Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

06/12/2023

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

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government

Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Plenary meeting. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government is the first item on our agenda. The first question is from Delyth Jewell.

Funding for Leisure Services

1. What consideration did the Minister give to the need to fund leisure services when deciding on the budgets for local authorities in South Wales East ? OQ60369

In making our decisions on the budget for 2023-24, I considered the breadth of services that local authorities deliver for their communities across Wales. Councils in South Wales East received a combined uplift of 7.4 per cent. This is significantly better than expected, but it has still meant difficult decisions for councils.

Diolch. The Minister will be aware of the current leisure strategy under way in Caerphilly County Borough Council—the council proposing to reduce the number of leisure facilities, like Pontllanfraith leisure centre and Risca hockey pitch. There’s an active campaign group in the area calling to ‘save our leisure centre’, and leisure centres do provide a benefit to communities that goes beyond the monetary.

The Local Government and Housing Committee in the Senedd has found that Audit Wales said that, overall, the quality of local authority governance and leisure services provide health and well-being benefits and social benefits to communities. Sport Wales has said that for every £1 spent on sport, there’s a social return of £2.88. And Community Leisure UK Wales argue that leisure trusts create £101 of social value for every person using their facilities and services, measured through savings for the NHS, amongst other things. Now, I agree with the committee that there should be an emphasis on social value when local authorities determine how best to deliver leisure and, of course, library services. Do you agree with them as well, Minister?

There’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever that leisure services, including libraries and sport centres and other local leisure services, obviously, have a huge social impact and are incredibly beneficial. That said, we do understand of course the huge pressures that local government are under at the moment as a result of the ongoing impact of austerity and just the sheer impact of the current levels of inflation on what they’re able to provide.

I do think that it is important that local authorities have autonomy in terms of the leisure services that they do provide, but, at the same time, they absolutely do need to be cognisant of the needs of their communities and, as they start to consider their budget plans for next year, to be consulting appropriately with communities and taking those views fully into account.

I don’t think that it’s appropriate for the Government to be making those decisions on locally provided services—it’s an important part of local democracy, and those democratically elected bodies, I think, are best placed to make those decisions about what to provide locally. But, that said, I absolutely recognise the huge pressure the sector’s under.

It's clear from the budget that this Government pays little regard to leisure facilities and sporting facilities in Wales. Small sports clubs are struggling, of course, at the moment, with maintenance as well as the energy costs that have already been outlined this winter. When you couple this, of course, with the leisure centres struggling and facing closure across Wales, urgent funding does seem to be required from this Government for overlooked and undervalued leisure services across Wales, which are being stretched to breaking point. And they do provide an invaluable service, as has been outlined by the other Member for South Wales East.

Welsh Ministers have, from time to time, rejected calls for targeted funding for venues and organisations that are facing closure, but that have a sustainable future beyond an immediate crisis. Yet, we see no action. So, will the Government increase funding to local authorities to help keep these crucial services afloat, Minister?

I think we have to be realistic about the challenges facing us. Our Welsh Government budget actually decreases in real terms next year and, obviously, that’s going to have an impact also on the budgets of local authorities as well. Were there to be additional funding coming forward in the autumn statement, I’m sure that we would be in a position to be able to provide additional funding to all kinds of parts of the public sector that are struggling at the moment and to factor that uplift into our budget. But the fact remains that there was no additional funding for public services as a result of the autumn statement. So, we are facing an extremely difficult budget and I think that calls for additional funding for all kinds of very worthy things are just unrealistic at the moment. What we need to be thinking about, in terms of this next budget, is how we reshape that budget to meet the most urgent pressures, particularly those that we’re seeing in parts of the public sector. So, I think that calls for additional funding at this point are unrealistic.

Cost-of-living Pressures

2. What financial support is the Welsh Government providing to local authorities to help residents in mid and west Wales manage cost-of-living pressures? OQ60383

13:35

We have provided funding to local authorities because we know that our councils provide many services that are essential for many people in our society. We have provided over £3 billion of support to those most affected by the cost-of-living crisis, including support channelled through local authorities.

Thank you very much. Well, as we know, of course, people across Wales are facing a very difficult winter because of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. And in this context, there is a vital role for local authorities in ensuring that everyone receives the support that they have a right to receive. And according to a report by Policy in Practice in April 2023, around £19 billion of benefits aren't being claimed annually. This includes vital benefits for people of working age, and for older people, as well as things such as social tariffs for help with broadband, free tv licences, and so on, and, more locally, of course, support with council tax relief. Recently, I had an opportunity to visit the Hwb in Carmarthen—one of a number of hubs that have been established by Carmarthenshire County Council—and there is advice and support available there to help people access the benefits that they have a right to receive. And I heard evidence about some receiving tens of thousands of pounds that they didn't know that they had the right to claim. So, does the Minister agree with me that this is a model to be emulated and expanded, and, if so, how can local authorities across Wales be supported to do more of this?

I'm very grateful for the question. It is a fact that there are so many people across Wales who aren't claiming what is rightfully theirs. That's why the work that we're doing through our 'Claim what's yours' campaign is so vitally important, in terms of making people aware of the support that's available. I know the older people's commissioner, to which you referred, has been doing huge amounts of work in terms of pension credits. We know that £200 million is lost to people across Wales because they're not claiming pension credits, and, of course, if you are able to claim pension credit, then you can go on and have a free tv licence if you're over 75, and a whole range of other support, such as council tax reduction, as well. So, it's really important that all of us individually promote to our communities the kind of support that is available and encourage people to consider what is rightfully theirs.

So 'Claim what's yours' is really important. That's work that is being led by the Minister for Social Justice, and, alongside her, I recently met with local government, and we discussed the Welsh benefits charter, which, again, is about working with local authorities to be very proactive in identifying people who we think might be eligible for support that they're not currently claiming. So, that is important work that is ongoing with local authorities at the moment, but, where there are examples of best practice, we absolutely need to look at those. One thing that we need to consider, for example, is the council tax reduction scheme. And people on universal credit at the moment would need to, in most cases, provide an additional application for that; they might have thought it would have been automatically applied, as it would have been in the past. So, we're working with local authorities to try and find a more streamlined way of people on universal credit receiving council tax reduction scheme support, if they're eligible for it. So, there's a lot of work going on in this space, but anything we can all do individually, I think, to promote this in our communities is important.

Minister, with the council tax rebanding plans not expected to affect council tax bills until 2025, Carmarthenshire County Council has imposed a 6.8 per cent increase for band D properties this financial year, with similar increases likely next year. This places a significant burden on my constituents, particularly those on lower-than-average incomes who are already struggling to cope with current cost-of-living pressures. Many councils, including Carmarthenshire, hold substantial reserves. The latest figure shows that Carmarthenshire has £215 million in reserves. Therefore, what measures can the Welsh Government take to encourage councils like Carmarthenshire to utilise some of these reserves to reduce the council tax burden on their residents, allowing them to retain more of their hard-earned money? Diolch.

Well, I should just be clear that 2025 is the earliest date at which council tax reform could come into place. We are currently consulting, and part of that includes the pace of reform, which could be 2028, or another date. So, I'd just be clear about that. Local authorities are already using significant amounts of reserves this year, and I'm sure they plan to do so next year, to ensure that they limit council tax increases as far as possible to their communities, and that was very much recognised in a recent piece of work by the Wales fiscal analysis unit, which specifically recognised the important role that accessing reserves had played for local authorities in this financial year.

Ultimately, at the end of the day, what it boils down to is the lack of additional funding from the UK Government for public services. Public services have been absolutely starved of funding as a result of austerity and as a result of the UK Government's refusal to invest in public services. Were there more funding available to local authorities, of course it would mean that they didn't have to give such large increases to council tax. But, at the end of the day, they've got statutory services to provide. We've already had a discussion about other important services, such as leisure services, which they have to consider as well. And those cost money. So, if there is no additional funding coming from the UK Government, then, unfortunately, they have to look to council tax, which is another one of their important levers.

13:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

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

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, could you outline your assessment around the ability of local authorities in Wales to set balanced budgets for the next financial year?

So, as I was just referring in my previous comments, things are looking very difficult for local authorities, but, that said, I am confident that local authorities will provide balanced budgets for the next financial year. 

Okay. I'm glad to hear that you're confident of that, but I'm sure you're aware of a letter recently sent to you by the leader of Conwy County Borough Council, which outlined his serious concerns for setting a balanced budget next year, echoing a similar letter sent to you by the leader of Denbighshire County Council as well, using the word 'bankrupt' for the future of his council up in Denbighshire, in a letter he sent out to councillors recently as well. 

In the letter sent to you recently, the leader of Conwy County Borough Council points to the fact that neighbouring authorities receive around 10 or 15 per cent more per head in funding than they do in Conwy, seemingly pointing to the fact there's an older population that seems to get punished through the funding formula. I know you've referred in the past to looking into reviewing the funding formula at the appropriate time, and elements of the funding formula are being considered at the moment. Are you able to commit today to some of that review taking place before the end of this financial year, so that those local authority leaders can have the confidence that their funding formula is fair for them in the next financial year?

Well, the funding formula is constantly under review through the work of the distribution sub-group of the Partnership Council for Wales, which works alongside the finance sub-group, essentially to determine and update figures that relate to the funding formula. I'm not proposing a whole-scale review of the funding formula, because when it's taking place in England, actually, it takes years to undertake. And we also have to remember, as we've discussed already this afternoon, we're looking towards a period of council tax reform, and I think that we need to be mindful that that will have an impact, of course, on local authorities. And one thing that we would have to consider would be transitional support for local authorities if and when council tax reform takes place, following consideration of the consultation responses. And, obviously, that will lead to a great deal of churn as well. So, there's only, I think, so much disruption that the system could take at one point. So, I don't think a whole-scale review of the funding formula is right at the moment, and it's certainly not something that the Welsh Local Government Association has been calling for.

Thanks for that response, Minister. It does seem unusual, though, that neighbouring councils have such different levels of funding, based on what seems to be indicated as driving that the most, which is the age of population. [Interruption.] Thank you for that interesting intervention. But there's a very real image here of councils potentially going bust in Wales, and council leaders are warning you of that. You said in your first response that you're confident that councils will be able to set a balanced budget. They don't seem to share that same confidence at all, actually, and are openly talking about not being able to set balanced budgets, openly talking about section 114 notices. So, do you think you're prepared for that, because, in your first response, you didn't sound like you were, because you said that you're confident these things will be fine? Do you think you're prepared for the reality these council leaders are facing at the moment?

I think that council leaders themselves recognise that a section 114 notice, in and of itself, doesn't help the situation at all. I think council leaders will be working very hard to balance their budgets for the next year. They'll be thinking about all of the tools that they have available to them—the funding through the revenue support grant, council tax, and other levers for raising funding locally. 

But this is really a demonstration of just how starved public services are right across the UK, and it is a direct response to the UK Government's failure to invest in public services. If our Welsh Government budget had grown in line with the economy since 2010, we would have £3 billion more to allocate next year. Imagine the kind of budget we could be tabling, and debating and scrutinising in the Senedd if we had £3 billion more to invest in public services and our other responsibilities in Wales. So, if the Welsh Conservatives are concerned about local government funding and concerned about public services in the round, they need to be making those cases to the UK Government, which has the ultimate tools available to it, to provide the investment that's needed. 

13:45

Diolch, Llywydd. Council leaders across Wales will have listened to the words of your leader, Keir Starmer, during the last week about not turning on the spending taps if he wins the next Westminster election with considerable alarm. It has been outlined by the Wales Governance Centre that the funding gap for local government is projected to be £354 million during the next financial year, which could rise to £740 million by 2027-28. On every metric, local government finances are on an unsustainable trajectory. Having already been forced to cut services to the bone over the past 13 years of austerity, many local authorities in Wales are now in a state of existential peril, and, of course, the picture is being replicated across the UK. Last week, Nottingham became the latest on a growing list of local authorities that have had to declare that it's bankrupt. How is the Welsh Goverment monitoring this threat to Wales? What support is being offered to councils to stave off the prospect of bankruptcy? And does the Minister agree with her UK Labour leader that keeping public spending reined in is the way to do this?

I had the opportunity, this week, to talk to Rachel Reeves and Keir Starmer about some of their plans for the future and some of the things that they will be putting to the people of the United Kingdom. And one of the things that they've already talked about publicly is addressing non-domiciled status, addressing the charitable status of schools in England, and both of those things would potentially lead to consequential funding for us here in Wales. And those are just two things, months out from a general election, that they're suggesting that could be dealt with were there to be a change of Government, which would lead to additional funding for us. So, I think, that we'd obviously be in close contact with the Labour team ahead of the election and we had the opportunity, really, to set out very clearly the pressures that this Welsh Government is under in terms of our budget, but also I was very clear about the pressures on local government as well. 

So, I think the Wales Governance Centre work was really important. It does set out the pressures that local government is facing. It didn't tell us anything that I haven't heard directly from local government through the meetings of the finance sub-group and my other meetings with local government as well. So, yes, this is a very, very difficult time for local government. One thing that I think is different in Wales, and that we have in our favour, is the way in which we work in partnership. And I think that you can't put a price on that kind of joint and respectful working with local government, and it will certainly be something that, I think, will carry us through what will be a difficult period ahead. 

Thank you for that answer.  

It was very interesting. Last weekend, in between waxing lyrical about Margaret Thatcher's driving sense of purpose, whose destructive legacy is still keenly felt by communities across my constituency, your UK Labour leader also outlined his vision for public spending in Government, which he might have shared with you in the meeting, which essentially amounts to austerity 2.0. By pledging not to turn on the spending taps and continuing down the road of austerity, despite its devastating consequences over the past 13 years, Keir Starmer is condemning our public services to a highly uncertain future, and the implications for Wales are particularly dire.

As I've mentioned many times in this Chamber, we are already short changed by the Barnett funding model that does not fully account for our societal needs, whilst the recent Welsh Government tax conference laid bare the extent of the pressures that will be exerted on Wales's finances over the coming years, partially as a result of underinvestment from Westminster. It leads me to wonder whether the UK Labour leader has any real comprehension of the current challenges facing the Welsh people and our public services if he believes that another dose of austerity is in order. Don't take my word for it; this is what was said by the head of economics at the New Economics Foundation, a left-wing think tank, who said, following Starmer's speech, and I quote:

'Starmer is kidding himself if he believes he can maintain current living standards, let alone improve them, without more government spending and investment.'

Can I therefore ask you for your assessment as to how UK Labour's intention to constrain public spending will affect the state of devolved finances in Wales after the general election? And do you share the First Minister's belief that the Labour Government in Westminster will provide the investment that we need in our public services, and if so, how do you reconcile this with the reality that Keir Starmer is not committing to reverse austerity in any meaningful way?

13:50

Well, Llywydd, I don’t intend to fight a general election that hasn’t yet even been called in finance questions in this Senedd, but what I will say is that we have to be mindful of what an incoming Labour Government—should there be one—would be inheriting. It would be inheriting the impacts of the failure of the UK Government to invest in public services, and also the crashing of the economy by Liz Truss. I mean, we are still facing that, and it’s not just public services that are still facing that; it’s individuals who are facing that in their own household budgets, and the difficulties that they’re facing in paying their mortgages. We’re all seeing that in our casework, and I don’t think anyone can deny that. What you will see, I’m sure, will be an absolute change of priorities on the part of a Labour Government. Public services will be a priority, people who are reliant on those public services will be a priority, jobs will be a priority, the richest will not be the priority, and you’ll see that very differently, I think, and all that will be set out in the general election.

Revaluation of Properties

3. Will the Minister confirm the timetable for completing the revaluation of properties for the purpose of council tax? OQ60370

So, I launched a phase 2 consultation on a fairer council tax on 14 November. I am seeking views on the scale and the pace of reform. The consultation makes clear that the earliest date from which reform could take effect would be April 2025, and I'll announce the way forward in due course.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. When the last Labour Government undertook revaluation back in 2004 here in Wales, there were significant transition measures put in place for properties that found themselves moving up the bands considerably during that revaluation process. Do you agree with me, Minister, that irrespective of what we might think about the revaluation process, or indeed what the outcome of that process might be, these transition measures must be put in place this time round to make sure that people do not move up two, three, four bands because of the revaluation that your Government has put in place, and in particular where they might be individuals who are of pensionable age or living on their own, and ultimately that jump in the demand from the local authority could be so significant that it would be beyond their means to stay within the property they’ve lived in all their lives?

So, I’ve been crystal clear, I think, since the launch of this work that we will obviously be considering transitional arrangements for people who are impacted by council tax reform in terms of seeing their bills rise. What those transitional arrangements look like we can’t yet say, because we haven’t had the outcome of the consultation and we haven’t modelled what that outcome would look like. We have modelled a few different approaches, which might be the approaches to take, in the consultation document. All of those approaches would result in more households seeing their council tax bills fall rather than rise, but we’ve also been very clear, both in the consultation and indeed in the legislation that we’ve introduced, that there will be no removal of the single person discount.

The Mutual Investment Model

4. Will the Minister provide an update on use of the mutual investment model by the Welsh Government? OQ60355

The mutual investment model is used to bring forward capital investment when all other sources of funding have been exhausted. It has been used to fund the dualling of sections 5 and 6 of the A465, as well as school-building projects in Flintshire and Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Thank you, Minister. That I have concerns over the mutual investment model is well documented. It can best be described as a private finance initiative without ongoing janitorial services. Any community benefit will be priced into the contract and, if a contract is going to fail, then liquidation and applying to be paid for work done remains an option for the contractor. Also, the mutual investment model has an effect on revenue budgets in future years. Will the Government consider postponing contracts until they can be funded by the cheaper option of using capital allocation or Government borrowing?

13:55

I'm grateful to Mike Hedges for the question, and respectfully suggest that we take different views on the mutual investment model. And I suppose the direct answer to the question as to whether we will postpone projects until we can fund them through traditional capital, then I'm afraid that the answer to that has to be 'no'. Our capital budget falls by 6 per cent in real terms next year, and our capital budget is under huge pressure as it is at the moment. Unlike traditional procurement, community benefits are priced, and the failure to deliver those can be sanctioned. However, in practice, we're actually seeing, through the MIM project, contractors delivering excellent community benefits, and I intend to elaborate on them when I publish the next MIM report in the spring. 

So, I think the question is: do we want these projects to take place? So, there's no way in which we could have undertaken the level of work that we are on the A465 at the moment without the MIM; that would have taken us an awful lot longer. And we've currently begun the construction of schools in Flintshire and RCT, and we have an ambitious pipeline of schools and colleges across Wales to deliver £0.5 billion of much-needed investment in educational infrastructure. So, I wouldn't want to make children and young people wait for those better learning environments until we have the traditional capital available to us. 

Minister, while MIM is an important vehicle to drive infrastructure development without depleting capital budgets, it has to be affordable as its projects will be funded through revenue. And we know those three main areas that are currently considered under MIM will equate to about £1.3 billion, which is probably going to cost somewhere circa £18 million a year to service, over 30 years, once those projects are completed. The A465 Dowlais to Hirwaun is about £590 million. We know that's over 30 years. It's around £38 million a year, a predicted cost in the long run is nearer £1.2 billion at the end of those 30 years. And I suppose what I really want to understand, Minister, is around those annual service charges: how are they monitored? Are they index linked? How do they account for inflation, going forward, because it's very difficult to see how those figures could be projected 30 years in advance to arrive at the costings as they are now? So, I look forward to your updated plan in the near future, but perhaps you could reflect on those questions. 

Yes. So, once an asset is completed and operational, the public sector pays the annual service payments to which you've referred, and that's paid to the project company. And it's modelled to provide for the cost of design, build, finance, maintenance and the life-cycle of the project. And that's fixed through the procurement process. It includes full costs, and also included in that is the cost of transferring what is significant risk away from the public sector. But, as you said, I'll be providing a full update in a report in the new year. 

Vacant Land Tax

5. Will the Minister provide an update on progress regarding the devolution of powers in respect of a vacant land tax? OQ60358

Six years ago, we began the process to devolve new powers for a vacant land tax, and we have still not been able to secure these powers. It is clear that the process is not fit for purpose.

This is really frustrating because, as the Minister will know, when we tested the appetite of the public informally with a social media poll way back six years ago, this was the tax, this was the levy that was most popular with everybody, because we're all frustrated with vacant parcels of land that feature in the local development plan, or where they've had planning permission, but they sit there as developers seek to accumulate wealth through the increase in the property value of that land rather than actually developing it. Meanwhile, we need to build more affordable houses; meanwhile, we need development for jobs as well. So, I wonder what assistance we can give as representatives on all these benches to make those representations to the Westminster UK Government to say, 'Please devolve these powers to us so we can get on with it.'

Absolutely, and I think that, actually, there is a significant role for the Senedd and for Senedd Members in terms of impressing upon the UK Government that, actually, it's for the Senedd to be concerned about how the Welsh Government uses any powers that are provided to it. We think that the UK Government has a legitimate interest in whether the powers are suitable for devolution, but actually what the Welsh Government does with those powers is absolutely a matter for Members of the Senedd. And that's been the sticking block, I think, with this, in the sense that we've provided huge amounts of information to the UK Government, but the UK Government still wants to know the kind of finer details to how the tax might operate, and that is absolutely a matter for this Senedd, not for the UK Government. And you really do see the contrast because in the meantime, Scotland has been working with the UK Government through the agreed process—the same one that we followed—to secure new taxes with a view to introducing a building safety levy. And the difference there is that what Scotland wants to do mirrors what the UK Government wants to do. So, if the UK Government is okay with the policy and the operation, then it seems to be happy to devolve the tax, and that shouldn't be the way, because that really does, I think, disrespect the Senedd and its role.

So, I met with the latest Financial Secretary to the Treasury just in the last couple of weeks, and, again, they're after further information. So, this time, there's concern about what this might mean for tax takes in England and what this might mean for housing in England and so on. Well, actually, it means nothing for tax takes in England because one of the reasons we chose this was because it's such a small, narrow, focused tax and it wouldn't have implications beyond our borders. So, you know, if it can't work on something so focused, then how can it work for other ambitions that other people might have?

14:00

Minister, rather than pressing for even more powers and creating even more taxes, should you not, Minister, be working to incentivise house builders, not making it harder to do business in Wales? Two national industry experts have previously raised concerns about the unintended consequences of vacant land tax, which may hinder rather than help new developers. It is unacceptable that the Welsh Government is asking the Welsh Parliament to agree with the possible future devolution of a vacant land tax without outlining detailed proposals of what such a tax would look like, how it would work and what impact it would have on the housing and construction industry. We are in a housing crisis: 100,000 homes in Wales sit completely vacant—more than one in 10 homes in some areas. Minister, should you not be concentrating on bringing those homes back into use rather than seeking to penalise developers?

Well, there's no penalising developers within a vacant land tax; the whole point is that developers should be developing the land, so there's no penalising. What this tax would intend to do would be to bring forward those developments on land that is often a blight on communities, and also, you know, bring forward all of the benefits that we've heard about in terms of jobs and so on. My colleague the Minister for Climate Change obviously is working very hard on empty homes, on increasing house building and particularly working on the agenda to bring forward zero-carbon social housing here in Wales. But, actually, all of those important questions that were asked in terms of what would the tax look like, how would it work in practice—those are questions for scrutiny in the Senedd. And, you know, I look forward to the point at which, at some point in the future, the Senedd is able to scrutinise those questions, because that's where the questions need to be scrutinised, rather than in meetings with UK Government Ministers.

Flood Protection

6. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change regarding funding to protect communities in Alyn and Deeside from flooding? OQ60377

The Welsh Government is investing £75 million as part of our flood programme for 2023-24, with £5.25 million revenue funding available to local authorities. We've also made £12 million capital funding available to support the development and delivery of construction works, for which local authorities can submit applications.

I thank the Minister for her answer, and she will know I have raised the issue of the recent flooding of communities in Alyn and Deeside on numerous occasions in the Senedd. I've attended public meetings both in Sandycroft and Broughton, and having been in dialogue with Welsh Government, with local government, Natural Resources Wales and others, I'm keen to see the work begin. I'm aware that conversations have already taken place between Welsh Government and Flintshire County Council officials about the potential funding bids that will be informed by the results of the section 19 investigations that are currently progressing. This is important, Minister; we have to get this right. Projects have to be evidence-based to be effective. However, residents are understandably keen for reassurance. Can I ask what reassurances you can give that when it comes to funding bids, badly impacted households in Flintshire are a real priority?

14:05

I'm very grateful for the question. I'm afraid that I personally wouldn't be involved in those funding bids, in the sense that it would be something that the department for climate change deals with. So, I haven't been involved with any of those discussions between Welsh Government and Flintshire council, but I do understand from the Minister for Climate Change that Flintshire County Council has identified a number of potential schemes, which will be appraised and prioritised alongside the bids from the risk management authorities in Wales, and we look forward to receiving those bids.

Questioning you here last month on the same issue, I referred to a statement by a Flintshire County Council official at the Broughton flooding public meeting 11 days previously, that they would be submitting bids to the Welsh Government for works identified by the section 19 flood investigation they were now launching with other agencies after properties in Broughton and Bretton were again flooded. I asked you what prospect, given the resources you have available, that such bids—if properly drafted, worked up and evidenced—have of being successful. You replied, as you just did, that that would be more a question for the Minister for Climate Change. In consequent correspondence, the Minister for Climate Change told me that her officials are in regular contact with flood risk officers at Flintshire County Council, to provide advice and guidance on submissions for Welsh Government funding and will consider any business cases put forward by the local authority. Well, given your overall budget responsibility, what subsequent discussion have you therefore had with the Minister for Climate Change, since my question last month, regarding provision of funding within her budget to meet these needs?

So, I have been briefed by the Minister's officials in advance of questions today in relation to the flooding in Flintshire and the applications that are expected. But just to be really clear, this is a matter for the Minister for Climate Change. Any funding will be coming through her own budget and through the schemes that she's set up, which can be accessed by risk management authorities, such as local authorities and Natural Resources Wales, who are responsible for delivering the flood alleviation schemes in Wales. It is very much a matter for the portfolio Minister, I'm afraid. It wouldn't be something that I would be in a decision-making role over, because it is a matter for the climate change department.

Delivery of Public Services

7. How is the Welsh Government supporting local government to deliver public services? OQ60376

The Welsh Government will continue to prioritise front-line public services, including local government, as far as possible in our forthcoming budget decisions. While the outlook is challenging, I welcome the pragmatic way that we are working together with local government to ensure that we do all we can within the funding available.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. We all heard the news about Nottingham City Council issuing a section 114 bankruptcy notice last week, with an unprecedented 26 other English local authorities being at risk of issuing similar notices over the next year. The UK Government's autumn statement could have made things better, but it didn't contain a single additional penny for key public services such as education or social care. The Welsh Government has, in contrast, a tremendous track record in supporting Welsh councils, but local Government here is feeling the pinch. So, how is Welsh Government working to prioritise support for the sector and the public services on which our communities all rely?

We're working very closely with local government to understand the significant pressures that they're facing, but we're also investing in our performance support as well. You'll recall that the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 put in place a new sector-led performance regime to drive improvement in local authorities across Wales, and in many cases that can look to drive some efficiencies, as hard as that is, in local government as well. To support implementation of that, I've agreed £800,000 funding for the WLGA improvement programme, to provide for shared learning and corporate improvement across councils. So, that is a source of funding that is available where there is learning to be had, and also encouraging authorities, of course, to work jointly on shared issues and challenges.

The Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill

8. What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities in South Wales East in relation to the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill? OQ60353

I've regularly discussed the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill with local authorities across Wales. The matters covered in the Bill draw on extensive research work and have been the subject of consultations with which local authorities in South Wales East have engaged.

14:10

Thank you for your answer, Minister. There is a great deal of concern amongst media outlets over the proposed changes to public notices. The Bill seeks to remove the requirement for councils to publish changes in council tax rates in a public notice in a newspaper, and instead publish them online. Public notices provide vital revenue for newspapers, which, in turn, enables them to deliver higher quality coverage of local and national stories. With Wales having high levels of digital exclusion, newspapers do, inevitably, play a pivotal role in keeping residents informed. Gavin Thompson, the editor of the South Wales Argus in my region, told me, and I quote:

'Removing the need to publish council tax changes in local newspapers is a start of a slippery slope that could have serious and lasting consequences for the provision of local news across Wales.'

He added:

'Now is...not the time to pile further problems on our industry.'

So, Minister, will we be ditching this part of the Bill and instead reinstate your Government's support for local news, going forward?

Well, section 20 of the Bill does, as you say, remove the statutory requirement for billing authorities to publish council tax notices in at least one newspaper circulating in their area. It is replaced by a requirement to publish notices electronically on their website, and I think that's just being realistic about the way in which people engage with and consume information these days. But the Bill also then places a duty on local authorities to ensure that the information is accessible for people who cannot access a website, so that could be about putting information in public places in the local area—libraries, council offices—or publishing within their own newsletters. And local authorities also provide information about council tax as part of their annual bill for citizens as well. So, there will be other ways for people who are digitally excluded to access that information. But that said, we're about to start the engagement and scrutiny process through the Senedd at the moment, so I'm sure that that will be something that's scrutinised in great detail in committee. But, as I say, it's about being realistic about how people access information, but also putting safeguards in for those who are excluded.

Local Authority Services

9. What steps will the Welsh Government take to work with local government to promote good practice across local authorities in the delivery of services? OQ60392

The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 put in place a new sector-led performance regime to drive improvement in local authorities across Wales. To support implementation, I have agreed £800,000 of funding for the Welsh Local Government Association improvement programme to provide for shared learning and corporate improvement across councils.

Thank you for that response, Minister. I think we know that, looking at our 22 local authorities, there is still considerable variation in delivery of services. Notwithstanding local circumstances, geography and demographics, I think evaluation does show that local authorities have their areas of strength, of course, but also areas of relative weakness in effectiveness of service delivery. We live in a time, Minister, where there is an evermore pressing need to deliver more effectively with limited resource, and we know that local authorities' budgets are under growing pressure. So, with that funding that you've identified, Minister, would you now expect to see more innovation and development in our local authorities, in terms of identifying and spreading that good practice?

I think that difficult times are the times at which perhaps we can see some of that innovation come most to the fore. And one of the things that I'm doing at the moment is organising an event for public services boards, and doing that in partnership with the future generations commissioner, because when I've been going around Wales visiting local authorities and visiting public services boards, I've been seeing absolutely wonderful examples of innovation and different ways of doing things, and more effective ways of doing things, but sometimes we know that good practice just does not travel very well. So, one of the things that the future generations commissioner and I are working on is that event for public services boards—I think early in the new year—where we can start to really shine a spotlight on some of that innovation and good practice.

Another area where you can see that happening as well is through the work of Ystadau Cymru. So, I was really pleased to present the annual Ystadau Cymru awards last week and, again, that was about identifying really good areas of practice where the public sector is working across organisational boundaries to ensure that they deliver better services for people. So, I think that we are seeing great innovation happening all over Wales, but, absolutely, we need to be corralling that and finding a way to make it the norm, if you like.

14:15
Funding Local Government

10. What impact has the UK Government's autumn statement had on the Welsh Government's plans for funding local government? OQ60361

Public services in Wales are already making incredibly difficult decisions and local authorities are reporting acute challenges. The UK Government failed to recognise these pressures in the autumn statement. We will continue to prioritise front-line public services, including local government, in our forthcoming budget decisions as far as possible.

Thank you very much, Minister. I know you've touched on a lot of this this afternoon with my other colleagues' questions, but it was very interesting reading the feedback from the local authorities in England, who also said that there was just absolutely nothing in the autumn statement to help them at all, and that was with things—. For adult social care, nothing, temporary housing, nothing. Bridgend County Borough Council, the three things that they have to spend most of their budget on are homelessness, child protection in social services and then home-to-school transport, which I've raised before. These are things that they absolutely have to provide. So, this autumn statement failed to protect any of the services that people rely on, and the Institute of Fiscal Studies has said:

'Plans beyond 2025 imply making cuts to some "unprotected" areas (like local government, or prisons) and imply big cuts to the level of public investment.'

So, it's looking quite bleak going forward in the future. So, I was just wondering, if you have any conversations, if they pay any attention to what you say in Welsh Government when you're calling out for these things—not just for Welsh Government, actually, but for local authorities across the UK.

I think that message is really important, that the challenges that we're feeling in Wales aren't unique to us here in Wales, but local authorities across the border in England have been stressing these exact same challenges to the UK Government. And, actually, colleagues will have seen just a couple of weeks ago that the Scottish Government announced a similar in-year exercise to that which we've talked about in the Senedd before. So, you'll remember that we had to reprioritise around £900 million, or identify funding for that £900 million, to close the gap in our budget this year as a result of inflation. Well, Scotland did some of that work last year, so they reprioritised, I think, around £600 million of their budget last year, and then they've done another exercise doing around the same again this year. So, it's definitely pressure that's being felt right across the UK, and you can see, obviously, the impact in England of the UK Government's failure to invest in local government, and the situation is more acute in England, but it doesn't take away from the challenges that we have here.

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

The next item is questions to the Minister for rural affairs and north Wales. The first question is from Natasha Asghar.

The Sustainable Farming Scheme

1. How will the sustainable farming scheme support habitats in Wales? OQ60378

The proposed sustainable farming scheme contains a requirement for at least 10 per cent of land on farms in the scheme to be managed as habitat to benefit biodiversity as part of the ongoing sustainable production of food. I look forward to launching the sustainable farming scheme later this month.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Can I just quickly pay a tribute to Buglife Cymru, who launched their important invertebrate areas maps at a fantastic event here today in the Pierhead this afternoon? Minister, I'm asking this question with my yellow mayfly champion hat on, a role I'm very proud to have. It's important to yellow mayflies that their river habitats are left clean and healthy, and are managed sensitively for wildlife. Non-governmental organisations have told me that whilst they are glad an interim scheme was established between Glastir ending and the sustainable farming scheme beginning, they have various concerns about the reduced payment rates and the implication that this means nature is worth less, particularly when the SFS is supported to be bringing more farming packages in line with nature's recovery, whilst also ensuring that businesses are viable. Schemes like this will be vital for our at-risk species, yet no habitat data has indeed been released. So, Minister, I'd like to know if Habitat Wales has brought more habitat into management support than was perhaps provided by Glastir, and how much habitat has dropped out of the scheme. I'd also like clarification on if, indeed, this information will be published going forward. Thanks.

Thank you. I can't answer those questions yet because the window for application to the Habitat Wales scheme only closed on 10 November. We're doing all the administrative checks at the moment, and then contracts will be awarded.

Support for Farmers

2. How is the Welsh Government supporting farmers in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ60366

We have paid more than £30 million in basic payment scheme 2023 advance payments to over 96 per cent of claimants in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire since 12 October. Farmers can also apply to other grant schemes as they become available. In addition, Farming Connect provides crucial support to help farm businesses improve and grow.

14:20

Thank you, Minister, and it's interesting you mention 'other grants when available', because it's been 14 months since the Welsh Government announced, with great fanfare, that up to £20 million of extra funding would be allocated to support farmers in complying with the water resources regulations, known to many as nitrate vulnerable zones. This announcement was met with much enthusiasm from the agricultural industry. However, despite the passage of 14 months, not a single penny of this promised funding has materialised, leaving the industry in a state of dismay and uncertainty. The Welsh Government's own impact assessment estimates that the upfront costs of complying with the regulations is £360 million, a figure that has now likely increased due to the spikes in inflation.

The Welsh Government's dangling of potential support without concrete action has created a sense of frustration and distrust amongst farmers. So, it is imperative that the Welsh Government solidify the funding arrangements and fulfil its promises to the agricultural industry. With new storage requirements coming in next August, and farmers facing significant lead-in times due to planning and environmental constraints, Minister, can you confirm where this funding is and when will it be released?

Yes, certainly I can. I've consistently made funding available over many years to improve nutrient management on farms. In 2022 we offered a combined budget of £18 million for two schemes that supported on-farm infrastructure investments; over 50 per cent of that budget offered in 2022 was not utilised. The intention with it is to open a further window for the yard coverings scheme, and we will also consider further application windows for 2024, once the budget availability has been confirmed.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Samuel Kurtz.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, with just over three weeks remaining until the Habitat Wales scheme commences, we are still without any concrete information regarding the scheme's total budget. This lack of transparency is deeply concerning, especially considering the scheme's launch date is fast approaching. Over 3,200 farmers have expressed interest in the scheme, with approximately 50 per cent of those not previously participating in Glastir. This implies that roughly 1,500 Glastir farmers in Wales will no longer receive financial support for environmental initiatives. In a recent letter, you stated that a level of support is being maintained to existing Glastir contract holders for 2024. However, this assertion directly contradicts the fact that 50 per cent of Glastir contract holders have not expressed interest in the Habitat Wales scheme.

You've also mentioned specific support for organic farmers but no further details have been provided. Given the impending start of the scheme and the lack of clarity surrounding its funding, do you believe it's acceptable that Welsh farmers remain in the dark about the financial support available, and, additionally, does the implementation of this scheme instil confidence in the agricultural industry regarding the sustainable farming scheme?

If I can just go to your question around organic first, I did commit to providing small pots of funding for organic. Once the 2024 draft budget has been laid, I will be able to bring forward figures then.

In relation to the Habitat Wales scheme, you will have heard me say, in my earlier answer to your colleague Natasha Asghar, that I'm very pleased, first of all, with the number of applications—I think it's very encouraging we had so many—and we are just doing the administrative checks, and contracts will be awarded in the very near future.

Thank you. Yes, 3,200 expressions of interest are just that—expressions of interest. That's no guarantee that 3,200 will actually accept the contracts that are put forward to them, especially if the budget for the Habitat Wales scheme is set incredibly low.

Minister, last week at the winter fair, I was struck by the concerns expressed by the farming unions and stakeholders about the current financial situation facing the Welsh agricultural sector. These concerns were further amplified in a joint letter published yesterday by farming and environmental organisations, urging the First Minister to protect the 2024-25 rural affairs budget. I mean, congratulations on bringing together both the farming and environmental lobbies in opposition of the Welsh Government once again.

The Welsh Government has the £337 million available to maintain next year's BPS—the 2024 basic payment scheme—at its current level. With this funding in place, you cannot point the finger of blame at Westminster, as it will be this Welsh Government's decision if that £337 million is cut. For every £1 invested in the BPS, there is a £9 return to the wider economy, demonstrating the significant value of this programme. However, the joint letter warns that further budget cuts would, I quote, 

'seriously threaten and undermine our rural communities and our ability to meet our shared aspiration to be global leaders in the production of climate and nature friendly food.'

Do you share these concerns, and can you commit to protecting the 2024 BPS budget?

14:25

Well, you will have heard the First Minister say that we are not able to protect any budget in the Welsh Government, and I absolutely understand it is a period of great uncertainty for the agricultural sector, just like any other sector. Everybody is facing significant inflationary challenges. We've all got stretched budgets, and I think we've been very clear as a Government just how challenging our financial situation is. That means we're having to make some very difficult decisions as we do finalise the draft budget ahead of it being laid on 19 December.

I would echo what the First Minister said: we're absolutely committed to supporting farmers and our rural communities in Wales. You will know I prioritised the BPS budget this year in a way that just did not happen in England. There's been cut after cut in England. So, every country in the UK is facing these significant challenges, but I would just like to remind you that Wales has lost at least £243 million of replacement EU funding because of decisions taken by the UK Government.

You reference cuts to BPS in England; that’s money that has not been lost, that’s money transferred across to other schemes that are already in operation in England, which aren’t yet in operation here in Wales. So, that’s not money lost—that’s money making its way to English farmers where money isn’t, potentially, making its way to Welsh farmers come next year.

But I’m an optimist. I look for the positives, and I’m sure you’ll be aware of the fantastic and eye-opening research findings from YouGov, commissioned by NFU Cymru, on how farming and farm funding is perceived by the Welsh public. One of the most significant and notable statistics found that 82 per cent of the Welsh public said they agree with Welsh Government providing financial support to Welsh farmers to produce food. Now, when the First Minister last year said that he needed to justify supporting farmers to Bangladeshi taxi drivers, I don’t think he quite understood the hurt that this comment caused Wales’s agricultural community, nor the fact that this independent research showed so conclusively that a majority of people fully agree with supporting our farmers to continue to produce high-quality environmentally friendly food.

But why is it that, here in Wales, our farming sector always has to fight for the scraps from the Welsh Government’s table? It’s only 2 per cent of the Welsh Government’s budget as it is. You can’t commit to protecting BPS for next year, yet Transport for Wales is happily bailed out to the tune of £125 million. There’s no budget announced for the Habitat Wales scheme, yet there is £33 million for new speed limits, and we know, thanks to the co-operation agreement, that any cuts to rural affairs in this budget will only pass thanks to Plaid Cymru, who prop this Labour Government up by abstaining on the budget. So, given these circumstances, Minister, do you genuinely believe that Welsh farmers and rural communities have confidence in this Welsh Government to fulfil its commitments to the agricultural sector?

Yes, I do. I've lost count of the number of farmers who tell me they're very pleased they're in Wales and not in England. The Member needs to be a little bit more patient, for another couple of weeks, before the draft budget is laid, to get the answers to many of his questions.

What I will say is I'm not surprised by the results of the NFU survey. I absolutely understand that people do support our farmers. We all need to eat, and we look to our farmers to supply that food. 

I, Minister, have lost count of the number of people who have thanked Plaid Cymru for at least trying to influence constructively Government policy where it's failing in terms of rural affairs, and not carping from the sidelines and just making up the numbers. 

Minister, the First Minister told the Senedd last week that there is no special case to be made for farming when it comes to the Welsh Government's budget. Do you agree?

Well, unfortunately, because of the deep financial situation and very dire financial situation we are facing, we've all had to make decisions that none of us went into politics to do. You'll be aware that the Cabinet prioritise three areas: our public services, helping people with the cost-of-living crisis and the economy. So, you will have heard me say many times I am the voice that sits round the Cabinet table ensuring that we get our fair share, but these are deeply challenging times. As I say, I'll go back to what I said to Sam Kurtz: Members just need to be patient for another couple of weeks.

The reality is, of course, that the Welsh Government is asking more of the sector than it ever has before in terms of maintaining food production, in terms of tackling climate change, in terms of getting to grips with the nature emergency and a whole host of other public goods that you expect the sector to deliver. But if the budget is reduced, of course, and you're still asking for more, then surely that's an unsustainable trajectory and something has to give. So, under those circumstances, if the budget is cut, would you scale back on your ambitions—would you expect fewer outcomes, for example, from the sustainable farming scheme relative to any cut in budget? What aspect of your budget are you particularly keen to protect?

14:30

Well, again, you are speculating, and we all just need to be patient until the draft budget is laid. I do appreciate what you're saying about the climate and nature emergencies. We are all having to do more—every single one of us—in adapting to and mitigating both of those emergencies. But a lot of what we're asking farmers to do, they're already doing. So, we'll be going out to consultation on the sustainable farming scheme—you mentioned that one in particular. And the actions that will be part of a universal layer, many farmers will already be doing, and we are going to assist them to be able to demonstrate and explain how they are doing them. So, whilst I appreciate, of course, that we're all having to do more, I don't think it's a matter of asking individual farmers to do more, because they're probably doing it already.

Update to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991

3. What consideration has the Minister given to the UK Government's recent decision to update the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991? OQ60394

Thank you. Whilst I welcome the UK Government's decision to act at last, we need to ensure any changes do not come at the detriment of the Welsh public or those providing support, particularly our rescue centres and local authority enforcement teams. My officials continue to work closely with their DEFRA counterparts.

The UK Government's decision to add the XL bully to the Dangerous Dogs Act has been broadly welcomed by families of two people in my constituency who were tragically killed in dog attacks in 2021 and 2022. However, in a news story earlier this week, the daughter of Shirley Patrick, who sadly died, said that she did not believe that this measure went far enough and that other potentially dangerous breeds should be added. There have also been concerns expressed by a senior vet that the ban could have the unintended consequence of making XL bullies more aggressive due to being kept inside with a lack of exercise and socialisation. Meanwhile, animal welfare charities have expressed concern that irresponsible breeders will still try and find ways around the incoming ban and perhaps move on to the breeding of a different type of aggressive status dog. So, with all this happening, what is the Welsh Government doing within its devolved powers to try and allay these concerns, for example, by updating breeding regulations for Wales and working with the grain of advice from the veterinary practices?

Thank you. Whilst, as I said, I welcomed that action was at last being taken by the UK Government, I have also made it very clear that we weren't part of those discussions just before the announcement by the Prime Minister. I met with the DEFRA Secretary of State the day before, when she, at the time, was unaware of it as well. And, to me, there was always a health warning, if you like, that we needed to be incredibly careful that there weren't unintended consequences. I hear what people say and, clearly, any breed of dog can be dangerous, and it is really important that we take that into account when we are dealing with dogs. The ban on XL bullies is because of the disproportionate number of attacks that we've had from that breed of dog. In response to your last question, around the powers that we have as a Welsh Government, because we clearly do have many levers, you'll be aware of the recent summit I held. And I think I've just put out a written statement today on responsible dog ownership, working with our partners, working with the police, with local authorities, with the third sector, to make sure that we do use every power that we have and to push really hard on responsible dog ownership. Again, at the end of this week, I think it is, I will be coming forward with the next consultation around legislation in this area.

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

Firstly, can I echo the comments made by the Member for Caerphilly and about the heartbreaking news about those two deaths in Caerphilly following incidents with XL bully dogs? Jack Lis and Shirley Patrick were both killed by XL bullies, and we've seen numerous attacks across the board—six to 10 dog attacks in the UK can be attributed to the XL breed. I recognise that more needs to be done, like you've just said, to combat irresponsible dog breeders, which I hope the UK Government legislation will play a role in. But, Minister what steps is the Welsh Government taking to work with the UK Government to ensure that this update to the Act is properly enforced to alleviate the clear dangers of both the XL bully breed and irresponsible breeders? And I recognise that you've just mentioned that you hosted a summit and workshop on responsible dog owners. Could you outline what recommendations from that have been adopted to help with people's concerns? Thanks.

14:35

Thank you. So, I mentioned in my earlier answer that my officials are working very closely with DEFRA officials around the Dangerous Dogs Act being updated ahead of the ban coming through. So, that is one piece of work that's ongoing. I had hoped to have a conversation with the new Secretary of State in DEFRA last Monday, at our inter-ministerial group, but, unfortunately, he cancelled that meeting. Going back to the responsible dog ownership summit I held in October, I have just, I hope—in the last hour, I think—published a written statement. I wouldn't say any of the actions have been adopted; I think what we did was take a great number of recommendations and actions. We were very, very fortunate that Jack Lis's mother came and addressed us during that summit, which, as you can imagine, was incredibly powerful and gave us a lot of food for thought and what more we can do, working in partnership. We keep this absolutely under constant review. It's really important that we are able to prevent the dangers posed by irresponsible dog ownership, and that's why we always promote responsible dog ownership. DEFRA have also recently established a responsible dog ownership working group, to identify any additional measures that we have to be able to reduce dog attacks and promote responsible ownership. Again, my officials are linked into that.

Responsible Dog Ownership

4. Will the Government provide an update on its efforts to promote responsible dog ownership? OQ60363

Thank you. In October, I held a summit on responsible dog ownership and action on dangerous dogs, bringing together a wide range of partners to discuss further work. I will be setting out key findings from the summit and our next steps in a written statement, which has been published today.

Diolch. Thank you for the statement that came out just a little while ago now. I just would like to understand what the key actions are going to be from that—the actual 'so what'. It's great to have a summit, and it's good to note that you're going to be having another summit in the new year—it's what will constituents in the south-east region and beyond see as a palpable change in what's going on in our communities. I welcome the fact that the XL bully is going to be added to the list, and that's happening. I was just wondering if you've given any consideration to the unintended consequences of that. Are there going to be other breeds that are going to come to prominence because they are used as potential trophies and that sort of thing, and, also, the unintended consequences of some dogs arriving in shelters, and that sort of thing going on? So, maybe you could outline the main consequences of the summit and what we will be able to see, going forward. Diolch.

Thank you. So, in relation to the summit, I'm sure you haven't had time to look at the written statement in detail, but there's a list of recommendations. So, one of the things that we discussed at the summit and has certainly come forward as a recommendation is how police forces prioritise and report dog-related incidents. So, again, today, I've written to all the chief constables. I'm also writing to local authorities because they have the enforcement powers, as well. I think, on the dog breeding regulations, there's more work that needs to be done in relation to the dog breeding regulations, and we'll be looking at how we can update those. I think we need to have some formal recording of dog attacks and livestock worrying. That's a significant concern, certainly amongst our agricultural sector. So, there are several recommendations that come out, and we'll be looking at what actions we can take in the near future. I'm not sure if I'm going to have a summit in the new year, but certainly we will get back together, because there was so much good information that came out of that summit, we need to really tap into that.

Around the unintended consequences, I think the point you make about other breeds is really important, and what my officials have done is work with DEFRA counterparts to see is this the first step, and will there be another step later on once, on XL bullies, the ban comes in in February. I think, also, you make a good point around abandoned dogs. We don't want to see dogs abandoned, we don't want to see—. Already, our third sector rescue centres, as you know, are incredibly under pressure. So, it is about working with DEFRA to see what assessment and monitoring they did. You'll be aware of the funding they're bringing forward, but they're not huge amounts of funding. So, those discussions are ongoing, as I say, between our officials. As I say, we didn't really have a heads-up, unfortunately, that the announcement was going to be made. I've written to many Ministers over many years to try and get some action taken, because it was the rural crime teams, particularly, and the wildlife and rural crime co-ordinator, who were saying that the legislation—the Dangerous Dogs Act—really is not fit for purpose, and I don't think just this one step will make it fit for purpose. I think we need to continually monitor and consider.

14:40

In Ireland, if you own a dog, you must have a dog licence. Residents can purchase an annual €20 or lifetime €140 licence for their dog. In Northern Ireland, dog owners pay £12.50 for a licence through local authorities, and in Calgary in the Canadian province of Alberta, there is even an online registration system for dogs and cats. Just over 8,000 stray dogs were picked up in Wales last year. Dog licensing could help with that, and it could mean that stray dogs can be reunited more easily with their owners, and it would address, I believe, many of the issues we raise regularly here in this Chamber. Additionally, this would be a new revenue stream that could help overstretched enforcement teams in our local authorities. Now, you've mentioned recently that this is a matter for the UK Government, but, as a result of your response, somebody wrote to me and said, 'Have a look at the Ireland model, Janet.' So, what steps are you taking to look at replicating dog licensing requirements in other nations, such as those I have referenced, by using local authorities to facilitate this? Thank you.

I'm not sure if I've misunderstood you, but I've never said that dog licensing is a matter for the UK Government; we have the powers in relation to dog licensing, and I have asked my officials to have a look at this. For me, if somebody is paying hundreds of pounds for a dog, they can pay for a dog licence. However, I go back to unintended consequences. So, if you have a pensioner, I could say, who has a dog—it's great companionship, it helps with isolation, et cetera—they may not be able to afford a dog licence, so I think we need to look at it in the round. But it's certainly something that I've asked my officials to look at, because I do think you need to get to the end—what are we trying to achieve here? And what we want is everybody to be responsible. Responsible dog ownership has to be promoted. Would a dog licence help towards that? I have a personal opinion, but I think we need to make sure that we look at the evidence to see if that would be a good outcome.

Improving Roads in Dwyfor Meirionnydd

5. What consideration has the Cabinet committee on north Wales given to improving roads in Dwyfor Meirionnydd? OQ60359

At the Cabinet sub-committee for north Wales in October, Ministers had a presentation from the north Wales transport commission, ahead of the publication of their final report next week. The committee is keen to have further discussions with the commission when its final review is published.

I thank the Minister for that response. The Minister will be aware that the bridge over the Dyfi river is about to open. But, in January, the A493 and the A487 near Pontarddyfi will be closed for almost a month, from 15 January onwards, as I understand it. Now, people in the area, particularly the Pennal and Bro Dysynni area, are extremely concerned that those roads are to be closed for a month. It will have a detrimental impact on their ability to travel to hospital in Aberystwyth, for example, and on the ability of workers to cross over to Machynlleth and north Ceredigion. Pupils and students who want to travel over the bridge will also face difficulties. And they are gravely concerned about the ability of ambulances to travel if there is an emergency in the Pennal area. So, what consideration have you given, or what pressure can you as a Government bring to bear, in order to ensure that the road isn't closed for all of that time? I wonder if it's possible to ensure that the workforce working on the road could work at night, to ensure that the road could be open, or to come to another solution so that the road doesn't have to be completely closed over a month from 15 January onwards?

Diolch. Well, we are aware of the concerns regarding the closure of the A493. The Welsh Government is working with the contractor, local authorities and stakeholders to ensure that all mitigation options are considered to minimise disruption. Specifically, I know the contractors' public liaison officer is currently consulting with emergency services, local schools, social services and health centres to gather their views. That work is ongoing, and feedback received will be used by officials and the project team to ensure that appropriate mitigation proposals are in place during the road closure. 

Minister, I'd be grateful if you could give me any indication as to what level the Cabinet committee on north Wales gives consideration to links to and from mid Wales. But also I support Mabon ap Gwynfor's question today. I fully endorse everything Mabon said, because I know myself, when the Dyfi bridge is closed due to weather issues over the winter period, that can lead to a huge diversion—a 30-mile diversion—which causes concerns for those working either side of the bridge and also the emergency services as well. I would be grateful if you could offer any further detail about when the new Dyfi bridge will open. From my understanding, from the last update I had from the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, it was the end of January, beginning of February, but anything more specific than that—. I think the point that Mabon ap Gwynfor was making is that there's obviously a road closure period, but often the whole period is not always necessary, for it to be closed for that period of time, and I think that residents on both sides of the border would appreciate a bit more detailed and pinpointed information about how long the road could be closed for. 

14:45

The information I've received from the Minister for Climate Change, whose policy area it is, is the end of January, beginning of February. So, I'm afraid that I can't give you any further information.

The Gwaredu Scab Project

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the progress of the Gwaredu Scab project in Wales? OQ60385

The Gwaredu Scab project has made significant progress since its launch in May, with over 0.5 million sheep treated at farms across Wales. The success of the programme is attributed to the collaboration between Gwaredu Scab, vets, unions and the farming community. We will share the Gwaredu Scab annual report in the spring.

I'm grateful to the Minister for that response, and it's good to hear about the progress that's being made in this area. There are some reports that I've received that do cause some concern. I've heard from local farmers, for example, that the service is difficult to get in touch with, that farmers, at times, have to wait for weeks before getting a call back, just to be told that the funding has come to an end. I've heard of other examples locally of farmers who've had a third of their flock dipped, but then, in asking about the rest, they are told that they would have to wait until April, which, of course, isn't ideal in a scheme which has the aim of eradicating scab entirely. And then, we hear about new farmers being added to the programme too. So, can the Minister make some enquiries with all the partners just to check whether it's a lack of resources or whether the resources are being used in the most efficient way?  

Yes. Certainly. I know there was a very high uptake from our farmers and the team did have to pause new queries. We were dealing with cases that were already up and running, but we did have to have a small pause. But I know that work was resumed very quickly. I think it is a very popular scheme. I remember when I first came into portfolio—. You often hear me say that Government can't do things on their own, well, I think the sheep industry, that are responsible for getting rid of sheep scab, they couldn't do it on their own either. And I think it was really important that we were able to bring this scheme forward, and the Gwaredu Scab team are really successfully delivering. It is a three-year Welsh Government-funded programme to eradicate scab from Wales, and I think it is an excellent example of collaboration. But I will look specifically at the point you raise. 

Minister, as you know, I've talked to you about this long before I ever came here, about how devastating sheep scab is for our farmers right across Wales. We've heard from you today how tight the Welsh Government's budgets are, but I know you're well aware of exactly how sheep scab, if it's eradicated, can improve animal welfare, can improve prices at the farm gate as well. So, it would be interesting to understand from you today whether projects like this are going to be prioritised in the next budget-setting process. Because if we do prioritise these budgets, it improves animal welfare and it also helps improve the outcomes for our farmers right across Wales as well. 

Thank you. Well, the project was started in May 2023. It is a three-year contract, and the funding is available for that. 

Converting Animal Waste to Fertiliser

7. What support does Welsh Government provide farmers to convert animal waste to fertiliser? OQ60379

Converting livestock manure into a product that can then be easily and economically transported is a significant challenge. The Welsh Government supports innovation to improve nutrient circularity and has, for example, provided significant financial support to Coleg Sir Gâr for the development of such technology through its ProsiectSlyri.

14:50

Thank you. That's really interesting, because we know that over 60 per cent of Dŵr Cymru's sewerage network is combined waste, so it includes rainwater, domestic sewage and industrial waste, including farm sewage. So, when all this raw sewage has to be discharged into the seas to avoid the flooding of people's homes, we know that it contains things that people don't want in their water. So, if there's any way in which we can divert sewage that we could be using for nourishing the land rather than chucking phosphorus on it, that is a win-win.

And I have had conversations with forward-looking farmers who are really considering this as a way of reducing their carbon emissions. And there's always money to be made from muck. And given that sheep and cattle only eat—they don't eat meat—so, you know, these are really good nutrients, if only we could understand how to use them efficiently. So, I'd be very keen to hear more about the work that Coleg Sir Gâr is doing, because it seems to me that this is information that should be shared with all farmers to ensure that they are maximising the benefit that they could be making out of the products of their animal waste. 

Absolutely. I would very much encourage you to visit Coleg Sir Gâr to see the work that they're doing. As you know, the control of agricultural pollution regulations is something that I'm working on with Plaid Cymru as part of the co-operation agreement, and Cefin Campbell and I had a really positive visit to the college, probably about 18 months ago now. And I hadn’t been for 18 months previous to that, and I was incredibly pleased to see the work, the progress that had been made, and I'm sure if I went again, there would be further progress done.

We have the Tywi Farm Nutrient Partnership. That's a smart expertise-funded collaboration between the college and various industry partners, and they're looking at ways of reducing pollution, nutrient loss and recirculation of nutrients on farm. And separate to that, the college applied to a building capacity for collaboration call. They were awarded £62,000 and they’ve purchased some gas analysis equipment to provide them with the ability to be able to monitor and quantify relevant baseline gas emissions from agricultural sources. So, there's a significant amount of work going on in relation to this.

A Greyhound Racing Ban

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the steps the Welsh Government is taking to ban greyhound racing in Wales? OQ60384

I am committed to ensuring the welfare of racing greyhounds in Wales is not compromised. At the end of this week, I will launch our consultation on the regulation of animal welfare. This will gather evidence on the benefits and impacts of both legislating and banning greyhound racing in Wales.

Thank you, Minister. Those of us committed to seeing a greyhound racing ban in Wales want the consultation conducted and concluded as soon as possible. Sadly, with the licensing of Valley Greyhound Stadium, the suffering of racing dogs has been allowed to continue. Dogs frequently get into trouble at Valley and collisions are frequent. Indeed, in some races, as many as five out of the six dogs are recorded in the Greyhound Board of Great Britain's own results as having run into each other. According to GBGB’s most recent statistics, more than 5,000 greyhounds exit the licensed industry each year, many of whom will inevitably suffer from long-term physical and/or mental trauma. This leaves charities and the rescue sector to pick up the pieces, with more than two thirds of retired racing greyhounds currently handed over to such organisations at the end of their career, according to GBGB. Minister, with the majority of animal centres in Wales currently full, who will pick up the pieces from allowing this cruel sport to continue to operate in Wales?

Well, the Member doesn't have to wait much longer for the consultation. I will be launching it on Friday, and the regulation of animal welfare is absolutely a key commitment of our animal welfare plan. And our upcoming consultation, I think, is a really positive step towards licensing reform for establishments, exhibits, activities including animals and involving animals, and that includes racing greyhounds. I'm very pleased to be able to publicise the consultation here, and I would like all Members to do so. It will be a 12-week consultation, and what that will do is gather evidence on a wide range of issues. But one thing that I'm really keen to look at is the life of a greyhound—so, from birth, if it races, to retirement. It's really important that we have all the evidence.

So, the consultation will be launching on Friday, and I recognise that it is a very complex and emotive issue. Tighter licensing may see welfare improvements, but it wouldn't stop the racing of dogs, so there is a wide range of questions. Conversely, a phased ban may stop regulated racing, and that then could lead to an increase in unlawful events. So, it's really important that people put forward their views to the consultation so that we can have that evidence.

14:55
The Animal Welfare Plan

9. Will the Minister provide an update on the delivery of the animal welfare plan for Wales? OQ60368

Thank you. We are making good progress to deliver our priorities for animal welfare, with our licensing and enforcement projects driving significant change. As I've just said, at the end of the week, I will launch our consultation on the regulation of animal welfare. Our commitment on requiring closed-circuit television in slaughterhouses will come into force next year.

Thank you, Minister. I'd like to start by offering a few words of thanks to all those Members who came along to the well-attended event that I sponsored for the League Against Cruel Sports the other week. The drop-in highlighted the awful suffering inflicted on pheasants and red-legged partridges when they are bred for slaughter in the game bird shooting industry. The animal welfare plan contains a very welcome commitment to restrict the use of cages, including for game birds. So, could you please give us an update on this work? 

Thank you. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (Wales) Regulations 2007 set down very detailed conditions under which farmed animals must be kept. There will not be any changes to the welfare legislation or our code of practice for the welfare of game birds reared for sporting purposes without consultation with our stakeholders. At the moment, it's not possible to provide a timeline for that consultation on any changes that could be brought forward. The use of management devices or practices that do not allow birds to fully express their range of normal behaviours should not be considered as routine, and keepers should work towards management systems not requiring such devices.

Agriculture Funding

10. What assessment has the Minister made of the adequacy of UK Government funding for agriculture in Wales compared to previous EU funding? OQ60380

Through the rural development programme, we received a seven-year funding settlement, allowing long-term planning and support for a range of priorities in our rural communities. The UK Government left us £243 million worse off than if we had remained in the European Union, with no long-term budget certainty.

Diolch, Gweinidog. As you have just mentioned, last month, the Minister for Economy spoke on the inadequacy of the replacement funding for the European Union funding. If I remember correctly, the whole point of Brexit was that it would liberate us from Brussels's bureaucracy. Our economy would grow and, therefore, our budget would be larger. However, as the economy Minister said, the shared prosperity fund is anything but liberating. It is small; it is rigid; and it is very narrow in scope. 

As mentioned already, very little has been released about the Habitat Wales scheme, set to commence next year—not even a budget—leaving over 3,000 farms that have already applied for the scheme in the dark. When will the Minister announce how much has been allocated to the scheme?

Reducing Agricultural Pollution in Waterways

11. How is the Welsh Government supporting farmers to reduce agricultural pollution in waterways? OQ60364

Supporting farmers to reduce pollution is a key theme running through all of our agricultural support programmes. This includes knowledge transfer provided through Farming Connect, bespoke grant schemes, the Habitat Wales scheme, as we transition to the future sustainable farming scheme, and cross-compliance rules that underpin the basic themes.

I wanted to raise a question along the same lines as the Member who has now left the Chamber, having asked his question earlier. The question I wanted to ask was on the £20 million that has been earmarked to assist farmers to provide infrastructure for meeting the regulations. Now, earlier, you failed to provide an assurance that you are confident that that £20 million will have been spent within the timetable before any regulations come into force, which would mean that you wouldn't then, as I understand it, be providing funding to meet the requirements of the regulations. Can you confirm, therefore, that you're confident that that £20 million will be spent before the beginning of August?

15:00

I think you'll find that my phrase was 'up to £20 million' and I am confident that up to £20 million will be.

Supporting the Agricultural Industry in Pembrokeshire

12. What is the Welsh Government doing to support the agricultural industry in Pembrokeshire over the next twelve months? OQ60360

Since 12 October we've made basic payment scheme 2023 advance payments worth over £12 million to farmers in Pembrokeshire. This is over 98 per cent of claimants. Full and balance payments will commence from 15 December. In addition, our Farming Connect service provides crucial support and advice to agricultural businesses in Pembrokeshire.

Minister, thank you for that response. Now, one way to support the agricultural industry is, of course, to invest in future generations. Now, I'm sure you'll join me in congratulating Fishguard young farmers club, which has been recognised for its work supporting the local rural community at the National Federation of Young Farmers' Clubs achiever awards recently. The judges praised Fishguard YFC's recycle and reuse sport shoes appeal, which was developed in response to high child poverty rates in Pembrokeshire. They donated 43 pairs of trainers to local primary schools and their rugby club, allowing families to participate in local sports. So, will you join with me, Minister, in congratulating Fishguard YFC on their award, and tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to support young farmers clubs in Pembrokeshire so that they can continue to play an important role in our communities, going forward?

Absolutely. I send my congratulations to Fishguard young farmers club. I never ever fail to be impressed by the fantastic work that young farmers clubs right across Wales do in their local communities. I hadn't heard about this particular one, but perhaps if the Member could write to me, I'd like to write to them to hear a little more about it. Diolch.

3. Topical Questions
The Closure of Pontins in Prestatyn

1. What is the Welsh Government’s assessment of the impact of the closure of Pontins in Prestatyn on the local economy and tourism in Denbighshire? TQ930

Thank you for the question. We know that this will be disappointing news for the staff and management in Prestatyn and surrounding communities. We stand ready to support any workers affected by the job losses and we'll work with Denbighshire County Council and other key partners to do just that.

Thank you very much for your response this afternoon, Minister. We were shocked and saddened to hear of the closure of Pontins in Prestatyn just last Thursday. Of course, it was home to the bluecoats, the Holiday on the Buses film in 1973 and the UK snooker championships in years gone by, along with a myriad of other events. It was, in fact, the only Pontins outside of England and the only one in Wales, so you can sense the sadness that's being felt in the local community in the Vale of Clwyd. But admittedly, it had fallen into a state of decline in recent years, with the Britannia Hotels company running it into the ground, effectively, since acquiring the site back in 2011. They ignore myself, the local MP, Dr James Davies, and local councillors in letters and correspondence in providing details of the closure and future plans for the site, to the point where some staff found out on social media that they were losing their jobs, which I think is disgraceful—absolutely disgraceful.

Britannia have had a bad reputation for many years across their portfolio, and you only have to look on Tripadvisor and Google any of their parks or hotels to see for yourself that they're an apology for a holiday company. They have compounded my constituents and tourists to north Wales to perennial misery with the loss of up to 200 jobs and put a dent in the tourism fabric of the Vale of Clwyd in attracting the good people from England and other parts of the UK to enjoy the best of what Prestatyn has to offer. I'm sure that Fred Pontin and Billy Butlin would be turning in their graves if they could see the state of the place now, God bless them. So, can the Minister outline his comprehensive assessment of and reaction to this dire situation that the people of Prestatyn find themselves in currently, and what steps and action the Welsh Government is taking to maintain north Denbighshire as an attractive holiday destination and prevent the hollowing out of our local coastline in north Wales? Thank you.

Thank you. I do share the Member's extreme disappointment at the conduct of the company and the way they made the announcement. It is not what should happen. We know that there's a significant amount of employment, as well as additional seasonal employment from the site. We're looking to see if there is a recognised trade union on the site. It almost always makes it easier to deal with both the company and the trade union sides, and there are issues about protective awards that people need to get advice on. We'll carry on engaging, as we have done in previous unemployment events, and indeed there are Members of the Member's own party who have engaged with me in that way, openly and constructively, about what the Welsh Government can do to directly support staff, together with the Department for Work and Pensions. Jobcentre Plus and their local management are often good at responding to events and working directly with the Welsh Government on trying to provide the best kind of support available. I've had the same message of utter dismay from the leader of Denbighshire council, Jason McLellan. I'm looking to reach out to have a conversation with him to understand what we might be able to do together in a tripartite way with the council, DWP and, indeed, the Welsh Government arm as well. I'll make sure the Member is directly informed, if there is to be any meeting, in exactly the same way I've worked before I'll work with Members in different parties to see what we can do.

But we will, on your broader question, continue to invest in the north Wales coast. We've already provided £1.75 million in property development to support the redevelopment of the former Kwik Save site in Prestatyn. We've got further schemes across the coast in Rhyl as well, and the work we're doing alongside the council in that respect. So, we see a positive future for north Wales tourism, including in the Member's constituency, that we will continue to want to invest in and to work alongside reliable partners that are here for the long run in investing in our communities and what north Wales has to offer.

15:05

Of course, our immediate thoughts are with those members of staff who have been let go without any warning and are now facing a highly uncertain Christmas period. With that, I think this case clearly underlines the importance of strengthening legal protections for workers and promoting unionisation within the workforce. I'd be interested to hear from the Minister whether he thinks that, actually, Pontins have breached their statutory responsibilities with respect to redundancies by announcing the closure of the Prestatyn site without proper notice and prior consultation with the employees.

But Britannia Hotels, of course, is a company that made £33 million of profit last year, and the litmus test for me now is whether they're willing to give something back to the community that has served them so well for many, many years. I'm wondering whether the Government is aware as to whether the company is happy to contribute financially towards the work of finding alternative uses for the site. Clearly, we need an all-year-round employment offer for people in the Prestatyn area, but if we find that that isn't possible, it's a large footprint. So, I'm just wondering whether the Government would consider allocating that land, or looking at options in terms of building social housing. We have 1,788 people in Denbighshire on the waiting list for a house. So, I'm just wondering whether we could be a bit creative in the way that we look at it. Yes, we need to look at employment and try and replicate opportunities for local people there, but there are other demands that this substantial footprint could actually meet, potentially.

I'll try and deal with the points as they came. In terms of legal duties, there are legal duties around consultation ahead of redundancy, and there are specific circumstances where there is not a duty to consult. You point out the strength of the company in terms of the operating profit it's made over the last year. The bar is normally quite a significant one to get over that this was a surprise event and could not be anticipated, and obviates the clear legal duty to consult in advance.

There's a challenge there, if there isn't a recognised union on the site, about who represents and organises those people who might otherwise be entitled to a protective award. That is a practical thing that we'll need to discuss with the council and local advice services as well. It's a challenge about the way that employment law has changed, that you now need to pay to make claims, and that will put lots of people off doing so.

But turning to your point around the potential changes in the law, well, that is a matter that is reserved. In the 2019 Conservative manifesto, they claimed that they would actually change the law in a positive way. We're expecting an employment Bill that has not materialised. I'm confident that, at the next UK general election, there will be a manifesto pledge from my own political party to make changes in the world of work. We look forward to seeing if other people are prepared to recommit to what they said they'd do in the past, or not. But that won't help people in Pontins now, and we have a period of time before any such change can be made.

On your point around whether Britannia would contribute, my officials, as you would expect, have been in contact with Britannia, and I look forward to a response of some kind to understand their approach. I would not wish to give false hope that Britannia will put a significant amount in, but we are certainly looking to ask questions about what they are prepared to do. They don't appear to have a legal duty to do so.

And on your point about land use: the Government isn't in control of the land, and in terms of allocating that land, that's a matter for the local authority, and it also reinforces the point across north Wales and beyond of actually having an up-to-date local development plan to give you some kind of idea about how land use can be managed. For those authorities that don't have an LDP, there is the risk that, actually, you can find land you want to see used for economic benefit used for entirely different purposes. There is a conversation that we have with the council, of course, about whether they do want to see this try to be maintained as a potential tourism asset, or they want to see it for alternate use, but that is part of the conversation we would want to have with the local authority.

15:10
4. 90-second Statements

Glenys Kinnock, who died on Sunday, was a respected Welsh Labour politician whose life was marked by a commitment to social justice, a belief in the power of education to transform children’s lives and a determination to speak up for the poorest.

Born Glenys Parry in 1944, she never forgot the values that shaped her upbringing as the daughter of a railway signalman in Holyhead. Glenys emerged from the shadow of her adored husband, Neil, to become a heavy political hitter in her own right. Her tenure as a Member of the European Parliament representing Wales from 1994 to 2009 showcased her commitment to developing nations, when she became president of the Africa, Caribbean, Pacific committee. Later, as Minister for Europe in the House of Lords, Glenys continued to play a key role in fostering international relations.

She was a role model for women: clever, forthright, stylish and really funny. She told me of the time when she was coming back on a plane from Brussels when the air hostess told her how proud they were that there was an all-women crew, including the pilot. ‘Oh, that’s marvellous', she said. ‘Can I come into the cockpit to say “hello”?’ 'Oh, Mrs Kinnock', she answered, 'we don’t call it the cockpit any more.' [Laughter.]

She was a pillar of strength for Neil, and he was a rock for her during her battle with Alzheimer’s, which she faced with the same grace, courage and dignity that defined her entire life. Family was front and centre in their lives, and she loved to be known as ‘Naini’ by her grandchildren. From Anglesey to Islwyn, from Brussels to Africa, she will be missed dearly.

Rest in peace, my dear friend.

The two hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary of the Swansea canal: on Friday I attended a book launch commemorating the two hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary. Currently, only 5 miles of the Swansea canal is navigable, from Clydach to Pontardawe, and from Pontardawe to Ynysmeudwy. The Swansea Canal Society is working hard to restore the canal, supported by many volunteers. Alongside many Senedd colleagues, I attended the reopening of part of the Clydach section recently. The canal is now a popular trail and the towpath is part of the national cycle network.

The canal will never be reopened fully. The part that ran behind my grandparents’ house in Plasmarl is now the A4067. This industrial canal was built to serve collieries, ironworks and copper works in the Tawe valley, and the first section of the canal from Swansea to Godre’r Graig was opened in 1796, and the whole length of 16.5 miles was completed by October 1798. Civil engineering works included 36 locks and five aqueducts to carry the canal across major tributaries of the Tawe. When it was built, Lord North was British Prime Minister and John Adams Sr was United States President.

Finally, I’m pleased to see the restoration work being done, and I thank the many volunteers involved, and some of these people have been volunteering for decades and have worked really hard to try and bring this canal back into partial use. We must never lose our industrial heritage and we owe a debt to those who are working so hard to make it reusable.

Later this month we will be celebrating the hundred and twentieth anniversary of the birth of Jethro Gough. Born in Woodland Street, Mountain Ash, Jethro studied at the Welsh National School of Medicine. He was a first-rate student, achieving distinctions in numerous clinical fields, winning several prestigious prizes. He then embarked on an academic career largely spent in Cardiff, becoming professor of pathology after the second world war. From the late 1930s, Jethro became increasingly interested in the study of pulmonary illness, and coal workers' pneumoconiosis in particular. Up to this point, it was generally accepted that silica, found underground, was the cause of this cruel disease amongst workers in the coal industry. Gough studied the working conditions of coal trimmers in the south Wales docks, who never went underground. This led him to conclude that it was coal dust that caused pneumoconiosis, a groundbreaking discovery that gained Gough an international reputation. Importantly, this work was the basis of workmen's compensation legislation here in Britain and around the world.

Jethro was a founding member of the Royal College of Pathologists, and he was active in planning for the new University Hospital of Wales. He retired in 1969 and died 10 years later. The final word on Jethro should go to the National Union of Mineworkers, who recognised and praised his contribution to the well-being of miners around the world.

15:15

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. On 10 December, we will mark the date that the universal declaration of human rights was adopted 75 years ago. Human rights for everyone remain as important today as they were at that time. We are all citizens of one world, after all. Since the declaration was signed decades ago, legislation has been introduced on matters such as workers’ rights, the environment, political expression and minority rights. The declaration is a lodestar, which has laid the foundations for rights to a home, fair pay and health, regardless of your gender, your skin colour, your creed and whom you love. 

This Thursday, the Welsh Centre for International Affairs will be holding an event at the Temple of Peace to celebrate and mark this very special anniversary. Speeches, performances and discussions will focus on the importance of human rights in Wales today and tomorrow. I’m sure that everyone in the Senedd would join me in wishing them all the very best with their work and their celebrations.

5. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Pancreatic cancer

Item 5 is a Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv), pancreatic cancer. I call on Mark Isherwood to move the motion. 

Motion NDM8385 Mark Isherwood, Mike Hedges, Jenny Rathbone, James Evans, Jane Dodds

Supported by Delyth Jewell, Joel James

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes:

a) that November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and that 16 November 2023 is World Pancreatic Cancer Day;

b) that the survival rates in Wales and the UK still lag behind much of the rest of Europe and the world;

c) pancreatic cancer is tough to detect and that diagnosis takes too long with slow processes and multiple tests leaving people in the dark;

d) once spotted, people face huge obstacles getting the information and care they need to be well enough to have treatment with many people feeling written off with no support plan in place, and no help to manage symptoms; and

e) once diagnosed, only 3 out of 10 people get any treatment, the lowest proportion of all cancer types, and that half of people die within a month of diagnosis.

2. Understands that people with pancreatic cancer urgently need a faster, fairer, funded pathway throughout their diagnosis, treatment and care.

3. Supports Pancreatic Cancer UK’s efforts to ensure implementation of such a pathway.

4. Commends all of the charities and activist organisations and their dedicated supporters for their tireless efforts to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer, and wishes everyone involved with Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month every success in their endeavours.

Motion moved.

Diolch. Well, I'm pleased to bring forward this debate today, which was drafted alongside the charity Pancreatic Cancer UK. The motion, which I'm pleased to say has cross-party supporters here, proposes that the Senedd notes that November was Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month and that 16 November 2023 was World Pancreatic Cancer Day, that the survival rates in Wales and the UK still lag behind much of the rest of Europe and the world, that pancreatic cancer is tough to detect and that diagnosis takes too long, with slow processes and multiple tests, leaving people in the dark, that, once spotted, people huge face obstacles getting the information and care they need to be well enough to have treatment, with many people feeling written off, with no support plan in place and no help to manage symptoms, and that, once diagnosed, only three out of 10 people get any treatment, the lowest proportion of all cancer types and that half of people die within a month of diagnosis. The motion also proposes that the Senedd understands that people with pancreatic cancer urgently need a faster, fairer funded pathway throughout their diagnosis, treatment and care. 

Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest common cancer, affecting 500 people a year in Wales and 10,000 people a year across the UK. Three in five of those are diagnosed at a late stage. Sadly, over half will die within three months of diagnosis, and only 6 per cent in Wales will survive for more than five years. By comparison, the likelihood of surviving other cancers beyond five years in Wales is 50 per cent. These statistics are shocking and shameful and have barely changed in 50 years. However, with a fast and fair treatment and care journey and the smart investment to make it happen, more people would have a chance to survive.

Wales has lagged behind and now ranks thirty-first out of 33 countries with comparable data on five-year survival for people with pancreatic cancer. Whilst outcomes for other cancers have improved, things have stayed the same for people with pancreatic cancer. The survival gap between pancreatic and other cancers has doubled in the last 50 years. Seven in 10 people diagnosed in the UK with pancreatic cancer are receiving no treatment, either because their cancer is detected too late or because their referrals take too long for treatment to be effective.

Pancreatic Cancer UK themselves are a UK-wide charity providing support services, funding research and campaigning for better treatment, care and support for people with pancreatic cancer. They've recently launched their 'Don't Write Me Off' campaign, calling for a faster, fairer, fully funded treatment and care pathway for people with pancreatic cancer. Developed alongside a group of experts, healthcare professionals and people with lived experience, this pathway would improve treatment and survival rates and bring about better outcomes for people affected by pancreatic cancer. They state that more than 250 people across Wales could live longer and better lives over the next five years if this pathway was implemented now. Earlier and faster diagnosis is needed; people with pancreatic cancer have no time to wait. With no specific screening or tests and vague symptoms, which are often mistaken for less serious conditions, diagnosis for pancreatic cancer comes far too late for far too many. That was a quote from them.

The NHS Wales collaborative has developed a national optimal pathway for pancreatic cancer—no doubt the Minister will refer to this—but we're still waiting for the Welsh Government to fully fund and implement this. Pancreatic Cancer UK therefore calls on the Welsh Government to implement the Welsh national optimal pathway for suspected and confirmed pancreatic cancer, which ensures a 21-day treatment standard from diagnosis of pancreatic cancer to first treatment, and to provide long-term funding to health boards so they can implement and sustain the pathway for pancreatic cancer to help ensure earlier and faster diagnosis for patients. As they state, too many people with pancreatic cancer aren't getting the support and care they desperately need—they're left fighting the system and the care they get depends too much on where they live and where they get their treatment.

One example is prescriptions for pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, PERT, which is a simple tablet rapidly available from pharmacies that replaces enzymes, so, even when the pancreas stops working, food can still be digested. It reduces debilitating symptoms and helps build strength for treatment, but more than a third of patients in Wales don't receive it, yet the guidance is for all patients to be prescribed this to improve their quality of life. We need to know what assessment the Minister has made of the merits of implementing the national optimal pathway for pancreatic cancer, what assessment she's made of pancreatic cancer survival rates in Wales in relation to both other nations in the UK and other comparable nations, and what steps she's taken to improve them, what assessment she's made of the merits of undertaking an audit of the pancreatic cancer workforce in Wales, and whether the Welsh Government will commit to funding specialist pancreatic cancer roles in every health board now or in the future. The Welsh Government should commit to funding specialist pancreatic cancer roles in every health board so that everyone can receive advice, care and support from a dedicated expert professional from the point of diagnosis.

Planning and funding an effective workforce is essential because people with pancreatic cancer need fast, high-quality wraparound support and treatment from the moment they contact their GP onwards. We know that there are shortages across almost every role connected to cancer, from the bedside to the lab, and that the UK will be short of 4,000 cancer nurses by the year 2030. It's now two years since Macmillan Cancer Support warned that Wales is facing a cancer nursing crisis that could leave soaring numbers of patients without the right medical care and support, with the number of specialist cancer nurses in Wales needing to increase by 80 per cent to support the 230,000 people predicted to be living with cancer in Wales by the end of this decade. There is concern, however, that there remains a lack of understanding in Government of where these workforce gaps currently are and how they directly impact people with the deadliest common cancer. The Welsh Government must take this opportunity to carry out a comprehensive audit of the pancreatic cancer workforce, identify gaps and act urgently to fill them. They must then utilise learnings from the audit to allocate sustainable funding to ensure the optimal care pathway can be implemented and save lives.

Investing in world-class research funding into pancreatic cancer research has also been too little for too long across the UK. Even 10 years ago, only £5 million was going into research for pancreatic cancer every year, compared to over £30 million for leukaemia. An investment of £35 million every year across the whole UK, including Wales, is needed to deliver vital improvements to transform survival for pancreatic cancer. We know this approach works, because funding for research into leukaemia, which has a very similar incidence rate to pancreatic cancer, has almost doubled since the year 2000, and with this has come a 16 per cent fall in mortality. Pancreatic cancer could be the next disease to benefit from improved survival rates through increased research funding.

Pancreatic Cancer UK have so far themselves invested over £12 million into pancreatic cancer research, and, going forward, have committed to funding even more pancreatic cancer research every year. Wales is already home to exciting and groundbreaking research for pancreatic cancer. In Cardiff, for example, they've funded over £0.25 million of research by Dr Beatriz Salvador Barbero, who is investigating the biological changes that take place in early pancreatic cancer development. Understanding what causes pancreatic cancer to initiate and progress could help us improve the early detection of the disease and open up new avenues of treatment to block these processes, increasing chances of survival.

The data available on cancer care in Wales is considerably more limited than that of other UK nations. For example, the only data available on social deprivation is in relation to mortality rates. Much of the data gap relates to looking at outcomes and treatment and care pathways in relation not only to deprivation but ethnicity, disability and LGBTQI+ identity. Without this data, it's difficult to identify the impacts of health inequalities and see clearly where people are having different experiences of care in relation to their background. Pancreatic Cancer UK calls for the Welsh Government to publish data at the same level as England, where anonymisation can be retained. They also encourage the Welsh Government to go even further, providing data on ethnicity, disability and LGBTQI+ identity, in order to understand the impacts of these characteristics on the experience of cancer care in Wales. Setting a higher bar for data around cancer care experiences could not only make Wales a leader in the UK for understanding and acting upon health inequalities in cancer care, but also recognise that people with pancreatic cancer urgently need a faster, fairer, funded pathway throughout their diagnosis, treatment and care. Diolch yn fawr.

15:25

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer; also thanks to Mark Isherwood, who invited me to support this debate. I would like also to thank Pancreatic Cancer UK on the work they have done alongside pancreatic cancer experts to develop a consensus on what good care looks like for people with pancreatic cancer. I support the optimal care pathway that has been developed, which sets out what should happen on diagnosis, treatment and care.

Pancreatic cancer is one of those cancers that is difficult to detect. It is not unique in this; other difficult-to-detect cancers include kidney, ovarian, brain tumours and liver cancer. Because of its location being surrounded and obscured by internal organs, it means that pancreatic tumours are impossible to see or feel during a routine medical examination. Making diagnosis even more difficult is the fact that, in its early stages, pancreatic cancer is a so-called silent disease and causes no symptoms. There is a need for those suffering from pancreatic cancer to have a faster, fairer, funded pathway through diagnosis, treatment and care. People with pancreatic cancer need to be treated immediately. Half the people identified with pancreatic cancer die within three months of diagnosis, because diagnosis normally happens at stage 4. We need specialist pancreatic cancer roles in each health board, so that everyone gets advice, care and support from dedicated experts from the day of diagnosis.

One of the problems with pancreatic cancer is that the symptoms—jaundice, yellow eyes, itchy skin, changes to stool and urine, digestive issues, weight loss, abdominal or back pain, blood clots in legs or lungs or a sudden onset of diabetes—could indicate many other conditions. In fact, I'm sure that most people in this room today can identify with actually having one of them at any time. Yellow eyes, itchy skin, persistent stomach pain and weight loss shouldn't be taken lightly, as these symptoms are the most likely to indicate pancreatic cancer.

The cause of pancreatic cancer is often not known, and a person with an average risk of pancreatic cancer has about a 1 per cent chance of developing the disease, but for people in families that are at a high risk of getting pancreatic cancer, newer tests for detecting pancreatic cancer early may help. The two most common tests used are endoscopic ultrasound and MRI. Pancreatic cancer is a rare kind of cancer that normally begins in the lining of the ducts to the pancreas. There are rarely any early signs and when they do appear, the cancer is usually advanced, often to stage 4. This is because the pancreas is deep inside the body and early tumours just don't get identified. 

Smoking, diabetes, chronic pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas, family history of pancreatic cancer and certain genetic syndromes can increase your chances of getting pancreatic cancer. There are signs, which I mentioned earlier, that could indicate pancreatic cancer, but they could indicate a whole range of other things, and that's where one of the big medical problems is: we'd have every GP surgery full of people with one of more of those conditions coming along and saying, 'This is what I'm suffering from, is this pancreatic cancer?' And I think in 99 per cent of cases, it won't be. Unfortunately, in 1 per cent, it will.

Persistent abdominal pain is because the pancreas is stationed in your abdomen behind your stomach. The patient experiences a dull pain in the stomach with mounting pressure on the organs. Latterly, it can turn more painful and persistent. It is considered the most common symptom of pancreatic cancer, but for the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, like all other cancers, we need a blood test. We desperately need research in this area. While blood tests may signify the possible presence of the disease, they cannot lead to a definitive pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Additional tests are necessary to confirm the diagnosis.

There is no screening for pancreatic cancer, unlike, for example, bowel cancer—which I did recently, and to everybody else in this room, when you reach your sixtieth birthday, welcome to bowel cancer screening—cervical cancer and breast cancer. Because of this, patients usually present with very advanced stage cancers, having rapidly progressive disease and a poor prognosis. There's no national screening programme for pancreatic cancer because it's so uncommon, so, many people would have unnecessary tests, and the benefits do not outweigh the costs. But people with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer may be able to have tests to look for signs of pancreatic cancer.

As the Minister is aware, I chair the cross-party group on rare diseases. There are an awful lot of rare diseases, including some cancers. We desperately need a blood test to identify pancreatic cancer and other cancers, and an agreed treatment method to ensure the best possible outcome. Now, the Minister is not going to be able to produce a blood test, but we should be supporting universities and their academic research to work on producing these blood tests. Not enough people have it for it to be commercially viable for the big companies and the pharmaceutical industry to just go about doing it. We need to support the universities doing the research, get a blood test, and if we had a blood test for all cancers, it would be a much better world.

15:30

Pancreatic cancer robs people of their loved ones. It steals them away. Five-hundred people will likely be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer every year in Wales, but 300 of them will be diagnosed at a late stage. A late stage is not good news for pancreatic cancer: it is aggressive, it is invasive. Over half of those people will be taken by this cruel disease less than three months after their diagnosis. That is how stark this situation is: 300 people every year getting told the worst news of their lives and, within three months, they've gone.

That's what happened to my mamgu. She'd been unwell over Christmas. She hadn't been herself. She'd been complaining about stomach aches, but she didn't like to bother the doctor. I remember on Christmas Day that she had come over to our house wearing a shawl over her head. I'd never seen her wearing a shawl like that. She looked so frail. Within weeks, well, less than that, days, her condition got horribly worse. She went into hospital, and she was in so much pain; her fingers had swollen so badly, they had to cut the wedding ring off her finger. She slipped away, and all they could do was manage the pain. I don't want anyone to have to go through what she went through, what my mother went through in losing her like that.

But that story isn't rare, it's horribly usual with pancreatic cancer. Only 6 per cent of patients with this disease in Wales will survive more than five years; that means 94 per cent don't. And these statistics I've quoted have all but stayed—as we've heard—stubbornly still for 50 years. We have hardly improved people's plights. A grandmother who'd have passed away in 1973 would have faced similar odds to her granddaughter getting diagnosed with the same disease today. We lag behind most of the world in survival rates. Wales ranks thirty-first out of 33 countries; that isn't a league table we should be flunking.

The slogan that Pancreatic Cancer UK has chosen for its campaign this year—as we've heard—is 'Don't Write Me Off', acknowledging through those words the fact that 70 per cent of pancreatic cancer patients in the UK receive no treatment, either because their referrals take too long or because their diagnosis has come so cruelly late. Pancreatic Cancer UK have sent me the testimony of a woman called Fern who lives in my region, and who lost her mother to this horrible disease. She said, and I'm quoting her words,

'My mum Veronica was a healthy 46-year-old, with no history of any medical issues. Around December 2010, she started having pains in the stomach. This went on for three months. She visited the GP, who suggested it could be a gall bladder issue. She started losing her appetite and a lot of weight, so she went back. They said they would refer her. By August 2011, she was still unwell, and after a fall and a trip to our local hospital, they started doing tests. By this time, she had pneumonia. They did a CT scan, and our worst fears were confirmed: she had stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Initially, they thought they could do a biopsy, but mum was too weak. She stayed in St Joseph's Hospital in Malpas, Newport, where she received the best care possible. She got married on 25 September, and peacefully passed away on 26 September, at just 47 years old.'

Forty-seven is no age to go. I'm making a plea to the Government, please, to implement a national optimal pathway for suspected or confirmed cases of pancreatic cancer, which would ensure the first treatment would be given within 21 days of someone getting diagnosed; any longer, you start to lose people horrifically quickly. We need funding to sustain that pathway, given to health boards, and, yes, to universities, to research into, to make sure that there is a blood test. I agree that would be such a beacon of hope, to be able to have something like that. And we need training and more support for GPs, to help them notice the symptoms—these symptoms that are so cruelly difficult to notice. But when people are diagnosed, they should be getting prescriptions, as we've heard, like PERT, pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy, a tablet you can get to replace enzymes, to make sure that when the pancreas stops working, you can still digest food—simple tablets like that, but it can really improve people's quality of life. And we need to invest far greater into research, to improve early detection, to widen screening, to save more people's lives. That's what it comes down to: fewer people dying. Pancreatic cancer shouldn't be stealing so many lives, a diagnosis shouldn't be so deadly. I'm begging the Government to improve this, for the sake of all those people whose lives could be saved.

15:35

I'm proud to co-submit this debate today, along with my colleague Mark Isherwood. Pancreatic cancer is a sinister disease. It has claimed too many lives of too many people, leaving a permanent mark in families right across Wales. Pancreatic cancer is a formidable disease, known for its aggressive nature and often late-stage diagnosis. In Wales, the incidence of pancreatic cancer has been on the rise, making it the eleventh most common cancer in the country. It affects 500 people a year in Wales—that's 500 mothers, 500 fathers, siblings and friends of people across our country.

The mortality rate associated with pancreatic cancer is particularly distressing, making it the fifth most common cause of cancer-related deaths here in Wales. The fact that three in five people are diagnosed at a late stage is particularly concerning, as early detection is crucial for better treatments and outcomes. Late-stage diagnosis often limits the availability of treatment options, and contributes to the low survival rates associated with this type of cancer. The quick progression of the disease is evident in the statistics: over half of diagnosed individuals will succumb to the cancer within months. This rapid decline further emphasises the importance of early detection and interventions. It underscores the critical need for enhancements in research and medical interventions, and public health initiatives aimed at improving the outcomes of individuals affected by this disease. Furthermore, the likelihood of surviving cancers beyond five years is typically 50 per cent, but for pancreatic cancer here in Wales, it's just 6 per cent—a stark contrast with the outcomes of people who are suffering from other cancers across Wales. 

Addressing pancreatic cancer, as I'm sure the Minister will allude to, takes a multifaceted approach. It requires increasing public awareness, increases in research funding, and efforts to develop more effective screening methods, and the blood test that Mike and others have talked about is really, really important. And collaborative efforts from healthcare professionals, from our GPs having more awareness of the disease, and actually being willing to send people for referrals, is very important. And that's why we need to make sure that our researchers and universities are given all the tools they need to do research into this disease. 

It's alarming that seven in 10 people in the UK diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, as Mark Isherwood said, receive no treatment. This lack of intervention is attributed to either late-stage detection or prolonged referrals going back and forth, back and forth, both of which contribute to the ineffectiveness of some treatments. As I said, half of those diagnosed with the disease will succumb within months. This just emphasises the deadly consequence of delays in detection and treatment. And this is why it underscores the urgent need for improvements in our healthcare system, to ensure timely and effective interventions that ultimately improve the outcomes for people battling with this type of cancer. 

I believe that prevention is always better than curing. That's why awareness campaigns are crucial to educating the public about the risk factors associated with the disease. Lifestyle factors, such as smoking and obesity, have been linked to an increased risk of pancreatic cancer, making prevention and early intervention a key component of our collective battle. And that is why I'm very pleased that the Government is doing what they can to look at smoking and the obesity strategies coming forward, because it will affect the outcomes of our public health here in Wales. 

So, another area that I think is really, really important is also the mental health support that is available to people suffering with cancer here across Wales. And it normally isn't actually trained mental health professionals that we need; there is a third sector there as well who can provide help and support to people, but not only to the individual who is suffering with pancreatic cancer, but also to those family members who are supporting that individual. It can be a very, very stressful time for anybody helping somebody through that disease, and I would encourage anybody who is out there listening to this debate to seek out the help and support that is available for mental health conditions here across Wales.

So, as I've said—. I'll conclude now, Deputy Llywydd, by saying that I would encourage the Government to do all they can to address pancreatic cancer. I know budgets are very, very tight from the Government, but we must do what we can do make sure diseases like this are prevented here in Wales and don't take hold of too many lives here in Wales. 

15:40

I'm grateful to have the opportunity to say some words in this debate. I'm also grateful to the Member who has proposed today's motion, and those who have supported it in it coming to the Chamber. A number of constituents have been in touch with me following this motion being tabled in the Senedd. They've asked me to raise important issues to them. Many of those have been rehearsed by colleagues this afternoon, in particular the need for funding to implement the collaborative pathway developed by the NHS Wales collaboration. And I'd be grateful, in the response from the Minister, if she would address that particular issue when that time comes. They've also raised with me the need, when the implementation of that pathway is happening, to make sure that, wherever you live in Wales, your journey on that pathway is exactly the same throughout the nation. 

Deputy Presiding Officer, many of the residents who got in touch with me were very brave to share their own experiences and their own journeys with this cancer. I don't have enough time this afternoon to raise them all, but I just wanted to use one quote that was emailed to me from a constituent, and I quote directly from that e-mail:

'This is a deadly killer cancer with aggressive progression, and late-stage diagnosis means it is too late, with life expectancy being in weeks, not years. There should be a pancreatic cancer pathway from the point of suspicion and referral to diagnosis in 14 days, and, ideally, less.' 

Deputy Presiding Officer, I agree fully with that constituent who wrote to me to share their experience. And I agree fully with the other constituents who have been in touch as well, and it's why I will be supporting today's motion at the vote later on. 

15:45

I also express my thanks to Mark Isherwood for putting forward this debate. I think it's really important that we do hold these debates to reflect, but also in the hope that some people might raise awareness in terms of the symptoms—they may sound familiar in terms of some of the symptoms that we have been raising today. We are joined in the gallery today by survivors—two survivors—of pancreatic cancer, but also, unfortunately, people who've lost relatives because of this very cruel cancer, and, as we've heard, absolutely devastating. And, unfortunately, as was shared with myself and Delyth earlier, some have also lost multiple family members. It's just so, so cruel. Thank you for taking the time to be here today, but also sharing with us your personal stories, and also for all the campaigning that you're doing to raise awareness and to try an ensure that there is money available for research, and also that more people are aware and are able to be diagnosed earlier, and also, then, hopefully, that we can change those statistics around. We heard so powerfully from Delyth Jewell how little things have changed in 50 years, and why that's against the odds, when it comes to other cancer stories. So, thank you for being here. And I'm sorry that you have to campaign so much, but it really does make a difference. 

I haven't been personally affected. I thought you spoke so powerfully, Delyth, and thank you for sharing that. But I was also moved similarly to Jack by the amount of constituents that wrote to me and expressed their personal stories as well. I think it's also the rapidness around how quickly this cruel disease progresses—. It's one of the things that leaves families in shock, and also the distress in terms of their relatives—. That's one of the things that came through clearly to me, and also the fact that people are presenting, perhaps, in A&E in agony. And we know how overstretched our accident and emergency rooms are, but it shows the desperation that people are under, that they are in so much pain that that, unfortunately, is the route, often, to diagnosis. 

As the regional Member for South Wales Central, I was pleased to read in the briefing provided by Pancreatic Cancer UK about some of the exciting and groundbreaking research that's happening in Cardiff. They've funded Dr Beatriz Salvador Barbero, and she's investigating the biological changes that take place in early pancreatic cancer development. It's important that we do continue to invest in research, and all the fundraising and everything that's happening is fantastic in terms of that progress, but, unfortunately, until we ensure that pathways and so on are in place, until we raise awareness, and until even further investment is made in research, those bleak outcomes will remain.

So, I'm pleased to be able to offer my support to the motion today, but also I would like to extend my sympathy to all those families who have suffered a loss. I would also like to express my solidarity with all survivors, because perhaps the cancer has been put at bay, but in terms of the impact on your life as a survivor, that's something that stays with you. I'm inspired by the campaigning that's being done, and inspired by everybody that has turned their pain into action and been brave enough to share their heartbreaking stories with us. That's why we can't write anybody off, and that's why I'm pleased that we continue to debate, but also push for the changes that are needed.

15:50

I'd like to start by thanking my colleague Mark for raising such an important topic for debate, and to thank all those who worked tirelessly to help raise awareness of rare cancers such as pancreatic cancer, and campaign to improve the outcome of sufferers. I also want to add my personal thanks to my colleague Delyth for raising her own personal experiences of this terrible disease, and it really hits home to us in the Chamber the impact that it has.

Shockingly, Dirprwy Lywydd, 43 per cent of pancreatic cancer diagnoses happens in A&E departments and, by this point, unfortunately, it is often too late to be able to treat it. Research also tells us that patients will visit their GP an average of four times before being diagnosed and, incredibly, there's even been an instance where one patient in the UK visited 23 times before they received their diagnosis.

As we have already heard, because most people are diagnosed at stage 4, when the disease has metastasised, there is an overall poor prognosis. However, if caught very early, pancreatic cancer has the potential to be cured. It has been found that up to 10 per cent of patients who receive an early diagnosis have become cancer free after treatment. Therefore, Dirprwy Lywydd, I welcome the note of this debate to highlight that people with pancreatic cancer urgently need a faster and fairer funded pathway throughout the diagnosis, treatment and care. Patients whose tumours are found before they have metastasised or become locally advanced tend to have longer survival rates on average, because their tumours can usually be surgically removed and therefore every small delay can have a big impact on their overall outcome.

Tragically, many patients who are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer lose their life within a matter of weeks or months, and it is harrowing to hear their stories, especially when they highlight how long it took to get their diagnosis. With this in mind, I would like to share the story of Claire Stevens who lived in my region, and I'm grateful to her daughter, Nina, for allowing me to. Claire presented to her GP with back pain, weight loss and loss of appetite, and although she did receive an ultrasound scan that found nothing, it was only after she accessed private medical care was she able to receive a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, the four months it took between first presenting to her GP and diagnosis meant the cancer had become inoperable as it had fused with her main artery, and Claire, who was only 56, lost her life 10 months after her diagnosis. Sadly, Claire’s story, as we've heard, is quite common for those suffering from pancreatic cancer, and I believe, as do many others, that her outcome could have been different if she was able to access that CTC scan early on. And I would like to add my voice to the others here and the charities out there who are calling to improve diagnosis pathways, with particular emphasis on speed, because the sooner patients receive treatment, the better their long-term outcomes are.

Medical research is improving all the time, as I recently witnessed first-hand at Cardiff University, where researchers, such as Dr Beatriz Salvador Barbero, as my colleagues in this Chamber have already highlighted, are conducting groundbreaking work. I am also aware that there are clinical trials currently under way on a pancreatic cancer vaccine that can help treat stage 4 pancreatic cancer. This vaccine is made up of an inactivated pancreatic cancer cell that has been altered in such a way that they're incapable of growing and that they release certain molecules that actually encourage the body’s own immune cells to kill the cancerous cells. Vaccine therapy of this type can improve the ability to treat the metastatic disease, because the vaccine cells are able to hunt out all the cancer in the body, and I hope that we will soon be in a position where we can access therapies like this in our hospitals.

Finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, I want to highlight the excellent work of Pancreatic Cancer UK and their awareness campaigns that aim to increase public awareness in Wales through healthcare professions and through those who are in the best position to diagnosis. The truth is, the outcomes of a sufferer of pancreatic cancer will depend on three things: the ability to recognise symptoms, such as mid-back pain, upper abdominal pain, a change in bowel habits, or unexplained weight loss; the GPs ability to refer the patient quickly and to get them on the correct pathway; and, finally, the speed of diagnosis. We can do so much more in all these areas, and we can drastically improve the chances of pancreatic cancer survival, as this is the same for many other cancers. Therefore, I urge everyone here to support the motion that's laid before the Senedd in this debate. Thank you.

15:55

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'd like to start by thanking Members for putting this issue on the Senedd floor. In particular, I'd like to thank Members for sharing the examples of the dreadful suffering that so many have gone through with this dreadful condition. We know we must do better to provide hope for people who are given this dreadful diagnosis. 

I'd like to join with all Members of the Senedd to recognise November was Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. It is important, as so many people have mentioned, that we discuss this condition that affects around 550 people a year here in Wales. It's particularly important that we focus on pancreatic cancer because, unlike many cancers, pancreatic cancer outcomes, as many have stated, the outcomes remain poor, not just in Wales, but right across the world. Now, this is the sad reality of a cancer that tends to only become apparent when it's in the latter stages and when treatment options are more limited. Pancreatic Cancer UK advise that around half of the people die within three months of diagnosis. For many people with pancreatic cancer, the treatment options available will be to maintain a quality of life for as long as possible. Now, this is vital care that makes a huge difference to many people facing the worst possible news, but I recognise that this is not where any of us would want to be.

Pancreatic Cancer UK, in the motion today, is calling for the implementation of a national pancreatic cancer pathway, and I'm pleased to say that, here in Wales, we have been able to introduce an accelerated pathway for pancreatic cancer. The accelerated pathway is supporting health boards to join up different clinical teams in different clinical settings and organisations. It's a description of a patient journey, so that every health board can plan consistent services, that every clinical team knows what's expected of them, and every patient gets consistent care. The national pathway includes a requirement for patients to go straight to test, bypassing the need for an out-patient appointment first. This is something that pancreatic cancer called for in their recent report.

We've also taken action in other areas that Pancreatic Cancer UK have called for. We've increased operating capacity at our specialist surgical centre in Swansea, and we've invested in the new cancer information system so that clinical records are visible across all settings and organisations, to join up patient care between clinical teams. We're the first country in the UK to have its whole population covered by rapid diagnostic centres. Across Wales, if a GP suspects someone may have cancer, but their symptoms are vague and don't meet the cancer referral criteria, they can get rapid access to a one-stop diagnostic service. For pancreatic cancer specifically, as many Members have emphasised, we know that symptoms can be vague and easy to miss, which often contributes to that late diagnosis, which means that there are limited treatment options. For that reason, access to rapid diagnostic centres is a really important step to try to ensure that when there is uncertainty, GPs have an additional referral option to rule cancer in or out. 

We're building our cancer workforce, having invested in more training places every year for the last three years in oncology. We're working with health boards to improve access to pancreatic enzyme replacement therapy—PERT—by changing formularies and working with primary care to provide guidance and support on prescribing, and I've approved the introduction of a clinical audit of pancreatic cancer care, which reports publicly our data and compares centres across England and Wales so that we can stimulate quality improvement and improve outcomes.

The Llywydd took the Chair.

We're also providing training and support to make decisions for every GP practice in Wales on identifying symptoms and referring for cancer. These will be available on all desktop computers. We will be improving support for patients by investing in primary care, diagnostic care and specialist care. Excuse me. These will be co-ordinated and supported—. Sorry. These will be co-ordinated and supported—

16:00

Do take a moment, Minister. Janet Finch-Saunders has gone to fetch a little bit more water for you.

Thank you. Thank you very much. We will be improving care for patients by investing in primary care, diagnostic care and specialist care. These will be co-ordinated and supported by our national optimal pathway and supervised nationally using high-quality data.

I'd like to conclude by thanking Members for proposing such an important debate today. I think I should stop there, I'm afraid, but thank you very much to all of you, and I do acknowledge and recognise the work that you have done.

I'd like to thank you for your work in particular in bringing our attention to this important issue. We know there's more work to do, but we are absolutely determined to do all we can to tackle this very, very dreadful disease.

Llywydd, would you mind if I just take a few minutes—just a minute—just to update you on a particular report that we've heard, that a car has driven through the front entrance of Wrexham Maelor Hospital? No injuries have been reported, and there appears to be no damage to the structural integrity of the building. I've asked the health board to keep me informed of the developments, and I'd like to thank the staff for their immediate response in Betsi. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you, Minister, and thank you for your efforts to complete your response to the debate and that final statement as well. Mark Isherwood now to respond to the debate.

Well, thank you very much, everybody, for contributing. I'll try and do justice to those contributions in what little time remains.

Mike Hedges, who spoke, amongst other things, as chair of the cross-party group on rare diseases, made the point that pancreatic tumours are impossible to see or feel during a routine medical examination and why people with pancreatic cancer need to be treated immediately. He referred to the two most common tests for pancreatic cancer, which has few early signs and is often diagnosed late. Signs that indicate pancreatic cancer, he said, can also indicate many other conditions. We need blood tests and desperately need research into this area, he said, and pointed out there's no screening for pancreatic cancer, unlike many other cancers, and we need an agreed treatment method for surgical best outcomes.

Delyth Jewell said pancreatic cancer robs people of their loved ones. It's aggressive, it's cruel and it's invasive. She—and thank you for this—shared a personal story of loss of a loved one, and said,

'all they could do was manage the pain',

and of another who died at just 47 years old, I think you said, and made a plea to the Welsh Government to implement the national optimal pathway for all those whose lives could be saved.

James Evans referred to pancreatic cancer as a sinister, formidable and aggressive disease, the eleventh most common cancer in Wales and the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths in Wales. He said early detection is crucial for better treatment and outcomes. He contrasted the 6 per cent survival rate after five years with outcomes for people with other cancers in Wales. He said that prevention is better than cause and pointed out that smoking and obesity are linked to increased risks of pancreatic cancer. He talked about the importance of mental health support for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and their families and loved ones, and called on the Welsh Government to do all it can for people with pancreatic cancer.

Jack Sargeant referred to the need for funding for, and implementation of, the NHS Wales national optimal pathway for pancreatic cancer, and shared some stories from constituents who had contacted him. Heledd Fychan pointed out—and I add my welcome—that we've been joined in the gallery by two survivors as well as relatives who have lost loved ones to pancreatic cancer. She said that we need to increase awareness as well as funding, including research, where little change has happened over 50 years, and thanked, again, us all for bringing this important issue to attention. She emphasised how quickly the disease progresses and the impact of that on both patients and their loved ones, and extended sympathy to all those families who have suffered loss, and to all survivors, and concluded by saying, quite rightly, that we can’t write anyone off.

Joel James referred to 43 per cent of pancreatic cancer diagnoses happening in accident and emergency, often too late for treatment, with many visiting many times before diagnosis, although, with early diagnosis, people can survive. He shared the story of Claire Stevens, who only received diagnosis after accessing private medical care, but it was too late to save her. We need to be able to identify symptoms, he said, including mid-back pain and changed bowel movements, and we can do so much more in all these areas.

The Minister, concluding, said we must do better to provide hope for people given this dreadful diagnosis. She said we’re not where anyone would want us to be. She referred to the Welsh national optimal pathway for pancreatic cancer, but, as the charity has said, we need this to be implemented and given sustainable funding. There’s no time for you to respond to that now, but it would be wonderful if you could indicate—. You don’t look very well; I’m very sorry. She said she has introduced a clinical audit, and I referred to the charity’s call for this in my speech, but therefore we need this to include looking at the pancreatic cancer workforce, identify gaps and urgently act to fill them,