Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

24/01/2024

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 Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary meeting. The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Finance and Local Government, and the first question is from Samuel Kurtz.

Renewable Energy Projects

1. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Climate Change about financial support for councils to facilitate the delivery of renewable projects in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ60565

I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the Welsh Government's budget, and we support local authorities to scale up renewables by supporting free ports, growth deals, investing in local area energy plans, and direct funding through initiatives such as the Welsh Government energy service.

Thank you for that response, Minister. Just last week, I welcomed students from Pembrokeshire College's Destination Renewables course to the Senedd to chat with them about their course and the importance of local government working with the Welsh Government and the UK Government to deliver large-scale renewable projects. The visit highlighted for all of us the significance of policy and politics working in synergy with the industry to provide local opportunities for our young people in education and employment. To enable the supply chain to be in place, Minister, the Welsh Government needs to ensure that the necessary support is there for local authorities, which are on the ground and which wholly realise the needs of the local community so that they can, in turn, support our young people, such as those studying on the Destination Renewables course at Pembrokeshire College in pursuit of their educational and career goals. So, Minister, how is the Welsh Government, through you and the climate change Minister, supporting local authorities to enable them to provide these opportunities to our young people and to ensure that all tiers of government—local government, the Welsh Government and the UK Government—are working together to deliver these strategically important renewable projects?

I'm very grateful for the question and that recognition, which I share, that all tiers of government must work together to make the most of the renewable opportunities that we have here in Wales. I think that floating offshore is one particular area that would be of importance to the Member, to his constituents and to those young people who are studying the Destination Renewables course. I think that the work that we're doing with the industry, the Crown Estate and the UK Government to make floating offshore a reality is really important, and we're working very hard on that, and, particularly, the Welsh Government is supporting our ports in the process of securing funding from the UK Government's £160 million floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme. That won't be enough for what the sector needs, but it will be important. But, Pembrokeshire is absolutely at the heart of these opportunities and we have four test and demonstration projects under review by the Crown Estate in the Celtic sea at the moment. And, in addition, Blue Gem Wind has received a sea-bed licence from the Crown Estate to develop a floating offshore wind farm off the coast of Pembrokeshire too. So, Pembrokeshire absolutely is at the heart of these opportunities and it's wonderful to see those young people engaging, and, of course, we want to work very closely with local authorities to realise those benefits. And a further example, I think, of where we're working collaboratively in important ways is on the free ports agenda and also investment zones, which I know will also be of interest.

Reforming Business Rates

2. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's work around reforming business rates? OQ60566

Yes, we're on track to deliver the programme of reforms that I set out for this Senedd term, with several initial improvements being made to coincide with the 2023 revaluation. The Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill has been introduced to deliver the range of specific proposals that we consulted on in 2022.

Thank you for that response, Minister.

Discussions that both I and Plaid Cymru colleagues have had with the hospitality sector have been eye opening. UK Hospitality Cymru have told us that the average pub and restaurant business will be £6,800 a year worse off and a hotel at £100,000 rateable value around £20,000 worse off than counterparts in England. UK Hospitality Cymru have been campaigning for help with business rates reform for more than 10 years. The archaic rate structure stood still while the global and domestic commercial world has substantially changed around it. Now, the internet did not exist when non-domestic rates were constructed, and, every year, as the gap extends between bricks and clicks businesses, the injustice increases. We've heard, of course, about that reform, but when can businesses in Wales expect to see that reform put into practice?

Well, reform is already happening, of course, because we had the revaluation come into force in March 2023. We recognised, of course, that that involved some transitional issues for businesses, which is why we put in place a really important transitional support scheme to help businesses with their bills there. And, of course, we'll be taking the legislation through the Senedd very shortly. It's now been introduced, moving through that scrutiny phase. And that really is about more frequent revaluations, responding specifically to the concerns that the sector's been raising with us, but also improved information flows between ratepayers and the Valuation Office Agency, reviewing the existing package of reliefs and exemptions, recognising that that has been in place for some time, and has evolved, and it's important to check that it is still fit for purpose and targeting the businesses that we need to target in the right way, and, also, the potential to vary the multiplier. You'll know that there were changes to the multiplier in the autumn statement in England. We made changes as well, but, actually, we only have limited ways in which we can change the multiplier here in Wales. What the legislation will do will allow us to change it, perhaps looking at other factors, such as geography or business type, for example, which we just simply can't do at the moment. We'll also be improving the accuracy of rating lists and addressing issues of fraud and avoidance through the legislation as well. I do think it is a matter of regret that the UK Government, following consultation, decided not to introduce an online sales tax. That was an idea that had been put forward by stakeholders in the context of NDR reform. I think the decision there, really, related to the concerns about increased complexity and the risk of creating unintended or distortive, unfair outcomes, between different types of business models. But I don't think it's an issue that can be ignored. We can't deal with online sales taxes in Wales with the powers that we have, but I just think that it's something that the UK Government does need to re-engage with in one way or another.

13:35

Aberconwy, of course, is the honey-pot for tourism in Wales. Only last week, Betws-y-Coed was named best staycation in the UK. Tourism is vital to our Welsh economy, employing 12 per cent of our workforce, contributing around £2.4 billion to our gross domestic product, and attracting over a million, yearly, international travellers. The potential for Welsh tourism is significant. However, it is being besieged by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, who are set against our tourism, our hospitality, and, indeed, our businesses. This will have a devastating effect on our high streets and our employment numbers. The slash to business rates relief by 35 per cent would punish Welsh pubs and restaurants by up to £7,000 more than their English equivalents. We've seen the figures each week—even this new year—of businesses closing. So, given this tragedy, will you reconsider this cut to the funding for our businesses? Will you seek to develop a coherent strategy on countering this spiral of self-destruction for Welsh hospitality and tourism? And, on the point you made there earlier about geography, I would like your guarantee that the majority of businesses in Wales, and particularly those in really good tourism locations, will not see an increase in rates as a result of your revaluation. Thank you.

The revaluation came into force almost a year ago now, so we'll be moving into the second year. Some businesses in Wales did see an increase in their rates, but we did put transitional support in to support those businesses. And I think, actually, the revaluation was welcomed by businesses, because they recognised the importance of having an up-to-date way in which to gauge the bills that they should be paying. But the frequent revaluations have also been welcomed, and that was something that businesses themselves were actually calling for. I'm afraid it's just not possible for us to review the decision in relation to business rate support for next year. We'll still be providing around a third of £1 billion of rate relief to businesses across Wales. And the reality is that the autumn statement provided very little additional funding to meet the pressures that we're facing, and the Welsh Government did in the end decide that we had to prioritise our front-line core public services. You saw the additional £450 million going into the NHS in Wales. The NHS in Wales will receive a 4 per cent uplift in the budget next year, compared to less than 1 per cent across the border in England, and we protected local government services, as we said we would at the time of the spending review. So, those have been really difficult decisions, but, unfortunately, that is where we are because of the lack of funding that we have to meet all of the needs. I would also say that the funding was due to come to an end at the end of this financial year, so what we have done is actually provided an additional 40 per cent of support for a further year, rather than cutting a tax that should never be considered to be something of a permanent nature, because it was there to respond to extraordinary situations during the pandemic, but then extraordinary situations through the cost-of-living crisis as well.

13:40

Property taxes are very unpopular with the rich and powerful. The benefits of a property tax is that it's difficult to legally avoid, while taxes where it's easy to reduce payments, such as corporation tax and income tax, are not generally complained about. Does the Minister agree that any reform of business rates must be property related and based upon the turnover of businesses? And listening to Radio 4 this morning, we've seen rent increases of over 20 per cent for music venues in England and Wales. It's rents that are having a huge effect, and, if you give more rate relief, all it does is that the people who own these buildings are going to get more money.

I'm very grateful for those comments, and both council tax and non-domestic rates—our two local taxes—of course, are based on that property footprint, and, as such, they are very stable taxes, which is a benefit to us, and, as Mike Hedges recognises, they are taxes that are then very hard to avoid. We are undergoing a programme of reform for both council tax and non-domestic rates, but, alongside that, we are considering how a land value tax might be a potential replacement for non-domestic rates, probably, in the first instance—in the longer term—but, as we undertake that scoping work, we have to recognise that any replacement system has to be demonstrably better than the one that we have at the moment. But there are definitely very, very good reasons to go with non-domestic rates and council tax as very stable taxes, and unavoidable ones, as they are at the moment.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm going to be building on a little of what Luke has said, and Janet's already come forward. This is such an important issue for us, and all of our inboxes are demonstrating that at the moment. Minister, I appreciate how hard it's been for Governments across the world, having to make really difficult decisions when it comes to finances, but Welsh businesses in the hospitality sector, especially, are crying out for more support. I'm having letter after letter from people in my own community who are really, really concerned, really up against it. And figures do show that up to one pub a week is being lost. Over 63 pubs have already been forced to close down. And this is more than double the rate of pubs declining in England, and there's got to be a message in there somewhere. Pubs are not merely businesses, are they? They are a social hub for communities, particularly rural communities, where loneliness is particularly prevalent. And recognising those real concerns, Minister—and I know you do—what additional consideration is the Welsh Government giving to providing more financial support, or additional support, in whatever way, to this incredibly important sector, recognising the decline I've just outlined?

At the moment, with the funding available to us, we are providing the most generous package of support that we're able to do. And I don't want to not recognise, of course, the pressures that businesses are under, as the Member has described, and as we're hearing from our own post boxes, as he describes as well. That said, in Wales, only around 20 per cent of businesses actually pay their full non-domestic rates entitlement. A large proportion of those businesses are eligible for relief, and, actually, a large number pay no rates whatsoever in any case. So, I do think that the package of support that we have—almost a third of £1 billion—is very significant. It is there and it is available. But, as I say, we are going through a reform process, looking at that package of relief and exemptions, to make sure that it is targeted as we would wish it to be. And I'm open to discussions with colleagues and, of course, with the sector, on that. 

Thank you for that, Minister. I did a little bit of research, obviously, as I would have done, to see how generous our packages are. And whilst there is that discretionary relief fund for smaller businesses, when you look and analyse what's on offer in England and Scotland, both are more generous than we are here. And it's disappointing, then, that that 75 per cent support for that retail, leisure and hospitality sector will not continue, because I know how much it's been welcomed by businesses in England. Unfortunately, as a result of not extending that, we know that Welsh businesses will be paying almost 50 per cent more in business rates than in England as a result of that discrepancy. And, as Janet pointed out, that means a typical local pub will be more than £6,500— nearly £7,000—worse off than their counterparts in England, and this is devastating, especially if they're on the border. So, considering the Welsh Government received the full set of Barnett consequentials from the UK Conservative Government's decision to extend business rates to support the leisure, retail and hospitality sector in England, why has the Welsh Government not provided the same support here in Wales? And can the Minister tell me where that money has been directed to instead?

13:45

So, as I described in my answer to a previous question, the Welsh Government is facing a pressure on our budget of £1.3 billion, in the sense of our budget being worth that much less than at the time it was originally set. The challenge there, then, is to identify a set of priorities and we identified the national health service and local government services as our top areas of priority for additional funding. So, that funding, which we had from the consequentials in the autumn statement, went alongside the work that we did right across Government to reprioritise funding. So, that comes back to the centre, then that's allocated. And the key allocations you will have seen at the budget that I tabled before Christmas were the £400 million additional for the national health service here in Wales. That has been our key area of additional funding, and that does, I think, reflect the priorities that people tell us. They tell us that they want us to invest more in the NHS, that they value their local services. That's not to say that we don't recognise the pressures on businesses, but there just simply isn't enough money to recognise all of the pressures that there are.

I recognise it's about choices, and I would hope that the Government would recognise the real importance of the economy as a fundamental part of what we should be prioritising. Because thriving businesses create tax, tax that funds local businesses, and this short-sightedness just doesn't make sense to those of us who understand how this system works. Sadly, small businesses here will continue to be burdened by the highest rates of business rates in Great Britain. I know the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill gives you the ability to now apply a split multiplier—a welcome tool—but I know in this budget you are freezing the multiplier currently as it is, at 53.5p, I believe. Minister, when will you start thinking about applying the multiplier opportunity you've got to reduce the burden on small businesses, so they don't pay as much as larger businesses do, and to give them some opportunity to be more competitive, especially on the borders, with their English counterparts? 

So, the legislation, which we've just introduced, would allow us to take a different approach in future. In Wales, at the moment, as things stand, we only have the one multiplier set in law, so we can only make changes to the whole multiplier across the whole of the tax base in terms of business. So, that does limit our opportunities and our options, but what the legislation will do is allow Ministers in future to perhaps have differential rates, based on the size of the business or potentially the type of business or location of business. It will give us more options in future to be more targeted in terms of the support we can provide in terms of capping the multiplier or setting the multiplier.

This year, of course, we've taken the decision to cap the increase to the multiplier to 5 per cent, and that's at a recurring annual cost to the Welsh budget of £18 million. That's lower than the 6.7 per cent increase that would otherwise apply from the default inflation of the multiplier in line with the consumer price index. So, that is an ongoing cost forever, if you like, to the Welsh Government, having done that. And we did use all of the consequential funding in relation to the multiplier choices that have been made in England to do that. 

And then, just to reflect as well that you can't always read across from England to Wales, because, of course, the tax base is different here in any case. Small businesses here account for a much higher proportion of the total rates revenue in Wales compared to England—more than double, in fact. So, the cost of small business rates relief here in Wales is fully funded by the Welsh Government, and it does make up around 10 per cent of total rates revenue compared to just 4 per cent in England. So, the choices that we make in Wales when we do support small businesses often cost us more to do in Wales, just because we have so many more or such a larger proportion of small businesses here.

13:50

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm glad that you've reminded us that a priority area of this Government is to look at local services and local government. As I’ve mentioned many times in this Chamber, local government finances in Wales are currently on an unsustainable trajectory, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss that in greater detail in the debate later.

The erosion of local government spending power as a result of 14 years of Tory-driven austerity, combined with the continued fallout from the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, means that councils across Wales have to make very difficult and painful decisions over the coming months on the provision of local services and related council tax rates. I welcome the fact that the Welsh Government’s provisional local government settlement for 2024-25 provides an average uplift of 3.1 per cent in central funding, but it’s also worth remembering that this does not create a natural minimum floor across the board, with the likes of Gwynedd and Conwy due to receive a 2 per cent uplift compared to a 4.7 per cent uplift for Newport. Obviously, that would be lower for Conwy and Gwynedd if the floor wasn’t in place.

Whilst I completely appreciate that funding need for each council area will always vary from year to year, the fact that some are having to contend with an uplift that is significantly less than the 3.1 per cent average is causing understandable concern. Having made some rough calculations based on the breakdown of the provisional settlement, there is an estimated total additional cost of approximately £14.5 million to provide a minimum uplift of 3 per cent for local authorities. Could you confirm whether my calculations are correct, and could you also talk about the reasons why the floor was set at 2 per cent and not higher?

So, without the benefit of a calculator at the fingertips, what you say sounds about right, certainly, but I can confirm that outside the Chamber. But I think this is simply a matter of what’s affordable. So, when we saw the figures that arose then from the calculations in relation to setting the local government settlement for each individual authority, we looked at the figures and less than 2 per cent, I thought, was just asking councils to do too much in terms of reprioritising their own budgets and meeting those pressures, and it didn’t feel right. You could have picked any figure. We picked a figure that was affordable to Welsh Government, so we had to provide additional funding over and above the revenue support grant for that.

Now, there are other ways in which we could do that. We could top-slice money from the RSG and redistribute that funding so that there is a higher floor; that’s something that local authorities could request us to do, but I don’t think that that would be a popular request at a time when all local authorities, I think, are going to be struggling. So, this is quite an unusual; I think it’s the first time we’ve ever done this, applied a floor to protect local authorities at a time when budgets are actually rising. Normally you apply a floor below which no authority would fall, but actually we thought that 2 per cent is the least that we could provide to local authorities. It’s just affordability. If there was greater funding available then obviously local government is there as a priority. But I think we’ve gone as far as we can in this case.

Every chunk of additional money that can be spared for local authorities can make a huge difference to their ability to mitigate cuts in services and limit council tax hikes as far as possible. While £14.5 million is by no means an unsubstantial sum of money, it does pale in comparison with the £110 million in additional funding that's been allocated to Transport for Wales over the coming financial year, on top of the £125 million they received in October as part of the in-year rebudgeting exercise. I'm sure council leaders, struggling with extremely limited resources at their disposal, will rightly be casting an envious glance at the vast outlay of public money for rail operators that have been consistently ranked among the worst performing in the UK over recent years.

Furthermore, the contrast between TfW and ScotRail, which is also a publicly managed franchise, is quite stark in this respect. Despite having to contend with a proportionally larger hit to their rail passenger numbers, the Scottish Government have nevertheless been able to make an 11 per cent saving on its spending on ScotRail for 2024-25, as well as introducing a peak fares removal pilot for good measure.

At a time when every penny of public money must be used as effectively as possible, surely there is a clear case for giving a bit more to our overstretched local authorities, even if it's in the form of a one-off payment, rather than throwing so much money into a budgetary hole that is partly of the Welsh Government's own making. In reallocating some of the additional money for TfW—

13:55

Yes. Is reallocating some of the additional money for TfW to support local authorities something that the Welsh Government might consider?

So, the funding that we have provided to Transport for Wales is what we understand through the climate change Minister and the Deputy Minister for Climate Change to be the minimum, really, that Transport for Wales need in order to continue running the rail service as we move through that transformation programme.

I think that what you described—. I do welcome ideas where colleagues put forward areas where they would like to see additional funding, and then come up with areas where they would like that funding to be moved from. I think that is really helpful, so, of course, we will consider all colleagues' suggestions as we move towards the final budget.

But, in reality, I just don't think that reducing the budget that we've provided to Transport for Wales would give us the kinds of results that we want. So, we want a functioning rail service that people can rely on; we want to improve the service and we need to invest to do that. So, I think that the discussion that we're having really speaks to just the tough choices that we have to make to set the budget in this year. And I know that this kind of discussion is going on through our committee sessions as well. But, of course, I welcome these kinds of suggestions.

Public Libraries

3. How is Welsh Government supporting public libraries in Newport East? OQ60577

The provision of public libraries is the responsibility of local authorities. The Welsh Government provides funding to enable the development of library services, including revenue support for the national digital library service, and a capital transformation grant fund to improve library buildings and facilities. Newport libraries benefit from this support.

Minister, community-run libraries can be a catalyst for wider community development. In my constituency of Newport East we have Llyfrgell Maindee Library, which operates in a very multicultural area, and has been the catalyst for much community development—a community cafe, a performance space, the greening of the local area, amongst other initiatives.

Next month, Maindee library will be hosting the launch of a new recipe book provided by Greening Maindee, with funding from Welsh Government and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The recipe book is bilingual and will be a celebration of multiculturalism and community, featuring recipes written by residents of Maindee, many of whom are from different countries and make up this wonderfully diverse area. It will be illustrated by children from Maindee Primary School and local artists and  photographers, and have favourite recipes from different cultures, also containing stories of the lives of Maindee residents.

Minister, would you agree with me that this is a very important and worthwhile set of community initiatives? And will Welsh Government continue to support community-run libraries, such as Maindee library in Newport East, to take forward these sorts of initiatives, particularly with that multicultural dimension?

Yes, I'm really thankful to John Griffiths for raising that example in the Chamber this afternoon. The recipe book sounds wonderful and I think it really shows an example of what libraries can do, which is about so much more than simply books, if you like, because it is does give communities the opportunity to come together, to share their knowledge and to share their talents and so on. So, it sounds like an absolutely wonderful example.

And I know that Maindee library is a community-led library. It's not part of the statutory service provided by Newport. Actually, it's something that goes on over and above those services, which is quite exciting in and of itself. Welsh Government did provide Maindee library with £18,000 as part of the cost-of-living grants to independent museums and libraries programme, and I hope that that's been helpful to the library as it continues to do its important work.

Minister, I cannot agree with you more that the importance of libraries really cannot be underestimated. They are vital venues for so many of my constituents across south-east Wales and the impact of losing libraries poses a real threat to the health and well-being of our communities according to Community Leisure UK.

Council chiefs in Newport are drawing up a raft of measures in a bid to generate extra cash, including squeezing more money out of residents by hiking up council tax by a staggering 8.5 per cent. But not only that, the local authority is looking at closing two of the city's libraries, one in Pill—also known as Pillgwenlly—and the other in St. Julian's, with the possibility of selling off those buildings. So, residents in Newport are being forced to pay more council tax, while seeing the services available to them fall as a consequence. So, Minister, will you join me in calling on the council to go through the cost-saving proposals again with a fine-tooth comb, to ensure that residents aren't going to be short-changed, especially in light of the news that Newport council will receive the biggest percentage funding increase of any Welsh council next year?

14:00

I know that councils will be very carefully considering their proposals as they consult with local authorities on their plans for their budgets, and also how they consider council tax, for example. Caerphilly council will absolutely be listening carefully to the representations made by their communities as they go about making difficult choices. Despite where they are on the settlement table, they will, nonetheless, have to make some tough choices too.

I, for one, would agree with the dozens of Conservative Members of Parliament and former Conservative Ministers who have written to the UK Government, calling for additional funding for local authorities. We would hope then that that would mean consequential funding for us in Wales, so that we can continue to invest in public services.

Budget Monitoring

5. How does the Minister use real-time data when monitoring Welsh Government budgets? OQ60554

Welsh Ministers use of a range of evidence in monitoring budgets, with our finance system operating on a real-time basis. The robustness of information also needs to be considered. Real time doesn’t always mean more accurate. Real-time data from a small sample may not be as representative as other data.

One of the most repeated lines in this Chamber, when we are talking about the budget, when myself or party colleagues discuss cuts, is, 'Where will you cut instead?' As we discussed in Finance Committee, granular-level monitoring data is not available to opposition parties, and it's disingenuous to ask us to suggest alternative cuts without access to that line-by-line budget of the Government, and access to the officials who help to analyse that data. 

There is an argument for greater sharing of information with opposition parties so that we can perform scrutiny, and possibly come up with potential solutions. I know that local authorities provide financial monitoring updates on a quarterly basis, and there is a compelling argument for the Welsh Government to at least match that. Would you be willing to work towards establishing a mechanism or Senedd budgetary office to share that information and strengthen our scrutiny function?

I would argue that the Welsh Government does provide an extraordinary amount of data to the Senedd. We actually have a number of points throughout the year where we provide that detailed information. We have our draft budget. We have the final budget. But then, alongside that, we have our first supplementary budget and our second supplementary budget, where that very detailed information is available to colleagues across the Senedd. So, I would argue that we provide an awful lot of information.

We did discuss in Finance Committee—and this would be a matter for the Senedd and not for the Welsh Government—in terms of further support for analysis of data, and whether the Senedd would want to explore that further. But, as I say, and as we said in committee, that would be a matter for the Senedd rather than the Welsh Government. But I would say that we do provide an extraordinary amount of information.

When asking colleagues to consider which areas they would cut otherwise, that's really the language of broad priorities, and the kind of areas of Government that you would want to see protected. So, when we talk about public services, we are talking about the NHS; we are talking about local government. But there are other areas as well, and you probably don't need the granular data for that, beyond what we provide in the supplementary budgets and the budget.

I would also say that we have to be careful about how useful it would be. In Finance Committee as well, we talked about how the budget is moving and changing constantly. So, the picture that you have on one day might not be reflective of how things are in a couple of weeks' time. So, I think that there is an argument as well for letting the Welsh Government get on with managing the budget but also providing detailed information through those supplementary budgets and the budgeting process.  

It's a fantastic question that Peredur raises this afternoon. It's important that the Welsh Government takes a balanced approach with regard to fiscal policy, embracing long-term thinking but also responding appropriately when spending cuts have more severe consequences than anticipated. We have expressed our opposition on these benches to some of the spending cuts that have been made in the 2024-25 budget, and have been particularly critical of the cuts to social services, leaving a funding gap of £646 million, and cuts to business rates relief. People in Wales are seeing their tax bills go up, with the Labour-run local authorities raising council tax on average 8.46 per cent across Wales, whilst the productive bit of our economy, small business, is seeing support being pulled out from under it and other vital services being cut too.

I appreciate that the Welsh Government needs to adopt remedial long-term economic plans post COVID-19. Despite my view that these are the wrong budgetary decisions being made, I think that a reactionary approach, where the Welsh Government chops and changes its budgetary decisions frequently in response to real-time data against prevailing trends, makes things far worse. With all of that in mind, if some of these cuts have severe adverse consequences within the next six months to a year, worse than the consequences forecast for small business productivity or the social care crisis, will the Minister respond appropriately and reassess the spending plans of this Government?

14:05

I would say that you can't have a £1.3 billion pressure on the budget and for there just not to be any consequences anywhere. There will be consequences from the choices that we've made, but we've had to make those choices, because our budget is worth so much less as a result of inflation. We have prioritised public services. We've prioritised the NHS and local government, and I think that people will understand why we've done that. In terms of revisiting decisions or taking different decisions, I will say that, as we move towards the final budget, we, of course, are considering what our colleagues, through the scrutiny committees, are proposing, and it's right that we do that.

I would also say, of course, that the day after we vote on our final budget, we have the UK Government's spring statement, so, inevitably, I think there will be some changes as we move into the next financial year. I would expect those to be finalised or set out, at least to some degree, in the first supplementary budget for the next financial year. What that means we don't know; we could find ourselves having to make further cuts after we've already voted on our final budget, if our budget goes down in March. But then, equally, there could be opportunities for further allocations if it's improved. So, inevitably, this isn't going to be the final picture for next year.

Small Businesses

6. How does the Minister monitor the impact of policies within the Finance and Local Government portfolio on small business? OQ60545

We continually monitor the impacts of our policies to ensure that we are providing the most appropriate support within our available funding. We engage with stakeholders and partners, including small businesses, to gain insight into the effectiveness of policies, which sits alongside any formal relevant monitoring.

Diolch. Speaking here 22 months ago, I quoted legitimate local north Wales resident holiday let business owners, who stated that Welsh Government regulations allowing local authorities to charge a council tax premium of up to 300 per cent on second homes in Wales would destroy them. I asked you what impact assessments the Welsh Government has therefore carried out of the consequences for legitimate holiday let businesses with properties that are not used as second homes. I've since heard from north Wales constituents, not only of many such businesses closing in consequence, but also of the negative impact that this is having on a range of other local businesses. How are you therefore monitoring the impact of this now on people? A constituent recently wrote:

'I live on the Llŷn. I am another Furnished Holiday Let owner having to sell up. My home going with it. My Furnished Holiday Let is my only income. Then the reduced booking because of Welsh Government policies and the anti-incomer feelings fuelled by Welsh Government policies. I am ill with it, frightened, devastated and I'm heading towards debt. I'm 61 and I'm Welsh.'

In terms of the particular point that the Member was making around the 300 per cent, which we've allowed local authorities to charge on second home properties or empty homes, it's only Pembrokeshire and Monmouthshire that have adopted the maximum council tax premium of 300 per cent for properties, and then only when they have been empty for more than four years and three years respectively. That does seem like a reasonable course of action if you do have empty properties.

The Welsh Government has tried to strike a balance in terms of creating sustainable communities and allowing people to access properties to live in within those communities whilst also supporting a vibrant tourism sector. That balance is a difficult balance to strike in terms of being sustainable. Of course, there are options for people who have second properties, whether they're second homes or holiday lets. Those options might include, for example, letting that property out as a full-time home to somebody in the local community. So, it's not for Welsh Government to be commenting on individual cases, but there are, of course, options available to people. We are making efforts to create those sustainable communities. We've got communities where 40 per cent of those properties are only occupied through part of the year. That's not going to be a sustainable community in the long term, so we have to make these choices to support those communities.

14:10
Fiscal Responsibility in Local Government

7. What action does the Welsh Government take to ensure fiscal responsibility in local government? OQ60556

There's a comprehensive framework of assurance and accountability for local authorities set out in legislation and guidance. Local scrutiny is an important part of this, and Audit Wales provides a consistent and valued process of assurance.

Thank you for that, Minister. Sadly, the lessons are not being learned. Thanks to work by Westminster's Public Accounts Committee and analysis by the BBC, we know the staggering levels of debt amassed by councils across the UK. Sadly, Swansea Council has a level of debt almost double the UK average. At almost £0.75 billion, the level of debt is equal to £2,917 for each person living in the city and county of Swansea. Minister, I am sure that you will agree that this level of debt is unsustainable, and with the current proposed local government settlement, it is likely to grow. We have seen the ultimate consequence of this across the border, where fiscally irresponsible councils have been forced to issue section 114 notices, declaring bankruptcy. Do you now agree that it is time for a thorough review of the funding model for local government?

What I agree with, as I said to Natasha Asghar, is the large number of Conservative MPs and former Ministers who have written to the UK Government saying that local government needs to be better resourced. I absolutely agree with that. We haven't seen these section 114 notices being issued in Wales. We do have local authorities that are under huge pressure, but all of the section 114 notices have been issued in England, where English authorities have really suffered in recent years, because the UK Government has absolutely turned its back on local government. We haven't had the same situation here. We're keeping our promise of a 3.1 per cent increase in this financial year. Last year, authorities had a 7.3 per cent increase, and a 9.4 per cent increase the year before. Both of those were baseline. So, we have done absolutely everything that we can to give local authorities the best possible settlements, and we continue to do that again this year. As I say, those section 114 notices are a familiar sight now across the border in England, but we haven't had any here in Wales.

Flying Start

8. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Health and Social Services about funding the expansion of Flying Start in Mid and West Wales? OQ60569

I meet regularly with ministerial colleagues on a range of matters, including these important programme for government and co-operation agreement commitments. This is the toughest financial situation Wales has faced since devolution, but I'm pleased that the funding for expansion of Flying Start in 2024-25 has been protected.

Thank you for that response.

We all want to see good childcare across Wales, particularly for those vulnerable families, which is what Flying Start provides. Compared with the rest of the UK, I understand that Wales has the lowest funding hourly rate for three to four-year-olds, at around £5 per hour, and while the current Flying Start rate is higher than the general childcare offer, the mandated 1:4 staffing ratio is far more costly than the 1:8, which really increases expenses for providers. I am pleased to hear you say and to know that the offer is being protected in the next financial year, but providers are telling us that they're finding it really difficult to deliver that really high-quality childcare. So, with these funding pressures, I just wondered if you could outline what provision the Government is making to ensure fair funding across all providers to genuinely increase childcare access and parental choice. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:15

Thank you. So, during 2023-24 and 2024-25, we’ll be investing £46 million in expanding Flying Start childcare to support the long-term positive impacts on the lives of those children and the families in Wales facing some of the greatest challenges, and the funding commitment, as I say, for the expansion of the scheme remains unchanged. Delivery of phase 2 began in April 2023, and in total, phase 2 of the expansion will allow 9,500 more two-year-olds to access childcare through Flying Start once the expansion is running at full capacity, including over 4,500 more children in 2023-24. So, work is going ahead at pace to improve the access to that scheme.

In terms of the funding of the hourly rate and the staffing ratio, that’s something I know the Deputy Minister is well aware of, and I do understand there’s a commitment to review the funding of the hourly rate at regular intervals, but perhaps I’ll speak to the Deputy Minister to gain some more information on that.

And my question is: Minister, I’ve been in correspondence with the Minister myself—the Deputy Minister for Social Services—with regard to Flying Start, and particularly in relation to two-year-old funding, as you’ve outlined just now. When I had a response from the Minister last month, the Minister said:

‘Ultimately, our ambition is for Flying Start childcare services to be available for all 2 year olds in Wales and we would ideally like to go further and faster in the rollout of services.’

So, I was pleased with that, but as I’ve understood it, if I've understood this rightly, Minister, the funding for two-year-olds is available for all children in England, wherever they are; in Wales, it’s just in those Flying Start areas. So, can I ask for some clarification in terms of when funding will be available to ensure that the roll-out takes place to all areas of Wales, including rural areas in Wales, which are often not classed as areas of deprivation?

Perhaps I should ask the Deputy Minister to write to you again with some further clarification in terms of what she set out in her letter to you.FootnoteLink I understand that in England things are moving at a different rate, because I know that there are issues in terms of the sector itself and the capacity of the sector to be able to respond to what the UK Government is asking it to do. But I’m afraid I’m probably too far away from the detail of this to be able to provide a detailed answer.

Equality Considerations in Local Authority Funding

9. What consideration does the Minister give to the Equality Act 2010 when allocating the revenue support grant for local authorities? OQ60570

We consider the equality impacts of our spending decisions through our strategic integrated impact assessment. Local authorities are under the same obligations to understand the impact of their decisions in terms of equality legislation and under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.

Thank you, Minister. I also wanted to touch on the socioeconomic duty, which was brought in as a key mechanism in planning Wales’s recovery from the impacts of COVID, which seems a long time ago to some of us, but it really isn’t, and I think our communities are still feeling that. And the purpose of that was to enable us to move towards the reconstruction of a fairer and more prosperous Wales, and it requires specific public bodies to make those strategic decisions, deciding priorities and setting objectives to consider how fair their decisions are, including education, work, living standards. So, of course we all want a fairer Wales, and I was just wondering, Minister, if you could give us a bit of an update in terms of looking at things through that socioeconomic duty, and the conversations that you have with public bodies and local authorities in order to do this.

Yes, this is a really important part of our work in terms of developing our budget process and particularly so through the budget improvement plan that was published alongside the draft budget. It’s a rolling five-year programme, so every year we update that to set out the new actions that we’ll be undertaking. And I do think that it’s really important that local authorities, of course, undertake this work as well, and I’m really pleased when looking at Bridgend’s approach to consulting on its budget proposals, that its top priority in terms of the principles that it will be using to underpin the development of its budget is to safeguard and protect the most vulnerable people in our communities. I think that it’s really welcome to see that, and that really is what I want to see all local authorities having at the top of their list in terms of their priorities and at the heart of their decisions as they set their budgets, in what are extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

14:20
2. Questions to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd

The next set of questions will be to the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd, and the first question is from James Evans. 

Young Entrants to the Agricultural Industry

1. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government support for young entrants to the agricultural industry? OQ60540

The Welsh Government continues to support young entrants to the agricultural industry through programmes such as Farming Connect and Start to Farm. The sustainable farming scheme will be available to all types of farms and will support young farmers to develop in the industry and establish sustainable businesses.

I'd like to thank you for your answer, Minister. The future of our agricultural industry in Wales depends on the Welsh Government getting things right for our next generation of young farmers. In my role as the constituency Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, I meet many young entrants due to my connection to the industry and also the part I played in the young farmers movement. A young farmer called Scott e-mailed me late Monday night to raise concerns, and he asked me if I could put this question to you directly, so I am. He said:

'Can the Minister give me hope that there's any future for me and other young entrants across the agricultural industry in Wales? I farm cattle, but I'm currently afraid to farm them due to the fear of TB. My family is concerned about the payment rates for the sustainable farming scheme and potentially losing 20 per cent of our farm to trees and biodiversity targets from the Government. It also seems the Government is far too quiet and reluctant to support us from the barrage of abuse that we receive from tv personalities for fear of upsetting the environmental lobby.'

So, Minister, what can you say to me and that young farmer that there is a future for them here in Wales to keep farming, because without our next generation of young farmers, we might as well say that the Welsh agricultural industry is closed for business?

I certainly agree with that last point, and encouraging the next generation into agriculture is a very, very important part of maintaining a prosperous and dynamic industry. I've spoken to many young farmers, like the farmer you referred to, who tell me that access to land is a barrier, access to capital is a barrier, and we've worked very hard over the past few years. You'll probably remember Start to Farm in a different form—it was called Venture—and I think that has been incredibly positive in enabling individuals to participate with people who are at the other end of the scale and who want to ensure that we have that prosperous and dynamic industry. So, what I would say is, absolutely, we will continue to do all we can. I don't underestimate what an uncertain and unstable time it has been for all parts of our economic sector, and of course the agricultural industry is no different.

Promoting Local Produce

Welsh Government has supported food and drink businesses and their supply chains, achieving our food foundation sector turnover of £8.1 billion. Blas Cymru/Taste Wales, key buyer events such as the Royal Welsh Show and the trade development and export programmes were instrumental in achieving this success. Welsh food and drink continues to be promoted locally, nationally and internationally, and multichannel communication is projecting Wales as a food nation.

Thank you, Minister, and that is fantastic to hear, but I just believe we could be doing more. Now, the UK currently imports around 35 per cent of the beef and veal it consumes, or around 250,000 tonnes annually—2,700 tonnes from Uruguay, 14,800 from Poland, and 2,800 from Brazil. So, for me, it makes absolutely no sense that we are importing beef to eat from the other side of the world when we have 40,300 tonnes produced locally. Similarly, we are importing 600 tonnes of lamb from Spain, 9,100 from Australia, and 31,000 from New Zealand. That is despite 48,700 tonnes being produced in Wales annually. And I believe that Welsh lamb, pork and beef are the best in the world. 

Now, the reality is, though, that when you go to a restaurant or cafe now, or a pub, you have no idea whether you're eating Welsh or foreign meat, and if it's foreign, it's got a high carbon footprint, and it's of a lesser quality standard than our meat.  

I am. I have previously asked whether you would consider introducing a scheme where hospitality businesses that are able and want to sell Welsh produce do so and that we do the 'scores on the doors' type of system. This would allow consumers to choose which establishment to eat in and whether they want to buy—and pay a little bit more if needs be—Welsh beautiful local produce, or, you know, are happy with not doing so. But the 'scores on the doors' system would be really effective in that regard. Diolch.

14:25

Thank you. I think the scheme to which you refer probably would be quite difficult to administer, but what I am keen to keep doing is promoting, as you say, our fantastic Welsh food and drink, and you specifically referred to Welsh lamb, beef and pork, and, obviously, we support Hybu Cig Cymru to make sure that the message of our fantastic red meat is taken around the world. We have many events overseas: we've got Gulfood coming up in Dubai next month, we have Anuga in Germany, we have Salon International de l’Alimentation in Paris, and HCC always have a presence there promoting our fantastic food and drink.

I have to say, you do see it more often now in restaurants that they are keen to show where their produce is from. I guess we can always ask, as consumers, and as people who use restaurants and hospitality venues, to make sure that they understand that people are asking more questions. I certainly think people are asking more questions about where their food and drink comes from.

I've been approached by some egg producers in my region concerned at the impact on the sale of free-range eggs under avian influenza mandatory housing measures; I know you touched on this in committee last week. You'll know that the proposed changes in legislation in England and Scotland would remove the time limit for free-range hens to be housed in mandatory restrictions, and that change means that eggs produced by hens that are usually free range would still be marketed as such, even if they've been housed indoors for longer than 16 weeks, due, of course, to mandatory housing measures under avian influenza. Now, supermarkets have told producers in my region, apparently, that if the rules in Wales are different and that they can't still describe their eggs as free range, then they'll lose their contracts, and with it their livelihoods. So, will you consider adopting the same approach as England and Scotland to help protect the sector were there, of course, to be a significant outbreak of avian flu?

Thank you. Well, as you say, when a housing order is introduced, farmers may market eggs produced by housed hens as free range for the first 16 weeks of a housing order, and I think 16 weeks is a fair period of time for that to take place. I'm very aware that the European Union have decided to remove that 16-week derogation; that will obviously then apply to Northern Ireland. So, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Scottish Government have launched a joint consultation, which we are not taking part in. However, I'm very interested to see the outcomes of that consultation because I don't think either of those two Governments did enough work with consumers; it's far more towards business, if you like, than taking the consumers' views into consideration. But I have asked my officials to keep a very close eye on those consultations—I think it closes on something like 5 March; there's a little while to go yet—but I would be very interested to see that. But I think it's really important that we could have different policies within the UK. I absolutely recognise it could be more complicated, but I do think we have to take these decisions on balance, and that's what I've done.

Minister, you'll be aware that I chair the cross-party group on beer and pubs here in this Senedd, and it's in that capacity, Minister, that I've visited many local breweries across Wales with elected Members and seen first-hand how important they are to our local economy and to their local communities as well. Local breweries like Wrexham Lager in your own constituency, Hafod Brewing in Mold, Tiny Rebel in Newport—they're all becoming famous across the globe for being high-quality Welsh products. I was reminded of this in a conversation I had with Ministers from the Japanese embassy this afternoon, where we have used, in the past, major international events to showcase our Welsh projects, such as Wrexham Lager, and in particular, where we did that at the Rugby World Cup, to some success, in Japan. Minister, can I ask you whether you will commit to continuing to use international events, such as the Rugby World Cup and others, to promote Welsh brewing?

Thank you. Yes, I'm very keen to use every opportunity we have to support all parts of the Welsh food and drink industry, but, as you say, you're referring to Welsh beer. We have a drinks cluster that the Welsh Government supports, and I think it's next week that I will be launching—I think it's the Welsh beer and the Welsh spirits strategies; again, another part of a fantastic range of drink produce that we have here in Wales. The strategies will really show how the sector intends to drive the industry in parallel with the Welsh Government’s strategic vision for the food and drink industry. I think events like you referred to in Japan, when the world cup was held in Japan—the Rugby World Cup—that really has a focus. You had this massive global focus that you really just can’t buy, as a Minister with responsibility for food and drink. But I think it is also important that we do things closer to home as well. I mentioned in an earlier answer about Blas Cymru, and it was great to see the number of new food and drink producers there. And, in fact, I think, the drink producers, we had the biggest number of new products than we’ve had at any other Blas Cymru.

14:30

Well, the Minister will be aware of the benefits of game meat. We know that game meat is full of protein, it’s sustainable, it has low food miles, whether it’s pheasant or deer or rabbit or any other type of game meat, and it’s all very local and locally produced. But, unfortunately, we can't see, or we haven’t seen, game meat on menus in schools and hospitals and elsewhere. What thoughts have you given to ensuring that game meat is on the menu in our hospitals and in our schools so that we support local game meat producers and we ensure that game meat, with its low food miles, contributes to the diet here in Wales?

I haven’t done anything specifically with public services around ensuring that game meat is on the menu. I would guess that the cost might be a barrier, but it’s certainly something that I would be very happy to speak with the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language about to see if it is something that is being considered.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. A £1 million hit to one of Wales’s premier events—that’s the damning analysis by the Royal Welsh Agricultural Society on this Welsh Government’s proposal to change the school year. Now, we all know that the Royal Welsh Show is the pinnacle of the agricultural calendar—Europe’s largest agricultural event, with 250,000 people enjoying the show. Yet this Welsh Government, and your preferred First Minister candidate, would happily see it sacrificed in the name of school-year reform that not even the teachers want to see.

So, given the economic, social and cultural importance of the Royal Welsh Show, what conversations have you, as Minister, had with the education Minister about scrapping these proposals, about supporting the Royal Welsh Show and making sure that the agricultural industry is considered in decisions taken by this Welsh Government?

The Llywydd (Elin Jones) took the Chair.

Well, both I and the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language have met with officers and the chief executive of the Royal Welsh Show. I don’t disagree with what you say about it being the pinnacle of our agricultural calendar. You will be aware, I'm sure, that this is currently out to consultation. The consultation has not closed, no decisions have been taken and those conversations will continue.

Thank you, Minister. It is disappointing that this was even considered, and the diary, the calendar, the event of the Royal Welsh Show is yearly—it's in there every year—and the fact that this has even come this far shows that the Welsh Government gives little consideration to rural Wales.

But, moving away from talking about a possible next First Minister to the current First Minister, he too caused real pain to the agricultural community in 2022 when speaking to BBC Wales, and he said that he needed to justify to Bangladeshi taxi drivers supporting farmers. Yet that justification has now come, thanks to the independent YouGov poll showing that 82 per cent of people support Welsh farming being financially supported to produce food, with 72 per cent thinking that supporting Welsh farmers is good use of public spending. Thankfully, some hard data that flies in the face of Mike Hedges's harmful and hurtful comments on subsidies.

I and the unions have welcomed the basic payment scheme being maintained at £238 million. But, when looking at this support by Welsh Government, it's important to note the context, that being that the Welsh Government maxed out the movement of money away from farmers in pillar 1 to pillar 2 prior to our departure from the European Union. This means that the £238 million, maintained within the draft budget via BPS, is the bare minimum that it could have been. It's completely reasonable, therefore, Minister, to suggest that this figure of £238 million should not be used as a benchmark or baseline for future support through the sustainable farming scheme. In reality, we should be looking at using the common agricultural policy total of £338 million as the absolute minimum figure. So, what figures are you using as a baseline when calculating the support available to farmers from 2025 onwards?

14:35

Well, you asked me this question last week in committee, and what I said to you, and I will repeat that for all Members to hear, is that we wanted to protect the £238 million. When I brought forward the figure for the BPS of 2023 in December 2022, I maintained it at £238 million, and I said I wanted to carry that forward to 2024. It hasn't been easy, because of the difficult financial situation, but we've been able to do that. The YouGov poll didn't surprise me, and the way it was questioned, I think, was absolutely—you know, the data that we got from it, it didn't really surprise me, because of course people need to understand where their food comes from. What I will go back to saying is it's really important that we explain to the public where their money goes, and I don't think, ahead of leaving the European Union, that the public did understand the level of subsidy that our farmers got. But I think it is really important to be open and transparent, and that's what I've certainly always endeavoured to do. I have never, ever, said anything other than I cannot see a time, certainly in my lifetime, where we would not need to support our farmers, and that's exactly what I've done as Minister.

Thank you, Minister. You referred to your answer you gave at committee. Something else that I pressed you on was the need to lobby UK Government as to what figure you want to see for the sustainable farming scheme. Now, at that point in committee last week, you'd not made any individual representations to the Treasury as to what money you would like to see to deliver the sustainable farming scheme. So, hopefully, that letter is forthcoming.

Monday's episode of S4C's Ffermio demonstrated yet again the cruel reality of TB on Welsh farms. The horrific scenes of on-farm slaughter of cattle and in-calf cattle even carried a trigger warning for viewers as it was that distressing. My heart breaks for Wyn and Enid Davies, and for every farmer and their family who are suffering under the dark cloud of TB. The outpouring of support for the Davieses on social media was only matched by the anger and frustration felt towards their situation. I've long called—both in and outside of this Chamber—for your Welsh Government to change its policy regarding the on-farm slaughter of in-calf cows and heifers. There are accepted other ways of doing this that your Government, at the moment, aren't entertaining. You mentioned yesterday that, I quote:

'There is also going to be a technical advisory group'

looking into this policy. Yet we've been talking about this group for months and months, with minimal progress. So, that's just not good enough for these farmers and their families who are suffering. So, please, Minister, can you please stop delaying a decision and abdicating responsibility to a group that's not yet formed, and use the powers that you have as rural affairs Minister to change the policy around the way that in-calf cows and heifers are slaughtered on farm? Give the farmers some hope, please.

So, I absolutely understand the distress that the event that you referred to that was shown on Ffermio causes to a farmer and their family—absolutely understand that. And it's not just the technical advisory group; whilst I'm asking them to consider it again, we did look at this, prior to you coming to the Senedd. We did look at this with the agricultural sector, because I absolutely understand how horrendous it must be to see that on-farm slaughter. But, unfortunately, we didn't make much progress, and this is why I'm asking the technical advisory group to have a look at this as a matter of urgency. We're also seeking views from the farming unions—of course, the farming unions have discussed this with me—and other industry representatives, so that they can present to the technical advisory group exactly what they think is needed. In some cases, unfortunately, on-farm slaughter is unavoidable if cattle cannot be transported to an abattoir, or if they're unfit for human consumption. However, I think removing TB-infected cattle from the farm as soon as possible is obviously a key element of our TB eradication programme. And I go back to what I was saying about having to work in partnership—everyone together, not just Government alone—to ensure that we do get a TB-free Wales.

Diolch, Llywydd. Back in December, Minister, in scrutiny committee, I asked you in what way will the sustainable farming scheme recognise the potential devaluation of farmland caused by the requirement to plant trees on it. Because, obviously, there's a significant difference in value between good-quality, productive agricultural land and land that's been planted over with trees. Now, you couldn't answer my question then. You've had a bit of time to think about it; I wonder whether you could answer me today. Where in the proposed new system is that devaluation, or that loss of the value of farmland, recognised?

14:40

We are looking at all of the economic analysis of the sustainable farming scheme. We've started to prepare for that. We've had a great deal of analysis done. The analysis that we have done is not going to be reflected in the final scheme, once that comes in, in just over 12 months now. But the modelling that we've done is to provide us with evidence to inform the design of the scheme, and, obviously, we have to take things into consideration, like reduction in stocking, looking at land, as you say, looking at farm business income, looking at agricultural output, looking at what farm labour will be required. So, all that is part of the economic analysis. 

But not necessarily reflected in the final scheme—is that what you're saying? Because, clearly, if you want people to sign up to the sustainable farming scheme—and it's something we all want to see, in terms of the outcomes for nature and climate and the wider public good—then they need to be encouraged to do so. Failure to recognise a devaluation in land value will be driving people away from the scheme. So, I think it's imperative on you as a Government to be able to explicitly answer that question when the time comes for you to be able to do so.

And we can debate and discuss, as we are doing, the proposal for 10 per cent tree cover, which—. Losing 10 per cent of your productive land invariably will have an impact on farm viability. We look at the nitrate vulnerable zones regulations—huge capital investment required for many farms, which they can ill afford. Many will have to de-stock, and that, again, will chip away at the viability of their farm. Bovine TB can have a paralysing effect on farm businesses, and, of course, can have huge consequences in terms of mental health, as we've so graphically seen broadcast this week. 

Now, we can discuss these individual Government policies in their own right, but do you not accept that there's a cumulative impact at play here? Individually, they're chipping away at the industry, but, coming together, they could potentially be a hammer blow for people's livelihoods. So, can I ask: what assessment has the Government made of the situation in the round? How are you assessing the cumulative impact of all of your policies on the industry, which, understandably at the minute, feels under siege?

Thank you. I think you make an important point—and I think you made it in committee—about the cumulative impact. And if we look at the cumulative impact of events that are outside our control—so, if you look at leaving the European Union, the COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living, all that has had a cumulative impact on all of our economies, but, as you say, the agricultural sector as well. And, obviously, it is a time of great uncertainty and instability, and part of ensuring that the BPS payment was the same was to try and provide a bit of stability for our farmers. 

But I do accept that, obviously, we're having to bring forward new policies, particularly around the sustainable farming scheme. You're probably aware that, at the moment, my officials are out there doing roadshows with farmers to make sure that the questions they have are answered face to face. I think that's really important, and we've seen really significant attendances. I think we've had three—I think today is the fourth workshop—and every one of them has exceeded the number of people that have been registered, which I think is really positive, and certainly the feedback I've had back. 

So, as I say, we've done the modelling assessment around the economic analysis, which was on the pre-consultation, if you like. There will be a further one on the analysis that we have following the consultation responses, following the roadshows, ahead of that final design of the scheme. And it's really important that we take all that information into account. 

You referred to agricultural pollution regulations, which I know you agree are very much needed, and it's really important that we work with the sector. And, again, I've been really fortunate to be able, within the cuts that I've had to my budget, to protect the money to help farmers, who, as you say, have to do significant work to ensure they meet the regulations. However, what I've always made clear is I will not put money towards people coming up to the baseline that they should have been at in the first place. But we are looking closely at the cumulative impact of the different policies, because it is a time of great change for our agricultural sector. 

Illegal Dog Breeding

3. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with local authorities regarding holding reviews of the breeding of illegal dogs in their areas? OQ60552

Our capacity to investigate and stop illegal breeding has increased significantly over recent years as a direct result of the Welsh Government-funded local authority enforcement project. Officials meet regularly with Animal Licensing Wales to discuss progress.

14:45

Thank you for that. Well, to begin with, I'd like to congratulate Carmarthenshire County Council for the work that they've done on this issue. They announced a review of the breeding of illegal dogs in the area by the council cabinet, and I understand that they are the first local authority in Wales to do this, so all praise is due to them. 

Research from RSPCA Cymru shows that Caerphilly council received the third highest number of enquiries into dog breeding in 2022, and Carmarthenshire and Cardiff councils received yet more. Now, while the majority of investigations into these enquiries resulted in no further action, six resulted in formal action and two prosecutions were also undertaken. Caerphilly is the only local authority to have undertaken prosecutions relevant to illegal dog breeding, aside from Carmarthenshire, in 2022. I do commend them for the work that they've done. Of course, there have been a number of fatalities in recent years in the area. What do you think the Welsh Government can do, in terms of doing more to encourage councils across Wales to do more to tackle this issue, particularly in terms of conducting reviews into illegal dog breeding to prevent these appalling fatalities happening in the first place? Diolch. 

Thank you. Well, you do raise a very important point, and, as I say, we've had the local authority enforcement project, which I do think has led to best practice being shared, perhaps, in a way that it wasn't before. And I think it is really important that every local authority has the opportunity to undertake the inspections at dog breeding premises. And I think those visits, in particular, have led to a big change at the premises that have been visited. The teams led operations at ports across Wales, because I think that will really help with our local authorities as well. So, I am very keen that we continue the project. Obviously, I'm looking at what more we can do. You mentioned, sadly, the fatalities that we've seen in Caerphilly. You'll be aware I had the responsible dog ownership summit. I'm very keen to have a further one next year, because, whilst we haven't got all the levers, it's really important that we use the ones we do have in Wales.

Minister, illegal dog breeding is a major cause of concern for many across Wales and remains a prevalent animal welfare issue. This can be seen in the number of enquiries made to local authorities about illegal dog breeding, rising from 372 in 2021 to 465 in 2022. With Carmarthenshire County Council now launching a review into illegal dog breeding, I do sincerely hope that more local authorities will follow suit. Giving councillors the opportunity to accompany officers on searches of suspected illegal dog breeding premises will, hopefully, provide people with a better understanding of the issue. So, Minister, in light of Carmarthenshire council's decision, will you be encouraging other local authorities, including all of the ones in south-east Wales, to follow in their footsteps? And will the Welsh Government be making more funding available to local authorities to enforce the new rules on abandoned and stray American XL bullies? Thank you.

Well, in relation to the last part of your question, the UK Government are funding that. We don't have to fund that; it was the UK Government. The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is a reserved matter. It's a piece of UK Government legislation, so they are funding that. But I think the point you make around Carmarthenshire, which Delyth Jewell referred to as well, is really important, and we will certainly be doing all we can to share, as I say, that best practice across Wales. But I do think it's really important to remember that the public have a significant role to play here. If they want to purchase a dog, it's really important that they visit the premises, that they look at the mum of the dog, rather than looking online, for instance, or other areas where, unfortunately, we do see an increase in illegal dog breeding. 

My concern is not only about the breeding of illegal dogs, but also all dog breeding on estates in accommodation that is unsuitable for dog breeding, which causes the effect of excessive noise in the neighbourhood. We also have badly trained dogs that may not be an illegal breed, but which cause great concern when they run wild in an area. What action does the Welsh Government recommend for dealing with this problem?

Thank you. Well, I go back to what I was saying about the funding that we gave for the enforcement project to be able to allow more inspectors to visit premises, where they can assess the premises and see exactly where dog breeding is taking place. We have seen improvements in dog breeding premises in the way that you referred to.

Yes, I'm going to join everybody in welcoming Carmarthenshire council for their inquiry, and, as you said, Minister, the public have to play a part here. It's fairly unbelievable that people buy dogs online. I find that incredible, personally, I have to say, but they do. So, I think there's an area here about education and maybe some of that education could happen in the school, because children are very receptive to understanding buying things online and very receptive to taking those messages back home. And I think that there is perhaps a job for us to do there.

But there's another job, too, with the borders with Ireland and the illegal import of puppies. Goodness knows whether they've been bred illegally or not, but they certainly aren't being traded legally. So, those are the two areas that I would like to see some advance in.

14:50

Thank you. I did have discussions with the previous Minister for education to see what more we could do in schools. I think you're quite right—it is children. If you think about recycling, it was my children, I remember, when they were in school, who came home telling me about recycling in a way that I had not heard, 25 years ago. So, I think you're right. It's a really good place to be able to start to have that conversation about responsible pet ownership—not just dog ownership.

You're absolutely right about people purchasing dogs online. I just don't understand why a new owner would not want to research the seller and make sure that, in buying a puppy, they saw it with its mother. I think that's a really important piece of research that everyone should do before they purchase a dog.

In relation to the ports, I said in my earlier answer to Delyth Jewell that the local authority enforcement project team have led operations at ports across Wales to ensure that we are right there at the fore, to make sure that we can stop as much illegal puppy smuggling as we can.

Mental Health Support for Farmers

4. Will the Minister make a statement on the support available for farmers suffering from poor mental health? OQ60561

Thank you. The Welsh Government supports several important activities to aid mental health in our rural communities. These include FarmWell Wales, an information hub on personal and business resilience for farmers and their families, in which I have invested £45,000, and also the farm support group, which brings together farming charities in Wales.

Thank you very much, Minister. I know that you are very passionate about this particular agenda, and there is a new cross-Government mental health strategy being formed, led by Lynne Neagle. I think it's important that the loneliness and isolation of people in the agriculture sector is a feature of that strategy, and would you agree that it's vitally important that those groups and organisations that provide opportunities for socialising are maintained? And would you be able to outline some of the support that the Welsh Government gives to farmers, and the entire agriculture sector, where there is a prevalence of poor mental health and, tragically, there is also a large incidence of suicide?

Thank you. I'm fully aware that farmers face many barriers, including uncertainty, isolation and loneliness, and that obviously has a detrimental impact on mental well-being. I mentioned some of the funding that I gave in my original answer to you. We do support a number of important activities to aid mental health in our rural communities, and one such activity is the Wales Farm Support Group, which brings together several farming charities under one umbrella. I try to meet with them as often as I can. I met with them at the winter fair last, and during the COVID pandemic I met with them monthly, because we saw a huge increase in the number of calls to all the charities. As you say, we are looking at a new mental health charity across the Welsh Government, and my officials, alongside the Deputy Minister for Mental Health's officials, are working together to ensure that any new strategy absolutely endeavours to support rural and farming communities.

I'm grateful to Ken Skates for raising this important issue here today, and, as you've highlighted, Minister, there are several good charities doing some great work in this area already, and I point to the Farm Safety Foundation and the DPJ Foundation, who have the 24-hour confidential helpline as well, of course. The Welsh Government's support for groups like this is really important. When I speak to farmers and they highlight some of their mental health worries with me, they often point to Welsh Government policy decisions impacting on their mental health. Take the example of your current bovine tuberculosis policy, which really has had, and still continues to have, a terrifying impact on the well-being of many farmers across Wales. So, Minister, I would like to know a bit about—. When you are implementing policies that are impacting farmers, what impact assessment are you taking on the mental health of our farmers when you're looking at these policy decisions?

Thank you. Well, what I want to do is cause as little stress as possible, and I go back to what I was saying to Llyr Huws Gruffydd—it is really important that you look at the cumulative impact. A lot of the events are outside of my control or outside of the Welsh Government's control, and it has been a time of great uncertainty. Certainly since, I think, the referendum back in 2016, when I came into post—that's when I've watched it more closely—I have seen trade deals done that have caused more stress, and I have seen the impact of the Ukraine war, which has clearly had an impact on the cost of food, fuel, fertilizer. So, it is very important that, when you're looking at policies, you do look at that cumulative impact. But, unfortunately, several of them are outside of our control.

14:55

Talking of loneliness, it's worth pointing out that it doesn't help that rural pubs are closing, those places where many farmers would go and share their concerns, and those centres are no longer available, very often. So, it would be good to see more support provided to rural businesses of those kinds.

But, to the point of my supplementary, of course, farming is a way of life here in Wales, but they're also small businesses. Not only does the farmer have to care for livestock and the land, but they also need vets, they need to keep accounts, they need to register those animals, along with all of those other things—that significant paperwork—that farmers have to undertake. And that additional stress, along with constant new regulations coming in, in terms of health and safety, farm hygiene, all of them entirely reasonable on their own, but, as a whole, putting huge pressures on a small business, it often means that the time or the resources aren't available to deliver all of that alone, which then causes great stress and means that many find that there is no way out of this anxiety. So, in terms of that additional work of registration and all the paperwork and so on, what additional support do you provide to farmers in order to remove that additional burden from their shoulders and to enable farmers to farm?

Well, everything we've done since we've left the European Union—. If you asked farmers why, in general, they voted to leave the European Union, one of the biggest answers was the bureaucracy. So, it was vitally important to me that any paperwork that we brought in we tried to streamline, we tried to make sure—because most farmers are online now, there are no two ways about it; I've seen a huge increase in the number of farms that have gone online in the past five years, for certain—that we make it easier for them. We're trying to use tested systems. Rural Payments Wales is very well known to our farmers, so with any new schemes that we bring in, we look to use a system that they are used to to try and reduce that stress.

Good afternoon, Minister. I just really wanted to continue the discussion around the pressures on farmers, as has been mentioned by Mabon ap Gwynfor, in terms of the extra paperwork. I wouldn't disagree with you at all that a major stress has been the pressures on farmers in leaving the European Union, but there are also additional pressures around the paperwork that the Welsh Government has put on farmers. So, just in the last 12 to 18 months, we've seen the control of agricultural pollution, we've seen Habitat Wales regulations and the problems there with the mapping difficulties. Tuberculosis—the paperwork for testing is excessive. There's the sustainable farming scheme and the concern at the sustainability, particularly around the 10 per cent tree requirement. Also, I raised last week that paperwork is dropping into farmers' letterboxes around land valuation tax, which is again just putting an extra stress on them. And that's on top of what are everyday expectations around paperwork and bills that all of us have to cope with. In conversation with farmers, I know many of us have heard that these are real stresses for them. So, I do hope that the Welsh Government will do more to reassure farmers that any fresh red tape from the Welsh Government will not exacerbate the considerable mental health pressures that farmers are already facing. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you. Well, that's certainly been my aim. I remember saying to officials that if we increased the bureaucracy around what you've got for the basic payment scheme and if it was more for the sustainable farming scheme, that would not be a good thing at all. I think, in relation to your comments around Habitat Wales, there certainly were issues with mapping. But, in some ways, we can learn those lessons ahead of SFS, and perhaps it was better that it happened with a smaller scheme. It would have been better if it hadn't happened at all, but unfortunately it has happened. But it's really important that lessons have been learnt and I've certainly had assurance from officials that that is the case.

I do have to say, if you're in receipt of public money, we have to make sure that we can account for it. Opposition Members—well, any Member here—would be the first to criticise Ministers and the Government if we weren't able to account for that public money, so, unfortunately, when you are in receipt of public money, in whatever form of support or subsidy, it is really important that the paperwork is correct. And I absolutely understand, as someone who hates doing anything official—it just builds up and builds up—that it does cause a level of stress when—I think Mabon ap Gwynfor put it very clearly—you're looking after animals, you're running a business, you're looking after a home, you've got a family, et cetera, and it's just another worry. So, it is really important that we streamline it as much as we can.

15:00
Responsible Dog Ownership

5. How is the Welsh Government working to promote responsible dog ownership? OQ60576

Diolch. I hosted a multi-agency summit in October to discuss responsible dog ownership and what can be done using the levers available to Wales. I issued a written statement on 6 December, setting out our next steps, both for the welfare of dogs and the safety of the public.

Minister, last October in the St Julian's area of Newport East, there was an attack by an XL bully dog on a delivery driver, which left that driver in fear for his life. There are many examples, I know, across Wales, unfortunately. So, we obviously need to think about how we promote more responsible dog ownership. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have been calling on Welsh Government to consider the launch of a Wales-wide public awareness-raising campaign, and that would remind dog owners of their responsibilities and legal obligations whilst also signposting them to relevant advice and online resources, such as the code of practice for the welfare of dogs. That campaign could also advise the wider public on where to turn if they have concerns about dog behaviour, be that their own dog or somebody else's. So, I just wonder what your up-to-date position is, Minister, in terms of whether or not Welsh Government will be carrying out that public awareness-raising campaign, as the RSPCA suggest.

Thank you. Well, the RSPCA were part of the summit that we held back in October. As I mentioned earlier, I'm hoping to hold another summit, maybe not quite on the level we did in October, but I'm hoping to hold another one next month. There were some recommendations that came out of that summit for us, so, for instance, how police forces can reprioritise and report dog-related incidents. So, I've written to all the chief constables. I've also written to all local authorities, so that we can maintain a bit of momentum in this space; I think it's really important that we continue to do that. 

You mentioned an attack by an XL bully. I think it's really important to remember that any dog can be dangerous, and responsible ownership is vital for all breeds of dog. My officials are continuing to work closely with third sector organisations, such as the RSPCA, and local authority colleagues to be able to continue to promote responsible dog ownership and to deliver the short, medium and long-term actions that are highlighted in the summit. We do do campaigns; we do our—I've forgotten what it's called now—Paws, Prevent, Protect campaign. We always do that in the run-up to Christmas. Sorry: we have a campaign in the run-up to Christmas, and then Paws, Prevent, Protect is used the rest of the year. So, we already have that. But it's really about reminding prospective purchasers of the need to research their puppy, going back to what I was saying before, to make sure that we are ensuring that owners are responsible. We saw a huge increase in the number of people owning pets during the COVID-19 pandemic and, unfortunately, as we've seen the cost-of-living crisis worsen, we've seen pressures on household budgets, which has brought forward other difficulties.

I'd like to commend the UK Conservative Government for ensuring that XL bully dogs must be kept on a lead and muzzled in public. From 1 February this year, it will be illegal to own one unless it has been neutered and microchipped. This was following a number of vicious and, sadly, fatal attacks involving the breed, both on other canines and indeed people. The Minister may be aware that I raised the issue of the XL bully dog breed last year in the Senedd Chamber. In 2023, 43 per cent of dog attacks have been caused by large bully breeds, with 11 confirmed human deaths caused by this breed since 2021. Given these frightening statistics, it is reassuring to see regulations introduced to mitigate this danger, something I called for last year.

However, I am sure the Minister is aware that XL bullies are not the only issue regarding dog ownership in Wales: cruelty to dogs in Wales has tragically increased by 10 per cent last year. In 2022, there were 3,379 reports made to the RSPCA in Wales about cruelty to dogs, compared to 3,065 in 2021, so an increase of around 300. We also saw 579 reports of intentional harm in 2022, with 45 abandonment reports. There was an example in my constituency, in Rhyl, when an underweight dog in an extremely poor condition was abandoned. These statistics paint a sad picture of animal welfare in Wales where, clearly, action is needed.

The cost-of-living crisis means that the cost of rescuing animals is at an all-time high and vital services are stretched to the limits. Given this fact, will the Minister therefore outline what financial support the Welsh Government is making available to animal welfare organisations in Wales, as well as outlining whether the Government will consider promoting community policing as a means of tackling animal abuse, such as dog abandonment—

15:05

That's enough. I've been very generous here. There were at least two questions there and a long preamble. Minister.

Thank you. Well, unfortunately, we had seen a disproportionate number of attacks by XL bully dogs, and it took a long time for the UK Government to take some action. I had been in discussions with the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs Minister on many occasions about ensuring that the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 was fit for purpose, which it clearly wasn't, and I think even the DEFRA Secretary of State was taken by surprise by the announcement that the Prime Minister made, and I, too, welcomed it. However, I don't think they looked at the unintended consequences that unfortunately have now come to fruition and we are having to work with.

On your second point around animal cruelty, unfortunately, we do see people treating animals cruelly, and we do support a number of third sector organisations. I mentioned, in my earlier answer to John Griffiths, about the responsible dog ownership summit we had in October, and the number of recommendations that came out, and one of them is working with the police in a different way. I think I'm due to meet the chief constable of Gwent in the near future—it might not be the chief constable, but certainly a high-ranking officer—around what more can be done. It's really good that we've got Rob Taylor, the wildlife and rural crime co-ordinator, who does so much work with our police authorities here in Wales to highlight this issue.

Fisheries and Aquaculture

7. How is the Welsh Government supporting fisheries and aquaculture? OQ60567

Welsh Government has prioritised the delivery of our statutory obligations in collaboration with stakeholders, including the delivery of fisheries management plans. The first were for scallop and bass fisheries and were delivered at the end of last year, in line with the timelines set out in the joint fisheries statement. 

Thank you, Minister. And you'll be aware that your rural affairs budget has taken a considerable hit in the Welsh Government's draft budget, announced last month, and whilst all responsibilities in your portfolio have been affected, one given quite little notice is the reduction of the fisheries budget by over £1.7 million in the forthcoming financial year. Whilst fisheries and aquaculture don't attract the same attention as other types of food production, they do make a valuable and worthwhile contribution to our Welsh economy. So, in light of these cuts, what support is being offered to the Welsh fishery and aquaculture industry, to enable it to compete with other UK and EU counterparts and to invest in growth?

We've made £1.5 million available to the Welsh marine and fishery scheme for 2023-24. There have been three funding rounds and, unfortunately—obviously, it's a demand-led scheme—it has been disappointing, the take-up of that funding. That's why I was able to reallocate £0.5 million and, obviously, that has had an impact on the way we've looked at the budget for 2024 and 2025. Those proposals are currently in development. They will offer a broad range of funding activities for the sector, but I want to do it in collaboration with the sector and listen to what our stakeholders think is important to them.

Support for the Agricultural Industry in Preseli Pembrokshire

8. What is the Welsh Government doing to support the agricultural industry in Preseli Pembrokeshire? OQ60542

Farmers in Pembrokeshire have received almost £18 million of basic payment scheme payments since October, which is over 99.9 per cent of claimants. This support is in addition to our Farming Connect service, which continues to provide important help and advice to agriculture businesses in Pembrokeshire.

Thank you for that response, Minister. One way of supporting the agricultural industry is to support its future by supporting young people who want to be involved with the industry in the future. And two weeks ago, representatives of the Wales Federation of Young Farmers Clubs launched their annual impact report here at the Senedd. That report shows just how valuable young farmers clubs are in supporting our agricultural industry, and indeed our rural communities, as well as preserving and promoting our culture and the Welsh language. There are plenty of examples of their incredible outreach work in my own constituency.

So, Minister, given the huge impact the movement has in rural communities in Pembrokeshire, and indeed across Wales, can you tell us what support the Welsh Government is providing to help the movement continue to play a vital role in our agricultural industries, and indeed in our rural communities, for years to come? 

15:10

Thank you. Certainly, the young farmers clubs do, as you say, play a vital role, and I think in my last oral questions session you raised some excellent work—I can't remember if it was trainers or shoes—that was being done in one of your local young farmers clubs. So, we can see the huge impact they have, not just on themselves, but on the community. I also think that, as an organisation, they are excellent. The skills that they have take them through life. We haven't been able to fund them as much as we would want to. I always try to support their activities. I met with the—I was going to say the new chief exec, but she's probably been in post a little while now. I met with her last year to discuss what their asks are and what funding and support we were able to give them as a Government. 

Flooding

9. How is the Minister working with colleagues across Government to protect communities in Alyn and Deeside from flooding? OQ60553

Across Welsh Government, we work closely with our local authorities and Natural Resources Wales as lead flood risk management authorities. We encourage RMAs to put forward proposed schemes for funding under our flood and coastal erosion risk management programme.

I'm grateful to the Minister for her answer. Minister, I've been contacted by residents in Mancot and Broughton again in recent weeks, who were impacted by flooding from storm Babet late last year. They were concerned that the recent storms could once again impact their properties, and their concerns are absolutely understandable, as many of them have been flooded twice in the last few years. I raise this matter in the Senedd on a regular basis, and I'm seeking your support today, Minister, for Welsh Government officials to work with NRW and Flintshire County Council to assess whether the planned works and the funding bids from the local authority for the additional work to be carried out can be expedited in any way. Diolch. 

Yes, certainly, I will speak to the Minister for Climate Change within whose portfolio this sits. I know her officials are currently reviewing all applications received from RMAs, and she will be publishing next year's programme in March. So, I will certainly ask, and I would encourage you to write to her as well on that point. 

3. Topical Questions

The next item is the topical questions, and the first question to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, and the question to be asked by Heledd Fychan. 

Six Nations Rugby

1. Will the Minister make a statement about the UK Government's decision not to include six nations rugby in the free-to-air category for broadcasting purposes? TQ960

Can I thank Heledd Fychan for that question? The decision not to include the six nations in group A of the listed events regime is disappointing, especially given the cultural and social importance of rugby in Wales. We have urged the UK Government to ensure that the competition remains free to air, and will continue to make the case. 

Thank you very much. I would hope that nobody would disagree with you or me in terms of the importance of ensuring that our national sports teams, both men and women, are available to view free of charge, because as we know, supporting our national sides encourages people of all ages to become involved in sport, not just as fans. And we take pride as a nation when our team wins and also sympathise with players as a nation when things don't go in our favour. 

In terms of S4C, I know—and I'm sure that you will also know—many non-Welsh speakers and new Welsh speakers who do view sport on S4C, normalising the use of the Welsh language as a living language that belongs to everyone, whether you speak it or not. What assessment has the Deputy Minister made, therefore, of the impact of this decision on the right of the people of Wales to view matches through the medium of Welsh, and, more broadly, the impact that this will have on the target of a million Welsh speakers by 2050 and increasing usage of Welsh? And secondly, now that we've had this decision, will you also be writing again to request that the UK Government reconsider this, so that nobody in Wales is deprived of the right to follow and support our national teams?

15:15

Diolch yn fawr, Heledd, for that supplementary question. She is absolutely right—of course you’re absolutely right. The cultural importance of sport in Wales and the popularity of rugby and football is well understood. Those benefits are not just felt by audiences; they support future sustainability, the growth of sport at community level, all the things that you’ve been talking about. And again, you are right; the fact that we saw international rugby and international football on S4C being commentated on in the Welsh language, and actually having English subtitles for those who can’t understand, but being able to listen to Welsh and incorporating that in our everyday lives, is very, very important, which is why we are determined that we will have a greater role in the appointments process on S4C as well. I discussed this earlier with your colleague Cefin Campbell. That is very important as part of the work that we’re doing on broadcasting in Wales. So, all of that is very important, because S4C and the Welsh language are synonymous, and it’s something that we want to support.

I think absolutely we see as well a lot of our sporting national governing bodies embracing the language. We’ve seen the fantastic work that the Football Association of Wales has done around that, and we’re seeing it with other governing bodies as well. The two things link very closely and absolutely we want to support that. I’ve made it very clear that I absolutely support Welsh rugby and football and all of our national sports being free to air to anybody who wants to do that.

You’ll be aware that the First Minister wrote to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about this, following a letter, actually, from Rhun, back in November or December of last year. Interestingly, he didn’t get a response to that letter, but we will continue to work closely with the UK Government on that, and I’m more than happy to follow that up with the Secretary of State, for however long she’s in her position. I’ll follow that up with the Secretary of State to follow up from the Welsh Affairs Committee report, which was clearly supporting free-to-air six nations rugby. Even Stephen Crabb was saying we really need to follow this through. So, I’m quite happy to do that. I’m quite happy to work with the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Senedd culture committee, who I know are also very keen on this. I think you had an evidence session from John Whittingdale, didn’t you, on this very point, and he was saying at that point that if the Senedd was to support free-to-air for the six nations rugby, he would be happy to consider it. Now, we know that they’ve considered it, and they’ve rejected it, so we’re going to have to go back to them and ask them to reconsider it.

Wales is a rugby nation, and it is part of our national story. I think Welsh rugby is part of who we are as a Welsh nation. You'll know, and you made reference to it there in the answer to your previous question, that when John Whittingdale came to the culture committee he made the case that if the Welsh Parliament could put forward a compelling case for Wales games in the six nations to be included as a listed event to ensure that it is shown on free-to-air television here in Wales, the DCMS would consider it. I can tell you that the Welsh Conservatives have tabled a debate for next week to solidify that, so that we as a Welsh Parliament can come together, make that call on DCMS, and ensure that the case that the DCMS Minister at the time asked to be made is made here, by the Welsh Parliament. Can I confirm today whether the Government is willing to support that?

I think that's an excellent move, Tom. The point that we can make to the UK Government is that this has cross-party support in this Senedd. As we heard, Stephen Crabb was saying, and John Whittingdale was also saying, that if the Senedd supported this then they would be pressing the UK Government to reconsider. Obviously the UK Government have only just made this decision, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't, while the iron is hot, so to speak, strike again and say, 'We do need you to reconsider this in light of the will of the Welsh Parliament'. So, I very much welcome a debate along those lines. Is it next week? I look forward to it. That'll be two debates we'll have next week. Thank you. 

Tom Giffard, I'll be supporting you as well. Can I suggest that you give serious thought to calling for a named vote on it, so that it actually shows everybody voting for it, rather than it going through without a vote? I'd ask you just to consider that.

We've seen what's happened with the loss of free-to-air sport, haven't we? Live premier division football has gone from free-to-air channels. Going to subscription sport providers will provide more financial support to the six nations competition, including the Welsh Rugby Union. As cricket found, however, it drastically reduced the number of young people watching the live matches.

How important is the six nations to us in Wales? I would come to the conclusion that it's very important to us. It is part of the thing that we do collectively. And watching television collectively is not something that happens a great deal now in a multichannel world. But this is one of the times when we do tend to watch it together.

I'm pleased the Minister accepts the importance of the six nations to Wales, and joins with those of us calling for six nations rugby to be in the free-to-air category for broadcasting. Has the Minister contacted the Labour shadow Cabinet member regarding this? Because I think that the Labour shadow Cabinet member could well become the Cabinet member before this year is out.

15:20

Can I thank Mike Hedges for that question? I've actually been in conversation with the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales and the Shadow Secretary of State for DCMS on a range of issues. Unfortunately, I haven't caught up with them yet on the free-to-air issue, but I will do, because I can guarantee you that they will hold a similar view to us on that particular point. Thank you.

I agree with many Members in this Chamber. It is very disappointing that the UK Government did not add the six nations to the free-to-air category for our premier sporting events. As a proud rugby player myself, it's very important that we have rugby on the telly to encourage those future generations of players to don their boots, don the shirt and get out there on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

But one thing that is also very important to me, Deputy Minister, is our pubs and our clubs across Wales. If the six nations moves to pay-per-view channels, pubs can, on average, pay  between £20,000 and £21,000 a year for BT subscriptions and Sky Sports subscriptions. So, I'd like to know what analysis the Welsh Government has done of what impact this could have on our pubs and our clubs across Wales. Because a lot of people do frequent them to watch these matches, and if people cannot watch them, this is yet another nail in the coffin of the hospitality sector in Wales.

I think James Evans is absolutely right on that. Lots of people do like that getting together in the pub, whether it's the pub or whether it's the local rugby club or the local football club—anywhere where they can gather as a crowd to sing and cheer on the national team is great. And, of course, if that isn't available then that is clearly going to impact on those organisations, those pubs and clubs that air those games. All of that adds to the case for why we should be pressing for the six nations and other major international sporting events to be held free to air. But I don't think we should underestimate the difficulty that this also presents to the nations themselves, and to the six nations and to other international sporting events.

When Nigel Walker, for instance, was the interim chief executive officer of the WRU, he gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry last year, and he noted the importance of broadcasting revenues to sport, and stated that that accounted for something like 40 per cent of their income. He recognised that there was this tension between tournaments being free to air to audiences and the revenue that it then generated for the governing bodies of those sports. That's probably quite a difficult circle to square, but nevertheless, I think, first and foremost, the focus should be on the fans that support our sports. I very much hope that that review of listed events can be supported by this Parliament and we can make the case in a much stronger way to the UK Government.

Just like Mike Hedges was mentioning, live sport gives us those water-cooler moments, those iconic lines. The late, great Eddie Butler's line sticks in my mind: 'Shave away, Gavin, shave away', when he kicked the winning penalty in 2005 against England. That for me is what live sport is about—those memorable moments. 

But I was just wondering, Deputy Minister, if you've given any consideration to how we could work potentially with the Scottish Parliament to lobby as well, and showing that there's a Celtic connection here as to why keeping the six nations free to view is really important, not just from a Welsh perspective, but from a Celtic perspective as well. I think that there could also be an opportunity there for us to work collaboratively with another devolved administration and Parliament in the United Kingdom.

15:25

I think that is again a very important and valid point. I'd be more than happy to speak to my counterparts in Scotland, Northern Ireland, hopefully, as well, once we get them, and the Irish Government. I was actually on a call with the sports Ministers of the four nations and Ireland this morning, on the Euros. These sporting connections between these islands are very significant, and I'm sure that Ireland and the other nations of the UK, apart from Wales, would be very keen in having those kinds of discussions as well. So, I am happy to do that.

Thank you to the Deputy Minister. I look forward to the much-trailed debate for next week. If I can confirm to Mike Hedges, if he objects to the motion next week, that will guarantee an individual vote by all Members in the Chamber. There are hidden tactics within the Standing Orders that can make these things happen.

Natasha Asghar now to ask the second topical question, to be answered by the Deputy Minister.

The 20 mph Speed Limit

2. A wnaiff y Gweinidog ddatganiad am yr adolygiad arfaethedig o derfynau cyflymder 20mya? TQ963

Diolch, Lywydd. As I said two weeks ago in this Chamber, there was always going to be a bedding-in period, and built into the powers that councils have as local highway authorities is the ability to make changes. We know that local authorities are already collating lists of roads where 20 mph doesn't feel like the right speed. They understandably haven't wanted to act hastily, as people were getting used to the change, but they do want to review and revise their local speed limits. Nobody anticipates that this will involve wholesale changes, and it will focus on addressing anomalies.

The Welsh Government has appointed a small team to work with highway authorities, as I said two weeks ago, to consider the way that the policy has been implemented, and how the exceptions guidance has been applied. The review team includes Professor Peter Jones, professor of transport and sustainable development at University College London. Professor Jones has had no involvement in the 20 mph implementation or work, and will provide independent challenge to the process. The other two members of the panel are Kaarina Ruta, transport adviser at the Welsh Local Government Association, and Phil Jones, chair of the 20 mph taskforce group that made the initial recommendations. The team will work with Welsh Government officials, local authority officers, and other experts and partners.

A series of meetings have already been held with local councils to gain an understanding of the application of the guidance in different parts of Wales; to reflect on that application, and consider whether clarifications to guidance are needed to encourage greater consistency across Wales; to look at the approach taken to roads on the threshold between 20 mph and 30 mph; and to share initial findings with local authority officers. If people feel that the street that they live on is better suited to 30 mph, they should get in touch with their local council and let them know why. I expect an interim report next month, with a final report to be presented to the next First Minister.       

Thanks, Deputy Minister, but frankly, your response lacked lustre for me, and perhaps for all the residents, visitors and businesses across Wales who have been seriously affected by this change. The Welsh people don't want a review of 20 mph. They simply want it reversed. It's undeniable that your Labour Government's blanket 20 mph speed limit has caused confusion and controversy up and down Wales. With more than 468,000 people now signing a petition to have it removed, it's high time, Deputy Minister, that you park your ego and simply scrap your vanity project.

People in Wales already have very little faith in a review led by a man who recommended that the Welsh Government adopt this policy in the first place, alongside two other Welsh Government devotees. Let's be honest: it's hardly going to be fair, and it's hardly going to be impartial. While I don't doubt for a single second Professor Jones's credentials, his appointment as part of this review risks undermining the legitimacy and trustworthiness of it in its entirety. It also further risks the credibility of the potential candidates that you mentioned, who are going to be taking part in this review.

So, Deputy Minister, if we are destined to have this 20 mph review, can you confirm that the panel will indeed consist of individuals who are not linked to the Welsh Government and who have not previously been, or are currently, on the Welsh Labour Government's payroll? Thank you very much. 

Llywydd, I don't think that Natasha Asghar has any credibility to question the professional credentials of three highly respected individuals. As I've said all along, it was intended that the process would be reviewed as it went, to look at how it was being implemented. It's right that the chair of the initial task force, who has provided challenge to the Welsh Government throughout, is part of that process to judge against the recommendations his panel made and judge whether or not the Welsh Government has implemented them well and whether local government has implemented well. And I think it's right that that voice is part of the review team. It's also right that local authorities are represented on that panel to give first-hand experience. And we've introduced a new independent member also to provide independent challenge, and they are free to make any recommendations that they wish and those will be based on the feedback of the public and of local authorities.

15:30

Deputy Minister, we know that, at the moment, local councils are very challenged in terms of their budgets and budgets are tight with the Welsh Government as well. Could you set out for us, please, how you'll ensure that local authorities are properly resourced so that they can have that support and so that they can decide on which roads it makes sense to keep the 20 mph and on which roads it would be better to revert to 30 mph so that they can engage fully in that review process?

Of course, there was an amendment that Plaid Cymru put down for a review process to take place. The Government supported that. I still can't quite understand why the Conservatives chose not to support that amendment at the time.

Okay, thank you for the question. And, of course, we have said to local authorities that we will stand by them as they make the changes that they feel are right for their local authorities. It is important that the public are involved. I think one of the lessons from which I've certainly drawn—and indeed it was one of the lessons from the pilot projects in Flintshire—is that consultation with the public in advance of these changes is critical for them to be accepted by communities and for them to work well. There has been a variation of approaches by local authorities in advance of this in the level of consultation that they carried out. It's not too late to consult, and I hope that the people who live on those streets will be asked what they think and will provide reasons if they think there's a change. And in my experience, much of the feedback from local authorities has been about the policy in general, not about specific roads. That's why it would be helpful if residents gave specific examples of changes that they want to see. But, of course, there will always be people on those roads who want to keep the speed limit as it is and local authorities do have a very difficult balancing act to strike. And they have the powers to exercise that flexibility and they're in the best position to do that because they are local roads.

Well, before the 20 mph default, there were an awful lot of 20 mph roads in Swansea. There were also 20 mph roads in other areas. And, as you know, Presiding Officer, there was a 20 mph speed limit going through Aberaeron. I'm sure that, in your personal capacity as a resident of Aberaeron, you probably thought that that was a very good idea because it's quite a dangerous road to cross. But we've also got estate roads—20 mph on estate roads works well. I don't think anybody reasonably would think that on estate roads—. Although, I have had somebody tell me that they believe that 20 mph is not right for a road that is 30m long and that that needs to be 30 mph. I think they're a danger to themselves as well as to everybody else.

But the Conservatives' request to remove all road humps and all chicanes, because that's what you mean if you want to stop 20 mph—you need to make sure that traffic can move and is unencumbered until there are crashes—. But I think there is a need for a review for A and B roads. A and B roads are different: they are main roads and I think the concern of many people, including myself, is that there are A roads and B roads that are down to 20 mph where there does not appear to be a good reason for that, and Llangyfelach Road, where it goes up to 20 mph to the traffic lights and then it goes up to 30 mph—. I think that looking at A and B roads, and letting councils looking at A and B roads, will solve most of the problem. There are those, including one of my constituents, who say, 'I'm an experienced driver, I don't need a speed limit at all. I should be able to drive at what I think is the required speed and safe speed.' I think he's a danger to himself and to others, but, unfortunately, the Conservatives are giving succour to people like that.

My thanks to Mike Hedges for those comments, and he's right: local authorities have that discretion to make those judgments about their local roads. That's why this isn't a blanket approach, as has been so misleadingly said by the Conservatives. And I've driven on roads in Swansea, in Rhondda Cynon Taf, in the Vale of Glamorgan, which are main roads, which are, in fact, 30 mph. So, there is flexibility there. 

I think his suggestion that all main roads should be 30 mph is difficult, because on many of those roads, there are houses, there are playgrounds, there are shops, there are schools. And so I think that taking a unilateral approach like that probably isn't the right approach, and that's why we've set out guidance, which gives a guide to local authorities of where an exception might be appropriate, but it's for them to interpret that guidance locally. The power is clearly there, because authorities have exercised it. It hasn't been applied consistently, and there are a number of reasons for that, and that's why this review is going to understand that better. Some of the reasons have been a real caution by some local authorities about deviating from the letter of the guidance—they've taken a very literalist approach because they fear they may be liable for challenge if there in fact is a collision. And I think we need to tease that out and understand the level of risk at play, and what support can be given to encourage them to look at things like bus routes where that is an appropriate thing to do. Again, you don't want all bus routes to return to 30 mph because that wouldn't be appropriate either. I think that, when it comes down to the fine-grain implementation of this policy, these are complex judgments to make, because some roads are not straightforward, and that's why it's the local authority that's best placed to make those judgments.

15:35

I'm pleased this subject has been raised by Natasha Asghar today. I want to raise with you again, Deputy Minister, about the regional disparity of 20 mph exemptions. You said yourself a fortnight ago that just 0.6 per cent of roads in Denbighshire are exempt, whereas it's up to 10 per cent and more in areas of south Wales, such as Swansea and Bridgend. So, I'd be grateful if the Deputy Minister could expand on what specific components of a potential review will do to address this disparity, and what support is the Welsh Government prepared to give local authorities to increase exemption rates for my constituents and get people moving again?

Well, again, this is the purpose of the review—for local authorities to feed back to the panel why they've taken the decisions they have and why they think the guidance may be an issue, and if there's a case for changing the guidance, or, indeed, whether we can help them with a more consistent interpretation of the guidance. One of the things we've discussed with Flintshire, for example, is working with another local authority, such as Rhondda Cynon Taf, who've taken a different view—for their officers to buddy up, if you like, to exchange good practice and to work through problems together. And I think that could be helpful to some local authorities. There is no problem in principle here; this is all about interpreting things for local circumstances. This was always going to be a difficult and complex policy to implement. It's the most ambitious road safety policy in more than a generation, and it's one that has had the support of this Chamber, of all parties, at various times.

I wasn't initially intending on coming in, but I'm interested in the answers you've given to some of the questions here today, where you've said that the focus for the consultation will be that people living on particular roads, where that road is 20 mph, will be asked to express a view. Now, obviously, a lot of people across Wales will have views on a whole range of roads, but particularly people who live on a road or cul-de-sac that might be just off a 20 mph road. So, can I be really clear, Minister, today that the views of people who live on a 20 mph road, and the people who use a 20 mph road, will be weighted equally in the consultation?

Well, the consultation is a matter for the local authority to take any views they want. But I think Tom Giffard is somehow suggesting that the people who drive through an area have greater rights than people who live in an area. And I know people often will say, 'I want my route to work to be 30 mph, but I want the street outside my house to be 20 mph', and that is neither just nor fair. These are the difficult weighing-up, balancing judgments that local authorities have to make, and that's why I think it's important that everybody is able to respond to the local authorities, to give their feedback, to provide reasons why they think it should be changed, and that's what we'll encourage them to do.

4. 90-second Statements

The next item, therefore, will be the 90-second statements, and the first statement today is from Jayne Bryant.

Last week I attended the launch of the Be Heart Happy charity in Newport. The charity was previously known as the Royal Gwent and St Woolos Cardiology Fund, which supported patients in Newport and the surrounding area for over 40 years. This fund is renowned in the local area, and any mention of it is always met with warm words and appreciation from patients, families and NHS staff. The purpose of the fund has been to raise money to help with the purchase of special equipment, books and training for staff, which otherwise wouldn't be funded. This rebranding to Be Heart Happy is about ensuring that the charity will be there for cardiology patients and their families for many years to come. An estimated 63,000 people are living with heart conditions and circulatory diseases in the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board area. Since 1983 they have raised and spent more than £2 million for the direct benefit of heart patients in the surrounding area. Special mention must be given to the dedicated chair of Be Heart Happy, Steve Richards, and the charity's brilliant fundraising volunteers for their unwavering commitment to helping cardiology patients live longer, healthier and happier lives. Diolch yn fawr for all you do. 

This is a new chapter for Be Heart Happy, and I've no doubt that the charity will continue to touch the lives and legacies of people across our community. 

15:40

Diolch, Llywydd. I would like to pay tribute to Newport East's Lliswerry Runners—a local running club for people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages and abilities. They provide opportunities for members of the community to keep both physically fit, through regular exercise and movement, and mentally well, through the community and friendship that members will find by joining the group.

Lliswerry Runners welcome well over 500 members, across seven sessions, every week, in a safe and supportive environment, forged entirely through the organisation and selflessness of local volunteers. Last Sunday, 21 January, Lliswerry Runners's Lliswerry 8 run took place. I had the pleasure of going along to support and cheer on the runners as they took the eight-mile route through the country lanes of Goldcliff and Nash villages. The Lliswerry 8 has been run for over 35 years, and is a fun and inclusive race for runners of all abilities. This year, over 750 runners took part. 

Llywydd, I would like to put on record my appreciation for, and thanks to, Lliswerry Runners for all the terrific work their generous volunteers are doing to improve the mental and physical well-being of members of my constituency of Newport East and the wider area. 

Yesterday marked 15 years since the death of Paul Ridd. Paul was a man with a learning disability from Baglan, who died in Morriston Hospital in 2009. Paul's death was avoidable, with an inquest in 2013 confirming he had died from natural causes contributed to by neglect. Paul's family established the Paul Ridd Foundation to help improve health outcomes for people with a learning disability. Supported by Mencap Cymru, they have worked tirelessly in highlighting the inequalities faced by people with a learning disability when accessing healthcare, with the aim of ensuring that no other person with a learning disability dies from avoidable causes in Welsh hospitals. 

Fifteen years on from Paul's death, the progress in this area is to be welcomed. On April 1 2022, the Paul Ridd learning disability awareness training was launched across the NHS in Wales, becoming mandatory for all healthcare staff in a public-facing role. There is, however, still much more that needs to be done. People with a learning disability continue to face health inequalities. The life expectancy for adults with a learning disability is just under 63 years, with recent figures showing that men with a learning disability are dying around 19 years earlier than men in the general population, and the figure standing at 23 years earlier for women with a learning disability, compared to women in the general population. 

As we mark 15 years since Paul's death, I would like to offer the support of this Senedd to Paul's family—Jonathan and Jane—and would like to restate our shared commitment to working towards a Wales where people with a learning disability are valued equally, listened to and included. 

5. Urgent Debate: Job losses at Tata Steel and the future of the steel industry in Wales

The urgent debate is next this afternoon on job losses at Tata Steel and the future of the steel industry. And I call on Luke Fletcher to open the debate. 

Diolch, Llywydd, and thank you to Members for agreeing to make time for this debate. As I mentioned yesterday, in proposing this debate, we did so because of the strategic importance of the steel industry, an industry whose products we all rely on every day. To illustrate, did you drive to work or take public transport? Well, your car, your bus, your train is steel. Did you turn your radiator on, or use your fridge to grab milk for your cereal? Well, your fridge, your radiator—steel. The capacity to produce steel is fundamental to any plans any of us might have in our own homes, but also to develop our infrastructure, protect our national security or grow and green our economy.

To put it as plainly as I can, there is no path to net zero that doesn't involve domestic steel production. That's why it's important for us to think about the future of this sector. And I say this with all due respect, but that's why the lack of urgency, vision and ambition over the last decade or so from central Government has been disappointing. We're not talking about a nice to have; we're talking about one of the most important resources and production capabilities a country can have. 

Now, I fully recognise that the UK Government have stepped in with £500 million and £100 million transition fund as well. We heard from the economy Minister and First Minister yesterday about the £3 billion on the table for the UK-wide sector from UK Labour, if they win the general election, but these sums come nowhere close to meeting the scale of the challenge. And I'm not saying this to make a political point; I'm saying this because it's fact. We're either serious about green steel or we aren't.

We only need to look at what's going on elsewhere to see the scale of investment needed. Take Germany, where we have a range of state-aided projects to protect domestic steel production, approved in 2023 and 2024, that we can compare our situation with. And I'll apologise in advance for my pronunciation of some of these places. The first one was a package of €2.6 billion to Stahl-Holding-Saar in one region alone, approved this year. The second was a €550 million direct grant, with an additional conditional payment mechanism of up to €1.45 billion, to support the ThyssenKrupp Steel Europe in 2023, and a third, in 2023, of €1 billion to Salzgitter Flachstahl, all of this for decarbonisation. We also heard yesterday about the €50 billion fund to support decarbonisation in high-energy sectors, also in Germany. We have a long way to go to match that ambition. 

Of course, another concern we have around the proposal at Port Talbot is the focus on the electric arc furnace. It's not a concern directly with the furnace itself, because electric arc furnaces have an important role to play in the steel industry. The concern is with the loss, as a result of an electric arc furnace, of capacity to produce primary steel. Diversification of steel production is important. If we lose the capacity to produce primary steel, we will be the only G20 country unable to do so. And this isn't merely a symbolic point; it's an important point to consider, especially in an increasingly hostile world.

Electric arc furnaces rely on a supply of scrap steel to recycle it into new steel. We've heard much about the quality and the grade of that steel. Now, according to Tata, the technology has come a long way over the years, to a point where they believe the grade won't be as big of an issue as initially thought. While that is welcome news on the quality of steel that may be produced under current proposals, though we do wait to see the reality, there also remain questions that need to be addressed: firstly, do we have enough scrap steel available to us in the UK currently to meet demand? Some would argue that we don't. Secondly, what happens if demand for scrap steel increases globally, which it will, because we aren't the only ones investing in electric arc furnaces?

Putting all our eggs into the electric arc furnace basket is a costly gamble. Investment needs to be diversified. We know that other options are available. DRI has been discussed—direct reduced iron—hydrogen, another. And of course, on hydrogen, yes, it's true it's a way off from being ready, but it's precisely at this moment that investment in it is needed to make it viable. If investment isn't forthcoming, we'll fall even further behind the rest of Europe and future generations won't thank us. We come back to this point of investment. The reality is that the state will need to step in. That's recognised across the world. I've briefly touched on how the world is becoming increasingly hostile. Given these factors, given the strategic importance of steel as a resource, it makes sense that the state increases its stake in the industry.

Now, of course, Plaid Cymru has talked about how all options, including nationalisation and co-operatisation, must be on the table. And these are not new ideas, by the way. For those of us in post-industrial communities, nationalisation is not a foreign concept. Look at Tower colliery in the 1950s, which, subsequently, in 1994, was bought out by the workers, the only deep mine to survive the wave of closures. And, if you want a steel-specific example, look at the Basque Country, where co-operative steel thrives and underpins a successful industry. For much of their history, communities like Port Talbot have had decisions made for them. As we move into the future, that needs to change.

Llywydd, as I said at the beginning of this contribution and during my pitch for this debate yesterday, the need for a serious debate on the future direction of the steel industry in Wales is desperately needed. I've spoken with many Members here over the course of the last few months and, on this subject, there isn't actually much that divides us. We all agree on the importance of the steel industry, but, if we are serious about its future, now is the time to take a new path. I look forward to Members' contributions today and to continuing much of this work beyond today's session. Diolch.

15:50

Thank you, Luke, for calling for this debate this afternoon.

For the first five minutes, I agreed with everything you said, wholly. Llywydd, since last week's announcement from Tata, communities across my constituency of Aberafan wake up every day with anxiety and uncertainty for their futures. For my entire life, I have lived in a community where the steelworks has always been in sight. I pass it every day when I come here. I see those two steel dragons breathing fire from their bellies and producing the liquid iron that is used to make the steel that goes all over the globe—actually, including this building. The works has given a livelihood to family members, neighbours, friends and people I see every day. I have met constituents who are third and fourth generation steelworkers, children who've aspired to work in the works, and brothers and sisters have been there, their mothers and fathers have been there. There are local companies whose order books are almost entirely based upon their work in the steelworks, and the retail and hospitality businesses surrounding the plant, which count on steelworkers coming in and spending their money. 

Now, Port Talbot is known as a steel town, but it's not just a term to us; it's a proud badge of honour that we wear. It's a way of life for many thousands of people, spanning over generations. And as Alan Coombs, Community union officer has said, steel is in our DNA; it has shaped the community of Port Talbot the same as it has shaped many others across Wales—Llanwern, Trostre, Shotton. But following the announcement, people ask, 'What now for steel?', 'What now for our town?' And for the UK economy, not just for Wales's, it's a foundation industry and the consideration of the UK not having the ability to make virgin steel is one that we should all regret and challenge. 

Llywydd, this is not the first time I've stood in this Parliament to speak about the future of this plant and its workforce; Members will remember 2016, when we were recalled before the election, and that was because there was a threat from Tata to sell the site or close it. The prospect then put at risk 6,000 jobs in Wales and up to 40,000 jobs throughout the UK. There were many questions that I put to the Government then and they're still applicable now. However, we overcame that threat and we will overcome this threat. Today, we do need to look at the future. I welcome the £500 million deal between the UK Government and Tata that was announced last September and an investment that was for the installation of a single electric arc furnace and formed part of a £1.25 billion deal. Investment is always welcomed. But steelworkers felt, naturally, uneasy about what the proposals were, because we didn't know the details—no matter what I've heard from Ministers in the UK Government, there were no details at that point—but they accepted that steel needed a green future. However, there were different options available on how we get to that future, what will a transition look like. And here we are, January, and Tata have now announced their plan to shut down both blast furnaces this year, with 2,500 jobs to go from Port Talbot alone. That is totally unacceptable. What we will now see in Port Talbot is a plant that will, until the EAF is built, import virgin steel from Tata's thriving plants elsewhere, in Holland and India, and that's to be rolled into coil here. That's not a fair and just transition. How can 2,500 job losses in less than nine months be a fair and just transition?

What a sorry position we have found ourselves in. We will have gone from one of the leading countries in the world for the production of quality steel to mere importers of it. There is another way, and I'm grateful to my trade union colleagues in Community, GMB and Unite, for working hard over the last several months to produce that credible alternative plan for steel in the UK, which could save jobs and keep us as a country that produces its own steel. They commissioned leading experts in steel production—it's not them, it's experts in steel production, Syndex, who produced the report that came up with that alternative to this drastic, cliff-edge decision. Now, I encourage everyone to follow and support that. I'm also encouraged by UK Labour's £3 billion green steel pledge. I know Luke said it was not enough, but it's more than enough from what is being put by the UK Government at the moment. I understand what he said about the €4.5 billion in Germany, at which part, if we were still in the EU maybe we could get some more money from them as well, but there we are. Now, that directly invests in proper technology, in new technology, and it won't be just for EAF, it'll be for the reduced iron as well, and that is important; it's just like Holland is actually doing with Tata.

My community, Aberafan, deserves to know what future they face and what the Tories have in store for them, because, at present, all they can see is the UK Government essentially giving Tata money to export jobs abroad, import carbon emissions, and saying to them, 'Here's the money, cut the emissions,' and that's it. It shouldn't be that way. Unfortunately, or fortunately for me, the only prospect is a general election where Labour get into power and actually have a plan and put that plan into action. It's a credible plan, working with the trade unions. In the meantime, I will continue to fight for everybody in Port Talbot, for every single job, every single business, every family affected. I urge Tata to carefully think about their plans. Don't make irreversible decisions now that will ruin so many lives and ruin so many businesses. There is a credible plan: take advantage of it. 

15:55

Port Talbot is a town built on steel, and a town shaped by steel. Having visited the Port Talbot plant on a number of occasions since I was elected to this Senedd nearly three years ago, the stupidest question I ever asked was, 'How long have we been making steel in Port Talbot?' Because the answer is basically forever. Before the mass industrialised plants we see across the world today, our Celtic ancestors used a primitive method of steel making, using the raw materials they found in the hills overlooking the site of the current steelworks to make a very early form of steel.

Port Talbot is a town where steel is wrapped into the history and into the culture of the place. The blast furnaces dominate the skyline, towering over the streets where people go about their daily business. Even if you don't work in the steelworks yourself, they're such an ingrained part of the town of Port Talbot that being without them would be unimaginable. For many of us that grew up in south-west Wales, seeing the steelworks out of your window on the M4 after a long trip away was the sign you knew you were home. Imagine San Francisco without the golden gate bridge or Paris without the Eiffel Tower. Port Talbot isn't Port Talbot without the steelworks in its skyline.

So, the loss of jobs we've seen announced by Tata Steel will not only be devastating to the workers directly affected by them, it will challenge the very notion of what Port Talbot is. A loss of 2,800 jobs in a town the size of Port Talbot is a loss that will be heavily felt, there's no doubt about it. But it particularly looms large when you consider how integral those jobs are to the town itself. In these difficult times, I think it's really easy to be a pessimist about the future of a town like Port Talbot, but, despite everything, I continue to be optimistic about the town and what its future could look like. The UK Government has unveiled an almost unprecedented £100 million support transition fund to support workers to help train them to find new employment. That's nearly £36,000 for every one of the 2,800 jobs that look set to be lost. The general job market in the UK at the moment is one where there are more job opportunities than those that can fill them, so training workers up to be able to fill those roles will be vital.

But, for the town itself, I genuinely believe the proposed free port has the opportunity to change the game for the town of Port Talbot and for the region as a whole—the Celtic free port project, which will see an investment corridor built across the ports of Port Talbot and Milford Haven, with green energy projects at their core. The free port could see 16,000 new jobs delivered and £5.5 billion-worth of investment, making a transformational difference in a pair of communities that sorely need it.

Thank you for taking the intervention, Tom. I appreciate what you're saying, and I'm looking forward to the free port; I've supported it from day one. But do you agree with me that that is years down the road, and it's not going to happen next year or the year after or the year after that? It's still a long way off. It's the future, but it's a long way off, and this cliff edge is now, and there's a huge gap between the two.

Yes, thank you for your intervention. The very next line of my speech addressed that.

I appreciate the ambition here is longer term, which is why the short-term measures, like the UK Government transition fund, are so essential. I called it a UK Government fund, but, of course, it has Welsh Government representatives as part of it. But I call it a UK Government fund because it's the UK Government that has put forward the money—£100 million of it, to be exact. But not one single penny has been put in by the Welsh Government—not one penny. We heard yesterday, and I'm sure we'll hear it again from the economy Minister today, that the Welsh Government stands ready to support workers in Port Talbot, but, unless those words are matched with their cheque book, they're nothing but empty platitudes. Workers in Port Talbot deserve the Welsh Government to literally put their money where their mouth is, step up and financially support the steelworkers by contributing to that transition fund. Otherwise, workers and the town of Port Talbot will ask the same question that the BBC put to the economy Minister last week: where has the Government been?

16:00

It has been a tortuous few weeks for thousands of people I represent since we heard that announcement that the heavy end of the steelworks would close entirely. So much uncertainty then, so much worry, but also a desperate hope that the plan that was presented by the unions would persuade Tata to change their decision, to make a more gradual change, thus avoiding such sudden and significant redundancies, and avoiding the catastrophic situation we are now facing. There was also hope that the Governments at both ends of the M4 would be able to deliver that just transition to the green future that they are fully aware is needed by their industry and our planet to ensure fairness.

But what we had was contempt: Westminster’s contempt towards Wales, with Rishi Sunak refusing to take a call from the First Minister of Wales. It’s appalling. Contempt also towards the workers who have been thrown aside in the same way as our miners and their communities were thrown aside. And they are angry; they feel that a major injustice has been done here because there are other options available. Losing these jobs, and losing them in this way, was not inevitable. They remember that the Westminster Government bailed out the banks in 2008, so why not rescue their industry, why not save our steel, steel that is vital for creating that green future that is now seen as the altar on which their livelihoods, their skills, their identity and their communities are now being sacrificed?

We cannot afford to lose the skills or the jobs, nor can we afford to lose faith either in a net-zero future, but this will be the inevitable outcome if we don’t see a proposal on the table that will enable us to pause, take stock and overturn this decision. As well as the proposals put forward by the unions, it is clear that additional investment is needed to make this a reality. There are also alternative models that could be adopted to ensure that we retain jobs and retain our ability to produce primary steel here in Wales and in the United Kingdom. This could happen via nationalisation, and by doing so, creating a co-operative Welsh steel company. We need to think creatively and consider all options. Wales and its workers are being betrayed once again by the Westminster Government, and our communities are, once again, powerless to prevent the economic and social devastation that will follow as a result.

We must remember that the Tata steelworks are located in a county that has employment levels below the Welsh average and that levels of economic inactivity have increased there. Neath Port Talbot is overrepresented in every category under the Wales index of multiple deprivation, and this is also true in terms of local income deprivation, salary deprivation and health deprivation. So, what is the Welsh Government here doing to urge the UK Government to step in to consider all options, including public control, stepping in to do more to avoid the devastating impact on the local community, on Wales’s economy, on the UK’s ability to produce steel and on our journey towards net zero?

As Rhun ap Iorwerth put to the First Minister yesterday, it's not just about the money—it's also about a plan. And it's now even more crucial that we see support for initiatives that retain and increase the skills base needed for the future in the Port Talbot area.

Last Thursday, on the day the news started to reach us from London, I was in Port Talbot, meeting with a local fabricating and welding company, JES Group. They've launched a skills academy, a centre of excellence, for the development of fabrication and welding skills, of which there is a shortage across south-west Wales—an industry that is one of the very few offering commensurate salary opportunities higher than the mean average quoted for workers in the region. The academy they're developing can run a full range of specialist training courses for anyone, from local school pupils and apprentices, right through to existing welders requiring continuing professional development, and all those looking for pathways into the industry. The objective is to deliver a programme that can upskill and reskill workers, who could then take advantage of the opportunities presented by the renewable energy industry. 

Will these kinds of initiatives be supported in any future Welsh Government strategy? Would the Minister support the use of funding available, from Government, Tata or the transition board, for this type of local development? We can't hope to benefit from the opportunities provided by the renewable energy industry and the drive to a net-zero economy without a highly skilled labour force, which is now being put at risk by the Tata announcement. Because people have left already. They are leaving, and may be forced to leave to support their families, to find a future for themselves. So, what solutions do you have, Minister, for them if the will and needs of Wales are once more ignored?