running a Catch the Bus campaign for this month. So, please will you continue having dialogue with the Deputy Minister for Climate Change and the Welsh Local Government Association, to keep a watching eye, and encourage everyone to support the bus, and also the soon-to-be-launched Transport for Wales Back the Bus campaign, which should hopefully be launched next month? Thank you.

That's a really important point that Carolyn Thomas has just made. Obviously, many of the challenges that we're discussing now are reflective of that broader drop-off in bus usage across the commercial network, which is why we have had to respond in the way that we have, with the substantial funding that we've made available. We're absolutely aware of the cost pressures being faced right across the public sector. Carrying learners on local bus services is often the most cost-effective way of carrying learners. As the Member knows, a number of local authorities have already integrated their learner travel with local bus services, and we are keen to see that happening, obviously, on a much wider basis, for reasons that I know she will support.

The regional planning meetings that local authorities, Transport for Wales and bus companies have been holding have sought to prioritise routes that support school journeys as well, which is obviously the right thing. But I do agree very strongly with the Member's comments on the need to support the Back the Bus campaign. I understand that Transport for Wales will be making available to Members of the Senedd marketing material, so that we can all take forward that campaign in our constituencies and through our own networks.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Welsh Conservatives spokesperson, Laura Anne Jones.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, earlier this year, I questioned you on violence in Welsh schools, after my office and I uncovered 5,000 incidents of violence occurring in Welsh classrooms, from just some of the local authorities across Wales. At the time, you said you were aware of the issues and had begun speaking to the unions regarding these issues. However, we're months down the line now and we're still yet to see a statement on this issue. I gave you the blueprint of how to perhaps begin to fix the issue when I first exposed the issue months back, and yet again you have failed to listen to the urgency needed, and failed to act as yet. We still have no reporting standard, we still have no requirement to report abuse or violence in the classroom. The thousands of incidents that we already know about are just the tip of iceberg, and the actual picture is probably far, far worse. So, Minister, for the second time of asking, will you now, today, commit to taking actual action on this, hosting a national summit on violence; issuing new guidance for teachers and staff; continuing your work on reforming exclusions that you said you'd begun; ensuring extra funding for meaningful interventions; and creating perhaps a national helpline? These are just some of the things that you could do. What action are you going to take, Minister?

Can I thank the Children, Young People and Education Committee for the work they did in bringing this issue to the attention of the Senedd, in the work they were doing earlier this year and the end of last year? I think it's been a really important contribution to our understanding of this issue in schools. Teachers are absolutely entitled to work in a safe environment. We cannot tolerate poor behaviour—violent behaviour and abusive behaviour—where it arises. Equally, exclusions are not the answer; young people should be in the class, being able to learn. The reasons for this are complex, but we must start from those principles. What we have been doing over the last number of months, together with teaching unions, wider education workforce unions, and local authorities, is developing that guidance, as I mentioned when the Member last raised this in the Chamber. It is really important that the way we do this is in collaboration with unions and LEAs. That's the work that is happening, and I hope very much we'll be able to bring forward that guidance very soon. 

14:35

Well, Minister, let's hope it's sooner rather than later, because teachers need to feel safe, as you said, in school. Until real changes are put in place, this issue is only going to get worse. It was only two weeks ago, Minister, that members of the NASUWT teachers union voted to strike over their concerns about failures to address increased levels of violence in one of the schools in, actually, my own region. Instead of you taking urgent action on an escalating problem, it has now escalated to such an extreme point that teachers feel they need to strike because of concerns over their safety and the violent and abusive behaviour that they face. Minister, your inaction has led to teachers feeling unsafe to teach. You're failing teachers. Minister, what will you do? What will have to happen before you actually recognise the urgency behind this? You said you're developing guidance. Can you not see the urgency behind this, if teachers feel the need to strike, as we saw two weeks ago? Perhaps implement my five-point plan, take more ideas from it; I'm willing to share them with you. Or will it take more strikes for you to actually take urgent action?

I'm not sure most people recognise the language with which the Member is choosing to present this issue. It's obviously a complex issue, and I don't think it helps anybody to paint it in the lurid light that she is doing. It's a serious issue, which requires serious consideration. The school that she refers to—. I'm not going to comment on any specific school—[Interruption.] I'm not going to comment on any specific school for obvious reasons, but what I do know is that teachers are entitled to work in a safe environment. Local authorities have a duty to provide that. And I know that, right across Wales, local authorities will be engaged with their teaching workforce to make sure that that is in place. I very much hope that's capable of being resolved in the school that she mentioned as well. 

I look forward to a statement in Plenary soon.

Minister, it seems quite timely today to talk about school transport, as other Members have just talked about it, and it's on the same theme, actually. School transport has caused a great deal of anxiousness for both learners and parents over the last couple of weeks, and the lack of school transport that there is. I spoke to a local authority only on Monday that said that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place because they want to give those children that absolutely need it that dedicated school transport, but they can't because you have once again lowered the money that's coming from the Welsh Government to local authorities for school transport. We talked about parental preference just now; it seems very 'What a lovely thing to do, this is a pretty school, I'll send my child there', but there are real reasons for that parental preference that have been put there, be it that those children want to learn Welsh, as was discussed earlier, or because their siblings go to that school, or if there's an additional learning needs matter that another school—not the one right next to them—is better at delivering. There are real reasons that they choose that parental preference, but as soon as they do, they are not entitled to school transport, and there absolutely needs to be more flexibility around it; it's far too rigid.

Also, discussing with the local authority, we're talking about a real move—a policy move, it seems—from the Welsh Government away from dedicated school transport to using public buses. You said earlier that that is an intention that you have and you want to celebrate and promote it. But, Minister—. I nearly called you First Minister then; that was wishful thinking, perhaps. [Interruption.] Minister, after talking to people, there are real, real concerns in my inbox, and I'm sure in many others in this Chamber, about using public buses, for a myriad of reasons, be it safeguarding or whatever. But one of the practical things we could do to make it better for our learners is—. Some students are waiting 45 minutes before and after school, in the cold, the dark, and the rain, because the bus route they've been put on, or it's been suggested they use, does not wrap around school times. These bus routes that learners have to—

You're going to have to ask a question, otherwise we'll be waiting 45 minutes for that. 

But I won't. But that's just an easy solution, Minister—to ensure that you work with bus companies to ensure that those routes are school-centric and that those children's well-being isn't being affected. How are you working across Government, obviously, because it falls into other portfolios as well, to ensure that these children are getting to school, which falls in your portfolio, and that their well-being isn't affected, which is your portfolio?

14:40

With respect, for a question that's been answered twice, that took rather a long time to put. I've been very clear about the work that is happening across Government. The Member may have paid earlier attention to the answers I was giving; there's a lot of work happening across the Government. There's a lot of work happening in relation to the review of the Measure, and I've outlined today, I think, very crisply on two occasions, the next steps in relation to that. 

She makes the point about funding in her customary Kafkaesque way as though these things were not the product of the political choice that her Government in Westminster is making, which is causing difficulties in all sorts of public services. This is a Government in Wales that has invested £190 million to sustain a commercial bus service over the last year. We have a commercial bus service because a Conservative Government deregulated bus services and created a profit-making market. It is entirely the product of political choices made elsewhere. What we are doing through the bus transition fund and the bus emergency scheme is to make sure that the majority of routes have been protected. It is not a universal solution; it is a very significant investment in trying to address the challenge. And for those interested in a practical solution rather than a political slogan, they will know that working through the regional planning teams, prioritising, wherever possible, routes that serve school journeys as well, is the way of doing that, and we stand ready as a Government to continue to support that work.

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, yesterday, the Wales expert group's report on the cost-of-living crisis was published. It restates what’s clear to us all, namely that the cost-of-living crisis has increased the number of children and young people living in poverty. Many of the recommendations in the report overlap with or are part of your portfolio, such as extending free school meals to more children and young people in the secondary sector and to ensure that school governors do deliver against their statutory responsibilities in terms of school uniform. How will you act on this?

It's part of the wide-ranging plan that we have as a Government that’s been worth around £3 billion over the past two years to do our best to ensure that there is money in the pockets of those families who are struggling. So, in schools, there are free school meals that we’ve introduced, alongside Plaid Cymru, in primary schools, and that’s making a significant contribution to that. The work that I’ve done as Minister to ensure that we changed school guidance on school uniform and increased the availability of the school essentials fund is an example of the work that is taking place in our schools to support young people.

Thank you very much. I understand that, but the reality of the situation is that not all schools are complying with the guidance. Unfortunately, we know that costs are still a problem with school uniforms. One of the things in yesterday's report was a request for Ministers to chair meetings to ensure that what you want to see is being delivered on the ground.

Recommendation 9 of the expert group suggested that the Welsh Government extends provision of free school meals to years 7 to 11 for those households in receipt of universal credit without a cap on earnings from this month. This was published in August—it requires immediate action. So, how are you considering these recommendations with other Ministers? Which ones will you consider implementing? Because according to this report, we could ensure that 8,335 pupils become eligible for school meals now.

Thank you to the Member for that additional question. In terms of free school meals, the choice that we've made jointly means that the funding that we have invested has expanded the provision to primary schools. Our policy as a Government is that we look at extending that when resources allow. But the situation in terms of resources is a very challenging one, and what we've invested, which is worth around £3 billion, I think is a significant contribution. It can't meet every demand, clearly. There are challenges for many families and they're very real challenges, but my role as a Minister is to find every opportunity that I can to ensure that the school day costs aren't a barrier, and I think that over the past year or so, there are several ways that we've been able to do just that.

In terms of the point that you made about school uniforms, there is a requirement on governing bodies to review their policies, and so that will happen over the coming months. Some are already reaching the aims set out in the guidance, but we are seeing this happening increasingly at the moment. It is very important that we ensure that this is in place for every family. Families that are eligible for free school meals are facing particular pressures, but there are many other families that aren't eligible but also see costs being very high, and so those wider policies are important to them, too.

14:45
Mobile Phones in Schools

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's policy on the use of mobile phones in schools? OQ59984

Yes. Policies on mobile phones in school is a matter for schools and governing bodies themselves. Technology can be a useful tool to aid teaching and learning, and schools will consider this when setting their policies in line with the particular school's needs and learning requirements.

I'm grateful to the Minister for that response. I recognise the point that he's making. My question is about the impact of mobile technology and social media on children and young people and their ability to learn in school. The Minister is absolutely correct, of course, that mobile technology is a great boon to learning and it's a fantastic opportunity, but it also leads to a great deal of bullying.

All of us, as we visit schools and as we meet people and we spend time talking with people, will have memories of those conversations. One of the memories I have is of speaking with a group of teenagers who spoke to me incredibly passionately and movingly about mobile technology and social media and the way it can be used to bully them and the impact that was having on their mental health and their feelings of well-being and their ability to learn. And I think, whilst we support the use of mobile technology—I do so myself in the Chamber and there are great advantages to that, like being able to follow the rugby, for example, at the moment [Laughter.]—the other side of that is, of course, is, as one girl said to me, 'I'm bullied when I'm in bed at night, because there are people saying things about me on social media and I can't escape this.' Now, she has to go to school in the morning and not only face those people but understand what's in her mind about what had happened to her. And my concern is—and we all recognise the fantastic work that teaching staff and school communities do—how we can work together collectively to share experience, to share knowledge about how we can address some of these issues that I think have a fantastically negative impact on young people and their ability to learn and grow in safety through their school life.

Well, I think Alun Davies makes very, very powerful points in what he's just said, and we know—and there's been a recent report, as I'm sure he will know by UNESCO as well in relation to the use of smartphones in the classroom, and they've been calling for a global ban on them, if you like—there is obviously evidence that excessive mobile phone use, even in its most benign form, can be linked to reduced educational performance and, certainly, in the way that he was describing, the bullying, and there are even more pernicious uses that people make of mobile technology. That can have a very negative effect on emotional stability.

I do think it's a matter where a balance needs to be struck, because it's also important that we help our young people understand how to respond to some of those challenges. The digital competency framework offers some opportunities for mobile phone use to illustrate some of those broader challenges in the work that we've been doing to create resources to support learners to address the kind of challenge that Alun Davies is describing, which we now have on Hwb, through the 'keeping safe online' portal. I think what he's saying, though, is an illustration of a broader social challenge, and I often speak to heads who are wrestling with how best to strike this particular balance. I think, ultimately, it's for schools to decide that, but I think it's really essential that they listen to the voice of their learners, just in the way that Alun Davies was hearing directly from the young person who he has been quoting. 

Alun Davies is absolutely right to raise this issue here today. At a personal level, it's something affecting me in my family now, because I always said to my children, 'No mobile phones until high school'. Annoyingly, one of them started high school this year, so we're having to understand that process of them having hold of a mobile phone. 

Minister, you referenced the UNESCO report, and you're absolutely right to reference that. As you said, they are seeking a global ban on mobile phones in the classroom. And, as you'll know, they point to the distractions of mobile phones in classrooms, alongside cyber bullying and the impact on children's emotional stability. You'll also know, Minister, that within that report they also highlight concerns around data protection and privacy concerns, especially in terms of the data that is being harvested on children in applications that they're using, either in the classroom or with educational apps that they're encouraged or actually made to use within schools. I wonder, Minister, what efforts you're making to reassure parents that data on their children is not being unnecessarily taken or inappropriately used.

14:50

The Member will know of the work that Sarah Murphy has been doing in relation to the data of children in schools, which is, I think, really elevating the level of debate in this Chamber in relation to that issue in a very compelling way, in my opinion. I think the Member makes very valid points. We have, in fact, as a consequence of Sarah's campaigning, changed the guidance to schools in relation to the very, very important points that the Members has raised today.

Headteachers already have the ability to ban the use of mobile phones, either generally or in particular ways, and I know and he will know that heads are using that power. I've also spoken to heads who, whilst they might want to do that, have recognised the challenges that go with that and are making pragmatic judgments. I think some of the points that he is making, though, are exactly the sort of issue that our new curriculum, for example, is designed to support young people to recognise and to address themselves. I think it is a slightly more complex picture than simply saying an outright ban is the right way forward.

The Pupil Development Grant

4. What impact has the pupil development grant had on pupil attainment since its introduction in 2012? OQ59960

The pupil development grant has a key part to play in our national mission to tackle the impact of poverty on attainment. Year on year, we have extended the grant to reflect changes in the numbers of learners eligible for free school meals.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Gweinidog. While I welcome the Welsh Government's continued support for this policy, which, as you know, was first spearheaded by a Liberal Democrat in 2012, over a quarter of Welsh children live in poverty, and a wealth of research demonstrates the detrimental impact that this has upon their learning, leading to poorer physical health and mental health and chronic underachievement. A report last year from the Child Poverty Action Group highlighted that 55,000 children are currently unable to benefit from access funds, which are now renamed the 'school essentials grant', due to parents and carers actually being in work but very low paid work. The cost of school supplies and uniforms places enormous pressure on struggling families, and the children's commissioner this week criticised the Government's proposed child poverty strategy for its lack of ambition and detail, so we really do need to really step up to ensure that no child is left behind this school year. So, could you outline specifically the actions that the Welsh Government is going to be taking to ensure the school essentials grant accurately reflects current costs, and whether it will be expanding eligibility to support more low-income families who are struggling with school expenses? Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Well, the school essentials grant is a very important contributor to our efforts on a cross-Government basis to make sure that young people have access to school and that the cost of the school day doesn't discourage attendance, for example, and, when young people are in school, it's enabling them and supporting them to flourish. So, alongside the £130 million that we're investing this year for the pupil development grant, there has been a significant expansion of the availability of the school essentials grant. She will remember that, until last year, that was only available to pupils in every other year. I made the decision last year to extend that by making it available to pupils in every single year. So, that's been a very, very significant expansion of that important fund, and it is by some margin the largest fund of its kind in any part of the UK, and I'm proud of that because I think it demonstrates our commitment as a Government. But I do recognise the point that the Member makes, which is that it isn't available to all pupils. That's why measures such as the new affordability requirements for school uniform are also important, and the work that we're doing more broadly to drive down the cost of the school day, because families who don't qualify for free school meals, who may be just above the threshold, are still finding it very difficult. That's why those broader policies are really important.

14:55

I'm pleased this subject has been raised this afternoon as the pupil development grant aims to raise the attainment of children and young people from low-income backgrounds, as you mentioned. But the grant, which is supposed to help the least-well-off families in Wales, has been cut, leaving pupils and teaching professionals in my constituency, such as west Rhyl and upper Denbigh, struggling to access resources and funding. So, why, during a cost-of-living crisis, have the Welsh Government cut a grant that helps the most vulnerable people in my constituency? You say you're passionate about the policy and the grant. So, why did you cut it?

Well, just to be crystal clear with the Member, the grant has not been cut—it has been increased.

Minister, following on from what you said, and speaking to parents, carers, families, young people and schools in my constituency, I know that the school essentials grant and its predecessor schemes are both really welcome as a lifeline for people who can access it. As the grant can be accessed until May, can I ask what work is being done to ensure take-up later within the school year if families don't apply for it at the start of term to ensure that changes of circumstance are captured and that eligible children and young people don't lose out?

Well, we're making sure that my officials are working with local authorities to make sure the grant is publicised locally throughout the academic year. I think the Member makes a very important point about that. The grant can be accessed until May. We've been very clear that it's an important priority of how we introduce the new primary free school meals policy, for example—that we are not, if you like, inadvertently discouraging people from applying for the school essentials grant. Actually, that's part of the reason why we rebranded it to the 'school essentials grant' so that it was, I think, more intelligible to most people than a 'PDG access grant', which doesn't mean that much to most of us, really. And that's why we've also been making sure that we have a prominent comms and marketing campaign, which has been under way now for just over a year, to promote the grant itself. So, we do not have evidence at this point that that shift has caused a drop in the number of people applying, but it's something that, obviously, we need to keep a continuous eye on.

Autistic Pupils

5. What action is the Welsh Government taking to prevent discrimination against autistic pupils in education settings? OQ59955

Discrimination of any kind has no place in Wales. Under the Equality Act 2010, schools and other education providers must not treat disabled pupils less favourably. The Welsh Government is committed to creating an inclusive education system that enables all learners to thrive and to achieve their full potential.

Despite the High Court ruling in 2018 that the exclusion of an autistic pupil for behaviour arising from their autism was unlawful, I continue to receive north Wales casework where this is happening. On related issues, a Flintshire parent wrote this month:

'We now have a highly skilled psychiatrist and psychologist in the autism field, who have reported my son’s behaviour is a result of bad experiences in his previous school, and his difficulties in communicating these are not related to any parental concern.'

A Wrexham parent wrote:

'We decided to go to education tribunal. The decision of the tribunal was that my daughter was unlawfully discriminated against on three separate occasions: indirect discrimination, discrimination due to disability, and harassment.'

And a mother wrote to me as chair of the cross-party autism group:

'I'd like to make you aware that the education tribunal upheld against Neath college with discrimination against my autistic son, with damning outcomes.'

These and many other cases evidence that this is not a safe, autistic-friendly Wales. How do you therefore respond to the calls that I've received for an urgent public inquiry to stop the abuse that is still going on?

The Member makes reference to a number of examples that I'm not personally aware of, but the way he describes them are distressing and unacceptable, obviously. I'm actually meeting the president of the education tribunal in the coming weeks and will take that opportunity of discussing with her the point that the Member has made today. As I said in opening response to the Member, it is imperative that we make sure that we have an education system that is inclusive of all young people, and that is certainly the aim of this Government.

Adult Community Learning

6. What is the Welsh Government doing to support adult community learning in Islwyn? OQ59964

15:00

We're delivering on our programme for government commitment to review and increase the number of adult learners across Islwyn and all of Wales. Through investment, innovation and working in partnership with providers, we are building capacity to both promote and deliver adult learning to the widest possible audience.

Diolch, Minister. Last week was Adult Learners' Week 2023, and Adult Learners' Week is an annual campaign co-ordinated in partnership with the Welsh Government that aims to connect people to a wide range of learning opportunities and demonstrate the benefits of adult learning and celebrate the very real achievements of people, projects and organisations across Wales, and organisations that are every day championing a wide range of lifelong opportunities and skills growth. I'm sure the Minister will join with me in thanking them all for what they do.

So, thank you all very much.

Minister, we know that people's employment journey will be varied and will require adaptability and flexibility to reskill increasingly throughout working lives. More so than ever, as we see major companies now disinvesting or folding across Great Britain due to what seems to be the UK policy impacts of record-high inflation, chronic lack of growth and the inability to trade effectively with our largest market. So, considering all this, Minister, what further work can and will the Welsh Government undertake, and also in partnership with local organisations across Islwyn, to both champion and cascade this wonderful campaign, now running for over a quarter of a century, which every day is transforming life opportunities, transforming lives and transforming futures? Diolch.

Well, I thank the Member for making specific reference to Adult Learners' Week. It's such a good shop window, isn't it, to the opportunities that exist for people to return to education at any point in their life, and goes to the heart of my personal hope for Wales to become a nation of second chances, where it's never too late to learn? Many of us will have been at the Inspire! awards the week before, which, as always, more than lived up to their name, and you hear really incredibly compelling and often very moving stories about how people have been able to take advantage of learning in later life. 

The key, I think, is that that week that showcases the benefit of learning, that people who take their first steps in that week have a clear pathway, then, through to a range of options. We've got to increase the number of adult learners both in Islwyn and beyond, and that's about working with providers through the adult learning partnerships, and I think to try and mainstream some of the successful engagement that we have seen. We funded some of that through a £2 million funding package to raise awareness of adult learning again after the pandemic, where we've seen numbers drop. So, it's about that partnership working, and also we are taking forward a programme of national co-ordination. One of the challenges in this space is it's quite a complex space; it's quite a large offer, and it's quite difficult to navigate for some people. So, finding a way of co-ordinating that, which the partnerships are helping us to do, is, I think, a really important part, but I thank the Member for taking the opportunity to highlight Adult Learners' Week.

Minister, there's absolutely no denying whatsoever that adult community learning can really help unlock someone's potential. It can help someone acquire new skills, achieve qualifications, set them on the path to further education, or, in fact, take them directly into employment. However, it has been warned recently that the cost is deterring people from some of my region's most deprived areas from taking advantage of these types of courses. So, Minister, what discussions have you had with your Cabinet colleagues, in particular the Minister for Finance and Local Government, about making adult community learning more accessible for people from deprived communities? Thanks.

Well, I can assure the Member that it goes beyond discussions, important though they are, and so, this year, we're investing a total of £1.28 million in local authorities in Gwent alone, and around £6.21 million nationally to strengthen adult community learning, and this is in addition to over £13 million that we've provided to further education colleges across the south-east to provide adult learning in their settings. I agree with her entirely: accessibility to these opportunities is at the heart. That's been one of the challenges that for some years we've been trying to grapple with, and I'm really pleased that we are making progress in that space, with the renewed focus that we've given to this area.

Longer School Day

7. Will the Minister provide an update on findings from the longer school day trial? OQ59976

An evaluation of the additional enrichment sessions trials was published back in January. It found that children and young people, parents and settings were positive about the opportunities provided, and we are considering the findings in the context of our wider educational policies and reforms.

15:05

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

Thank you, Minister. As you will be aware, many children sadly do not get the opportunity to play sports, to do creative activities such as learning to play a musical instrument or a language, or to have additional maths or English tuition that will help them in their studies. And evidence has shown that those children that do benefit from these extracurricular activities have more opportunities open to them. When they graduate from high school, they are found to be healthier, both mentally and physically, have a better sense of well-being, and they're also, on the whole, more confident individuals. At the moment we have a system where some children get lots of extra-curricular activity because their parents can afford it or are motivated to take them to them, and some children who get no extra-curricular activities whatsoever. What this ultimately means is that some children may not reach their full potential or have the opportunities open to them that they could have otherwise. Extending the school day does not necessarily mean more lessons and it's an opportunity for schools and children to do lots of fun activities, and support learning and child development. So, with this in mind, Minister, what resources have you identified and ring-fenced, so that all schools can provide extra-curricular activity every school day? Thank you.

Well, I'm afraid the context in which we now look at policies of this sort is obviously very different, given the impact of inflation and choices made elsewhere about the overall level of investment in public services across the UK. However, in Wales, through things like the national music service, through the investment we've made into schools post COVID, which is significantly ahead of any other part of the UK, through the introduction of a new curriculum—all of these are providing those broader opportunities. I agree entirely with Joel James: it's really important that alongside the opportunities to get an excellent education, we want all our young people to have that breadth of experience, that cultural experience, that sporting experience and others, and not all young people are able to benefit from that. But that is what lies behind those system-wide investments that we've made in order to try and level that playing field and give everybody the access to the rich set of experiences that he described in this question.

Additional Learning Needs

8. What finance is the Minister providing to schools to support students with additional learning needs? OQ59954

Funding for schools is provided to local authorities, mainly through the revenue support grant. In addition to that, we continue to make significant investment in the additional learning needs implementation process by investing over £62 million revenue and £20 million capital between 2020 and 2023.

Thank you. Minister, you'll be aware that letters have come to you on this issue. The education committee's scrutiny of the implementation of the Welsh Government's reforms has highlighted concerns about capacity limitations within schools and local authorities that could mean the threshold for learners to be identified as having ALN could rise under the new system. Now, you assured the committee that you would make sure the new ALN system is driven by the particular profile of needs of the individual learners rather than the levels of resource available. However, numerous schools I have visited in Aberconwy, to include Ysgol San Siôr that my colleague Laura Anne Jones MS came to with me, have identified requiring this financial support as soon as possible after a pupil is identified as needing that support. Now, they describe it as months that they have to fund this extra support before they're then reimbursed, and some schools are finding that really unachievable. So, what can you do to speed up the process that, when children are identified as requiring extra support, the schools themselves get that financial funding as soon as possible? Diolch.

Well, the Member will appreciate that the relationship between the school and the funding stream is one that lies in the hands of the local authority, not of the Welsh Government. I have outlined the funding that we are putting into the system. But she makes an important point about how funding reaches the front line, and I think, with the significant levels of funding going into the system, we'll want to make sure that that is actually reaching the right end points, if you like. We have obviously, over the last two years, increased the funding available to local councils quite significantly, but the pressures are very real on their budgets, as they are both on ours and on school budgets as well. But to give the Member reassurance, the point that she raises, about how the money gets to the front line, is one that I very much have in mind and I will be working with local authorities in relation to that.

3. Topical Questions
15:10
The Fflecsi Bwcabus Service

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the announcement that the Fflecsi Bwcabus service will be coming to an end, and the impact of this on the communities of Mid and West Wales? TQ851

Yes, thank you. I was very sorry to hear that the Bwcabus service will be coming to an end. Despite promises that Wales would be not worse off after Brexit, the UK Government has failed to replace funding for rural transport schemes previously supported by the EU. We're therefore unable to continue supporting Bwcabus, but we are working with Transport for Wales and the local authorities to explore alternative options.

Thank you very much. I'm pleased to hear that consideration is being given to the continuation of the service, because a number of communities across Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire have been shocked by the announcement that Government funding for the Bwcabus service is coming to an end, and that the service itself will be terminated at the end of October. For years, this unique service has been a priceless resource for so many residents across west Wales. Truth be told, the service is more than a bus; in several cases, this is the only way that people can reach medical appointments, go to the shops and socialise. I heard one woman speaking on Radio Cymru last night about the impact of this loss on her, because she is entirely dependent on this bus to take her to see the doctor every week. So, the impact is massive on some individuals.

I know too that the decision has come as a bit of a shock to local authorities, despite the fact that the Welsh Government invested in a fleet of new buses for this service as recently as July of this year. But the irony is that we hear the Government speaking time and time again about the importance of public transport to connect communities and the positive impact that that then has on the environment. But what happens is that these vital services are being cut, especially in rural areas. So, may I urge you to work hard to ensure that this service is re-established, and to provide long-term assurance for this very important scheme?

Thank you for that, and the Member is right to note the irony, because this is going in the opposite direction of where our policy wants us to go. We do not want this to happen, just to be very clear. Bwcabus has been a really important project and it has, in fact, inspired the Fflecsi service that we are rolling out across Wales. So, Bwcabus was the original concept that Professor Stuart Cole and others had developed, and I've been a supporter of it. It was primarily European funded—the Welsh Government was only a minority funder—and like so many other schemes that we in Wales have come to rely upon, the money just simply isn't there to keep all those other schemes going that were funded by the EU.

Now, we were told at the time of Brexit that Wales would not be a penny worse off by withdrawing, and we know, in fact, that we've lost over £1 billion of funding and that simply is not there to be replaced. Now, I hear groans from the Conservative benches and I know they don't want, as a matter of faith, to hear anything negative about Brexit, but here is a practical example of a much valued, cherished local service that was reliant on European funding that is not able to be sustained because that funding has been taken away. Because the other double-whammy we're facing also from their Government is the impact of austerity where our budgets are being squeezed, and we simply aren't able to provide everything we've been providing.

We've worked very hard with the bus industry and with local authorities over the summer to try and safeguard as many services as possible, and I'm pleased to say that, for example, funding for the Cardi Bach in Ceredigion will continue as part of the Transport for Wales T5 procurement. And we will work closely with community transport and with local authorities to see if there are elements of this scheme that can be salvaged. It did have light usage but it was, as he said, a lifeline for those who did use it, and I regret very much that it's come to an end.

I agree and concur with Cefin Campbell, and only last night I was contacted by a constituent, Mr Davies, regarding the end of the Fflecsi Bwcabus service. Now, Mr Davies regularly offers lifts to the shops for his neighbours who may be in need of help, and I'm sure we can all agree that this is an incredibly kind gesture towards his community. However, as Mr Davies rightfully pointed out, this is something that isn’t available to many of my residents across South Pembrokeshire and West Carmarthenshire. Now, the termination of the Fflecsi Bwcabus service, with roughly just a month’s notice for residents, will further damage the accessibility to already infrequent transport links and access to necessary shops and amenities whilst further harming those already suffering rural isolation, and, as Mr Davies says, the service is for the most vulnerable members of our Pembrokeshire community, both young and elderly. So, given that the Welsh Government has known for some time that rural development programme funding was due to end, why is the Fflecsi Bwcabus service being terminated with only a month’s notice? And to paraphrase the greater Manchester Labour mayor, why is it always that the rural communities miss out and Cardiff gets everything it wants?

15:15

Well, the service was run by the local authorities, not by the Welsh Government, and they have been clear for some time that they had no resources to keep it going. The resources from the European Union have come to an end as a result of Brexit, and that is a direct consequence of that. Those who advocated for Brexit and made promises to Wales that the money would not be lost to Wales need to explain why that money hasn't been replaced, because there's a £1 billion shortfall. I'm afraid Samuel Kurtz is giving a running commentary—I can't quite hear what he's saying. I know he's not content, but I can't hear what he's saying, I'm sorry. 

But the fact remains that this is not what we want to see happening. This is going in the opposite direction of the policy we want to see pursued, but without the money we simply cannot run services that we cannot fund. I think that is a crying shame. We are doing a lot of work on rural transport and how the rural areas can contribute to the modal shift targets we have, but we can't run services without funding, and that, I'm afraid, is the tension that we face.

So, I share everything that has been said about the regret that this service will no longer continue. I need no persuading of its merits. All I need is cash to keep it going, and in the presence of broken Brexit promises I'm afraid I don't have any. 

Minister, I have an idea for cash to keep it going, which I’ve raised with you before, which is that I understand you’re going to be saving money on not building new roads, which I totally support, and I think, in response to a question in the Siambr, you did say to me that there would be a lag, there would be a run-in, in order for the money to come in from the savings from road building. But I just wonder if there’s any idea from you whether we can start looking at any urgent funding from not building those new roads to go over to Bwcabus so that they can keep going, so that they don’t lose that custom. Because you do know that, as soon as something is lost, like a bus service, it’s really hard to get it back. So, I really would urge you to see if there’s anything that we can find in order to keep Bwcabus going. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Well, obviously I understand the sentiment and support it, because that's the intent behind the policy in the medium term, as you know. But this is a funding decision for this financial year, and in this financial year we are still building roads, despite the Conservatives trying to tell everyone we've banned road building. If that was the case I'd have a lot more money in my budget. We haven't banned road building, we are building roads, and we'll continue building roads. So, there isn't money in this financial year, nor, in fact, would it be much help, because that would be capital funding, and buses require revenue funding. It sounds like a nerdy accounting point, but it really does shape the choices that we have to make. 

What we need to do, clearly, to meet our climate targets is to shift more people onto public transport. That is more difficult to do in rural areas, but it's absolutely doable. We are working on a paper that we're going to publish shortly looking at examples from rural Sweden and rural Switzerland and rural Germany where they do have a bus every hour for every village. So, it's perfectly possible to do if the funding is made available. In their case, many of them use local taxes on businesses to pay for those services.

So, I do think we need a mature debate across the Chamber to look at how we can sustain these vital public services, but, as I say again, if there was a way for me to keep this going, I would have fought very hard to find it. We are facing extreme financial pressures this financial year. The First Minister has already announced we have to find £900 million of savings. It's particularly difficult for revenue funding, which is what the Bwcabus scheme relied upon. But the really big issue here—and this is something the Conservatives are now all staring at their screens at—is that this is a failure by the UK Government to follow through on their promises to replace any EU funding lost to Wales as a result of Brexit. They said we wouldn't be £1 worse off; we are in fact £1 billion worse off, and this is what it looks like. This is what it looks like—bus services in rural Pembrokeshire, in rural Carmarthenshire, in rural Ceredigion, cut because of broken promises.

15:20

Deputy Minister, it is extremely disappointing to hear the announcement that the Bwcabus service will come to an end, as it has been a lifeline to so many residents in the more rural parts of my constituency. Now, I appreciate that you have said that the Welsh Government is working on a rural pathway to explore potential solutions with local authorities and communities. Perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about that work, and what discussions have taken place with Pembrokeshire County Council and local stakeholders about building a public transport network in west Wales that works for those communities.

I know that the Welsh Government has announced a bus Bill to consider how bus services are provided in the future. Now, the First Minister himself said that this Bill will put people before profit. So, perhaps you could tell us about how the closure of the Bwcabus service will affect that Bill. You mentioned Professor Stuart Cole, and he has made it clear that the Bwcabus service was the cheapest way of running a rural bus service. So, in light of his comments, perhaps you could indicate how the Welsh Government intends to deliver services more efficiently in west Wales in the future.

Finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, I understand that there are financial challenges that all Governments have to face. That's why the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee has published a comprehensive report on post-EU funding. Now, the committee report does quote Professor Steve Fothergill from Sheffield Hallam University, and he says in evidence to the committee that both Governments are right when it comes to funding, because both Governments are measuring different things. That's what Professor Fothergill told this Senedd committee, and I would urge the Deputy Minister to read our report. One of the recommendations in the committee report was to ensure that there is more of a regional approach to delivering funding, so that it can better address issues like this in the future. I hope that, in the future, we see a much more co-ordinated regional approach to post-EU funding, and I hope, Deputy Minister, that you'll support this committee recommendation, and all of the recommendations in our report. 

While I have a great deal of respect for Professor Fothergill and his work, the fact remains that this is a revenue-funded scheme by the EU that hasn't been replaced, and the funding has come to an end. Now, my understanding is that the services were lightly used; in some cases, one passenger a day was using the services, and, obviously, in a rural area, it is going to be more difficult to have that critical mass of passengers. That's why we are doing the work, with a range of experts, to look at options for rural transport. Because I don't accept that modal shift is an urban agenda; it has to work in rural areas too, but will require a different suite of policies. But they will require funding. 

Now, clearly, we're in a very short-term—. Well, we hope it's short term, but we're certainly in a funding crisis at the moment, and, as a result of the mismanagement of the economy, we're unlikely to see that change in the next few years. So, 'How do we bridge these services?', as Jane Dodds posed to the Senedd, is a really difficult question, and we are working with Pembrokeshire County Council and the other local authorities to look at practical options. As I say, we are discussing with community transport as well to see whether or not there are things that can be done.

On your questions in terms of the regional transport planning approach and the bus Bill, well, the reason that we're doing the work, the visioning document that Paul Davies referred to—which I did report on to the Senedd in a written statement earlier in the summer—is to inform the regional transport plans that will come out of the corporate joint committees with examples of things that can work in rural settings. That is absolutely what we want to see, but the funding situation remains a very, very challenging one, and I'm deeply sorry that the people who have come to rely on Bwcabus will not have that bus service in the future.

Once we have franchising, the whole point of that is that we take a strategic view. So, we map out where we need bus services to run, and the frequency of them, and build that into the franchising. So, across the whole franchise area, services can be cross-subsidised. So, a profitable service in a town can be used to prop up a loss-making service in a rural area. That's not currently allowed under the privatisation of the bus industry that we're still living with. That's why our reform is so important. It'll change the wiring of the system; it'll improve it, but it's only as good as the funding.

I have three more speakers. Until now, all Members have been from Mid and West Wales. I note that the three others are not from Mid and West Wales, so please ensure that your questions are focused on Bwcabus and the impact upon residents in Mid and West Wales. Delyth Jewell. 

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I also share the concern set out by Cefin Campbell around the situation in west Wales. It's heartbreaking to hear about the impact that this will have on individuals going to medical appointments and going shopping and so on and so forth. The Deputy Minister has already mentioned how the Fflecsi Bwcabus service is provided as part of the Fflecsi bus service by Transport for Wales, and I take into account what the Dirprwy Lywydd has just said, but that Fflecsi service also serves areas across Wales, including Conwy, Rhondda and areas of Blaenau Gwent in my region. I would ask the Deputy Minister, in light of this announcement, whether we could have clarity as to whether this specific announcement about the west of Wales will have any impact on the provision of these other bus services, which are part of the Fflecsi scheme. And if not, why is it communities in the west of Wales only that are impacted?

15:25

Well, as I've explained, this particular service was funded by EU funding from the beginning, and there was a small contribution from the Welsh Government. Now that funding has fallen away, because we're also facing a real challenge with overall bus funding, it simply hasn't been possible to find such a large amount of money for a service that carried very few passengers. So, there was no money to extend it, but, even had there been money, the case was not a straightforward one.

So, the Fflecsi service more broadly we are still piloting and testing in different settings. That also is very challenging to fund, and we know that we face revenue shortfalls this financial year and next financial year, so I can't give any firm guarantees about its future for the rest of Wales. We will fight as hard as we can to safeguard as much of the funding as we can, because it's a scheme that we've created and we strongly believe in it and it has good outcomes. But I'm afraid the reality of austerity and the impact of Brexit are really coming together now and having a real impact on rural communities.

People across the region and across Wales will want to know what this means for other services. For people in other parts of the region and beyond who hope to introduce new Fflecsi services to make up for services that are currently being lost, what is the message here? Is there going to be support from Government for publicly funded services, or for social initiatives and enterprises and so on, to provide those sorts of links into the main bus routes, for example?

Well, Rhun ap Iorwerth, as a party leader party to the co-operation agreement has seen the books, so to speak; he knows the state of the public finances and the state of Welsh Government budgets. So, he knows that our choices are severely constrained. This is not something we want to be doing, to be very clear about that. I would like to see Bwcabus continue and I'd like to see an expansion of the Fflecsi service. And I hope, in the medium to longer term, if we get a change of Government and we get a changing economic picture, we are able to build on that. I think the key now is to keep as many of the services going as possible, to build into those regional transport plans for the medium term a structure and a system that allows these services to be flexed and for them to be grown and scaled, as the resources become available. But I'm afraid, in the very immediate short term, our options are extremely limited.

Thank you. As somebody who used to chair the European programme monitoring committee, I'm fully aware of the importance of this issue. Following the UK Government's raid on the regeneration fund and putting it into this shared prosperity fund, which forces local authorities to compete against each other rather than being able to have a holistic approach, and given that the fragility of bus services is something we've discussed, obviously, regularly in the last few months, I just wondered what insight you've got into whether these local authorities in Mid and West Wales have made any application in the latest round of bids for the shared prosperity fund for maintaining transport services that they must have been aware were fragile, given everything we've discussed up until now.

Thank you. It's a very good question and one of the things we're going to investigate with the authorities, as we now try and find a way to keep some services going, is what options there might be for applying for other funds. I'm not aware, off the top of my head, I'm afraid, of any applications there might be. But the broader issue that Jenny Rathbone touches on is an important one—the successor funding schemes post Brexit are not strategic across the UK, they're not based on need. We all remember the footage of Rishi Sunak saying, during the leadership contest, that he'd managed to get funding to Tunbridge Wells away from Labour areas.

Now, I think this is another example of, had there been a proper regional strategy and a regional policy in the UK Government, to look at where funding was most needed, then we would have found ourselves possibly in a different position. We haven't had that; instead, we've had a flurry of feasibility studies in Tory marginal seats in order to—. And I find the way that this process has been politicised to be most extraordinary compared to what we had before. Those of us familiar with the previous EU funding schemes knew that they were very robust, audited to death, and there was a strategic fit to them. None of those things can be said of the replacement scheme. So, I think there are question marks here for the Conservatives to answer about how the system they told us would protect Wales has failed Wales, and here we have an example of people in rural Wales who are going to be now directly affected by that policy.

15:30
Withybush Hospital

2. Will the Minister make a statement on reports that Withybush hospital will be partially closed for most of 2024? TQ853

I can confirm that, at present, six wards have needed to close due to the condition of the reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete planks found. The health board's work programme aims to reopen three of the affected wards by the end of December, with the remaining three expected to be reopened by the end of March 2024. Patients, visitors and staff safety is paramount, and necessary work is progressing across the hospital estate.

As I'm sure you'll appreciate, Minister, recent reports that Withybush hospital will be partially closed for most of next year have deeply worried patients across Pembrokeshire, and understandably so. Now, I appreciate that the Welsh Government has provided support for the health board to tackle the two highest grades of RAAC at Withybush hospital, but there may be further incidences of lower grade RAAC, and so, there will undoubtedly have to be checks at regular intervals. So, Minister, can you tell us what medium-term and longer term support the Welsh Government is prepared to offer the health board to tackle all incidences of RAAC at Withybush hospital?

The health board tell us that Withybush hospital has probably lost about 50 per cent of its beds, and I'm extremely concerned about the impact of this on the hospital's ability to deliver services over the winter period. Therefore, can you tell us what discussions has the Welsh Government had with the health board about its plans to cope with winter pressures, in light of the health board's public concerns about service delivery over the coming months? Has there been an assessment of the health board's ability to deliver services effectively in Pembrokeshire over the next few months, and what interventions, if any, will be made to help support the health board?

This is of course an extremely worrying time for patients and for staff too, and I'm sure you'll join me in thanking those who are continuing to work in such challenging conditions. It's vital that staff are consulted at every step of this journey, and that they are able to feed back concerns as quickly as possible. Therefore, perhaps you could tell us whether the Welsh Government has discussed the impact of RAAC on staff at Withybush hospital with the health board, and, if so, what outcomes have come from those specific discussions.

Moving forward, the chief executive of the health board is right to say that the priority now is to fix those areas with critical issues as soon as possible so that wards can indeed reopen. It's vital that services at Withybush reopen as soon as it's safe to do so. As I've said before, it is important that the relocation of any services is a temporary move, and not an opportunity to once again centralise services away from Withybush hospital permanently. And so, finally, can you, Minister, confirm that all services that have been temporarily relocated will be returned to the hospital site once it's safe to do so? Thank you.

Thanks very much. Well, I certainly understand the concerns of people who live locally, and it's a bitter blow when quite so many beds have been taken out. But I'm sure the Member would agree that the first and most important thing is to make sure that people are safe, because the last thing we want is people going in to an unsafe hospital.

That's why one of the things we've done is to make sure the Welsh Government agreed to £12.8 million on 29 August to address the issue of the most difficult areas in Withybush hospital, to make sure that the system was safe. Now, that's the first phase. More work needs to be done, of course, to assess what the long-term solution might be in relation to this, because we are talking about quite significant structural issues that need to be addressed. So, what we have done—. It's not an insignificant amount of money, £12.8 million. And of course, we haven't got any new money, so that—. You're aware that we had only £1 million in additional capital this year from the UK Government. So, that money has to come from the rest of the capital budget. So, I know, for example, that your colleagues are very often asking me to put more money into the issues in Betsi, for example, capital issues. The fact that we now have to find this money for Withybush means that we have to take it away from elsewhere. So, we do have to consider the whole of the Welsh NHS estate when it comes to this.

What I can tell you is that my officials have been having conversations with the health board in relation to what the short-term plans are, certainly across this winter, and medium-term plans. And I know that the local councils have been asked to step in and to step up to try and help, in particular with the issues relating to flow through the hospital, and that has always been quite a significant challenge there.

Staff at Withybush, I think, have been quite incredible in the way that they've responded to this. They have agreed, lots of them, to relocate to help out in the South Pembrokeshire Hospital. Others, I know, are taking long journeys to Bronglais, to make sure that they are helping patients who need that support. And one of the areas that's been significantly affected is the refectory in Withybush, and so, there have been alternatives put in place. And looking after staff is absolutely fundamental in any NHS institution.

So, of course, it is a challenging time. I think the health board has really stepped up and understood the significance of what's going on here, but I am hopeful that what we'll see is three wards reopening before the end of December, and then, hopefully, the rest of them reopened by the end of March.

15:35

I want to join with you, Minister, and Paul Davies, in thanking the staff for stepping up in what are the most challenging of times. There are two big issues here. One is the continuity of services, which has been asked about, what that looks like, and the reassurance for those people seeking those services. And, of course, the second key issue here is that of safety, which you've addressed. And the safety of the staff and the patients, and the people who will be entering that building is, of course, uppermost in all of our minds. The £13 million that has been given immediately by this Government to Hywel Dda to help them through this crisis, of course, shows our commitment to trying to keep that hospital functioning.

I think this raises the real question here about what services look like going forward. We haven't got a true cost yet of the extent of the capital that would need to be invested in this hospital. And when we do, I think, maybe, Minister, you would be able to help us to look at that true cost of trying to shore up the building. Paul Davies is quite right in saying that there are areas now where the damage is significant, but there are areas that might come to light further down the line. So, I think that a real cost-benefit analysis is called for here, in terms of the capital investment in the building against the capital investment in a new building. 

Thanks very much. Well, Joyce is quite right in terms of the importance of continuity of service for the people in that community. That's why I think it's really significant that the South Pembrokeshire Hospital has been used extensively now, and people seem to have really understood that there is a need to do that. Safety has got to be paramount when it comes to the NHS. 

What do services look like going forward? This is a question that we've asked the health board. So, there's a clinical review being undertaken at the moment. What we're interested in, of course, and what the health board is interested in, is developing a new west Wales hospital. Now, we haven't taken a view on that as a Government yet, but the first thing to ensure is that the clinical model is appropriate and correct. And we now have a very different kind of approach to medicine and to the challenges that we have as a society. So, in the past, it was all about acute care; it was all about getting people out into hospitals, fixing them, getting them home. Today, what we're talking about is an ageing population, lots of them with very complex needs, who actually would prefer to have that care at home. So, we do have to make sure that any solution is one that looks very much to the future.

So, we have asked the health board to think, not just about that long term, but to think very carefully and creatively about what the short term and medium term might look like. Because, irrespective of any aspiration for a new hospital, there's a long way to go before that would be up and running. So, what is the medium-term solution? So, that is something we've asked and has been tested out with my officials earlier this week.

15:40

Thank you to Paul Davies for posing the question.

Minister, in a written statement earlier this month, you said that the Standing Committee on Structural Safety had highlighted significant concerns around the safety of properties with RAAC as early as May 2019. Why, therefore, has it taken four years to reach the point where work is finally being carried out to replace RAAC planks?

And in Withybush specifically, there is a very real risk that the £12.8 million of funding given to Hywel Dda to start the remediation work at the hospital will be a short-term sticking plaster, and, as other speakers have alluded to already, by funding only the immediate replacement of the planks that are currently high risk, it means that the hospital will be subject to constant surveys and possible remedial works for years to come. So, the impact on patients and staff cannot be avoided of course, with 50 per cent of beds in Withybush already having been lost. So, will the Government ensure that further funding will be available to replace all the RAAC planks, as has been recommended by experts?

And finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, what this RAAC crisis really shows is that west Wales is crying out for long-term healthcare investment. And in light of that, I was really disappointed to learn that work on the new hospital in west Wales will not now begin until 2031, as opposed to 2029 as originally planned. So, what can Welsh Government do to accelerate the process of building a badly needed new hospital to place healthcare in west Wales on a sustainable footing and to avoid the provision of health services being spread too thinly?

Thanks very much. Well, I can assure you that in 2019, in May, that alert came from the Standing Committee on Structural Safety and, immediately, officials engaged with NHS Wales about the potential risks posed by the presence of RAAC. So, that started immediately in 2019. And it took from 2019 through to 2022 to undertake the investigations in relation to RAAC. So, those have been undertaken. That’s why it didn’t actually come as a huge shock to us because, actually, this work has been carried out since that time. So, I think, actually, we were fairly well sighted on what was likely to come.

As we go deeper into the investigations and the structural work, we may find more, but I think we're fairly confident that the worst of the RAAC has been identified in Wales. The next question, as you say, is, 'Right, can you guarantee us that you're going to have the money to fix it all?' I can't guarantee anything in the current financial situation—we're extremely challenged—and, in particular, as you say, when you have to balance out, 'Right, if you were to spend all that money on shoring up a situation, then it wouldn't be available to do other things in the medium to long term.'

So, just in terms of the new hospital, there is a process that has to be gone through. That process is going through the system; it’s going through the official and formal channels. There is a clinical review that’s being undertaken, as I explained to Joyce, that, actually, you just need to make sure that the clinical model that they’re proposing stands up to scrutiny. There’s been an independent third party looking at that just to make sure that it does actually stand up to what the future of healthcare might look like. So, there’s a lot of work to do and that’s why I think it's important to understand that these things don't happen overnight. We've been talking about it for a very long time, I understand that. There have been some bumps in the road, even to get to this point, as you'll be aware, and we are not in a position to give a decision in relation to that still.

15:45

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm sure the Minister didn't intend to mislead the Chamber, but she claimed that the Welsh Government had only been given £1 million-worth of capital expenditure to spend in the current financial year. That, of course, is not the case. According to your Government's own figures, the final budget for the capital allocation to your department, Minister, was £340 million in 2022-23, and in the current financial year, it's £375 million, which, of course, is an increase of £35 million. So, I would like the Minister to correct the record.FootnoteLink

4. 90-second Statements

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Today is World Pharmacists Day, a day when we can recognise the significant contribution of pharmacists in our health service. We know they're highly skilled and knowledgeable professionals, bringing both clinical and scientific expertise to the NHS. As experts in the safe and effective use of medicines, they play a crucial role as the first point of call for common ailments and health advice in community pharmacies.

For us, in this Chamber—I'm pleased the Minister has stayed to hear this as well—we have a role to make sure that pharmacists feel supported, appreciated and valued. This means having the right level of staffing, the right skills mix in their teams and to have the opportunities for career development. We know from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society that this is currently not always the case, sadly. So, we must also, of course, challenge the Government to ensure that they make the full use of pharmacists' skills.

In 2026, all pharmacist graduates will be qualified prescribers, so how do we make the full use of this resource for the fundamental challenges facing healthcare, which include avoidable hospital admissions, management of chronic conditions and the global challenges, as well, like resistance to antibiotics? Pharmacy has a huge role to play, but today, I ask you all to join me in saying a heartfelt 'thank you' to all our pharmacists in Wales. 

After the disappointment of the 1979 referendum, my father and others were very keen to do something positive to lift the spirits of Welsh speakers in our capital city. The intention was to create a Welsh-speaking club, like our friends in Pontypridd, who wanted to do a similar thing. In one fundraising campaign, my parents met. Regular gigs started to be put on; in due course, after looking at a number of different venues, the British Legion Club was bought in September 1983. Great fun was had in taking down the union jack and removing plaques bearing names such as the Queen Elizabeth Jubilee Room. Yes, the British Legion became Clwb Ifor Bach, taking a name that had been forgotten to all intents and purposes, namely Ifor ap Meurig, who climbed the tower of Cardiff castle, a stone’s throw from Womanby Street, to capture the Earl of Gloucester until he agreed to return land back to Wales in upper Glamorgan.

My father loved meeting couples who had met at Clwb Ifor Bach, and he liked to say that clwb Ifor couples lived in every part of Wales. I believe, Dirprwy Lywydd, that one Member here worked as a bouncer on the door, and another Member worked behind the bar. You can guess who those people are. Clwb Ifor Bach has changed a lot over the last 40 years. It's faced many challenges, but has overcome them too, and it's great to see the exciting expansion plans. Happy birthday, clwb Ifor. Onwards to the half century. Thank you.

5. Motion to amend Standing Orders—The making of statutory instruments following EU withdrawal

Item 5 is the proposal to amend Standing Orders—the making of statutory instruments following EU withdrawl. I call on Heledd Fychan to formally move the motion on behalf of the Business Committee.

Motion NDM8363 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 33.2:

1. Considers the report of the Business Committee, Amending Standing Orders: The making of statutory instruments following EU withdrawal, laid in the Table Office on 20 September 2023.

2. Approves the proposals to amend Standing Orders 21, 27, 30B and 30C, as set out in Annex A of the Business Committee’s report.

Motion moved.

15:50

I have no speakers on this item, so the proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv)—Full devolution of water

The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Janet Finch-Saunders.

Item 6 is a Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv)—full devolution of water. I call on Rhys ab Owen to move the motion.

Motion NDM8274 Rhys ab Owen, Mike Hedges, Jane Dodds

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Calls on the Welsh Government to formally request the UK Government to commence section 48(1) of the Wales Act 2017, which would align the boundary for legislative competence for water with the national border.

2. Calls on the Welsh Government to formally request the powers for the licensing of a water supply or sewerage licensee thereby fully devolving water to Wales.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. Wales is famous for its water:

'Water flows across the nation',

as Huw Jones said,

'Where my mother and father / And my brothers and sisters / And I lived'.

Yes, water is a very live political issue here in Wales. It could be argued that the drowning of Welsh communities led to the national awakening that eventually led to the establishment of this place. But I don't want to dwell too much on the past. Yesterday has gone; it cannot be changed, but we have the ability today to improve things for the lives of the people of Wales and our nation's environment.

Westminster control over Wales's resources isn't as obvious today as it was in the 1960s, but the gaps in our legislation enable companies to continue to use our nation's water to generate significant profits, whilst Welsh people's bills continue to increase.

Wales, yet again, is unique in its lack of ability to control its own water. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, the powers relating to water and sewage have been fully devolved. By supporting this motion, we’ll be asking the Welsh Government to make the formal request required to initiate the full devolution of water in Wales, and we should have done this a very long time ago.

The argument I aim to make today is one based on fairness, the famous Welsh approach of chwarae teg; that Wales should be in control of its own water, and that we should be able to decide what best to do with it. Crucially, I believe we should be able to bring our Victorian waste infrastructure into the twenty-first century without any barriers, be that from companies or from Westminster. Recent years have shown just how fragile the waterways of Wales and England really are. This is an important issue, which will only become more pressing as the climate crisis worsens.

The first part of this motion calls for the Welsh Government to take initiative in requesting Westminster to commence section 48(1) of the Wales Act 2017, giving us the legislative competence over our own water. As it currently stands in Wales, our nationalised water company, Dŵr Cymru, despite straddling the border of England and Wales, can only serve the people of Wales. Meanwhile the private Severn Trent, based in Coventry, is permitted to export water from north-east Wales to the south-west of England. United Utilities, serving the north of England, is reportedly licenced to take the equivalent of 100 Olympic swimming pools of water a day from north Wales to supply Liverpool and Cheshire. And who gets to keep these profits? It’s not the people of Wales but the large private water companies.

I’m sure we can remember that last year, Wales experienced a country-wide drought, threatening our agricultural sector, food security, and natural biodiversity. The UK food security report found that in 2020, wheat yields had dropped 40 per cent due to drought. The question I raise is why are we allowing companies to export our water at massive profits whilst the people of Wales face expensive bills and our crops and livestock suffer.

Commencing section 48(1) will allow us to set the operating area for Wales-exclusive water to match our geographical border, and as a result, will ensure more fairness in its sale and its distribution. I’ll make it clear: this isn’t about blocking off Liverpool, Manchester, and the south-west of England from having good-quality water; I’m not suggesting that for one moment. But the Welsh people should be able to see the rewards of exporting our water. In 2022, senior Tories floated the idea of taking water from Lake Vyrnwy in Powys to use to sort out drought in south-east England. I’m not against that, but surely we should be paid for it.

The second part of this motion calls for a formal request to be put forward for powers around sewage and water supply to become devolved, essentially completing the devolution of water to Wales.

Alun Davies has, on many occasions, raised his concerns about the gap in legislation that allows sewage to be dumped too often in our waterways. There have been plenty of headlines in recent years about the deterioration of our rivers. We have individuals starting to test rivers, such as the River Wye, because they had noticed the lack of salmon in the river over the past few years.

Delyth Jewell said a few months ago that Wales has an abundance of natural resources, including water, but the power to control these resources is currently locked away in Westminster. This really, really shouldn't be a partisan issue. Much like HS2, we as a Senedd should acknowledge that this is just wrong. 

It's a real shame that the Welsh Government asked Westminster five years ago to delay devolving water due to complexity. I really can't see that argument. The Danube passes through nine countries and four capitals. There are no concerns about complexity there. So what are the practical consequences of this delay? We had phosphate pollution in the River Dee, we had raw sewage pumped into Denbighshire's rivers and sea 452 times last year, we have untreated faeces, wet wipes and urine flowing through Bryngarw Country Park, and those are just a few instances and examples, Dirprwy Lywydd. 

Last year, Dŵr Cymru released 600,000 hours, the equivalent of 68 years, of sewage into rivers, lakes and seas in Wales. They say it's too expensive to improve the Victorian sewerage system in Wales, which during periods of heavy rain causes untreated sewage to spill into Welsh water sources. However, they didn't seem to have complaints about costs when paying their chief executive £232,000-worth of bonuses in 2022. We need sewage and water supply to be devolved in Wales so that we can completely upgrade our waterworks, fix the issue of Victorian sewers that are costing not just the Welsh consumer but the environment dearly also.

The Minister for Climate Change has said that the new Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) (Wales) Bill is intended to make Wales a cleaner, healthier place to live, but until we have control of our sewage system and until we can stop our water being exported when it's so desperately required, that will remain a pipe dream. I call on the Welsh Government to put their money where their mouth is, to join our colleagues in Scotland and Northern Ireland in completing the devolution of water in Wales. If it's not too complex for them, it certainly shouldn't be too complex for us. Diolch yn fawr.

15:55

I have selected the amendment to the motion and I call on Janet Finch-Saunders to move amendment 1, tabled in her name. 

The following amendment appeared on the agenda:

Amendment 1—Janet Finch-Saunders

Delete all and replace with

1. Notes that the Welsh Government requested to postpone the enactment of section 48(1) of the Wales Act 2017.

2. Acknowledges that in a letter addressed to the UK Government in 2018, the Welsh Government said the process of aligning the Senedd’s legislative competence to geographical boundaries was complex.

3. Welcomes the willingness of the Secretary of State for Wales and the UK Government to work with their Welsh counterparts to agree a timetable that works best for both governments and the water industry.

I'm actually not going to move my amendment, but I will speak to the motion.

When I read this motion, however, presented by our colleagues Rhys, Jane and Mike, the first thing I thought was 'déjà-vu' because it was only three months ago that we debated the full devolution of water. The Plaid Cymru motion at that time then called on the Welsh Government to 

'a) formally request the enactment of section 48(1) of the Wales Act 2017, which would fully align the Senedd’s legislative competence over water with the geographic boundary of Wales;

'b) formally request further powers over the licensing of sewage undertakers in Wales'. 

So, the truth of the matter is that three months ago it was a fact that the Welsh Government requested to postpone the enactment of section 48(1) of the Wales Act 2017. In a letter addressed to the UK Government in 2018, Hannah Blythyn MS—[Interruption.] What? Oh, Blythyn. Hannah Blythyn MS said that the process of aligning the Senedd's legislative competence to geographical boundaries was complex. So, having originally been set to commence in 2020, the Welsh Government themselves sought to postpone this until spring 2022. Reasons such as amending legislation, statutory plans and resolving complex licensing and regulatory issues were cited by the Welsh Government. Now, on 15 May 2023, the Rt Hon David Davies MP, Secretary of State for Wales, stated:

'My Department will work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Welsh Government to agree a timetable for commencing section 48(1) of the Wales Act 2017 that best meets the needs of both governments and the water industry.'

So, the message is simple: the UK Government is willing to co-operate and is now waiting for the Welsh Government to go ahead. On 7 July 2023, the Minister for Climate Change informed the Senedd, and I quote:

'Nothing has happened since we asked for the delay, but what I'm saying, as a result of this debate, is I will go away and have a better look at why we've settled on the protocol and not taken that further.'

So, if any good is to come from this debate today, I hope that it will be some clarity from the Minister as to whether anything has happened over the last three months, and in particular whether the Welsh Government has decided that it does not want any further delay. Should that decision have been made, we'd be pleased to learn.

Also, what approach have you developed so as to have a minimal impact on our customers? What approach have you developed so as to have a minimal impact on water companies? And how are you overcoming the fact that provision for alignment has not even been made in the planning for the 2020-25 business plans? Will changes be made to the licence of Welsh Water, to enable the one company to operate within two legislative and regulatory frameworks? Have you identified which legislation and statutory plans require amending, and if so, will you detail all of them? So, I say to my colleagues—Rhys, Jane and Mike—really it will be interesting to see just how the Welsh Government respond to this debate today. Diolch yn fawr.

16:00

Janet, just for clarity, you are not moving your amendment and therefore there will be no vote on it—is that right?