Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

13/12/2023

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.

Statement by the Llywydd

Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Plenary meeting. 

Today has brought us news, but, as a Senedd, it is business as usual. We had a First Minister answering First Minister's questions yesterday and we will have the same First Minister answering questions when we reconvene in January. For now, let us thank Mark for his leadership of the Welsh Government thus far, and we await with interest his final months of activity in office in the new year.

1. Questions to the Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Social Justice. The first question is from Andrew R.T. Davies.

Supersponsor Scheme for Ukrainian Refugees

1. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's role in the supersponsor scheme for Ukrainian refugees? OQ60418

Thank you for your question. Over 3,250 people have arrived in the UK through the Welsh Government’s Homes for Ukraine supersponsor route since it opened in March 2022. People have been successfully supported on their arrival through temporary initial accommodation, with the majority of people assisted to now settle into longer term accommodation.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. In previous updates, you've highlighted how there are various Ukrainian refugees still in Ukraine, or have left Ukraine but are on mainland Europe, who have asked to be adopted under the supersponsor scheme. Are you able to identify today the number of Ukrainian refugees who are still outside of Wales and waiting to come to Wales under the supersponsor scheme that the Welsh Government facilitated? And I commend you for that facilitation.

Thank you very much. That is an important question. Just to give you the numbers of people arriving through the scheme who are currently eligible: there remain 1,300 who have been issued visas and are yet to travel. Of these people, approximately 500 have expressed a desire to travel to the UK at some point in the future, while the remainder are uncontactable. Clearly, we don't know who those people are. They indicated that they were interested in our scheme. But also, there are many who have said that they don't require any support from the Welsh Government, but we clearly recognise those figures, and so we are always ready then to provide that support if they do come here, to Wales.

I've written to you, Minister, about a case in my constituency—a resident contacting me because he's concerned about the future well-being of refugees that he's sponsoring as well as others when the participation scheme comes to an end in May 2024. A lot will depend on funding from the UK Government, for example, on the recent announcement in the autumn statement that the thankyou payments to hosts will be extended into a third year and how this will apply in Wales. In your response to my letter, you stated that your officials had started exploring the possibility of converting the host-guest arrangement into a lodger-landlord arrangement where the guest would pay former hosts for their accommodation in the absence of a thankyou payment. My constituent has urged caution on this, given that the landlord-tenant relationship is quite different to the current arrangement. Can you, therefore, Minister, confirm that all necessary support will be provided to existing hosts who wish to convert this new arrangement if extended thankyou payments are not forthcoming?

Thank you very much, Hefin David, for that question. And can I say how rewarding it was to come to Caerphilly in the summer and meet with Ukrainian guests and those who have hosted those families and, indeed, officials from the authority who are working very closely with those guests who have now integrated into your community? 

It was important that, last week, I met with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Minister, Felicity Buchan, to discuss many of these issues in terms of those opportunities for Ukrainians to extend their stay in Wales—what's happening in terms of their visas? That's obviously a clear question, but, also, we were able to welcome the continuation of thankyou payments for those hosting Homes for Ukraine visa holders into their third year. So, we are looking at every possible way in which we can support those who will want to stay longer. Yes, indeed, that includes the prospect and possibility of a lodger-landlord route. But also, I think that the £75 million transitional accommodation capital programme is helping local authorities and registered social landlords to bring forward more good-quality accommodation—transitional maybe as well in terms of long-term prospects—and local authorities also are working closely with us, with the £4.74 million, which is about specifically helping to prevent homelessness, because they need that flexibility with local needs and priorities to help continue our welcome to Ukrainian refugees.

13:35

I know the Minister will recall fondly her visit to the Safe Haven within Maesteg, and meeting the families and those that were being hosted, our Ukrainian friends, in Maesteg, as well. But could I ask her, on a very practical basis, what advice, what signposting, would she give to families who wanted to either continue hosting or being hosting anew with the Ukrainian refugees, but also, I have to say, with refugees from other parts of the world who are also fleeing, perhaps, torture, famine, dire conditions, and have arrived on these shores as well, because it's important, as a nation of sanctuary, that we not only welcome Ukrainians who are fleeing the current conflict, but also extend that welcome as well to many others from other parts of the world?

Thank you very much, Huw Irranca-Davies. It was a truly inspirational afternoon we spent in Maesteg with the guests who are settling in to your community, also working in your community, as well as living and being educated in your community. Can I pay tribute to Bridgend College for the English for speakers of other languages provision? And we were also meeting volunteers who were also doing all that work. I think this demonstrates the commitment of people in Wales to the nation of sanctuary, and to the warmth of welcome to refugees and sanctuary seekers. So, this morning, I co-chaired with the Welsh Local Government Association a new sanctuary board. It's a partnership board with local government, because this is about us looking at all needs in terms of the nation of sanctuary. We've welcomed not only Syrian, Ukrainian refugees, but now we are working very actively on the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme—citizens coming from third countries who've left following the Taliban takeover. And there is a commitment from every local authority in Wales, and that means every community, to support in the dispersal.

Cold Weather and Fuel Poverty

2. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect of the recent cold weather on people living in fuel poverty? OQ60402

Thank you for that question, Mike Hedges. Despite high energy costs continuing to cause hardship this winter, the Welsh Government is supporting struggling fuel-poor households across Wales, through initiatives such as our Warm Homes Nest scheme, our discretionary assistance fund, and funding the Fuel Bank Foundation to deliver their fuel vouchers and heat fund.

Can I thank the Minister for her response? It is, however, inevitable that many elderly people will die prematurely this winter due to the increased cost of energy, and also that hospital admissions will go up. The health of everyone, especially the elderly, is affected by low temperature and the inability to afford adequate heating. What progress has the Minister made on the bringing in of a social tariff to support those most affected by high energy costs, and ending the cruelty of standing charges, where people are charged on days when they use no energy? I can think of no crueller action taken in this country than that.

Thank you, Mike Hedges, for raising those two key calls we have on the UK Government. In fact, we debated this across this Chamber last week, didn't we, and the whole Senedd was backing the need for the UK Government to introduce a social tariff to protect the most vulnerable households. In fact, that commitment was made back in 2022, by the then Chancellor, in the autumn statement, that they would develop this new approach to consumer protection, including looking at the option of a social tariff. And I continued, with the UK Minister for Energy Consumers and Affordability, to raise this issue, on 8 November; I had warm words but no commitment on a consultation or announcement. But they do work, social tariffs, in the water sector, as we know. So, thank you for that call again, which we are backing, for their introduction in the energy sector. And as far as standing charges go, this needs urgent reform, doesn't it? You've raised this on many occasions as a Member, and I raised this again with the Minister. And we go back to the fact that the highest charges in the UK are in north Wales, the fourth highest are in south Wales—profoundly unfair on people who are on low incomes and those wanting to reduce their energy consumption. And since 1 October this year, for households on prepayment meters, one good step is that those on standing charges are paying less than other payment methods, which is only a first step. But this is something, again, on which I would welcome the Chamber's backing, for this call to end standing charges. 

13:40

Minister, in the First Minister's resignation statement to the media this morning, he mentioned a number of legislative priorities that he would have for the remainder of his term as First Minister. One of the things we didn't hear was a new Warm Homes programme. Can I take that to mean that it won't be introduced before the spring?

I think I actually answered the question on the Warm Homes programme last week when we had that motion, which was debated and supported by the whole Chamber. We're extending the Nest scheme until April 2024, and the Warm Homes programme will then kick in. There isn't going to be any break, any gap. The procurement is under way, and I think what's important is that we are extending that Nest scheme until April, so that we can continue to support vulnerable households this winter.

Nobody should have to live in a cold home, but, Minister, recent figures from Warm this Winter say that 30 per cent of adults in Wales live in cold, damp homes. Now, damp and inadequate heating exposes us to mould, which can lead to respiratory illness and it can heighten the risk of heart disease. Society is meant to be the safeguard against the damp and the dark encroaching into where we live. It's meant to provide a safety net to ensure the cold doesn't reach past our door. But the ghost of Thatcher and her cruel decision to privatise the way in which we can stay alive haunts the homes of all those this winter who can't afford to keep their homes warm and dry. Will you join me in calls for an emergency energy tariff to help people suffering in damp and cold homes, and do you agree that it's a scandal that so many people are exposed to this risk?

Thank you for that point. When I've met with the UK Government Minister, I've asked for a targeted plan from the UK Government to tackle fuel poverty. Now, the most important thing in terms of your question about people living in cold, damp homes is that we're investing more than £30 million to reduce the number of those low-income households in that situation. Also, it is important that the Warm Homes Nest scheme offer that advice and support to households, as well as free energy efficiency measures for those who are eligible. The Nest annual report, which was published on Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, showed that 198,000 people have received energy advice from the Warm Homes programme since its launch. 

But, can I just finally say that when I met—chaired by Mark Isherwood—the cross-party group, there were questions and points made about ensuring that householders can contact other services, such as accessing the UK Government energy company obligation scheme. And, in fact, funding has been provided by the Minister for Climate Change, with Welsh local government, to help local authorities ensure that people can reach out to these other sources of funding to help address that issue. We have to do everything we can to ensure that we can support those people in those conditions. But I have to say, we did call on the UK Government to implement that targeted fuel poverty scheme, because not everyone claimed the support schemes from last winter, and we said, 'Why can't you use that unclaimed funding to support these schemes?'

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Joel James. 

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, concern has been raised by both care staff and guardians that the basic income trial that the Welsh Government is piloting is causing adverse behaviour in some care leavers. Some who were predicted to do quite well have now completely gone off the radar and are refusing to interact with any contact. Some have dropped out of further education due to the perceived capability of now being able to survive independently, and concern still exists that some have been targeted or pressurised into giving away their payments. You will, of course, be aware of these concerns, and you've highlighted their potential previously in the Chamber. But these have been highlighted to me on condition of anonymity, as carers, social workers, guardians, teachers, et cetera, are worried about reprisals, both professional and personal. With this in mind, what guarantees do we have that the full range of opinions, both positive and negative, will be properly recorded in this study, and that all primary and secondary participants of this trial will be protected in giving that opinion? Thank you.

13:45

Well, certainly, that is not the feedback that I've had when I've met with both the beneficiaries of the pioneering basic income pilot for care leavers in Wales and also on meeting with the authorities, the advisers, across Wales. We went to meetings both in south Wales, mid and west Wales, and north Wales, meeting with people who are directly advising young people, and getting the positive feedback of the impact of the basic income pilot on those young people's lives. And I think it is really impressive to see that there's an uptake rate of 97 per cent, a really high take-up in this groundbreaking scheme, far exceeding our original expectations. I know, Joel James, you will have seen and heard some of the young people speaking about the transformational impact this has had on their lives—those young people who are wanting to share their stories on the media and in meetings with all of those who are supporting this as well. We're celebrating the progress of the pilot to date, but also just ensuring that we get that feedback, because that's the evaluation that's so important. And I know you will welcome the fact we've got that expert team, led by the Children's Social Care Research and Development Centre at Cardiff University. They're leading that wide-ranging evaluation of the pilot. 

Thank you, Minister. But I hope you agree with me that we need to ensure that this study is robust and that it does not just cherry-pick the data to meet the political agenda of the Welsh Government and those actively advocating for universal basic income. I think we can all agree, Minister, that this trial, despite the genuine reasons to help care leavers, is ultimately a Government experiment on a highly vulnerable group of people. If it is found that this trial has caused negative consequences for those individuals, such as increasing financial exploitation, exacerbating substance abuse issues, or causing people to overstretch the financial commitments that they would have otherwise not have made, and are now unable to afford once the trial is over, then it will be argued that the Welsh Government will need to rectify the damage that the trial as caused. With this in mind, Minister, what budget have you earmarked to compensate those who may experience negative consequences, as a result of this basic income trial? Thank you.

Can I just clarify again for the Member? Participation in this pilot was voluntary. Eligible young people were supported by their local authority, provided with advice, funded by the single advice fund, to decide if they take part in the pilot and if it was the right choice for them. And Welsh local authorities are key to this. They play a critical role in delivering the basic income pilot. They act as the first point of contact for care leavers. They're responsible for guiding the young people in their care. And as I said, I've been across Wales and met with every authority that is involved in this pilot. In your region, in everyone's constituencies, there are young people benefiting from this basic income pilot, and just recognise that that is a responsibility that we all have. This is a groundbreaking basic income pilot.

And can I just also say that at those meetings the evaluation team, led by Professor Sally Holland, the former children's commissioner—she gave a presentation on the evaluation. There were world experts involved in this evaluation—world experts on basic income, social care, social security interventions—assessing how the pilot was experienced as well as costs and benefits to the wider society, and I'm sure they would value giving a briefing to you on this pilot. There are universities involved, not just from Wales, but from England as well, and as I said, the evaluation is contributing to international evidence on basic income and its outcomes. 

Finally, as we know, Minister, children in care and care leavers are, unfortunately, vastly over-represented in the criminal justice system, and it is estimated that over 24 per cent of the adult prison population has previously been in care. From this, we can deduce that, out of the cohort of 635 people who have taken up this basic income trial, it is statistically likely that around 152 will end up in the criminal justice system at some point in their lives. I'm hopeful that this will not be the case, but I believe that it would be more than academic to understand if there is a change in the actual numbers of care leavers who end up in the criminal justice system after having taken part in this trial. However, in order to do this, there needs to be longer term funding in place for researchers to keep track of the longer term impact of this trial on care leavers and to follow their life outcomes. Research needs to be conducted over the next five, 10 and even 20 years in order to get a fuller understanding of the trial's impact and to help inform any future policy decisions. Given that this Welsh Government will spend over £25 million on this trial, it is therefore prudent to ensure that we get the most out of it. Minister, what commitments are you making to financially resource a further study of the longer term outcomes of this trial? Thank you.

13:50

Well, we've been clear since the inception of the pilot that it would be time limited and properly evaluated, as I've outlined, to determine the benefits of a basic income to this specific group of young people as they transition out of care into adulthood. And, you know, let's just think about the young people and their life experiences. Let's just think about this investment that we're putting into them and to give them the opportunities to open their horizons. For the young people who said to us, 'The confidence; you believe in us, you trust in us.' You know, I just hope and wish you would think about those young people when you attack this scheme, because that's what it certainly feels like.

Of course, what is important, is that it is properly evaluated, and, of course, this evaluation will make sure that it goes through to understand what it means in the rest of—. It's not a one-off evaluation, it will be something that will look at their life circumstances. So, I think, Llywydd, it would be very valuable—and I'm sure I could arrange this—if Members would like to have a briefing on the evaluation. I think they would get a full understanding of what this means in terms of the authority of the evaluation, but also of the impact already it's having on young people's lives.

Diolch, Llywydd. The Equality and Social Justice Committee, of which I'm a member, recently laid its report on the Government's draft child poverty strategy. The pretty much unanimous verdict from those who gave evidence to us was that it was incoherent, unambitious and lacked focus. The central message of the report is that the Welsh Government needs to up its game considerably in order to work more effectively and strategically using the powers and resources it has to tackle the shameful levels of child poverty in Wales. This time last year, on the very last day of Senedd business before the Christmas recess, in fact, Plaid Cymru brought a motion calling on the Welsh Government to develop a child poverty strategy underpinned by statutory targets as a matter of urgency. That was a response to the fact that those that campaign against poverty, like the Child Poverty Action Group, the children's commissioner, Audit Wales, the Bevan Foundation, like Save the Children, have been repeating calls for months and years that we needed a new strategy with targets to give better focus, co-ordination and drive to the imperative work that needs to be done. But here we are again, at the end of another year and no strategy, although you've said time after time, Minister, in response to questions that the Government was committed to publishing the final strategy by the end of this calendar year. So, it's very disappointing we don't have a final strategy, and my question is: is eradicating child poverty a priority for Welsh Government? Because if it is, then why has the child poverty strategy been delayed until spring 2024?

Well, thank you for that question, Sioned Williams. You know our commitment to tackling child poverty and you know it is a priority of this Government. And I think what's important about this strategy, which will be launched in the new year, is that it clearly demonstrates our priorities and objectives in relation to the strategy based on the consultation that's taken place over the past few months. We have a duty, a statutory duty, to publish this child poverty strategy; it sets out our objectives for tackling child poverty and we're committed to looking at the policies through that poverty and equality lens. And, of course, this is about how we deliver better shared outcomes, as I know you would agree, on reducing poverty and inequality. But let's remember, we did engage with over 3,300 children, young people and their families to help us get to the point of the draft that we then consulted with. Also, I was very interested just to see, in terms of our partners, the end-of-year report from the Bevan Foundation, for example, which highlighted some of the ways in which they've felt we should be bringing children and families out of poverty. They did focus on some of the things that we're already doing, such as ensuring that we invest clearly—apologies; just let me take my breath for a moment—in the discretionary assistance fund, but also in the education maintenance allowance. Maximising income was one of the key points of the strategy.

13:55

Diolch, Weinidog. Yes, there is good work happening. We found that in our committee inquiry. But we discussed also the reason why we need targets and milestones to measure progress, to measure success, and this call that we made in our debate this time last year has been soundly reiterated in the equality and social justice report. During that debate last year I quoted the answer that the First Minister gave at the time to Plaid Cymru, regarding the need for a strategy. He said he wanted civil service colleagues and those who we work with to be focused on practical actions that make a difference in the lives of Welsh citizens. Writing strategies is not something that is going to put food on anyone's table. Well, the Chair, sitting behind you—Jenny Rathbone of the Equality and Social Justice Committee—states clearly in her foreword to this new report:

'The Government needs to overcome its aversion to setting targets. The evidence...is clear: targets work.'

So, who is right, Minister? And is this reticence to produce a strategy with targets, as expressed by the First Minister, the reason why we have seen such a poor first draft and now a delay? Will the final draft include targets, Minister?

I'm very grateful for the Equality and Social Justice Committee's report on tackling child poverty and we'll be debating that, I know, in the new year. What's important about the strategy is it's setting out our ambitions for the longer term, and it's clearly outlining what work we're going to undertake across Government. Already some of it is under way—some of it that also has been called for, which we're working in co-operation with Plaid Cymru on in terms of the roll-out of free school meals. That was one of the first things that I recall the previous children's commissioner saying we should move forward on, and indeed the Bevan Foundation, and we're delivering that together. But it's also about how we actually use the levers that are available to us and maximising the impact of those levers, what we can do in terms of including our convening powers, how we engage with local government and all those who can deliver on the child poverty strategy. It's very much a framework through which we can deliver policies and programmes.

But we of course will have a robust monitoring framework to take this forward at pace. It's going to take into consideration national indicators and national milestones we have in place under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. We do believe a monitoring framework—. And I know this came through from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child committee, that we need to look at ways in which we can monitor the delivery of this child poverty strategy. But we can't take an over-simplistic approach to this in terms of what we can deliver with our levers, and I hope that the committee and Members will look and work with us on how we can adequately present and then deliver on the robust outcomes that we seek from the child poverty strategy.

Royal Mail

3. What discussions has the Minister had with the Royal Mail regarding how they will meet increased delivery demand in Rhondda this Christmas? OQ60415

Whilst postal services remain a reserved matter, Welsh Government is in regular contact with Royal Mail, particularly regarding any issues affecting Wales. The company has said it is recruiting 500 seasonal workers in Wales to address additional demand over the Christmas period.

As we know, December is the toughest time to be a postie: dark mornings, a drop in temperature, the wind and rain—all on top of a huge increase in demand. I can't thank them enough for their efforts all year around, but especially during winter. Last Christmas residents in Rhondda were left receiving hospital appointment letters, bills and new credit cards weeks too late due to our posties being told to prioritise parcels over mail. Unfortunately, over the last two weeks, we've seen this pattern beginning to emerge again, and it's our posties, on the ground, who are bearing the brunt of complaints, which isn't acceptable. Will the Deputy Minister please support our posties, and residents in Rhondda and across Wales, by raising these complaints directly with Royal Mail, and plead with them to urgently rectify the policy of prioritising parcels over mail?

14:00

Can I thank the Member for the Rhondda for raising this important point at a very pertinent time of year as well? I'm certainly very happy to join you, Buffy Williams, in thanking all postal workers in communities right across the country for everything that they do throughout the year, not least this time of year, and we know there are extra demands and pressures on them as we build up to that festive period. I know many of us will be popping into local sorting offices to drop off, perhaps, some Christmas goodies and good wishes for our posties, who don't just provide a service, they actually support our communities, and they are a lifeline in many communities.

It's completely wrong that the posties are bearing the brunt of some of these challenges. It's not their fault; they provide a service, a valuable service, and we know those challenges are at a system level. And whilst I said that the Royal Mail and postal service aren't devolved, we are aware of the challenges and that they're not currently meeting those delivery targets, and it means, actually, that people in our communities, that we serve, aren't getting the services that they want, need, and, in many cases, like you say, Buffy Williams, depend upon. So, I'm certainly disappointed to hear that posties are having to personally deal with this, and I will more than happily raise this at my next meeting, following this question, with Royal Mail and actually demand a clear outline in terms of how they're not only going to improve services in our communities, but actually support our posties as well in doing so.

Thank you, Deputy Minister, for that response.

I'd just really like to echo the comments made by Buffy Williams. I've been contacted by a number of residents. I know I've raised it with you on a number of occasions, and there has been improvement at times, but people in Ystrad in particular have been telling me that they're waiting an average of 10 days between deliveries, that there's an expectation of having to go to the sorting office, which, obviously, if you work shifts or don't have transport yourself, is really difficult, and have been also saying about missed appointments—hospital appointments—because of not getting the post in time. We know of the pressures on our NHS as well, and missed appointments are things that we really, really can't afford to be happening. Can I ask, when you do meet with the Royal Mail and make representations, are you able to address the fact that there are some streets no longer allocated with a postman or woman and that there's an expectation that the current staff try and reach more streets, which, obviously, is even more difficult when there's an increase in demand of service? But I do feel that there's an understaffing issue here, and it's people in our communities and the staff themselves who are bearing the brunt.

Thank you for your question, Heledd.

I know this is, like you say, something that you've raised previously in the Siambr but also in correspondence with myself, and I'll certainly pick up that last point you made in terms of the understaffing and the pressures in terms of covering streets that might not actually be allocated to a particular postperson. We know that Royal Mail has been consistently missing its service targets since the pandemic, and it might be—. Perhaps as well as me meeting, there might be a time, perhaps, in the new year, to perhaps facilitate a meeting with Members, for Members to be able to raise directly those concerns, and feed in those concerns from communities right across the country as well. Because you raise the important points of not only people, if they don't get their letters in time for important appointments, but the knock-on pressures that has on our other public services as well. So, I think it's really important that, actually, we collectively raise this and make sure that we push Royal Mail too to provide that service that they should be providing to our communities. But also I should add that, as well as meeting regularly with the company itself, I do regularly get in contact with the Communication Workers Union and the trade unions representing the workforce there, and it's certainly something I will raise with them to see if they've got any further concerns that we should add to those representations to Royal Mail as well.

Older People and the Cost of Living

4. How is the Welsh Government helping older people in Wales with the rising cost of living? OQ60410

Thank you, Mark Isherwood. We're taking steps to improve the take-up of welfare benefits and payments, including pension credit, and are targeting additional support at households that need it most, including older people affected by the cost-of-living crisis.

Thank you. Well, the Care & Repair report, 'Older People in Wales: Poverty in Winter 2023-24', found that, even with UK and Welsh Government financial support, the average Care & Repair client will be spending, on average, 19 per cent of their income on utilities, with 15 per cent on gas and electric alone, putting their average client in fuel poverty, and 96 per cent of households accessing their energy advice service are living in fuel poverty. Their clients are particularly at risk of the health implications of cold homes, as we heard referred to earlier, where 75 per cent of excess winter deaths are people aged 75 and over. What action will the Welsh Government therefore be taking to prioritise older people within its provision for tackling fuel poverty in Wales, now and as we move forward?

14:05

Thank you for that question and that important evidence from Care & Repair, which does such good work, supported by Welsh Government, of course, across Wales. It is important that we look to ways in which we can encourage older people to take up the benefits they're entitled to, in particular in relation to the cost-of-living crisis, and I think this is something where, now, older people are a key priority for our single advice services.

So, during the last financial year, over 15,000 people aged 65 plus have been helped to claim welfare benefit income. But also, I had a meeting with a UK Government Minister about a pilot that we engaged in, with the UK Government and our colleagues in local government, for a particular take-up campaign for older people in terms of pension credit. This is something where I know the Older People's Commissioner for Wales has also engaged. So, that will help in terms of maximising income, but, of course, they also will benefit, as I said earlier on, in answer to questions, from the energy advice schemes that are being provided and supported by the Welsh Government through Nest as well. But those are just two examples of how we can help older people through the winter months in terms of their needs and vulnerabilities.

Schemes for Refugees

5. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government schemes for refugees? OQ60429

Diolch yn fawr. We remain committed to doing everything we can to make Wales a true nation of sanctuary. The Welsh Government continues to operate a wide range of schemes to ensure sanctuary seekers in Wales can receive the support they require to contribute fully to our communities and rebuild their lives.

Thank you for that response.

Since the violence erupted in Gaza at the beginning of October, the death toll has now passed 18,000 in just over two months. Analysis has shown that the majority of the deaths have been innocent civilians, many of them children, which is utterly heartbreaking. This is why it's imperative that a permanent ceasefire is secured, as called for in the Plaid Cymru motion we debated here. Until that is achieved, the situation is precarious, to say the least.

One resident with family in Palestine contacted Plaid Cymru to say that more than 30 family members had been killed in their homes. Those who survived are living in tents. He said, 'Even areas previously considered safe by Israeli forces, such as the south of Gaza, have become relentless targets, leaving no safe haven, according to the United Nations human rights organisation.' He added, 'I'm reaching out to you in a desperate plea for assistance in securing the immediate and safe passage for my family out of Gaza on humanitarian grounds. We request temporary humanitarian residency until it is safe for them to find a more permanent solution.' Minister, Wales opened its arms in welcome and support for refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine in recent years. What discussions has the Government had with the UK Government to establish a refugee scheme, and how could Wales play its part in such a scheme, to offer a safe passage and a sanctuary to the people of Gaza who want to flee the bloodshed?

Thank you very much for your very important question.

It's something that—. I was able to join in an inter-ministerial meeting with the Minister for refugees, Felicity Buchan, and also a colleague, Scottish Government Minister Emma Roddick as well, at a meeting we held last week. We were covering a whole range of issues in relation to refugees—Ukrainian, Afghan refugees, wider asylum dispersal—but also this question was raised. It was raised in terms of could there be another route or way in which we could support those caught up in the conflict. I think we all have—many of us, anyway—got constituents who've got family members. We've just actually been hearing about this at a meeting we've been holding just now, the First Minister and myself, with the Muslim community. Of course, obviously, this is not devolved—any matter relating to foreign policy is for the UK Government, not the Welsh Government or the Senedd. And, of course, there is a priority to get much greater aid into Gaza. The discussion we had related to supporting British nationals to see if there were any routes to that, because it is important that they know what their rights are and their entitlements. But we want to see a pause to this conflict, we clearly do, and that's what's going to stop these terrible situations that you've described today. 

14:10

I thank my friend for raising this question, and we do get a lot of e-mails from Palestinian people whose relations are here in Wales. Minister, the biggest problem with the various refugee settlement schemes has been the ability to find long-term accommodation for those seeking refuge in Wales. Sadly, we have insufficient accommodation, which leaves refugees in unsuitable accommodation, or, even worse, forces them to uproot and move to other parts of the country after they have settled in an area. We have insufficient housing as it is. How can we possibly hope to be a nation of sanctuary if we can't accommodate refugees? 

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting a Welsh company that is seeking to bring 3D printing construction to Wales. Across the world, 3D printing is revolutionising the construction industry, with homes being built in days rather than months or years. Minister, what discussions have you had with the Minister for Climate Change about using such techniques to rapidly increase the supply of housing to ensure we can accommodate those fleeing wars and devastation overseas, as in Palestine? 

Thank you very much, Altaf Hussain, for that supplementary question. I thought that I had answered Andrew R.T. Davies's question earlier on today with a very positive response to the ways in which we have been supporting refugees from Ukraine, and recognising that I was able to say that 3,250 people have arrived in the UK through the Homes for Ukraine supersponsor route, and that they have been moved on into longer-term accommodation. And perhaps I'll just go back to give you a couple of figures in terms of the success, which is due to our local authorities. We had over 2,750 supported through initial accommodation in Wales, and they have now moved on into further accommodation. Nearly 1,600 have chosen to settle longer term in Wales, and we've heard examples across the Chamber earlier on from Caerphilly and Bridgend about the success of that integration. It's about local authorities and third sector partners coming together to find that longer-term accommodation. We do provide that route to safety. Some of the Ukrainian refugees have actually chosen to move to other parts of the UK, return to Ukraine or travel to other countries. That's 900 people in that situation.

But I also did, responding to the questions earlier on, talk about the investment that the Minister for Climate Change has made into that transitional housing—a £75 million transitional accommodation capital programme. Well, I'm very pleased that I've been to see some of that modular accommodation, temporary accommodation, and I think others have in the Chamber today, in Cardiff, which has been funded through that scheme. And that is modular accommodation that's provided by a company that was procured by the authority, with the Welsh Government, with our funding. So, clearly there are supply chains and routes into companies being able to play their part. But I really do disagree with your point about the fact that people are now struggling in terms of accommodation. There are huge housing needs in Wales, and today I co-chaired, as I said, the first nation of sanctuary strategic oversight board with the Welsh Local Government Association. The Home Office were there, and there was a very strong commitment to the team Wales approach to support all those seeking sanctuary here in Wales, temporary and long term, but also recognising that we are also supporting many Welsh families in housing need as well. If we had a better settlement from your Government, we might be able to do more to address them in terms of their housing need.

14:15

Good afternoon, Minister. I read recently of the story of Ryan, a refugee who risked everything in search of safety. After facing imprisonment and racial abuse in his own country, he then embarked on a perilous journey across many countries and resorted to a small, overcrowded boat to cross the channel, and is now living in Wales. That journey left him traumatised and he, despite that, is persevering in the hope of one day being a maths teacher here in Wales. 

Ryan's story demonstrates the absence of safe, legal routes for refugees seeking protection. According to a report from the Refugee Council this year, two thirds of all those who made this crossing across the channel would be approved for refugee status if granted access to fair procedures. Despite this, the Conservative UK Government persists in allotting millions to impractical policies like Rwanda, which we heard about in the vote last night, demonising people like Ryan, who are not migrants, but they are people who have no choice but to travel in treacherous vessels. I don't believe that that's shared by my colleagues here in the Senedd, but the Conservative Government is obsessed with small boats. I'd like to ask you how we can positively promote Ryan's story and the positive contribution he wants to make to being here in Wales, like other refugees, and also that we need safe, legal routes, not cruel rhetoric about small boats. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Diolch yn fawr, Jane Dodds, and can I thank you so much for telling us Ryan's story? I don’t know if any of you were able to see—or even if you were walking past—the wonderful Sanctuary in the Senedd event yesterday. I know it was hosted by Jenny Rathbone, and I can see Members here today who joined and heard some of those stories, but also the expressions of such thanks and commitment about being able to come and live in Wales, even though there were challenges on housing, there were challenges on employment, quite rightly, and we need to hear those challenges. We need to hear from those who have joined us in Wales, who have sought sanctuary in Wales, and we need to understand them in terms of our policies. So, thank you for sharing with us.

The UK Government’s approach is undermining our ability to be a nation of sanctuary, not just, as I said, about the lack of resource from the UK Government for our budgets as a whole, but it’s making it far more difficult for people to integrate within communities, for us to utilise the skills and experience they bring with them, which is such a great benefit of migration. We’ve said that the Illegal Migration Act 2023 amounts to a ban on claiming asylum in the UK, and it’s fundamentally clear, as you say, Jane Dodds, that sufficient and legal routes to protection in the UK must exist.

We’ve actually proved we can do it, haven’t we? We’ve proved we can do it with the support for the Ukrainian supersponsor route; we’ve proved we can do it on a team Wales basis. And I have to say that we had Home Office officials with us today in this meeting with local government who were very positive. They said that Wales could help show the way forward. But I hope many of us here will condemn the UK Government’s so-called Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill. Again, we believe that this will remove the rights of those who are claiming asylum in the UK, and I hope it is not implemented. It's very clearly defying the Human Rights Act 1998 on many levels and it is entirely the wrong way to support people who are fleeing conflict to come to our country.

Can I just say, also, the fact that, when it was revealed that it's only a tiny percentage of people coming over on boats—and we decry the fact that they have to come through on boats because we haven't got a proper safe and legal route—that then the Government decides to appoint a legal migration Minister to try and stop legal migrants coming to the UK as well? What a shocking indictment of that Government. 

14:20
A Nation of Sanctuary

6. Will the Minister provide an update on progress in making Wales a nation of sanctuary? OQ60405

Thank you, Ken Skates. We will shortly publish our 2023 nation of sanctuary report, which demonstrates continued good progress. We are currently undertaking work to refresh our 'Nation of Sanctuary—Refugee and Asylum Seeker Plan' and we'll be engaging those directly affected by our work in the coming weeks.

Well, thank you very much, Minister, and I very much look forward to that report. Most of us wish to promote Wales as a nation of sanctuary to people around the world, and there are few better ways of doing this than through events such as the International Eisteddfod that takes place annually in Llangollen, and this year there was a significant presence by Ukrainian refugees who have been given invaluable help by this Welsh Labour Government and by local residents. Minister, would you agree that the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, along with other outward looking and international events, are ideal for promoting the status of Wales as a welcoming nation?

Thank you for that important question, and also sharing with us, again, the importance of the Llangollen International Eisteddfod and particularly that significant presence of Ukrainian citizens at that event. We fundamentally believe—and I've responded to questions this afternoon—that the support from Welsh people for homes sponsorship, volunteering, donations to refugee crisis appeals, they're just showing that becoming a nation of sanctuary is what people are keen to do, but it's important to promote that internationally. Major events are an excellent way of doing that, so Welsh Government is pleased to be supporting the International Eisteddfod. But can I just also say for the record, very quickly, Llywydd, that the Welsh Government will be represented at the global refugee forum in Geneva, alongside the UK delegation, communicating our nation of sanctuary vision and pledging that we'll continue along the path, encouraging other nations to work towards a shared goal?

Police Community Support Officers

7. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's plans to fund police community support officers? OQ60437

Diolch yn fawr, Mabon ap Gwynfor. We're proud of our record of supporting police community support officers—PCSOs—and promoting community safety in Wales, and we continue to work in partnership with policing colleagues to keep communities safe.

I thank the Minister for that response. I was out switching on the Christmas lights in Llanbedr, Meirionnydd, last Friday night and I had a very beneficial discussion with Llinos, one of the police community support officers funded by the Welsh Government. She spoke about the community work that she does, demonstrating clearly the importance of her role and what she achieves in the coastal communities in Meirionnydd.

Then I had a very beneficial discussion with the police in Porthmadog last week also, and they expressed their praise and their appreciation of the work of police community support officers. But all of them were concerned that the funding for these roles will be cut. So, can you give the PCSOs an assurance that their jobs will continue and that the funding will be maintained, please? 

Diolch yn fawr. We are facing an extremely challenging financial situation, as you're fully aware, the toughest since devolution, and following months of intensive cross-Government work we are developing a prudent plan to respond to the extraordinary financial pressures facing public services in 2023-24. We are guided by our need, though, to protect front-line public services as far as possible and to target support towards those in greatest need. So, we are working very closely with our police forces, in terms of the fact that we did release some funding from the PCSO budget in this financial year, requesting forces to pause recruitment of PCSOs, but still providing over £20 million of funding for PCSOs to keep Welsh communities safe.

I have to say that it's very good to hear that feedback, and I'm sure that many would share that kind of feedback from PCSOs and policing colleagues. But, of course, the Welsh Government's draft budget will be published next week, and it will set out our future funding position. 

14:25
Child Poverty and School Attainment

8. How is the Minister working with the Minister for Education and Welsh Language to address the impact of child poverty on school attainment, in light of the PISA 2022 results? OQ60436

Thank you very much for your question.

Tackling the impact of poverty on attainment is at the heart of our national mission in education, as set out in the road map published by the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language in March, 'Our national mission: high standards and aspirations for all'.

Diolch, Weinidog. I wonder if you could clarify, though, given that the PISA results were only recently released, what conversations have taken place since then, or whether there are plans to have conversations, given the significance of those results. And also in light of a number of reports that we have seen in terms of that link between attainment and poverty, that that's growing, in terms of that disparity between children, and also some of the proposals that have been raised by local authorities because of financial pressures now, such as increased charging for school transport, or actually going back to what the Measure currently says, rather than going above and beyond. Also, some of the things that we have seen in terms of measures to provide support directly to families, and the impact that that's having on pupil absences. The situation on the ground seems to be getting worse. That's what parents are telling us, that they can't afford school transport, and so on. Teachers are telling us this. So, what more urgent conversations have taken place, given that we are seeing this directly impact on children and young people, as evidenced by the PISA results?  

Well, thank you for that important follow-up question, which is very much addressed, I believe, in our cross-government child poverty strategy, which we are launching in the new year, to address many of those issues. I think that it is important that the PISA report showed that Wales's learners are academically resilient, and that the attainment gap between our most advantaged and most disadvantaged learners is smaller in Wales than in other UK nations in all domains. But, obviously, we know that we have to continue to support and stretch all of our children and young people, and address that attainment gap.

Just very quickly to say that this is about working particularly with teachers, recognising that high-quality teaching is particularly important for children who may be more disadvantaged by poverty. That strength of learning and teaching is crucial. Great work is coming through our attainment champions, successful school leaders and, of course, collaboration between schools focusing on all of the areas that affect a child's life and a community's life, recognising that tackling poverty and the roll-out of free school meals and, indeed, the schools essentials grant are part of the way in which we address these issues. 

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

The next item will be the questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution. The first question is from Carolyn Thomas.

Senedd Elections

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the fairness of the electoral system for Senedd elections? OQ60414

Thank you for your question. There are a number of elements of an electoral system that influence its perceived fairness. Through our programme of Senedd reform, we are strengthening some of these, for example, by removing the disproportional first-past-the-post system from our electoral arrangements.

Thank you for that answer, Counsel General. The UK Government has used a statutory instrument to increase the spending limit of the next general election by an amazing 80 per cent, to £35 million, with no parliamentary debate. Only the Conservative Party has ever come close to the previous spending cap and the Electoral Commission has said that it has seen no evidence to support the increase. Do you agree with me that the Tories' decision undermines the fairness of our democracy and is trying to bring us closer to a situation where who has the most money wins?

14:30

Can I thank the Member for that supplementary? You raise a number of very important points. Changes to donations and campaign expenses at UK parliamentary elections have been described by the Electoral Commission as 'dangerous'. This is exactly what the Electoral Commission says: 

'We have not seen evidence to support these changes.'

They say that they are concerned that the proposals are damaging

'the transparency of political donations, and give significantly more scope for higher-spending parties to campaign.'

Of course, it's being done by statutory instrument, so effectively it has bypassed any real parliamentary discussion. The rates that are increased are candidate expenditure, up from £8,700 to £11,390; by-election expenses, from £100,000 to £180,000; party expenditure per constituency from £30,000 to £54,000; as well as donation thresholds being increased. To put it frankly, this is a shameless attempt by the Tories and their millionaire donors to buy the next UK election. Changes have been introduced to bypass that. That is not something that we're doing within Wales. Here in Wales, Ministers' powers to amend the limits on constituency and individual campaign expenses have to go through a proper parliamentary process, not the process that is being used by the UK Government to bypass and attempt to buy our democratic system.

To bring this question back to Senedd elections, which is what the tabled question initially submitted was about, I'm concerned, as my party has been for a long time, about the Welsh Government's plans as they relate to the reform of the Senedd: the increase to 96 Members without a referendum is anti-democratic in my view, but the closed list system, which the Government seem to be pursuing, puts a disproportionate amount of power into the hands of those political party managers.

What I would hope is that, if the Government is going to pursue that process, each political party undertakes a democratic process in order to select those candidates. That has not happened recently. In the Labour Party, four police and crime commissioner candidates were recently selected without a vote, without a hustings. One south Wales Labour councillor called it a 'stitch-up, without so much as a hustings, let alone a vote'. Those are that councillor's words.

So, what steps are you taking to ensure that all political parties, including your own, adopt a democratic process to select those candidates and not just a back-room deal in the headquarters of the Labour Party?

Can I just say that the practice of the Labour Party is that we always adopt a democratic process in respect of the selection of our candidates? Can I also say that, in terms of Senedd reform, I do not consider that the fulfillment of manifesto promises can in any way be conceived to be undemocratic? The points that have been raised, I think, in this question, with regard to the electoral expenses issue, is that you have a Conservative Government at the moment that is heading for disaster in the elections and is, basically, working out how it can actually buy votes, either through the use of the levelling-up and shared prosperity funding being targeted in specific ways, or with an undemocratic reform of allowances and expenditure that can be incurred by candidates in the forthcoming general election.

I find myself being on the same side as Tom Giffard here, because the question is actually about Senedd elections and Senedd reform; it is not about, as I understand it, election expenses in Westminster.

Counsel General, you'll know that I'm going to be asking about Senedd reform and the proposal for closed lists, on which, again, I am on the same side—I am absolutely opposed to closed lists. I would like to just give you a quote:

'Closed lists put more power into the hands of party bosses, risking rewarding loyalty and longevity, rather than calibre and contribution. Closed lists promote conservatism and conformism, risking a race to the bottom.'

That's Professor Laura McAllister. Is she right, or is she wrong? Thank you.

14:35

She has an opinion, and I disagree with that opinion. I'll first of all say that the system that is being incorporated within the legislation is a proposal that's come from a special purpose committee, and has already received the support of a two-thirds majority in this Senedd, which is key, as you know, in order to achieve it. I think what the reforms actually do—. And of course, there are very many differing opinions in terms of different voting systems; I have to say that all have advantages, all have disadvantages. But what I would say in terms of the proposals is that they will result, firstly, in a better system than we have at the moment, they will result in a more proportional Senedd, they will ensure that all votes actually count, it will get rid of the iniquitous first-past-the-post system, which means you can get elected on a third of the votes, and it provides a basis for facilitating greater gender balance and diversity. Those things are clearly things that are improvements and better than the system that we have. There will of course—and this is included within the legislation—be a review, and the next Senedd will also have an opportunity to assess how the reforms and changes have operated. But it seems to me disingenuous to be criticising a system that is certainly an improvement, and a significant improvement, on the system that we have at the moment.

EU-US Data Privacy Framework

2. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government on the impact of the EU-US Data Privacy Framework on Wales? OQ60423

Thank you. The Welsh Government is keen for Welsh businesses to benefit from convenient and secure data sharing arrangements with other territories. At the same time, we are clear that citizens should be entitled to expect their data to be protected and used only for the right purposes.

Diolch, Counsel General. On 12 October, the UK extension, the data bridge, to the EU-US transatlantic data privacy framework came into force. This is a voluntary scheme that US companies can use to share personal data freely with the EU, and it was introduced after the European Court of Justice found that the previous framework—the privacy shield—did not provide sufficient protection against unlawful surveillance by US state agencies. Open Rights Group has still called this, though, a global privacy race to the bottom. Because whilst the UK Government argues that the new regime would not differ substantially from the one inherited from the EU general data protection regulation, the decision to adopt the EU-US data privacy framework tells us a different story. There is certainly a lot of evidence to say that there are not the same safeguards against state surveillance—ours or others. Therefore, Counsel General, can you confirm what discussions you've also had with the UK Government regarding the framework, to ensure that our data does continue to be protected, safe and our own?

Thank you for your comments. You raise a very important point that arises in the way in which data is now a global asset—it's important to trade, and so many areas of activity, of research, and so on. There has been engagement, and, of course, there are concerns that are identified, not just in terms of the EU-US data privacy framework, which is a set of rules and binding agreements that govern the transfer of information between the EU and the US, but also in terms of our own specific arrangements that are in place, whereby US companies can receive UK personal data through a framework, but it's not a reciprocal arrangement, meaning that US personal data transferred to the UK doesn't flow in exactly the same way. There obviously are benefits to be able to have that transfer, but there are, equally, a number of concerns that the Information Commissioner has identified—I think there are eight particular concerns. So, there is work that is ongoing on this. Officials met with the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology in November to discuss the data bridge in more detail. No information had been shared with us prior to the UK Government announcement, and officials are establishing regular meetings to check on the developments and the risk monitoring activities.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

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

Diolch, Llywydd. Rejecting a bid by the Welsh Government to overturn a Court of Appeal decision that a judicial review would be premature 16 months ago, the Supreme Court concluded there is no useful purpose in ruling on potential conflicts between the powers of the Welsh Government and provisions of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 until such time as a specific case arises. Lady Justice Nicola Davies stated that

'it would be unwise for this court to address the issue identified in the declaration in the absence of specific legislation'.

What advice did you receive and provide before pursuing this legal action? What lessons have you learned in respect of future legal challenges, and what was the cost of this to the public purse?

14:40

Firstly, the legal issues that we have, I think, quite rightly raised in terms of our devolved settlement—our statutory rights as a devolved Government, as opposed to the internal market Act—have not been determined one way or the other. Our position has always been that our devolved statutory constitutional settlement overrides the internal market Act, which impliedly attempts to suggest otherwise. We think we're on very solid ground there. Of course, what the court has actually said is, 'Well, we can't really determine that, because we need to actually see a piece of legislation that actually introduces alternatives that we can actually assess and judge'.

One of those that we were looking at was, of course, the single-use plastics legislation. Within that legislation, the UK Government had the opportunity, if they had chosen to do so, to challenge it. That legislation was based on and supported our interpretation of the constitutional position. The UK Government Attorney-General chose not to challenge that. I take that very much as being that the UK Government accepts the primacy of our constitutional position. On that basis, I took the position that there was no need to pursue and bring the matter before the court, because the UK Government had decided that it was within our competence, and, therefore, our position has been upheld by the Attorney-General. 

As I said, the Supreme Court ruled that your action was premature, and, yes, went ahead nonetheless, at, no doubt, a significant expense.

In January, the First Minister stated that Wales should have a gender self-identification system similar to the one approved in Scotland, and that although Wales does not have the same powers as Scotland, he would seek them from the UK Government, and if these were obtained, he would put them to work in Wales. However, it turns out that Scotland did not, it appears, have the powers to do this either, with Edinburgh's Court of Session ruling last Friday that the UK Government acted lawfully in moving to block Scotland's plans to make it easier to legally change gender. The UK Government have blocked this from becoming law over fears it would adversely impact on the Equality Act 2010 applying in Scotland, England and Wales. What lessons have you learnt from this ruling in respect of future costly Welsh Government legal challenges regarding the operation of the law as it applies to matters constitutionally reserved to the UK Parliament and Government?

As far as the Scottish judgement is concerned, what the court did uphold was that the legislation passed in Scotland was in competence. That was agreed by the UK Government. The issue was whether it impacted on the Equality Act and modified it, and that was the area where the court has ruled. But equally so, the issue is also to do with the exercise of the particular powers that the Secretary of State for Scotland had under the Scotland Act 1998. Gender recognition is not a matter that is devolved. It is a reserved matter. So, the issue of any legislation within that context as far as Wales is concerned is not relevant until such time as the matter is within competence. 

Nonetheless, the Welsh Government had said it would seek the powers that Scotland has, so this ruling is significant in that context.

Two weeks ago, plans for the Welsh Government Bill intended to create gender quotas for Senedd elections were withdrawn. It's understood that the Presiding Officer received legal advice that it would not be within Senedd Welsh Parliament competence. However, it was already abundantly clear from the legal advice previously given to Senedd committees that the Senedd does not have the competence to introduce this Bill. What advice did you, therefore, receive and give regarding this? Why did you pursue this when there was evidence it would fail? How much has this cost the public purse? And isn't it the case that Welsh Government Ministers should stop wasting taxpayers' money pursuing fruitless legal action and instead focus on the powers it has and the services it is actually responsible for? 

14:45

Well, can I, firstly, correct the Member? Firstly, no Bill has been withdrawn. In order for a Bill to be withdrawn, it actually has to be tabled. The Senedd Cymru (Electoral Candidate Lists) Bill was scheduled to be introduced on 4 December. However, further work is being undertaken on the Bill and a further update will be provided in due course.

A number of experts have recently warned about the potential threat that new, artificial intelligence technology represents in terms of the integrity of our elections and our democracy more broadly. Already this year, we saw in Slovakia, for example, the spreading of a deepfake recording that may have contributed towards the victory of the populist candidate, Robert Fico, in that country, and we’ve seen similar examples this year in the US and even in the UK. Does the Counsel General share these concerns, and what work is the Welsh Government doing, or has done, in order to see how we can safeguard our democratic system from this threat?

Well, thank you for, I think, what is an incredibly important issue, one that we have seen developing over the past years, and that is the way in which artificial intelligence and digital technology can be used to undermine democracy. And if that is being used to undermine democracy, it is a significant part of the major warfare that is going on between Ukraine and Russia at the moment, and it is also something that we see as being a very significant element in US politics, but we do see it internationally as well. I think the first point is that the Member is absolutely right—it is a threat to democracy. 

Now, the attempts to actually deal with harmful digital information and also false information is an incredibly difficult area; it is global. Certainly, the EU has passed legislation in respect of a Digital Services Act, which seeks to attempt to do that, and, of course, we have the Online Safety Act 2023 from the Westminster Parliament. I would say that none of those yet have the capacity to properly deal with the actual proper regulation and control of digital information. It is something that we do monitor. We monitor, for example, the importance of our own data that we have and how that is used.

All I can say, I think, at this stage, is it's something that is very much on the political radar. It is something that is massively important to our democratic structures. Many of the areas, of course, in which regulation takes place is reserved, and, in fact, is almost reserved in terms of globally—that is, it can only be dealt with on a global basis. I'm just glad the Member has raised this, and I hope this is a matter that will be pursued as time goes on, because I think it is something that will impact on all of us and has consequences for the integrity of our electoral and our democratic systems.

The Electoral Commission has asked for further powers in order to enable them to regulate in this area to prevent misuse of AI. But, they’ve said that if they don’t get those additional powers early in the new year, it’ll be impossible to prevent misuse in the context of a Westminster general election, whenever that comes. But, we do have the powers to regulate elections in Wales, and there are examples in the United States where there hasn’t been legislative action at a federal level, but where two states—Minnesota and Michigan—have legislated to prevent the misuse within the context of the state and local levels. Wouldn't the Counsel General be willing to look at those examples to consider whether an amendment to the elections Bill would at least be a means for us to ensure that this misuse doesn't happen in the context of elections for Senedd Cymru or local government? 

14:50

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

I think any things that we can do within legislation and within competence that enable us to minimise the impact of attempts at misinformation are things that are well worth considering. The issue of digital controls and digital management is in a fairly complex area; it is predominantly reserved. There are areas within our own electoral system where we've looked at those issues in terms of things like imprints, and so on. In fact, that was the one area that we actually gave legislative consent to the UK Government for in terms of their Elections Bill. So, it's an area that I think we're aware of. But I'm certainly happy to look at any realistic proposals, not just in terms of our existing legislation going through, but in terms of having a better understanding of potentially what we can or might be able to do. I have to say that my biggest concern at this stage is that most of the areas I think do fall within the reserved area. As I say, the use of misinformation is very much global, rather than local, but there clearly are things we can do in terms of information that goes out during our elections and in terms of identification of that and imprints. And, of course, there are regulations that cover misinformation, to an extent. Is it adequate? No, it isn't. Is the threat growing? I think it is a threat that is growing. But, again, I very much welcome the input on this and would be happy to look at any recommendations or proposals that are put forward, not just for now, but also for the longer term political agenda.

The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill

3. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the legal implications for Wales of the UK Government's Data Protection and Digital Information Bill? OQ60420

Welsh Ministers have assessed the legal implications for Wales as the Bill has progressed through the UK Parliament. The First Minister has laid three legislative consent memoranda on devolved matters.

Diolch, Counsel General. Just to lead on, really, from what my colleague Adam Price has been referring to, there have been many absolutely awful pieces of legislation that have gone through the UK Government. We've had the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Human Rights Act reform, we've had the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, the Elections Bill, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Online Safety Bill. All of them, to echo what you've said previously, have been inadequate, and all of them aim to have more control and less transparency for our citizens. Then, bringing you on to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill that has been piloted by the UK Government, which wasn't satisfied with overstepping the mark with a ban on disruptive protests last year, this Bill, unfortunately, marches in lockstep with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 towards an increasingly Orwellian future. The Bill creates powers to snoop on the bank accounts of anyone receiving a benefit, including the state pension. It makes it harder to access your data by giving organisations more power to refuse requests and increases political interference from the Information Commissioner's Office. Counsel General, this is not just concerning, it is alarming. I know that it's non-devolved, but it will impact the people of Wales, so what discussions have you had with UK Government surrounding this Bill? And do you agree that this increasingly concerning trend towards authoritarianism should be halted? Diolch.

I certainly agree with the concerns that the Member has raised. Those concerns include, I think, the undermining of individual rights, potential loss of, for example, engagement with things like the EU adequacy, which have a significant commercial effect, and the dilution of the independence of the Information Commissioner's Office. There is ongoing engagement, because, as you'll know, having had three legislative consent memoranda, it means that what is a very changing situation all the time, with continuous amendments in terms of the legislation, and understanding precisely what it is going to do and how it is going to work—. It is indeed a very complex Bill; it's taking time to get through Parliament. We are continuing to work with the UK Government in monitoring any proposed amendments and understanding. We welcome the intent of the Bill, but there is a need for much greater clarity and also there is a need for greater attention to those concerns that have been raised. We are absolutely clear that citizens should have the expectation that any data relating to them is protected and can only be used for the right purposes, and, as I've said, there have been three legislative consent memoranda and there is probably likely to be another one.

Can I just congratulate the Member on the fact that you've focused on this, and you are specifically raising this? Even though it is predominantly in a reserved area, it impinges, certainly, on the operation of Welsh institutions and also has an impact on Welsh citizens. So, it's really important that this matter is being raised here and that you will continue to do so.

14:55
The State Pension Age

4. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government about powers available to Welsh Ministers to help women born in the 1950s who were denied their pensions? OQ60443

The Welsh Government has repeatedly expressed concerns about women who had their state pension age raised without effective or sufficient notification. We continue to make representations on behalf of these women who have suffered such injustice.

Diolch for that. WASPI doesn't only stand for Women Against State Pension Inequality, it also stands for waiting and still pleading for integrity—integrity from a Westminster Government that has abandoned all sense of fairness, of decency in how it deals with these women, these millions of women who have been denied the money that is rightfully theirs. I want to thank you for meeting some of the brave, dedicated WASPI campaigners with me over the summer. I'm sure you can understand the frustration of these women, particularly when they have seen some of their fellow campaigners die before this dispute has been resolved. What more can the Welsh Government do to help women born in the 1950s who have been robbed of their pensions, and will you state again your solidarity with these brave women who are still pleading for that integrity to be shown to them?

Can I, firstly, thank you for the determination with which you continue to raise this particular issue? I doubt whether there's anyone in this Chamber who doesn't know someone who's been affected by changes that were not about, necessarily, the equalisation of retirement ages, but the way in which it was actually done, the promises that were broken and the lack of communication that enabled people to potentially prepare for changes.

The Minister for Social Justice and the Chief Whip and I recently wrote to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman to express our concerns at the length of time the investigation was taking, and we did, indeed, highlight the frustration and suffering that affected so many women, which is impacting on, I think, their physical and the mental health, and, of course, there are those who may never attain justice because of the time that has gone on. In the ombudsman's response—we received this on 5 October—the ombudsman recognised the frustrations felt by the Welsh Government and other Members of the Senedd and the affected women. Assurances were given that the investigation is a priority, provided with sufficient resources and that the ombudsman remains committed to concluding the investigations as quickly and efficiently as possible. The ombudsman did confirm that, as the investigation must take place in private, it wasn't possible to comment on the detail, but assurances were made that the ombudsman was committed to concluding the investigation as quickly as possible. I'm sure you will be continuing to raise this issue with me, and we will do all we can to make sure that the views of the Welsh Government are known to the ombudsman as often as is necessary.

The Victims and Prisoners Bill

5. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the UK Government regarding the impact of the Victims and Prisoners Bill on Welsh residents? OQ60404

Thank you for the question. Officials have met with UK Government counterparts on a number of occasions. I have raised key aspects of this Bill with UK Government Ministers. We continue to seek to ensure that provisions within this Bill meet our aspirations in Wales.

I thank the Counsel General for his answer. Can I also thank him for his consistent leadership and support for the Hillsborough Law Now campaign? Counsel General, the Victims and Prisoners Bill simply does not go far enough to protect families who've experienced tragedy and deserve answers. Does the Counsel General agree with me that only a Hillsborough law will offer that protection to families and it is a UK Labour Government who will enshrine that into law?

15:00

Thank you for your supplementary question, and I was grateful, really, with your facilitation, to be able to meet with the Hillsborough victims in Liverpool several months ago and it was a very moving meeting.

I think what was disappointing is that the implementation of a Hillsborough law is not actually something that's that complicated. It's been called for, really, because of the steps—because of the limitations that have been posed in the availability, really, of independent legal advice and assistance. I know the Hillsborough campaign and many others have actually significantly criticised the UK Government in, I suppose, purporting to introduce a Hillsborough law, but a law that is really regarded, or the proposals that are there are regarded as very ineffective. I'm very, very impressed with what Steve Reed, who is the Shadow Labour Minister on this, because he just said this recently—this is in the recent response—he said:

'Labour is committed to real change. In government, we will establish a fully independent public advocate that is accountable to survivors and victims’ families. We will arm it with the power it needs to access documents and data to expose the truth'.

I think that's a very strong and a very important statement and commitment to legislating in that area.

Can I say there's one area that I'm particularly concerned about within it as well? And that is what the role is of an independent public advocate; it's totally unclear from the UK Government's proposals. But equally so, what's very important as well is that if this is the adviser to Government in terms of triggering legal advice and assistance et cetera through the legal aid system, there needs to be specific account in terms of the role of Welsh Government and what would happen within Welsh situations were there to be a tragic event, and those are things where there are ongoing engagement between Welsh Government and with UK Government on this particular legislation.

Changes to the State Pension Age

6. What discussions has the Counsel General had with UK law officers regarding the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman's update on their investigation into the Department for Work and Pension's communication of changes to the state pension age? OQ60444

Thank you. The Welsh Government has repeatedly expressed concerns to the UK Government about women who had their state pension age raised without effective or sufficient notification, and will continue to do so. The ombudsman's revised investigation report is needed as soon as possible to recommend remedies for the injustices found.

Thank you once again.

I appreciate that you and your Government are constrained by the Welsh Government's powers, but could you commit today to contact the UK Government to ask for their response and for them to outline what compensation package they'll be putting in place to resolve this long-overdue issue and compensate all 1950s women fairly?

Could you request that the UK work and pensions Secretary should attend a mediation session with representatives from across all groups to agree a compensatory package? And I wonder whether you agree with me that this idea that they've put forward of fraudulent claims is misleading? All of the women affected will be on the UK Government's own database; they all have national insurance numbers. What could make it so difficult to deal with this? Is it possibly Westminster looking for a convenient excuse? Why do you think the Westminster Government is still avoiding sitting down with these women and listening to them?

Well, I think it's because UK Government made a very major mistake and doesn't want to do what is necessary in order to rectify it. What we have to recognise is these women have endured gender inequality throughout their lives. They're women born in the 1950s. They had very different lives and employment opportunities to those that we take for granted. So, many in this group will have worked part-time, they've had low-paid roles, they'd have taken time off. They've worked, they've paid their national insurance contributions, they've raised children, they contributed fully to society and then they find themselves being disadvantaged by virtue of their gender. So, it's vital that the inequality that they have experienced throughout their lives isn't compounded as they enter into later years.

Can I just say: we will take it and do everything that we can within our powers and competence to keep this on the agenda? It is an injustice—one of a number of injustices—that needs to be rectified, and what I would hope is that we move into an environment where, when we clearly recognise there are injustices, we take the necessary steps to rectify them as soon as possible. We don't want the situation we've had, for example, with the contaminated blood, which is now coming to a head, but after how many years and after how many people have passed away before justice is resolved. 

15:05
Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act 2023

7. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact on Welsh law of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act 2023's sunsetting of EU law at the end of this year? OQ60427

The default sunsetting of retained European Union law was replaced with a specific list of redundant legislation in Schedule 1 to the Act to be revoked at the end of 2023. We remain concerned about how UK Government Ministers might use powers under the Act, including to legislate in devolved areas.

Thank you, Counsel General, and I agree with your assessment. It is a concern. 

The sunsetting of the EU law at the end of this year will cause disruption. Doctors in the NHS have raised concerns about the future of working time directive and the rollback of workers' rights. It will also undermine the devolution settlement. Section 4 of the Act abolishes the general principles of EU law. Now, to some, certainly on the Tory benches, this might invoke a sense of power and sovereignty, but the reality is very different. It removes the principles of equal treatment, proportionality and respect for fundamental rights from our law. Does the Counsel General agree with me that these principles need to be recodified through regulation, and will he put pressure on the UK Government to do so? Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you for that supplementary question. It's something that we do at every stage possible in terms of the engagement that we have. As you know, we were firstly opposed to the retained EU law legislation and, of course, the further legislation that has since come into being, the revocation and reform Act 2023. One of the reasons we were concerned about it is because we were concerned, firstly about the ability to actually look at making changes to a whole raft of legislation within a time period that was sunsetted. Fortunately, I think even the UK Government came to recognise that what was being proposed was actually unachievable. So, other arrangements have been, actually, put in place. These changes were made at a late stage by the UK Government to replace the original automatic sunsetting provisions with a new Schedule 1, and what that did was to list almost 600 pieces of legislation to sunset on 31 December. And although this Schedule didn't contain any instruments of retained EU law that were made in Wales, it did include instruments in devolved areas.

We were also unhappy in terms of the legislation because it also included concurrent powers for the UK Government to be able to legislate in devolved areas. We did want changes on the face of the Bill. We were not able to secure that, but we have secured commitments in writing that there is no intention to basically use concurrent powers to change devolved areas without consent. So far, I am satisfied that that is actually being abided by. The main area of change that has been taking place actually relates to a lot of pieces of legislation that are basically technical and consequential changes. But it is one that we are monitoring very, very closely.

We have had discussions with UK Government officials on the various areas of concern that we've had. We have a dual approach to it: any area that involves the use of concurrent powers into devolved areas is something that we will focus on very closely et cetera, and we will also hold up, where we think it's not appropriate, to not consent to changes, particularly where there might be deductions or variations in the standards that we want to uphold. But in terms of the efficiency and the economy of using the resource we have with the very many pieces of legislation, which are really just technical and consequential changes, we adopt a relatively light touch, in terms of that process, to really be able to focus on the areas that we consider are most important.

15:10
Employment Law

8. What legal advice has the Counsel General given to the Government regarding which elements of employment law are within the competence of the Senedd or the Welsh Government? OQ60442

As is the case with any question on legislative competence, context is key. Whilst employment and industrial relations are expressed as a reservation in the government of Wales Act 2017, whether any aspect relates to that reservation or not depends on the purpose and its effects in the circumstances.

I thank the Counsel General for that response. The Counsel General will be aware that the inhumane legislation of the Conservative Government on striking is now law. The Government in Westminster does everything within its powers to withdraw rights from people, all because they want to maintain their privileges and the privileges of the rich and preventing people from living with dignity so that others can benefit financially. If employment law were devolved, then we here could give the vital powers to the workforces of Wales. Will you take the vital steps to initiate that process of devolving this area to Wales?

Well, thank you for those supplementary comments. Of course, on a number of occasions in the past, we've used the powers that we've had, for example in the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017, the Agriculture (Wales) Act 2023 and in other legislation, to try and protect employment and organisation rights. And, of course, we've had recently the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Act 2023, which puts the social partnership on a statutory footing.

In terms of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023, which is the one that you've raised—and there was recently a Trades Union Congress conference specifically to discuss that—we expressed our opposition all the way along that we opposed this legislation because it undermines social partnership. But you're right that industrial relations, employment law, is not a devolved area; I think there is certainly scope for far greater devolution in those particular areas. Where we have also, though, made representations on the strikes Bill is, for example, in the code that is being developed. I think there's been agreement now that our representations that ambulance services should not be included has been accepted. Unfortunately, other areas that we also argued should not be included because they are devolved matters have been overridden and legislation will proceed. Quite frankly, what is needed, really, is a change of Government, and I'm very pleased that the UK Labour Government has given an absolute commitment that this is legislation that it will repeal within the first 100 days of a Labour Government.

Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill

9. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact that the Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill will have on trust in politicians? OQ60430

The Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill will significantly increase the scrutiny capacity of the Senedd. It will enable Members in whom the public have placed their trust to more effectively scrutinise policy, legislation and spending plans, and to hold Ministers to account.

Thank you. As our colleague Jane Dodds has already mentioned, Professor Laura McAllister has already said that the closed list system puts too much power in the hands of parties, with voters choosing between them instead of candidates. To quote her, she says:

'It seems odd to me that at a time when there's such a disconnect between the politicians and the public, we're disconnecting it further'.

Now, we all know that turnout at Senedd elections is considerably less than at UK parliamentary elections, so I actually agree with her. The Senedd has been warned that the public will very quickly get aggrieved when they realise that they won't be able to vote for their own chosen candidate. Will you be acting on the concerns of Professor McAllister and perhaps scrap completely the closed list?

15:15

Well, can I say how surprised I am that the Member is so concerned about turnout and hasn't spoken out when we had the discussions here on the introduction of ID cards, which were essentially about voter suppression and actually restricting entitlement to vote? I notice that the Member has not spoken up yet—[Interruption.]—has not spoken up yet in support of our proposals for automatic registration, which would increase the number of people—the 4,000 people who are not on the electoral register, giving them the opportunity to vote. And when you talk about trust in politicians, I think what you should really be concerned about is your Government's record of 13 years in office, which, it seems to me, year on year, have undermined trust in politicians. Your former leader, Boris Johnson, was a serial liar who was found to have misled Parliament.

On a point of order, you're not supposed to use the word 'liar' in proceedings, I understood.

The subsequent leader crashed our economy and still fails to take any responsibility for the pain this caused to families. The current leader and Prime Minister is now looking to undermine international law again, as he is completely beholden to the extreme right in his party. So, we can't really take any lessons in terms of trust, and, if you want to look at one area that has really undermined trust in politicians, it was the Tory COVID VIP corruption lane during the COVID pandemic. So, I think, really, the best way of actually restoring trust in politicians is to get rid of this ineffective, corrupt and broken Government and to get a Labour Government in place.

Okay. So, today, now, the Counsel General has used the words 'liar', 'corruption' and 'corrupt' about other politicians and other political parties. We have people in the audience, in the public gallery. We also have people, I hope, watching this on television. This is a time of goodwill to all men and women, as we approach the Christmas season. Do you really think that this is a good example for people—

Well, I actually would ask, as a matter of some respect for our proceedings here, whether the Counsel General will withdraw those words—'liar', 'corruption' and 'corrupt'.

Counsel General, I will respond, not after you. We've reviewed this, and the Member did actually not refer to any other Member in this Chamber, when you can't use those words, and that is what the code of conduct will require of him. Therefore, whilst Members may not like his terminology—[Interruption.] Whilst Members might not like his terminology, he did not break the rules on this occasion, and therefore I will not ask the Counsel General to withdraw, but Members may, as you have already done, point out his use of those words.

He called the previous Prime Minister a liar. [Interruption.] This is appalling conduct.

3. Questions to the Senedd Commission

Item 3 is next, questions to the Senedd Commission, and the first question is from Carolyn Thomas.

Hybrid Meetings

1. What is the Commission doing to ensure that the Senedd can continue to meet as a hybrid parliament? OQ60416

The Commission supports the Senedd to continue to meet in hybrid format, in accordance with the decision of the Business Committee, by ongoing investment in our technological infrastructure.

Diolch. I was pleased to represent our Senedd Cymru at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association event in Ghana, and attended workshops on e-Parliaments and gender quotas, and there were compliments on how we are being progressive and leading the way here in Wales.

Through COVID, we saw changes in working patterns. My staff work from home; they've continued to do so, and they work hard to support my constituents right across north Wales. I don't have an office. Do you agree with me that, due to the cost-of-living crisis and soaring household energy bills, the current working from home allowance paid by the Senedd is vital to ensuring that staff can continue to work at home and aren't disadvantaged by that? Thank you.

Well, yes. Providing the ability for both staff and Members to work from home, work from constituency offices or work from the Senedd building here is an important aspect of the flexibility that we all now have in our working lives. I think it's been useful and appreciated during the times of COVID, and we have learnt very positive lessons from that very difficult time.

15:20

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Dirprwy Lywydd. I accept the arguments in favour of the hybrid proceedings here in the Senedd, but I do think the public send us here. They expect us to be here in Cardiff Bay. You've obviously been elected, Llywydd, far longer than I have, but you'll know that the work of a Senedd Member doesn't just exist in this Chamber, but in the building more generally, in the corridors and all the other meetings that we attend. I think the public will find it difficult to understand that there are some Members who are very rarely here at all. The particular thing I think that irks me, and the public will find difficult to understand, is those Members that will be here on a Tuesday afternoon for First Minister’s questions, and we'll see them back at home voting later that same day. So, what consideration have you given to a slightly different style when it comes to those Members being allowed to participate virtually, perhaps on a case-by-case basis presented to you around need rather than about convenience for those Members?

Well, I'd hate to be the Presiding Officer who would need to take individual decisions based on individuals' specific cases on whether they should be working from home or working from here in the Chamber. I don't think it's an appropriate use of my time or my judgment to decide on other people elected here to this Chamber—to decide on how they undertake their work. Their constituents will look and will question all Members, as they do, on our performance and our presence, both here in the Chamber and online.

Member Support Staff Salaries

2. What discussions has the Senedd Commission had with the Remuneration Board regarding Member support staff salaries? OQ60425

Well, thank you for the question. Of course, it's the independent remuneration board that determines Member support staff salaries, and the chief executive and clerk, as accounting officer and on behalf of the Commission, has engaged already with the remuneration board on the staffing budget requirements included in the determination budget for 2024-25. 

The Commission will be consulted, as will Members and stakeholders, on the annual review of determination for the next financial year, which includes staffing matters, which the board has stated will be issued later this week. The board has commenced its staffing pay and grading reviews as well ahead of the seventh Senedd. Commission officials are fully engaged in this review, and all Members and their staff will be given the opportunity to input into it.

Thank you very much. Yesterday, the remuneration board published its November update to Members and their support staff. I'd like to welcome the recommendations made in this update as they are deeply needed, especially during the cost-of-living crisis, and especially the update made to band 3 pay point 1, allowing all those who are employed by the Senedd to remain on a real living wage. I'd also like to place on record my thanks to the work of the trade union representatives and members in successfully negotiating an uplift for all staff of 5.7 per cent, and securing a cost-of-living payment this spring. They, along with the rest of the Senedd support staff, Commission staff, all of them who—. Without them this Senedd would not be able to run, nor be as transparent or engaged with the citizens of Wales as it is. Considering all of this, would you be able to confirm for me what further work you are doing to work with the unions and other members of the workforce to ensure that the Senedd remains a real living wage employer? Diolch.

We're absolutely committed to remaining a real living wage employer and to ensuring that we support all staff, whether it's support staff or Commission staff, as best we can, and that we remunerate them correctly and appropriately. And, as I said, the remuneration board is undertaking a review of support staff pay and grading. It's due be made public by the end of March, and this sort of review hasn't been undertaken for quite some time, so it's vitally important, and Members will be given the opportunity to provide input into it. Commission officials as well have been involved as part of this piece of work.

Of course, the remuneration board itself is independent of the Commission, but we're looking, as a Commission, at how we can ensure that there is greater transparency and understanding of who is responsible for what—who’s responsible for determination of Member's salaries, support staff salaries, Commission staff salaries, who's responsible for the day-to-day running of the Senedd. That work has begun, and we hope to be able to present those clearer demarcation lines to Members in the not-too-distant future.

Pension Funds

3. What action has the Commission taken to ensure that pension funds do not fund deforestation? OQ60445

15:25

Well, can I thank Delyth Jewell for the question? It's an excellent question. There are actually three pension schemes connected with the Senedd. There's the civil service pension scheme, which is available to Commission staff, and that's an unfunded scheme, and therefore it has no assets to invest. Benefits are paid through tax revenues rather than from assets set aside to pay for them. And then there's the second scheme, which is for support staff. Now, the support staff pension scheme is run by Aviva, and the Commission is not involved in determining how the assets are invested. Now, the third pension scheme is in relation to the Members of the Senedd, and the Commission has no means to influence the allocation of the Members' pension scheme assets. The power to do that sits entirely with the pension board, which is independent of the Commission, but, of course, there are two sitting Members and one former Member of the Senedd who sit on the independent pension board.

Thank you for that response. I'm sure that you saw the research by Size of Wales and Global Canopy, which was published last month, that £14 billion, or 55 per cent of the investments made by eight public pension funds in Wales, they are in danger of funding deforestation, and this can be a hidden thing sometimes. So, thank you for setting out more certainty and assurance on this issue. Would you agree with me that other pension funds in Wales could look into what happens, with the global responsibility that we have in Wales, to ensure that we take every possible step that that isn't something that's just done by the Senedd, but for the whole of Wales, so that we can show leadership across the public sector?

I'd very much agree with the Member. This is something that I know Jack Sargeant has taken up on several occasions as well, and I've had many discussions with Jack. I have to say and put on record my thanks to my colleague and friend Mike Hedges, who has been a pension board member for quite some time and has been at the forefront of pressing for ethical investment. I'm pleased to say that, in terms of the environmental, social and governance credentials, we use Aviva, who are market-leading in this regard, and implementing their principles in their pension investments is hugely important. We scrutinise that every time we meet as a pension board. But I think that Delyth Jewell makes an incredibly important point that best practice in regard to how investments are made does need to be shared across the public and the private sector to ensure that, whether directly or indirectly, we're not harming our natural environment through the process of what we invest in with our pension funds.

I agree with Delyth Jewell that the Senedd Members pension fund should not be investing in deforestation, and we're working hard to reduce our oil investments. It's not as easy as just saying, 'We don't want to do it anymore'; you've got to come out of it, and we've made substantial progress on that. But the pension fund is managed by trustees. I represent you as the Members; Ken Skates represents the Commission; Nick Ramsay, a former Member, is a member of the commission and an independent chair, completing the list of trustees. Would the Commission consider someone on behalf of the pension board taking questions under an agenda item after the annual pension report is provided to Members, giving Members an opportunity within this Chamber to raise questions like the one that Delyth Jewell just has?

Well, can I thank Mike Hedges and say that's a superb suggestion that I think I should take back to the next Commission meeting? I'd have no objection whatsoever; I think that would certainly help in terms of scrutiny and transparency, and so I'll raise that with my fellow Commissioners.

4. Topical Questions
The Welsh Government Draft Budget

1. What discussions has the Minister had with the Office for Budget Responsibility regarding its assessment of the Welsh Government Draft Budget 2024-25 next week? TQ939

The Office for Budget Responsibility provides forecasts of the devolved tax revenues in Wales, which represent an important element of the Welsh Government's budget arithmetic. It will publish its latest edition of the Welsh taxes outlook alongside the draft budget on 19 December.

Thank you, Minister. You would have received a letter I sent to you on 1 December asking you to contact the OBR to review your current memorandum of understanding with them to include a wider economic and fiscal outlook for Wales based on your budget proposals. When I wrote, I was conscious that the budget was to be announced in just three weeks' time, but I genuinely felt that the OBR would already have a general overview of all devolved fiscal positions and it should be easy to glean an assessment, and that should have been pretty straightforward and certainly advantageous for us.

Minister, an independent assessment of your budget would be key to enabling effective scrutiny as well as assessing the long-term impact of policy making, as we don't want to see a repeat of the inter-year budget panic that we saw just recently. We simply cannot afford another year where we see knee-jerk reaction to a projected £900 million deficit, which shouldn't have happened, recognising that all inflationary pressures were known about well before the budget was set.

With all of this in mind, can you inform the Senedd of your consideration of my request, and if it's not to be pursued, can we expect a review of the memorandum of understanding with the OBR ahead of future budgets?

15:30

Well, obviously, I would disagree with the Member's characterisation of the in-year activity that we've undertaken to respond to the impact of inflation on the budget, but I appreciate that's not what the question today is about, and I do have the Member's letter and I will be providing a response within the next week to that.

In terms, though, of the OBR's role, it really is about providing those independent forecasts of our devolved tax revenues in Wales, and that is in accordance with the Welsh Government's fiscal framework agreement. The OBR produces forecasts of equivalent taxes in England and in Northern Ireland, and they underpin the calculations upon which the block grant adjustments accompanying tax devolution are determined. And of course, the vast majority of the Welsh Government's budget does depend on the block grant and those changes that are as a response to UK Government decisions about funding. And I think it's important to recognise also that, at the UK level, the OBR provides forecasts for the economy and public finances, together with assessments of whether the UK Government will meet its fiscal targets, unless of course you're Lizz Truss and you're introducing one of the mini-budgets. But I think that that really sets out the important role of the OBR in terms of the overall position for the UK.

The OBR itself has said that it's not clear that producing any Welsh macroeconomics forecasts would substantively improve its ability to forecast here in Wales. There's little evidence of convergence or divergence in per-capita growth between Wales and the UK as a whole. Instead, when forecasting Welsh taxes, adjustments were made to UK tax determinants where there is specific evidence of divergence in those particular determinants in Wales.

So, I'm not sure what the activity that has been described would present as a benefit to the budget, particularly because, as noted in the charter for budget responsibility, the OBR should not provide normative commentary on the particular merits of Government policies. That would apply to Welsh Government policies in the same way as it would to UK Government policy. So, I'm not sure what the work that is being asked for would add, given the fact that our overall position doesn't diverge very much from the position that they described in the autumn statement, in their work there.

Thanks for that answer, Minister. I'd like to fully acknowledge the difficulties facing the Welsh Government. The Tory-driven austerity and economic incompetence has left public finances in a ruinous state. This has resulted in a significant erosion of the spending power available to Wales. 

In these times, scrutiny and accountability of budgetary matters is becoming more and more important. Yesterday, my colleague Heledd Fychan requested for the Senedd to reconvene next week for Members to debate the budget, but was turned down. Could you elaborate on the Government's decision and explain why you don't think that the situation is sufficiently serious to justify meeting in a special Plenary next week?

I'd also like to know your thoughts on the imminent financial position of local authorities across Wales. The Local Government Association have said that as many as one in five councils in England are facing bankruptcy. Do you expect any councils in Wales to face bankruptcy next year and, if so, what contingency measures does the Welsh Government have in place to mitigate this eventuality?

And, finally, do you agree that the scaling back of local government services to the bare minimum will create a vicious circle that may cause irreparable damage to our communities? Diolch.

15:35

I'm very grateful for that series of questions. So, in relation to any request to recall the Senedd, there's this process now set out in Standing Orders, which has been undertaken. My own view is that there is ample opportunity to scrutinise the draft budget. Of course, we'll be reconvening—myself and Finance Committee—next week to scrutinise the budget, and then we have many, many, many hours of detailed committee scrutiny, in each of the portfolio areas, which is undertaken. And then, there are a number of opportunities to debate the budget—the draft budget and then the final budget—in the Senedd as well. So, I do think there are absolutely ample opportunities for scrutiny. I'd also remind colleagues as well that none of this will come into force until April of next year in any case, so we have time as well, so I don't believe that this necessarily meets one of those urgent and emergency situations that you would normally expect the Senedd to be recalled for. But those are just my views, and I know that there's a proper process set out in Standing Orders to deal with that.

We'll shortly be publishing of course the local authority draft settlement for next year, so I don't want to pre-empt anything that's going to be announced in that process. But of course, local authorities can't technically go bankrupt in any case—they have to issue the requisite notices. No authority wants to be in that position, and every authority will do everything it can to manage its budget, to present a balanced budget to be voted on locally. I don't for a moment underestimate how hard that is going to be for some local authorities in particular, especially given the extreme pressures that there are on our budgets and local authorities' budgets. The Member described local authorities really just providing the bare minimum. I think, for some time, local authorities have been in a space where they haven't been able to do lots of the things that they would like to do, because they have so many statutory duties that they're attending to. So, unless there is improvement overall in public finances, and unless we have a UK Government that wants to invest in public services, I think that we are in for some difficult times ahead.

I was just interested to be thinking about the figures that we had in the autumn statement. And in health, for example, the additional funding that came through from health, I think, provides less than five hours' worth of the NHS here in Wales. And I think that, when you think about that kind of level of disinterest from the UK Government in public services, it really does set out how difficult the challenge is ahead of us. [Interruption.] I hear the chuntering coming from behind me, but I think the important point here to remember is that our budget next year is worth £1.3 billion less than it was at the point of the spending review. [Interruption.] That might be boring to the Conservatives, but it's not boring to those of us who care about public services and want to see investment in public services.

I thank the Minister.

Before moving on, and for clarity following the point of order by Janet Finch-Saunders, I just want to highlight that the Counsel General did not refer to any Members of the Senedd as lying to or misleading the Senedd, and thus did not breach the expected conduct. However, I would hope that all Members reflect upon their use of such terms prior to their contributions, and after, to ensure that words used are not unparliamentary. I will ensure that the Counsel General is made aware of this statement too.

5. 90-second Statements

Thank you. Since 1985, Rotary's key humanitarian priority has been to rid the world of polio. Rotary spearheaded the campaign at a time when there were over 1,000 polio cases a day, in 125 countries, paralysing and even killing children. Today, the number of cases is down by 99.9 per cent. Over the last 35 years, Rotary members, working with communities around the world, have contributed more than $2 billion, and countless volunteer hours, to the fight to end polio. And inspired in part by Rotary's volunteer commitment and fundraising success, the global polio eradication initiative was launched in 1988. And because of these efforts as well, nearly 19 million people, who would otherwise have been paralysed, are walking, and more than 1.5 million people are alive who would otherwise have passed away. Despite there only being a handful of cases left in the world, they continue to campaign, and Rotary members continue to be key players in many aspects of the polio programme. The failure to eradicate polio could result in as many as 200,000 new cases worldwide every year, within a decade. That's why we have to stay on it, and I want to thank Rotary members in Great Britain and Ireland who have played a huge part and been supporters of End Polio Now. Thank you very much, and to everybody else who has played their part in this. Diolch.

15:40
Motion under Standing Order 17.14 to elect a Member to a committee

Next, we have a motion under Standing Order 17.14 to elect a Member to a committee. And I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion formally. Darren Millar. 

Motion NNDM8441 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Samuel Kurtz (Welsh Conservatives) as a member of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee in place of James Evans (Welsh Conservatives).

Motion moved.

No others.

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Motion under Standing Order 26.91 seeking the Senedd's agreement to introduce a Member Bill: Mental Health Standards of Care (Wales) Bill

Item 6 is a motion under Standing Order 26.91 seeking the Senedd's agreement to introduce a Member Bill. This is the mental health standards of care (Wales) Bill. And I call on James Evans to move the motion.

Motion NDM8422 James Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 26.91:

Agrees that James Evans MS may introduce a Bill to give effect to the information included in the Explanatory Memorandum published on 22 November 2023 under Standing Order 26.91A.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I move the motion tabled in my name. Today, we are here to discuss a matter of great importance: the development of my mental health standards of care (Wales) Bill. Before I start, I want to say a few words about the people who have helped me to get to this stage in the Bill's development.

I first wish to pay tribute to the Deputy Minister, Lynne Neagle, who has worked with me in a very collaborative and constructive way to develop this proposal. And I did feel at one time that I spent more time on the fifth floor than Government Ministers, and I was looking forward to having my own desk there at one point. But I do look forward to working with you, Deputy Minister, and your officials, if this is granted leave to proceed today. 

I also want to thank Oliver John from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. The knowledge and expertise of the royal college have been key in formulating this Bill. And I'd also like to thank my team, and also the team here in the Senedd for their assistance. I've engaged with charities such as Mind Cymru and Adferiad, and I'm encouraged by their support and positivity for the Bill. And it was only yesterday that the Children's Commissioner for Wales also indicated her support for this Bill, which is very, very welcome. 

Mental health is an integral part of our overall well-being, and it is heartening to witness the commitment of many people in this Senedd, who I have worked with on the development of this Bill, to address the needs of those who are struggling with their mental health here in Wales. First and foremost, let us acknowledge the social shift that has brought mental health to the forefront of public discussion. Gone are the days when mental health conditions were shrouded in stigma and secrecy, with people far too afraid to often seek help. What we are witnessing is a collective awakening, a realisation that, for far too long, mental health is not only a personal matter, but also a societal one that needs addressing.

The Bill I propose to introduce is a response to this cultural evolution, representing a commitment to ensuring that the mental health needs of every individual are met, in a rights-based approach, and treating the person as an individual. This takes forward some of the key findings of the great work undertaken in the Wessely review. It was a matter, however, of deep personal regret for me that the UK Government did not decide to update the mental health legislation in Westminster. However, we have the powers here in Wales to make a positive change, and I believe we have a duty to act in the best interests of our citizens. The foundation of this Bill lies in a collaborative effort, the coming together of myself, the Welsh Government, healthcare professionals, charities, and, most importantly, the voices of those with lived experience. The very framework of this proposed legislation has been woven with the threads of empathy and inclusivity. 

One of the foundational pillars of the mental health standards of care (Wales) Bill is choice and autonomy. In this Bill, I intend to replace the nearest relative provisions in the Mental Health Act 1983 with a new role of nominated person. This nominated person will be able to represent that person and exercise relevant statutory functions on their behalf. This introduction is informed by the 2018 independent review of the Mental Health Act, which highlighted that service users and stakeholders consistently found that the current models of family and carer involvement were outdated and insufficient. 

Another key element of the Bill is to make amendments to the Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010, which was introduced by a former Member here, Jonathan Morgan, to ensure that there is no age limit upon those who can request a reassessment of their mental health, and to extend the availability to request a reassessment. Currently, the opportunity to request a reassessment is only available to adults. This puts young people and children at a disadvantage. This change will bring about both parity within service, and look to address the stigma that's often felt in seeking and receiving mental health support. This amendment will also bring the Measure in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children have the right to the best possible standard of healthcare, the right to express their views and have those views taken seriously.

Furthermore, the Bill is changing the criteria for detention. The Mental Health Act code of practice for Wales already sets out that services should be provided in line with the presumption of capacity, be the least restrictive option, serve a person's best interests and maximise a person's independence. It is very, very important that this is present in legislation here in Wales.

Finally, the Bill will look to introduce remote virtual assessments and specific provisions relating to second opinion appointed doctors and independent mental health advocates. This is an area that was not included in the UK draft legislation. This is a uniquely Welsh development that requires primary legislation to deliver, and that is something that I believe would improve support for the patient's choice and autonomy.

The policy areas that I have outlined today are deliberately focused and narrow in scope, in order to achieve deliverable and realistic outcomes. I did look at other areas in which the Bill could make changes. However, due to the complexity of the devolution settlement and the need to work with the UK Government on these matters, the Bill is not the mechanism to pursue these. I have also been reassured by the Deputy Minister's commitments in meetings that we have had to develop these areas via regulation-making powers at the Welsh Government's disposal. And I would not, personally, want to see some reforms slowed down when those reforms can be delivered by another legislative mechanism.

In conclusion, the development of a mental health standards of care (Wales) Bill, I believe, is a beacon of hope to many people, a testament to our collective dedication of fostering a healthy Wales for the present and the future. By prioritising a rights-focused approach and destigmatising mental health, we are laying the foundations for a future where every individual can thrive. So, I ask everybody in this Chamber, let us stand united in our commitment to this work today, ensuring that the steps we take in the development of this Bill translate into meaningful actions that touch the lives of those in need. I look forward to hearing other Members' contributions as we go through this debate this afternoon, and I would encourage every Member across this Chamber to support my proposal today.

15:45

Thank you, Deputy Llywydd. I'd like to start by thanking James Evans for bringing forward this proposal today. I particularly thank James for his very collaborative approach in developing this legislation and for his constructive and helpful engagement.

I've said before in this Chamber that we all have mental health. Sometimes, it will be good; sometimes, it will be poor. So, this is something that impacts on each and every one of us. But nowhere is our responsibility greater than to those whose mental health is so poor that they depend on our most specialist services, and, in particular, those whose liberty is restricted through the Mental Health Act. That's why, as a Government, we were committed to working with the UK Government on the reform of the Mental Health Act, and we were deeply disappointed that a Bill was not published in the King's Speech in November. I am, therefore, really pleased that the Member is seeking to use his legislation to implement some of the reforms that were anticipated at UK level. 

We have looked very carefully at the measures that the Member is proposing. They are positive steps, and are consistent with this Government's policies and our overall aims of ensuring a rights-based approach to ensuring that everyone has the best mental health possible and that care and support will be person centred, compassionate and recovery focused, with an emphasis on improving quality, safety and access. 

A change to a 'nominated person' in place of 'nearest relative' would support our goal of greater control and autonomy, by supporting people to make their own choices about who they would like to exercise rights on their behalf. We must never forget that those detained under the Mental Health Act are some of the most voiceless people in our society, and I welcome this step to enhance their voice and control. 

Second opinion doctors are a vital safeguard for people to ensure care and treatment is appropriate and to ensure that the individual's views and rights have been considered. Enabling remote assessments would support our goal of improving access and ensuring person-centred care, with the aim of making service provision more efficient. Likewise, widening entitlement to request reassessment under the Mental Health (Wales) Measure would support our goal of extending choice and autonomy and improve access to timely support. I'm particularly keen to extend the opportunity to request a reassessment to children and young people, giving them parity in law with adults.

We do, however, of course, need to be cautious about how we take forward reforms to a system that currently operates on a Wales-and-England basis. There are consequences to creating an increasingly divergent system, which may add complexity in a system that, at the moment, is generally the same between Wales and England, and involves both devolved and reserved functions. And in legislating to change parts of the system and not others, we will need to avoid fragmenting an already complex landscape and causing confusion for professionals and those receiving care. That complexity could increase if there's wider UK legislation about other parts of the system in the future.

I've always believed we should only use primary legislation to achieve things we can't achieve without it, and we have an ambitious ongoing programme of work to improve mental health and mental health support in Wales. In the new year, we will be publishing our new mental health strategy for Wales, which will establish our long-term vision for mental health. This will be underpinned by a series of delivery plans that will set out in more detail the actions we will take in the shorter and medium terms to work towards that vision.

Alongside the mental health strategy, we'll also be consulting on our suicide and self-harm strategy. Both strategies build upon our current cross-Government and multisectoral approach to improve mental health and well-being in Wales. We've also provided dedicated resource to the NHS executive to drive improvements in the quality and performance of our NHS services. This will be done through the establishment of a strategic programme for mental health and a mental health patient safety programme. Our aim is to deliver better and more equitable outcomes, access and experience, reduce unwarranted variation and improve population mental health. The national programme is the critical interface between Welsh Government policy and service delivery, providing direction and support to NHS Wales organisations and public and third sector bodies.

There are other steps that we intend taking to improve mental health delivery in Wales that we can do without primary legislation. This includes exploring with partners how we can better utilise the workforce by expanding the range of health professionals able to undertake a local primary mental health support service assessment and to undertake the care co-ordination role under the mental health Measure; exploring with partners the introduction of advanced choice documents; and exploring how to enable the use of digital to make services more efficient and responsive, which might include digital signatures and the digital transmission of statutory documentation. I'm very grateful to the Member for his acknowledgement of our plans in this regard today.

To conclude, in relation to the proposed principles, I agree that these are the right principles that should drive the way all services are delivered. I see these as something cultural that needs to be woven throughout the whole system, rather than applied to some aspects of the system and not others, and this will need more detailed consideration to get this right. I want to conclude by recognising the sincere commitment of the Member to make improvements in mental health support for some of our most vulnerable citizens. I want to give his proposals the chance for more detailed consideration. I and the Government will therefore be supporting the motion before us today. Diolch.

15:50

I'd like to thank James Evans for bringing this proposed Bill before the Senedd today. Changes in the Mental Health Act are long overdue. The Mental Health Act is now 40 years old, and we need to bring mental health laws into the twenty-first century, so I congratulate James on his endeavours and his championing of mental health in the Siambr.

As I've mentioned many times here, getting to grips with mental health is one of the major policy challenges of our age. A survey released by the Mental Health Foundation in Wales in May laid bare the scale of the issue across Wales. It found that six in 10 Welsh adults experienced anxiety that interfered with their daily lives at some point during the preceding fortnight, and that over a quarter of Welsh adults who felt anxious did so to the extent that it stopped them from doing what they like or need to do most or all of the time.

The impact of the pandemic has predictably exacerbated these issues. A study by the Wales Governance Centre revealed that the share of people experiencing severe mental health issues increased from 11.7 per cent during the period immediately before the pandemic to 28.1 per cent by April 2021. We should also consider the particular barriers facing young people, who currently face waiting times for local primary mental health support services that are significantly longer than those for adults. Given that the Government's target to provide 80 per cent of children and young people with an assessment within 28 days of referral has not been met for some time, it is unsurprising that the 'Wellbeing of Wales' report for 2023 has shown a downward trend in the life satisfaction of 11 to 16-year-olds from 2017-18 to 2021-22. 

Thankfully, in recent years we have witnessed the long-overdue shift in societal attitudes towards mental health. There is now a greater willingness to openly discuss mental health issues in a non-judgmental manner, and to challenge harmful societal stigmas that are frequently preventing people struggling with their mental health from accessing necessary support. As politicians, it is vital that we harness this positive change in attitudes to deliver tangible practical benefits, and thanks to our co-operation agreement with the Welsh Government, Plaid Cymru is doing just that. 

For example, we've delivered the first ever 24/7 mental health hub in Wales at Carmarthen, which is providing bespoke support for young people as and when they need it, thus going some way towards addressing the problems with long waiting lists I referenced earlier. On the back of the success of this scheme, we're also expecting similar projects to be implemented across the other health boards in Wales during the new year. But we fully acknowledge that this is one step forward in a long journey, and that much more can and should be done.

As the explanatory memorandum to this Bill rightly alludes to, addressing the shortcomings in the UK Mental Health Act is an obvious place to start. This echoes what Plaid Cymru have been saying for some time regarding the outdated state of mental health legislation, which doesn't fully serve the needs of the people of Wales. 

I therefore commend James Evans for bringing this matter forward today. It stands in stark contrast to the failure of the Westminster Government to include a specific commitment to reviewing the Mental Health Act in the current legislative agenda. Indeed, the devastating impact of 13 years of austerity on mental health services emphatically underlines the sheer neglect of Westminster on this vital issue. To quote an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health,  

'austerity and associated policies have combined to increase the overall burden of mental distress and marginalisation within the UK.'

It's one of the great benefits of devolution, therefore, that we do have the ability, however constrained it may be at present, to at least pick up some of Westminster's slack on important issues such as mental health. These reforms proposed by the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire today will rightly see people not just as patients but as individuals with rights, preferences and expertise, who are able to rely on a system that supports them and only intervenes proportionately. This could be a significant moment in how we support those with severe and enduring mental health issues, which will give people more autonomy over their care and will tackle disparities for all who access services. The amendment to the mental health Measure will ensure parity for young people in how they may receive support within these services, and this is therefore an opportunity to implement meaningful change.  

Turning to other specifics of the proposed Bill, I wonder if the Member could explain what assessment he's made of its interaction with existing Welsh legislation such as the Mental Health (Wales) Measure 2010 and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The explanatory memorandum also mentions the need to promote the person's dignity and to exercise the functions of the Mental Health Act in the least restrictive and least invasive manner, principles that we wholeheartedly endorse. Given the fact—[Interruption.] I’m just about to come to an end; diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Given the fact that poor mental health outcomes are particularly prevalent amongst trans people, with a 2017 Stonewall report on Welsh schools revealing that 77 per cent of trans children have deliberately harmed themselves, 92 per cent have thought about taking their own life and 41 per cent have attempted to take their own life, does the Member agree with me that upholding the spirit of these principles should include a conscious effort on the part of all politicians to show greater sensitivity and empathy in how they discuss matters related to gender identity?

Thank you for your patience.

16:00

I’d like to first congratulate my colleague James Evans on his pragmatic and timely Bill, which seeks to safeguard the future of mental health provision in line with modern therapeutic understanding. My constituency of Monmouth, much like the Member’s own constituency, is distinct in many ways due to its rural geography. Most notably we have a significantly higher proportion of people who work in the agricultural sector against the Welsh average. There is a breadth of research that tells us that those in farming and rural communities are likely to face higher than average rates of depression and suicide, with the Farm Safety Foundation reporting that one farmer a week in the UK dies by suicide.

I’m pleased that this Bill seeks to introduce virtual assessments for mental health support, as I feel that this will go a significant way in tackling the access issues faced by so many in the rural community. When you live rurally, things such as travelling to medical facilities are far more challenging, so by ensuring that mental health assessments can be done remotely, this opens up the pathway for so many across Wales. This simple change extends far beyond just supporting the rural community. Access to mental health diagnosis will be made far, far easier for disabled people, those with 24-hour caring duties and the elderly—again, all groups who are disproportionately susceptible to poor mental health.

It's also undeniable that the rising rate of mental health issues amongst our children and young people is nothing short of alarming. Just today, following her 19-day trek from Chepstow, Emma Webb arrived in London with her model horse to raise awareness for mental health in young people. Her 16-year-old daughter and keen equestrian, Brodie, sadly took her life in 2020. Throughout this journey Emma highlighted the stigma that young people face with asking for support. This Bill, by ensuring that there is no age limit on who can request a reassessment of their mental health, will ensure that our young people get parity in care. This will go a considerable way in ensuring that our young people in Wales have agency, that they will not be met with doubt.

I would like to again congratulate James and put on the record my support for his truly beneficial Bill. This Bill does not just ensure that mental health is fit for today, but also preserves the future of our Welsh citizens for years to come. We have a duty in this Parliament to put legislation in place, or amend existing legislation, to protect those that find themselves vulnerable for periods in their lives when dealing with their mental health. I encourage all Members to allow this draft Bill to proceed and hopefully develop in a way that improves how we support those suffering. Thank you.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I want to say a huge ‘thank you’ to James for doing this. It means an awful lot to many, many people. A significant amount of work has been undertaken in recent years to review the way in which the Mental Health Act of 1983 operates, including listening and responding to a significant range of lived experience of being subject to detention under the Act. It really is the lived experience that is so vital. I don’t think that, unless you’ve ever had a loved one or yourself ever come close to being sectioned under that Act, you can ever really understand how terrifying it is, and, as you’ve mentioned, Mabon, how removed from your own advocacy and agency you are in that moment.

Despite a lot of talk—you are right, James—about mental health, and a lot more, I think, now, about anxiety and depression, I do think that some of the more serious cases of mental health and wellness are far less talked about, and there is still too much stigma around that. I am a big believer that you can recover from that moment of crisis. I think a lot of it can sometimes be down to substance misuse, which, again, I’m a big believer that you can recover from if you have the correct care and support. I think this is an opportunity for all of us, really, just to say to people that you should never be worried about reaching out for that help, you should never be worried about needing to take medication, if that's what you've been advised by your clinician, and that we want to live in a world where you are heard, you are listened to and you are still treated like a human being. I think that's what is really summed up in all of the principles that you have here: the choice and autonomy, least restriction, therapeutic benefit and the person as an individual. I agree with all of them, and as chair of the cross-party group on eating disorders we touched on this last week and many of them could relate to what you're trying to achieve here. Many of them have been detained, of course, inside and outside of Wales. 

It is the criteria for detention that I did want to focus on. The Bill will enshrine a change in the criteria for detention to ensure that people can only be detained if they pose a serious risk of harm to either themselves or others, and there must be a reasonable prospect of therapeutic benefit to the patient. I know myself—I have a constituent who has been detained outside Wales—it's been almost impossible for myself or her family or anybody in Wales to find out exactly what the long-term plan is. Is she just locked up forever? Or is there, actually, a clinical therapeutic plan that one day she will be able to come home and live a fulfilled life. This is crucial. 

Also, the code of practice for Wales already sets out that services should be provided in line with the presumption of capacity. It should be the least restrictive option. It should serve a person's best interests, and it should maximise a person's independence. I have young people who contact me on a regular basis on my Instagram messages—they're probably watching today—who say that they've been put on a general ward in one of our hospitals because they needed some—usually—energy feeding. Completely inappropriate and they were like:

'I'd much rather go in for my treatment and then go home to my mam.'

And I think that this will help them to be able to say:

'This is what I want, this is what I need, this is what would be the best care for me.'

And then, finally, removing the age limits for reassessment is absolutely vital. I will always support increased alignment with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Children and young people's voices must always be heard. I understand that sometimes they can't necessarily be cared for in the way that they would want to, but their voices still need to be heard and be asked for and be listened to. I have first-hand experience of how terrifying and really unhelpful it is when this does not happen. 

So, thank you again, James Evans, and everybody who has helped you with this as well. Mind Cymru have been in touch with me, as have the members, as I said, of my cross-party group on eating disorders. I will be supporting, today, the introduction of your Member's Bill, the mental health standards of care (Wales) Bill, and I hope to explore this further in the future. Diolch. 

16:05

I am really pleased to see this Bill put forward by James Evans. I think one of the first conversations James and I had after being elected was around mental health, and in particular male mental health. I think the person-centred approach is the right way forward here, and what I'm hoping, actually, we're able to discuss further as this Bill progresses is the challenge there is around, actually, reaching out to those who find it difficult or are reluctant to seek help in the first place. And I'm particularly talking here about my generation. You know, I grew up in a society that told me that it's important to discuss how I'm feeling, to be in tune with my emotions, but I was brought up by a generation that doesn't know how to do that. And so it's almost a paradoxical state of being. I can't tell you how hard it is, actually, to be sitting or standing somewhere knowing that I need to get stuff off my chest, but then having just that little reluctance within me that is ingrained. And I think that is truly a cultural hangover. I think it's particularly prevalent in working-class communities as well.

So, what I really hope that we get out of this Bill and discussions around this Bill is how we reach out to those people. Because I know I've had to work through it; I know a lot of my mates have had to work through it as well. So, I really do hope that the Senedd looks to approve this Bill today—[Interruption.]—so that we can have a further discussion on this issue. I will give way to Jack Sargeant.

I'm grateful, Luke Fletcher, for taking the intervention. And it's the comment where you said that you have struggled sometimes to open up and speak about mental health. I've had many conversations with James Evans as well about my own struggles with mental health. Do you think that the very reason someone like James can talk to me and talk to you about our own struggles just proves the importance of this Bill going through today?

Yes, 100 per cent. I think that's why it was important, or I felt compelled at least, to speak in this debate today as well. Because I think having people like me, like you, Jack, like James being able to discuss these issues right here on the floor of the Senedd,in what is a very public place as well, is very important in terms of, actually, showing those people who are reluctant to reach out for help, particularly who are of our age, that it is okay to do it. The stigma is still there. We hear constantly that the stigma is gone or is going, but I can tell you now that, especially in working-class communities, that stigma is still there. So, I really do hope that this Bill allows us the space to discuss this, and allows the Senedd as well to debate these issues, so that we can further improve mental health services for people across Wales. 

16:10