Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

17/01/2024

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

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Climate Change

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

Decarbonising Homes

1. What progress has the Minister made in working with local authorities to maximise opportunities to decarbonise homes? OQ60521

Under the optimised retrofit programme, local authorities have received around £28 million. ORP supports a test-and-learn approach to decarbonise homes in the most efficient and cost-effective way. The net-zero carbon hwb was recently launched to help local authorities connect with industry players to share learnings and experiences.

Thank you. Twenty-eight million pounds is a lot of money, but I appreciate that it doesn't go that far when you're talking about decarbonising homes. There are now several large windfarms operating in Wales, all generating community benefits, including, Pen y Cymoedd with its 78 turbines, generating a very welcome income for the 188,000 residents who live in that area. What analysis has the Government made of how the relevant local authorities have jumped on this opportunity to help the local community to decarbonise their homes by advising them on the best strategy for their individual properties?

Equally, in the same year, the ECO Flex scheme started, which gave local authorities another source of funding coming from the UK Government. I know that both Bristol, London, and many other English local authorities, have started bidding into the ECO Flex schemes and are, even now, actually having things happen. So, how many local authorities in Wales have used that funding to support local populations to decarbonise their homes? And how can we ensure that local authorities are really being proactive in meeting the target that was originally 2033 for social homes?

Yes, thank you, Jenny. So, we support local authorities to leverage Great Britain-wide capital funding into local communities by rolling out, as you say, the local authority Flex schemes associated with ECO4 and the Great British insulation scheme, which used to be called ECO+. They can publish a joint statement of intent for ECO4 and for the Great British insulation scheme and develop partnerships with both suppliers and installers. So, we’ve been supporting the local authorities to develop the statements and we’re encouraging the regional collaborations where these result in more efficient delivery, because they have to link together with the Welsh Energy Service surveys that we’ve been doing, and you know that we’ve been rolling out our community scheme to look at where energy efficiency is most needed and to try and take the fabric worst-first approach. So, we’ve been trying to make sure that, where they cross borders and stuff, there isn’t an invisible force field because you come to the edge of a local authority area, and that we actually do it as a community scheme where that’s appropriate.

The Nest advice service signposts the Great British insulation scheme and other initiatives, including things like the boiler upgrade scheme and the ECO4, as complementary schemes to Welsh Government-funded, demand-led schemes. So, we’re trying to get the new advice service to strengthen that and lead to a referral arrangement so that people understand that, having had one, it doesn’t mean that you can’t have the other, and you can do a combination one. Householders, owner-occupiers and those in social and private-rented homes can check eligibility and apply directly through the energy suppliers for that.

In terms of Pen y Cymoedd and other windfarms, and the very large community benefits packages that come out of those, those aren’t done through the local authorities, they’re done through community consortia. We’ve been working with the developer industry and I met with RenewableUK Cymru just before Christmas at the Celtic Manor, at their conference there, to discuss what more we could do for the community benefit schemes. There are some restrictions: you cannot use a community benefit scheme to simply reduce an energy bill, for example. That’s not allowed inside the rules. But there is absolutely nothing to stop you using a community benefit scheme to retrofit houses in order to make them more energy efficient. But it is a matter for the local community to come to that conclusion. So, what we’ve been doing is using, through Ynni Cymru and other initiatives, local enablers to get communities to come together to understand what’s possible and what the retrofit might bring and to use the community benefit schemes in those ways. Because all over Wales we have beautifully outfitted village halls and sports teams and all the rest of it—all of which are great things, but they haven’t got the longevity of some of the other schemes. I was very pleased that the developers were very happy and are developing something they call 'the gold-plated service', to put those kinds of initiatives into the community benefit schemes. But they would complement all this other funding—one doesn’t preclude the other.

I refer Members to my declaration of interest in terms of property ownership, and I understand I'm not the only one who should be declaring. As you know, Minister, there are thousands—

13:35

You don't need to refer to other people's declarations; just refer to your own, please.

I seem to be the only Member at the moment, though, actually making these declarations.

As you know, Minister, there are thousands of empty properties that could be made into lovely homes. The Leasing Scheme Wales programme provides support to landlords entering the scheme, with additional funding to improve the decarbonisation of those privately rented homes. Now, only 16 local authorities have signed up over the last two financial years, and only 60 grants have been awarded—that's less than three a month. Property owners and, indeed, private landlords have made it very clear to me that they would happily refurb properties into homes and to include the decarbonisation scheme if they were helped by Welsh Government. Will you help to maximise the take-up of Leasing Scheme Wales and other ECO schemes available, and provide more funding as part of your recent increased funding in the budget to homeless prevention? Diolch.

So, we've actually had a couple more authorities join Leasing Scheme Wales very recently. Of course, the very welcome uplift of the local housing allowance in April will really help, because the way that Leasing Scheme Wales works is that we guarantee the local housing amount for rent to the landlord. The landlord then hands over the property to the local authority, or to an RSL locally, and we run it as if it's a social home. It's a minimum of five years; we'd prefer the 10 or 15-year period, though, for obvious reasons. The landlord then gets back a house where they've had an income all the way through that period, but which comes back to them in a better state than when they gave it over. We very much want to encourage people to do that. I will say, Janet, that we have not yet got any indication at all whether the local housing allowance will be uplifted in April for one year or for more years, and that makes a real difference. So, actually, one of the biggest barriers we've got is not understanding whether the LHA will continue to rise with inflation, which would make it a lot more attractive, or whether, actually, it's going to get frozen again. So, that is a bit of a barrier. So, I'm currently working with the UK Government to try and get some clarity on that—there hasn't been, so if you can assist with that, that would be helpful.

Ruabon Railway Station

2. Will the Minister provide an update on plans to improve Ruabon railway station? OQ60504

Yes. Thank you to Ken Skates, who has been a consistent champion of Ruabon station, and we agree it has great potential, serving a wide area and is the rail gateway to the world heritage site at Pontcysyllte. We continue to press the UK Government for funding of the delivery of a new Access for All bridge at the station.

Thank you, Minister. I commend you for your perfect pronunciation of the world heritage site. As you know, the Welsh Government has worked incredibly hard, and you personally, to try to get the improvements necessary at Ruabon station. But, back in November, there was the announcement of six stations in Wales that will receive upgrades, and Ruabon was not amongst them. Could you identify the reasons why you believe Ruabon station has not yet benefited from the upgrades that so many passengers require of the station? Is it a problem with Network Rail or the UK Government, because I do understand that Transport for Wales has been pretty consistent in supporting the necessary works? Diolch.

Thank you for the question. I can confirm that Ruabon station is one of our top priorities for delivery in Wales through the UK Government's Access for All scheme. Transport for Wales are working closely with Network Rail on that, and a final outline design is due at the end of March. So, I think we're doing everything we can at our end. But I think the fact of the matter is just that the UK Government is not standing up for north Wales when it comes to key infrastructure investment. A new accessible bridge at Ruabon would make a significant difference there, but we can only take it forward if the UK Government funds it. Rail is not devolved to Wales; it is a UK responsibility, and I'm bound to ask what are all those Tory MPs in north Wales doing if they can't deliver funding for a modest investment like this. Now, thankfully, there is investment in rail in north Wales, but it's from the Welsh Labour Government. The majority of services at Ruabon are now operated using our new class 197 trains, which is a result of our £800 million investment in new fleets. But, again, we are worried that their performance could well be undermined by the UK Government, through Network Rail, cutting its maintenance budgets for the years ahead, which will directly impact on the reliability of trains and their ability to stick to the timetable. So, despite our efforts, there's a danger that's being undermined.

Now, the UK Government set out, through its union connectivity review, led by Lord Peter Hendy, a recommendation that we look at the whole north Wales corridor in terms of transport. And we've done that, and, just recently, Lord Burns and his north Wales transport commission published its detailed recommendations—some 60 recommendations. A number of those relating to rail are the responsibility of the UK Government, and we now want to work with the UK Government on a pipeline of schemes that can be funded, some by us, some by them, to improve transport across north Wales. And the recommended upgrade at Chester station, to allow five trains per hour, including an express service into north Wales, is a critical part of that.

13:40

Thank you, Llywydd, for the opportunity to respond to the Deputy Minister's response there. I'm very disappointed to hear the Deputy Minister so easily forget that the UK Government has committed £1 billion of rail investment to north Wales. So, rather than standing there slating the lack of investment from the UK Government, there's £1 billion on the table, which will make such a difference to residents that I represent.

Specifically in relation to Ruabon station, the Deputy Minister will be aware, of course, that it is an important part of the north Wales metro, which you referenced, I guess, in your response to Ken Skates. But, of course, the north Wales metro currently has around £50 million earmarked from the Welsh Government, whereas the south Wales metro has around £700 million earmarked for it. So, I guess, if there was a real desire to see things improve in north Wales, there'd be a further commitment from Welsh Government to improve areas in north Wales with the metro. But, going back to Ruabon station specifically, I wonder, Deputy Minister, if you could outline which meetings you have been having with the UK Government to help see that investment accelerated at Ruabon station so that my residents and, in particular, people with disabilities will have easy access to the station. 

Well, I give Sam Rowlands top marks for brass neck there. Rail infrastructure is not devolved to Wales. It is the responsibility of the UK Government, and they simply are not delivering for Wales in general, and north Wales in particular. Now, he says that the Prime Minister has committed £1 billion for rail in north Wales through the electrification of the main line. Now, first of all, he hasn't, because he simply said it was an example of the sort of money that could be spent. Secondly, we'll remember their promise to electrify the railway line in south Wales, which they broke the promise of. So, I don't think we can put any store on that at all. And our cynicism can be further deepened by the fact that there is no preparatory work at all behind this eye-catching announcement. So, it's complete fantasy. Network Rail haven't done any preparation work. The Department for Transport hasn't done any preparation work. This is a fantasy that he is quite happy to latch onto for electioneering purposes, knowing full well it ain't gonna happen under this Government, and, in fact, some of the things that we have agreed with the Department for Transport are priorities, like the upgrade at Chester, which would bring help for north Wales passengers in the short term, simply are being ignored by the UK Government. So, I'm afraid, nice try, but not supported by the facts.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Natasha Asghar. 

Thank you so much, Presiding Officer. Deputy Minister, it might be a new year, but, as expected, the enormous level of anger, frustration and opposition to your costly 20 mph project continues to grow. Despite nearly 0.5 million people signing a petition to have the £33 million-venture axed, and countless protests taking place, including the one outside the Welsh Parliament here today, Labour Ministers are still refusing to do the right thing. Messages coming from Labour Ministers, particularly around enforcement and prosecution, have been, as my leader so perfectly put it, clear as mud. Presiding Officer, the Deputy Minister might try to blame the Welsh Conservatives for causing confusion over this policy—as he did last week—but the truth of the matter is the blame firmly lies at his door. Yet again, instead of accepting responsibility for his mistakes, the Deputy Minister points the blame elsewhere. Quite frankly, the roll-out of this vanity project has been nothing short of a shambolic process, with the Welsh Government continuing to cause complete confusion. So, Deputy Minister, being a new year, will you kick the new year off the right way and give the people of Wales what they want by rescinding this ridiculous 20 mph vanity project?

Well, a happy new year to Natasha Asghar as well. I was reminded, listening to that, of the article in today's Nation.Cymru, which talks about the very high turnover of staff in the Conservative office. But the quote that really stuck out to me was about Andrew R.T. Davies—and I think it may apply to her as well—where an ex-staffer is quoted as saying he's not the 

'kind of politician who's interested in getting practical policies worked up. What he loves most of all is having a go at the Welsh Government over issues like the 20mph speed limit'.

And I think that is spot on, and she has given exhibit A for the prosecution today.

As we discussed last week, there was cross-party support in this Senedd for taking a default speed limit approach. Rather than doing a street-by-street approach, which was not practical and much more expensive, the expert panel that we established recommended a whole-area approach, and that was supported in this Senedd, including by Laura Anne Jones, by Russell George and by a number of other Welsh Conservatives. [Interruption.] Now, Laura Anne Jones is trying to run away from the record but, if she looks at the motion she supported, it makes it very clear that it supported the approach of the Phil Jones report, which backed a default speed limit. And Laura Anne Jones is now telling the Chamber that I am misleading, which I am not, Llywydd, and I resent that; it's a matter of record.

13:45

It is a matter of record—the approach taken in the recommendation of a motion in this Chamber, which was supported by the Conservatives, as it was supported by other parties. Now, we've moved on to the next phase of that, of working up the detail of that, and we have much rehearsed these arguments in this Chamber, and the position stands. We accept that the implementation of this in every community is not as it will end up being, I am sure, because local authorities will want to take advantage of four months of experience of living with the speed limit to revise some of the roads. So, for example, I was driving on the weekend in Cardiff, down Lloyd George Avenue, and I was surprised to see that Lloyd George Avenue is a 20 mph road. Now, the guidelines say that a street within 200m of housing would be expected to be 20 mph unless there was a good case otherwise. Now, of course, Lloyd George Avenue is within 200m of houses, and so you can see why, in a very literal interpretation of the guidance, that decision has been made. But, of course, there is a large hedge, there is a very wide pavement, there is a cycle lane. Now, from my point of view and of the sniff test that I've previously discussed, that would seem to me to be a prime candidate for revision, and there'll be examples like that across Wales, I'm sure. We want to get to a point where this policy settles down, where people get used to it. People are already driving slower, and as part of that process, there will be streets, of course, where councils will want to make changes, and that's as it should be. But that's a serious policy, that's a debate about implementation; it's not a debate about slogans, and it's not a debate about generating social media traffic, encouraged by Conservative colleagues in England. 

Wow. I don't even know where to begin with that, Deputy Minister. Firstly, I am fully aware that you have got a leadership contest happening amongst your party members. But for the record, you are the Deputy Minister of transport, not the Deputy Minister or Minister for human resources, God help our souls, so that's not going to be happening. For now, let me just carry on with transport, which is what we're here to discuss today. 

Now, I was very disappointed about the answer that you just gave. Fear not, though, because the Labour Government has ordered a review into this disastrous 20 mph scheme. And which open-minded individual have they talked about leading this review? Unbelievably, Phil Jones, the same man who recommended the Welsh Government introduce this policy in the first place. You really couldn't make this up if you wanted to. This is simply a case of the Welsh Government marking its own homework when it comes to this policy. As far as I am concerned, we don't need a review. We need this policy scrapped, as we can already see the huge damage it's inflicting on Wales with a £9 billion blow to the economy, hampering people's livelihoods, damaging public transport networks and slowing down our emergency services. Regardless of what you're going to argue with me, Deputy Minister, it's the truth. But nevertheless, Deputy Minister, how on earth do you think this looks to the public—the public outside of this Chamber—that you've instructed a man who was instrumental in introducing this major policy, which has proved to be extremely controversial, to actually lead this review going forward? 

Well, you are impugning the reputation of a highly regarded professional across the transport industry in the UK with no basis at all. So, for the record, Phil Jones did not recommend the policy to the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government's policy was set. We asked Phil Jones to look into how it would best be implemented, working with a range of stakeholders and the people who would be charged with making this work in practice, and the clear mission was to come up with something that was workable. And he spent over a year coming up with that report and it recommended a default approach, which was endorsed in principle by the Conservatives in this Senedd Chamber. [Interruption.] Now, as soon as we start—[Interruption.]—as soon as we start then looking at how this is implemented in practice, of course there are people who are going to be disagreeing with that and, of course, the Conservatives seize a chance to again inflame opinion and try and get some popularity to disguise the fact their Government in the UK has wrecked the UK economy. So, again we're having smoke and mirror tactics from the Conservative benches. They have no constructive suggestions of their own about how to tackle road safety. They have no constructive suggestions of their own of how to achieve modal shift. They have no constructive suggestions of their own how to reduce noise pollution in communities. And despite all her claims that this is a deeply unpopular policy, cars are driving slower, people are complying with the spirit of the new law. This is popular in many streets and, in fact, some streets that have been exempted and kept at 30 mph—there are people living on those streets who are making the case to their local authority to reduce them to 20 mph.

So, this is going to be a period of flex and flux, as we look at looking at the implementation and how we iron out any inconsistencies. That's a normal process for any large-scale change. It was always our intention—in fact, we announced it some time ago—that we review this as it went along. Local authorities have the power, at any time. In fact, Neath Port Talbot Council have already carried out a review of its roads in the light of experience, and we encourage others to do the same, just as we encourage members of the public to feed back to local authorities which roads they think need looking at again. This can be done in a sensible, measured, responsible way, but, as the quote from the ex-staffer said, this is not about getting practical policies worked up, this is about having a go at the Welsh Government—because that's all the Welsh Conservatives are able to do.

13:50

Right, Deputy Minister, once again let's go back to transport, because that's what we're here to do, not talk about human resources matters.

Now, you spoke about spirit. Let's talk about spirit now: what about the spirit of the 20 mph protesters that have been outside this particular Senedd in sun, rain, hail, you name it? How many times have you gone to meet them? None. Show me some spirit today, Deputy Minister, and go and speak to them today and see what the real view is on the ground, because you've been neglecting everyone who's opposed this so far and literally buried your head in the sand since this policy was introduced.

Now, coming back to my question. We all know that your blanket 20 mph project forms part of this Government's aggressive anti-motorist agenda. As well as the 20 mph speed limits, plans are also being drawn up to punish drivers further by congestion and road charges. And we now find that these anti-driver attacks aren't just coming from Labour Ministers in Cardiff Bay, with your Labour colleagues in Monmouthshire County Council wanting to kick the boot in further. Hidden away, on page 42, to be precise, of the council's local transport plan, is the idea of reintroducing the tolls on the Severn bridge. They believe that this move will, and I quote now,

'reduce journeys to/from Bristol by private car and subsequently would reduce traffic on the M4 and M48.'

End quote. I believe this move would have a devastating impact on residents, businesses and drivers, and would be the final nail in the coffin for the Welsh economy. So, Deputy Minister, out of sheer interest, do you support the return of the tolls on the M4 Severn bridge, and will you put pressure on your Labour colleagues at the council to make sure that this horrendous idea is a non-starter from day one?

Well, heaven forbid the day arrives where Natasha Asghar finds herself as transport Minister, because she clearly has no grasp of the practicalities of how transport decisions are made.

We have a responsibility to set out a regional transport plan; every part of the country has to do that. As part of that, they have to look at a range of options and do an options appraisal—that's exactly what Monmouthshire council has done, as they are legally required to do, and as part of that, they look at a whole series of things that could be applied, and they concluded, in the case of this one, that it was not a desirable way to go forward. She knows that full well. There are no plans to reintroduce tolls on the Severn bridge. There never have been plans, and it was simply looking at all the options, as is responsible to do so, and they would be failing in their job of doing a proper assessment, had they not looked at those options.

Now, we can have a serious conversation about how we tackle congestion, how we reduce carbon emissions, how we reduce deaths on the road, or we can have knockabout, where everything is twisted and taken out of context in order to wind people up. Because Natasha Asghar and the Conservatives, I'm afraid, have nothing serious or constructive to say about transport in Wales. We simply get soundbites designed to mobilise dissent.

Now, in terms of the people who are protesting against the 20 mph speed limit, I completely understand this was never going to be a universally popular policy, as the other changes to roads policy, over the years, have not been. I was only reading the other day about the protests about the Belisha beacons that were introduced in the 1930s—protests as there were, and indeed death threats, to the transport Minister, Barbara Castle, who introduced the breathalyser, and about the protests of the seat belt law that was changed. And if you looked at those online, you will see very similar arguments that we are hearing today.

And so, of course, there are going to be people who do not like the idea of having to drive slower. We want to look at the impact it has on the people who live in streets, not just those people who drive through the streets, and this is an area where there has been consensus. We've had a number of Conservative Members making the case for 20 mph in their areas, and we've had the Conservative group here in the last Senedd endorsing the principle of a default approach. I'm afraid this Conservative group just simply wants to create headlines and distort the truth in order to get people worked up, and there is no basis in fact to it.

13:55

Diolch, Llywydd. Since October Transport for Wales has received a total of £236 million in additional funding. Now, the total figure of cuts made to the draft budget for 2024-25, compared with indicative budget figures, is just under £270 million, so there has been a significant shift in funding towards TfW. The Welsh Government's justification for this has been that the pandemic created a major shortfall in actual ticket sales compared with, in the term put forward by the Welsh Government, the 'ambitious' revenue projections underpinning KeolisAmey's bid for the TfW franchise in 2018. So, that information that led to those projections from KeolisAmey I think has significant public interest value, but when we submitted a freedom of information request for that information, we were told it's not currently held by the Welsh Government. So, could you, Minister, please explain why that is the case, and in the interests of transparency, would you commit to acquiring and publishing that information, please?

Thank you for that. I think we've explained the underlying assumption of KeolisAmey's bid belonged to KeolisAmey. We simply do not have them, but our understanding is they had a very optimistic and ambitious set of assumptions based on a not unreasonable judgment that by introducing far more frequent and far more attractive trains, they would be able to dramatically increase passenger numbers. Now, that was not able to be put to the test because COVID came along, blew apart all those economic assumptions, and, indeed, resulted in KeolisAmey not being able to continue with the contract. So, you can say they were too optimistic in their figures, but, in a sense, it's a rather academic point, because COVID came along and made that all moot. 

Now, of course, as a result of that, TfW's financial assumptions have had to be adjusted. We know the cost of building the metro and the so-called Cardiff Valleys line section, the CVL, has gone up, as indeed has every single construction project in the country because of materials and because of the cost of Brexit. So, there's obviously been an increased bill there that we've had to meet, and on top of that there is the gap in the accountancy underpinnings of the budget of TfW that was no longer there, and we had to fill it. Otherwise, we would have had to shut the railway, which wasn't a choice that we thought we could realistically make. So, we had to make that adjustment.  

Thank you for that, Minister. I don't think it is just an academic question, because of this really significant effect it's had and the implications for the rest of the budget. So, I would press you again, please, to acquire and to publish that information. Now, in terms of what you've been setting out about the effect of the pandemic, I wouldn't dispute it. I don't think anyone here would dispute that, in so many ways, the way in which that affected transport would have been unexpected, largely. TfW was far from unique amongst UK rail operators in experiencing a decrease in passenger numbers because of lockdowns and other behavioural changes.

Where TfW does appear rather anomalous, though, is the level of Government funding it continues to receive to manage that fallout, when compared especially with other publicly owned rail franchises like ScotRail. Despite the fact that ScotRail passenger numbers experienced a bigger hit in absolute and proportional terms compared with TfW because of the pandemic, the Scottish Government has been able to reduce its spending on ScotRail by 11 per cent, and they say that that's because of continued recovery in passenger revenue. Can you explain why TfW is apparently so less cost-effective compared with similar franchises, and when do you expect those numbers to recover?

Now, I would say, Llywydd—I know I'm out of time—I support public investment in rail hugely. I'm just trying to find out where these discrepancies are and what can be done to address them. Diolch.

14:00

Well, we're constantly challenging Transport for Wales on their performance and upon their budget numbers. That is an intense process that I’m part of, and also the board of TfW are empowered to do. It’s my understanding that their performance is not wildly out of kilter with the other franchise arrangements, which of course have all been handed back to the Department for Transport. So, the model of privatisation the Conservatives imposed on us has fallen apart, as indeed many people said at the time, and we see no humility again from the Conservatives. We’ve seen the failure of bus privatisation, which is leading to the cuts we’re seeing now. We’ve seen a failure of rail privatisation, which has seen the situation we’re facing, with lack of investment and poor performance and maintenance of the railway network.

I’m happy to look at the exact parallel that Delyth Jewell makes on ScotRail and to respond to her about that. That’s not my understanding of the situation, but I’ll pledge to find out more.

The Learner Travel (Wales) Measure

3. Will the Minister provide an update on the latest review of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure? OQ60526

Diolch. I'm currently reviewing a recommendations report based on the recent internal analysis and evaluation exercise and engagement with young people.

The Measure does impose a duty on local authorities to make an assessment of the transport needs of learners, and the Government considers safety as part of those needs, and the guidance does suggest risk assessments of the walking routes where that's appropriate. The problem is that local authorities don't interpret that as a statutory requirement, and that is a major problem, particularly in rural areas where many children do have to walk to gathering points, very often long distances, but also along narrow roads, and, during the winter, of course, when it's dark. So, as part of that review that has happened, is that question of ensuring that risk assessments are done, including of the walking routes, being made a statutory requirement, not least because one of your predecessors, Edwina Hart, said that not doing that risk assessment would be a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Thank you. I do know that local authorities do take this very seriously, regardless of whether it’s a statutory responsibility or not. The approach that we’re trying to take here is to try and see the journey to school not simply as a stand-alone but as part of the wider way that we approach transport across our community. So, for example, we’re investing heavily in improvements to active travel routes for walking and cycling, we’re having enhancements through regular reviews and planning of future routes to make all pedestrians feel comfortable and safe to walk for short journeys. And most young people are making relatively short journeys to school.

There are of course issues there. I, some time ago now, went on a journey from his home village of Tumble to Maes y Gwendraeth school with some schoolchildren, carrying their bags and their guitar for them, on a fairly long walking trip along a path, and I must say my back was sore by the end of it. So, I’m very sympathetic to those people who are keen to have free bus travel when they’re very close to the threshold. The reality is that we simply do not have the money to put more money into school transport at a time when our whole bus network is under incredible pressure, and also, in franchising, we want to take again a whole-community approach to this. Over a quarter of school budgets are spent on the cost of running school buses. Those buses are then not available to the rest of the community for the rest of the day, and I think it makes far more sense for us, when we are looking at planning for franchising, that we look at the whole bus network for all people, including for school pupils, and we have a coherent network that runs for all passengers, rather than trying to silo it out. Now, that is part of the ongoing work that we’re doing as we prepare for the bus Bill, and we’ll be publishing a route-map towards franchising over the coming months.

We are close to a point where we can publish the learner travel Measure review, which has been a complex and long piece of work. And I think there's much that we can do there, even within the current system, and within the current funding, that can improve the school experience for young people. But I do want, rather than simply looking at school transport in isolation, to look at the broader problems we have about travel in Wales. 

14:05

Deputy Minister, it's been years now since the learner travel Measure review and recommendations were published and I have real concerns about the direction of travel that school transport is going in. And I reiterate the calls that Adam Price just made for risk assessments to be made about children going on buses, as well as the walk routes, particularly in rural areas. Whereas putting all children on public transport in urban areas might work and might suit, it won't suit all rural areas. And there simply aren't—. No. 1, there simply aren't enough buses for children to get on where you're seeing a wraparound where children are having to wait 45 minutes before school and after school to actually get on a bus, and that, of course, has safeguarding issues, waiting in the cold and the dark, as well as the other safeguarding issues attached to that. But it's essential that we get things in place by September. We cannot repeat the mess there was at the beginning of the last school year that made many parents and many children and young people very anxious because they didn't know how they were going to get to school. So, can you reassure this Senedd, today, that you will have things in place and you will actually address and bring the recommendations to the floor of the Senedd so we can debate it? Thank you. 

Well, I reject the characterisation of last September. In fact, a huge amount of work went on throughout last year, which I led, to make sure that the new arrangements that we had in place for the bus system did not adversely affect on school transport routes, and worked closely with the education Minister on making sure that was the case. And it went smoothly. 

In terms of the dangers of travelling on public transport in rural areas, I'm not sure there's a great deal of evidence for that. In fact, Monmouthshire County Council have a very effective system that they are running for school transport and we are keen to work with them to learn from that and from the rest of Wales.

And in terms of the broader point, then I'd be very keen to get a practical set of recommendations from Laura Anne Jones that are affordable within the austerity budgets that we have been handed down from her Government that meet the challenges that we face. Because, otherwise, this is simply hot air.  

Adequate Housing and Fair Rent

4. What work has the Welsh Government undertaken to secure adequate housing and fair rent for the people of Bridgend and Porthcawl? OQ60528

Thank you very much for the question. I'm delighted to say that Bridgend County Borough Council has just joined the Welsh Government’s Leasing Scheme Wales. This is the £30 million programme providing grants to local authorities to secure and manage safe and affordable accommodation from the private sector, including properties that were previously empty.

Thank you, Minister. That's wonderful to hear. As you know, housing being one of the biggest concerns for people across Wales, the publication of the Welsh Government's Green Paper on housing adequacy and fair rents has been welcomed and has been said to be a huge step forward by many. As we know, there are many factors needed for securing a path towards adequate housing, including fair rents and affordability, and the Bevan Foundation and many others have always said that increasing the provision of social housing is vital.

So, I am pleased that, as part of the regeneration of Porthcawl, including shops and restaurants that you visited with us over the summer, community parks and toilets, a new primary school—it's a long list—I'm really pleased that, with the help of Welsh Government and Bridgend County Borough Council, land has been secured to ensure that, as part of the planned housing development, there'll be low-carbon housing, up to half of which will be singled out to be affordable, and social housing will be prioritised.

So, Minister, will you join with me in also welcoming this opportunity to reduce pressure on our social housing waiting lists, increase opportunities for young and new home owners to remain in Porthcawl near their families if they would like to, as well as help us meet all of our low-carbon social homes targets for Wales? Diolch. 

Thank you very much, Sarah. I'm absolutely delighted to join you in welcoming the opportunity. Our priority is to deliver more truly affordable homes within the social sector and to deliver 20,000 additional social homes for rent. Working with partners in Bridgend County Borough Council, we're currently seeking a master planning consultancy to design the redevelopment of the wider Porthcawl area in public sector ownership. It really is a very exciting opportunity to deliver significant benefits to the community of Porthcawl. We had a very nice visit there, as I recollect, which I really enjoyed. We acquired the land just after that visit, actually, in 2023 to advance the use for housing. Working with the council, the aim is to obtain a planning permission in 2025 to deliver a mixed-use residential development, which will be around 900 dwellings, with 50 per cent of them being social and affordable. It's ambitious and challenging—we make no apology for that. We will work very closely with the council to make sure that the social housing is prioritised. We've allocated record levels of funding to the social housing grant to achieve this right across Wales, doubling the budget from 2020-21 to £300 million in 2022-23 and to £330 million in the current year, including £30 million for the transitional accommodation programme, and £325 million in 2024-25.

The latest statistical releases show that additional affordable housing of 3,369 affordable units was delivered across Wales, which is a 26 per cent increase on the previous year and the second highest total since the data was first recorded. So, I'm delighted that Bridgend will play a very pivotal part in achieving that target, and I think, actually, in regenerative language, if you like, the whole development is a really good example of what a mixed-use, including residential, development can do to completely transform an area and give local people the very high-quality housing that they both need and deserve, so I'm delighted to welcome that. 

14:10

It's great to know about Bridgend; it is on the right track. Minister, Wales is in a housing crisis, with some 100,000 homes completely vacant. Your Government has consistently failed to meet house building targets, currently building less than half the amount of houses needed. You have recently cut £19 million from the empty homes scheme, mounting further pressure on councils to use hotels for temporary accommodation. Concerns have also been raised about the unintended consequences of a vacant land tax, which could hinder new developments. So, Minister, what action will you take to incentivise house building and to bring empty homes back into use to provide people in Wales with homes they desperately need? 

Well, I just simply don't recognise that characterisation. We exceeded our target by a considerable proportion at the end of the last Senedd term, and I've literally just read you the statistics showing us on target for this term, so I just—. Well, I mean it's just, basically, not fact based, what you've just said. So, I'll just read it to you again: the latest statistical release to show progress towards the 20,000 homes target was published on 7 November. The key statistic is that in 2022-23, 3,369 additional affordable housing units were delivered across Wales. This is a 26 per cent increase—693 units—on the previous year and the second highest total since data was ever recorded, which was in 2007-08. I think those facts speak for themselves, Llywydd.

Retrofitting in Social Housing

5. What is the Welsh Government doing to deliver retrofitting in social housing? OQ60534

Thank you very much, Jayne Bryant. The challenge to retrofit Welsh social homes is vast. We are supporting social housing landlords to understand their stock and the retrofit requirements to help us achieve the ambitious Welsh housing quality standard with programmes such as the optimised retrofit programme, through which £190 million has been allocated to date.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Housing associations across Wales are taking innovative action to tackle the climate emergency, including Pobl, Linc Cymru and Newport City Homes in my constituency. Whilst carbon savings are very welcome, I want to focus on the health and well-being benefits of those measures. The current cold temperatures and cost of energy bills once again highlight the importance of heated, well-insulated homes. Increasing the number of retrofitted homes across Wales will undoubtedly improve public health, yet not all residents are aware of the health benefits of retrofitting or what exactly the process might involve. The short-term disruption of building work can also be a deterrent for people offered work by their housing provider. Minister, what more can be done to engage residents in the decision-making process for retrofitting their homes, helping them to understand and take advantage of available support?

It's an excellent question, Jayne. The underlying principle of both the Welsh quality housing standard and the optimised retrofit programme is to deliver improved social, economic and well-being outcomes for tenants and for their whole communities. We actively engage with and encourage social landlords to undertake clear, targeted stakeholder engagement to outline the benefits and successes of the retrofit work to date. The idea is that the social landlords, who we fund and who have selections of housing that they can look at, will be able to tech and test exactly what you've just said—how long does this take, what's the outcome, what is the disruption and how can we minimise it—with a view to, through the Warm Homes energy hub, giving advice out to people in other sectors for how to go about that and what the programmes are. And in answering Jenny Rathbone earlier, I spoke a little bit about the ECO programmes and the boiler replacement programme from the British Government, which we signpost through our Warm Homes scheme. Unfortunately, because of the way the programme works, I haven't been able to announce it yet, but I am hoping very shortly to announce the outcome of the new Warm Homes programme procurement. The websites are active already, to give that information. The information is real and practical, because it's coming out of the optimised retrofit programme, which has literally tested it out on homes and then on people living in those homes, to make sure that what's claimed for the tech actually comes out the other side.

We also pick up tech from the innovative housing programme, which has been running for seven years now, so that we are able to recommend to people things that we know work. We've tested these out; some products didn't do what they said, other products have been fantastic and we're able to roll those out. We're also able to roll them out into our new build programme, so that when we build our new housing, it is low carbon, highly energy efficient and brings all the health benefits.

Llywydd, if you don't mind indulging me for one second, I will say that I did meet a lady in Ammanford in Adam Price's constituency, actually, who had recently moved into one of the new low-carbon homes. Her son had been using inhalers for his asthma in very large quantities for a very long time. When I met her, she'd lived in that new social home for about four months and her son wasn't using an inhaler at all. So, that is the evidence of what happens if you live in a well-heated, well-insulated home. It has massive health and social benefits, as well as the energy efficiency and money benefits that it brings.

14:15

Minister, no-one can doubt that we need to make our social homes more sustainable and not just our social homes but our private homes as well, to make them carbon neutral, to make our homes warmer and to keep energy bills low for the people who live in them. Many of the social homes in my constituency are also in the national park and within conservation areas. These areas have very, very strict planning laws when it comes to altering external windows, external insulation and other energy efficiency measures. So, can you outline today, Minister, how you work with national parks and within conservation areas to make sure that everybody can benefit from the schemes that the Welsh Government is providing?

Yes. It's an excellent question, because what we need to be able to do is find a solution for every type of house that we have in Wales, and that's very much what we've been trying to do. So, there's no point in a one-size-fits-all approach; we have seen the outcome of that. So, with the last iteration of the Welsh housing quality standard, for example, most homes, the vast majority of them—well up into the 90 per cent—have benefited from that, but there was a percentage of them that experienced really bad condensation and so on, because the one-size-fits-all approach just didn't match the kind of home that they had and wouldn't have worked in a conservation area, for example. So, the point of the ORP programme is to take every kind of house that we have and test out what can be done, working with our national parks and our planning authorities, for what is allowable, and to do it in a way that becomes a practical piece of advice for people who live in other tenures who can access it. 

I've also been working with the Development Bank of Wales for some time to figure out a way that we can do a decent loans programme and, as I said in answer to Jenny Rathbone, also talking to some of the renewable generators across Wales about how their community asset programme—'community benefit programme', I should say, not 'asset programme'—could be used to help people understand what retrofit needs they have, particularly in areas like that, so that we can get a bespoke solution for each of those people. And in addition, what the optimised retrofit programme does is it skills a workforce that can do it, because even if you know what the solution is, it can be hard to find somebody who can actually do it. So, I'm very keen that the optimised retrofit programme produces a skilled workforce as well as the tech solutions that would help people in houses such as those.

Water Quality

6. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to improve water quality in Preseli Pembrokeshire? OQ60499

Thank you for the question, Paul Davies. Preseli Pembrokeshire is home to 14 designated bathing waters, all achieving the highest classification of 'excellent'. It is also home to the Cleddau, a special area of conservation river known for its array of wildlife. Our approach focuses on multisector co-operation and nature-based solutions to improve water quality across the catchment.

Thank you for that response, Minister, and for the information that you've provided to me in correspondence this morning on the issues around the Cardigan waste water treatment works. Now, residents across Preseli Pembrokeshire continue to raise water pollution incidents and discharges from combined sewer overflows, highlighting the impact on the environment, but also the safety of water users. I know that there has been some investment from Dŵr Cymru in parts of my constituency, and there are projects that will be taking place over the next few months, which is, of course, welcome. But can you tell us what support the Welsh Government is offering to help expedite any improvement work in Pembrokeshire? And can you also tell us how the Welsh Government and, indeed, Natural Resources Wales are monitoring this work and holding Dŵr Cymru to account?

14:20

Thank you very much. It's a very good question, and the answer is a little bit complex, because it involves us engaging all sectors that have a role to play. We've been doing that for some considerable time. I hope Paul Davies has noticed the Teifi demonstrator project that's happening. That is a very good example of the complexity of what we're trying to deal with, but also the solution-based outcomes we're looking at. That is a source-to-sea project on a river that engages all of the landowners all the way along, and all of the players, including the water companies, the agricultural landowners and other landowners, house builders, et cetera, to find a bespoke solution for each part of the river. The river has had to have some re-meandering as it's called, a great term, where hard old flood prevention measures have actually, we know now, narrowed the river and increased its flow and a number of things—and not just the Teifi, I'm talking more generally about rivers across Wales. It's pleasing to see such strong engagement from representatives from across a variety of sectors in getting to grips with that project, because what we're trying to do is figure out what works in a very practical way.

I do think it's important and I absolutely welcome the public scrutiny on this. It is something that we really need to have, and we need to have our feet held to the collective fire, if you like—if that's not a bad analogy for water—to make this happen. But I also think it's important to get the facts across. So, 98 per cent of designated bathing waters across Wales met the most stringent bathing water quality standards. In Preseli Pembrokeshire, all 14 bathing waters received the 'excellent' classification. That doesn't mean we couldn't even do better than that, because there have been discharges, as you say. But I just want to reassure people that it is safe to bathe in Preseli Pembrokeshire. You know very well, Paul, that's one of my favourite things to do, so I'm very personally invested in being able to do that. It's my absolute favourite spot, if I can manage to get a break, to sea bathe. It's fantastic, isn't it, to be able to do that.

But we are absolutely determined to work with all stakeholders across Wales to make sure that all of our SAC rivers get back into good conservation status by bringing to bear all of the levers that each sector of that complex web of people can do. The call has been, and people have answered it magnificently, not to point the finger at other sectors, but to see what your sector can do to contribute to this. So, the water company to see what it can do, farmers and the agricultural sector to see what they can do, house builders to see what they can do, everyone to play their part in making sure that their own industry and their contribution to water pollution is minimised and then turned around. I think we've got a very good process under way and, with any luck and the commitment that everyone has shown, the action plan will work and we will get that sorted. The Teifi will be an excellent demonstrator of how that works.

Availability of Social Housing

7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to increase the availability of social housing in Cynon Valley? OQ60497

Thank you for the question, Vikki Howells. This Government remains committed to delivering 20,000 homes for rent in the social sector this Senedd term. To support this commitment, record levels of funding have been provided through the social housing grant. Rhondda Cynon Taf has been allocated nearly £20 million, actually £19,975,226 to be precise, for social housing in 2023-24.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Trivallis housing association gave 10 RCT families an early Christmas present last year, presenting them with keys to newly renovated family homes. These empty properties had been brought back into use through the transitional accommodation capital programme, transforming these families' lives, but also improving communities by bringing derelict properties back into use. I know Trivallis are keen to scale up this work, so whilst appreciating the pressures upon Government finances, I'd be keen to know how Welsh Government is working with social landlords, councils and other partners to bring specifically empty properties back to life and provide warm, safe, quality homes.

Thank you very much for that question. It’s a really excellent one and it’s been great to see the Trivallis programme running out. As you rightly said, it’s part of the transitional accommodation capital programme that we established in 2022. The TACP programme, as it’s called—we love an acronym in the Welsh Government—provides funding to social landlords for a wide range of projects to deliver more homes at pace, and that includes, as you rightly say, Vikki, bringing void properties back into use. During the 2022-23 financial year, the programme provided funding to bring 374 voids, as they’re called, or empty properties, back into use to provide better quality, longer term accommodation for those currently living in poor-quality temporary accommodation. Applications to bring voids back into use are again being supported in this year, 2023-24. We work extensively with local authorities and registered social landlords to share good practice in relation to TACP, including the use of voids, and to support them to maximise available funding to bring forward good-quality homes at pace.

There are a number of other measures and funding packages in place to reduce the number of long-term empty homes in Wales. There’s £30 million, as I’ve said a couple of times in answer to other Members this afternoon, over the next five years for the leasing scheme Wales programme to support improvements to accommodation to bring them into the scheme, and an investment of £50 million is being made available to bring up to 2,000 long-term empty properties back into use through our empty homes grant scheme. The funding will accelerate our work to bring empty properties back into use and to complement our existing schemes. It does include nearly £43 million of recyclable funding we’ve provided to local authorities to enable them to provide interest-free property loans for landlords and home owners, for home improvements or to renovate empty properties and bring them back into use. Those loans have been used to bring around 1,850 units into use from empty properties across Wales and to improve around 1,700 occupied homes, which have now been brought up to standard.

And again, Llywydd, if you’ll indulge me for one second, I did meet a member of the public who’d taken advantage of those loans in your area, Vikki, a couple of years ago—I know you know the home owner in question—and not only had they got a home for themselves, but the entire street was lifted by it, and there was a real community feel to this empty home coming back into use, and taking away a blight on the street and replacing it with a lovely young family that had brought vibrancy to the community, and it was a joy to see. So, it really does work both for communities and for homes.

14:25
The TrawsCymru Bus Services

We continue to invest heavily in our TrawsCymru strategic bus network and we have funded new services, including cleaner, newer buses, simplified and more affordable ticketing and improved frequencies.

I thank the Deputy Minister for that response. The Deputy Minister, I’m sure, will be aware that I’ve been raising the case of the T2 and T3 services regularly. In the case of the T2, Garndolbenmaen has lost a very valued service, and students across that route going to educational institutions in Dolgellau. In the case of the T3, we’ve seen places like Llanuwchllyn and Llandderfel losing out on a crucial connection for the people in the communities there. Now, in looking at your document, 'National Transport Delivery Plan 2022 to 2027', under 'What we will deliver—Bus' on page 59, and I quote in English, it says:

'Strategic approach to service design.... We will also consult on any future changes, with local authorities, and user groups before making major changes.'

Well, users of the T2 and T3 believe that those are major changes to the service, but there was no consultation whatsoever with bus users, people in the local community, or anyone else about these changes. So, can I ask you whether it’s right that Transport for Wales did not consult with bus users and those communities, and will you look again to ensure that the communities of Garndolbenmaen, Llanuwchllyn, Llandderfel and others do get that full service that they need?

Well, can I just first of all apologise to the people of Garndolbenmaen for the interruption that there has been in their bus service? TfW were working with Gwynedd Council for some two years, planning on changes to the network to provide better coverage, in fact, on the corridor between Caernarfon and Blaenau Ffestiniog. It was decided to supplement the T2 with another service, the T22, which will in fact operate from the village and offer some similar journey times. Now, unfortunately, Gwynedd Council had real difficulty getting the operation up and running because the electric vehicles that were needed couldn’t be mobilised in time and the charging stations couldn't be got online. As a result of that, there's been a slight delay in the new T22 service coming online. In the meantime, the council had provided alternatives. I'm pleased to say that the new T22 will come into service on 12 February and will serve Garndolbenmaen on six return journeys a day between Caernarfon, Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog. It will also enhance the frequency on the common sections of the route between Caernarfon and Porthmadog to hourly. So, there have been some hiccups there, for which I do apologise. I hope people understand why that has happened. We have worked very closely with the council. I think it will produce a much better overall service for passengers and, hopefully, increase passenger numbers.

14:30
2. Questions to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language

We now move to item 2, questions to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language. The first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders.

School Students with Additional Learning Needs

1. What steps is the Minister taking to support school students with additional learning needs? OQ60508

I'm deeply committed to delivering the ALN reforms that aim to enable learners with additional learning needs to have the right support and opportunity to reach their potential. That's why I have significantly increased ALN funding and protected this investment in the draft budget.

Thank you. You’ll recall that, last year, last summer, I raised the fact that my colleague shadow Minister Laura Anne Jones had accompanied me to Ysgol San Siôr, and they’re not the only school that have raised with me their concerns about there not being enough money for this ALN agenda.

The additional learning needs resource budget allocation has been slashed by 86 per cent from £25 million to £3.5 million. Simultaneously, in Conwy county, schools are having to continue operating despite the current year’s education budget being slashed by 5 per cent, a likely further cut in the education budget for 2024-25, and the local authority cabinet recently deciding to charge cash-strapped schools interest on bridging loans.

Our hard-working teachers in Aberconwy are being left with fewer resources to support children with ALN. Thanks to Senedd scrutiny here by these benches, we know the pressures facing our schools in delivering the new ALN system. So, what impact, as the Minister—and, indeed, as the leader-in-waiting, perhaps—do you think cuts to school budgets will have on the ability of schools to transition effectively from special educational needs to the new ALN system? Diolch.

Teachers in her constituency will want to know that she has misread the Government’s draft budget. As I made clear in my opening response, we have in fact increased in previous years and protected in this budget the ALN investment. That is the actual position. Her point is misrepresenting the budget in that respect and I hope that she will accept that.

She makes a fair point about the pressures in schools in relation to the transition to the new additional learning needs reforms. You could even say that now is the point of maximum pressure, because schools are operating two systems: the new reforms that are coming in and the older reforms for older children. So, it is a time of pressure and there are young children presenting in schools with increasingly complex needs. That is why it’s been so important to be increasing the budget to facilitate the reforms over recent years, and that’s why it has been so important to protect that in this year’s budget.

She will know as well that we are undertaking a review of the approaches taken across Wales to allocating additional learning needs funding to schools. There is a level of variation between local authorities. You’d expect to see some variation, but we want to understand quite why that variation exists. I’ll be happy to share the conclusions of that review with the Chamber in due course.

Minister, Mark Isherwood and I have previously raised the holiday club support at Ysgol Pen Coch in Flintshire in questions to you here in the Senedd, and I was grateful for your intervention. It was an intervention that made a real difference to the students. Can I also thank the school, the parents at the school, Flintshire County Council and colleagues in the Welsh Government too for the innovative way in which they found a solution? It did make a real difference to the well-being of the students, I must say. 

Minister, I'm seeking your support once again to ask that Welsh Government officials do have a further conversation with Flintshire colleagues and relevant stakeholders so that they can enable the school to have a year-round support hub and provide that year-round support for the students with those needs. Therefore, can I ask you to engage your officials, and ask them to speak with the council, speak with the relevant stakeholders, to discuss this further? It's an ambition shared by all colleagues who represent the Flintshire authority here in the Senedd. Diolch.

14:35

I thank Jack Sargeant for that supplementary question. He has, of course, raised Ysgol Pen Coch with me previously, and I'm glad that that opportunity created some ability to engage with the school in relation to the provision. I think he's right to say that the solution that they discovered was innovative. It's really important, isn't it, to try and find innovative approaches to all sorts of provision, right across Wales, and that can be an example to others as well. I'll be very happy to ask my officials to facilitate a further meeting between Ysgol Pen Coch and Flintshire County Council, to understand their position and any potential plans for a year-round support hub.

Teaching Assistants

2. What is the Welsh Government doing to support teaching assistants in schools? OQ60498

We are committed to continuing to enable teaching assistants to improve their skills and to help them to engage with professional learning. We are working closely with our partners to facilitate clearer learning pathways, including pathways to achieve the status of higher level teaching assistant.

I thank the Minister for his answer. We had a long discussion about this in committee this morning, about teaching assistants. But a lot of the teaching assistants who I speak to—. They are vital in delivering the new Curriculum for Wales, but a lot of them do say they don't get enough training on delivery of the curriculum or upskilling themselves to be able to help the teachers in the classroom. So, I'd be interested to know what the Welsh Government is doing to upskill our teaching assistants in the classroom, and educate them on the new curriculum and how they can best deliver that to the pupils in our classrooms.

I thank James Evans for that question. We did have, I thought, a very productive discussion in the committee this morning in relation to this. He will recall that I outlined to him how important this is to me. Can I also take the opportunity of thanking Unison, who presented me recently with the response to their survey, which sought to take the views of teaching assistants in relation to training generally, but training in relation to the curriculum specifically? As I mentioned this morning, we have introduced the new national entitlement to professional learning, which is an entitlement that teaching assistants have, as teachers have. That's probably a year in now, and there have been high levels of engagement with it, but we obviously want to promote that even further, in particular to teaching assistants. He will also be aware of the teaching assistant learning pathway, which is designed to support the professional learning of all teaching assistants, and he will know of the investment that we make every year into that pathway.

In my discussions with teaching assistants and their representatives in relation to this, what has emerged is that the training that is available to professionals generally in relation to the curriculum is often targeted at and communicated to teachers but not to teaching assistants. So, in those discussions, I've already committed to looking again at how we promote, sometimes how we describe, the resources that are available, so that they are readily identifiable by teaching assistants as being something that they will benefit from as well as teachers. So, there are practical things that we can do in that way, and we have also been discussing how much more we can do to make sure that INSET days are deployed to provide training for teaching assistants alongside teachers. There is some good practice, but there is more that we can do. We can support schools to roll that out further, and I think that would be a very important priority.

Minister, teaching assistants, as we know, play a really important role in schools, and we also know that they often form very close relationships with children, often working with them on a one-to-one basis, which is crucial. Lots of teaching assistants tell me they absolutely love their jobs—working hard every day to improve the lives of our young people in Wales. Everyone agrees that they are valued as an integral part of the school workforce, and an important role as part of a high-quality education profession. Teaching assistants have long been highlighting concerns in relation to their roles in schools, though, so I'm pleased that, as part of the Welsh Government's social partnership approach, their concerns are currently being considered by a group made up of Welsh Government officials, local authorities, who employ teaching assistants, and education trade unions. I know, for example, that GMB and Unison—and I'm a member of both of those trade unions—have played a big part in this work. As you've identified, knowing your rights, Minister, and knowing the terms and conditions and your entitlements is crucial. You've launched this Hwb website, and I was wondering if you could give us an update on how that social partnership work is going, and also the engagement that you've had through that information on Hwb.

I thank Sarah Murphy for that question. Can I actually echo the point that she made about how central teaching assistants are to the provision of education in our schools? They do incredible work. When I became Minister, I met early on with groups of teaching assistants, via both Unison and GMB, to discuss with them their first-hand experiences, and some of the concerns that, as Sarah Murphy said, they'd been sharing for some time. From those meetings, we developed a broad-based work programme to try and move forward some of the issues that they had been flagging, as I say, for some time.

There's a piece of work that has been led very substantially by teaching assistants themselves, working with heads, on job roles, to try and move to a position where there's a more common set of job roles across the 22 authorities in Wales. I thank the authorities that have engaged with them in that process as well. But alongside that, there's work on guidance in relation to deployment, guidance in relation to professional learning, a representation or a voice for teaching assistants on the governing bodies of schools, and I think, in each of these areas, we've been able to make quite substantial progress.

We had a meeting only yesterday of the social partners to discuss the progress, in particular, that had been done in relation to job roles, and I think it was, if I may say, an exemplar illustration of how you can make real strides forward to try to resolve some of these challenges when you're able to work in that open, collaborative, respectful way that social partnership provides. I look forward to completing this comprehensive work programme in the same way. 

14:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Laura Anne Jones. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, I recently read your piece in LabourList—a first for me, I must admit. But it had an interesting quote:

'Over time the funding spent on schools will increase as a percentage of the Welsh Government's budget. In fact, actually it builds on the work that I've already been doing.'

Minister, I did a double take when I read your quote. Was that just an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of your own Labour members or your failure in office? I would love to know what this work is that you're building on, because it sure isn't an increase in funding. The facts are clear: you have cut the education budget this year in cash terms by £56 million. In real terms, that represents a £140 million reduction, and this on top of a cash and real-terms cut last year.

Mark Drakeford as First Minister has failed to prioritise education, just like his predecessors. Will you now, on record, say that, if you were First Minister, you would, at the very least, drop these pet projects of blanket 20 mph and hundreds of millions of pounds spent on more politicians, and plough that money where it is needed, in our children's education in Wales?

Might I suggest the Member focus her scrutiny efforts on my current role as education Minister? Might I also suggest that she reads rather more closely what she’s been finding in LabourList? But I’m sure LabourList will be very pleased to hear the extent of their reach.

As she will know from the discussions we’ve had in the committee and elsewhere, the Government has protected, in the Welsh Government budget, the sums that go to schools, both in the very difficult set of choices that we had to make in relation to in-year reductions last year, and in relation to the choices we’ve had to make to deal with the pressures in the 2024-25 budget. She will know that the grants we pay to schools have retained their value in both of those years. Indeed, the approach that we are taking now, which is to make those grants more flexible, more easily deployed by schools, is intended to make them even more valuable, and put trust in the hands of local authorities and teachers about how best to reach the outcomes that we have as shared priorities with them.

Minister, on the back of consecutive years of education budget cuts, it is clear that you’re now trying to claim that there is extra money going into education via local government budgets. But the reality is that councils such as the Labour-run Monmouthshire, for example, are actually proposing to cut their education budget to the tune of nearly £1 million. We see similar cuts from Caerphilly County Borough Council and other councils across Wales. Your words simply don’t match the reality on the ground. The money that has been diverted to the local government budget, and promised to schools by you, is simply just going to plug the gaps from council cuts, which means there is absolutely no guarantee that money will get where it’s urgently needed in our schools. Minister, you claim there is an increase in funding to education. With the cuts at Senedd and council level, how will this equate to an increase in funding?

I actually said that schools grants had been preserved, rather than increased, so let’s have some regard to what I actually said in response to your earlier questions. The truth is councils right across Wales, heads right across Wales, managing difficult budgets, will know what is at the heart of that, and it is the fact that we have a Conservative Government in Westminster handing out austerity budgets to us in Wales and other parts of the UK. They understand very well what is at the heart of this challenge. [Interruption.] There is no pulling the wool—there is no pulling the wool—over their eyes in the way that the Member is seeking to do. And she will know very well that, day in, day out, teachers are doing their best to manage very challenging budgets, and I commend them for that in very difficult circumstances. What we need is a Labour Government in Westminster prepared to invest in public services, as we do here in Wales.

14:45

Yet, Minister, education standards have gone up in England significantly, haven't they, yet they've gone down in Wales, and the rest of the UK have all gone up, apart from Wales. Your time as education Minister can only be characterised by one word: failure. You now enter a leadership campaign promising the world, like in LabourList—I'll name-check them again—but, in reality, you have failed the next generation at every turn. Minister, I once again found myself perplexed by reading your leadership bid comments. You said, and I quote, 

'Under my leadership, we will have unapologetically high expectations in education'.

And this is coming from a man who's presided over Wales's worst ever PISA results, the worst educational outcomes in the UK on record. Minister, this Labour Government has refused to apologise for decades of failure in education, which has put Wales on the bottom of every education league table. And, to make matters worse, you refuse to set a target for the next set of PISA results in three years' time, or even the one after, to be held accountable against. Minister, you risk our children and young people's future by failing to tackle the teacher recruitment crisis; you have failed to end violence in schools, in fact, letting it spiral out of control; you have failed ALN students by refusing to meet their demands, those that are deaf, those who have sight problems, those with speech and language issues, who are simply not getting what they need, and you know it. You have piled directive after directive, pressure after pressure on our teachers, on our schools, and have not followed it with the money to deliver. This may be your last education Minister questions. Can you, on record, say that you are genuinely proud of your record in office? Will you, as one of your potentially last acts as education Minister, finally commit to setting a target for the next set of PISA results, as part of your commitment to unapologetically high standards, and show some actual ambition to try and drag Wales up to at least the level of the rest of the UK, if not, hopefully, above?

Well, by the looks of the benches behind the Member, the fact that she's reading my speeches with quite such detail isn't doing her own leadership ambitions any good at all [Laughter.] She, as always, makes the comparison between Wales and England. England, Conservative England, in which schools are crumbling—in which schools are crumbling—which saw seven days lost to strikes last year, which has education spending lower than it is in Wales, which has the unit rate of free school meals lower than it is for Wales, which has—  

I allowed the Member to have a very long time to ask her question. I now need the Minister to be heard in his answer. Thank you, Minister.  

Llywydd, I'll begin again, if I may, because I don't think the benches opposite heard this: school buildings crumbling in England compared to Wales; strikes in England in schools for seven days, compared to two days in Wales; education spending lower in England than it is in Wales—[Interruption.]—absolutely; support for students lower in England than it is for Wales. In any of these measures, I would be embarrassed to be highlighting Conservative England to us as an example in Wales. 

Thank you, Llywydd. The Welsh Government’s draft budget will make significant cuts to post-16 education, with some of the most prominent cuts to education being in funding for postgraduate studies. There is no doubt that moving to a loan-only system for postgraduate students will increase levels of inequality in terms of access to higher education, especially given that students have been hit extremely hard by the cost-of-living crisis. NUS Wales has heard from a number of postgraduate students in Wales who say that they would not have been able to undertake their studies if it were not for the grant element of their financial support. For example, one student at Cardiff University, who’s a single parent, said that she would not be able to study and keep a roof over her child’s head without the grant. This student returned to university to reskill for a career in heritage, something that Wales, as a second-chance nation, should celebrate and encourage. I know that you agree that education can transform lives and help eradicate poverty across generations. So, how are you going to mitigate the impact of this on our brightest students who come from the most disadvantaged backgrounds? And do you accept that these cuts will increase socioeconomic inequality in terms of access to higher education?

14:50

Well, these decisions are exceptionally difficult, and the challenge raised by the Member is fair. They are not easy decisions to make. The choice we have as Ministers is how we can use the scarce resources that we have and what will have the most positive, progressive impact in enhancing equality, prosperity and well-being within our communities, and the choice that I had to make in this context was to consider whether we would continue to provide grants to a relatively limited group of people at the end of an academic journey or whether we would use those funds to ensure that every child in every school in Wales gets the support that they need for those core skills.

And on the point that the Member makes in terms of ensuring that we have an equal society, providing every opportunity for individuals to prosper, we know from evidence that the earlier in the education journey that you spend that money, the more positive the impact will be over the course of one's life. So, that is what's at the core of the decision that I've had to make to prioritise the pre-16 sector and use some of the postgraduate grant funding in order to do that. We still offer the most supportive system in Wales in supporting first-time graduates, and we're very pleased to be doing that. 

Thank you. Of course, those higher skills and the need to reskill is something that closes the equality gap in terms of wages and attainment, and also as regards our economy as well. And the Government's own analysis shows that the cuts to postgraduate grants and bursaries will have a disproportionate impact on specific groups within society. For example, women who want to study STEMM subjects and also Welsh speakers. One student who is pursuing an MSc course at Aberystwyth, for example, said that she would not have been able to meet basic living costs without the bursary from the Welsh Government.

Master's courses provide those advanced skills that are essential to the development of those fields or institutions and, as I said, our economy, through innovation and research. And the removal of those bursaries that support postgraduate studies taught through the medium of Welsh also undermines the urgent need to ensure Welsh language skills among those who lead within our workforces. Do you accept that, by introducing these cuts, the Government is likely to widen the gender pay gap and undermine the goal, perhaps, in the 'Cymraeg 2050' action plan to develop the Welsh-medium workforce, because if we don't support Welsh-medium postgraduate students, who is going to develop the necessary resources and technology that we need to increase the number of Welsh speakers, increase the use of the Welsh language and create favourable conditions for the Welsh language?

I understand why the Member asks the question, but I don't agree that that's the impact of this. These bursaries are important, but they are in addition to a student support system that is among the most generous of any part of the UK. So, that's an important consideration here. This is additional funding on top of a system that is already very supportive and reaches a small number of people. So, just as I had to make a decision in terms of moving from grants to loans for postgraduates, it's the same thinking that's behind this. 

She asked the question as to whether this will have a disproportionate impact. Well, it will if you look at this particular source of funding, but my argument would be that if you do not prioritise those earlier years, then that will have an even more disproportionate impact. And therefore, given the challenge that we face and the process that we have of balancing the impact of one cut against another, my decision is to ensure that we prioritise school years, because we do know just how important they are in providing opportunities later in life to people generally. 

The Creative Arts

3. How is the Welsh Government supporting school children to engage in the creative arts? OQ60533

The expectation of the Curriculum for Wales is that all learners develop their creativity, and expressive arts is one of the six mandatory areas. Both the Creative Learning through the Arts programme and the National Music Service give learners important opportunities to engage in the creative arts.

14:55

Diolch, Weinidog. As the chair of the Senedd's cross-party group on arts and health, I'm keen to raise awareness of the benefits that the arts can bring to health and well-being. That's, of course, for all ages, including children and young people. On a recent visit to the amazing Ballet Cymru, who are based in my constituency, I heard about their Duets programme. A unique scholarship programme, Duets is specifically designed to identify talent and open up progression pathways for young people who would not usually have that opportunity to access and engage with dance. The programme is delivered in partnership with primary schools, community dance organisations and freelance professionals. Ballet Cymru are now looking to expand the programme to more schools, supporting more young people to get involved in the creative industries. Minister, would you accept an invitation to visit a school delivering the Duets programme with Ballet Cymru and me so that you can see for yourself the brilliant work that they do with young people through the Duets programme?

Well, can I thank the Member for the work that she has done—and has done for, I think, the entirety of her time in the Senedd—to promote the benefits of arts in health? It's an interest and a commitment that I share with her. It's great to hear about her visit to Ballet Cymru, and the Duets programme in particular, and I would be more than happy to visit Ballet Cymru with her and see the excellent work that they are doing with young people.

Minister, National Theatre Wales plays a pivotal role in getting schoolchildren involved in theatre and the arts, which is an incredibly important sector. Some of the work that they do engage in with young people includes workshops, performance opportunities and projects within schools and universities. The overarching aim of this is to give young people opportunities to grow their confidence and to explore a future in the theatre or the arts sector—incredibly important work, as I'm sure you'll agree, Minister. However, National Theatre Wales has had its funding axed by 100 per cent and, as a result, there have been stark warnings that it will not be able to survive beyond April 2024. Minister, what assessment has the Welsh Government made about the impact that these cuts will have on schoolchildren accessing the creative arts and what will the Welsh Government be doing to bridge this gap? So, Minister, out of interest, do you support—? My apologies; that's it. [Laughter.]

I know that the Deputy Minister will have considered very, very carefully all the implications of the challenging budget settlement, including the effects on the national theatre. There are many, many ways in which our young people are able to access a range of creative experiences both in theatre and, indeed, in other media—we just heard of an important contribution that Jayne Bryant was telling us about—and I think it's really important that schools are able to take advantage of a range of organisations and the services and facilities they provide, and it's really important from the perspective of access to experiences that, actually, many young people wouldn't otherwise have—so, a general benefit in terms of access to creativity and to learning, but that specific benefit of having the opportunity to be in a live theatre setting or a live music setting. Many of us will have taken that for granted over the years; I don't think we should. Many young people don't otherwise have access to those, so I'd like to thank all the organisations that support schools to do that.

Education Cuts

4. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the education cuts set out in the Government's draft budget don't disproportionately impact the most vulnerable children? OQ60500

Supporting our most vulnerable learners and tackling the impacts of poverty on attainment is central to our national mission. Our draft budget seeks to protect funding for schools and for programmes like the pupil development grant, ensuring support is available to those who need it most.

Thank you for that response, Minister. You know better than anyone in this Senedd the impact that serious cuts to the budget will have. Following the cuts to your own budget, there is concern now about funding additional learning need. As there is talk of grants shifting to the broader grants budget pot, I have heard concern that cuts to these important grants in ALN will have an impact. Laura Anne Jones and Peredur Owen Griffiths raised this with the Minister for Finance and Local Government before Christmas. Indeed, Peredur Owen Griffiths raised the old trick of hiding cuts by moving to a larger pot so that administrative costs are cut. Minister, can you give us a pledge that there won't be cuts to the additional learning need grants that are so important to children and families?

15:00

Well, I will take the opportunity to state again that there is no cut to that budget.

Following on from that same theme, actually, and I won't rehearse everything Rhys said—. Basically, whilst we know—. The perceived £22.1 million, which was the perceived ALN cut, has now entered the reformed local authority education grant, and it's in theory to support ALN. With that in mind, Minister, can we be reassured, building on what Rhys said, that that £22.1 million dedicated to ALN as we knew it won't be lost within that reformed grant and diverted from its original purpose, to help those young people who have ALN? Is it your expectation that local authorities use all of that resource to implement your legislative changes? I'm just conscious of the pressure councils are going to be facing, as they have to potentially mobilise resources from many other sources. It's so important that that ALN allocation, wherever it sits, is used for its purpose.

Yes, I'm certain it will be used for its purpose and I know that in a previous life I'm sure he would have welcomed the partnership approach and the collaborative approach that underpin the changes that we're making to these grants, so that we can work with authorities to deliver the outcomes that we both have in common as priorities. As I've said in my responses to many questions today, over £53.6 million is protected in the draft budget for next year, and I'm glad that that's the case. It's a very important priority for the Government. We've already discussed today the pressures on schools in relation to the reforms themselves. That's why protecting the budget and providing authorities the level of flexibility to deploy that, perhaps even more creatively or more innovatively than the current arrangements allow, is a really important way to focus on the outcomes that we are trying to achieve.

The pressures on budgets because of the deeply unsatisfactory settlement from the UK Government is intense right across the UK and right across Welsh Government in every department. But one of the big successes that we have had is the focus in recent years on making sure that those pupils in those communities that face the greatest disadvantage have the right measures put in place to protect them, so things such as the joint work with Plaid Cymru on things such as free school meals, but the free school breakfast as well, for primary schools; the school essentials grant; the rise in the educational maintenance allowance; the assistance with school uniforms—all of these things really matter to constituents in some of the most disadvantaged situations within my community. So, can I just get his assurance that even when faced with really difficult choices across budgets at the moment, he will work with local education authorities to make sure that we can continue to line up those measures that will give that hand up to pupils and to families who face the greatest challenges?

Yes, I will absolutely give that assurance to Huw Irranca-Davies. He makes very important points. If you look through the budget, despite horrendously difficult choices that we've had to make—and all Ministers have been in that situation—we've been able to protect the pupil development grant. We've been able to protect the school holiday enrichment programme. We've been able to protect the increased level of education maintenance allowance, as you were saying. We've been able to protect the increased level of the financial contingency fund, which further education colleges use to support learners who are eligible for free school meals. There have been other areas that have had to be cut in order to make these choices to protect these important elements in the budget, and I know, as he will, that our local authorities are doing all they can to try and find ways in which they themselves can protect the same cohort of learners, who will be having a very, very challenging time, and I give him the commitment that I will continue to work with our local authorities on that shared priority.

Question 5, Laura Anne Jones.

You have a question on the order paper, Laura Anne Jones—question 5.

I don't think you're ready to do your question. I'll move on and give somebody else the opportunity.

Question 5 [OQ60525] not asked.

15:05
Financial Support for Students

6. Will the Minister make a statement on future financial support for higher and further education students? OQ60518

Statutory student support remains available to eligible students commencing higher education in the academic year 2024-25. For younger learners in further education, we are maintaining our education maintenance allowance scheme at £40 per week and, for those over 19, our Welsh Government learning grant further education scheme at £1,500 a year.

I'm grateful to the Minister for that response and, of course, it is fundamental to people's ability to partake in education and post-16 education that there is financial support available for them, and that goes to the heart of making education available as a real choice for everybody, including the poorest and most vulnerable students in the country. Will the Minister make a commitment this afternoon that he will continue to ensure that this area is protected, that the level of the EMA, which he has protected, will continue to be protected, and that future financial support will continue to be available for students to enable everybody, not just the richest, but the poorest people, to benefit from education?

Yes, we're very pleased to have been able to increase the education maintenance allowance, and as he will know, I don't need to remind him, in other parts of the UK, Conservative England have abolished that a long time ago. So, I think it's a very important way in which we can remove that extra pressure on students after the age of 16. We were hearing very clearly from people that people were making the choice not to go on to college or stay on at college because they couldn't afford to do that. So, I'm very proud that we've been able to do that, and we will maintain that.

I mentioned earlier a number of other ways in which we have been supporting students in my answer to Huw Irranca-Davies, and alongside EMA, of course, we have the financial contingency fund, which colleges draw on to be able to provide that extra support to learners who need some financial support. It's really important, as he says, that we make a reality of that promise that we made to young people that cost shouldn't be a barrier to study, and shouldn't be a barrier to success, and it's one of many ways in which we've been able to do that through the education budget.

Minister, financial support for higher and further education students is not only vital, but is also an important tool to incentivise students to undertake studies that benefit the nation. For example, the bursaries provided to those studying a career in medicine can encourage students to enter the field. Minister, have you discussed with Cabinet colleagues the possibility of paying the tuition fees of all students who commit to serve in the Welsh NHS for a minimum of five years?

Well, as the Member will know, we already provide particular support for students who commit to serve in the NHS. We would always look at ways in which a joined-up approach across the Welsh Government's budget is able to meet our common ambitions, and I think the experience that we've had over the last few months of looking at very difficult budget choices has, I think, enabled Ministers to look very closely at that sense of 'one public sector, one public service', where funding in one area can support activity in another, and I think that is a very good way of proceeding.

Financial Pressures facing Schools

7. What assessment has the Minister made of the financial pressures facing schools in the forthcoming year? OQ60516

We recognise the cost-of-living crisis is putting schools under significant pressure and that there are no easy answers to resolving these issues. We've prioritised protecting core front-line public services, including schools, through protecting the indicative rise for the local government settlement and prioritising funding that goes directly to schools.

Thank you for that response, Minister.

Within Mid and West Wales, the picture is bleak. As of November last year, current deficits—26 schools in Powys had financial problems, with a cumulative deficit of £3.5 million by March 2024, with the figure projected to be £7.9 million by March 2027. As I mentioned last week, expanding eligibility for the pupil development grant is one way we could think of addressing this funding, by providing more direct funding to schools. If students eligible for free school meals could continue to receive PDG funding for six more years, even if they lost their eligibility for free school meals, it would more equitably address the growing schools' budget crisis. I know you are protecting the PDG as it is at the moment, and I'm well aware of the budget challenges to the Welsh Government, but I wondered if you would consider expanding the PDG eligibility to more equitably tackle the escalating school deficit dilemma. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

15:10

I thank Jane Dodds for that question. She will know from the discussions we've had in the Chamber today and previously that the challenge that the Government has faced has been to find the resources to meet our existing programmes of support and our existing commitments, and that in itself, in the punishing context of a reducing budget from the UK Government, has meant very, very challenging choices even to meet our existing commitments. So, whereas in ordinary times we would be looking for ways in which we can extend the support that we offer—PDG is one of those elements, but there are a range of others that I've listed in the Chamber today that we are making available through the education budget. In the current climate, it simply has not been possible to do more than meet the commitments that we already have, but we will always look for ways in which we can use the budget that we have to support those who need the most support, and I hope that she would recognise that, in many other ways, the education budget has been able to do that.

Changes to School Holidays

8. Will the Minister provide an update on plans for changes to school holidays in Wales? OQ60501

Proposals around the structure of the school year are subject to a public consultation that was published on 21 November last year and runs until 12 February this year.

Thank you for the update, Minister. I'm sure you will acknowledge that there are deep challenges with education in Wales, and, as Laura Anne Jones pointed out earlier, some of the most recent PISA results being further evidence of that. What that points to, in my view, is the life chances of children across Wales being damaged because of those poorer educational outcomes, and it's going to take a huge endeavour to turn this system around, but instead of using every bit of energy possible to turn this system around, what we are presented with is some tinkering, trying to change the school holidays. Looking to change school holidays to try and improve educational outcomes doesn't seem to stack up. We know that much better performing European nations, like the Republic of Ireland and Estonia, who have outstanding education results, have significantly longer summer holidays than we do in Wales, with Estonia having around three months of summer holidays. That continued attempt to diverge from holidays in England—and I know you've mentioned how you felt it was embarrassing to look at English results, even though they are far more successful in terms of results and a more equitable education system than here in Wales. So, I wonder, Minister, could you convince me that your choice to look to consider changing the school holidays is not just you trying to tinker with things, and how are you actually going to tackle the real issues that our schools are facing?

Well, actually, learning loss, which, as you know, refers to learners falling behind academically during school breaks, is actually more prevalent during the summer break compared to any other break, and there's a huge amount of evidence to do that. This is an education policy, and the focus that we have here is making sure that every young learner has the best possible education. There is clear evidence that the long summer break can be very challenging for many of our learners, including and in particular, perhaps, many from the least advantaged backgrounds. He tempts me once again to draw the comparison with England. Of the, I think, five or six authorities that have most recently moved to the model that the consultation document proposes, I think, from memory, that all but one of them are Conservative authorities. I assume they'd be persuaded, as we have, that there is merit in looking at this, because it supports their young people to get the best start in life.

3. Topical Questions

The next item will be topical questions. The first this afternoon will be answered by the Minister for Economy, and asked by Rhun ap Iorwerth.

The Gwynedd Shipping Company

1. Will the Minister make a statement on any discussions the Welsh Government has had in relation to the future of the Gwynedd Shipping company? TQ949

Thank you for the question.

My officials have been in dialogue with the business since reports emerged. They have also made contact with the administrators and union representatives representing some of the workforce, and are working closely with counterparts from the local authority, the Department for Work and Pensions and other agencies to support any affected workers.

Thank you for that response. This is a company that's been operational for 40 years. I think it was 40 years ago this year that Gwynedd Shipping was established, and it's been something that we have taken pride in, in seeing Gwynedd Shipping lorries on the traffic network across the UK and beyond. And this news came, in the past few days, that the company was in difficulty, and that was a huge blow, and the blow was felt most by those who are directly affected, those working for the company.

It has been extremely difficult, I have to say, to try and find information about what was happening exactly. It's been easier to get information through sources on social media—and I'm grateful to those people who have been open on social media and have been in touch with me as a result of that. I certainly haven't managed to get hold of the company directly. And it is extremely important, at a time like this, that a company is as open as possible in terms of their situation and in terms of the challenges that they face, and that for the sake of the community more broadly, but also for the workforce particularly.

We've suffered jobs blow after jobs blow, of course, in my constituency—the loss of hundreds of jobs, of course, at the 2 Sisters plant in Llangefni the most recent and most well documented of those. But this, again, is a significant number of jobs. Again, it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how many, but we need to make sure that support goes now to those who find themselves without work. There are drivers in particular whose skills are very sought after; there are others working in the yard itself in Holyhead, others working on the administrative side, that will need that support too. So, can I ask the Minister what support is being put together, what package is being put together, to make sure that support is as strong as it can be for all those affected? We also need to learn what has happened here. What information does the Minister have about what led to this? Was the Government aware of pressures on the company? We need to hear now that all the different agencies are working together—I'm in contact with the council, of course—so that this other latest jobs blow on Ynys Môn is addressed and that work is found as quickly as possible for all those involved.

15:15

Thank you for the series of questions. I'll try and go through, as helpfully as I can, based on the information, which is limited from the Government's point of view as well. Because I saw the reports myself and I immediately asked officials what the position was. Unfortunately, the company hadn't been proactive in contacting the Government in advance, and we've yet to get significant amounts of information from the company and, indeed, the administrators. We understand that two of the businesses within the group have appointed administrators, affecting, as we understand it, the reported figure of 127 potential employees. And you're right, they're in a variety of jobs. Drivers are likely to be able to find alternative work; there's still a shortage in that sector of the economy. The challenge, though, will be, as you put it, the understanding of those people who may need more support to find alternative work. All of them will be living with real uncertainty, following the announcement that has been made, and the fact that I can't give clarity, I think, adds to the uncertainty. I'd like to be able to be much clearer about the contact between the Government, the DWP, the council and the company. We know that there are some trade union members there; it's not clear to us if there is recognition at the site. So, we are trying to work through all of those issues with both the company and, indeed, with the administrator.

In terms of the range of assistance that is available, our ReAct+ programme is the flexible programme that we offer. And in other job challenges in the past, where there have been significant unemployment events—you mentioned 2 Sisters; in south Wales, there have been others as well—what we have been able to do is to work constructively with the DWP and whichever local authority it is. That relationship is a good and practical and pragmatic one. For all of the differences we have on a political level with the UK Government, the DWP locally, I think, have always been responsive and willing partners in trying to help find people work, with the levers that they do have. What I will do is, as we get more information on how that's being pieced together, we'll be proactive about sharing that information with the public and, indeed, with the Member, about how and where that support is to be provided, if there is a need, to provide a jobs fair, and how we do that in a way that works best for the affected employees, to help them to secure alternative employment.

The more positive aspect, though, is that, whilst this is of course disappointing and will be distressing for people who face losing their employment, actually, activity within the port is somewhere we should see an increase in employment in the future. That's what we want to try to do, but that has to be balanced against, as I say, the very real concern that I'm sure a number of families are going to bed with each night until there is that clarity about the future. 

15:20

Of course, Gwynedd Shipping operate from two sites in north Wales, Holyhead and Deeside, as well as from Birkenhead, Belfast and Dublin. What is your understanding of why the company filed for administration when the company's strategic review of its latest annual results for the year to May 2022, posted last February, said, quote, its directors had a reasonable expectation that the company has adequate resources to continue in operational existence for the foreseeable future, or will you be seeking and sharing this information? What is your understanding of unconfirmed reports that parts of the company are being taken over by another logistics firm, and that other local and regional hauliers were already offering some of the drivers work, or will you be seeking and sharing that information? And finally, given your comments about the DWP, what specific engagement have you and your officials had, or will you be having, with Jobcentre Plus and the DWP regarding help for those who are looking for alternative work or for retraining opportunities? 

In respect of the point about DWP, I think I've answered that already. We do work constructively alongside DWP. Locally, every time there has been a significant unemployment event, we have worked very constructively—and my officials are doing that now—together with DWP and the local authority. 

On the other points about unconfirmed reports, that's the point—they're unconfirmed reports—and you wouldn't expect me to add to speculation here. What I will do is, as we get information that has not been made available to us thus far, I'll share it with Members, and, crucially, to want to provide some confidence for people that are concerned about their own futures, and will be worried about their own employment futures, to make sure that the opportunities to look for alternative work are made as easily and readily available to them as possible, and to make sure that, whether they approach the local authority, or the Welsh Government or the DWP, that we are working together to make sure that there is a 'no wrong door' approach and we get them to the point where they need to be able to go, to make sure they have the right support for them.    

Thank you, Minister. The next question is to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism. Llyr Gruffydd to ask the question. 

S4C

2. Will the Minister make a statement responding to the unanimous recommendation of the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations Committee that the Welsh Government should have a formal role in the process of appointing a new Chair for S4C? TQ950

Thank you. The Welsh Government plays a part in the S4C board appointment process, with a senior Welsh Government official acting as a member of the appointment panel that then makes recommendations to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who appoints. I agree, however, that the Welsh Government should have a more formal, stronger role in this process. 

Thank you for that response. Of course, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government are agreed on the fact that powers over broadcasting and communications should be devolved, including responsibility for S4C. They should be devolved to this Senedd. That, of course, would ensure that the Welsh Government had a direct formal role in the appointment of a new chair for S4C. But I would like, Minister, a little more clarity on some comments made by the Secretary of State for Wales last week on Y Byd yn ei Le on S4C. The Secretary of State said that he had a meeting with you last week to discuss the situation at S4C, and that you had failed to tell him what you or the Welsh Government would have done differently about the situation in S4C. I would be interested to hear if that is the case.

But can I also ask whether you took the opportunity to use this as an example to make the case for the devolution of broadcasting and responsibility for S4C more specifically to Wales? And in that meeting, did you ask specifically to ensure that the Welsh Government, and you as Deputy Minister, would have a more meaningful and more formal role in the process of appointing a new chair?   

Thank you for those supplementary questions, Llyr. There is a role, as I said, for us in the appointment of the chair, limited though it is, and in fact there was a recommendation arising from the Institute of Welsh Affairs on the current state of regulation and accountability for broadcasters in Wales, and one of the things that they recommended, actually, was that the UK Government should transfer some functions relating to the broadcasting from DCMS, through the BBC charter, either to Welsh Government or to an independent commissioner. Now, the UK Government haven’t taken that on board. Now, you’re quite right—we are, in working in partnership with Plaid Cymru through the co-operation agreement, looking at the devolution of broadcasting. We set up the expert panel last year, and we have had the report of the expert panel. At the moment, because of the consensus that we have, not just between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru, but a kind of broader consensus, I think, across Wales that the current broadcasting and communications framework doesn’t meet Wales’s needs, that’s really why we’re in the process of these discussions. And the recommendations of that expert panel are now being considered and discussed, but particularly in the context of the financial position that Welsh Government currently finds itself in, which we dealt with at some length in committee this morning. So, that will be presented to Cabinet shortly, but I can guarantee and commit to you that we absolutely remain committed to a thriving, strong Welsh broadcasting environment that meets the needs of a modern Wales.

Now, in the meeting I had with the Secretary of State for DCMS and the Secretary of State for Wales last week—. It was, I think I should say, a very short meeting. It followed from the fact that I wrote to the Secretary of State for DCMS back in November, when the Capital Law report was first published, asking her, as the responsible Minister for S4C—because, whatever our ambitions for the devolution of broadcasting might be, it currently rests with the UK Government, and it is their responsibility—. So, I wrote to the Secretary of State for DCMS back in November and asked her what her intentions were and what the next steps were in relation to S4C in terms of the report and so on. And it wasn’t until 10 January that I actually got that meeting with her, and I asked her in that meeting for an update on the position regarding the challenging circumstances with S4C, and any timeline that she had for making decisions on the next steps.

Now, during the course of that meeting, the Secretary of State for Wales actually asked me if I thought that the chairman should be sacked. Now, frankly, I didn’t feel that it was appropriate for me to make that sort of judgment, with the limited information that I had available to me, and also on the basis of it not being a matter that is devolved to Wales. That is entirely the responsibility of the Secretary of State for DCMS. So, it did feel to me as though it was a kind of deflection from their responsibility to try to get somebody else to make a decision that they should be making.

As things have turned out, and over the course of events in the last 24 hours, of course, Rhodri Williams has indicated that he will not be putting himself forward for a second term for chairman of S4C. But I repeat what I said initially in my initial response to your question, Llyr: I do think that we should have a stronger role in terms of the appointments processes for S4C, in the same way that we do for the BBC—BBC Wales, that is—through the memorandum of understanding that we have with them. I think, if anything, what this does is it brings into sharp focus the fact that we need to have those further discussions with both the Secretary of State for DCMS and S4C about how we can take this forward in future.

15:25

Deputy Minister, having read the Capital Law report, it was clear to me that this was very disappointing; it was incredible to think that this was going on within S4C in Wales. We know that responsibility for broadcasting is reserved to Westminster, and we as a party believe that that's where it sits best, but I know that there is a debate on that currently ongoing. But Llyr Gruffydd did mention the programme Y Byd yn ei Le, and I was on that programme too last Thursday, and I said on the programme, and I'm happy to repeat this, that the only way that this can work—for that responsibility to lie in Westminster—is for DCMS to take an interest in what's happening to S4C. And it was clear to me, when I heard evidence from Rhodri Williams in the committee last week, that he had been asking for a meeting with the Minister in DCMS for four years and hadn't got to meet the Minister. It was incredible to hear that, and it did make me angry to be honest.

Now we know that the committee has requested a formal role for the Welsh Government in the appointment of the new chair, and I think that's important, but you've already mentioned the informal role, if you like, that the Welsh Government currently has in the appointment. So, can you tell us more about the nature of that role and what conversations you're having with DCMS and the Wales Office?

15:30

Well, can I thank Tom Giffard for that question? And, yes, as I said in my original answer to Llyr Gruffydd, Welsh Government has very limited oversight of public appointments in broadcasting, and the role that we have with S4C is slightly different to the role that we have with BBC Wales.

So, it is not an informal role. We are a formal part of the appointments process, but we make recommendations to the Secretary of State for DCMS and it is the Secretary of State for DCMS that appoints. And that is the same for my role in terms of appointing chairs to public bodies in Wales that sit within my area of responsibility. So, officials will undertake the interview and the appointments process and then they submit recommendations to me, and it is my decision as to whether I accept those recommendations, and I appoint. And that is what happens with the appointment of the chair of S4C, and it is the decision of the Secretary of State for DMCS.

But I think this does shine a light on that process and I think the report that came out from the IWA, which I referenced just now, and the importance that we place on the role of S4C in Welsh society, puts it in a slightly different position. I think S4C and the Welsh Government, we are uniquely placed to have that greater role in S4C with or without the devolution of broadcasting as a formal policy position of the UK Government. There is a role—a greater role, I believe—that the Welsh Government could have within the appointments processes for S4C, because of that unique relationship that that channel has with Wales.

I listened with great interest to the answers you gave to my colleague Llyr Gruffydd, and to Tom Giffard as well. Of course, you've talked about the need or the want for a stronger role in appointing a chair. What exactly does that mean? I have to say that a lot of the answers that were given to my colleague Llyr Gruffydd were quite vague, and I didn't hear any specific reference as to whether or not you, as a Deputy Minister, support the devolution of broadcasting. So, I'll ask a straightforward question: do you as the Deputy Minister support the devolution of broadcasting—yes or no?

We have an agreement with Plaid Cymru: the co-operation agreement sets out quite clearly that there is a joint aspiration on the devolution of broadcasting. I can't be any clearer than what the co-operation agreement says.

The difference in the roles—and I think this is important—that we have with S4C and with the BBC is that we make joint decisions on the appointments to the board of BBC Wales. And I think there is a strong case, if not a stronger case, that we should have joint decision making with DCMS until or unless broadcasting is fully devolved; that we have the same arrangement with S4C as we currently have with BBC Wales; that we make joint decisions on the appointments of the board and of the chair of S4C, as we do with the BBC.

I have to say that I do not support the devolution of broadcasting, and the Labour Party policy isn't to support the devolution of broadcasting, so I will not be supporting that until the policy changes. But within that context, I am very positive to hear what the Minister has been saying this afternoon, because we do need to have more accountability for broadcasting in this place. And I think the whole sorry saga with S4C has demonstrated the lack of interest that the DCMS actually has in S4C and in regulating broadcasting in Wales, and that does ask some very serious questions of the relationship, going forward.

So, I would be grateful if the Minister could look towards joint appointments with the DCMS, for not just the chair of S4C, but the board of S4C and other appointments, such as the board member of Ofcom, board member of the BBC, so that we're able to work on this collectively, across the United Kingdom, and to ensure that the interests of the people of Wales are actually represented, even if the DCMS is asleep at the wheel.

15:35

Can I thank Alun Davies for that question? He's absolutely right, and, of course, Welsh Ministers do actually take the decision on appointments for the Welsh representative from Wales on Ofcom. And as I said, we do have joint decision making with the Secretary of State for DCMS on the appointments to BBC Wales. So, I think the situation that we have faced recently with S4C puts us in a much stronger position to say that that role with DCMS, in those appointments processes, with or without the full devolution of broadcasting—. I mean, that's not a prerequisite to that arrangement because we already have it with the BBC and with Ofcom, and I think that is a conversation that needs to be had as a matter of urgency with DCMS and with S4C.

4. 90-second Statements
5. Debate on a Member's Legislative Proposal: A Bill on climate assurance for children and young people

So, the next item will be the debate on a Member's legislative proposal, on a Bill on climate assurance for children and young people. And this is to be put forward by Delyth Jewell.

Motion NDM8370 Delyth Jewell

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes a proposal for a Bill on climate assurance for children and young people.

2. Notes that the purpose of this Bill would be to:

a) amend the Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 to ensure the school curriculum includes an understanding of the severity and urgency of the climate crisis and ecological emergency as a key concept across all areas of learning and experience;

b) ensure the curriculum reflects the urgency and necessity of tackling the climate crisis and protecting the ecological environment;

c) ensure that such teaching is not confined to traditional subjects that cover this area, but is embedded across all areas of learning and experience;

d) recognise the importance of subliminal learning and promote a sustainable environment in which learning can take place; and

e) begin to address climate anxiety amongst children and young people.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd. It is my pleasure to present my plans for a climate assurance Bill. The climate and nature crises are amongst the most deadly challenges facing our world and our existence. Daily headlines make clear the severity of that crisis, graphs that are going the wrong way, temperature records being broken, and devastating wildfires and floods that threaten communities and lives. It's only reasonable that people would worry about this crisis. But record numbers of young people are so overwhelmed by anger and grief about the state of our planet that it's having a negative effect on their mental state. It's one of the hidden calamities of the climate crisis: this surge in anxiety and fear about this ever-present catastrophe that never gets resolved, but only deepens and gets more urgent.

Our brains find it difficult to deal with ongoing crises like this. A crisis is usually an intense moment in time, where things come to a head and get resolved. But the climate crisis is different, it is always there. And because of Government and global inaction, because of the selfishness and greed of big business, the urgent questions get deferred, the need for definitive action gets kicked down the road, and so, this seething intensity continues unabated, unaddressed, and people's brains go into boiling point. This eco-anxiety is so prevalent that Save the Children has found that 70 per cent of young people are worried about the world they will inherit. In a survey of 10,000 young people, across 10 countries, The Lancet found that 60 per cent were 'very' or 'extremely' worried about climate change. We risk passing on a planet that's been burnt, and a generation of people who've been burnt out with it.

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

That is why addressing young people's concerns about the climate crisis has to be more mainstream in our curriculum. That is why we must address this anxiety with assurance, assurance that nobody is alone in struggling to cope with the intensity of this crisis, nor are they powerless in the face of that calamity.

I've been privileged, Dirprwy Lywydd, to work closely with the Royal College of Psychiatrists on this issue, and the college supports fully the plans I'm putting forward, and I've been able through them to speak to clinicians and professors who recognise the urgent need to change how we speak to young people about climate change. We shouldn't gaslight them into thinking it's not as bad as they fear, because it is. But recognising, legitimising that anger, and, yes, that grief about how they feel about what's being taken away from them before their eyes, that's so important, so that they can feel less alone. But at the same time, unequivocally, we must empower them to learn more about what's happening to tackle the crisis, not just in other parts of the world, but in their community, to find out more about groups like the youth climate ambassadors here in Wales, who give voice to young people's concerns, and to give children and young people the tools to get involved in or to form groups themselves.

So, this is what I'm proposing. Firstly, I'd want us to ensure that the curriculum includes an understanding of the urgency of the climate and nature crises across all areas of learning. I'd like to ensure that teaching isn't confined only to traditional subjects that cover this area, like geography and science, and that humanities subjects—psychology, creative writing—embed in their lessons an awareness of climate anxiety and a preparedness to tackle it. And I'd want to begin to address that anxiety amongst children and young people, including through greater guidance and support being given to teachers and schools about how to talk about these issues in a sensitive, productive way.

I support the Royal College of Psychiatrists' call for well-being provision being made to address climate grief. And there are already so many organisations that will, I know, be able to help as partners in this. Keep Wales Tidy's eco-schools programme is instilled with a sense of empowering young people, to arm them with tools to improve the environment. I know over 1,100 schools in Wales engaged with Keep Wales Tidy last year, and their training courses for teachers include carbon literacy, and linking eco work to the curriculum. Other organisations like Teach the Future and Oxfam can also lend expertise to develop these plans. 

And we could also learn from wildlife trusts in Wales, including the Gwent Wildlife Trust, which has also inspired me. There are so many groups and projects for young people to participate in, and this can give young people enormous strength.

And strength is what is needed: strength, assurance, confirmation. Children need assurance about how we as a society, and as humanity, would guarantee their future. In order to protect the health of our young people, and the health of our planet, this assurance needs to be offered. There is a golden opportunity here to use the new curriculum to empower our young people, and to offer them hope in the face of the huge challenges that are associated with the climate crisis. And I look forward to hearing the views of other Members. Thank you.

15:40

I think this is why we shouldn't be just teaching towards PISA results, isn't it? We want more rounded children, with a more rounded outlook.

I was once told that if children do not connect with the outdoors before the age of 12, they will not as an adult. And in recent years, many children have increasingly spent time indoors, entertained by a plethora of electronic devices and around-the-clock media. Parents worry about letting their children have independence to go off on their own to the park. It was very different when I grew up. We went out, often for the day, with no forms of communication, exploring the outside, playing in streams, the woods, making dens from hay bales in the field. That was it. Connecting with nature, combined with exercise, eases mental health and gives a sense of well-being. Growing up with it as a child—as my children did—makes you feel like it's your garden to be explored. It gives you confidence just to be out there to roam without fear, but with love, respect, fondness and a sense of well-being with nature. As an adult, then, it feels as natural to be outside as inside, and you then teach that to your own children. It's a cycle.

In the recent state of nature report, we have seen a 20 per cent decline in species abundance in Wales. Forty-two per cent of flowering plants have decreased across Wales, and 18 per cent of species are on the red list, threatened with extinction in Wales. Underpinning nature education is the idea that if the destruction is to be stopped, human beings must learn to care about it. Positive action does work. We have seen that with the decline in chlorofluorocarbons being released, and acid rain has fallen by 80 per cent compared to 1990 levels.

Children are far more aware now, and with COP28 being run by oil barons, and our Westminster Government providing 100 new oil licences, it is terrifying. But it should be more terrifying for adults to know what our children will have to face because of our generation. Children speak to me, saying it's presumed that it will be okay because young people understand and they will make the world better, but they say to me, 'It'll be too late then, it's up to you to do something about it now.' And we must.

At a recent climate action event, led by young people, I listened to their speeches and presentations. One young adult and member of the North Wales Wildlife Trust youth forum read out a letter from a friend. The person was unable to be present, but said how anxiety regarding the climate emergency was so overwhelming it made them extremely depressed. It's made it really anxious for them and they couldn't find a way out. It was really saddening to hear this. The person eventually overcame this anxiety by being part of the group of like-minded people, working together to help the environment. The group is for people aged between 11 and 24 who are passionate about learning about the environment and helping bring communities together to protect it. They run monthly sessions learning about nature, its threats and conservation, both marine and terrestrial, developing conservation skills that will be valuable in the green sector should they want to continue that, coming together to meet like-minded people, which is a wonderful positive action, working together. Diolch. 

15:45

Thank you for your proposal on a climate assurance Bill in education. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing us as a global community. In order to ensure a greener, fairer, more prosperous Wales, everyone in Wales, including our children and young people, have a part to play in pushing for the change towards a low-carbon future. As we build our Curriculum for Wales and our investment programme, our intention is to create an ambitious and innovative education system, and it has to tackle issues that define our generation: decarbonsiation and living sustainably. The voices of our children and young people are crucial to that process. Mainly, that means listening to them. We all know, from our conversations with children and young people, just how passionate and concerned they are about climate change and about securing a better future for themselves and future generations. 

One of the four aims set out in the curriculum and assessment Act and at the heart of the curriculum, in addition to the decisions that schools make, is that children become principled and informed citizens. Part of this aspiration is specifically defined in statutory guidance as something that supports learners in demonstrating their commitment to the sustainability of the planet. That's why learning about climate change and the environment is mandatory in the Curriculum for Wales. The 'what matters' statements in the humanities and science and technology make specific reference on a number of occasions to elements on the climate and nature emergency, responding to climate change, and the environment. 

This means that it's already a legal requirement to address climate change and to respond to the climate emergency in school curriculums. It's not just at one point of the journey through education, but along the whole journey. And across all subject areas, schools are empowered and encouraged to educate about climate change and the environment through educational contexts of all kinds, in order to inspire and garner the interest of learners. The 'what matters' code, which includes these requirements, was planned to ensure mandatory requirements such as these. Setting additional expectations on the face of the curriculum and assessment Act would not add to what is required for learners to learn already. But it could create confusion by setting different requirements in different places at a time when I am committed to simplifying the expectations placed on schools.

In order to support schools in delivering the required legal requirements, we have commissioned resources to support teachers to plan a curriculum that includes effective learning about climate change and the importance of action. This includes resources for schools that relate specifically to climate anxiety. The proposals talk about anxiety in terms of climate change. I know that the impact of climate change is a concern for children and young people, and, for some, this will lead to anxiety. And that's why addressing mental health and responding to a range of experiences, including those that actually exacerbate anxiety, are, again, a requirement for all schools.

I want children and young people to be supported and helped. Nobody learns properly if they are anxious or have mental health problems, and the curriculum is planned to empower learners to manage this and to ask for support where necessary. I have shared details with you in the past about our other environmental education programmes that are funded, such as Eco-Schools and the Size of Wales, which work with schools and young people in order to raise awareness about climate change and the importance of safeguarding the natural world. These programmes encourage children and young people to participate in activities that can have a positive impact on their local environment, such as caring for the school garden or using active travel methods to get to school. Providing opportunities for learners to change something in their local communities can empower them and contribute to their health and well-being. 

'Climate Action Wales: Public Engagement Strategy' talks about including young people, particularly young people, in forming policy on tackling climate change. The voices of children and young people are crucially important and initiatives such as the conference of the parties for young people do encourage me and bring young people from all parts of Wales together to discuss climate change directly with stakeholders and politicians.

To be entirely clear, I agree entirely with the principles underpinning this proposal. That's why we are quite clear in legislation that schools do have to educate learners about climate change, the climate emergency and how to respond to it. Placing further requirements on schools wouldn't add to this. I have also outlined a range of support elements that are in place to ensure that schools deliver these legal requirements and to empower our children and young people in order to create a greener future for Wales.

15:50

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. I thank Carolyn first of all. 

Thank you, Carolyn. You reminded us of the importance of outdoor learning and connecting with nature. You reminded us as well about the dire statistics that relate to species decline, I think focusing all our minds on why it's so important that we have this hope of change. As you said, if the devastation is to be stopped, human beings must learn to care about it. That's exactly it. Thank you so much for sharing that with us and sharing your thoughts. 

I also thank the Minister for his response. Yes, the climate change challenge and how we respond to that is what will define our generation. I agree entirely with you. And thank you also for setting out how the curriculum does focus on supporting our young people. It is a good thing that learning about climate change is mandatory and the resources that are available already about climate anxiety are to be welcomed, certainly. I'd like to still see the Government centralising this more, perhaps. The work that's there is very positive.

I know we may disagree about the fact that—. You said at the end that you don't want to impose more requirements on schools. I do see that viewpoint, certainly. The reason why I would like to see this being—I'm not sure how to say the verb 'to package' in Welsh—put together in a central package is in order to show and inspire young people who are so concerned about climate change and will suffer from anxiety to see that it's something that shows them that the Government does recognise and wants to show that action to them.

Climate anxiety is a sensible and reasonable response, but if we see it as something that is inevitable we will be drowned by a lack of action and a lack of belief in our ability to change things. So there is a delicate balance that needs to be found between recognising and justifying the concern that young people feel about climate change and the need to give them hope that change is possible, and an assurance that they are not alone in this battle.

I'd just like to thank again, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Minister and Carolyn for taking part in this debate. I'd like to say at the end to any young people who are listening to this debate now or in the future that your voices are important and we in the Senedd do hear them and we want to ensure—. We understand why they are concerned, but there's always hope and we can change things for a better future. Thank you. 

The proposal is to note the proposal. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There are objections. We will therefore defer voting on this item until voting time.  

Voting deferred until voting time.

15:55
6. Welsh Conservatives Debate: Healthcare inspection and funding

The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Lesley Griffiths, and amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Mabon ap Gwynfor. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected.

Item 6 this afternoon is the Welsh Conservatives debate: healthcare inspection and funding. I call on Gareth Davies to move the motion.

Motion NDM8452 Darren Millar

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales Annual Report 2022-2023.

2. Regrets that the report:

a) highlighted risks relating to emergency care, staffing concerns, poor patient flow and the accessibility of appointments;

b) states that there are often delays in patient discharges due to shortages in social care staff and social workers to assess discharge needs; and

c) did not find evidence of Welsh Government initiatives making a clear and significant difference to services at the front line.

3. Calls on the Welsh Government to:

a) scrap cuts made to Healthcare Inspectorate Wales in the 2024-2025 draft budget, and expand their remit to investigate complaints;

b) establish a timetable with Healthcare Inspectorate Wales for the inspection of the nearly 60 per cent of healthcare services that have not been inspected in the last 5 years;

c) ensure the full Barnett consequential 20 per cent uplift for health is spent on the Welsh NHS; and

d) bring forward a substantial workforce plan with a tuition fee refund for healthcare workers that stay in Wales for five years after their studies.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Deputy Llywydd. I'm pleased to be opening this debate and I move the Welsh Conservatives' motion, tabled in the name of Darren Millar. But I'm sure we would all rather be discussing the state of our NHS in Wales with more positive news. The healthcare inspectorate report has illuminated some pretty dismal findings, and a lot of reflection by the Welsh Government is needed as a result of this, because this report couldn't be clearer that the current strategies are not working.

I would also like to express on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives our opposition to plans to cut Healthcare Inspectorate Wales made in the 2024-2025 draft budget. This report highlights, if anything, the need to expand the remit of Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, introduce a complaints investigation procedure and establish a timetable for the inspection of nearly 60 per cent of Welsh healthcare services that have not been inspected in the last five years, which is, frankly, shocking. I must also make clear that making cuts to Healthcare Inspectorate Wales is dreadful optics for the Welsh Government as it currently looks like a Government that has lost control of any ability to run a functioning health service, so has instead turned to reducing transparency and restricting the ability of the public to assess the performance of the health service. 

We know the statistic that has been repeated in this Chamber time after time, but I will remind anyone who may have forgotten: over 25,000 people in Wales waiting two years or more for treatment, compared to 227 individuals waiting the same amount of time in England. The Labour Government receives £1.20 for every £1 spent on the NHS—how many times have you heard that—in England, yet the Welsh Government spends only £1.05 for every £1 spent in England. The new budget sees this set to decrease yet further.

Every single Welsh NHS health board is currently in some form of enhanced monitoring or special measures; my own health board, Betsi Cadwaladr, is just one example. When these figures are put to the Welsh Government, we hear the same wooden and perfunctory responses: the lack of funding from the UK Government and that initiatives are in place to address these problems. Again, how many times have we heard that?

Perhaps the most damning finding in this report, and the most depressing, is that Healthcare Inspectorate Wales did not find any evidence of Welsh Government initiatives

'making a clear and significant difference to services at the front line'.

Clearly, enhanced scrutiny inspections and a better complaints procedure are imperative, particularly in the aftermath of the regrettable Channon family case, and my colleague Russell George has continually scrutinised the Welsh Government and Swansea Bay University Health Board's failures.

Some may recall the scathing remarks expressed in the foreword to the 2022-23 report by Alun Cairns—not the Member of Parliament. This latest report sadly shows precious little improvement, with many areas that have continued to deteriorate. The shocking lack of inspections of Welsh health facilities needs addressing urgently and that's why we are calling for an urgent timetable to be drawn up to ensure these facilities meet the standard expected. We also want to see the full Barnett consequential 20 per cent uplift for health actually being spent on its intended recipient, the Welsh NHS. The Welsh Government should reverse its plans for real-terms cuts to the Welsh NHS and, perhaps, reroute the cash that they've planned to throw away on 36 more politicians and other vanity schemes, like the 20 mph roll-out, when our NHS is in dire straits. If the Government were really serious about saving lives, the money spent on vanity schemes would be spent on our NHS.

We need to hear something new from the Welsh Government. Their 75 per cent target for those with a suspected cancer to be seen and start treatment within 62 days has never been met; one in five people in Wales is on an NHS waiting list; and failures in social care are leading to bottlenecks in hospital wards as patients fit to be discharged are being kept in valuable bed space, an issue that the Welsh Government has been aware of for a considerable amount of time. We now know for certain that progress isn't being made and our situation gets more dire each year, and the Welsh people deserve better. And it brings me great sadness that a lot of my remarks are depressing today, but that's the current state of affairs, unfortunately, Minister.

But to close, Deputy Llywydd, the Welsh Government's strategies need radical rethinking and the proposals that the Welsh Conservatives have put forward will move our NHS in that direction, and I look forward to hearing the contributions of other Members during this debate this afternoon. Thank you very much.

16:00

I have selected the three amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to move formally amendment 1, tabled in the name of Lesley Griffiths.

Amendment 1—Lesley Griffiths

Delete all after sub-point 2b) and replace with:

Appreciates the important work of HIW and notes the challenges identified.

Recognises the challenging financial position across the Welsh Government which continues to prioritise frontline care and staffing requirements in our NHS.

Notes the Welsh Government continues to work with healthcare providers using inspections to learn and improve.

Amendment 1 moved.

Amendment 2—Mabon ap Gwynfor

In point 3, delete sub-point c), and replace with:

formally request from the UK Government a comprehensive review of the Barnett Formula to ensure fair funding for all budget areas in Wales, including health and social care;

Amendment 3—Mabon ap Gwynfor

Add as new sub-point at the end of point 3:

increase the availability of degree apprenticeships in the healthcare sector to provide greater opportunities for young people to enter the profession and remain in Wales to work.

Amendments 2 and 3 moved.

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm very pleased to move the amendments to this Conservative motion.

Well, on the face of it, it's difficult to disagree with the substance of this motion—of course we want to overturn cuts to the HIW budget, of course we want to see improved efficiency of HIW and to see further increases in the NHS budget. But there is an elephant in this Chamber, one that neither the Conservatives nor Labour want to address, namely the fact that it is impossible to get the dynamic, resilient and operational NHS that we all want to see without seeing a fundamental reform of the Barnett formula, which means that Wales is underfunded on an annual basis. Without that honest recognition, then I'm afraid that the substance of the Conservative motion today loses all credibility.

First of all, as the pot of money allocated to Wales annually is fixed, the Conservative motion would mean transferring funding away from social services, which would, in turn, exacerbate the situation further, with more funding being spent on front-line services, rather than on preventive services.

Perhaps if the Conservatives were willing to commit to strengthening Wales's ability to make substantive adjustments to the block grant through the further devolution of taxation and borrowing powers, they would have far more credibility on this matter. But they're not. So they haven't.

Secondly and most importantly, while it's true that Wales does receive proportionally more per head in funding compared to England, this is based on the minimum floor recommended by the Holtham commission back in 2010, which, even at the time, the commission recognised was the absolute bare minimum solution to prevent Wales from falling further below the lowest of all the estimates of relative needs—and I quote. Since then, we've had 14 years of Tory-driven austerity and the COVID pandemic, the aftershocks of which will be keenly felt for years to come. We also have a population that has the oldest median age of all the UK nations, which is ageing at a faster rate than the UK average and which has a proportionally higher prevalence of long-term sickness rates. As numerous academics and experts have conclusively concluded, therefore, the current funding model from Westminster simply doesn't cater for Wales's societal needs. There's a good reason why the Tories haven't been upfront about the limitations of the Barnett formula, because it would involve confronting the reality that Westminster consistently gives Wales a raw deal. It would also entail them owning up to the responsibility of their party—

—for the catastrophic legacy of austerity that has had a clearly detrimental impact on public health across the UK. Mark.

Do you recognise that, at the time of the Scottish referendum on independence, which, of course, you took a different view to myself on, the leaders of the UK Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties pledged to retain the Barnett formula as an offer to the Scottish population because, obviously, they do relatively better out of it than we do, and that's what's holding back all the UK national parties at UK level?

No, I don't accept that. I accept the fact that Scotland is doing better out of that than Wales, but we need to see a reform of the Barnett formula for the reasons I'm listing here now, because we're not funded properly in order to fund our NHS here in Wales.

In contrast to the Conservatives, the Welsh Government has, at least in words, echoed our call for a review of the Barnett formula on the basis of societal need. But, as has often been the case with this Government, when it comes to the systemic unfairness of Wales's treatment by Westminster, the tone of these words is not always matched by urgency of deed. It's all well and good to point to the intransigence of the Tory Government, but what about the deafening silence of the UK Labour leader on practically anything that's related to Wales, let alone the specific issue of fair funding? If Labour Members here were truly motivated to improve the poor lot we currently receive, they would be lobbying Keir Starmer relentlessly to make reviewing the Barnett formula a key priority for an incoming Labour Government. But instead, all we're hearing is the wishful thinking that Starmer will somehow turn out to be a passionate Keynesian when in office, which is, obviously, contrary to every facet of his leadership so far, from pledging not to turn on the spending taps to parroting Tory fantasy economic thinking that growth can somehow be conjured up without investing in our dilapidated public service. And today we heard Rachel Reeves signalling that she won't raise corporation tax either.

And it tells you so much, doesn't it, that not one of the candidates for the leadership of the Wales branch of the Labour Party has committed to calling for a review of the funding formula and putting pressure on their leader Keir Starmer to commit to that. By introducing our amendment, therefore, Plaid Cymru, once again, is showing that it is only us who are serious about fairer funding for Wales. This includes not only keeping the skills of those individuals studying here in Wales, but also expanding the opportunities available to our young people to work in the NHS, as we will hear in a later debate this afternoon that will be led by Plaid Cymru.

The people of Wales are crying out for an opportunity to develop and to play their part in developing the best possible health service that will meet the requirements of the twenty-first century and are calling on Westminster to give the necessary resources in order to deliver this. As elected Members, we have a duty to respond. By supporting our amendment today, you too can show that you are listening to them and insisting on financial justice for Wales in order to enable us to provide the best possible health service. Thank you for your patience.

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