Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

10/01/2024

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

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Economy

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary meeting. The first item this afternoon will be questions to the Minister for Economy, and the first question is from Sioned Williams. 

Job Losses at Tata Steel

1. Will the Minister provide an update regarding the potential job losses at Tata Steel in Port Talbot? OQ60456

Thank you for the question.

Tata Steel UK are yet to announce details of proposals for the future at Port Talbot whilst informal consultation with trade unions is still ongoing. I have continued to make the case for increased investment from the UK Government to safeguard the steel sector as a sovereign asset. The First Minister and I continue to engage with the company and with trade unions.

Diolch, Weinidog. It's good to hear that, because many people in the region I represent are facing a terrifically hard new year. As the workers employed at Tata Steel, their families, those in the town and its neighbouring communities look ahead, the picture is still one of terrible uncertainty, deep worry and concern. There's still no firm news, as you've indicated, no clear indication of what this next year holds for those skilled workers and their families, and many are finding themselves now forced to look for other employment in order to be assured that they will be able to continue to pay their bills and provide for themselves and their families. And local companies also, in the wider supply chain, are finding it difficult to plan, and those whose trade relies on the works and the workforce are facing, obviously, an equally anxious year. So, could you describe exactly what the Welsh Government is doing to put the case to save those jobs, as you've outlined, and retain that skilled workforce in the Port Talbot area? Also, are you ensuring that all developments are communicated promptly, directly and clearly to those affected, because this is especially important as the workforce and those who work in the supply chains live across a wide area—in Neath Port Talbot, in Bridgend, in Swansea, indeed from Cardiff to Carmarthen?

I understand very well the uncertainty both for the directly employed workforce and, indeed, for those people who have jobs and businesses that are indirectly reliant on current activities in Port Talbot—not just in Port Talbot, but much further afield as well, which is why I visited Llanwern and Trostre as well. So, I understand that this is a significant employer with a significant footprint. It's part of the reason why we've been so directly engaged not just with the company and trade unions but also in making the case to the UK Government, in writing, certainly, and with Ministers that we have met, about why Tata should be seen as a sovereign asset. For the future of steel making, for the economy we wish to create as well as the one we have today, we'll need to be able to produce our own steel and the types of steel as well. My concern is, in doing that—and we have been very clear and consistent in each of our conversations about what we want to see happen—if we can't move the UK Government, and the current UK Government are only prepared to invest in the future in the way they are, that potentially, I think, sets a horizon for what the company can do. If there is an alternative UK Government that is prepared to invest more, then actually that sets a different horizon. And the time frame in which choices need to be made is all part of this.

Now, I think most people engaged in and around the sector understand that very well. What I can't and won't do is give a running commentary on each of the conversations, as I think that will add to the uncertainty, because whilst the direct negotiations are taking place, they're in the informal stage, not the formal stage, and I think that's important, too. I don't want to give the impression that there is guaranteed to be a large number of job losses. It's entirely plausible that will not happen if another agreement is reached. So, I recognise the uncertainty, but I think that is better than setting out a path where there are guaranteed job losses that are not certain. In the meantime, we will carry on doing the work, indeed, with the UK Government, trade unions and the company itself until we have a further announcement. As soon as there is a more definitive announcement, you can be sure that I'll return to the Chamber to update Members.

Thank you, Sioned, for raising this question. Minister, Christmas and the new year has been a period of great uncertainty and worry for the workforce at Tata Steel in Port Talbot, with potentially up to 3,000 job losses. The UK Government has shown its commitment to producing steel in a cleaner way by providing up to £500 million of funding to help keep the plant open. However, the executive vice-president of Sweden's H2 Green Steel company said in December that Tata's Port Talbot plant may have to give up on making new steel and should focus on recycled steel instead. What discussions have you had, Minister, with Tata on this issue and can you confirm that the Welsh Government remains committed to making Port Talbot greener, protecting as many jobs as possible? Thank you.

13:35

I think the difficulty with what the Member has said is that his last point about protecting as many jobs as possible doesn’t match up with the start about giving the biggest possible job loss figures. And I’ve made that point clear to UK Ministers, including the Secretary of State for Wales, and I don’t think it’s helpful to keep on socialising the biggest and worst possible outcome. I actually think that the negotiations that are taking place need to have the space to take place on the scale of the transition, because the transition to greener steel making is envisaged by all sides in this.

Since I became the economy Minister, and we can remember back to when Kwasi Kwarteng wasn’t a short-lived Chancellor but was the business, energy and industrial strategy Secretary of State, there were conversations then, which had been taking place for some time before, about how a transition to a greener form of steel making should take place. What I don’t accept is that that should take place on the basis that Welsh workers’ jobs are off-shored to other parts of the world where steel making won’t be greener than the process we have now, and actually the potential increase in emissions not just from a different steel-making process that isn’t in itself greener, but then in the emissions cost of transferring that steel to be rolled in the UK. And that, again, is why I think it should be seen as a sovereign asset, because it is essential for the future of the UK that we can produce steel, but different grades of it. Recycled steel will be part of that. I have an electric-arc-furnace-producing steel company in my constituency. You can see it when you walk outside the Senedd—you can see where CELSA is in my constituency. It’s part of the answer, but also it’s about those different types of steel making and how you go on a journey to decarbonising that delivers a genuinely just transition.

As someone who used to work in iron and steel making, known as the heavy end, for British Steel, I believe we need the production of steel from iron into the finished product. An electric arc furnace depends on cheap and available scrap, plus cheap electricity, both of which we know are not certain. The trade unions have put forward a proposal that will see Tata transition to a decarbonised steel-making industry that also looks to keep more steelworkers employed at Port Talbot and that will open the door for the continuation of virgin steel making, allowing the quality of steel produced to feed other sites and markets across the UK. Will you press Tata to accept this pathway for the future of steel making in Wales and will you call on the UK Government to ensure that steel making in Wales has the greatest combination of steel-making processes?

This has been part of our consistent ask on all sides in this, and it's why I make the point about the co-investment that the UK Government are prepared to make matters for the end product that will happen. It matters about the length of time of any transition. And whilst electric arc steel is part of the future and, I think, we would expect that there are different grades of steel that could be made by electric arc in the future, actually, we also understand that virgin steel, as it's often called in the sector, is also part of what we're going to need. If we want to have steel plate produced in larger numbers to help take advantage of not just the opportunity to decarbonise power, but the economic development and jobs opportunities that exist off our shoreline, then we're going to need more plate steel, and I would much rather that that is produced within the UK, within Wales, and that would then mean that we're not as vulnerable to other parts of the world for the imports we would otherwise need. So, it continues to be part of our case that we would want to see the maximum amount of steel being produced and in more than one process to safeguard not just the jobs that exist here—and, as has already been said, not just in the Neath Port Talbot area—but much further afield, and what that also means for downstream businesses. So, that continues to be our case and we will continue to make that case with all partners: the trade unions, the company and, indeed, the UK Government.

Green Jobs

Thank you for the question. Our economic mission identifies just transition and green prosperity as one of our four national priority areas. This includes realising the enormous net-zero opportunities across Wales from our natural environment to support business growth, good jobs and a just transition.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. There's a lot to welcome, but do you share my concerns that the UK Government is falling behind in the race for green jobs—for example, its failure to get any bids over the line for offshore wind at the last Government auction? Not only is this a blow to our renewable power strategy, but it's a huge missed opportunity to secure the future of green jobs. Have you had any discussions with UK Ministers on this, and do you share my hope that the next round will deliver new projects?

13:40

I think Joyce Watson is entirely right—it was a significant missed opportunity in the last round not to have a better and more significant strike price, the support available for new technologies. That meant that not a single offshore wind project came forward—there were no bids made by the whole sector anywhere in the UK. And it came because the UK Government refused to listen to what they were being told by the industry and, indeed, by this Government. Both I and the climate change Minister made clear that this would not see projects being bid for and delivered. And the risk is the advantage we currently enjoy now can be lost. So, I hope that, in the next phase, we will see projects being able to be taken forward. The UK Government have moved; there is a much more significant strike price available now, the support. If that had been available in the last round, as we said it should do, we could see, for example, project Erebus, from the Member's region, already well on the way to deployment. And the Welsh Government made significant moves to make sure that it was consented and available. This is about greener power. It's also about the significant amounts of greener jobs for the future. I want to see those here in Wales. I'm committed to using our powers here in the Welsh Government to do so, and, indeed, I hope that the future UK Labour Government have much greater pace in taking advantage of the opportunities available.

Minister, you'll be aware of the green energy opportunities that lie in west Wales, not least because I've continuously raised them, but also you seem to be spending an awful lot of time in west Wales of late. But these aren't just opportunities; there is an absolute necessity to get this right, from futureproofing skills to supporting decarbonisation so that industries in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, and right across the south Wales industrial cluster, are given the very best conditions to not only survive but to thrive too. And I've previously raised the need to look at the geographical area of SWIC not just as an industrial cluster but also as a skills and academic space, given the transferability of skills and the proximity of industries in that region. Now, I wonder what further consideration, Minister, you've given to this, or could it even make its way into your leadership manifesto?

Well, skills for the future are part of what we set out in the economic mission that I've already set out. Skills for the future have been part of the conversation I've had with Joyce Watson and other stakeholders in Pembrokeshire, and beyond. The challenge, though, is our resources to be able to accelerate and take up the opportunities that are available. That's why Joyce Watson's initial question and supplementary are so important. It is making sure that UK levers are in the right place to ensure that we do take advantage of the opportunities that, to be fair, Samuel Kurtz has mentioned in the past. To see that potential become realised, we need stability in the UK Government, predictability and investment in our future, and I look forward to that being the case, if not with the current Government, then certainly with the one that I hope will follow.

Good afternoon, Minister. I'm following through as well on the same sort of issue around FLOW, which I know both Samuel and Joyce are very committed to. And it is about skills. I think I've used this statistic before, but I think it's worth repeating: experts estimate that 10,000 new jobs  are needed to manufacture just 1 GW of floating offshore wind. And we could be looking at 4.5 GW going through until 2030, which would be around 20,000 new jobs, which is a real asset for west Wales. But it is about those skills, which you touched on, I realise, in your last response. But there is, as far as I understand it, some capacity and influence that the Welsh Government has, particularly over the net-zero skills action plan. So, it's trying to understand, if I may, from you, Minister, what action needs to be in place for us to accelerate that net-zero skills action plan. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you for the question. In fact, the net-zero skills consultation that follows the plan has recently closed, and it will help us to build an evidence base, and then understand the current position on skills, because there is investment already taking place. There's innovation in understanding what the sectors will need, and as to what we then do to support the development of more specific sector skills acquisition. We already have some of that in place, though. For example, there's a flexible skills programme that I launched last October. It's aimed at employers and provides 50 per cent of the funding to support a range of courses for businesses to help their workforce to adapt. So, it isn't simply about looking at the longer term future; it's actually about investing in the workforce in the here and now to make sure they have the right skills in place.

But you're right to point out that it's a significant economic opportunity. It's why, going back to Joyce Watson's question, it is so important to get the UK level right as well, because all of those jobs don't have to be created here in Wales. And, as an example, I know there's a demonstrator—an offshore wind demonstrator—that's been created in the Netherlands and floated up off the shore of Scotland. Now, that's great news for the port of Rotterdam, not great news for the jobs that could and should be created here in Wales for the future. So, it shows that the risk of inaction is real. Other parts of the world are not just watching, they're acting, and that's what I want the UK Government to do. And the Welsh Government, with the resources we have available, will do all in our power to take advantage of the opportunities that, undoubtedly, do exist.

13:45
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Paul Davies. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Happy new year, Minister: 2024 promises to be a very interesting year for the Welsh economy, and a very interesting year for you too, perhaps. [Laughter.] Now, according to the Welsh Government's own dashboard figures, Wales's employment rate ranks ninth out of 12 UK countries and regions. So, Minister, what new, measurable outcomes will you be taking this year to increase Wales's employment rate, so that we don't continue to lag in the bottom half of the rankings for the foreseeable future?

Actually, it's been one of the success stories of devolution. We've made real progress in the employment rate, and, indeed, the unemployment figures as well. We are in a much better position now compared to the start of devolution. And when it comes, not just to that progress, where at the start, of course, we were always significantly behind the UK rate of unemployment, with much higher unemployment rates here, you now see that we regularly track or are below the UK rate. And that is real progress. And when it then comes to the employment rate, we are still a little behind the UK figures, but, actually, again, we've seen real progress in that. So, devolution has seen progress; it's about the rate of progress we can still make. 

And, of course, you'll know this: that we're affected by UK-wide choices. When the economy is slowing down across the UK, it affects us here in Wales too. The reality of, essentially, zero growth in the UK economy affects us here in Wales, as indeed it does other regions outside London and the south-east. I look forward to stability and purpose in the UK Government, and you will find, here, that the stability and purpose of this Government will match and go beyond that to create more jobs and better jobs here in Wales. 

Well, we can see that the Minister is already practising his First Minister's questions by blaming someone else for Wales's economic woes.

Nothing constructive to turn things around, just political pot shots as usual. Perhaps he's spent too much time campaigning lately rather than focusing on the job he currently has.

Well, Minister, that's not the only data that presents a real challenge for the Welsh economy. The same dashboard shows that Wales is ranked eighth when it comes to median gross weekly earnings for full-time employees, and also ranks eleventh out of 12 when it comes to gross value added per head compared to other parts of the UK, again demonstrating the need for new ideas and new measures.

Of course, we've heard from his colleague the education Minister about his thoughts on the Welsh economy. He's pledged to direct the establishment of a new national economic council to advise the Government on strategic policies to deliver sustainable economic prosperity and solidarity. So, Minister, do you agree with your colleague, and, if you do, why haven't you already established a new economic council to advise the Government on economic matters, like improving Wales's employment rate and supporting businesses?

Of course, we do already have a range of advice available to us from external stakeholders that I enjoy good and constructive relationships with. I think the Member needs to return to the truth of some of the matters here. It's always a brave Tory attempt to say that everything is the responsibility of someone who isn't the UK Prime Minister or the UK Chancellor. There have been many changes in those offices, and I do appreciate he'll struggle to keep up, but the truth is that not just 13 years and counting, nearly 14 years of austerity, has had a real impact on the economy.

The reason why we have had the biggest fall in living standards on record comes from the occupants of Downing Street; the reason why we have the highest tax burden on working people comes directly from the occupants of Downing Street. It's fine for Tories to come here and say, 'It's all someone else's fault.' I think people in Wales and beyond know very well who is responsible for the economic future we face, if there is any further increase in the time available for the Tories in Downing Street. I look forward to seeing you swept from power across the UK and an entirely different future available. 

13:50

Well, clearly you don't agree with your colleague the education Minister, but I suppose we'll have to wait and see whether the creation of a new economic council becomes a reality later this year. Now, in the meantime, the Welsh Government has published its draft budget, a budget that sees funding for apprenticeships cut significantly, despite the Minister only recently emphasising the importance of creating employment, self-employment and training opportunities for young people in his renewed economic mission. The same budget sees a reduction in funding for business and trade support and for those working in retail, hospitality and leisure. There is also a reduction in support via the non-domestic rates relief for these sectors.

So, whilst there is pressure on all Government budgets, politics is a language of priorities and your renewed economic mission, all four points of it, prioritises skills and investing for growth, yet almost every area of the economy is facing a cut in the Welsh Government's draft budget, and your department's overall budget is itself receiving a real-terms cut. Therefore, can you tell us how you realistically plan to improve the Welsh economy when your department is facing a real-terms cut? How can the Welsh Government help employers to upskill their workforce and grow their businesses by cutting the budget for apprenticeships? And how can Welsh businesses have any confidence in a Government that launches a renewed economic mission just to self-sabotage it by slashing funding to those areas that directly underpin that mission? 

I think people understand full well who the saboteurs are for the Welsh and UK economy, Mr Davies, and it's you and your party. [Interruption.] Yesterday was an extraordinary exercise in denying the truth: speech after speech from the Tories, bemoaning the realities of our budget, demanding spending pledges in every area, more money for health, more money for local government, more money for education and schools, and yet nowhere did they explain where the money would come from. Nowhere did they take responsibility for the fact that our budget has been cut yet again in real terms by the Tories. And when it comes to apprenticeships, in the last year, we invested £147 million in apprenticeships, the highest figure spent in any single year since devolution began.

The difficult choices we face are a direct result of the Conservative Party being in power across the UK. And, of course, this is a party that has celebrated and welcomed the loss of former EU funds and powers from Wales. That was in their manifesto. They welcomed the new approach, and that has actually meant that, in apprenticeships, that money has disappeared. I'm very proud of the fact that I've led on making sure there is a commitment from a future UK Labour Government for powers and money to come back here. I'm very clear that if and when that happens I will ensure there is a new national apprenticeship approach the Tories chose to destroy. That is a solution, that is a commitment from this Government, a commitment made by UK leadership, a decision that the Conservatives will not take and a decision that others in this place cannot take. I'm proud to be on the right side of this argument and in favour of reality.

Diolch, Llywydd. The cost of living easily translated into the cost of doing business, and, in recent months, we've seen that very clearly. A number of businesses from across Wales, particularly in the hospitality sector, have been clear that they are struggling, and, no doubt, the reduction in business rates relief hasn't helped. The Government has made clear why they've made that decision in the draft budget, but what I'd like to understand is whether the Minister believes that now is the right time to reduce business rates relief, and what he would say to those businesses who have done the maths and have come to the conclusion that they cannot continue to trade.

The reality is, as the Member said, the cost-of-living crisis translates into the cost-of-doing-business crisis. The reality is that the cost of goods and services is much higher than it was even a year ago, even as the rate of inflation has reduced from those record highs. That also means there is less money in the pockets of people who come into those small businesses, and it goes back to the point I made to the Conservative spokesperson, that under the Conservatives' watch, after nearly 14 years in office, we have seen the biggest fall in living standards and the biggest rise in the tax burden for working people.

The challenge we have is in setting a sense of priority, and if health and local government are to be our priorities, that has consequences in every other part of the budget, and small businesses owners, for example, understand that. Not just because they're users of the service, but some of them are also contractors with those services as well. So, I think people see there's an honest choice by this Government to prioritise areas where we can make the biggest possible difference, to make sure we continue to provide support for, in particular, small businesses across the economy, but to do so in a way that has honesty around it. Again, I respect the fact that other people want different choices to be made. When we go through budget scrutiny, it will be interesting to see if there are proposals about where to take money from to provide extra resources in some areas of the Government. There is no way of avoiding the reality of the choices that we have to make.

13:55

The question I asked was whether or not you believed it was the right time to reduce business rates relief, and you set out, quite rightly, why now is not the right time to do so when businesses are facing rising costs through inflation and rising energy prices. I think the very fact that businesses rely so heavily on rates relief shows that business rates need reform.

Previously, the Government has talked about its interest in exploring reform, so where is the Government on that? Now, the Government has previously said that, eventually, there would be a taper off of support. So, you knew that this would happen. You knew it was coming. So, what have you done with the time? Because businesses need a better system.

And that's work that the finance Minister is leading on. We've taken steps, for example, on reducing the multiplier here in Wales. That provides a permanent and long-term benefit, whereas rate relief is for one year only. And he also needs to look at the fact, in terms of comparing ourselves to other parts of the country, that we have lower ratable values on property here in Wales than other parts of the UK. So, actually, that's part of the factor about the base of costs.

I recognise it's a really difficult time for businesses across the economy, because growth has been so sclerotic across the UK. The challenge is: what can we do with the resources we have, and what can we do in resetting what can and will take place across the UK? That will allow the business rate reform that our finance Minister is already looking at to take place in a different context. I am optimistic about the future despite our current difficulties, and I look forward to creating that future in partnership with a very different Government across the UK, with a different set of values that align with where this Government wants to take the economy for the people of Wales.

Speed Limit of 20 mph

3. What assessment has the Minister made of the expected impact of the blanket 20mph speed limit on the Welsh economy? OQ60476

There is no blanket speed limit in place. Our regulatory impact assessment of the 20 mph default estimates wider economic benefits due to improved road safety of £1.4 billion, environmental and health benefits from more active travel of £0.5 billion, and further unquantified benefits from more vibrant and connected local economies. 

Minister, it's been several months now since the introduction of the 20 mph blanket speed limit, a measure forced on the Welsh public. [Interruption.] It caused outrage right across the board. Nearly 0.5 million people were motivated—[Interruption.] Half a million people were motivated to sign the petition to reverse the policy.

You and your leadership election rival have both committed to a review of the policy, which would lead me to believe that you are now finally aware of its unpopularity, even within your own party. It has been widely criticised by pivotal front-line services as it can hamper emergency response times, as well as the potential disastrous £4.5 billion knock-on effect on the Welsh economy. Minister, you have been happy to go along with the policy to date, surely understanding the damage it will cause to the Welsh economy. It's clear from both yours and Jeremy Miles’s leadership proposals that you realise this policy is a non-starter, and people just aren't adhering to it, yet you plough on anyway. Can you explain why you supported it, and continue to do so?

Well, I think David Melding would be very unhappy to hear a supposed Conservative say that about a proposal he championed. I also think that if you went to Portsmouth, with its Conservative Member of Parliament who's regularly been in favour of the comprehensive default approach to speed limits there where 20 mph is the norm, I think Penny Mordaunt might find that she's quite happy with that there. And if you look at what we are doing, we've committed to a review because we want to understand the point around implementation and to listen to what the public have to say where there are specific issues in specific parts of the country. The policy isn't going to get junked; it's about how we make sure we listen, learn and move forward.

14:00
Support for Culture and the Arts

4. What is the Welsh Government's strategy for helping and supporting the arts and culture sectors in Wales? OQ60471

Wales's culture sectors are an integral part of society and the nation's well-being. The Welsh Government provides direct funding to support the arts and culture sectors, sets out strategic priorities for our cultural arm's-length bodies and acts as the development agency for the local museums, libraries and archives sectors.

Thank you to the Deputy Minister for her answer. In the Welsh Labour Government's recent budget, we've seen a significant cut to your culture portfolio, Minister. It's particularly disappointing coming off the back of warnings from a range of organisations about the impact that those decisions are having. For example, you announced a 10.5 per cent cut for Amgueddfa Cymru in the budget, and that's despite them saying they have a £90 million shortfall in their maintenance works. They mentioned works literally being at risk because of leaking walls and roofs, and buckets being in place to collect the rainwater at a number of their sites. But the Welsh Government only found £4.7 million of the £90 million required to support Amgueddfa Cymru for capital works. So, whilst the Scottish Government are increasing spending on arts and culture, the Welsh Government is cutting it, and prioritising pet projects like 20 mph speed limits and more politicians. For the first time in my life, I'm starting to wonder whether Plaid Cymru were right, because your co-operation agreement partners said that there was no champion for the arts sector around the Welsh Government Cabinet table. The evidence shows they're right, doesn't it?

I'd like to say I thank Tom Giffard for that question, but I'm not sure I do, because I really find it very difficult to take lectures from a party that has waged preventable austerity on culture, arts and sport, while trashing the UK's reputation globally. The Welsh Government is now facing, as we've heard over the last few weeks and months, the greatest shortfall in funding since the devolution era. And that's not unique to Wales; we've got local authorities in England, a lot of which are Tory-controlled councils, that have issued section 114 notices, indicating that they may become bankrupt soon. And you will have seen coverage, no doubt, this week, about Tory-controlled Suffolk County Council, which has withdrawn all its culture and sport budgets from there because they have no money to deliver it. This isn't a coincidence; this is a consequence of a decade of austerity and failing growth.

The UK Government has trashed our reputation on a global stage. Do you know that there have been seven culture secretaries since 2018 alone? And let's just look at their notable contributions, shall we, to what they've done. Nadine Dorries and Matt Hancock: when they're not using their profile to launch their reality tv careers, they're publishing works of fiction. They've brought shame to public office and put themselves before the sector. From my point of view, as the Minister for culture, I'm working closely with our colleagues in Plaid Cymru on developing our culture strategy, we're taking that forward, and we're having to do so against a backdrop of an extremely difficult financial position.

And one other thing to add into the mix: in terms of Amgueddfa Cymru and their concern around the protection of their collections, we gave them an additional £5 million capital funding last year to provide some immediate support for that. Our budget this year has increased, in total—the capital budget for Wales this year, for the whole of the Welsh Government—by £6 million. How on earth do you think that we as a Welsh Government are going to be able to do anything to plug a £50 million gap that Amgueddfa Cymru has identified in terms of capital works that they need done? If you can tell us where we can find that kind of money, Tom Giffard, then I'd be happy to sit down with you and with Amgueddfa Cymru and make sure that that is delivered.

Minister, unlike the Conservatives, I'm not crying crocodile tears about the lack of funding for arts and culture in Wales, when they will not will the means to actually provide that through the UK Treasury budget, and at the same time they decry every challenge within the Welsh Government and they demand further funding. It's completely preposterous. But, Minister, you visited recently, in my constituency—[Interruption.] And we can hear them chuntering behind, because they do not like hearing the truth, that the cuts that we are facing in Wales are a direct result of decisions by their Chancellor and their Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, who held the coat strings for the Treasury while all these decisions were made.

Minister, you recently made a visit to groups in my constituency, including the Blaengarw Workmen's Hall, Awen Cultural Trust. We also have Tanio, who invest significantly in community arts, with support of the arm's-length organisation the Arts Council of Wales. We also have massive investment going into Maesteg Town Hall, a partnership with the local authority, and we're looking forward to that being brought forward and completed as well. Would she agree with me that it's important that the Welsh Government gives the signal that from high arts to low arts—even though I hate those signals—from community arts and popular arts to the Welsh National Opera and others, we need to look to those good times and we need to look to a Government that will come in and who'll invest properly in Wales and in the arts and cultural sector?

14:05

Thank you for that question, because as I've said many times, the Welsh Government absolutely recognises the value of arts and culture sectors and the important part that they play in the well-being of our communities. So, for me, it was absolutely brilliant to come with you and visit Blaengarw Workmen's Hall, and let's not forget the football club, because they were fantastic as well, both of whom have benefited from Welsh Government and local authority funding. And I think in direct contrast to what I mentioned earlier on about Conservative-controlled Suffolk County Council, who have just scrapped their culture budget, what we've seen in Wales is Labour authorities, where they have the ability to do so, supporting local cultural organisations. And to see the work that's gone on, the £8 million investment in Maesteg Town Hall, and what that has done for the local community, cultural organisations and delivery in that area—that's in stark contrast to what we see in those other areas.

What I'd say, Huw, is, in short, that despite the challenging financial positions that we face—and all of that was starkly set out yesterday in the budget debate that we had—we will continue to work as closely as we can with our arm's-length bodies, and with local cultural organisations, to ensure that we can operate within the revised budget and still deliver the kind of community cultural cohesion that we need to see locally. Because as somebody said yesterday—I think it was Rhun ap Iorwerth—when quoting the Royal College of Nursing, it's not necessarily always about the amount of money that you have; it's what you do effectively with the money that you do have. And those are the conversations, clearly, that we have to have, going forward.

Leisure Centre Closures

5. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of proposed closures of leisure centres on community sport, physical activity and active recreation in the Caerphilly County Borough Council area? OQ60458

I thank Delyth Jewell for that question. Of course, this is matter for local consideration by Caerphilly County Borough Council. As part of any local decision making, local authorities are responsible for their own assessments of the provision of local services that may impact on people in that area.   

Diolch, Gweinidog. Leisure centres provide benefits to communities that can't only be measured in monetary terms. When they're gone, people's health and well-being will suffer hugely. You'll be aware, Minister, that there's a threat in my region to two leisure facilities: Pontllanfraith leisure centre and Risca hockey pitch are amongst the facilities at risk of closure. There is an active campaign in the area calling to save our leisure centre. I know this problem is being replicated in areas across Wales, and with cuts to Sport Wales, there's a knock-on effect on how much the Football Association of Wales and other bodies can invest in grass-roots facilities when council budgets are diminishing. Many local authorities rely on investment from organisations like these to invest in third generation pitches and changing rooms. What hope can be given to communities like Pontllanfraith, like Risca—indeed, across Wales—that their well-being won't suffer?

Thank you for that supplementary question. Obviously, there are two parts to your question. I'm very clear that the democratically elected bodies, the local authorities, are best placed to manage and organise their leisure services. Caerphilly County Borough Council, who you're quoting there, I know have a sports and active recreation strategy, which they're working to deliver at the moment. There has been extensive consultation across the county borough, and I understand decisions are yet to be made about what that future provision is going to look like. But I think to be very clear, in terms of Sport Wales funding, the reduction that we're having to look at as far as Sport Wales funding is concerned is primarily around revenue funding; there has been no cut to their capital funding. The capital funding for grass-roots facilities still remains at £8 million a year, so there is still a significant amount of work that can be done with local organisations, through both Sport Wales and the FAW, particularly on the use of multisport pitches, 3G pitches that can be used for more than one sport. I know the FAW have been very proactive in working with other national governing bodies to develop pitches that are not just for football, but for rugby and hockey, and so on. So, we have two things going on there, but I am confident that there is still enough within the budget of Sport Wales to be able to significantly support those grass-roots facilities in terms of capital projects that they need.

14:10

Minister, leisure centres are incredibly important facilities to so many people and communities up and down the country. I know my colleague Delyth Jewell has mentioned Pontllanfraith, a leisure centre in my region of south-east Wales, which is a vital community asset that residents are now rallying to save from closure. As I'm sure you can appreciate, leisure centres often offer residents an array of activities. People use them to stay fit, children often learn how to swim at leisure centres, and I know I was one of those as well. I can honestly say I spent many happy days of my childhood riding the waves at Newport leisure centre and going down the slide in a centre that's now been demolished. So, it's important that we protect these cherished facilities for the communities. However, it is keeping leisure centres running that is becoming an increasingly difficult task. So, Minister, I appreciate what you mentioned, that it's councils' responsibility, but as the Welsh Government, I know that ultimate guidance comes down from here. So, what guidance, what support and what acknowledgement are you going to be giving local councils to ensure that leisure centres can stay open, and ultimately thrive and survive as well? Thank you. 

Thank you, Natasha Asghar, for that supplementary question, but again I have to reiterate that what local authorities do with their rate support grant is a matter for the local authority. They are not hypothecated. The funding that local authorities receive is unhypothecated, and it's a matter for them how they determine their priorities in terms of what leisure services they need to deliver for their local electorate. They, of course, have to be mindful of a whole range of issues when they determine their priorities, not least public sector equalities duties, and whether closing one particular leisure centre is going to mean it's far more difficult for somebody from another part of that county borough to get to a particular area to undertake their leisure pursuits. Local authorities, like us, are all having to make really tough decisions about where their money is spent, and that will be a matter that I'm sure all of them at the moment are going through, and having to consider some of those very tough decisions in how they deliver not just leisure services but other services as well, both on the front line and in some of the more non-statutory services. 

Support for Small Businesses

6. What are the Welsh Government's plans for supporting small businesses in 2024? OQ60468

Our economic mission sets out key economic priorities for the coming year that will support small businesses to build resilience and capitalise on opportunities for innovation and sustainable growth. We will provide dedicated support available through our Business Wales service, Social Business Wales and, indeed, the Development Bank of Wales.

Thank you, Minister, for your answer. The first meeting of the year for me was on 2 January, when I was invited by a lady called Jaz Hudson, who is well known for making delicious foods and cakes in her cafe at Glansevern Hall between Newtown and Welshpool. She was organising a Better Business Network event, where she invited a number of business locally to come together to share ideas and support each other. I mentioned that I was going to be asking you a question this week, and they suggested a question to put to you, which I thought was apt, considering we are at the beginning of a new year and your leadership aspirations. But they asked what is the single most important change that you could make to support business growth and what is it that is preventing you from doing so at the moment. And further to that, they also wanted me to extend an invitation to you to join them at their next networking event.

I actually think that what we could do in terms of the powers we have is all about the skills that people have, including the small business sector. I'd like to invest more in the support, advice and qualifications for people, as we did successfully with our EU funding. It made a real difference. The biggest barrier is the fact that we don't have access to that. We don't have the ability to make those choices anymore because of choices that have been made about the way that former EU funds have been allocated—not just the amount, but the fact that we can’t use them on an all-Wales level to design programmes that really do make a difference. Whether it’s apprenticeships, whether it’s having people gaining their qualifications, whether it’s the ability to trade with confidence and success, I’m afraid, Russell, that for you, at least, the biggest thing that we could do to have the ability to do that in the future is to elect a new Government across the UK. 

14:15

Finding staff is one of the greatest challenges facing small businesses. Anglesey's Môn CF has worked hard to build a relationship with businesses to identify their staffing needs and try and find opportunities for unemployed people. Unfortunately, they're facing a cut of over 40 per cent in their funding through the Communities for Work programme, although they have more than doubled their target in terms of job creation. Now, there's a great variation in the performance of these programmes across Wales, but can the Minister look again, and at least ensure that those who have reached or gone beyond their targets are protected from cuts in order to ensure that they can continue with the good work of job creation? I will be writing to the Minister on this issue—I did so earlier today, in fact, and I look forward to providing some good news to Môn CF, that it would be possible to look again at the news that they've been given. 

Thank you for the question.

I need to be just direct and upfront about the budget position. We really have got £1.3 billion less in real terms than two years ago, and you can't hide that scale of reduction in our spending power. If we are going, as we have chosen to, to protect the local government settlement, to invest more in health, that has budget consequences everywhere else in the Government. And I think that is the right choice that we have made as a Government. That therefore means that you have to make reductions in other parts of spending. So, in all of the employability areas that I would like to invest more in, in the shorter term we can’t if we’re going to meet our budget challenge. So, it doesn’t just affect Communities for Work, it affects other areas too as well.

I know your colleague Luke Fletcher has talked about apprenticeships, but, actually, if you’re going to be honest with him you’ve got to set out that, if you want to meet the bottom line, and if health and local government are priorities for all the things they do, you’ve got to make some other choices. I’d like to see—. And if there is a way to look at alternatives within the budget, to put more money into other areas, I’d be very interested in seeing what that looks like. As Rebecca Evans said yesterday, the Conservatives have taken more than a decade before they've actually proposed an alternative budget. We don’t just face scrutiny about why we can’t find more money in the process through committees—we still have to lay a budget that this Senedd can pass, and which will balance.

So, I’d be more than happy to look at the correspondence from the Member, but what I can’t tell him is that I have an extra sum of money waiting to be spent. So, I’d be very grateful to see the correspondence, to consider it, and actually we’re reviewing already how our employability and skills programmes work and work together. That’s work we’re looking to do jointly with local government and others, because we recognise the value of what we’ve done, and we’re trying to protect and enhance that for the future, and have a model we can invest more in in the future if we do have a different financial settlement moving forwards.

Minister, in the run-up to Christmas, Aberdare business improvement district put on an exciting programme of events to encourage people into the town centre. Key to this were interventions to promote the fantastic small businesses that we have in the town, for example through a Christmas loyalty scheme offering people vouchers to spend in local shops. So, Minister, will you join me in congratulating Aberdare BID for their amazing Aberdare Christmas festival? But more generally, what sort of interventions are you and colleagues across Welsh Government taking to support and develop those small businesses that we have in our town centres?

Thank you. Some Members will know what a BID involves. It involves a bid from local businesses working with their local authorities to then look at priorities for investing in small businesses, and if successful there'll be a levy that everyone pays that then allows them to invest in those priorities. And 'shop local' schemes are very much a part of that. What we will continue to do is to provide not just insight for opportunities for development and growth, but look to work with the Business Wales service to understand how we can help different local businesses to see a future where there is more local trade coming in. Some parts of Wales are very successful at it, whether it's Narberth or whether it's some towns in the Valleys as well, where they've got very vibrant, local small businesses, often driven by independents within that sector. So, we will carry on looking to work directly with those businesses to make sure we continue to not just recognise the future of the retail sector, but more than that, to help people to start new businesses as well. That's why I have been pleased to announce a further round of our start-up grant to help new entrepreneurs with up to £2,000 to set up a business—not just the money, but the advice that comes alongside it.

14:20
Combating Gender-based Violence through Sport

7. What conversations has the Minister had with sporting bodies about combating gender-based violence? OQ60474

Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for that question? The Welsh Government will not be a bystander to any form of abuse, including gender-based violence. The Welsh Government’s whole-society approach to tackling violence against women, based on prevention and early intervention, will help us to directly challenge and change these behaviours across all sectors, including sport.

Thank you, Minister, for that response. I'm sure we're all older and wiser as a result of the—. It's nearly a year ago that we heard about the existential threat to one of our most prominent sporting bodies and I congratulate the leadership of the Welsh Rugby Union for the action that they are taking to rectify the problems of the past. But clearly we need to look as widely as possible at what can be a threat to the progress we want to make. For example, there's a strong push to include more women officials in sport, and particularly in women supervising games played by men. And given that there are already instances of abuse targeted towards officials in spectator games, what plans does the Welsh Government have to work with sporting bodies to ensure female officials are protected from even further abuse and are not put off by taking on these responsibilities?

Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for that very important supplementary question? And before I answer, perhaps it would be just worth acknowledging that it's really good to see female officials coming through the ranks, such as Cheryl Foster, the Welsh football referee and former player, of course; Rebecca Welch—she was the first female referee to officiate in the Premier League in December last year; and Hollie Davidson, the Scottish rugby referee—all officiating at the highest level of professional sport. And that's to be welcomed, and I think I want to have that on record. Because, you know, without these officials our sports can't flourish and can't even take place. So, it's important that they come forward.

But our starting point is that the programme for government that we have is about encouraging the participation of women in all aspects of sport, so that is whether they come forward as officials, whether they want to participate in sport, or whether they just want to be spectators of sport. There should be nothing that provides a barrier to women coming forward to be involved in sport. And as you quite rightly say, Jenny, what we saw with the WRU just over a year ago now was a major wake-up call. It was something that we had to respond to quickly and that the WRU had to respond to quickly, and so far all the signs are very positive in terms of how that organisation is dealing with that.

But we have a duty to challenge ourselves, don't we, when it comes to violence against women and misogyny and the gender inequality that lies behind that. So, there are discussions that are going on with sports organisations on the important role that they can play to support combating gender-related violence. And in addition to the existing provision that we have in that area, including, as you'll be well aware of, the long-standing Live Fear Free helpline that we established some time ago, the Welsh Government has established a major new campaign encouraging young men to reflect on their own behaviours when it comes to violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence, because it's important that we take a whole-society approach to this.

One of the things that I've said on many occasions is what we saw in the WRU, what we've seen again in the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service this year, what we've seen in other organisations, S4C, and we saw similar in the Confederation of British Industry as well with complaints coming through there—this is a societal issue. This is not an issue that relates to any particular organisation. What is important, however, is that those organisations have policies and procedures in place. Of course, that's important, but more important than that is how they use those policies and procedures, and how they develop a culture within those organisations that makes the use of those policies and procedures safe for women to come into. So, we saw, for instance, in the WRU, and I think we saw with the south Wales fire service as well, that all of those kinds of procedures were in place. Women coming forward, however, were not taken seriously and so those procedures are only as good as how seriously the people that run those organisations take the complaints that come forward and how they deal with them, and that's the key to it: it's how we actually deal with it. I'm confident that we are putting in place procedures, policies and strategies, working with organisations and with society as a whole, to try to change the cultural approach to women in society.

14:25

I'm glad to hear you're so supportive of women and girls in sport. I've been a bit concerned with some of the comments that you've made recently on that, because of the absolute importance that women and girls have their own changing rooms and have their own sports, and that we do not allow gender ideology to take over in sport. It is so important—sex over gender—in terms of the safety of girls and women in sport. Would you agree with that?

The Welsh Government's position on that, Laura, is that decisions on trans people's participation in any part of society comes from the starting point of inclusion. We really have to avoid plunging further into what is often a very cruel and hostile debate surrounding the rights of trans people, and the attempt to insinuate, directly or otherwise, that somehow they are predatory and present a danger to the public. So, I make no apologies for supporting the trans community. They remain one of the few groups in society today where it appears to be acceptable to discriminate, to abuse, to intimidate and to be the subject of physical violence and attacks, and even murder.

It is a complex issue, and I think it's incumbent on us to recognise that people do not enter into the gender reassignment process lightly. When they choose to do so, they should be supported and not judged, and that anti-trans rhetoric really undermines the good work that's going on in so many settings to support trans people, including in our education system. So, I don't stand by and allow an anti-trans narrative to go unchallenged, and I will not be drawn into right-wing populist rabbit holes of demonising the trans community. I urge greater understanding and compassion for them. 

The Welsh Government's Economic Mission

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's economic mission? OQ60475

Yes, I set out my four priorities for a stronger economy on 28 November last year. This should enable us to drive forward the economic mission across Wales to recognise the significant economic pressures that we face. However, we put a focus on green growth, backing young people, delivering across regions of Wales and, in particular, investing in growth in good jobs for the future of the economy.

With regard to those jobs, I listened to Paul Davies with interest. As he knows, I've got a great deal of respect for him, but the primary driver for the problems with apprenticeships has been Brexit, which the Minister opposed, and also, of course, the disastrous UK Government apprenticeship levy, which is, effectively, a tax on employers in Wales without very much return here. We need a better settlement, so will the Minister, therefore, outline what more the UK Government could be doing to enable the Welsh Government to expand apprenticeships, including with reference to the apprenticeship levy, and has he had any discussions with Westminster representatives around this? 

Yes, we find it very difficult and frustrating, in a sense. When the apprenticeship levy was introduced, the then finance Minister, Mark Drakeford, was told there would be £109 million coming to Wales; he then read that £117 million would be taken away because of other changes in apprenticeship funding. So, the introduction of the levy saw a net reduction of £8 million in the funding formula for apprentices in Wales. So, actually, when people try to compare the apprenticeship levy in England here in Wales, we're not comparing like with like. Those employers that get their own money to spend in accounts in England have actually paid for it and more, and we have still seen a reduction.

What we have done with our own resources is invest even more in apprenticeship funding, and I'm pleased to see Ken Skates on the screen and, indeed, my colleague Eluned Morgan here, because when they have been Ministers with responsibility for skills, we have not just looked again at what we're doing and how fit for purpose it is, we've made real choices about how much to invest. I believe that a future UK Labour Government, keeping its promise to return the money and the powers over former EU funds, is one of the best things we could possibly see happen for the future of apprenticeships. It would allow us to reintroduce a national strategic all-Wales apprenticeship programme that was deliberately put to one side by the Tories when they designed the shared prosperity fund. It isn't just the mechanics of politics; it really does matter. We'd see more money being put to an even better purpose. And I look forward to campaigning for the return of those moneys and the powers that this Senedd should be able to scrutinise and help the Government to direct. 

14:30
2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next questions will be to the Minister for Health and Social Services. The first question is from Altaf Hussain.
 

NHS Waiting Times

1. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that cuts to local authority social services will have on NHS waiting times in 2024? OQ60459

While funding is not being reduced, the value, in real terms, may impact on what can be achieved. How local authority budgets are allocated is down to local councillors. Improved partnership working, as monitored through the pathways of care reporting, will assess the impact, and planned care has actions to reduce reliance on acute beds. 

Thank you, Minister. Social care services play a vital role by keeping people well for longer outside of hospital and enabling faster, safer discharges home. Recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that reductions in social care spending led to a substantial increase in the use of accident and emergency departments by individuals aged 65 and above. The impacts were most pronounced amongst the very oldest, that is, those aged 85 and above, and those living in more deprived neighbourhoods. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of co-ordination between hospitals and social care providers. Since social services in Wales have forecasted a budget gap of £646 million over the next three years, does the Minister accept that waiting times will continue to worsen under this Welsh Government?

Thank you very much. Well, you're quite right that, actually, the relationship between social care and health is one that has to be taken very, very seriously. And the fact is that, in Wales, we spend 40 per cent more money in Wales compared to England on adult social care. But it's clear that that's still not enough, and the fact that over 2,000 social care workers went home after Brexit and they haven't come back has actually made a difference. And I know you don't like hearing that, but that is the reality, particularly in areas like west Wales, where it has been very difficult to recruit and where there are other areas of the economy that are now sucking in those people who were doing social care. A lot of them have now gone into hospitality and other areas where there are now gaps, again left as a result of Brexit. 

The fact is that we actually spend a lot of money and time co-ordinating our efforts in Wales between the NHS and local government. We've got a very firm budget that has been set up, the regional integration fund—£144 million annually specifically in order to make sure that that integrated work carries on. Because you're quite right, if we don't get the flow through the hospitals, it does have an impact on planned care. And obviously that's something that we want to avoid, and it's a reason why not only are we making sure that the work that we're carrying out in relation to assessments and things is very proactive, but also we're trying to follow the recommendation that top medics suggest, which is that actually you should be increasing significantly the amount of day care operations that you carry out. We do too many operations that necessitate an overnight stay.

Primary Healthcare in Newport East

2. What is the Welsh Government's current assessment of the availability of primary healthcare services in Newport East? OQ60481

Aneurin Bevan University Health Board continues to invest and work to improve access to primary care services in Newport East, to deliver our vision of 'A Healthier Wales'.

Thank you for that, Minister. It's very good to see ongoing investment in those primary healthcare services, and I'm very pleased that, in Ringland in Newport East, we will have a new integrated health and well-being centre hopefully opening in around a year's time. But in other parts of Newport East there is considerable community concern regarding the lack of adequate primary healthcare services, Minister. In Severnside, in Magor and Undy, there's quite a rapidly growing population, with lots of new housing having been built and still ongoing, and just a satellite outreach GP service, with limited hours, from the Gray Hill Surgery in Caldicot. People feel very strongly there, in Magor and Undy, that the rate of population growth and new housing hasn't been matched by the availability and development of services, very much including primary healthcare. So, I just wonder what you see as a mechanism, Minister, for communities to make those concerns known and to work with the health board, the local authority and Welsh Government to make sure that better provision comes about in the near future.

14:35

Great. Thanks very much, and thank you for that welcome development in Ringland—£28 million-worth of funding going into that development, and, as you say, we hope that that will be there for all to use by this time next year.

We know that there's a lot of pressure on GP surgeries in particular at the moment. That's why what we're trying to do is to take the pressure off them through things like making sure that pharmacies can take some pressure off. Lots of pharmacies now are able to prescribe, and, obviously, we have the common ailments scheme, which has already been rolled out across the whole of Wales.

But when it comes to what happens next, we're obviously very keen to make sure that we do see more integration, in particular between health and social care hubs, bringing those local public services together. But our programme—and there's a lot of money dedicated to this programme—is informed by those strategic capital plans that are presented to us by the regional partnership boards. So, if people in those communities have any concerns, the thing for them to do is to speak to the local health board, which will then determine whether this, indeed, is one of their priorities within the broad complex of all of the other things that they may want to do. And then there's a prioritisation exercise, obviously, in the light of affordability, just to make sure that we develop that pipeline that is fair then across the whole of Wales. 

Minister, I'm going to ask you a question that I'm sure many Members have already asked in the past, but getting a dentist appointment is quite frankly becoming a living hell for many people, and it's something that I am contacted about on a daily basis. Residents across south-east Wales now are being forced to tolerate pain as they struggle to secure an appointment or even find a dentist on the NHS in the first place. One elderly constituent of mine was forced to travel across the border to England to pay for private treatment as she struggled to find a local practice to see her on the NHS. And I'll even put my hands up here today in the Chamber and confess that, unashamedly, I took my own mother across the border because the dental practice that she was a patient of refused to deal with her when she was suffering with the pain and anguish of a toothache. And it felt to me, personally, that their desire to have her on a monthly pay-as-you-go package was bigger and far greater than giving her the medical treatment that she needed.

Now, Minister, going private, quite frankly, simply isn't an option for many of my constituents. I'm sure that you'll agree, Minister, that stories like the ones I've just shared aren't acceptable and that people all across Wales should have easy access to NHS dentists. So, Minister, what steps are the Welsh Government going to take to make sure that more people can be seen by NHS dentists within a reasonable time frame?

Thanks very much. Well, the Member will be aware that, actually, we have spent a significant amount of time trying to reorganise what is a fundamentally challenged area through introducing a new contract, and that new contract has meant that, for the first time in many, many years, those dentists are taking on new patients. Now, are they taking on enough? No, because, obviously, there's been a reduction, partly as a result of the pandemic and new methods that you have to do to make sure that there's no spread of infections. But the fact is that nearly 290,000 new patients have received treatment since April 2022, which is not an insignificant amount, including 50,000 people within the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board area. Now, while I accept that the people you are talking about are not part of those, but, obviously, we have asked them now to come up with these central lists so that we are much clearer about what we need to do. But you can't switch on dentists overnight. Dentists determine whether they want to work for the NHS or the private sector. Most of them work for both, frankly. But it's not something that you can browbeat people into, particularly when our budgets are limited. That's why one of the things that we're trying to do is to expand the opportunities for people to see dental therapists. We're training more dental therapists than ever before, just to make sure that we can take that pressure off, because, actually, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence suggest that you shouldn't need to see a dentist, if you've got healthy teeth, more than once every two years. And the fact is that most of us are in a routine of saying, 'Right, let's just go for our six-monthly check-up' when it's unnecessary. And so we need to kind of make room for those people who really need those appointments, and that's what we've tried to do. 

14:40

Following on from Natasha's question, there have been warnings, obviously, for the last year that NHS dentistry in Wales has reached crisis point. It may be true that backlogs for those waiting for treatment have been reduced, but they are yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. What's also true is that it's become incredibly difficult to get an NHS dentist, leaving expensive private dental care the only other option. This is a particular issue for veterans who have returned to civilian life after decades of performing a difficult and stressful role. I have a constituent who has been out of the armed forces for a decade and still cannot get an NHS dentist. One constituent said: 'This is a massive issue. I left in 2014 and still have to go private. There is no support for that, yet health is part of the armed forces' covenant. We should get an automatic place, I believe. It's not our fault we didn't live in our local village since birth.' Minister, what would you say to the veterans, as well as those who didn't serve in the forces, who are waiting and waiting and waiting for an NHS dentist?

Well, thanks very much. Well, what I would say is that they should ensure that they do get their name down on a list, because, obviously, this is part of a process, and, every year, we are encouraging those NHS dentists to take on new patients. And obviously, we're doing really well on that. If you compare how we're doing with new NHS patients compared to England, we are miles ahead of where they are in England. Now, it's not enough, and we're very well aware that the demand is greater than the supply. But, as I say, you can't switch these people on overnight, and we are in the process of training new people up. 

We are particularly aware of the challenges in rural areas, which is why one of the things we've tried to do is to incentivise people to train in those more rural areas, with an extra £5,000 to make sure that they can get not just that additional funding, but also additional support, and, hopefully, then, they will stay in those areas. 

In relation to veterans, I'm happy to have a look at what more we can do in that space, because, obviously, we do have that covenant, and I'll get back to you on that issue. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Gareth Davies.

Diolch, Llywydd, Deputy Minister, the Welsh Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services have forecast a budget gap in social services of £646 million over the next three years, as alluded to by my colleague, Altaf Hussain, in his first question—a spending cut that will affect the most vulnerable people in Wales. A WLGA spokesperson said that departments receive more than 1,000 calls a day from people concerned about children at risk of abuse or neglect, as well as families that struggle to support elderly relatives or relatives with learning difficulties. We need swift action to ensure that the most vulnerable people in society are not plunged into hardship or put at risk of neglect. The WLGA has also raised concerns regarding the cap limiting the amount that people pay for homecare, which means that the wealthiest in society are not paying the full cost of their care. Can the Deputy Minister outline whether the Welsh Government has any plans to reassess the cap in order to ensure the burden is shared fairly?

I thank Gareth Davies for those questions. I'm aware of the comments of the WLGA and the ADSS, and I'm aware that, in social care, we are working to help and promote the well-being of some of the most vulnerable people in society, so the budget is very important. As he's aware, the vast majority of the budget is delivered by local government, and I'm sure he's aware that we've protected the local government budget, in fact increasing it by 3.5 per cent. And I think he's also aware, as the Minister said in one of her responses, that we actually spend 43 per cent more on social care in Wales than in England, if you want to have a look at a comparator. 

But, obviously, we've had to make difficult decisions, and we are doing our best to protect those public services that are the most important. In terms of the cap for homecare, he is right, the WLGA has requested us to look at the amount of cap for domiciliary care services, and we are considering that. 

14:45

Thank you very much. Any additional funding that can be allocated to social services is money that would make a huge difference to the quality of vulnerable people's lives, and is money that would ensure more people are able to live with dignity. I would wager that the majority of people in Wales would prioritise the care and dignity of the most vulnerable people in society over pet projects such as blanket 20 mph speed restrictions, Senedd expansion, universal basic income pilot schemes and other big state vanity schemes that seldom have a positive impact on people's lives but serve only to exhibit the socialist credentials of the Welsh Government in the hope of attracting kudos from the media. Can the Deputy Minister outline what action the Welsh Government is taking to work with local authorities to find a way to plug this gap using a proportion of their reserves to ensure that social services are properly resourced? 

Yes. We are certainly working with local authorities all the time. We are in continuous dialogue with them. We've obviously had discussions with them about the budget. We understand their concerns, which have been expressed, and we've done all we can in the budget to protect the most vulnerable services. And, as I would like to repeat, we spend 43 per cent more on social care in Wales than is spent in England. They are a priority for us. Social services and social care in the community, I absolutely agree, are absolutely crucial and we are in continuous dialogue with our partners.

Thanks again, Deputy Minister. You say you're protecting the most vulnerable in society, but can you really stand here this afternoon and say that the most vulnerable people in society are protected by the priorities of this Welsh Government when favouring such schemes as blanket 20 mph, Senedd expansion and the UBI pilot that I've just mentioned? Granted, it doesn't go all the way to solving every problem in social care, but can you obviously say that the cost of those schemes could be spent better to protect some of the most vulnerable people in society and improve our health and social care systems across Wales as a whole? But I'd be grateful if the Deputy Minister could address the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales review finding that there are still consistent challenges caused by poor patient flow through wards as a result of social care issues. Difficulty discharging patients to more appropriate placements or back home with support is causing a bottleneck effect in hospitals, with patients occupying valuable beds when they are medically fit to leave. This situation, I am sure the Deputy Minister can appreciate, is not ideal for the patient or the hospital who need the space for other patients. Could the Deputy Minister please lay out what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that all parts of the health and social care sector work together as effectively as possible to address patient flow issues? Thank you. 

Thank you, Gareth. I am very proud of this Government's protection of the most vulnerable people in society and I think we have a record that I am proud to stand on. In terms of the poor patient flow, that's something that we've been working on very closely—health and social services working very closely together, in health boards and local government—and we have been able to bring down the number of people who are staying in hospital because there is no social package available for them. That has been coming down. It's still far too high, and we've got an awful lot of work to do there, but we are working together on it. We have got an action committee—a care action committee—that consists of key people in the field, who meet regularly to discuss what steps can be taken. The Minister for Health and Social Services delegated money to increase support at home over the weekends, for example, and for end-of-life care, in order that we don't have the upsetting situations of people going into hospital who would be much better off at home. And the other area that we really have to concentrate on is stopping people going into hospital when they are better off at home, and we continue to put those extra resources in. So, we do have a plan. We are seeing progress, but it is a long-term plan, and we have to work very hard at it. But I reiterate that I'm very proud of the work that this Labour Welsh Government has done in social care, in the health service, and I think we are seeing progress.

14:50

Diolch, Llywydd. Last week, the director of the RCN in Wales, Helen Whyley, issued a stark warning to the health Minister that things need to change in 2024. Given the relentless pressures endured by our dedicated healthcare workers throughout the course of last year, she was right to do so. As I mentioned yesterday during the budget debate, business as usual is simply not an option if we want a sustainable future for the NHS. It was disappointing, therefore, that the Minister's response was to flippantly state that the RCN had not been paying attention. But maybe it's the Government who is guilty of not being attentive to the legitimate concerns of the RCN, which is exemplified by the recent news that the Welsh Government is considering introducing a regulated band 4 nursing associate role in Wales, without prior consultation and parliamentary scrutiny. We're not opposed in principle to reforms of this nature, but they must always, without exception, be developed fully above board in collaboration with relevant staff representatives. Will the Minister therefore confirm whether the Welsh Government is intending to introduce nursing associates into the Welsh NHS, and, if so, will the plans be submitted to the RCN for consultation and approval prior to their implementation?

Thanks very much. Obviously, we have very frequent conversations with the Royal College of Nursing. We absolutely need the incredible work that they do in our hospitals, and I'd like to thank all nurses and all healthcare workers for the incredible work that they've carried out over the most pressurised time of the year. They are right—things need to change. But I've got to underline that, actually, things are changing. There is a whole host of things that I've changed in the past two years. We didn't have urgent primary care centres two years ago. We didn't have same-day emergency care centres two years ago. We have significantly more ambulance workers this year than we had two years ago, and we've got the '111 press 2' system, which is taking a lot of pressure off our hospitals. So, I think it is fair to say that they haven't been paying attention because, actually, those are all things that demonstrate that the system is changing. But, in relation to the band 4 nursing associate role, I think it is important for us to make sure that we understand that there is a role for nurses, but I think it's a conversation that is definitely worth having in terms of the introduction of nursing associates. What we need, though, is to make sure that safety is a priority, and we need to make sure that patient safety is put first, and, in order to do that, you may need to regulate and that's why we're looking into this area. But if we do introduce it, of course there will be a consultation in relation to that.

Thank you for that answer. We fully acknowledge the potential benefits that nursing associates could bring to the workforce, especially in terms of offering new routes for entering the nursing profession, but it's essential that their introduction doesn't end up becoming the Government's de facto solution to filling the long-standing vacancy gaps in Wales's cohort of registered nurses. As the RCN rightly notes, inadequate nursing levels carry the risk of up to 26 per cent higher patient mortality, longer hospital stays and higher infection rates. Any future proposals for nursing associates must therefore be predicated first and foremost on the fundamental premise that there will be no regression in registered nurse capacity. So, how will the Government's plans in this area interact with the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016? There would also need to be a coherent strategy for their effective integration within the workforce, as well as clear pathways for career development, which were identified in a recent study by King's College London as key shortcomings of the approach undertaken in England. We need clarity on how the Welsh Government aims to fund these new roles. So, can the Minister guarantee that any plans to introduce nursing associates will not affect existing funding streams for registered nurses, including those for education and training programmes? And will the Minister commit to ensuring that the distinction between nursing associates and registered nurses is made explicit in all future Welsh Government planning, reporting and data collection on the NHS workforce?

Thanks very much. I'm glad that the Member understands that, actually, we need multiple routes into nursing, and it was really heartening to see, at the end of last week, with my colleague, the way that apprenticeships start people on their career. They start through being care workers and then lots of them work up, and their ambition is to become nurses, but that is the route through, and they don't want to go to university, and I think that's something that should be commended. Now, you're not asking questions about that, and I think that's absolutely right, but the point is, at the moment, you keep on asking week after week, 'What are you going to do about bringing down the number of agency staff?' This is part of the answer, to make sure that we've got routes into nursing that are not just via people coming straight from university. Now, I think the key thing to remember here is that there will be a distinction, and there will always be a distinction between those band 4 nurse associates, but what we hope would happen is that it would release nurses to work at the top of their licence. Certainly, what is important, as far as we're concerned, is that, actually, we have a team around wards to make sure that it doesn't all fall on one part of the profession.

14:55
Winter Pressures

3. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh NHS is dealing with winter pressures? OQ60473

It's been a challenging winter to date for NHS Wales and partners caused partially by spikes in demand, acuity and complexity of patient need, and patient flow issues. Local authorities and health boards have integrated plans and actions in place, enabling greater system resilience despite additional pressure on services.

Thank you, Minister, for that answer. I heard in exchanges with the Deputy Minister about delayed transfers of patients out of hospitals who are medically fit back into the community. This time last year, you gave a statement to the Chamber that indicated 12 per cent of beds were occupied by those who are medically fit and able to be discharged, and you'd also allocated in the April before that £145 million for a five-year programme to assist that discharge scheme. Can you update today what the situation is within the Welsh NHS of people who are medically fit to be discharged, and the number of beds that they're occupying, and has there been any material improvement in the flow of patients in Welsh hospitals that you were indicating would happen when this programme was put in place by you nearly two years ago now, because, as we all know, delayed transfers of care is a huge pressure point during the winter months?

Thanks very much. The number of medically fit in our hospitals still remains way too high, but we have a very systematic approach to that now. We've got a very detailed mechanism to assess exactly why they're in hospital. It's now a system that is understood throughout Wales, where, for everybody, why they're in hospital is coded, so everybody knows exactly and so there's not this blame game between health boards and local authorities. Everybody knows exactly why they're there.

So, we still have over 1,000 people in our hospitals who are delayed transfers, but, actually, because we've put so much work into this—in particular, the No. 1 reason for people remaining in hospital is a delayed assessment, so they need to be assessed for their care requirements—and because of the investment that we've put into this in terms of time, energy and resources between us, local government and the health boards, we have seen a reduction in terms of the delays to assessments by 24 per cent between February and November 2023. So, it's really heartening to see that where we really focus on an issue, those numbers comes down. That's one of the areas where I think we should be quite proud. Also, on the delays due to social worker allocation, which was another reason, we've seen a significant reduction in that—a 61 per cent reduction there. So, things are getting better. The fact that we can really identify why people are still there is absolutely key, because then we can genuinely run after them.

The sight of long lines of ambulances queueing outside our hospitals has become normalised. It seems that ambulances are almost new waiting rooms, and last year I raised my worries about how the fumes from these queueing ambulances with their engines running will be polluting the air outside A&E departments where people are already vulnerable and very poorly. Since the end of last year, fans have had to be placed at the doors of Gwent accident and emergency hospital in the Grange to disperse those fumes from the ambulances, and that wasn't just a temporary emergency measure; the fans are still there. They'll stay there, presumably, until the ambulances no longer have to queue to discharge their patients. Minister, when do you think that will be? And what urgent discussions are you having about the dirty polluted air outside our hospitals, because of these queueing ambulances?

15:00

Thanks very much. Well, I was very privileged to spend the day with our valiant ambulance workers before Christmas, and it was really useful just to see the kind of pressure they're under and the frustrations that they suffer standing outside hospitals for hours on end. It's not something that they want to be doing; they're trained to do a job and they want to get on with that job. And on 2 January, which is probably the most pressurised day in the NHS, I dropped in to three hospitals unannounced, just to really get a sense of how it felt, and it is significant, and there were people who were extremely frustrated.

In relation to the fumes and the ambulances—the issues that you highlighted there—this was something that we acted upon last year. So, one of the things we've done is we've put charging posts into many emergency departments, so that they can plug in their ambulances, to avoid those fumes. So, those are in place now across many emergency departments in Wales; I've seen them myself, so they are in place. We probably need a few more of them, but until that happens, then I think it's absolutely right that we do carry on trying to disperse those fumes with fans, or whatever else needs to be done in order to protect our patients, and obviously the ambulance workers themselves.

The key thing, though, is to try and address the issue of how do we get that flow going; how do we fix the issue in relation to social care; and how do we try and avoid people coming into hospital in the first place, and I think that's the real challenge for us. It was interesting, I heard just today that most of the people who've been given a bed in Hywel Dda in the past few days are over 90 years old. Now, you have got to start questioning, 'Look, is that the right place? Wouldn't they rather be at home, and how do we put more resources into making that shift into supporting them into the community?' We did that; we've been doing that. We've put an extra £8.5 million into that this financial year, trying to put that protective support in place for the palliative care that the Deputy Minister was talking about, and also putting that district nursing care in place, so that they're in place not just from nine to five on weekdays, but also on weekends and during the evenings as well.

Swansea Bay University Health Board

4. How is the Government ensuring that people living in the Swansea Bay University Health Board area have confidence in local health services? OQ60457

The health boards are responsible for delivery of health services for their local population. Welsh Government holds them accountable for the services that they deliver and works with them to ensure that patients are able to access high-quality services.

Thank you, Minister. Last week, seven wards at Morriston Hospital had to close due to cases of norovirus, COVID, flu and C. difficile, and the infections had spread to such an extent that the hospital had to close to visitors for six days. It was only yesterday that the health board was able to reopen to visitors, although one ward is still closed to visitors. It was a very worrying time for my constituents who have family and friends in hospital, who were concerned that they would be exposed to these infections, which can of course be extremely serious for those who are already sick or weak.

Minister, what assessment have you made of what has led to a lack of public confidence in the ability of health services to protect them from infections like this in our hospitals? And what consideration has been given to the recent advice, for example, of the World Health Organization, that wearing a mask should be made mandatory in health settings, in accordance with the wishes of the Royal College of Nursing, expressed in a letter to the Chief Nursing Officer for Wales, and that ventilation in wards, out-patient clinics and waiting areas should be improved, in order to try and prevent respiratory infections such as COVID from putting extra pressure on staff and services, and exacerbating situations like the one that arose at Morriston Hospital?

Thank you very much. Norovirus, COVID and flu rates are starting to increase. They're increasing across Wales and, certainly, in terms of what we saw in Swansea, I think that that was the proper thing to do. If you see a problem approaching you, the thing to do is to prevent the situation from deteriorating further by taking pre-emptive steps before the situation gets worse, and that's what happened in Swansea. I was pleased to see that they had taken those steps and also pleased to see that they feel that they can relax those rules now.

Just in terms of infection and monitoring, of course they do have to meet certain standards. This is one of the things that we do ask about and monitor with health boards, in order to ensure that they are hygienic and that things are kept clean. Also, we always take their advice seriously, but we also have to consider the World Health Organization's evidence, and we have to consider other issues and ensure that what we introduce in our hospitals is backed up by evidence in order to ensure that there's a reason for taking certain actions. You do have to hold certain things back for when it gets very difficult indeed, and we're not in the situation where we were with COVID in the past, for example.

15:05

Minister, the winter months have been really difficult for Morriston Hospital. As you know, back in November, the hospital issued a black alert due to high levels of pressure brought on by a number of patients waiting for beds, and then, a few days later, another black alert was issued for different reasons, and as we've heard already, just last week, we saw bans on visitors to the hospital due to rising levels of viral infection at Morriston Hospital too. People in Swansea and beyond, myself included, value Morriston Hospital and the role the staff there play in helping patients in their time of need, and I just wanted to use this opportunity to place on record the care that my grandfather received at Morriston Hospital for the few weeks he stayed there over the winter months: it was greatly appreciated. It's really important too that people have the confidence that it can operate as effectively as they know that it can. So, what steps have you taken to reassure the public that Morriston Hospital is the safe, effective hospital that people know it can be, particularly over the winter period, when it deals with additional seasonal pressures?

Thanks very much. Well, Morriston was one of the hospitals that I visited on my visit on 2 January, and there was no question about it, it was under intense pressure, and it was really good to have the opportunity to speak to the consultants on the front line and the nurses and some of those ambulance workers, who were very keen to share some of their experiences and their concerns.

Just in relation to assurances, of course, responsibility for the delivery of NHS care is actually delegated from me to the health boards, and what we do as a Government is we seek assurance and we provide challenge on a regular basis. We do this through the joint executive team meetings that we have every six months and we have integrated quality planning and delivery arrangements with local health, monthly, just to check out what is going on. At this time of year, frankly, we're in daily contact with them just to find out, 'Right, what's the pressure you're under? Is there anything more we can do to help? Do we need to look at whether other health boards can come and support you?' So, there are some very clear and deliverable targets that we expect health boards to deliver, and I think it is important, though, for people in that community to understand that the vast, vast majority of people are receiving quality care on a very timely basis.

Speech and Language Therapists

5. How is the Welsh Government helping to retain and recruit speech and language therapists in Wales? OQ60465

We invest £281 million each year in health professional education. Our bursary supports students through education. We are committed to post-registration development and career pathways, with clinical supervision, professional development and preceptorship opportunities enabling speech and language therapists to develop their skills and become members of a professional network of SLTs across Wales.

I should declare I have direct personal experience of the vital role that speech and language therapists play in enabling a child to grow into a successful adult.

The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has been calling for an increase in the commissioning number for speech and language therapists in Wales in 2024-25, and better workforce planning for the profession in Wales as part of an allied health professional workforce plan. They stated last year that their membership data reveals that there are fewer speech and language therapists per head of the population in Wales than in any other part of the UK. How do you therefore respond to the Anglesey parent who shared a letter from the head of the speech and language therapy service at Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board, received three days before Christmas, which stated that in consequence of the,

'challenges relating to the recruitment and retention of speech and language therapy staff within the department, which is also reflected across the NHS',

they,

'have been unsuccessful in recruiting to speech and language therapy for the special schools',

and,

'there is currently no speech and language therapy provision for the special schools'?

They identified schools in Llangefni, Caernarfon and Penrhyndeudraeth.

15:10

Thanks very much. Well, as I say, we are investing significantly in training the next generation of NHS workers, and that includes speech and language therapists, and training places have indeed increased by 11 per cent from 2018. So, we are increasing those numbers. Of course, on top of that, I earmarked £5 million-worth of funding to create additional allied healthcare professional posts in primary and community services, which include speech and language therapy posts.

What I will say in relation to north Wales is that Health Education and Improvement Wales introduced a brand-new speech and language therapy course in north Wales at Wrexham Glyndŵr University, and the first intake started in 2022-23, so they will be coming out. They're obviously not ready yet, but I hope that that will give some comfort to those special schools that, actually, that pipeline of recruitment should be delivering in the next few years.

Strategy for Increasing Breastfeeding

6. What is the Welsh Government's strategy for increasing breastfeeding? OQ60472

The aim of the all-Wales breastfeeding action plan is that more babies in Wales will be breastfed, and for longer, with a reduction in inequalities. The plan identifies strategic goals, setting out local and national actions to ensure that breastfeeding is a culturally accepted and supported norm.

Minister, you'll be well aware that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance says that women should exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of the baby's life, due to the well-documented lifelong benefits for both the child and the mother. I was devastated to learn, at a recent cross-party group on nursing and midwifery, that the breastfeeding lead at Public Health Wales revealed that the number of mothers who successfully breastfeed their child for the full six months has fallen to one in 100—1 per cent. That is pretty depressing news, as I'm sure you will agree.

We know that breastfeeding isn't easy, and new mums often can't draw on the experience of their own mother or other relatives to help them successfully breastfeed, even though that is their expressed wish. An undiagnosed tongue-tie poses an additional challenge, which needs swift intervention to rectify that physical barrier to successful breastfeeding. I don't expect highly trained midwives to have the time to help new mums with the sometimes or often time-consuming task of successful breastfeeding, but we do need multidisciplinary teams. So, I want to know how many midwives have breastfeeding support workers as part of their multidisciplinary team, and how many breastfeeding support workers are there in community midwife teams across Wales to tackle what is a serious public health challenge?

Thanks very much. I was really stunned when I saw that figure of 1 per cent, and very, very concerned. I've looked into it, and my understanding is that that was from an infant feeding survey that was produced in 2010. So, the good news is that Stats Wales highlights that just over 20 per cent of Welsh babies are being exclusively breastfed and more than 25 per cent are breastfed at six months. That's much better than the figures that you talked about. I must say I was very relieved to hear that, because we all know that breastfeeding is very good for the well-being both of the babies and the mothers as well. Fewer babies suffer from infections, diarrhoea, vomiting. They have fewer visits to primary and secondary care settings. There are lots and lots of things. I don't need to list them to you, Jenny. You're more than aware of how important this matter is. But what I can tell you is that I think it's important that there's recognition that there are infant feeding leads in all local health boards across Wales. It's also important to recognise that all neonatal nurses, maternity support workers and midwives play a vital role in supporting mothers to breastfeed. So, it's not just about breastfeeding support workers—it is about that broader team, and that's the way that I hope that health boards will look at this.

15:15

Breast is best. Breastfed babies have a lower risk of asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome. Breastfed babies are also less likely to have ear infections and stomach bugs. However, not all new mums can achieve this, and they do struggle. Given the pressures on our wards, I'd like to know how this is being addressed. A study that included all women in Wales who gave birth between 2018 and 2021 found breastfeeding rates at six months went up from 16.6 per cent, before the pandemic, to 20 per cent. This study’s lead author, Hope Jones, attributed the increase to family spending more time at home—obviously during COVID, you see. What steps are you taking, Minister, and the Welsh Government, to ensure that the percentage doesn't go back down, that the health sector in Wales is empowering mothers to actually realise that breast is best, and has actually got methodologies in place to help struggling mums? Diolch.

Thanks very much. I think that is quite interesting, isn't it, just to see the switch from pre pandemic to post pandemic. And, of course, part of that was probably because people were working from home during that time. What I don't want to give is a message that women should stay at home. Let me be absolutely clear about that. But I think what we should do is to emphasise that point that you were making of all the huge benefits in relation to breastfeeding. What we are doing at the moment is some mapping work to understand what the current arrangements are across Wales, and then we're going to focus on developing a national framework this year to look at this very issue.

Mental Health Provision in Rural Communities

7. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve mental health provision in rural communities in Mid and West Wales? OQ60480

Thank you, Llywydd. In addition to sustained funding for mental health services, we're providing dedicated resource for mental health in the NHS executive. This includes the development of a strategic mental health programme to drive improvements and more standardised mental health services, including in rural communities.

Thank you very much. As we know, in the midst of the darkness of winter, the rain and cold, the overspending over Christmas, and bills to be paid, January can be a very challenging time, mentally, for many people, particularly in the agricultural community. In rural communities in Mid and West Wales, the mental health crisis is often hidden under the surface, and a recent survey by the Farm Safety Foundation notes that 94 per cent of farmers believe that serious mental health problems are the main challenge facing the sector. Of course, the reason for this mental stress can vary and be very complex indeed, from the impacts of TB to the appalling paperwork they have to do, financial pressures, and the fact that a farmer's life can be very lonely—very long hours working without seeing a soul. There's no doubt that important charities such as DPJ, RABI and Tir Dewi do excellent work, but the provision for specialist support within the health service is inconsistent and scarce. So, can I ask you what steps the Government is taking to expand mental provision and mental health support for our farmers within our rural communities? 

Can I thank Cefin Campbell for that supplementary question and recognise the importance of what he said about the need for mental health support for farming communities? I do recognise that people who are involved in farming do have specific mental health pressures, so he's made a very important point today. Of course, what we're doing is trying to make sure that everybody can access mental health services at the point that they need them. It's about the 'no wrong door' approach to mental health services. That includes specialist services, but it also includes the work that we've done through promoting the '111 press 2' for mental health, which is available 24/7, which I think is very useful for people in the farming community who are tied to their jobs during the day.

We've also prioritised funding for online cognitive behavioural therapy, things like SilverCloud; we've funded the DPJ Foundation, who I know do excellent work in rural communities with their bereavement services, and we have continued to prioritise investment in specialist services: £26.5 million last year and the year before to support key priority areas in the 'Together for Mental Health' delivery plan. So, we are continuing to prioritise that investment; we've continued to see health boards receiving increases in referrals, higher acuity and complexity of mental health referrals, and although we have seen some improvements in performance across services for both adults and child and adolescent mental health services, all health boards are having challenges meeting waiting times on a sustainable basis, and all health boards have developed revised trajectories to improve performance towards targets and to reduce waiting lists. The newly formed NHS executive is actively monitoring progress against the trajectories in monthly meetings with the health boards. 

Just in relation to Hywel Dda and Powys, the areas Cefin Campbell covers, I'd just like to confirm that progress against trajectories to improve performance over the spring period are on course to be achieved.

15:20

Deputy Minister, in rural areas, our pharmacies do play a very key role of helping us with mental health problems across Wales, but do you agree with me that there should be a more formal route for our pharmacists to actually refer people who go to them with mental health problems directly to mental health professionals and the provision that they actually need?

Can I thank James Evans for that question? It is important to acknowledge the important role of pharmacists, some of whom will be the first port of call for people who are feeling distressed. I do think that there's more that we can do to make sure that pharmacists are able to pass people on to appropriate services. I know that there's already good practice in some places in Wales in relation to pharmacists signposting to services like '111 press 2', but as we develop our new mental health strategy for Wales and have such a strong focus on our workforce, it's going to be very important that we look to maximise further opportunities in that space, especially as pharmacy presents particular opportunities in rural communities.

Good afternoon, Deputy Minister. I just wanted to continue the discussion on mental health in rural areas, particularly what we would call dual diagnosis—that's the co-occurence of a mental health diagnosis potentially with substance misuse or alcohol misuse. They can go together, and a recent study from Swansea University found that 70 per cent of young people in Wales with substance abuse records also had documentation of mental illness. So, it's a big issue, and it's trying to think, in rural areas, particularly in Powys, how we can meet those needs. There's an organisation called Kaleidoscope that works with those people with both dual diagnosis and substance use, and they want to set up a service in Ystradgynlais. They currently only have one in Brecon, so anybody in south Powys, for example, has a real journey to undertake and is unlikely to seek help. So, I was just wondering what actions the Welsh Government can take to improve access to those really valuable services for people with co-occurring mental health and substance misuse disorders in rural communities. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:25

Thank you very much, Jane. You highlight a very important issue about co-occurring mental health and substance misuse issues. You'll be aware that we've protected funding for substance misuse issues in Wales. We're increasing funding again in the budget that we've just published, and that will include funding for people with complex needs, so people with mental health issues and substance misuse issues. It is a challenging area and we need to be mindful, always, that there can be a tendency to slip into silos, and what we want to do is get away from a situation where, just because somebody's got an addiction problem, they don't get their mental health support and vice versa. We want that 'no wrong door' approach to be there in services for people with complex needs as well.

In terms of funding for the services that you've described, the funding is ring-fenced that goes to area planning boards. I'm well aware of the good work of Kaleidoscope in other parts of Wales, and I would definitely advise them to engage with their area planning board about their plans. Just to add that we've issued guidance to area planning boards on people with co-occurring conditions, and we've got a special deep-dive group that focuses on it that meets quarterly, to try to make sure that we are sustaining progress in that area. Diolch.

GP Services

8. Will the Minister make a statement on the current demand on GP services? OQ60469

The current level of demand on GP services is very high, as you would expect at this time of year, with GPs and their staff working extremely hard to provide care and advice to patients.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. I met, at the back end of last year, with Dr Gareth Oelmann, who's the chair of the GP committee at BMA Wales, and we discussed in more detail the Save our Surgeries campaign. I'm also due to meet with Newtown Medical Practice doctors at the end of this week. When I met with Dr Oelmann, he spoke about GPs being forced to try and cope with inadequate resources and an unsustainable workload. He went on to talk about the pressures across the whole of Wales and some areas of Wales in crisis, exacerbated as well, of course, by burnout. As well as presenting the problems, the Save our Surgeries campaign brings forward solutions, and one of those solutions is a commitment to funding, restoring the proportion of the NHS Wales budget spend on general practices to the historic level of 8.7 per cent over the next three years. Other asks include investing in the workforce, producing a workforce strategy and also addressing staff well-being. I wonder, Minister, if you can provide an update on some of those asks, particularly with regard to negotiations around funding.

Thanks very much. Clearly, there is a real funding challenge at the moment, and you'll be aware of how serious that is. So, it's going to be extremely difficult for us to find any additional funding for GPs, as it will be for anything in relation to health. I've got to first of all thank my colleagues from around the Government table, who have been willing to tap into their own resources in order to shore up the kind of pressures that we've seen in the NHS.

The fact is the UK Government spends about 10 per cent of the total Government spending at the moment on servicing debt. That's where the money's going. That's where UK money is going—it's servicing debt. That's £110 billion on servicing debt, and the entire UK health budget is £181 billion. So—[Interruption.] Well, let me come to this, because the fact is, if they don't spend money on health, we don't get a consequential and it's difficult for us to spend money on health. That's the way it goes, okay? So, we're spending 8 per cent more—[Interruption.] We're spending 8 per cent more, but if they're not spending it—. And if you look at the increase in funding between what happened in 2010, when the Tories came into power, to about 2019, it's gone up by about 15 per cent overall, the health budget. In Germany, it's gone up by about 35 per cent. There is a difference. We are way behind. We are way behind the rest of the EU when it comes to spending on healthcare.

I think, just in relation to GPs, the one thing that I will say is that, actually, our approach has been very clear that what we're trying to do is to build support around GPs. The fact is that we've got 379 active GP practices. We've increased the head count by 3.8 per cent. We've got an increase in GP registrars. So, those are increasing in Wales, but the demand just keeps on coming, which is why what we're trying to do is to make sure that we have alternatives for people. They can go to their pharmacies, they can go to their 111 service. And they're using them, this is what's amazing—the 111 service is used by about 70,000 people per month. It is taking pressure away from those GP services.

Now, I recognise, as somebody who is married to a GP, that there is a lot of pressure in the system at the moment, but that what we do need to do is to make sure that we try and build that support, get them to work in clusters, make sure that the system is more robust. But I do recognise that, in an ideal world, I want to see a shift from secondary care and more money going into prevention and to primary care. I'm very, very keen to see that, but you've got to be a very, very brave person, when you see those ambulances outside those hospital doors, when you see waiting lists, to say, 'Right, I'm going to cut secondary care.' So, we've got to get the balance right; we've go to do it slowly. We are doing it. The fact is that we've moved that extra money into our community—as I say, £8.5 million just this winter, just to make sure that we've got that support in the community to stop people from going into hospitals.

15:30

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. Minister, in between the festivities over the recess, I spent the Christmas and the new year period visiting GP practices and community pharmacists throughout Ogmore and seeing first-hand—. And I thank them for the time they spent with me, because I saw first-hand the pressures they're under and the increasing range of services they provide to do what we all want to see, which is taking the load off secondary and acute care, off our hospitals, indeed, and keeping people well for longer in their homes or closer to their homes. They are really committed to this mission, as is Welsh Government.

Now, we all know this is the right approach. We've got to shift from being a national illness service to a national health service, so we all need to work together to prevent illness early on, and that includes, I have to say, our contribution as individuals as well. But they are under real strain; they are under strain. And they're picking up the wider strains as well in secondary care. 

GPs and community pharmacists also want to be able to reward their front-line staff better, including the receptionists. We call them 'receptionists'—they are far more now. The skills that these receptionists have and what they're doing behind the scenes—they are about far more now than answering phones. So, can I seek your assurance that you will engage with our primary care practitioners? And could I, at their request, invite you to come to Ogmore, to see some of the work that they're doing, to sit down with them and discuss how they can help you in this mission, over time, to achieve that common objective of keeping people well, in or closer to their homes, for longer and over time, redirecting funding towards primary care to save funds that we're spending very expensively on illness rather than keeping people well?

Well, thanks very much. And if those GPs that you visited actually read our 'A Healthier Wales' document, they would recognise that that is absolutely our strategic plan. We are doing some of this; we are doing quite a lot of it, actually. The fact that pharmacies are now there to support GPs is part of what we're delivering—the 'A Healthier Wales' strategy. And we are doing the same thing—we just changed the law in relation to ophthalmology services so that we're keeping people out of hospital. They can see their optometrist in their community and there's a whole range of illnesses now that can be treated by those optometrists who are highly skilled professionals. We are using them and using their skills at the top of their licence.

So, we are doing quite a lot of this already. And you're quite right, what we need to do is to move from an illness to a health service. And you're quite right, we all have a contribution to make in relation to that. And you are quite right also to mention those receptionists, who are no longer receptionists, they are care navigators, and it's quite a difficult system to navigate, which is why it is important that they are trained up and they are rewarded. And one of the things we did when we offered the pay award to GPs this year was to make sure that there was an offer for the people that they employed involved in that as well. 

15:35
3. Topical Questions

The topical questions are next, and the first of those will be answered by the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership, and will be asked by Jack Sargeant. 

The Post Office Horizon Scandal

1. What assessment has the Minister made of how the Post Office Horizon scandal continues to impact the lives of residents in Wales? TQ941

It is clear that this scandal has had a significant and devastating impact on the lives of all affected, which is why the Welsh Government has raised profound matters of concern relating to access to and miscarriage of justice issues in meetings with a succession of Secretaries of State for Justice. 

I'm grateful for the Minister's response there. Presiding Officer, I'm sure I'm not alone in this Chamber when I say I am sickened by the scale of injustice of the Post Office Horizon scandal. So many lives impacted, so many lives ruined. It is truly a disgrace. People in authority complicit in this injustice, and many others unwilling to look and listen when campaigners like Alan Bates asked them to do so. The scales of justice in this country are tipped towards the powerful, and basic principles like a duty of candour are missing. This is why we need the UK Government to introduce a Hillsborough law now. 

Llywydd, people have lost houses. They've been made bankrupt. They've lost their life savings. They have been waiting years to clear their names and to get adequate compensation. Presiding Officer, some have tragically taken their own lives by suicide. Others have lost their lives to ill health. 

Minister, will you use your office to stress to the UK Government that the compensation has to be significant enough to recognise the reality of the situation? The initial £75,000 figure announced by the Prime Minister this afternoon for the group litigation order postmasters is simply not good enough. And whilst we await the finer details of the Prime Minister's proposals, particularly those to exonerate innocent victims, will you express to the UK Ministers that speed is of the essence here? People have already passed away waiting to clear their names, and the sub-postmasters and their families should not be waiting a second longer for the compensation, justice and truth they deserve. 

I thank Jack Sargeant for bringing this matter to the attention of the Senedd today, and I speak for many when I say I'm sure he is certainly not alone in his shock and in being sickened at the scale of injustice that we've seen. And too often the justice system fails ordinary people, and time and time again, lives are ruined and, as you said, tragically lost by miscarriages of justice, and then exacerbated by reticence or downright refusal to right those wrongs. And whilst I join with you in recognising the Prime Minister's statement earlier today in the House of Commons as a step in the right direction to righting those wrongs, I agree that speed and the scale of response is also of the essence. And I would also say, actually, that it's a sad reflection of our times that the seriousness of the issue that we and others have raised is now only seemingly taken seriously on the back, actually, of a very good and impactful tv drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office. 

And I just want to assure Members that the Counsel General is shortly meeting with all four UK nations, and this profoundly distressing and long-lasting miscarriage of justice will be discussed together, alongside the fundamental changes that are absolutely needed to ensure that the rule of law is more than just a soundbite.

I'd like to start by thanking my colleague Jack Sargeant for raising such an important topical question. The Horizon scandal is nothing more than a national tragedy, and it's appalling that postmasters and sub-postmasters and mistresses have been subjected to criminal proceedings and prison terms because of this. I think we all agree that the impact that it's had on so many people's lives has been devastating, and no amount of compensation can really make up for the distress that they and their families have endured. 

What makes this case so alarming is that it's plainly obvious to any observer that if the Post Office was prosecuting, on average, one postmaster or mistress every week for 16 years, for exactly the same offence, then there is clearly a major flaw in the system being used, and it's scandalous that rather than properly investigate that flaw, the Post Office chose the side of software manufacturers over their own loyal and dedicated staff. Ultimately, we have to make sure that, in the digital age we now live in, systems are in place to protect workers when software problems arise and cause major discrepancies, like those seen with Horizon, and we have to face the fact that no software is foolproof, especially in this day and age of cyber crime and cyber warfare. With this in mind, Deputy Minister, for the purposes of stopping companies from erroneously prosecuting employees due to software or digital errors, what steps are the Welsh Government taking to monitor worker prosecutions? And what mechanisms do you have in place to be able to react when you observe an emerging trend? Thank you. 

15:40

I thank Joel James for his contribution on this important matter. And you rightly raise the impact the scandal has had on lives and, indeed, the absolute scale of it too, the scale of the horror and the devastation that that's caused, and the amount of years it has taken to get to where we are now to right those wrongs. You used the right word—it's 'scandalous' that those loyal postmasters and loyal servants of the post service, that mean so much to all of our communities, were dismissed and not believed at the cost of their livelihoods and, in some cases, tragically, their lives. And I think you raise some really valuable and important points in terms of making sure that we work collaboratively. Obviously, justice isn't devolved, and many of the levers around some of the issues that Joel James raised are reserves by the UK Government, but it is something we will certainly be taking forward, and I know my colleague the Counsel General will be doing that in his upcoming meetings as well. 

The Horizon scandal is a tale of deep, deep injustice, and it's a tale of corporate greed, isn't it, where the shameful, unscrupulous behaviour of the powerful go unpunished, and the consequences of their failings are shifted on to ordinary, hard-working people, and the efforts of the campaigners for justice have been truly inspirational. They should never have had to put so much into such a campaign. 

I can't pay enough of a tribute to people like Noel Thomas and Lorraine Williams, two of my constituents, for their work insisting on justice. I've gotten to know Noel in recent years. He's a very special man, and thinking about him in a prison, celebrating his sixtieth birthday on his own in prison, brings a mixture of frustration, heartbreak and anger as well, and that's something that unifies us all, I hope. 

There should not have been the need for a campaign. The justice wheel, tragically, has turned far too slowly for those who have died, taken their lives, while awaiting exoneration. Both the Post Office and the UK Government, which ignored the issue for years until the din of public outrage became impossible to block out, now have serious questions to answer. And the same is true, of course, of Fujitsu, the company at the centre of the software errors that led to the wrongful prosecutions of hundreds of guiltless postal workers.

Now, I'm aware that Welsh Government has had several dealings with the company over the years. Transport for Wales currently has a five-year support and maintenance contract with Fujitsu. I have no evidence to suggest that they have been responsible for similar failings at all in Wales. But in the interest of transparency, could the Minister update the Senedd on the number of active contracts that the Government has with Fujitsu? Could the Minister also tell us how the concerns regarding their involvement in the Horizon scandal were taken into consideration before they were awarded Welsh Government contracts? And what additional due diligence will be applied to the Government's relationship with Fujitsu, now and in the future, as a result of the new public understanding of the scale of the scandal that Fujitsu was involved in? Are they fit to have contracts with Welsh Government? Is Welsh Government comfortable having contracts with the company at the heart of such a scandal?

Finally, how has Welsh Government been feeding into the establishment of the UK public inquiry on this matter? Can the Minister share with us the assurances, which I hope Government has sought, that the scope of the inquiry will provide the answers and the closure that the long-suffering postal workers in Wales and their families deserve? Diolch yn fawr.

15:45

Diolch, Rhun ap Iorwerth, and if I touch on the point around Fujitsu first, it's scandalous the role that they played and they need to be held to account as well. I should say I don't have, obviously, at my fingertips the number of active contracts with Welsh Government, but, given this is a matter of such seriousness, I wouldn't attempt to take a guess at it. And if I can, my colleagues in Government perhaps can take that point away around the company and actually come back to this Senedd with an update on that matter at a future date.

In terms of the inquiry, I know my colleague the Counsel General engaged with both the Lord Chancellor and the then Secretary of State for Justice with regard to specifically about the Post Office Horizon case, and also called for the remit of the terms of the reference of the inquiry to be widened to take into account some of the underlying justice system issues raised by these cases. And I'm sure he will continue to do so and follow that up at the meeting that he has upcoming as well.

Finally, I'd like to join you in—. It shouldn't have had to happen, it shouldn't have happened, they shouldn't have had to campaign for justice. The justice system should be there to support ordinary people, not to support the most powerful, and I'd like to join you and everybody here in paying tribute to the tenacity and the bravery of the campaigners and people who were affected, like your constituent, Noel Thomas, and wish them well for the future and commit here that we will work together and give all of our collective efforts to play our part in ensuring those historic wrongs are finally righted.  

I'd like to agree with Rhun ap Iorwerth that Noel Thomas is indeed a very special man, and I was given to understand that, once he'd won the overturning of his conviction back in 2021, along with others—. His comments were so powerful I was given the impression that this matter was resolved, and I took my eye off the ball on this one. So, I think the matter is absolutely front stage of the agenda at the moment, but we need to ensure that this, really, the worst scandal of the twenty-first century involving a public organisation, needs to be put to bed, and all these people who've been wrongfully convicted on an industrial scale—on an industrial scale—they really do need to get their money back and be compensated for all the pain and suffering that they and their families have had.

So, I would just like to urge all those backbenchers to sign the statement of opinion that I posted yesterday, because I think we just need to send that to the UK Parliament and the UK Government, because we can't resolve this issue in this place; we don't have those powers. And I look forward, Minister, to hearing just how many contracts we do have with Fujitsu, because it seems to me that there needs to be some reflection as to whether this is a company that is in line with the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Act 2023. 

Diolch, Jenny Rathbone. I think you're right in saying that this issue has very much been brought back to public notice by the ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office. I've been struck by so many people that have actually contacted me or just had a conversation in terms of actually thinking that justice had been served and realising it hadn't, but also the sheer scale of it and the impact that it had on people's lives. Like I said, it destroyed livelihoods and the lives of so many innocent sub-postmasters and mistresses, and you're obviously right—those affected now deserve to have both their reputations restored and to be paid the compensation that they deserve, and I very much hope that that happens as soon as possible. And you raise an important point of the role that everybody here has to play in terms of making sure that we use our powers of persuasion and the levers we have at our disposal to make sure that that historic justice is wrong adequately and fully as soon as is possible.

I'd like to thank our colleague Jack for bringing this again to the floor of this Senedd and for all the comments, because it's nice and heartening to see that we're all united. We've all been affected by this in terms of even people we didn't know, watching the programme. I was really shocked, and my husband was watching it with me last week, and we were both reduced to tears. Now, just for interest here, I would like to commend Mr Alan Bates. Alan and his wife Suzanne ran the post office in the ward where I live and the ward where I have my business. I was in there most days. I knew him and his wife Suzanne for many years. They ran a very efficient, friendly and much-valued post office alongside a wool counter. We were all shocked when the post office closed, but even I didn’t know—. Whilst I knew of his own personal battle, I didn’t know that he was using his energy, his determination and his courage to work on behalf of so many, and I understand that, since the programme was aired, lots more distressed sub-postmasters and mistresses are coming forward now and saying, ‘That happened to me.' So, I just genuinely believe that we do have a part here as Welsh politicians. I saw Mr Thomas and the real story as well as the drama, and you couldn’t really put a hair between. There was no contradiction from the real story and the drama. It was superbly put out. But, as far as I’m concerned, every single person involved in this horrendous scandal needs to be brought to justice themselves now. We need those who’ve been accused wrongfully to be exonerated fully, and I look forward to a debate on this with the Counsel General here sometime so that we can establish more exactly how those talks are going on with the UK Government. Diolch.

15:50

Thank you, Janet Finch-Saunders, for that really passionate and moving contribution. I think it demonstrates—. You talk about that people will have seen Alan Bates now through the drama, and it actually shows the power of drama to pursue a cause, where it shouldn't be needed, but the difference that it can make. I'm sure Members will be grateful for the way in which you've shared your reflections and also the impact that this has had on so many individuals, but so many communities, like you say, as well, emphasising, as I think we've all made in the Siambr today, the need to not—. This has come to the fore as a consequence of that drama over the Christmas period, but we should not let that go now, and ensure that we work collaboratively and collectively to ensure justice is served all round. I'm sure that my colleague the Counsel General won't mind me committing on his behalf to update this place on the development of his discussions and representations on this issue as well. 

Diolch, Llywydd. I was a post office clerk at the time, and this has brought back to me issues we were dealing with in our branch, not realising it was not an isolated incident. Also, Hilary Isherwood, Mark's wife, worked there at the same time. The issues weren't to the scale of those portrayed but I didn't realise—. I thought it was just our branch, and we resolved it, to a certain extent. But the programme's refreshed my memory of that time. The branch did close a couple of years later under Government rationalisation measures. We did have a protest, but it still happened. But I just want to ask: how can we encourage those who have been impacted by the scandal, including my ex-postmistress, and have not yet come forward to do so? Because this programme's probably made them think. It might not have been to the scale of those in the programme, but they might have had to pay some money back at the time as well. 

Thank you to my colleague, friend, Carolyn Thomas, for sharing your reflections too. I think that just hits to the heart of the matter, doesn't it, that so many people thought it was just them and suffered in isolation, when actually it wasn't a problem with them, it was a problem with the system, and a system that has failed people on so many levels—[Inaudible.] It's way past time for those failures to be rectified. I think Janet Finch-Saunders touched on it too, in terms of that the programme has demonstrated to people—perhaps they might not have realised—that it wasn't just them, and the need to come forward for them to receive justice as well. So, perhaps, following this question in the Siambr today, we can make sure that we have the information that as Members we can perhaps share through our own networks and connections so, if people do feel they've been affected and haven't had support or access to any form of justice, that they may be supported to come forward at this point now. 

Thank you, Deputy Minister. The next question will be answered by the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, and will be asked by Sam Rowlands. 

15:55
Arriva Bus Services in North Wales

2. Will the Welsh Government make a statement on Arriva changing every bus service in North Wales as a result of Wales' default 20 mph speed limit? TQ946

Well, we've been clear that we'd like to learn from the introduction of the 20 mph and make improvements. We've always recognised there would be an impact on some bus services, and we're now reviewing the guidance issued to local authorities, and impacts on buses are part of that review.

Thank you, Deputy Minister, and thank you, Llywydd, for allowing this topical question here today. People who use public transport in north Wales, the region I represent, now find themselves in an even more difficult position as a direct result of Welsh Government's default 20 mph speed limit. Bus provider Arriva is having to change every one of their bus services in north Wales, not the few perhaps the Deputy Minister wants to allude to due to, as they describe it, 'challenging operational conditions'.

Now these changes include a number of locations in my region that are no longer going to be served by a bus—with one example, raised by Darren Millar yesterday, being the village of Llandegla—and severe reductions for other parts of my region. The Llandudno to Prestatyn service will now operate hourly and will no longer call into places like Llandudno Junction railway station or into Llysfaen; the Bangor to Beaumaris service is being reduced to operate every 75 minutes. These are significant settlements, Bangor, Llandudno, Prestatyn—tens of thousands of people living in these settlements having their bus services reduced even further.

All this, of course, has a significant negative impact on my constituents. It makes their lives more difficult. It's going to affect their jobs, their families, their social lives—all because of an unwanted roll-out of a 20 mph default speed limit. This, of course, is in stark contrast to the Welsh Government's stated aim of getting people onto public transport. What has been implemented is a policy that actively forces people to not be able to access that public transport and instead increases dependency on cars.

Now, Welsh Government has, of course, also been overseeing a long decline of buses in Wales. COVID did hasten the decline of bus passengers, but bus journeys per capita in Wales were on the slide way before then. They declined a quarter between 2005 and 2019 and have been amongst the slowest to recover post pandemic. But it's the implementation of the default 20 mph that is pushing them over the edge and, sadly, this whole thing has been predictable. These issues were even raised in this Chamber by myself and others but were, sadly, falling on deaf ears.

Of course, the whole thing then exacerbates the issue of funding for our bus services, both to taxpayers and to bus users, as they will cost more to run and that cost has to be met somewhere. And we've already seen a huge adjustment this year in funding into public transport from the Welsh Government and the ongoing impact of the default 20 mph will only make this worse—again, predicted by those in this Chamber, predicted also by Professor Stuart Cole, to again fall onto deaf ears. So, it is clear in this evidence we've seen again now in north Wales that Welsh Government's public transport policy is failing the people we represent, especially my residents in north Wales. So, I'd like to know, Llywydd, from the Deputy Minister today if he's satisfied with these bus routes in north Wales being slashed and what exactly he's going to do to fix the mess that's been made.

Well, there are lots of challenges facing the bus industry and it's too easy to blame it all on the new speed limit. I'd like to deal with a number of the issues raised in turn, with your patience, Llywydd.

First of all, let's remember why we decided to reduce the speed limit in built-up areas. It was to save lives and cut casualties. I set up an expert group to work with delivery partners to design an implementation plan that would work in practice. It did work with Transport for Wales, which showed the impact on journey times would be marginal and they recommended that we take the approach of a national default speed limit rather than the street-by-street approach that existed before and was seen to have failed its objectives. Now, that default speed limit approach was put to the Senedd and it was overwhelmingly approved, including by the majority of the Conservative group. So, let's remember that. This approach was agreed by the whole Senedd and endorsed by most Conservatives, and the record shows that.

Now, over the last three months we've moved from the pilot phase to the full roll-out and that has inevitably highlighted some issues that need addressing. And I said at the outset that we would not get this right on day one, and that we would review its implementation, and that's what we're doing. We set out guidance for local authorities to make exceptions to the default speed limit and councils are best placed to apply this to their own local roads; after all, legally, they are the local highway authority. Now, we know from the data that we have published, and which the Senedd Research Service analysed, that the proportion of roads still at 30 mph now varies greatly between councils, from over 10 per cent in Swansea and Bridgend to under 1 per cent in the four north Wales authorities. So, clearly, councils do have the power to exempt some roads where they feel it's justified, and whether a street is on a major bus route is, obviously, something that they can take into consideration. 

This change hasn't been made in secret. Bus operators had all of the information about changes to speed limits available to them to allow them to adequately plan for the introduction of 20 mph. Some bus operators, like Cardiff Bus, made changes to their timetable in advance of the speed limit change; Arriva and First Cymru chose not to, while Stagecoach said that the new speed limit would have no impact and that they did not plan to change their timetables. Now, we know that all companies have been struggling with driver recruitment, and that has affected their ability to keep to their timetables. We also know that many of them wanted to make changes to some routes to reflect the way passengers are now travelling, or not travelling, after COVID, and these were all factors in the timetable changes.

We've seen claims before this week that the speed limit was to blame for delays, and we've asked the bus companies for their data to help us understand that. We've had some and we are waiting for more, and I'm perfectly prepared to accept that there are some routes where buses are moving too slowly. I'm not convinced that the automatic response to that is to revert all bus routes to 30 mph. I don't think the right answer is to allow some of the heaviest and largest vehicles on our roads to drive the fastest in built-up areas where people and traffic are mixing.

We want more people to choose to use the bus, and we know that for years the bus companies have said that congestion is a major problem that impacts bus reliability. Three years ago, in the Wales transport strategy, we said that we wanted to encourage bus priority measures, like bus lanes and priority lights, to give buses a head start in busy traffic, and we know that this improves bus journey times and improves reliability. In this financial year, we've committed £6 million for bus priority schemes and over £5 million for the next financial year, and I want to see bus priority measures prioritised in bids from local authorities and included in the regional transport plans they are developing.

Where there are streets where it would make sense for traffic to travel at 30 mph, we have encouraged councils to take a commonsense approach. I've talked about applying a sniff test; we should ask, 'Does this feel right?' If people are being asked to drive slower on a street, it needs to make sense why. If it doesn't, people will tend to ignore the limit and we risk undermining the whole approach. After three months, we've all had the chance to get used to the change, and I must say, in my own personal experience, anecdotal as it is, as a driver, I think people are driving slower; not driving exactly at 20 mph, but, in my experience, around the 25 mph mark, and that's what we expected to happen initially. We hope, as the change settles in and as enforcement begins, we'll see that fall further, because for every drop in the average speed by 1 mph, casualties drop by 6 per cent.

We'll be publishing the first of the regular six-monthly monitoring reports in due course, and we'll have some solid data to compare to my own anecdotal experience. But, I must say, I do find stretches where people are ignoring the speed limit, and, in some cases, that's because it does fail the sniff test. There was always going to be a bedding-in period, and built into the powers that councils have as local highway authorities is the ability to make changes. We know that local authorities are already collating lists where 20 mph doesn't feel like the right speed. They understandably haven't wanted to act hastily as people were getting used to the change, but they do want to review and revise their local speed limits. Nobody anticipates that this will involve wholesale changes, and will focus on addressing anomalies. I've asked Phil Jones, who's leading the review for us, to consider whether further tweaks to the guidance on exceptions would be helpful, for example, by explicitly including major bus routes as one of the local criteria they can consider.

We've been clear that we will continually monitor any impacts of the new speed limit on bus services and we will continue to work with operators, local authorities and TfW to tackle the wider challenges undoubtedly facing the bus industry. Diolch.

16:00

I was going to ask you about what the real motive was here, but I think you've touched on that, in fairness, Deputy Minister, because I've been asked by some of my electors whether—. You know, the change in speed limit probably is a driver for this, but I think there are other drivers for these changes that are playing out in terms of the wider challenges facing the sector. But I think you've probably had your say on that.

So, can I ask you what you would have expected from a company like Arriva when it comes to implementing these changes? Because I've had constituents contact me who had no idea that these changes were coming and are reading about it in the press, and are really disappointed that they weren't engaged as users, regular users of these services, and that they weren't given an opportunity through a consultation process to say what they had to say about any proposals that were being prepared. Was there an equality impact assessment? I don't know. If there wasn't, then there should have been, because obviously it's such an important part of people being able to access jobs and services, as we've heard. And there's a proposed new stop—Llandegla was mentioned yesterday—on the main road, which, I believe, is on private land. The owner has no intention of allowing that land to be used. So, does this not all point to quite a botched job from Arriva when it comes to actually changing services, whatever the motive is?

16:05

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

Well, I think Llyr Gruffydd has highlighted perfectly some of the flaws in the current privatised bus service that we have, because these companies are commercial companies; they can do, essentially, as they like. We can make pleas to them, but unless we've got money to give them, direct subsidy, to run routes that we define as socially necessary, they don't have to take any notice. And I am frustrated that it's taken until now for them to rejig their timetables given, as I said, that Cardiff Bus did this in advance of the change in the speed limit, and I do think it's a shame that they're trying to blame the 20 mph speed limit for a whole range of different things.

As I said, I'm not dogmatic about this; I'm perfectly prepared to accept that there are areas where changes can be made, and let's work together to achieve those, because we want this to bed in successfully. But without bringing in the new bus Bill and the powers to regulate the bus industry, things like equality impact assessments and consultations and working with staff and strategically planning where routes ought to go, based on need rather than on profit, are impossible to force on a privatised, fragmented industry, and that's why, this year, we'll be bringing in legislation to this Senedd, to change that.

Arriva have done a punctuality review of 90 per cent of their services—its impact on 90 per cent of their services. I was alerted to the issue by the community of Llandegla, so, over the last week, I've met with Llandegla residents and I've also been working with stakeholders to try and address the issue to come up with a solution. I've been contacting Transport for Wales and the local authority and I visited Arriva's depot as well, and I looked at their graphs and listened to them—there were union representatives there as well—and I did see in the graphs that where, before, there was 80 per cent compliance, that had reduced 60 per cent in some areas because of the 20 mph speed limit. So, I've been working with all these stakeholders trying to find a solution for Llandegla. It looks like there is going to be one; I've just seen an e-mail from Arriva, who've been working with Denbighshire on that.

I think that looking at the arterial routes that the buses use, that will be a solution going forward, and putting down double-yellow lines as well, where there is congestion in some areas. I know that in the village of Llandegla where the bus has to do a three-point turn, there are double-yellow lines, and in Buckley, there was an issue of congestion there and the double-yellow lines have helped. Putting in bus routes and also promoting them, so that we can get more passengers on the buses, is all part of that whole package, going forward.

But, I think, by Arriva now working with Transport for Wales and with the local authority, looking at certain roads that can be increased to 30 mph, and the review that the Deputy Minister said would happen is happening—and I'm really pleased to hear today that he said that they will be looking at bus routes—by working together, we're finding solutions in north Wales and some will hopefully continue, and it sounds like that will be happening in Llandegla. I'm sorry that's not a question, because you answered my question earlier, saying that you were agreeing to add key bus routes along arterial routes to be part of the exceptions criteria, so I thank you for that. So, Deputy Minister, would you agree that that is a good idea? Thank you.

Thanks, Carolyn Thomas, for that, and for the work that she's doing in north Wales to try and address practical solutions to these problems.

These are not straightforward judgments, because we've heard often in this Chamber those who oppose our policy, but support 20 mph, they say, outside schools, outside hospitals and in residential areas. Indeed, if you look at the criteria we have, in fact, they say 20 mph should be outside schools, outside hospitals, outside residential areas, outside shops and outside community centres. So, we seem to agree in principle that 20 mph is appropriate in built-up areas, the judgment then is where is it appropriate, where is it not appropriate, and that's what the exemptions criteria are there for, to allow authorities that flexibility.

Now, of course, in principle, it's easy for us to say that, but when they're applied to different roads, it's often very complex. I sympathise with local authorities about the judgments they have to make, because you have some roads that may be on an arterial route, but also are near a school, near houses, near a play area. So, are we then saying that because they're on an arterial bus route, they therefore should be 30 mph, even though vulnerable road users are mixing with traffic? Now, that is not a straightforward judgment, is it, and that's I think a judgment best made locally. So, where Arriva have examples of that particularly affecting their punctuality, there's a process for them to go to the local authority, to make the case and to ask the local authority to use its discretion, which it has.

It's very difficult for us, I think, in the Welsh Government to say street by street, 'This is exactly what you should do.' We don't have the legal powers to do that, for a start; they sit with the local authority. But also I think the problem is many of the arguments made, particularly by the Conservatives here, are very general and high level, and they don't tell us how they're going to apply in practice. Now, the logic of their position is that we do it street by street, which is what we did before. In that case, you have to have a traffic regulation order for every street. That would cost an absolute fortune, and they say we've wasted money on this process. It would have cost considerably more if we took their advice, and that's why the independent expert taskforce recommended a default approach, which was supported by the Conservatives in this place.

It's true that when the regulations were made, there was a change of leadership, and Andrew R.T. Davies saw a populist opportunity to try and create some division, and their position changed. But on the principled approach, which was the taskforce report that said, should we take a default approach to it, the support of—. I don't have the names in front of me, but, from memory, I think we had Janet Finch-Saunders, Laura Anne Jones, Russell George, and the principled approach to take was supported by the Conservatives—

16:10

Janet is saying that she only voted for going forward in consultation. That's not true. You should read the motions you vote on, Janet. That is not what the motion said, and I ask you to go back and check what you voted for. It explicitly said in the motion your group supported that this was a default speed limit approach, and that's what we've done. Within the default speed limit is the ability to make exceptions, but they are often, in practice, complex judgments to make.