Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

16/01/2024

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 First Minister

Good afternoon and welcome, all, to this Plenary meeting. The first item will be questions to the First Minister. The first question is from Jayne Bryant.

The Impact of Brexit

1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of Brexit on Newport West? OQ60538

I thank Jayne Bryant for that question, Llywydd. Leaving the single market has worsened trading conditions with Europe, to the detriment of businesses and consumers across Wales. Newport West is also affected by the UK Government’s failure to replace more than £1 billion of Wales's European Union funding, while Office for Budget Responsibility analysis concludes that leaving the European Union will shrink the UK economy by 4 per cent.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. Thank you for those stark figures. We were told that Brexit would result in endless opportunities for frictionless trade and new deals around the world. While some of the promises made by the Vote Leave campaign look good on paper, the reality is now very different for people living in my constituency and across Wales. We've heard this week about supply chain issues causing medicine shortages for people with long-term health conditions, including diabetes, epilepsy and breast cancer. Brexit is affecting imports, and Welsh businesses looking to export their produce today face barriers that simply would not exist if we were part of the EU. And the Tories have broken their manifesto commitment to secure a trade agreement with the US. Failure to reach an agreement on tariff-free access to Canadian markets is especially hampering our cheese exports, an industry I know the First Minister takes a very keen interest in. First Minister, would you agree with me that broken promises around Brexit show yet again how the Tories cannot be trusted, are failing the people of Wales, and how we urgently need a general election?

Llywydd, Members of the Senedd will remember very vividly the promises that were made here on the floor of the Senedd—how Wales would not be a penny worse off as a result of leaving the European Union. Although, in fact, of course, as we know, we are £1.3 billion worse off, and will be worse off every single year as a result of that broken promise. Jayne Bryant, Llywydd, referred to frictionless trade, and, of course, she is right that, in that Canadian case—. Do you remember the days when Liam Fox used to go round telling us that these would be the easiest trade deals you've ever seen, how we would strike them round the world? Well, here we are, with a Canadian trade deal, where, on 31 December, the ability of Welsh exporters to deliver into the Canadian market stopped. We were part of the EU cheese quota; now that is no longer available to Welsh exporters. We have to rely instead on the rest-of-the-world quota—a far smaller quota, and far more difficult to sell. Only yesterday, cheese producers in north Wales contacted the Welsh Government to point to the fact that, as of 15 January, they will need new animal health certificates in order to be able to export their goods on to Northern Ireland. Do you remember what the then Prime Minister Boris Johnson said—how over his dead body would there be a trade barrier down the Irish Sea? He said that, as I remember, several weeks before he then concluded a deal doing exactly that. And the consequence of that will now be felt amongst Welsh food producers in the north of Wales. Of course Jayne Bryant is right, Llywydd—the so-called Brexit bonus has been exposed time after time for what it is: new barriers to trade, fewer opportunities for Welsh businesses, and an economy that is, for every single household, worth less than it would have been had we still been part of the European Union trading arrangements.

The majority of people voted for Brexit in Wales, and in most of your constituencies, didn't they? Brexit has devolved—[Interruption.] Can you still hear me?

Brexit has delivered a myriad of trade deals, as you well know, First Minister, of great benefit to Wales and the rest of the UK. Your own Government website highlights the benefits of the UK shared prosperity fund as well, and states that,

'The Shared Prosperity Fund...will provide new opportunities for local communities, support the development and growth of local businesses as well as supporting the recovery of our town centres.'

[Interruption.]

13:35

Now I can't hear the Member. So, if we can be a little quieter so we can hear what's being asked. 

First Minister, the fund has seen millions of pounds awarded to projects across Newport, contributing to the revival of local communities. Will you commit to the championing of the shared prosperity fund and acknowledge the positive impacts that the fund has delivered across Newport and Wales?

Well, Llywydd, first of all, the myriad of trade deals to which the Member refers are, in the main, simply deals that were already available to us on better terms while we were inside the European Union. The Office for Budget Responsibility, the office on which the UK Government relies for its forecasting, says that all of those trade deals—all of those trade deals—will make not a jot of difference to the 4 per cent shrinkage in the UK economy. So, not only are they the same old deals that we had already, but they will not mitigate the harmful impact of Brexit that the OBR, time and time again, reports in its six-monthly updates on the UK economy. 

And as for the shared prosperity fund, of course the Welsh Government is not able to champion that fund, a fund that does Wales down, that gives us far less money than we had under the previous arrangements, and from which the Welsh Government has been deliberately excluded by the UK Government. How could I possibly champion a fund in which the Welsh Government has not been consulted, has not been involved in the decision making and which, in fact, results in fragmentation of those programmes that otherwise were available here in Wales: the rural development plan, the end of that, and apprenticeship programmes denuded of EU funding. What is there to champion in such—in such—in such a second-rate way of providing for the things that Wales needs?

Home-to-school Transport

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the provision of home-to-school transport in Rhondda Cynon Taf? OQ60502

Llywydd, home-to-school transport is a statutory duty of Welsh local authorities. Proposals put forward by Rhondda Cynon Taf will continue to meet the requirements of this Senedd’s learner travel Measure.

First Minister, as you may be well aware, and as you've just mentioned, even though RCT council have financial reserves of a staggering £270 million, they now intend to end home-to-school transport for those children living within two miles of primary schools and three miles of secondary schools on the grounds of budget cuts from the Welsh Government. This has angered many residents who feel that these cuts are unjustified given the excessive reserves that the council has and the fact that they pay some of the highest council tax rates in the entire United Kingdom. They are also angered because the council's own consultation exercise has highlighted the detrimental impact these cuts will have on Welsh language learning, which will be adversely impacted and which will pose a risk to their target of significantly growing the number of learners accessing Welsh-medium education. Moreover, First Minister, this removal of home-to-school transport for these distances will almost certainly result in parents driving their children to school and increasing localised pollution and traffic, which seem to be exactly the opposite of what the Welsh Government is trying to do. It also flies in the face of what the Welsh Youth Parliament and the Welsh children's commissioner have been advocating. With this in mind, what steps is the Welsh Government taking to challenge RCT council to use some of its £270 million-worth of reserves, which it has collected from hard-working taxpayers, on keeping the home-to-school transport provision? Thank you.

Well, Llywydd, the issue of local authority reserves was very effectively dealt with by the leader of RCT council, Councillor Andrew Morgan, on Sunday. He offered to debate any Conservative politician who wished to take him on in explaining how reserves are actually available to local authorities in Wales, and I don't see a single person who has come forward to do that.

As to home-to-school transport, four of the 22 local authorities in Wales currently offer a service over and above that set out in the learner travel Measure. All four are Labour councils. You wouldn't be surprised at that. RCT council, were it to simply offer the basic learner travel Measure standard, as 18 of our local authorities do, would save £6.5 million in the expenditure that it will otherwise provide next year. The changes that it is planning to make—proposing to make—will save them £2.5 million. In other words, RCT council, after the changes, will still provide more than 18 other councils in Wales—any council where the Conservative Party is in charge and any council where Plaid Cymru is in charge. In very difficult times, I think that is a course of action that continues to demonstrate the priority that the council attaches to these services.

13:40
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.

First Minister, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales's annual report came out at the back end of last year, and later on this afternoon we're going to have a statement from the health secretary outlining winter pressures within the NHS. In their report, they touch on there having been various initiatives in place to help support services to cope with unrelenting demand, but their work, on the inspectorate side of things, could find no evidence that these initiatives were making clear and significant differences to the service on the front line. Why is the Welsh Government missing its target on helping hospitals and other healthcare settings deal with winter pressures and the unrelenting demand, as identified by the health inspectorate?

Well, Llywydd, I've read the inspector's report. It's a good deal more balanced, as you would expect, than the question from the leader of the opposition. It does point to unrelenting pressures on the service, it does point to increasing demand, but it also quite certainly points to those new initiatives and services that are making a real difference in the NHS. And if those services were not there—the '111 press 2' service, the urgent primary care centres, the same-day emergency care provision in our hospitals—the report is clear that the service would not be dealing with the pressures in the way that it is.

And while the service has undoubtedly, as you would expect, been under very significant pressure at the start of the year—the busiest time for the health service, year after year—actually, the Welsh NHS has shown that, in some key metrics, things have been better this year, despite the fact that demand is significantly higher. So, ambulance waits outside hospitals are lower this year than they were last year, performance in our emergency departments has been better in the last figures that were published than the same time last year. So, despite the pressures, the balanced account that is offered in the HIW report is borne out by experience on the ground.

First Minister, you talk about balance; I gave you a direct quote from the foreword of the report. Those weren't my words about them being unable to find this evidence. These were their words. And I notice you do have a habit of trying to make it look as if we're putting words into people's mouths, but this is the chief executive's foreword to the report, and it's not unreasonable, when those words appear in a report—the annual report—to ask what exactly you're doing. With 25,000 people still waiting two years or more for treatment within the Welsh NHS, you can see what the unrelenting pressure is on our services. And one other point that has come out from reading the report is that 40 per cent of major health establishments, such as hospitals and cottage hospitals, have not been inspected for five years or more. Some have never been inspected. What is the Welsh Government doing to work with the inspectorate to make sure that it is resourced to be able to undertake a meaningful programme of inspections so that those types of establishments that I've just outlined—hospitals, cottage hospitals and major facilities—are inspected on a regular basis and supported in the work that they do?

Well, Llywydd, I don't doubt for a moment that the quotation that the leader of the opposition offered was a direct quotation. The point is that it was a partial quotation—that it took part of what the report said and aimed to suggest to us that that was the whole of the story, and it quite certainly was not and the report says that it is not. That's the point that I am making—that while the report, as you would expect, points to the challenges facing the health service, which are real, points to the demand on the health service, which is always rising, it then shows the ways in which the health service has responded to it.

The programme of inspection for HIW is not a matter for Ministers. There is a very clear and necessary separation between the operational decisions of an inspectorate and the service for which Ministers are responsible. I should not and will not interfere in the decisions that they make as to where they go, what they inspect and how they report.

13:45

In the current draft budget, you're cutting the budget of Healthcare Inspectorate Wales. It is quite right the point that you make that it is not for Ministers to direct the inspectorate where to go, but you have a direct role as a Government in the resources that you make available. If you widen out that inspection regime across the 1,500 health establishments across Wales, two thirds of those health establishments have not been inspected in the last five years, or have never been inspected. So, I agree with the point that you make that it would be wrong for Ministers to direct the inspectorate, but you have a direct role in the ability to resource the inspectorate. My question to you, on the second time of asking, is how will you meet the challenge to make sure that Healthcare Inspectorate Wales is resourced appropriately so that it can undertake its work—its critical work—in supporting health boards and primary healthcare in particular to deliver the range of services across the whole of Wales, and ultimately respond to concerns that people have when they find shortcomings in that service provision. 

As Members will know, the budget laid in front of the Senedd is the most difficult budget we've ever had to set. There's a choice to be made, and here you can see the choice in front of you. The Conservatives, through their leader, say that they would invest more in inspectorate services. We have decided to invest more in the services themselves. There's the choice in front of you. When there's only a certain amount of money to go round, how do you use it? We have increased very significantly the amount of money available to the service in Wales: a 4 per cent increase in NHS funding in Wales next year; a 1 per cent increase in England. You would have us take money out of patient services and put it into the inspectorate. We stared at that decision; we have put the money where our priorities lie, and I'm interested to hear where yours have been articulated this afternoon.

Thank you, Llywydd. I want to talk about business, and our high streets particularly. Wales needs a government that supports business in order to create economic prosperity and social fairness, and our communities need a vibrant high street.

The Federation of Small Businesses's 'A Vision for Welsh Towns' report found that thriving small and independent shops is a top priority to get people back to the high street, but also there's a general understanding that you've got to offer an experience on the high street. Going for a coffee or a meal, or socialising with friends and family, is a big part of that. Changes to business rates in the draft budget, ending the 75 per cent relief, hits both shops and hospitality hard. How does that fit in with the Welsh Government's strategy for the high street?

Well, Llywydd, we begin Plaid Cymru's questions with this week's topic for more investment; another week and another area in which Plaid Cymru wants the Welsh Government to find more money. Where is this money to come from? We never have an answer to that question, of course. I think three weeks ago, it was agriculture; two weeks ago, it was apprenticeships. I've forgotten what last week's demand for more money was. And this week it's more money for rate relief. Well, I'm afraid Government simply doesn't operate in that way. This is a temporary relief scheme; it's now in its fifth year. It has given more than £1 billion in additional rate relief to the sector to which the leader of Plaid Cymru refers. In Wales, that relief will continue—not at 75 per cent, but at a level that we think will allow the sector to go on having the benefit of further public investment, on a path, as inevitably it has to be, to the day when this temporary scheme comes to an end.

Of course funding is an issue, but there are longer term consequences to cuts like this for the economic and societal well-being of Wales. I'd be very interested if the First Minister would share with us the calculations that this is a short-term decision that doesn't have long-term implications. I met with Welsh hospitality leaders today, who shared with me their frustrations and fears about the future of the sector. Just in the past week, renowned and well-established food and drink businesses in the First Minister's own constituency have announced their intention to close, and the decision to cut business rate relief has been described as the final nail in the coffin for many independent business by the Welsh Independent Restaurant Collective. The current business rate relief of 75 per cent was never intended to continue indefinitely, say Ministers, but putting a safety net in place one minute and then pulling it away when times are particularly tough isn't a coherent approach. Does the First Minister share my concern that businesses in hospitality are closing because of this, and will he listen to the industry's voices and reconsider that decision?

13:50

We will not be reconsidering that decision, unless Plaid Cymru can tell me where the money that has been diverted from business rate relief to support many other programmes, including many of the other programmes that, week after week, Plaid Cymru Members will tell me we have to find more money for—. If he will tell me where that money is to come from, then I'll consider whether I think that he's made a sufficiently compelling case.

I am not plucking anything out of the air about the temporary nature of the scheme. The scheme is funded via the UK Government. They said, in the very first year, it was a one-year scheme, and there was no money at all in the budget for this form of rate relief, until the UK Government made a decision to continue it for a further year. It has always been a temporary scheme, and there will come a point where it will come to an end. We are providing a pathway out of the subsidy for the sector, and I think we have made the right decision.

It's right for me to point out, Llywydd, as well that, at the same time, we are providing an additional £20 million in a new capital scheme that will allow those businesses to carry out improvements to premises that will permanently reduce their reliance on very expensive energy, for example. That's not a one-off scheme or a temporary scheme; that is a scheme that will mean that, from then onwards, those businesses will be able to save money and to go on trading.

On that particular point, businesses told me this morning that is not what they want. Of course they will accept money, but that is not the kind of support that they want now. The priority has to be on helping them deal with the acute problems that they do face now, and the business rates cut is causing more intense problems for them.

Last week I made the case for less short-term economic thinking by the Welsh Government, but isn't the approach to business rates here a classic example of that: a short-term decision with long-term implications? I am asking Ministers to look again at the business rates decision. Who knows, it could be an eleventh-hour reprieve for businesses intending on putting up a 'closed' sign permanently.

But the truth is, of course, that business rates is a pretty badly designed levy in the first place; a pretty blunt instrument holding back too many of our entrepreneurs. I'm up for the challenge of reforming it, because I believe that Wales's greatest assets are its people, and I want to support them in any way that we can. Is the First Minister ready to trigger work on genuine reform of business rates, in his last few weeks as First Minister, or perhaps call on his successors to do so?

I certainly believe that business rates is a system ripe for reform, and the Welsh Government, of course, has done a great deal of work on an alternative system to business rates. We wouldn't be beginning work now, because we've been working on this topic for a considerable period of time. I do think that reform is necessary, and I think there is a way in which we can use the millions and millions of pounds that, every year, we spend on business rate relief—. Only 20 per cent—20 per cent—of all Welsh businesses pay full business rates. Eighty per cent of Welsh businesses already receive help from the public to pay that bill. I think that money could be targeted better, I think it could do more good in Welsh businesses, but that's been the policy of the Welsh Government for a considerable period of time. It's why the work has been carried out.

I did notice, Llywydd, that the third time the Member spoke he had an opportunity to tell me where the money would be taken from that he is so keen to be seen spent on business rate relief, and I noticed, for the third time, he offered me no answer to that question whatsoever.

The Default 20 mph Policy

3. What assessment has the First Minister made of the impact of the default 20 mph policy on people in Vale of Clwyd? OQ60509

People across Wales, including the Vale of Clwyd, will benefit from fewer collisions in communities, saving lives and reducing casualties. In addition to reduced deaths and injuries, we can expect increases in cycling and walking, and improvements in public health.

Thank you for your response, First Minister. With the 20 mph speed limit enforcement starting on the eighth of this month, the consequences are already being felt in the Vale of Clwyd, with Arriva Buses Wales scrapping their service to the popular Tweedmill shopping outlet, which I raised in the Senedd last week.

A concern that I'd like to raise with you, First Minister, is the possibility that the legislation, and failure of local authorities in north Wales to navigate the legislation, may be putting the Vale of Clwyd at a disadvantage compared to other areas of Wales. The Deputy Minister for Climate Change commented last week that 0.6 per cent of roads in Denbighshire are exempt from the 20 mph limit, compared with 10 per cent in Swansea, 10 per cent in Bridgend and a higher percentage in many other local authorities, particularly in south Wales.

My constituents would be grateful if they had an explanation for the disparity between the level of exemptions that have been approved in local authorities in north Wales compared to those in the south, and why they are so slow in north Wales. I sent a letter to Denbighshire County Council with a list of proposed highways that constituents suggested for exemption, following a consultation with residents. Denbighshire County Council informed me they would review these highways, but we've seen no progress since. 

Could the First Minister please shed light on this issue, and explain whether the delay in 20 mph exemptions for Denbighshire is due to a lackadaisical local authority? Is it due to obstruction from the Welsh Government, or is it the local authority struggling to navigate the new legislation? If it is the latter, what is the First Minister doing to ensure that the Welsh Government is working to help local authorities in north Wales to navigate the legislation and ensure the appropriate exemptions are being approved in a timely fashion?   

13:55

I'm happy to help the Member as best I can, and to say again what I've said here and what the Deputy Minister set out in some detail last week. We are committed to a review of the guidance that we provide to local authorities. If it has not been sufficiently clear to some local authorities, we will work with them to make sure it gives them the clarity that they need. Then there will have to be a review by each local authority in applying that guidance in the circumstances that they themselves face, and those circumstances do change from one local authority to another. The topography is different, population density can be different. One of the things I think we have found out in this whole exercise is that there were different approaches in any case to designating 30 mph roads in different parts of Wales.

What we will do is to be as clear as we can, working alongside local authorities on the guidance. It is then for them, Llywydd; it is local authorities who interpret that guidance in the circumstances that they face. I think the point that the Deputy Minister made last week is an important one: that there is an unexpectedly wide gap between those local authorities that have exempted fewer than 1 per cent of their roads and those local authorities that have exempted as much as 10 per cent. The exercise I think will look to see whether there are anomalies there that can be ironed out, and it'll be done in that partnership way—a review of the guidance by the Welsh Government to help with clarity, and then implementation decisions that lie with local authorities themselves. 

We know there is variation across Wales in terms of the roads that have remained at 30 mph. The review is going to look at this issue, and we need to engage with our partners in local government and bus operators as part of that. We've seen that the regional scrums and the corporate joint committees are working well in terms of bringing local authorities together in dealing with some of the challenges facing the bus industry in Wales. First Minister, do you agree with me that they provide an ideal forum for that detailed discussion for looking at the impact of speed limits on arterial routes and punctuality, as well as helping to identify areas where bus priority measures could make a real difference? 

I very much agree with the point that Carolyn Thomas has made about bus priority measures being the right answer to making sure that buses are able to move through communities, particularly where there is a great deal of traffic. That's why the Welsh Government has provided millions of pounds in this year's budget, and will do so again in next year's budget, to help local authorities with the costs of creating bus priority lanes to allow public transport to move swiftly through those areas.

I also agree with the point that Carolyn Thomas made. I think she echoed, in a way, a point I was trying to make in my original answer, which is that a partnership approach between the responsibilities of the Welsh Government and the responsibilities of local authorities will fine-tune this policy and iron out any anomalies that have been apparent in the first months of its operation. 

I think regional working between local authorities based on corporate joint committees and those regional arrangements that have been put in place for bus services is a very sensible way for this to go, and, in the review that we'll be carrying out of the guidance that the Welsh Government has provided, we will certainly be engaging with local authorities on those regional footprints. 

14:00
The Cost-of-living Crisis

4. How is the Welsh Government supporting households in mid and west Wales during the cost-of-living crisis? OQ60527

I thank Cefin Campbell for that question, Llywydd. We are doing all we can to support people affected by the cost-of-living crisis, including those in mid and west Wales. We are helping people to access their financial entitlements, providing targeted help to those worst affected, and delivering a range of schemes that help keep money in people’s pockets.

Thank you very much. If I could ask you to expand upon that response, Welsh benefits, including the reduction in council tax and the education maintenance allowance, are worth some £4,000 to households across Wales. So, it was a concern for me to read last week that millions of pounds of this kind of support are going unclaimed in Wales. The Bevan Foundation say that around £73 million per annum is left unclaimed, perhaps because of a lack of awareness that that funding is available, or that the claims processes are too complex. I want to give you an example of Carmarthenshire council hubs, where people can walk in and seek assistance with all kinds of benefits to ensure that they do receive the funds owed to them. There are examples of some who have benefited from thousands of pounds. So, can I ask you, First Minister, what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that all households do claim these benefits? What is being done to raise awareness and to simplify the claims process? Do you agree that it's time to rationalise the process under one system of Welsh benefits? 

I thank Cefin Campbell for that supplementary question, Llywydd. Of course, I agree that there is important work to do, and we are funding people to do that work here in Wales to help people draw down the benefits that are available to them out of the UK system. We are making efforts at present, national efforts, where we are running campaigns to draw people's attention to the fact that there are benefits there for them, and to provide support for them so that they can claim money from the system. 

Where things are in Welsh Government hands, and local authorities', we've agreed with the local authorities and others on a charter where we can do some of the things that Cefin Campbell referred to, to simplify the process, and to get the process in the same place, wherever people live in Wales. By undertaking that kind of action we can collaborate with other people. For example, we're working closely with the older people's commissioner here in Wales. She has undertaken a lot of excellent, important work to help older people to apply for pension credits—the biggest example of where Welsh people are not drawing down the benefits available to them. So, through collaborating with people, funding services on the ground, and simplifying the processes that are in our hands, we can do more, and I want and the Government wants to do more in the future. 

First Minister, as you and Cefin Campbell alluded to, the Welsh Government have had a number of campaigns to highlight the support that the Welsh Government is giving in regard to cost-of-living payments, whether that's on tv, radio or social media. But First Minister, what I'd like to know is the amount of people who've accessed the gov.wales 'Here to help' webpage and the 0808 number that the Welsh Government have provided, so we can actually be assured here as Senedd Members that the promotional work that the Welsh Government is doing is actually having that targeted approach, so that people who need the support are actually accessing that information and getting the support that they're entitled to.

Llywydd, I don't have the figures for those particular strands in the effort that we make to hand, but I'm sure they can be provided to the Member. Look, I think the key point is this—and some of the things we've learnt over the years are—that in order to have a successful campaign you have to have a range of different ways in which people are able to access the help that they need. Because some people will prefer to use a website in their own homes, navigate their own way through the system; other people will undoubtedly prefer to have a face-to-face session with an adviser who will be able to directly assist them.

So, it's not a matter, I think, of saying, 'Is this strand working, is that strand working?' You need to have a wide variety of ways in which people can draw on the help that is available to them, theirs as a right. Because a way that will be the right method for one person will be different from the person living next door to them. And that's why we have a multi-stranded way of trying to offer help to people who need it. 

14:05

I'd like to invite you, First Minister, in joining me to welcome the fact that every local authority in my region will complete the roll-out of universal free school meals to primary schools ahead of the Welsh Government's September deadline. And I'm sure that you share my frustration that the Conservatives—the party that's done so much to cause and fuel the cost-of-living crisis—continue to oppose this scheme. I think it's time they went. 

Well, it's a very clear contrast, Llywydd, isn't it? Here is a highly successful scheme. It was in September of 2022 that the designated Member, Siân Gwenllian, and I went to the Member's region to launch the universal free-school-meal service. And it's very good to hear, as Joyce Watson has said, that all local authorities in her region—. Some have achieved it already—Pembrokeshire has achieved it already, Carmarthenshire has achieved it already—but all the local authorities in that area will have achieved universal free school meals for all primary school students ahead of the deadline. That's incredibly good news and very good news for those children, and very good news for those families who are struggling with the cost of living.

Here, on this side of the Chamber, and with our co-operation agreement partners, we're proud of what we've achieved in this area, and the continued opposition of the Conservative Party to such a successful policy is there for anyone to see. 

The Horizon Scandal

5. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government regarding the Horizon scandal? OQ60503

Llywydd, the UK Government has at last promised action to exonerate and compensate people affected by these appalling miscarriages of justice. But the scandal illustrates wider factors in access to justice, factors highlighted in the Thomas commission report and pursued by Welsh Ministers with successive Secretaries of State for justice ever since.

Thank you, First Minister. I'd be very interested to know whether you have a sense of the scale of the injustice across Wales, and whether you'd agree that compensation and quashed convictions are long overdue and must be demanded by UK Government as soon as possible. 

Well, Llywydd, we have a sense of the scale in that we know that in every single part of Wales—from Haverfordwest in the south right to the north—there have been individuals badly affected by this scandal. We don't have definitive numbers, because we know that part of the scandal has been that there have been people who were innocent of any wrongdoing who felt obliged to plead guilty to an offence. We know that the result of the recent television programme is that more people have come forward to draw attention to the way in which they themselves were treated. So, we know that the scandal has affected every part of Wales, and what we probably know underestimates the scale of that difficulty.

Of course, as Ken Skates says, Llywydd, I want to see the UK Government come forward as fast as possible. There are hundreds of people whose lives and livelihoods have been ruined by this scandal. They need to act now. Many people will ask where they have been all these years. But now they need to act, they need to make sure that those people are properly identified and that compensation for the wrongs that have been inflicted on them is paid to them as fast as possible.

14:10

Between 1999 and 2015, more than 700 sub-postmasters were convicted of fraud, theft or false accounting—the largest miscarriage of justice in UK history. In his discussion with the Hansard Society last week, former Conservative Member of Parliament and now Member of the House of Lords, James Arbuthnot, who led a parliamentary campaign to investigate malpractice at the Post Office, noted that, when he had written to the then UK Minister in 2009, he was told,

'this is a contractual separate matter for the post office. We've got a hands-off arrangement with the post office, and so it's nothing to do with the government.'

This discussion also noted that 17 UK Ministers have been responsible for the Post Office over the length of this scandal, and that the House of Lords is going to be considering the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill, which was the legislation that was promised in the King's Speech and brought forward. What representations on behalf, therefore, of affected sub-postmasters in Wales will the Welsh Government be making regarding both this and the blanket legislation announced by the Prime Minister to clear sub-postmasters convicted of wrongdoing as a result of this scandal? 

Well, Llywydd, Welsh Ministers will take every opportunity that we have to continue to raise this with UK Ministers, but we're not doing it for the first time. The Counsel General will meet with fellow Ministers across the United Kingdom later this month, and this will be a matter that will be raised with them then. The Counsel General wrote to the Secretary of State in the justice department on 1 September 2021, Llywydd. It's a letter well worth Members seeing, because it undoubtedly casts a light on a whole series of issues that have only subsequently come to public attention. It took over six months for that letter to receive a reply, and when it did it didn't come from the Ministry of Justice; it came from a Minister responsible, his letter said, for small businesses, consumers, labour markets and as Minister for London. Well, you know, I think it just tells you—it just tells you what sort of priority the UK Government had attached to this issue, when a letter from a Welsh Minister asking a series of very pertinent questions, which have since come powerfully to the surface, goes not answered for months on end and then by somebody who it's very difficult to see has a relevance to the questions that were raised in the first place.

What you're outlining there, First Minister, is definitely concerning. On a slightly other point, it's also concerning, isn't it, that Transport for Wales awarded a five-year contract in 2019 to Fujitsu, the company that designed Horizon; it's been extended to April 2026. Now, until yesterday, the Welsh Government hadn't disclosed how many other active contracts exist between the Welsh Government and Fujitsu. Could you tell me if you are now reviewing those contracts in light of the public outcry relating to what's happened at the Post Office? 

Concerns about the Horizon scandal, as you've just outlined, they were well known well before Toby Jones took on that television role. What consideration was given to those concerns before that contract was awarded? Much more crucially, will lessons now be learned? If Fujitsu are found guilty of deliberate corporate abuse, will they be blacklisted from getting any future contracts? Because that's something, I think, the public will want to know.

Well, Llywydd, first of all, the two contracts that currently exist are in their final months and will, no doubt, be reviewed as the contracts come to an end. I think the point the Member makes at the end of her question is actually quite a difficult point. I'm not sure what the legal basis could be for preventing an entirely legal company from competing for business in Wales on the basis of a failure in one part of their operation, serious as that failure certainly has been. In future, we will continue to abide within the rules that cover public procurement here in Wales. Blacklisting, I think, is both a legally questionable course of action and would have to be weighed up very carefully in the circumstances of any individual procurement case.

Can I thank Ken Skates for bringing this important question forward? I recall, First Minister, raising this scandal on numerous occasions with the Counsel General on the floor of the Chamber, particularly the number of faults that had been exposed in terms of the faults with the justice system in the United Kingdom. And one of those faults has been the unwillingness of senior executives in powerful organisations to come forward with what they knew and when they knew it. A duty of candour is absolutely essential if ordinary people in Wales are to obtain justice when challenging the establishment and powerful organisations. This is one of the key tenets of the Hillsborough Law Now campaign. I know, First Minister, that you yourself have been supportive of the campaign and the Counsel General and other Ministers within the Welsh Government, but what more can the Welsh Government do to support the Hillsborough Law Now campaign?

14:15

I thank Jack Sargeant for that, Llywydd. He's quite right: the Welsh Government has been supportive of the Hillsborough Law Now campaign. And I was very glad to see Sir Keir Starmer reaffirm the Labour Party's commitment to reform only last week. He said then that to prevent future injustices where the state is involved, not only will the next Labour Government introduce a statutory duty of candour for public services, but we will also introduce a new system where an independent public advocate can be appointed to act in the best interests of those affected.

Llywydd, I think Jack Sargeant makes a really important point. It seems to me that one of the reasons why this case has struck such a chord with the public is, of course there are the individual injustices themselves, but it is also that sense of unfairness of a very powerful, very well-resourced public authority using all the powers that it has to take on people who had none of those advantages themselves. It's that sense of unfairness, isn't it; it's of the playing field not being level between the two parties that I think has struck such a chord with people. And the Hillsborough law and the actions that the Labour Party is committed to should we form the next Government will go a long way to redressing that balance.

Decisions made by Local Authorities

6. How does the Welsh Government monitor the effectiveness of decisions made by local authorities? OQ60536

Llywydd, local authorities are accountable to their own communities for the decisions they make. They are are monitored by Audit Wales, the inspectorates and their own internal scrutiny processes. When Welsh Government provides funding to deliver specific national policies, monitoring and review arrangements are put in place.

Labour-run Bridgend council's draft budget this week saw the council propose to close the town's bus station and cut the education budget by 5 per cent, as well as a massive proposed 9.5 per cent council tax increase. That's because the council has repeatedly failed to get its costs in order. Time and again, the council itself has admitted significant overspends in the social services department, and particularly an over-reliance on agency staff, which makes the service both more expensive and less safe. A Care Inspectorate Wales report last year said that a high number of agency staff were still being used in front-line services and management roles at the council. The council itself identified the lack of progress in this area earlier this year in an internal report. So, First Minister, Bridgend Labour council's repeated inability to get on top of these agency staff overspends means that people are losing services that they rely on and are facing a 9.5 per cent council tax rise to pay for it. So, how is the Welsh Government monitoring the spending of Bridgend Labour council to ensure that residents aren't being punished for the council's inability to make the right decisions?

Llywydd, Bridgend is a Labour council because the people of Bridgend voted for Labour councillors. That's what I tried to explain to the Member in my original answer: that local authorities are responsible to their local electorates and they will have to justify to their local electorates the decisions that they make. Bridgend County Borough Council is a well-run council that has faced over a decade of austerity; year after year after year, the pressures of a UK Government that has never valued what local authorities do, and where local authorities in England look enviously at the way local authorities in Wales have been supported. I believe that the people of Bridgend, who, in successive elections, have chosen a Labour council—that's why it's there; it's because it's been chosen by the people of Bridgend—I think they will go on understanding and supporting the actions that that council takes.

One of the measures of the effectiveness of local authorities is the way that they not only make decisions for themselves, but, actually, the way that they collaborate with others. So, one of the interesting things that is coming about very shortly is the roll-out of a partnership between the NHS and local authorities across Wales, working with schools to deliver the highly effective human papillomavirus vaccine to tackle cervical cancer and other conditions as well. This is particularly pertinent as we approach Cervical Cancer Awareness Month. HPV immunisation will begin in schools in Wales from the start of the spring term, and it's worth noting that since the HPV vaccine was introduced in 2008, the rates of cervical cancer have reduced by almost 90 per cent in women in their 20s who were offered the vaccine at 12 to 13 years of age. So, would he join me in wishing those local authorities, NHS providers and also schools, who will deliver this in partnership, the very best of success, because it's a real, effective intervention in the health of our young people?

14:20

I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that supplementary question, Llywydd, and, of course, he is right that the only way in which we are able to deliver this highly effective vaccine is through a partnership between the NHS and local government. If you think of the original question I was asked, which was about monitoring the effectiveness of decisions, I'm very happy to write to Tom Giffard on this if he doesn't choose to listen to the answer, then we will monitor it, of course, because we will know exactly how many young people in schools in Bridgend and in other parts of Wales will benefit from this vaccination. Llywydd, I was the health Minister in the Welsh Government at the time that this vaccine was introduced, I remember it being opposed by Conservative Members, some of whom are still here in the Senedd, but it has demonstrated over the decade that has followed just how effective it has been for young women, but for young men as well, in Wales. I congratulate local government, all those local authorities, and the health service, hard-pressed as they are, for their determination to do even more in Cervical Cancer Awareness Month to make sure that our young people are protected, as they so successfully can be, against the awful experiences of others who didn't have the same opportunity.

NHS Waiting Times

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on how long people are waiting for treatment in the health service? OQ60539

Llywydd, progress is being made. Waits of more than two years have reduced by 53 per cent over the last year and are now at their lowest level since August 2021. There are further improvements in the pipeline, reflecting the commitment of staff in the NHS.

I thank the First Minister for that response, but, of course, the three-day strike by British Medical Association members in Wales will intensify the problem of waiting lists, because of the failure of Government to give a fair offer to junior doctors in terms of pay. I've spoken to a number of doctors outside this Senedd today, and yesterday in Wrexham Maelor, for example, and an increasing number are saying that they're going to follow their friends to work in Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere. When you as a Government say that you can't afford to pay more, can the NHS and Wales afford to lose more doctors?

Well, Llywydd, of course, what the Member says is true, the strikes will have an impact on the services available to patients here in Wales. But I understand, the Government understands why people feel so strongly after such a long period of austerity. 

But here we are again, Llywydd, aren't we, having heard the demand for more money to be spent on non-domestic rates, we now have more money being asked for for doctors in Wales. If we were in a position to do so, of course we want to see public servants in Wales paid properly for the work that they do, but the offer that we have made is right at the limit of the funding that we have for this purpose. I'll put the point to the Member, as I put it to his leader: you say to me I must find more money for doctors to retain them in the Welsh NHS. You tell me where that money is to come from, because there is a fixed sum of money available to us, and money would have to be taken from somewhere else to do what you suggest. Is it to come from apprentices? Is it to come from the agriculture budget? Is it to come from non-domestic rates? Well, those are all things that your party wants me to spend more money on, not less. And it is just an act of irresponsibility for Members to get on their feet in this Chamber and to say to me, ‘More money for this, more money for that, more money for something else,’ and never—not once—to think that they have any responsibility to suggest where that money should come from.

14:25
A Stronger Senedd

8. How is the First Minister delivering a stronger Senedd that is better able to hold the Welsh Government to account? OQ60520

The Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill will create a more effective Senedd, with a greater ability and capacity to hold the Welsh Government to account, whilst also reflecting the significant additions in this legislature’s role and responsibilities since 1999.

The First Minister will, like me, be familiar with Aneurin Bevan’s In Place Of Fear, and it is no coincidence that the first chapter of that book is entitled ‘Poverty, Property and Democracy’. Aneurin Bevan understood the linkages between addressing the issues of inequality and poverty and the fundamental importance of democracy. It is important to empower this Senedd to ensure that we can not just empowers politicians, but empower this country, empower our people, empower Wales, to ensure that we can address the issues of poverty. We know that the Tories don’t like it, but they don’t mind—[Interruption.] They don’t mind more politicians—[Interruption.] They don’t mind more politicians—. Lord Cameron was very pleased to have his new job. They don’t mind more politicians, First Minister, when they’re cronies, when they’re family members, when they are donors. What they mind is more politicians who are elected by the people, accountable to the people and responsible to the people.

Do you agree with me, First Minister, that an empowered democracy in Wales is the greatest thing that we can do to address democracy, to address poverty and keep those people out of power?

Well, Llywydd, I have very long understood that there is a direct relationship on the floor of the Senedd between the noise that the Conservative group make and the quality of their argument. The weaker their argument, the louder they get, and you’ve certainly heard that this afternoon. [Interruption.] This is a 20-year journey, Llywydd. [Interruption.] Well, they’re at it again, Llywydd. They’re at it again. This is a 20-year journey. The Richard commission, reflecting on the very first term of this Senedd’s experience, concluded that there were insufficient numbers in the Assembly—as it was then—to discharge the responsibilities placed in their hands by the people of Wales. Since then, the roles and the responsibilities of this Senedd have grown beyond all recognition. What we will have in front of us is a Bill emanating from the special purpose committee that was created for that purpose, that will make sure that democracy here in Wales is put on a basis where the actions of Welsh Government can be properly scrutinised, where the best decisions can be made. There will be a lot of noise; there will be a lot of noise from those people who will benefit from the decisions that this Senedd will make, but I hope that, as Alun Davies has said, we will not be put off what we know is right to do. They will be interested in fear, they will say to people that this is something that should not happen; we will have the optimism that the people of Wales expect, to have those decisions in their hands, and for those decisions to be made by a Senedd that is fit for the purposes exercised on their behalf.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item this afternoon is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement. Lesley Griffiths.

There are two changes to this week's business: the Minister for Health and Social Services will make a statement on winter pressures in healthcare. As a result, the statement on escalation and intervention arrangements has been postponed until next week, 23 January. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

14:30

Trefnydd, can I call for a statement from the relevant Minister on Welsh Government support for public library services? I've been very concerned at the moment that Denbighshire County Council are proposing to cut library opening hours. They initially proposed a cut of 50 per cent. They're now proposing a cut of 40 per cent, after there was a huge public outcry in response to the initial consultation. Now, we know that libraries are about much more than books these days. They're places of lifelong learning and education, lots of people go there to enjoy the IT facilities as well, which they might not have at home, and, of course, they also promote local language and culture. So, this is a really important issue for my constituents. I appreciate that local authorities have difficult choices to make given the pressures on their budgets, but other local authorities are not proposing to cut their library services in half by asking them to close their doors for 50 per cent of the time. So, I think it is about time that the Welsh Government had some minimum standards required of our libraries in terms of opening hours, and I would appreciate it if a Minister could bring forward a statement on that.

In addition to that, we've heard, obviously, that the British Medical Association have been protesting outside. We know that the Welsh Government is also in dispute with general medical services contract holders. Our surgeries across the whole of Wales are under a lot of pressure as well, especially with the winter period coming up, and our GPs and the staff in those surgeries are working incredibly hard. There has been, obviously, a settlement of the general medical services contract in England, with a higher increase in the volume of support than is available to doctors' surgeries here in Wales. That is obviously unsatisfactory to the GPs. I visited a surgery with Gareth Davies in Rhyl—Madryn House Surgery—which performs an excellent service and delivers it to many people in that locality, but, clearly, they're looking for more. And there needs to be a decent settlement that recognises the huge contribution that those surgeries make. So, can we have also a statement from the health Minister on that specific issue, please?

Thank you. Well, I don't disagree with anything that you said about the value of services in our libraries. Where I do disagree with the Member is that, obviously, it's a matter for each local authority. They are given a budget by the Welsh Government. We've given them the very best settlement that we've been able to afford, because, obviously, our budget is worth £1.3 billion less next year, after it was set in 2021. So, I think the autonomy for local authorities, who know their local population far better than we do, is the way that they should make decisions on the public services that they provide for their population.

In relation to your question around general practitioners and the GMC contract, again, you will have heard the First Minister say in relation to a question regarding junior doctors' pay that we would want to give our public servants more funding, but, unfortunately, all budgets have been cut and we can only give out what we are able to do from our constrained budget as well.

I would like to ask for two Government statements. The first statement I am requesting is an update on the development of co-operative housing in Wales. As is well documented, Wales and the rest of Britain have far less co-operative housing than western Europe and north America. With a housing shortage, we cannot afford to ignore any method of housing provision.

Secondly, I'm asking for a Government statement on the future of local newspapers. Advertising from houses-for-sale pull-outs and cars-for-sale inserts have disappeared, as well as job vacancies also disappearing from local papers. I want to highlight the importance of statutory notices to funding local papers. It is important that we support local newspapers to ensure the employment of sufficient journalists so that we can be held to account by the journalists and by the newspapers. I am fortunate to have the excellent South Wales Evening Post covering my constituency, but I think it really is important that we have good local newspapers.

Thank you. Well, the Welsh Government remains absolutely committed to supporting the development of co-operative and community-led housing in Wales. We know that one of the best ways to increase provision is to provide support to those interested in co-operative or community-led housing. Our support, through Cwmpas, is designed to do just that, and I'm pleased that Cwmpas are working with groups across Wales. And I know there is one in Swansea, and there's also one in Merthyr Tydfil and Newport and Pembrokeshire. We've increased funding through Cwmpas to £180,000 revenue funding for three years from 2022 through to 2024-25. So, we will continue to support co-operative and community-led housing groups who wish to develop new homes through the social housing grant as well.

In relation to your question around the future of local newspapers and statutory notices, they're set out in law. At a time of enormous constraints in public expenditure, it's really important that we always seek best value for money, while making sure the public are informed about developments that affect them in their local areas.

14:35

Minister, can I please request a Government statement about what support the Welsh Government provides to charities and organisations? The reason I ask is Sparkle, a truly remarkable charity that provides support to nearly 1,000 children and young people across Gwent with disabilities and complex needs, which is facing incredibly uncertain and worrying times. The charity is having to review the services it provides, which include leisure facilities, so that disabled children can have the same opportunities as able-bodied children. This is a result of significant and ongoing funding issues, and Sparkle needs to raise around £750,000 every year to maintain its support and leisure services, but a drop in its funding activities, exacerbated by the COVID pandemic and also a fall in grant support, now means that the charity's costs are greater than its income. A review of all expenditure has taken place and cost-saving measures, such as a recruitment freeze and a stop to non-mandatory training, have been introduced, but, Minister, it is still not enough. So, I cannot express enough, in my own words, the importance of Sparkle, and, having visited it on a number of occasions, you can clearly see how much it means to the children and their families just by the smiles on their faces. And I know my colleagues Jayne Bryant and Julie Morgan can attest to this, alongside Newport's MP Ruth Jones. Sparkle offers families, and especially children, opportunities that they cannot get elsewhere, and it would be a travesty to see these services lost. A consultation is under way to see how the charity can increase its income through fundraising, grant applications, corporate donations. But, Minister, is there any support, financial or otherwise, that the Welsh Government can, indeed, provide? A Government statement to that effect would really be appreciated. Thank you.

Thank you. Well, I don't doubt the importance of the charity to which you refer. We all have charities and third sector organisations within our constituencies who provide those much-needed services. But, unfortunately, we go back to the budget position. The Minister for Social Justice, whose portfolio this sits within, has seen, obviously, her budget reduced, just like every other Minister in the Welsh Government, in order to put that additional funding for public services. So, I'm afraid, I don't know the answer to your question. I would urge you to write to the Minister for Social Justice, but there would be a health warning on it that, clearly, with the current budget situation, it is very, very hard to understand where she would be able to access that funding.

I'd like to please ask for two statements, if I may, from you, as Trefnydd and the Minister for rural affairs, concerning some enquiries from farmers. The first one is with regard to the sustainable food scheme, which allows farmers to diversify. I was contacted by a couple from Abermule who wanted to develop sustainable poultry and egg production, and they got a grant under the food accelerator scheme. Unfortunately, due to significant delays, they weren't able to draw down all of the funds, but they did, obviously, spend some of the money—their own money—to develop the scheme. The scheme, as I understand it, has now closed, and these particular farmers are concerned that that will mean that they won't be able to have the option of using funds from the food accelerator scheme in the future when they're able to get permission to develop their sustainable schemes. 

The second is with regard to the Valuation Office Agency, which, I understand, have written to farmers with regard to the Welsh Government's planned council tax reforms. This is providing, unfortunately, additional stress for farmers at a very difficult time, when they are dealing with lots of forms and lots of paperwork. So, I just wondered if you could just clarify the situation with regard to our farmers on those two issues. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you. Well, in relation to your first question around the food accelerator scheme, obviously, I can't comment on individual cases. But I think it might be better if you write to me and I'll ask my officials to look into the case that you, clearly, are dealing with as casework, to see what the reason is behind the decisions that we're taking. 

With regard to the letters that are being sent out from the land valuation agency, I think the first thing to say is that these letters should not cause alarm to anybody who is receiving them. Getting the most accurate information about all properties across Wales is absolutely critical to making sure we have a fair and effective council tax system. So, I don't think it should cause anybody any stress. There is nothing untoward about it. This, obviously, follows the statement from the Minister for Finance and Local Government around council tax reform—it is just part of that. She has asked the Valuation Office Agency to write and do this background work. I think a fairer council tax is one of the most beneficial actions this Welsh Government can take to reduce inequality.

14:40

Business Minister, I'd like to request a statement from the Deputy Minister for Climate Change. Recently, in their draft local transport plan, Labour-run Monmouthshire County Council listed a proposal to push for the reintroduction of Severn bridge tolls for environmental reasons—a proposal later praised by fellow Labour councillors in a public services scrutiny committee, and then later denied. This move would be disastrous as of course it would damage local businesses—part of the reason the UK Government saw fit to get rid of them—put off inward investment, deter tourists from coming to my region of Wales, and Labour's plan to reinstate the Severn tolls would be yet another tax on hard-pressed residents and businesses. So, I'd like the Minister to release a statement setting out what conversations he's had with the Welsh Government and also the UK Government on this, as it's crucial that this idea is put to bed before it gathers any pace. 

Also, I'd like a second statement, from the education Minister, please, Minister. Families in Monmouthshire may be having to spend £360 a year for just one child to attend breakfast club in primary schools across the county. At present, the charge to attend a breakfast club in Monmouthshire is £1 a day per child, but the Labour-run council's draft budget has proposed doubling that so that parents would have to find £2 a day for each child attending those before-school clubs. The breakfast is meant to be free for all primary school children. It has been one of your long-standing Welsh Government policies. I'd like the Minister, therefore, to release a statement on how important the Government still feels free breakfasts are and what impact a £2 charge would have, especially on low-income families across Wales. Thank you.

It's really good to see that the Member has come late to the party in support of free breakfast clubs. I thought the Conservatives were opposed to those. There won't be a statement reiterating the Welsh Government's support for free breakfast clubs. Our position is very well known in relation to that.

In relation to your first question, my understanding is that that was an options appraisal. I don't, again, see it as a matter for the Deputy Minister for Climate Change.

3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Escalation and intervention arrangements
4. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Winter pressures in healthcare

Therefore, item 4 will be next, which is the statement by the Minister for health on winter pressures in healthcare. Eluned Morgan to make that statement. 

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Thank you for the opportunity to update Members on the winter pressures being faced by our health and social care system. It's important to point out that, despite the significant increase in demand for services at this time of the year, the NHS continues to perform well for the vast majority of patients. NHS staff support over 2 million people every month, including 1.5 million in primary care and at least 70,000 calls a month to the 111 service.

More people than ever before are employed in the NHS in Wales, with more doctors, nurses, ambulance staff and support healthcare workers delivering quality care on a daily basis. Planning for winter starts from April to enable a collective, whole-system response. This year, £25 million was allocated to support the six goals for the urgent and emergency care improvement programme, enabling an increase in capacity in key parts of the system.

NHS '111 press 2' was rolled out across Wales, and it is worth noting that more than 400 people accessed urgent mental health support through the service in December. We've established 13 new urgent primary care centres and new remote navigation hubs, helping around 10,000 people a month to access care away from the emergency department. And we've set up 23 new same-day emergency care services, diverting around 5,000 patients a month from hospital.

Last year, we also invested £3 million in additional ambulance staff, with an extra 76 whole-time equivalent staff recruited since last winter. This winter, funding has been provided to increase transport capacity for patients who have been discharged from emergency departments, and for health boards to also introduce the latest technology-enabled care to support people to safely avoid admission or return home from hospital when ready.

Over the last couple of weeks, I've visited a number of emergency departments. I know the pressures staff are facing and how hard they're working to make every patient experience a positive one. I've listened to patients and staff, and, in an effort to support better experience, emergency departments and minor injury units have received an additional share of £2.7 million to enhance their environments over the winter period.

It's a well-established policy ambition to support more people closer to home. Some £8.24 million was made available to health boards and their regional partners to increase their ability to plan, monitor and provide enhanced community care for people with the most complex needs in our communities as a safe alternative to hospital admission. The funding also increased capacity within our district and specialist palliative care nursing workforce to enable a more robust service seven days a week.

So, where is the system at now? Over the festive period and into the new year, despite the fact that we've seen sustained and record-breaking demand on our services, the vast majority of people received safe and timely care. But clinicians have been keen to emphasise that it's not just increases in demand that they're coping with; they report that there's a significant increase in acuity and complexity of patient need, which has resulted in some organisations declaring business continuity incidents over the past three weeks. As an example, during the first few days in January, the ambulance service responded at times to 12 per cent above the top-end forecast of ambulance activity. In terms of the nature of the demand, there was an increase in people calling 999 with breathing difficulties and acutely ill patients with complex needs needing to attend emergency departments.

I published the public health respiratory framework in September, which set out our approach to responding to respiratory viruses for the winter. Overall, COVID-19 infection indicators remain stable, but at a national level during the latest reporting week the number of confirmed case admissions to hospital and the number of cases who are in-patients increased. BA.2.86 remains the most dominant variant in Wales and accounts for 59.5 per cent of all sequenced cases.

There's been an increased prevalence of flu in recent weeks, but at relatively low levels compared to previous seasons, and flu hospital admissions have decreased in the most recent reporting week. In accordance with Public Health Wales advice, an alert was issued by the chief medical officer to GPs on 15 December to trigger antiviral treatment availability for flu. Encouragingly, the number of invasive group A streptococcal and scarlet fever notifications remain at seasonally expected levels, and, following an early winter peak, respiratory syncytial virus activity in children under five years old has reduced.

We continue to invest in our surveillance system to monitor any changes in the prevalence and epidemiology of viruses to support the planning process. Vaccination is one of the safest and most effective ways of protecting our citizens and health service, and I’m delighted that 1.6 million influenza and COVID-19 vaccinations have been administered in Wales as part of the current programme, enabling people at the highest risk of suffering severe illness to be protected.

In pharmacy, there's been a significant increase of around 50 per cent in the use of the common ailments service. The service was used more than 25,000 times in December 2023.

NHS information also shows that the 111 service remained resilient throughout the festive period; that the ambulance service is responding to exceptionally high volumes of people with immediate life-threatening complaints; and that, although there is variation in data, health boards are freeing up more ambulances to respond more quickly to people who are waiting.

This information is encouraging and suggests that preparedness and planning for winter have had a positive impact. There are signs that things are gradually recovering as we reach the middle of the month. However, we continue to see some long delays for care in the community and in admitting patients to hospital from emergency departments. This is partly as a consequence of patient flow issues and challenges with infection control, which are limiting available bed availability and space available. Having said that, we have seen a reduction of around 60 per cent in delays in those awaiting social worker allocation, compared with our baseline in April.

In addition to that, analysis of waste water data shows elevated presence of norovirus in the community. Health boards should be implementing infection prevention and control guidance to prevent the spread of all infections and to protect patient pathways over the winter months.

Clearly, we are expecting a significant impact from junior doctor strikes this week. Whilst we understand the strength of feeling amongst junior doctors and genuinely appreciate the work they do on the front line, it has been impossible for us to offer more than 5 per cent as an increase in salary this year. Five per cent has been in their pay packets since September and it's the same offer as to everyone else in the health service. Whilst it is true that this year the offer is less than what was offered to junior doctors in England—6 per cent—it should be noted that last year England only gave a 2 per cent increase, whilst we in Wales awarded a 6 per cent increase plus an additional one-off payment of 1.5 per cent to junior doctors here.

Whilst we are keen to move to pay restoration for junior doctors, this year, with the extreme financial pressure on our budgets, it has not been possible to offer more than that 5 per cent. Health boards have worked hard to protect patient safety and ensure emergency and urgent care is protected. However, we know that planned care is going to be very disrupted. Yesterday, around 6,500 out-patient appointments were cancelled—usually, there are around 14,000 out-patient appointments a day—and on top of this, around 400 operations were cancelled, when usually around 1,300 are carried out. But I would like to reassure patients that they will not be sent to the back of the queue by health boards and that efforts will be made to reinstate those appointments as soon as possible. 

In the meantime, health boards remain very pressurised in relation to pathways of care delays from hospital to the community. However, there is evidence of positive integrated working between health boards and local authorities to alleviate pressures. We have already seen a reduction in the overall discharge delay figures since the start of formal reporting on this last April. 

Although the pressure on services has been intense, fewer healthcare workers in key parts of the system have been absent from work because of COVID and flu this winter, and that has helped with the resilience of the system.

Finally, primary care remains busy, but demand is in line with typical yearly patterns for the winter. There has been no escalation beyond the high levels we see at this time of year. Continuous monitoring is in place to support GP practices in delivering effective services over the winter, and I will continue to update Members about the situation as the winter progresses. Thank you.

14:50

Thank you, Minister, for your statement today. I'd like to put on record my own thanks to the hard-working NHS staff across Wales at a very difficult time for them over the winter period. There, of course, will be concerns and increased anxiety from them at this particular time of the year. Of course, we have this statement today in the context of one in five people being on an NHS waiting list and still having those over 25,000 people waiting for two years for treatment—particularly, of course, the people who are waiting in pain for longer, with greater anxiety as well.

Minister, in your statement today, you mentioned that money was available for monitoring in primary care, but I'm also keen to see a more streamlined process for overall monitoring across the NHS. For example, in NHS England, they have a daily NHS situation report to monitor bed capacity, critical care occupancy, accident and emergency closures and diversions, bed occupancy by long-stay patients, flu admissions, et cetera. So, can I ask you what thought you have put in to expanding your monitoring processes? What have you considered in terms of a similar method here? I mentioned NHS England, of course, but there's the impact of the winter pressures here. You often say, Minister, you want to hold health boards’ feet to the fire. By having that monitoring report, I would suggest that would better enable you to do that.

I'm glad, in your statement, Minister, you mentioned COVID, flu and respiratory viruses. You mentioned vaccinations for the most vulnerable, and you mentioned that 1.6 million this year have had the influenza and COVID vaccinations. Can we have a bit more detail on that, and take-up, perhaps, in percentage terms of those that are eligible for the vaccination? I think that would be more helpful to us. And particularly as well on what could be done to increase that take-up, because you said yourself in your statement that the best way to keep people who are in that vulnerable category safe is to take the vaccination. And, of course, it then takes pressure off the NHS, which is the purpose of the statement today.

I'm very keen to know what you're doing, Minister, to align the two vaccinations for influenza and COVID. I know it can be difficult because of different supply time frames, but where that is possible, can you give us some information about people being able to take both vaccinations at the same time and at the same location? And perhaps also what conversations that you've had with colleagues across the UK, your chief medical officer, and pharmaceutical companies about the progress towards a combined vaccination, because I think that would increase take-up as well.

I'm glad you mentioned the elephant in the room, Minister—the junior doctor strikes. I went out, as did other colleagues around this Chamber, at lunchtime to speak to some of the 450 junior doctors that were at that demonstration. There is a feeling from them of despair. I'm disappointed that you weren't able to offer at least the pay level that the review body had recommended. You have detailed the impact of those strikes in your statement today, but unless there is a resolution, the chances are extremely high that there will be further strikes, so I wonder if you could set out what other contingency plans you have in place in that regard. But, ultimately, what is your plan to end the strikes?

Minister, you also talked about waiting times recovery. The recovery target to reduce out-patient waits to below 52 weeks by December 2022 was not achieved. The revised targets for December 2023 were not achieved. The two-year wait elimination targets from March 2023 were not achieved. We've still got those 25,000 waiting in Wales. I suppose, Minister, the question is when are we going to have revised targets for those areas. If you don't think that targets are appropriate, why were there targets in the first place? I would go back to your mantra: you often say you want to hold health boards' feet to the fire. Surely, targets is the way to do that. So, when are we going to see those revised targets? And what impact do you think, Minister, the investment of the £170 million for the recovery of planned care is going to have towards the progress of achieving planned care recovery targets?

Finally, Minister, I heard the exchange today between Andrew R.T. Davies and the First Minister, citing that the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales report, very clearly in that foreword, identified no evidence that Welsh Government strategies and initiatives to combat pressures in acute healthcare settings were having an impact on the front line. That is a significant statement to make in a foreword of a report. What is your specific response to that element of the report? How will you monitor, evaluate and assess the impact that these initiatives are having on the front line to ensure that taxpayers' money is being spent effectively and efficiently?

14:55

Thank you very much. Obviously, this is a time of extreme pressure without strikes going on, so, clearly, we've put a huge amount of planning anyway into winter, but I can assure you that, in terms of monitoring, I'm currently getting three updates a day in terms of what's going on in the NHS across Wales. So, that monitoring is happening very, very regularly. I'm pleased to say that, on things like delayed transfers of care, one of the things we've got now is a whole-Wales approach. We know exactly why people are in hospital, and it's all been codified—I don't think that's a system that they have in England—so we can really drill down on some of those things. So, I can assure you that there is a huge amount of monitoring that goes on by the NHS Wales Executive and by my officials and we are constantly challenging the system.

In terms of the take-up of vaccination, I can tell you that, so far, in the 65 and older category, 74 per cent of people have had their flu vaccination update. I think it's fair to say that we are disappointed that NHS staff with direct patient contacts is at 41 per cent. So, really disappointing to see that. And I'm also disappointed that the number of people at clinical risk—only a 41 per cent uptake there.FootnoteLink So, we would encourage people to come forward. There is still time. In relation to COVID, 85 per cent of vaccinations have been taken up amongst care home residents, and 69 per cent amongst the 65 and over. Only—very disappointingly there again—33 per cent of health and social care workers, front line, have taken up that opportunity. So, again, we would encourage them to take up that offer, because it is a preventative action, and it takes pressure off the system.

Just in terms of taking up the vaccinations together, obviously we wait for the expert group from the UK to come up with that new vaccine. It varies around Wales in terms of whether people do those vaccinations at the same time. There are some areas where GPs take the lead in particular on flu vaccinations. So, that's why it is separate, and we do give them the opportunity to make those decisions at a local level.

In relation to the industrial action, we absolutely understand doctors' frustration. We are frustrated that there's been a massive deterioration in terms of the real-terms funding that we've had from the UK Government. We're disappointed that we haven't been able to meet the pay review body recommendations, but, as I said, we went much further last year compared to England in terms of that increase. I'm very keen to keep talking to the BMA, not just in relation to the junior doctors, but also obviously in relation to consultants and specialty and associate specialist doctors, who also will be going out to ballot very soon. I do think we probably need to negotiate a new contract, and that's something that I hope we will be able to put on the table in future. 

In relation to targets on waiting lists, well, you'll have seen reports this week that the targets have not been met anywhere in the United Kingdom. That is disappointing to us all, and also demonstrates the fact that, actually, what we've seen is a massive, massive increase in demand. So, as soon as you're taking people off, you see the huge increase in demand, and obviously it's interesting to note that the increase in Wales has gone up by 1 per cent, and it's gone up by 6 per cent in England. We have put in, effectively, new targets. One of them was to try and make sure that 97 per cent of people would have had their treatment—those waiting for over two years—by the end of the calendar year. So, we're just waiting for the latest data to see if we've hit that target. So, we're hopeful that we may get there. Obviously, part of my job is to drive the system. I have fortnightly meetings with my staff to really push on the longest waits: 'What's happening?', 'Where are the problems?' We do deep-dives every fortnight to make sure that we are absolutely breathing down the necks of the health boards, and that £170 million obviously has helped to contribute to that.

In relation to the HIW report, obviously we'll have a more detailed discussion on that tomorrow, but I do think that it's important to point out that had we not put in measures like urgent primary care centres, which have taken so many people away from our emergency departments, newer SDEC systems, the 111 system, which has diverted 70,000 people away from the normal services, the '111 press 2' service, the pharmacy service—. All of those things I don't think have been acknowledged in quite the way that they should have been in that report.

15:05

There are few things more certain, when it comes to public health policy, than the fact that the winter months exacerbate the pressures on health services. It is disappointing, therefore, that this year, like last year, we are hearing the Government making a statement discussing the status of things after they have started to unravel, rather than talking about a solid action plan that has been developed and discussed well beforehand. Of course, the Minister objects to this and says that they started preparing for the winter back in April. But, if so, why do we once again find ourselves in a situation where wards are closing and patients are waiting in ambulances for hours because of winter-related infections? There must be something seriously wrong.

The inevitable result of poor planning here is a health service that is creaking, as we've seen recently at Morriston Hospital and Wrexham Maelor Hospital. In fact, I recently had a constituent who had to wait two days in the ambulance outside Wrexham Maelor Hospital, and sleep in the vehicle outside, because of norovirus. Is this the result of the whole-system approach that the Minister is talking about? Now, if the Government is serious about tackling winter pressures, then the truth is that we must fill the vacancies in nursing. There are almost 3,000 vacant nursing posts in Wales. Without these nurses, there is enormous pressure being placed on community services and services on the floors of the wards in our hospitals, and, without this, infections are more likely to spread in the overcrowded hospitals that we have. So, could I ask the Minister: what are the Government's plans to fill these vacant nursing posts?

I note, in the answer to Russell George now, that the Minister has said that she's eager to look at the waiting lists, and those who have been waiting longest. Wouldn't it be more sensible to look at those with greatest need waiting for treatment, rather than those who have been waiting longest? Someone can be waiting for two years needing treatment, but somebody can be waiting six months needing urgent treatment. So, wouldn't it be better to look for the ones in greatest need?

The Government are obviously aware of the scale of the risks associated with these kinds of winter-based diseases. For example, the Government's own scientific modelling revealed that, last year, there were nearly 15,000 admissions to Welsh hospitals due to seasonal influenza and pneumonia. So, why has the Government not designed a specific winter plan for the health and social care sector since 2021-22?

Let's turn to another known quantity: the relationship between cold conditions and adverse health outcomes. A temperature drop of 1 degree is associated with a 5 per cent increase in respiratory illnesses, a 3 per cent increase in deaths from respiratory diseases, and a 2 per cent increase in cardiovascular disease in the over-65s. We also know that 30 per cent of excess winter deaths are due to cold homes, and the NHS spends at least £2.5 billion a year treating people with illnesses directly linked to living in cold, damp and dangerous conditions. It is for this reason I find it inexcusable that the Government has yet to implement its updated Warm Homes programme, over 18 months after the recommendations of the Equality and Social Justice Committee on this issue were first published.

When I talk about insufficient urgency on the preventative agenda, this is a classic example. By dragging their feet on measures to bolster the long-term resilience of public health in Wales, this Government is having to commit ever greater resources from an increasingly constrained budget to short-term sticking-plaster solutions. What has been the cost to the health service as a result of this Government's failure to implement the Warm Homes programme in time for this winter?

Finally, I'd like to reflect on the impacts of winter pressures on NHS staff. As I've mentioned many times in this Chamber, without its dedicated legions of staff, the NHS is nothing. That's why I was proud to stand on the picket lines with junior doctors outside Ysbyty Maelor yesterday morning, and with them again on the steps of the Senedd earlier this afternoon. The demands for a reversal of over a decade of eroded wages are fair and deserve to be heard. You can't expect them to cope with workloads that have become even more intense, especially during the winter, for less money in real terms. 

I also know that the decision to initiate strike action will not have been taken lightly. Their warnings about the state of the workforce and the link to winter pressures have fallen on deaf ears over many years. And the fact that this last resort of strike action was supported by an overwhelming majority of the British Medical Association demonstrates the extent to which their members feel undervalued and underappreciated. It would be entirely irresponsible and dishonest for the Government to try to pin the blame for the problems we're seeing today with record times in the NHS on striking workers. 

So, in the interest of ensuring that negotiations are put back on track and can reach a satisfactory conclusion as soon as possible, will the Minister acknowledge today that these strikes are an inevitable symptom of escalating winter pressures in the NHS and not the cause? And will the Minister agree to renegotiate and go back around the table with the BMA as soon as possible? 

15:10

Thank you very much. I want to confirm that we have been preparing well in advance for the winter, but what we're doing is ensuring that we don't have a separate plan for winter but that this is prepared in advance. There's no point having a separate plan unless you start to prepare in April, because it simply wouldn't be ready if you did it any later. 

It's true to say that some wards have been affected by norovirus, and certainly that's had an impact in north Wales, and we have seen people asking the public not to visit hospitals. And I think that's the right thing to do; we do have to ensure that we do try and prevent the spread of these infections in our hospitals. 

Just in terms of filling vacant posts, of course, we have recruited a lot of additional nurses in recent years. It was good to hear, as I visited a number of hospitals over the new year period, people on the front line telling me that they had now cut down on the use of agency staff and that they had recruited more nurses on a permanent basis. So, that does help. Of course, some of those are newly in post and don't have the same experience as others, but that will come in time. And in terms of what we're doing to improve the situation, of course, we are training more than ever before, and at the beginning of March I will be going out to Kerala to seek to recruit more there and to speak to the Government there to encourage those excellent nurses from India to come and work for us here in Wales. 

In terms of flu, you're quite right that we are seeing more people, and, as the temperature decreases, it does have an impact on respiratory issues. And that's one of the reasons why it's disappointing to see that more people haven't taken the opportunity to take up the flu vaccine. 

Just in terms of who has responsibility, we're quite clear that there is responsibility across Government to plan and to consider health, and that's why at the moment there is a consultation on the health impact assessment to ensure that, whenever anything is considered in terms of a new policy, it will have a health angle to it. So, the Warm Homes programme will be part of that. And one of the things we do have to consider is that, if you want more money in the Warm Homes programme, you do have to consider where you will take that money from. We just have to get the balance right between the prevention and all of the other things that we are currently considering.  

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

Just in terms of the strikes, obviously we're disappointed that the junior doctors have decided to take the action that they have, but we understand it; we understand their frustrations. And we are indeed frustrated by the lack of additional money coming from the UK Government. Obviously, I understand that you would want to be on the front line, but I do hope that they challenge you on where you would cut. If you were going to find that additional money, where would you find that additional money? Because the only other place for that to come from now is from the health budget itself, and I’m genuinely not sure if we would be thanked by the public, nor indeed by the BMA, if we started cutting other parts of the health budget.

I met with the BMA last Thursday. I’m always open to meet with them to see if we can get to a better position with this. Clearly it’s in all of our interests to try and settle the strike as soon as we can.

15:15

Thank you, Minister, for the incredible hard work that you’re doing, and to all the NHS staff who have worked so hard to respond to the increased demand and complexity.

Firstly, I just wanted to ask for clarification on the amount of money that England has offered to its doctors, which I believe adds up to 8.8 per cent. Did Wales get a consequential sum reflecting that offer that was paid to English NHS doctors, and if so, could you explain why it’s not possible to pay a similar sum to our doctors? It may reflect the fact you paid them more money last year. Anyway, it’s very important to hear about the cut down in agency staff and more substantive posts—I really welcome that.

I just wanted to ask you about something that I read about just before Christmas, which I think didn’t get quite the publicity it deserved as a result of that, which is that in a national newspaper it was reported that over 800,000 patients in England and Wales have been admitted to hospital with malnutrition and nutritional deficiencies in the last year. You mentioned the increased acuity and complexity in your statement, and I just wondered whether you’d had any reports about that, because that’s clearly something that we need to take proactive action on, not just around winter—it’s a ‘never event', as Professor Hawthorne, who’s the chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, has said. It’s absolutely appalling that, as a nation, we should be having malnourished children. So, I wondered if you could just clarify what information you’ve been receiving from the front-line health staff as to whether we are indeed getting an increased number of people coming into hospital because of malnutrition.

Thanks very much, and I too would like to extend my thanks to the NHS staff, who have been under incredible pressure over the winter period. It was really heart-warming to meet some of them when I dropped in without warning to several hospitals over the winter period, and it was really great to be able to get to the front-line workers to listen to their frustrations. In particular, I was very struck by an ambulance worker who broke down with frustration at the situation and the difficulty, and the fact that they’ve been trained for something and they want to get back out on the front line. It was a real pleasure to have spent the day with the ambulance service before Christmas as well. So, there’s amazing work being done by these people day in, day out.

In relation to the consequential, I know that the finance Minister has been pressing the UK Government for clarity on this, but we have not had that clarity yet. So, it’s unclear in terms of the consequential funding, not just whether what was in there last year will be baselined—that is not clear to us, so it makes it very, very difficult for us to plan—but there’s no clarity either in terms of the offer that’s been made to consultants in England, whether that is money coming from the NHS budget or coming centrally. If it comes centrally, obviously we will get a consequential. It’s very difficult and it just proves that, actually, the system needs a radical overhaul, so that we can all be transparent and we can all understand what is going on. There’s too much smoke and mirrors in relation to how health is funded in England.

I'd like to thank you for your statement this afternoon, Minister. As you're well aware, our GP practices are under huge pressure this winter with the increased demand on their services. I've been contacted by a large number of constituents concerned about the potential reduction of services in the Llandrindod Wells GP practice due to the financial constraints that they're under. And there's a lot of concern that they won't be able to offer some of the services that they have offered before, during this winter. So, I'm just wondering, Minister, if you can outline today what the Welsh Government is doing and the proposals that the Welsh Government have got to support our GP practices through the winter, to make sure that they can get through the precarious financial situation that they're currently in.

15:20

As James will know, most GPs are independent consultants. They work independently and they have to balance the books once they have made a contract with us. So, we have contractual negotiations with them. One of the things that we've done as a result of that contractual negotiation is to change the way that the public interact with GPs, so that we haven't seen the kinds of problems that they're still encountering in England in relation to the 8 a.m. block. So, things are very different here now in Wales and it's significant, the reduction in volume when it comes to patients getting access to GP services in Wales. So, that really has to be a decision for them in terms of where they put their money, how many people they employ, but, obviously, we do an all-Wales negotiation in relation to that.

I just want to come back to Jenny's point in relation to malnutrition, and I apologise for not addressing that earlier. There is a particular issue, I think, with older people. So, what we have, perhaps, are many people with dementia, and there are lots of people who come into hospital with dementia who are not aware of the fact that they need to balance their diet. So, it's very interesting to see some of the support structures that are being put in place in the community, ready for when people come out of hospital, before people come out of hospital; dieticians being a part of that care in the community team. Certainly that was something really positive I saw in Pembrokeshire before Christmas. 

Last week, Minister, as a result of the closure of wards in Morriston Hospital and the prevention of visits, I asked you about the recent advice from the World Health Organization to consider making mask wearing mandatory in health settings. It's a call that's been echoed by the Royal College of Nursing in a letter to the chief nursing officer. They are also calling for improved ventilation in wards, out-patient clinics and waiting areas, to the same end. This would, of course, prevent the spread between patients, keep wards open, and would also, of course, help to protect the workforce from falling ill and that, perhaps, is more important than ever now that we've heard the disappointing figures that you reported this afternoon in terms of the workforce response to the vaccination programme. This would, of course, reduce pressures generally. And, therefore, why don't you believe that mask wearing and ventilation, which would reduce the spread of viruses, would be a sensible step, particularly in the winter, given the disappointing response, which I mentioned, to the vaccination programme?

And in terms of the flu and COVID vaccination programme, I had some casework where people who had chronic conditions such as asthma hadn't been invited for a vaccination, had caught COVID and been very ill, before they were told that the wrong advice had been provided. So, how does the Government monitor that everyone who does qualify does get the right information and is encouraged to go for a vaccination? And in terms of the programme, has any consideration been given to extending vaccination to more of the population, if people who did qualify have now been invited and it sounds like there are spare vaccinations available?

Diolch yn fawr. I take advice, obviously, from my officials and from health boards in terms of when they think it's the appropriate time for us to initiate mask wearing within our hospitals. And I think there are occasions, and we have to make sure that we wait for the right occasion for that to happen, when levels are significantly higher. At the moment, COVID is relatively low compared to previous years and so is flu, although there was, obviously, an issue with norovirus, and what happened under those circumstances is that places like Treforys just said, 'Listen, just don't come in, just don't visit.' That's the best protection of all, rather than coming in and wearing a face mask.

Just in terms of vaccinations, just so that you're aware, Public Health Wales is about to do another drive to try and get people to take up that opportunity of vaccination. We follow the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice in terms of who should receive those vaccinations, and we will stick to that as a proposition.

15:25

Minister, in previous responses you've given, you've talked about the junior doctors' strike, with the protests outside the Senedd today. I understand the financials of it; it is a challenging environment. The BMA have a claim that they've put forward that other parts of the United Kingdom have also rejected, but what other parts of the United Kingdom have been able to do is deliver the independent pay review's settlement. Irrespective of the funding formula, could you please say how much, if you were to deliver that recommendation, the Welsh Government would have to find in terms of money to meet that recommendation? I understand it to be about 1 per cent, or a little over 1 per cent. What is that in monetary terms that the Welsh Government would have to find to settle the dispute, if it were agreeable to the BMA—that that figure would be accepted by them?

Thanks very much. I think one of the things that needs to be borne in mind is that it's not just about what's given this year, but that, actually, we gave a significant uplift last year. So, in Wales, we gave a 6 per cent uplift, and on top of that there was a 1.5 per cent non-consolidated uplift, compared to the 2 per cent in England that was given. So, if you compare last year with what's happening this year, it's very different. Of course, in England—you're quite right—they have offered significantly more this year, but I think it's probably worth noting that the strike is still not settled in England. Obviously, the other thing is that we don't know where that money is coming from, so it would be very helpful if we knew where that was coming from and if there's going to be a consequential.

Part of the problem we have is that everybody else across the Welsh NHS, in terms of 'Agenda for Change', has accepted that 5 per cent offer. Now, if you start saying, 'No, but we're going to give those a bit more', you can be damn sure that other parts of the NHS will say, 'What about us? Are we not as worthy or as valuable?' So, we do have to recognise that what we are talking about is several million pounds that we'd have to find, not just this year, but ongoing into the future. But, more than that, it's unlikely to settle the strike and, on top of that, it would open the doors for other people. We can work out the figure quite easily, but, obviously, it's very difficult to see that that would settle the strike.

5. Statement by the Minister for Finance and Local Government: Ystadau Cymru

Item 5 is the statement by the Minister for Finance and Local Government on Ystadau Cymru, and I call on the Minister, Rebecca Evans.

Diolch. I'm pleased to provide an update on the work of Ystadau Cymru. Ystadau Cymru brings together asset managers from across the public estate in Wales. Our public estate is diverse, ranging from built assets such as hospitals and schools, and the monuments and heritage buildings managed by Cadw, to the vast natural environment that includes our national parks and the national forest of Wales. The work of Ystadau Cymru is underpinned by the principles of collaboration, sharing assets and experiences to maximise the opportunities from our public estate.

Asset managers have, of course, faced considerable challenges in the light of continuing austerity, balancing the need to cut costs and preserve public services. Those challenges remain as we move into even more strained financial times. The pandemic created additional pressures. The collaborative and innovative approaches by asset managers led to our public buildings being speedily adapted to house field hospitals and vaccination centres. There are many examples of where public services co-located prior to the pandemic. Post-pandemic ways of working set particular challenges for asset managers, who continue to strive to demonstrate value for money, particularly from our public offices.

Ystadau Cymru has continued to pursue this agenda and encourage public sector partners to work more closely together. I am pleased that the Welsh Government is leading by example, actively seeking opportunities to optimise the occupation of our own office buildings and those of others. Our Llandudno Junction, Aberystwyth and Cardiff offices are now being shared with a number of public sector partners. In Llandrindod Wells, we've vacated our former offices and moved to a smaller footprint, occupying available space in Powys County Council offices. This has had a positive impact on both carbon reduction and delivering value for money within the public sector.

Our surplus buildings and land have also been used to support our public sector partners. Our policy is to offer surplus assets within the public sector before placing them on the market for sale. This approach has enabled our former offices in Llandrindod Wells to be used by Powys Teaching Health Board as part of its strategic approach to rationalising its estate, and, in the longer term, will improve health service provision within the town.

Climate change, decarbonisation and biodiversity remain key priorities for the Welsh Government, including insofar as the public estate is concerned. Our £11 million Wales funding programme is providing loans to support our public partners with renewable and energy-efficiency measures on the public estate. This is supported by Ystadau Cymru's partners' work with the Welsh Local Government Association in developing a carbon sequestration mapping tool. Many of our other collective landholdings include a wide range of valuable habitats and species. Strong biodiversity management underpins both the Welsh Government’s and Ystadau Cymru’s work in this area, further consolidating our leadership role.

This work is complemented by the Ystadau Cymru-led Assets Collaboration Programme Wales, which has provided funding for a range of collaborative projects. This investment in surveys, feasibility studies, and the implementation of decarbonisation measures will support the resilience and longevity of our public assets for future generations. The ACPW funding has also addressed some of the issues identified in the Senedd inquiry into community asset transfers. Powys and the Vale of Glamorgan councils, for example, have been able to use this grant to support communities to improve and decarbonise their community assets. By using the councils’ technical and professional skills, communities have benefited directly from the collective investment of time, expertise and funding.

The successes of asset collaboration have been celebrated at the Ystadau Cymru annual conference and awards since 2019. I have had the pleasure of making awards to a wide variety of collaborative projects from across Wales, each focused on the public estate. Many, such as the Llantwit Food Project and the St Davids Befrienders project in Solva, have demonstrated the way that communities and public sector partners, working together, can innovate to solve local problems and have a significant and wide-ranging benefit for our communities. Others, such as with the Crown Buildings in Wrexham, have shown that a fabric-first approach to modernisation and decarbonisation can achieve impressive results, and that demolition of existing buildings is not always the best or most cost-effective option. There is great value to be taken by all of our public partners from sharing these experiences through Ystadau Cymru.

I have referred to the Senedd inquiry into community asset transfers. Ystadau Cymru has been working with key stakeholders to develop a robust methodology to progress the recommendations of the committee. This work will be led by the Ystadau Cymru board, with input from other key stakeholders, and will involve extensive community engagement. We will continue to update colleagues as this work progresses.

The range of issues dealt with by Ystadau Cymru colleagues is broad, but the safety of the public and our workforce is foremost. Asbestos and reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete are continuing concerns. Ystadau Cymru members responded quickly to my request for information about RAAC in our public buildings, and the Ystadau Cymru building safety group continues to work with the workforce partnership council in raising awareness of, and improving knowledge about, asbestos management in our public buildings in Wales. These areas of health and safety are not devolved to the Welsh Government. However, I do want to reassure Senedd Members that they are nonetheless a priority for Ystadau Cymru and the Welsh Government.

Ystadau Cymru remains an important collective resource for our public estate in Wales. The critical element of all of these examples of their work is collaboration—a core behaviour of our well-being of future generations commitments. The challenges our asset managers have faced over recent years have not gone away, but, with the support of Ystadau Cymru, we can continue to provide support to create efficiencies, improve public services and maintain an asset base that supports our communities and environment across Wales.

15:35

Thank you, Minister, and I genuinely mean that. I welcome what Ystadau Cymru are doing and have been doing, encouraging excellence in active management of the Welsh public sector estate, or that strategic collaboration and good practice guidance, and we have to welcome that. In fact, this is one of the more sensible initiatives your Government has brought forward, so I congratulate you on that. The organisation works to encourage strategic collaboration and develop good practice guidance using those criteria, including creating economic growth, delivering more integrated customer-focused services, generating capital receipts, reducing running costs and decarbonising the public estate—all really important things. And these are objectives that I wholeheartedly, and the group wholeheartedly, agree with. I think we could all agree that the functions of organisations such as Ystadau Cymru are becoming ever more important as our public finances are being stretched by the increased pressures. And we have to recognise the positive contribution that these organisations actually make in delivering those aspirations that we have.

However, I was disappointed to see in the draft budget that it seemed that the resource budget to Ystadau Cymru is likely to be cut by £300,000—almost halved. I would hope that an office that encourages the effective use of public finances and the public estate would continue to receive the support from the Welsh Government, although I do recognise the challenges the Government is facing. But, as our public funding is seeing increased pressures, we need to carefully allocate funding where we get the most value. This is why we need to invest in organisations that effectively improve the use of public spending in Wales, as these are areas that, actually, will justify their investment—they will return on that investment. With this in mind, Minister, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effect of these budget cuts on Ystadau Cymru and its ability to effectively carry out its role? And further, with the cuts to the funding, what effect will this have on the speed and effectiveness of the community asset transfer working group to implement the recommendations they have made in the Senedd inquiry? Thank you.

I'm very grateful to Peter Fox for those questions this afternoon, and also for the welcome that he's given to the work of Ystadau Cymru. I think that, often, Peter Fox and I have debates across the floor of the Senedd about budgets and, often, we're talking about some very bleak aspects of public life here in Wales, when we talk about parts of the portfolio that relate to abuse in politics and that kind of thing. But, actually, Ystadau Cymru is one of those areas of sunshine, I think, in the portfolio, because it really does give an opportunity for the public sector to come together in that spirit of collaboration and deliver really, really good, worthwhile benefits for communities across Wales, and it's lovely to see that recognised across the Chamber. And I agree that it is absolutely the time now when it will become ever more important to do the kind of collaborative work that's important through Ystadau Cymru.

It's important to recognise that the particular funding, through the Assets Collaboration Programme Wales, is only part of the work of Ystadau Cymru. But just to answer that point, really—the important point about the budget—there have been, as colleagues know, difficult decisions taken across all portfolios, and this is one of the difficult decisions that was taken in my portfolio, so that we could reprioritise some funding towards the NHS and then also to ensure that we were able to keep our commitment to local government. So, the draft budget for 2024-25 does see the Ystadau Cymru revenue budget reduce from £800,000 to £500,000, but I have been able to retain the capital budget at £1 million. And I think that's important, because we've got some really good examples of things that have been carried out through that capital fund. For example, in 2022-23, there were 13 different projects that were approved for funding. I think there are some really good examples, such as the refurbishment of a dilapidated sports facility in Llanelli, a city rain garden in Newport, and the development of a large-scale solar farm in RCT. And, in this financial year to date, there have been seven projects approved for grant funding, and they include the refurbishment of a further facility in Llanelli and also the continued development of that solar farm in RCT. So, even though the budget on the revenue side is reduced next year, there will still be important capital funding available to support these projects.

And I think that some of the real value that we get from Ystadau Cymru is through the thematic work that it does in terms of looking at building safety, and they provide an excellent resource for the whole of the public estate in terms of asbestos management, but also have recently really proven their worth in terms of supporting the public sector to respond to the concerns that were raised around RAAC. Community assets, again, is another really important part of the work of Ystadau Cymru, responding in part to those important recommendations made by the Senedd committee that looked at community assets. And then, also, sustainability is another one of their key thematic areas. Again, they provide excellent leadership in terms of the decarbonisation of the public estate and also ensuring that we take opportunities to support biodiversity across the public estate as well.

So, the work that they do through that particular funded programme is important, but actually there's a lot that Ystadau Cymru does beyond that which doesn't require the same level of support. And, just to conclude, really, it's about creating a different way of thinking in the public sector, supporting creative thinking and, of course, these public sector organisations have their own budgets that they can then use. And we, obviously, would like to encourage the collaborative use of budgets to support work across the public sector as well.

15:40

Thank you for the statement this afternoon, Minister. It's a change from discussing the budget with you, so it's good to discuss something slightly different.

During a time of acute financial hardship, it is vital that the assets at the disposal of the Welsh Government are utilised effectively. This includes a range of public buildings that fall under the remit of Ystadau Cymru. In this post-COVID world, which has included the proliferation of hybrid ways of working, there is now a unique opportunity to re-evaluate the use of public buildings to maximise their social benefit. Firstly, could you give an indication of the current average occupancy rates of Government buildings, such as Cathays Park? How is this being monitored and at what stage would you consider selling, renting or repurposing buildings that are consistently underused?

We also need to consider how the management of public buildings can enhance the vitality and cohesion of our communities. I hope that you're aware of the recent research undertaken by the Building Communities Trust on building resilient communities, which has highlighted the obstacles faced by community groups in Wales to acquire and manage public buildings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these barriers are more pronounced in more deprived areas. Part of the problem is legislative. Wales lags behind the rest of the UK in terms of the rights of its citizens to initiate asset transfers from public bodies. According to the Institute of Welsh Affairs, this has left our communities as the least empowered in these islands. But, there is a broader issue here insofar as the support mechanisms and guidance available to community groups on asset transfers are also not particularly robust. Again, this is particularly apparent in more deprived areas. Could you therefore explain what measures are being undertaken by Ystadau Cymru to strengthen community ownership models across Wales? Does the Welsh Government intend to facilitate this by introducing legislation and mandatory guidance to enhance the ability of Welsh citizens to initiate asset transfers?

And finally, as we've heard from various quarters, the spending plans in the draft budget are also going to exact a heavy toll on the charity sector in Wales. Oxfam Cymru has warned that cuts to the social justice portfolio will pile the pressure on a sector that is already overstretched due to the disastrous impact of Tory austerity. At the start of my statement, I spoke about maximising the social benefit of public buildings. One option, as I've already mentioned, would be to sell off underused assets or to repurpose them to support community-centred initiatives. Could an alternative solution involve housing certain charities rent free in Welsh Government office space, thereby mitigating the squeeze on their operational capacity? This could eventually lead to the creation of regional charity hubs across Wales, encouraging collaborative working within the sector. One of the defining principles of Plaid Cymru is the progressive use of society's resources for the common good. We are also passionate about empowering communities across the length and breadth of our nation, shifting away from the overly centralised power structures that have become entrenched for so long within a pan-Wales and UK-wide context. It's in this spirit that we've put forward these ideas before the Senedd, and I hope that the Government is willing to engage constructively with us to this end. Diolch yn fawr.

15:45

Thank you very much, again, for those questions this afternoon. I completely agree that the way in which the Welsh Government uses its own administrative estate really sets the tone for the whole of the public sector. And, of course, there was a recognition there of the way in which things have changed following the pandemic, with the greater level of flexibility that people have now, and often want, in terms of working from an office part of the time, but remotely in other ways. That can increase productivity and it can improve your work-life balance and so on, and, of course, have those carbon reduction benefits as well.

We do regularly publish information on our estate in Wales; it's a report that I publish annually called the 'State of the Estate' report. That includes details, actually, on a whole range of things, including the use of the estate, but also the efficiency and sustainability of the estate. Really importantly, it allows us to benchmark our own use of our public estate, particularly the Welsh Government estate, against that of other governments, so that we can test how we perform against the benchmarks provided by others across the UK. I think that using our estate in an imaginative way does allow us to move towards that one Welsh public service that I know many of us are committed to.

I'll give some examples of how we're already trying to use our own estate in a different way. Legal aid and Trydan Gwyrdd Cymru are both based now in our Merthyr Tydfil office; Natural Resources Wales is at our Aberystwyth office; the Student Loans Company, the NHS executive, Ambition North Wales, Audit Wales and the Senedd Commission now have space at our Llandudno Junction office; and the Food Standards Agency is also in our Cardiff office. Those are some of the examples, and I know that we're always working to bring partners together on the Welsh Government estate. It obviously has a whole range of benefits as well as using the estate better, actually; it allows you to have those human connections and discussions as well. We're currently working with a range of other public bodies across Wales to progress some further discussions on leased occupations on our administrative estate. We also have a 10-year future workplace strategy for 2020-30 for the administrative estate and we're continuing to review that all the time.

The other important area of questioning related to community assets. Obviously, it's important that we support this agenda and take very seriously the Senedd committee report. Ystadau Cymru has had a focus on community assets for a number of years, and to emphasise the importance of community assets does remain an important part of the Ystadau Cymru work. I described those three thematic focuses that the group has, and one of those is community assets. In 2019, the internal research programme was commissioned jointly by Ystadau Cymru and the communities and third sector policy team in the Welsh Government. That undertook a piece of research to broaden and deepen the evidence base around community asset transfer. There were a number of recommendations that flowed from that, which have informed some of the next steps. It also led to the development by Ystadau Cymru of a community asset transfer best practice guide, and that included a due diligence guide, a practical example of the transfer process and real-life case studies to help the sectors as well. 

We've continued to communicate best-practice examples through Ystadau Cymru. Case studies have included Llanrumney Hall in Cardiff, the Maindee Triangle in Newport and the Open Newtown project, and, again, that sports facility that I referred to in response to Peter Fox, which is in Llanelli. But moving forward, we do recognise that we need to take things to a new level now, so I've agreed to a commission being established to look in depth at the various factors relating to community asset transfers, following the work that was undertaken by the Local Government and Housing Committee of the Senedd. That work, in terms of establishing it now, is well advanced. That will be overseen and funded by Ystadau Cymru. So, certainly, this isn't the end of the story by any means, in terms of responding to the committee, and it's something that, I should say, I'm working very closely with the Minister for Climate Change on. 

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you, Minister, for this important statement here today. I join Peter Fox in a genuine welcome of it, because I see the value in the work that's being done here. As a member of the Local Government and Housing Committee, I'm very pleased to see you endorsing our recommendation of a commission on community ownership. There were a number of comments within your statement pointing to other recommendations from the committee, which is also welcome.

I want to support colleagues in the room who've already spoken in their comments about those hard-working individuals in many of our communities who want to make the most of those assets that are in their communities, of course, which help boost not just the social life of towns and villages across Wales, but also local economies as well. As you've pointed out, there are some opportunities to ensure that asset transfer happens more easily for those who want to get hold of those assets.

I just want to ask and comment specifically on some of the opportunities that are very, very practical in regard to the housing crisis, Minister. You will recognise that there is an opportunity for the Welsh Government to seek to release land and property to support whether it be social landlords or developers more broadly to build affordable housing, in particular. I just wanted to perhaps hear from you what you expect from Ystadau Cymru when it comes to supporting access to that land and property to enable affordable housing to be built, especially on public sector-owned land at the moment, to get that balance right between value for money in terms of the investment of the asset versus actually enabling house building to take place in our communities. Thank you for your patience.

15:50

Thank you, again, for the recognition of the work of Ystadau Cymru. Just to that point, really, about the community assets and so on, which I know is also something that you take a particular interest in, I should have referred in response to the previous speaker to the Welsh Government's corporate asset management strategy. We published that in 2021, and that does set out a more ambitious approach to managing our own assets. We hope that that will inspire others across the public sector to look closely at that strategy to explore what they can extract from that in terms of making the best of their own assets. Particularly, there are some interesting things about how we would support the third sector by collaborating effectively through that. I think that that is an important aspect.

I think that there are so many areas in which the public sector can continue to work, and work ever more closely together, with housing being one of those. I'm really pleased that we have made £25 million available through the land release fund, and that's intended to support the ambition for small-scale energy-efficient low-carbon developments. That fund allows land that for some reason has yet to be developed—it might need some remediation, there might be access issues, for example—to be released. That is financial transaction capital as well, so it just means that we can keep on investing and recycling that money, which, again, is quite an exciting prospect there. Also, of course, we've got the housing support grant as part of our wider investment in the public estate in Wales, and, again, those projects are really important in terms of preventing homelessness and helping people to live in their own homes and so on.

But then, finally, I would refer to the work of the land division within the Welsh Government. That's something that was established in recent years, and, again, that has a really important role in terms of identifying those pieces of public land that are suitable for housing. Then we can work with partners in the social housing sector, for example, to release that land for housing, using the land release fund. I think what you see there are lots of different policy areas coming together to support what I think is a really important agenda in terms of improving and increasing the amount of low-carbon social housing available.

6. The Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Prescribed Requirements and Default Scheme) (Amendment) (Wales) Regulations 2024

Item 6 is the Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Prescribed Requirements and Default Scheme) (Amendment) (Wales) Regulations 2024. I call on the Minister for Finance and Local Government to move the motion. Rebecca Evans.

Motion NDM8450 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5, approves that the draft The Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Prescribed Requirements and Default Scheme) (Amendment) (Wales) Regulations 2024 is made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 5 December 2023.

Motion moved.

Thank you. I welcome the opportunity to bring forward these amending regulations today. The Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Prescribed Requirements and Default Scheme) (Amendment) (Wales) Regulations 2024 amend the 2013 council tax reduction scheme regulations. The scheme provides direct financial help to many households across Wales by reducing their council tax bills, and these amendments brought forward today ensure that those entitlements are maintained. The UK Government abolished council tax benefit in 2013 and passed responsibility for developing new arrangements to the Welsh Government. The UK Government’s decision was accompanied by a 10 per cent cut to the funding for the scheme.

The Welsh Government responded by meeting the funding gap to maintain entitlements to support back then in 2013, and we have continued to maintain entitlements each year since by ensuring that the scheme is uprated every year. The scheme currently supports around 261,000 of the poorest households in Wales. As the cost-of-living crisis continues to place increased pressure and hardship on people, it is even more important that we ensure that there are systems in place to support people, that these are as fair as they can be, and that they are kept up to date.

Amending legislation is needed each year to ensure that the figures used to calculate each household’s entitlement to a reduction are increased to take account of rises in the cost of living. The 2024 regulations make these uprating adjustments and maintain existing entitlements to support. The financial figures for 2024-25 for working-age people, disabled people and carers are increased in line with the consumer price index of 6.7 per cent. Figures for pension-age households continue to be increased in line with the UK Government’s standard minimum guarantee, and mirror the uprating of housing benefit.

I have also taken the opportunity to include minor technical changes to the regulations and make additional amendments to reflect other changes to related benefits. For example, I am amending the regulations to make sure that people who have received payments from the Post Office compensation scheme are not negatively impacted because they’ve received a payment. A further amendment will ensure that no applicant living in Wales is negatively impacted because they have received a widowed parent’s allowance back payment or a retrospective bereavement support payment. The proposed consequential amendment will disregard the payment received from the calculation of an applicant’s capital under the scheme.

These regulations I bring forward today maintain entitlements to reductions in council tax bills for households in Wales. As a result of the scheme, the most hard-pressed households receiving support will continue to pay no council tax in 2024-25. This scheme remains one of the Welsh Government’s key levers for tackling poverty year after year, a cornerstone of our targeted support for people and families, especially those who are suffering the most from the effects of the cost-of-living crisis.

Finally, I am grateful for the report of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee. A Government response has been issued to the committee and, as outlined in that response, two minor technical errors in the regulations will be corrected prior to them being made. I ask Members to approve these regulations today.

15:55

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I’m happy to constrain my comments today, actually, because we’ve had the response from the Welsh Government Minister. So, thank you very much. Thank you for the opportunity.

Just to say thank you to the Chair of the committee for the committee’s work, and I’m glad that the response has been received.

The question is that the motion be agreed. Does any Member object? No. Therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

7. Debate: Levelling-up

The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Darren Millar, and amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Rhun ap Iorwerth. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected.

Item 7 today is the debate on levelling-up, and I call on the Minister for Economy to move the motion. Vaughan Gething.

Motion NDM8449 Lesley Griffiths

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes:

a) the UK Government’s levelling-up policies leave Wales with less say over less money while bypassing and actively undermining devolution and this Senedd;

b) the Shared Prosperity Fund has been an abject failure as a replacement for EU funds in Wales, leaving a shortfall of nearly £1.3 billion; and

c) the Shared Prosperity Fund, Levelling Up Funds and Multiply Programme have been beset by UK Government delays and mismanagement, putting strain on local authorities and resulting in the closure of important programmes.

2. Calls for the return of regional investment funding to the Welsh Government to deliver in line with devolved policies that are fully accountable to the Senedd.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the motion before us. It is a sad reality that UK Government levelling-up schemes are failing our people, businesses and communities. These were supposed to replace former EU funds. It is a staggering betrayal of referendum and manifesto promises that Wales is now almost £1.3 billion worse off in real terms. All UK Government schemes, whether it is the levelling-up fund, the shared prosperity fund, the community ownership fund, or the towns plan, have the same things in common: they’re an incoherent mess with very little planning, consultation or economic logic. Their implementation is chaotic, leaving stakeholders confused or excluded entirely. At the same time, they put immense pressure on local government to spend money quickly, despite UK Government delays and implausible deadlines. They have ignored the lessons of 20 years of experience, with small piecemeal projects that have significantly less economic impact than the larger strategic investments that this very Senedd has recommended that the funds are used for. They take money and powers away from Wales, putting them into the hands of Tory Ministers in Whitehall. Wales has less say over less money. That is a deliberate Tory choice—to centralise plainly devolved funds and responsibilities.

Since 2021, the levelling-up fund has been plagued by chaos and delay. Of course, the UK Government initially announced the levelling-up fund as an England-only scheme; they then changed their minds and imposed it on Wales without a squeak of protest from the Welsh Tories. This has denied the Welsh Government and this Senedd any say or any scrutiny over decisions taken in areas that are plainly devolved. The result is a fund that has pitted our local authorities against each other, wasted resources, and chooses not to recognise the relative needs in Wales or within Wales.

Flintshire, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport will not see a penny of the levelling-up fund or the shared prosperity fund—sorry, the levelling-up fund—while huge amounts of time and expense have been wasted by councils across Wales on bids that have been turned down by the UK Government. Dirprwy Lywydd, this would not be the way that we would choose to invest in Wales and work with our partners.

UK Government delays in decision making have driven up costs during a Tory cost-of-living crisis, with soaring inflation that has loaded extra pressure onto our councils. This scale of this impact was highlighted by the National Audit Office in November. It reported levelling-up projects were unlikely to meet deadlines due to:

'Inflationary pressures, skills shortages and wider construction industry supply challenges'

and UK Government delays in decision making and implementation.

Is it any wonder that so many independent organisations and cross-party groups have concluded that the UK Government's so-called levelling-up approach is failing?

Last year, the Institute for Government said the levelling-up fund

'is another ineffective competitive funding pot that is neither large enough nor targeted enough to make a dent in regional inequalities.'

The UK Parliament levelling-up committee said:

'It’s concerning that DLUHC does not even appear to know which pots of money across Government contribute towards levelling up. '

And in 2022, the National Audit Office said:

'DLUHC has received expert advice that major physical regeneration could significantly improve local economic outcomes, but the smaller-scale infrastructure investments it is funding through the Levelling Up Fund do not usually drive significant growth.'

That's polite for: they've designed something that is not going to work; they're squandering public money.

I could cite many other examples, but I just don't think there's enough time for that today. However, I would like to thank again the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee for its report, which shares our concerns. In real terms, Wales has been left with a shortfall of almost £1.3 billion in unreplaced EU funding due to the ongoing impact of inflation in this period.

Key growth sectors like universities have already reported the closure of vital schemes and 1,000 job losses. Research and development is an area where there has already been a historic lack of investment by the UK Government; that is now compounded by the loss of replacement EU funds, but higher and further education have been excluded from research and development. Meanwhile, the UK Government's levelling-up intention to increase R&D funding outside the south-east of England by 40 per cent would mean only an extra £9 million of additional expenditure in Wales by 2030.

The Tories made a clear-sighted choice to freeze the Welsh Government out of replacement EU funds. That has forced budget cuts that supported for apprenticeships, Business Wales and SMART innovation schemes.

Last week in this Chamber, we saw a river full of crocodile tears from the Tories, complaining about budget cuts in the Chamber while supporting and being cheerleaders for the UK Government's fresh round of austerity measures, rather than restoring funding to fragile public services, money to support the economy. This means that, on top of the near £1.3 billion loss of EU funding, our budget for the year ahead is £1.3 billion less in real terms than expected at the start of the 2021 spending review. I know the Conservative spokesperson rolls his eyes, but those are the facts of the matter, and every now and again even a Welsh Tory should be prepared to stand up for Wales.

To compound existing financial pressures, there is a real risk that these funds, loosely branded as levelling up, will not reach Wales at all. The UK Government has told local authorities in Wales that it will not release full shared prosperity funding for the year ahead until they meet spend thresholds from previous years, and yet the UK Government's chaotic design and delay is the root cause of the problem. Delays were not the responsibility of local government; delays were absolutely the responsibility of Tory Ministers in Whitehall.

Let's not forget that so many of these issues would have been avoided if the UK Government had respected devolution and allowed us to manage funding through our framework for regional investment, if the Tories had respected two devolution referenda, multiple elections and more than 20 years of devolution. Our framework uses the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 as the bedrock of policy making. It was developed properly, with Welsh partners and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and backed by a public consultation. None of that happened in the design of the levelling-up agenda by the Tories in Whitehall.

Wales already faces the toughest financial settlement since the start of devolution, and yet Darren Millar's amendment claims that Wales is better off to the tune of £2.5 billion, thanks to levelling-up funds. He is not comparing EU funds with their supposed replacement. Claiming that we are actually £2.5 billion better off is simply not true, and they know it is not true. The legacy of levelling up is duplication, local piecemeal projects, and precious little economic impact.

Plaid Cymru raise these failures in their own amendment, but we can't support the amendment as we've yet to see the detail of the proposed economic fairness Bill, and we have already set out in the Welsh Government's 'Reforming the Union' paper the need for a new, principles-based approach to UK funding, overseen by an independent body.

The delivery of the levelling-up agenda is unforgivable and deeply damaging. With ineptitude and indifference, the UK Government has wasted the opportunity to deliver meaningful change that Wales and the rest of the UK so desperately need. I look forward to the contents of this important debate through the rest of the afternoon.

16:05

I have selected the three amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected. I call on Paul Davies to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Darren Millar.

Amendment 1—Darren Millar

Delete all and replace with:

1. Notes that UK Government levelling-up funding in Wales exceeds £2.5 billion, delivering projects to transform communities, create jobs and grow the economy.

2. Notes the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee’s report into Post-EU Regional Development Funding and its recommendations.

3. Calls on the Welsh and UK governments to undertake a review of whether the different elements of the Shared Prosperity Fund should be delivered at local, regional or all-Wales level.

Amendment 1 moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the amendment tabled in the name of my colleague, Darren Millar. I'm very disappointed that the Minister has used this debate to once again take political pot shots at the UK Government, rather than focusing on how the system can be improved for the future. He should be getting on with his job, rather than whipping up the issue just to show off to his party members. It's hardly very statesmanlike from someone hoping to be the next First Minister.

Now, for those of you that haven't already taken the opportunity to read the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee report on post-EU regional development funding, I'd strongly encourage you to do so. Whatever the Minister says, that cross-party report provides an objective, unbiased and in-depth analysis of the delivery of post-EU funding to date and offers some genuinely constructive recommendations for both the UK Government and the Welsh Government, and I'm grateful to everyone who contributed to that inquiry and helped the committee shape those recommendations. Through their evidence, Members were able to gain a real understanding of some of the challenges that have been faced by organisations and hear about some of the opportunities that could help strengthen the system for the future.

Now, the quantum of funding awarded to Wales in the shared prosperity fund has been a key area of disagreement between the Welsh and UK Governments, and today's motion again, sadly, reflects that disagreement. Now, Professor Steve Fothergill from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University best articulated this disagreement when giving evidence to the committee, by explaining that, and I quote:

'It's a very odd situation to be in, to say that both parties are right in all of this, but they are, because they're looking at rather different things. One's looking at actual spending in financial years, and, in that sense, the UK Government is correct; the Welsh Government is looking at financial commitments, which is a different measure, and Vaughan Gething is correct on that front.'

Unquote. And while the two Governments continue their inter-governmental dispute on the quantum of funding, we need to be mindful that this disagreement could overshadow discussions over the effectiveness of spend and whether the investment is, as the Bevan Foundation put it, adequate to the scale of need.

So, let's talk about the effectiveness of spend and whether levelling-up funding is delivering benefits in Welsh communities. The Baglan Bay Technology Centre in Port Talbot is now open for business and is the first of its kind in Wales, offering high-tech office and laboratory space to a host of innovative companies. Rhondda Cynon Taf received just over £20 million in funding for projects such as the Porth transport hub, the Muni Arts Centre and the A4119 Coed Ely dualling scheme.

Projects like this are making a difference, and when positive outcomes like this are made we should celebrate them. However, that's not to say that the delivery of these funds has been straightforward. There have been delays and, arguably, a lack of clarity over the delivery of these funds, and that's why the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee has called for a review to take place to examine the different elements of the shared prosperity fund and look at what should be delivered at a local, regional or all-Wales level, based on what works best.

The evidence that the committee received indicated that Welsh local authorities were pleased with the opportunity to decide priorities locally and to have control over delivery. However, the committee also heard that tight timescales to develop investment plans, delays to approving these and the short time frame to spend funds had an impact on the ability of local authorities to plan and deliver projects. And so lessons must be learnt to avoid repeating past mistakes, and it's the committee's view that, at the heart of this, a much more constructive inter-governmental relationship is needed going forward. When both Governments work together in partnership, Wales benefits. And we've seen evidence of that with the free port programme, the city and growth deals, and, more recently, the creation of investment zones in Wales.

Now, I understand the Minister’s view that funding for devolved functions should come to the Welsh Government for Welsh Ministers to allocate in line with its priorities and be subject to the scrutiny of the Senedd. But, Dirprwy Lywydd, the people of Wales are served by two Governments, and the problem with this issue is that the Welsh Government believes it should be solely responsible for the delivery of these funds, but, on the other hand, the UK Government believes it should be solely responsible for the delivery of these funds. However, my view is clear—they should be working together on this matter, because, by working together in partnership, our communities can be transformed. And so I urge both Governments to get on with it and work together in the interests of the people of Wales. I believe that both Governments could and should focus less on the politics of the funding and instead use their time and efforts improving the system so that it can do exactly what it is designed to do, which is transform and support innovation in our communities.

This is a live issue, and one that the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee will continue to monitor, of that you can be assured. But today I'm calling for some grown-up politics in identifying the problems that have been seen in delivering this funding, and a commitment to jointly address those problems so that they do not continue in the future. Therefore, Dirprwy Lywydd, I urge Members to support our amendment, which is a factual, objective statement that commits to seeing genuine progress on this front so that we can see funding devolved to projects—

16:10

The Member had already gone out of his time; I would not have allowed the intervention. 

I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth to move amendments 2 and 3, tabled in his name.

Amendment 2—Rhun ap Iorwerth

Add as new points after point 1, and renumber accordingly:

Believes the UK Government’s levelling up policies are not conducive to intra-Wales fairness and have resulted in a postcode lottery of economic support across Wales exacerbating regional inequalities between Wales’ communities that Welsh Government have also failed to address.

Believes that all decisions about how money is spent in Wales should be made in Wales.

Regrets the historic underfunding of Wales as a consequence of the outdated Barnett Formula which compounds the effect of the shortfall in funding from the Shared Prosperity and Levelling Up Funds.

Amendment 3—Rhun ap Iorwerth

Delete point 2 and replace with:

Calls for:

a) the return of regional investment funding to the Welsh Government to deliver in line with devolved policies that are fully accountable to the Senedd;

b) an Economic Fairness Bill (Wales)—guaranteeing fair funding based on Wales’ needs;

c) the rectification of the unfairness across Wales’s current funding and financial settlements, for example by redesignating HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail as England-only projects, providing Wales with resultant consequential funding.

Amendments 2 and 3 moved.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and Plaid Cymru has introduced a number of amendments in order to highlight some of the injustices caused by the levelling-up agenda of the Conservative Government in London. The ironic title, 'levelling up', or 'ffyniant bro', which is used in Welsh—the truth is that post-EU funding arrangements, such as the levelling-up scheme, are just one example of the unfair and unjust funding system that Wales finds itself part of, one that deprives our communities of investment, one that pits one community against another far too often, and holds us back as a nation from reaching our potential. And although my party and the party of the Welsh Government do share much common ground in terms of our views on the post-Brexit scenario, the Government motion today, as it stands, fails to address the broader issue. 

There are significant weaknesses in attitudes taken by Governments, both Conservative and Labour, on principles around inter-UK and intra-Wales economic fairness. In terms of intra-Wales fairness, the formula for allocating the shared prosperity fund differs significantly from the previous EU funding. It doesn't have a needs-based mechanism at its core, which leaves some of our most deprived communities significantly worse off. This despite, of course, the Tories repeatedly promising that European funding would be replaced pound for pound.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, under EU funding arrangements, the most deprived regions, such as west Wales and the Valleys, received 83 per cent of total EU funding given to Wales—almost three times as much per person as better off areas of Wales; that's what levelling up genuinely means. But, under the new UK shared prosperity fund, that figure falls to 73 per cent, and what that tells me is that we're heading in the wrong direction when it comes to trying to fight against the inequalities that are rife within our communities.

On levelling up, the levelling-up funding itself, in its most recent round, 11 local authorities in Wales didn't receive a single penny from it, and this includes some of our most rural and deprived communities, where housing crises, poor infrastructure and persistent underfunding from both UK and Welsh Governments have become commonplace. And because of the lack of that like-for-like EU replacement funding, the difficult situation those communities were already facing deteriorates even further. We've seen, haven't we, in recent times, with the Fflecsi Bwcabus service in west Wales, the end of a service that was such a lifeline to people, preventing those who were reliant on it, such as older people and students, perhaps, from travelling to support local businesses, accessing vital services, getting to work, getting to education, seeing their friends, seeing their loved ones.

On top of that, in constituencies that did receive money from the levelling-up fund, like my constituency of Ynys Môn, a restrictive bidding process with unreasonably tight deadlines means that the money that is being awarded isn't being spent to benefit the whole area, but rather just one small part of it. I've worked very closely with projects in Holyhead, and I'm delighted that projects there have been able to receive funding, but it's very, very frustrating—[Interruption.] If you'd like to give way.

16:15

I'll happily give way. I'm delighted to hear that you're making some effort to work with people in Holyhead. I hope that that effort includes working with the local MP, Virginia Crosbie, who of course has been delivering on her commitments to the island, working hard to deliver the free-port status that will really help that island thrive. And on the subject of levelling up, wouldn't you agree with me that we need to see some levelling up within Wales, where we see an inherent bias in the way that the Welsh Government distributes funds in this country in the south, and not in the north?
 

I'm so pleased that you gave me an opportunity to remind everybody that the Conservative MP for Ynys Môn, as with the Conservative Party as a whole, was more than happy for Holyhead, for Anglesey, to receive £8 million in free-port funding compared with the £26 million given to each English free port. We stood firm, and I worked with Welsh Government on this. We accepted—

The Member says I oppose free ports. I made the case for a free port with the level of funding that we were getting, that we were not being offered by the Conservatives. I made the case for a free port protecting workers' rights when the Conservative MP couldn't give a monkeys, and I made the case for environmental regulations. And, I made the case—[Interruption.]

And I made the case, as I was expressing, for levelling-up funding to be distributed across the whole of the island. I was delighted when communities in Holyhead were able to receive funding, but I'm angry that communities in Amlwch were denied the opportunity to get that funding. Communities that have been suffering from poverty for many years, because of the actions of a Conservative Government, were unable to be given the money that they were owed. It's because of the lack of flexibility that was rife within the system. 

Now, the UK Government's reprioritisation agenda is a clear reprioritisation away from Wales's material needs, and disproportionately benefits areas that are already disproportionately benefited. We've seen from The Guardian's analysis that Conservative marginal seats received one and a half times the amount of funding per person than other constituencies. In the red wall seats where the Conservatives won in 2019, it was twice the amount of money. This is pork barrel politics. This is democratic corruption by the Conservative Party. It is about time—[Interruption.] It is about time that the Conservatives accepted that they have wronged our communities by funnelling funds towards their own projects rather than genuinely building up prosperity, which is what Plaid Cymru pursues, through the legislation that we seek in Westminster, calling for an economic—

16:20

I have been generous in the time to allow you an intervention, but you need to come to an end now, Rhun.

The intervention itself was generous, and I'm happy to accept your generous additional time.

But we do need that economic fairness Bill to make sure that Welsh funding unfairness is addressed, and I ask you to support Plaid Cymru's amendments today.

If levelling up is going to work, it has to be about increasing gross value added and median salary. It's not about doing nice things or prettying up areas, important as they are; it's about creating more high-paid employment. The Westminster Government says:

'not everyone shares equally in the UK’s success. While talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not.'

That's correct.

'Levelling up is a mission to challenge, and change, that unfairness. Levelling up means giving everyone the opportunity to flourish. It means people everywhere living longer and more fulfilling lives, and benefitting from sustained rises in living standards and well-being.'

What can you argue with that about?

'This requires us to end the geographical inequality which is such a striking feature of the UK. It needs to begin by improving economic dynamism and innovation to drive growth across the whole country, unleashing the power of the private sector to unlock jobs and opportunity for all. While there are world-leading and enterprising businesses and innovators right across the UK, economic growth and the higher productivity which drives it has been over-concentrated in specific areas'—

basically, London and the south-east of England.

'A long tail of low-productivity businesses and places explain why UK productivity growth is too low compared to competitors.'

The latest figures I have been able to access on GVA are that it's £48,857 per head in London; £29,415 in the south-east; and £19,899 in Wales. On median salary, London £49,899; south-east of England £36,580; and Wales £32,000. And why is this? On life sciences, 24 per cent of the life science employment is in the south of England; 11 per cent of life science employment is in London; 4 per cent of life science employment is in Wales. If we only had our population proportion, it would be up to 5 per cent. The top-10 cities in the UK for ICT employment are Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Belfast and Newcastle. You may have noticed that not one of them is in Wales. This is why we need levelling up.

But what levelling up has provided so far is good projects, nice projects, but things that are not going to increase GVA or median salary. There's been £18 million to encourage healthier ways of travel in Powys; £20 million to transform the site of Barry docks waterfront into a vibrant public area; more than £15 million towards renovating a number of derelict buildings and creating more green areas in Llanelli town centre; £20 million for project developments to boost areas in Denbighshire, such as Rhyl, which include regenerating the town centre; and £12 million to restore and reopen the historic grade II listed Newbridge bridge. I mean, these are all nice things. These are all good things. These are all good for the community. What they are not is levelling up. For levelling up, we need higher paid employment. We need good-quality jobs.

So, what we need is to do at least some of these: have at least 20,000 additional civil service jobs at all levels relocated into Wales. As people who know Swansea are well aware, the civil service jobs in the area provide good-quality jobs. That should be happening everywhere. Financial support for universities to support research and development. That was raised by the Minister. We really do need to get more research and development done. If we intend to become a wealthier area, you need to have research and development. You need to grow out of the universities to develop employment in high-paid and high-skilled sectors, such as ICT, life sciences and financial services. We need more highly paid jobs. That's what levelling up is about, and if levelling up has worked, we'll see greater GVA and a higher median salary in Wales. That's what we've got to be aiming for. Lots of nice things, fine, but that's not levelling up; that's just doing nice things. Thank you, Presiding Officer.

16:25

We've already heard mention of the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee's report into EU funding, and I'd echo the Chair in saying that if there are Members in the Chamber who haven't read it—though I assume everyone has spent the time to read it—then please do read it. It was a really good piece of work, and I think as a committee we're very proud of the work we produced in that inquiry.

Of course, it does highlight many flaws and many issues associated with the replacement of post-EU regional funding streams: the short termism, the duplication of work, accountability, pitting communities against each other are just a few to list. But one particular area that we are now seeing that is hugely noticeable is the effect that it has on apprenticeships. And we'll no doubt hear more tomorrow, but we already know the potential devastating impact of the loss of EU funding in this area. It's undeniable, and it will be an impact that goes beyond just simply education. It will also be felt across the economy. 

However, I wanted to echo my colleague Rhun ap Iorwerth's concerns regarding fairness. Ultimately, it goes without saying that all decisions about how money is spent in Wales should be made in Wales, but it's not just about Welsh Government having control of the administration of the shared prosperity fund and the levelling-up fund; it also comes down to the quantum simply not being enough, and the mechanisms and formula behind the funds not being fair. If we want to see real economic development in Wales and real parity between our communities, we must have control of our own finances, over all of our own decisions, and not diktat from Westminster.  

But once those powers are within our hands, there does lie another challenge: how do we ensure that regional development actually happens? How do we ensure that we end the postcode lottery of economic development and an investment that is worthwhile for our communities? That's where I think the idea of an economic fairness Bill comes into play. We bake it into our new system. Because experience has shown us that even when we had the power to direct EU funding, the effect on our most deprived communities was minimal.

So, yes, you'll find no better proponents of the principle that spending in Wales should be decided in Wales, but if and when the time comes for those powers to be in the hands of the Welsh Government, how do we ensure that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past? How do we ensure investment is done right and done fairly across all of Wales's communities? Those are the questions we also need to consider.

Thank you so much for giving way. Can I suggest—? I think the report the committee brought forward was very, very good, but can I suggest that you go back and look as well at the framework for regional investment? That was an 18-month piece of work that involved every piece of Welsh civic society, the voluntary sector, businesses, colleges, universities—everybody was involved in it. It ran alongside an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development piece of work as well. And since we've brought it forward, unfortunately, because of the reluctance of UK Government to engage with us—. And it would, Paul, have dealt with that issue of Governments working together, but also local, regional, grass roots upwards, their ideas of what could work. Have a look at that again because the model is there and it needs a tiny bit of dusting off, but the model is there about how we spread that fairness to every part of Wales.  

I would agree there's no point reinventing the wheel where we have plenty of work that's already been done on this, and I think, actually, looking at how we can ensure that local authorities, that grass-roots level, are empowered by any new system we put forward is going to be key here, because ultimately our local communities know what they need and know what's going to best suit them. And on that point, Dirprwy Lywydd, I will conclude. 

I take a somewhat different view to other Members in this debate. My view is that levelling up is dead. It was only ever a public relations exercise. It was never a serious economic policy. It was only ever about photo opportunities and pork barrel politics. But what killed levelling up and killed any sense that levelling up was a serious policy of Government was the announcement on HS2. The fact that the United Kingdom Government will not now spend money connecting the cities of England means that any pretension to serious policy intent has ended. HS2 is now simply a fast railway connecting Birmingham and London, apparently so consequential to Wales that we will be deprived funding because of the economic benefit that we will feel as a consequence of this. That is simply not serious economics. Nobody takes it seriously.

We need to be absolutely clear that if we are serious about any form of—you’ve described levelling-up across the United Kingdom—investment in the United Kingdom, then we need serious politics to do it. It’s not simply about the quantum of funding available, although clearly that is important. It is also about how that funding is distributed. What really frustrated me about some of the politics around levelling-up and the policy issues around levelling-up is that the UK Government has repeated the same mistakes as the Welsh Government made around Objective 1 20 years ago. None of the work or the lessons learned were applied in the application of any of the funding streams that we’ve seen delivered in the five years. So we haven’t had a learning of lessons, we’ve had a repeating of mistakes.

But this is not only an example of a single policy failure. I believe it is more than that, Deputy Presiding Officer. It is a failure of philosophy, of mindset, a failure of culture—it is a historic failure of the United Kingdom to be a United Kingdom. We all know, every single one of us, no matter in what part of this Chamber we sit, that had the money that was required to connect Manchester, Leeds and the cities of northern England with HS2 been required in London or the south-east of England, that money would have been found. Had the money to electrify the railway to Swansea been required in London, the money would have been found. We all know that to be true, every single one of us, because it was found, to deliver Crossrail.

The United Kingdom is the most unequal state in western Europe. In this way, I believe the United Kingdom is more than simply a state with inequality—it is a failed state. And Wales is not alone in experiencing the human consequences of this failure. The United Kingdom has created great wealth by the people living in these islands throughout the last century, but that wealth has been concentrated in a single class and a single geography, and that concentration of wealth and privilege is no accident—it is the direct consequence of policy. And let’s be absolutely clear about this: that same policy has been delivered whoever has been the resident of Downing Street.

Of course the United Kingdom is stagnating today. The toxic combination of low growth and flatlining economic activity as a consequence of austerity and Brexit means that many of the people that we represent here are suffering most, are seeing the reality of this. But let’s also be clear: Britain was fundamentally unequal, an unequal society, long before austerity, long before the financial crisis. Britain, in fact, has been designed to be unequal. So we need to address these issues, and we don’t simply need to rebadge levelling-up as something different—Labour levelling-up as somehow different to Conservative levelling-up. I believe that the crisis we are facing, and the crisis upon crisis that we have faced, forces us to think harder about the challenges facing us.

We saw before Christmas that the Conservative Government was willing to deliver a needs-based funding formula for Northern Ireland, so why not Wales? Why not Wales? Why not the people I represent? Why aren’t they entitled to the same fairness that the people of Northern Ireland seem to be entitled to? We need to be far more radical in our thinking. [Interruption.] I’ll give way.

16:30

I'm grateful to you for taking an intervention. I completely agree with you that the Barnett formula is past its sell-by date and we need a new needs-based formula. When this matter was last considered, by the commission that was established by the Welsh Government, it actually proposed a level of funding that was less than the current arrangements, which are currently £1.20 for every £1 spent on a devolved service. So there is a risk, of course, that a needs-based formula may give us a less good settlement than is currently being received as a result of the agreement between the UK and Welsh Governments.

Absolutely. I'm not suggesting there are guarantees about the future. We can't guarantee what's going to happen tomorrow night, let alone what's going to happen in the next decade. But what we can guarantee is a level of fairness, and my next sentence, Darren, was going to be that these matters are determined by an independent funding commission and not by the Treasury. Because the one thing that every department of state, wherever they sit, whether it's in the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government or any part of the Westminster system, will tell you is that the Treasury always wins. The Treasury always wins. And what we've got to do is to move these decisions away from the Treasury. There's a very good model of that working in Australia and elsewhere in the world.

But we need to be more radical. We need to be more radical about the challenges facing us. We need to have a far more clear-sighted view of fairness in these islands. Wales has suffered unfairness down the decades, down the last century, but so have other parts of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has been established—

16:35

—as a state to fund the rich and the south-east of England and the London financial community. If the United Kingdom is going to succeed, then it has to be more than that. 

For years, EU funding filled critical gaps in our finances. Surely, everyone must agree on that. Unable to raise taxes or borrow substantially for major projects, we relied on their schemes as a vital investment lifeline. As part of the EU, Wales secured moneys for our country's needs. The replacement funding from Westminster offers less money with tighter controls.

In terms of local authorities, local democracy is eroded rather than empowered by the bidding system. It's pitting authorities against each other in a scramble for limited funding and using up scarce local authority capacity. This competitive model inevitably picks winners and losers at the discretion of the Conservative Government. Well-resourced councils with expert bid writers can submit more polished proposals, whilst less affluent councils divert scarce resources into, sadly, unsuccessful bids.

Stepping back, surely we can all agree the principles of national funding. For Wales, it should be that we decide on our funding, we decide on a fair basis according to need here in Wales—that it shouldn't bypass devolution. It should be for strategic projects that enhance Wales, such as infrastructure, which have been well thought through and well evidenced. It should not pitch our local authorities against each other, and should not be about the resources that local authorities do or don't have. And it shouldn't duplicate projects.

On this issue, the Federation of Small Businesses has noted that by not involving the Welsh Government in decisions there is an inherent risk of duplication and overlap, particularly where net-zero initiatives under the shared prosperity fund may clash with those available under the Development Bank of Wales.

Finally, if we really want true levelling-up, which I think we all want, Wales requires enhanced devolution. We need to ensure that Wales delivers sustainable development that works for every single person here in Wales. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

If the UK Government really wanted to level up, it should properly fund public services and all those employed in them. They're one of the biggest employers in Wales. I'm pleased to see that the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee's report into post-EU funding last term said that delivery would be greatly improved with Welsh Government involvement. Wales was a net beneficiary of EU funding. It recognised the inequality.

As the report says, west Wales and the Valleys' GDP per capita was roughly just 70 per cent of the EU average, compared to inner London west, which has a GDP per capita of well over 600 per cent of the EU average. The levelling-up funding process is extremely competitive and places huge pressures on already stretched local authorities. Developing bids of this kind is resource heavy and expensive. I'm aware that one unsuccessful bid cost approximately £100,000. The UK Government gave some contribution, but not enough. And the bids caused a massive distraction.

If councils could provide an early expression of interest to the funding bids, such as with the lottery and the previous funding streams, and then be given a green light to go to the next stage, that would be helpful and would save wasting a lot of time and money. Flintshire, for example, has been unsuccessful at each of the funding rounds for large projects. They were told the bids were strong but that the process was too competitive. This was extremely disappointing, as one joint bid was to improve the Wrexham to Bidston line and for a station at Deeside industrial park, which is much needed for residents across north Wales to access jobs and fill the vacancies employers are desperate to fill. That would have been really helpful levelling-up.

Local councils have also had to work miracles to make a success of shared prosperity funding, faced with late payments from the UK Government, a total lack of clarity on how to allocate funds, and timescales that are far too tight. The UK rulebooks are so embryonic that the Government seemed to be making it up as they went along, leaving council administrations to work in the dark.

Despite these challenges, local authorities have used their expertise to deliver funding for projects that are actually really useful on the ground, as they were under the previous rural development programme. But, unfortunately, it has taken so long to deliver the programme, the community projects, which are really welcome, are short-lived and they really could have done with a whole three years of the shared prosperity fund.

The cut in funding of over £1 billion of EU funding to the Welsh Government has impacted on organisations and people on a national level and a regional level; for example, apprenticeships, further education, research and the major infrastructure of roads and railways. I know that for the last big infrastructure project on the A55 in north-west Wales, half of that was funded from EU funding—it was a £30 million project—and we say now, 'There's no money for road building'. On the funding for agriculture, I understand that £243 million has been lost from the EU for farm payments, and it will be sorely missed.

For new and previously EU-funded projects to be delivered on a regional level, a new layer of bureaucracy has been created, and it has been very difficult at times to get all local authorities on board, so that's created another issue at that level. Then there's the Multiply programme. I've heard that it's in direct competition with other programmes that are already available in Wales, but also that it's actually overfunded and local authorities are really struggling to get the money spent in time. So, they're asking whether it can be moved into another SPF element under people and skills—that would be really useful.

Overall, considerable work needs to be done in order for the UK Government's post-Brexit funding to be truly transformational. Funding for devolved competencies should come under the Welsh Government and the way it is spent scrutinised by the Senedd.

16:40

This is a really important topic, so I'd like to thank the Welsh Government for tabling this motion for us to discuss today. It's important as, for a start, it's about integrity in politics, honouring