Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

30/01/2024

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

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

1. Questions to the First Minister

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

Local Government Budget

1. What is the Welsh Government doing to support local government to balance their budgets in Newport West? OQ60632

I thank Jayne Bryant, Llywydd. In addition to specific grants, Newport council will receive funding of £303 million through the 2024-25 local government settlement. This represents an increase of 4.7 per cent on the current year.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. Last week, Michael Gove announced an additional £600 million for local authorities in England, largely aimed at the rising costs of adult and children social care. Yet, there is widespread acknowledgement that this figure is not high enough. Members in this Chamber today will recognise that local authorities across Wales are having to make very tough decisions due to the current financial situation. We've probably all spoken to councillors and constituents deeply concerned about the impact of budget pressures on services. The Welsh Local Government Association has said that it's vital for the consequential funding of Michael Gove's announcement to be delivered to Welsh councils in full so that it can be targeted at schools and delivering social care services. Prif Weinidog, what, if any, commitments have you had from the UK Government on consequentials from last week's announcement?

Well, Llywydd, there are no guarantees of any sort, and this just illustrates the unfairness of the way that funding in the United Kingdom is organised. Local government in England will now know the settlement that it has received from the UK Government. We will have to wait until the spring budget to see whether that £25 million really does arrive in Wales, or whether it's offset by other changes in our budget, which could actually mean not that we're £25 million better off, but that we're worse off than we currently believe we will be. And that would not be the first time at all that that has happened. 

So, I know that my colleague the finance Minister is sympathetic to the case that local government in Wales makes—of course she would be—because, here in Wales, we have gone on investing in our local authorities, with an uplift of 9.4 per cent two years ago, an uplift of 7.9 per cent last year, and we have honoured what we said we would do in providing 3.1 per cent in the draft budget for next year. We will have to wait, Llywydd, in a way that English departments do not have to wait, to find out whether that money is genuinely available to us in Wales.

First Minister, whopping council tax hikes are looming for many of my constituents in south-east Wales, and it's understandably causing a lot of people a lot of concern. Residents in Newport are facing a staggering 8.5 per cent increase. In Monmouthshire, locals are expecting a 7.5 per cent jump, and, in Caerphilly, residents are looking at a 6.9 per cent hike. As I told your finance Minister last week, residents are being forced to pay more at a time when household budgets are already stretched, whilst seeing local services decline. And I sincerely have a great deal of sympathy with local councils, because it's not necessarily their doing; it's, unfortunately, this Government's. Local authorities, which deliver essential services, have been pushed into a position because of your Government's lack of funding. And I know what you'll say, First Minister—there simply isn't enough money and the Welsh Government is cash-strapped. But, First Minister, do you agree with me that if your Government stopped wasting obscene amounts of money, such as £120 million on politicians in this place, £4.25 million on redundant farms for friends—which is now set to become the most expensive aviary in Wales—and £33 million on 20 mph speed limits, then there would be more money to spare to invest in and protect our public services?

Well, Llywydd, I'm used to economic illiteracy from the Welsh Conservatives, and never disappointed, am I? I've lost count of the number of times I've tried to explain to Conservative Members here the difference between capital and revenue expenditure, but they never seem to understand even that most basic fact of Government funding. I will say this, Llywydd: this Government is not issuing an instruction to local authorities in Wales to set council tax at the maximum that they can, as we hear the Government in England is now doing to its local authorities. [Interruption.] Oh, yes, we hear that they are instructing them now, that they must maximise the draw-down from council tax to make up for the failure of funding for local authorities in England. Here in Wales, we have always prioritised. You ask any council leader in Wales and any council leader in England where they would prefer to be as far as council funding is concerned, and there's only one answer: they'd much, much rather be here.

13:35
Crohn’s Disease and Colitis

2. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that people with Crohn’s and colitis are diagnosed as quickly as possible? OQ60621

Llywydd, in Wales, we have in place a nationally agreed and standardised pathway for the investigation of inflammatory bowel disease. All health boards use this as the basis for services that respond to people presenting with symptoms of the disease.

Diolch, First Minister. As we know, there are over 26,000 people in Wales living with Crohn's and colitis—lifelong, chronic conditions of the gut—with one in four diagnosed before the age of 30. There is no cure, but, with early intervention and the right treatment, the conditions can be managed. However, before the pandemic, over one in four—so , that's 26 per cent—waited more than a year for a diagnosis, with two in five attending accident and emergency departments. One young woman described her journey as a bit of a battle. She explained how many doctors turned her away because they didn't believe she was in pain, as she experienced stomach cramps throughout her GCSEs that kept getting worse. After a year, she was finally diagnosed with Crohn's, describing her diagnosis journey as frustrating and feeling helpless, as it seemed the doctors did not take it seriously until she was in agonising pain. First Minister, will the Welsh Government explore what more can be done to improve public awareness of these symptoms and also improve awareness amongst healthcare professionals? Diolch.

Llywydd, I thank Sarah Murphy for that. I think she makes a very important point in the final part of her supplementary question—that there is a great deal that needs to be done to help people understand the nature of their symptoms, and, of course, to help healthcare professionals who end up assessing those symptoms, because this is an area where there is genuine diagnostic uncertainty. Many of the things that turn out to be colitis or Crohn's disease look like all sorts of other conditions that aren't that at all. A general practitioner will always, as their professional training would lead them to, look first at the most obvious explanation for what they see in front of them, and that's not likely to be a Crohn's or colitis diagnosis. So, managing diagnostic uncertainty is an inevitable feature of this condition. But there is more that can be done to persuade, particularly young people—and, as Sarah Murphy said, Llywydd, these are conditions that emerge quite early on in people's lives—and that people recognise those symptoms for what they might be. And then, through the work of our national clinical lead, Dr Barney Hawthorne—recently retired and soon to be replaced—we have now in primary care in Wales consistent access to the key test that gives GPs the best understanding of whether or not this is some other condition they are seeing or whether it is someone who is suffering from Crohn's and colitis. We've put a lot of effort in recent years into advice that helps patients themselves to understand the condition and to manage the condition. And the work that is done by Crohn's and Colitis UK, in their earlier diagnosis campaign, and the other educative work they do, we know is of a genuinely excellent standard. And the way the Welsh Government intends to go on promoting better awareness, greater take-up of the help that is available, is to work closely with those third sector partners.

I think it's a very important question that was asked by Sarah Murphy today, because, for those that are waiting for diagnosis or support, it's a very difficult period of their lives, and debilitating. Can you just outline, First Minister, how you are particularly supporting, or the Welsh Government is particularly supporting, those who are waiting to be diagnosed, or those who are waiting for further support or treatment, because often those waits can be long, as has been pointed out, and it's about supporting people as they go through their wait in terms of getting a diagnosis or getting further treatment?

I thank Russell George for that. I think there are three things that could be said in answer to the point that he makes. First of all is the fact that we have a nationally agreed and standardised pathway. That is very important because it means that people, wherever they present in the system, are likely to get the same level of care. Secondly is the fact that we have made available in primary care consistent access to the key test that GPs need. And then thirdly is the investment we are making in endoscopy services, because some of the delays in diagnosis and the reason why people wait are because it relies on endoscopy, and we know that there is more that needs to be done to speed up the availability and accessibility of diagnostic services in Wales.

13:40
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Twelve months ago, First Minister, a BBC programme highlighted the issues in Welsh rugby, and I think many people were taken aback and shocked at the evidence that was within that programme. Thankfully, 12 months on, we're in a far better place. And we've seen a report land in our inboxes, as Members, that has shown the action points that the Welsh Rugby Union has taken, and will have to continue to take in the coming months and years, to, obviously, get to a place where everyone will feel inclusive and enjoying the national sport. What is your take as a Government, and, in particular, your view as First Minister, on the actions that the Welsh Rugby Union have taken? And how are you holding them to account as a Government, with a significant investment in the rugby fraternity here in Wales, on the promises that they've made?

Well, I thank the leader of the opposition for that question, Llywydd. He is quite right—that original report was a report that uncovered a culture within the Welsh Rugby Union of which it itself has expressed its shame, and it was a shocking report. I think the Welsh Rugby Union has moved a great deal in the last 12 months. I think the appointment of a new chair, the appointment of a new chief executive, the very direct commitment that was made on behalf of the WRU to implement the recommendations of the independent report that they had commissioned is, I think, a very good sign, but there is a long way to go. If you wanted my assessment, it's that I think a very good start has been made, but there's a lot of work that will still need to be carried out to make sure that those thoroughgoing cultural issues, which we know are deeply embedded in organisations—we've seen it in other organisations in recent times, haven't we, in the fire and rescue service, for example, in south Wales—. Those cultures take hold and they are hard to shift. I think the WRU has made a good start.

And, from my point of view, what I want to do, and what the Welsh Government wants to do, is to support those individuals within the organisation who want to take a lead in bringing about change. So, while we will, obviously, be in constant dialogue with the WRU—there's a large sum of money that has been loaned to the union and there's regular contact ministerially, and between officials and the WRU itself—while we see progress being made, I want that relationship to be a supportive one, but we will continue to assess the progress that is being made.

First Minister, we are on the eve of the new six nations championship, and we are in a better place than where Welsh rugby was this time last year, and the new team at the top of the WRU do deserve that support and breathing space. And one thing that happened quite clearly when this news hit the headlines was a flight of sponsorship capital from the WRU and other challenges. The Welsh Government, as you alluded, highlighted the financial commitment that it's made to the game here in Wales. Last week, before the culture committee here in the Senedd, the chairman of the WRU highlighted the burden that that loan is placing on the finances of the union. Two million pounds a year is paid in servicing and capital repayments, and other unions across the United Kingdom have a far lower, as I understand it, interest rate on loans that have been made available to them. So, will the Welsh Government respond to the request from the WRU to work with them to try and restructure that loan, so that there isn't that burden placed on the grass-roots game within Wales, should the WRU have to make cutbacks in what we all want to see, which is a growing participation level in Wales and a growing and vibrant professional level, with the regions able to compete at all levels? And it will be up to the Government and the union to work to try and do that via the mechanisms that have been put in place previously. So, are you able to confirm today that the Welsh Government are engaging with the WRU and will be able to help in the restructuring of this loan so that that money can stay within the game and help it flourish here in Wales?

13:45

Let me just respond to begin with, Llywydd, to a point the leader of the opposition made in introducing his second question, the importance of a breathing space for an organisation to rebuild. I agree with him there. Organisations that come under the spotlight in the way the Welsh Rugby Union did will have suffered damage as a result. And while we see progress being made, it is important to allow them the space to demonstrate that that progress can be sustained and carried forward. 

As far as the loan is concerned, I think it is important just to be clear about some of the history of all of this. This loan originated during the COVID period, when the WRU took one of the UK Government's coronavirus large business interruption loans. They weren't able to sustain the repayments under that loan and came to the Welsh Government. We stepped in as the lender of last resort, but we inherited the terms on which that original loan had been made. And when you are dealing with public money, even when you are dealing with organisations that are as important in Welsh life as Welsh rugby is, you still have a duty to make sure that those are being made on properly commercial terms. And that's the basis of the loan, a loan entered into by the WRU. They were free agents in taking up that loan. And while we are always prepared and have been prepared to talk to the union about whether the loan can be restructured, whether there are other ways in which we can assist, in the end, this was a commercially determined loan, with conditions inherited from the UK coronavirus assistance, and entered into freely by the WRU itself.

I accept that, and the WRU wouldn't retreat from it, but there is this pressure point now that is building that obviously will have to have—. I think the words that the chairman, before the committee, used were 'a plan B', yet to be determined. But invariably we'll see pulling back from features of the game that we want to see grow here, such as the expansion of grass roots and such as the ability for our professional teams, our regions, to be able to be competitive.

That transfer over to the Welsh Government loan book, as I understand it, led to a higher rate of interest being charged on the loan as opposed to staying with the COVID loan that was agreed during the COVID crisis. I understand that that was willingly entered into at the time and there were difficulties then in servicing the loan, but we have a new team now at the helm of the WRU, coming out of a difficult period. Nothing would give greater confidence to the game here in Wales than a willingness from the Welsh Government to obviously engage and support in restructuring—not writing off, because I understand that is not an option available under any legislation because of the competitive rules that exist. But the ability to engage and restructure would be a benefit to all aspects of the game here in Wales.

So, are you able to confirm, First Minister, that the Welsh Government are engaging and are looking sympathetically at this particular request from the WRU that was made via the evidence to the culture committee? And will you confirm today if the Government will be voting for our motion tomorrow that will keep six nations rugby on free-to-air tv? Because a greater ability for the public to view the game in all its glory in that pinnacle of the game in the northern hemisphere will undoubtedly bring the generation of tomorrow forward to fill the rugby fields and rugby clubs of this great country of ours.

I agree with what the leader of the opposition has said about the importance of investment in the grass roots of the game, in women's rugby, in disabled rugby and in the regions as well. I'm happy to say that of course we're always willing to engage with the WRU to see if there's anything that can be done. I think the terms on which the money is provided by the Welsh Government would not be available to the Welsh Rugby Union in the commercial marketplace, so they're already at an advantage in that way, but that does not mean that we are not willing to talk to them and see if there's anything else that can be done.

Of course, I'm very happy to confirm the Welsh Government's support for free-to-air coverage of rugby here in Wales. It's what we argued for in the evidence we gave to the recent House of Commons inquiry into that matter. It would be an irony, wouldn't it, Llywydd, that people in Wales would be able to watch Wimbledon and the Derby on their televisions for free, but couldn't see Wales play rugby. That would hardly align with what we know to be the sporting preferences of people who live in Wales. 

13:50

Thank you, Llywydd. I want to draw the First Minister's attention to reports that the air ambulance centres in Welshpool and Caernarfon are facing closure. I believe those clinicians who fear that that will put mid and north-west Wales under a disadvantage and indeed will put lives at risk. I've co-submitted a statement of opinion on the issue earlier today. 

The review of air ambulance provision is being conducted by the Emergency Ambulance Services Committee, which is a joint committee between the seven health boards. So, the Welsh Government has an ability to influence and to intervene. Is the First Minister willing to recognise the real concerns and to take the necessary steps to safeguard both sites so that the Wales air ambulance does serve all parts of this country equally?

Of course I recognise the concerns of local people about the future of the service, but this happens wherever there is reorganisation. And that's what's happened here. The people who are responsible for the service have been out to consult with local people and have spoken to people the length and breadth of Wales, because what they are suggesting is that nobody loses out on the service that they currently receive, but that there's an opportunity for far more people to receive the service who can't currently receive it. That was the principle that underlined the work of the people who are responsible for the service, and they were clear about that from the very outset. 

The principles they set out in the beginning, Llywydd, were that the service must not be worse for anybody and the service must advantage new people. Two to three people every single day who currently don't receive this service could receive the service under the new arrangements—500 more flights to people who need it a year. I don't think that's something that we can easily turn our backs on. 

I'm entirely convinced that placing an additional team on the ground in the north-east would provide that additional care and that removing the helicopters from these two centres will mean a poorer service. The Emergency Medical Retrieval and Transfer Service, of course, provide the air ambulance care, but it's not the loss of the air ambulance that's the only concern about EMRTS services in north Wales at the moment. I've received confirmation from the Betsi Cadwaladr health board that the EMRTS emergency service to transfer patients from Ysbyty Gwynedd to other locations if they need critical care has already been reduced to daytime hours only. That causes real concern. 

The emergency patient transfer service is what transfers patients from Ysbyty Gwynedd to Liverpool or Stoke, say, perhaps after serious trauma in an accident or if they require other specialist care. Now it has been withdrawn during the night. But medical emergencies don't discriminate based on time of day. The very essence of emergency care is that it's available to you when you need it, where you need it. 

The health board says short-term mitigation measures are being put in place whilst a more permanent plan is being formulated, but the worry is—a clear worry—that this will not include a 24-hour service. Quite simply, we need this 24 hours a day and clinicians are desperately worried. Is the First Minister ready to engage on this issue so that we can try to get this service restored 24 hours a day with urgency?

The air ambulance service does exist 24 hours a day and part of the reason why reform is proposed is that it can be more available across Wales. It's difficult for me to fully understand the points the leader of Plaid Cymru is making. He wants to criticise moves to make a service more widely available and then he's anxious when a service isn't available enough. I wonder whether he thinks there's any contradiction in those two positions that he's advanced so far this afternoon. The detail on the ground will be a matter for the health board itself to establish, to explain, and, of course, they will do that in dialogue with the Welsh Government and with the Minister in her very regular oversight of the way in which the board operates.

13:55

Of course, we are talking about one service, the air ambulance, that might be changed in the future. This has already been introduced in terms of the emergency patient transfer at Ysbyty Gwynedd. So, it's not one being taken away because something else is coming in instead of it. This is the loss of a service. 

One element that is frustrating clinicians is their understanding that the transfer service may be being enhanced in other parts of Wales. I am certainly not, as the First Minister knows, in the business of pitching one part of Wales against the other, but I do firmly believe that the Government has to show explicitly, at all times, that it treats all parts of Wales equally.

I'm afraid that the threat to the air ambulances bases, coupled with, already, the withdrawal of emergency transfers, will only reinforce a sense of grievance felt by patients in mid or north Wales. Will the First Minister take that message on board too, in deciding how to intervene on both the air ambulance and the emergency transfer service?

Of course I recognise that when change happens, you have to be sure that you try to take your local population with you on that journey. The health service has changed from the very first day on which it was inaugurated in 1948, and it will go on changing. We know that people in Wales are fiercely attached to the service that they see and they know, and that changing those things on the ground is always something that you have to do through a process of sharing information, answering people's questions, hoping to be able to address the concerns that will be raised. That's what we would expect all of our health boards to do, and I'm sure that in any discussions that the Minister will have—. And it's very good news that the Minister has been able to confirm that the new chair of the health board is now in permanent position, and I think has already demonstrated, with the new chief executive, a very real determination always to listen, always to be available to people on the ground where there are those concerns. I would certainly expect to see that continue.

Homelessness

3. How is the Welsh Government supporting individuals facing homelessness in South Wales Central? OQ60591

The Welsh Government remains committed to our long-term ambition to end homelessness. This year alone, more than £210 million has been invested in homelessness prevention. This funding has been safeguarded for 2024-25, despite the challenging fiscal situation. This includes over £45 million for authorities in South Wales Central. 

Thank you, First Minister. Over the past month, it has become apparent that the former Toys 'R' Us building in Cardiff Bay is being used as temporary accommodation for individuals waiting for homes. Of course, emergency shelter is needed immediately for anyone who is facing homelessness, but the conditions in which vulnerable people are being housed are very concerning to me and concerning to a number of staff who are supporting service users.

Bearing in mind these concerns regarding the health and safety of service users and staff in such facilities, I'd like to ask whether you believe that housing vulnerable individuals in such buildings is an appropriate and sustainable solution to tackling the homelessness crisis here in the capital and in Wales. What proactive steps do you, as a Government, intend to take to ensure the welfare and safety of those who are housed in temporary accommodation? 

As Cardiff Council itself has said, its decision to use Toys 'R' Us was a decision made under the huge pressure that the city is facing. In the run-up to Christmas, Cardiff becomes a magnet for people who come to the city, who find that they have nowhere to live, and turn to the local authority to assist them. At the same time, Cardiff, above any other part of Wales, is dealing with the consequences of the Home Office's decision to speed up decision making in the asylum system—a good thing in itself, but with many, many people being ejected from the accommodation that they previously were able to enjoy, with nowhere to go, but to the homelessness services of the local authority. Those two things came together before Christmas in a way that was incredibly difficult for the local authority to find a way to respond. It has used the Toys 'R' Us site. It says that it will have stopped using that site in April of this year because it has other more suitable accommodation coming on stream. In the meantime, it has done whatever it can to make people in that temporary and unsatisfactory set of circumstances as safe as they can be.

In terms of what the Welsh Government is doing, the period between April and October last year saw the highest number of presentations of people who are homeless than in any of the previous three years. But it also saw the highest number of people moved on from temporary accommodation to permanent accommodation here in Wales. So, while the demand is growing all the time, the efforts of the Welsh Government, with our partners in local authorities who I think have done a fantastic job in this area, mean that more people than before are still being moved on into better and long-term accommodation. We will continue to do that with the investment that our draft budget sets out, but nobody should be under any doubt that this is a system under enormous pressure, and those pressures devolved on to Cardiff in particular in those weeks leading up to Christmas.

14:00

First Minister, as you may be well aware, the combined homelessness and information network, CHAIN, commissioned and funded by the Greater London Authority, is a database of information recording people seen rough-sleeping by outreach teams in London. Services that record information on CHAIN include outreach teams, accommodation projects, day centres and specialist projects, such as the commissioned No Second Night Out project. The real benefits of the network are that it is updated every day and provides a far more detailed understanding of rough-sleeping in a particular area, compared to the national count. It also captures far more detail about an individual's situation, such as how long they have been sleeping rough, and it helps agencies such as the Salvation Army, who do such an incredible job of helping homeless people, with any support needs that they have. With this in mind, First Minister, will you consider introducing a comprehensive multi-agency database, along the lines of the CHAIN system operating in London, in Wales in order to improve the planning and delivery of services for people experiencing street homelessness? Thank you.

Llywydd, I'm aware of the CHAIN system and it does, undoubtedly, have many merits in a city the size and scale of London, but I don't believe that the difficulty faced in homelessness services in Wales is one of a lack of information. We have monthly reports from all our local authorities about the number of people who are street homeless; they are directly in touch with all of them on a very, very regular basis. What our system lacks is the funding necessary to be able to respond to people who find themselves in that situation. It's not a deficit of information, Llywydd, it is the challenge of responding to a problem that has been growing every year since the COVID pandemic. 

The Co-operative Economy

4. What action is the Welsh Government taking to grow the co-operative economy? OQ60628

Llywydd, I thank Vikki Howells for that. Social enterprises and community-led co-operatives are an important part of the social and economic landscape in Wales. Dedicated support to help grow the sector is available through Business Wales, Social Business Wales and the Development Bank of Wales.

Diolch, First Minister. Last week I chaired a round-table discussion of a new report on the purpose of mutual and co-operative business in society. The report highlighted, for example, that the UK mutual and co-operative economy in 2022 had combined annual revenues of just under £88 billion, or 3.5 per cent of gross domestic product. I know that the Welsh Government is already well on its way to meeting its goal of doubling the number of co-operative businesses in Wales this term. One recommendation in the report calls on policy teams across Government to consider the benefits that co-operatives and mutuals bring to the economy. So, how is Welsh Government embedding this within its economic strategy?

I thank Vikki Howells for drawing attention to the report. It is an excellent report, if colleagues haven't had a chance to read it. What I think brings the report to life are the case studies that are contained right through it, which show the way in which co-operative and mutual ways of providing services are to be found not directly in the economy field alone, as Vikki Howells says, but can do much to assist right across the responsibilities that are exercised in this Senedd.

The case study that is from Wales in the report is of the Principality Building Society, of course itself a mutual organisation, and its partnership with the Pobl Group, looking to make sure that housing in Wales has a better chance of being able to meet the climate change obligations that we know lie there for us today and in the future. But that's not the only example, by any means, here in Wales. If you look across the range of things that are the responsibility of the Welsh Government, in social care many colleagues here will know about Solva Care, which has won many awards. There's the Friends United Together co-operative in Swansea, a co-operative people with learning disabilities. In the education field, we've had a supply teacher co-operative helping to make sure that schools get the assistance that they need when they need to use people from the supply lists. The Calon Wen organic milk co-operative in Narberth is another example of a co-operative. We've got co-operatives in the food industry, in arts, in business. I think the report makes the point powerfully, but I also think that we can demonstrate here in Wales that we are using that co-operative model, of course, in the economy department, but making sure that, right across the Welsh Government, its advantages are known and implemented.

14:05

First Minister, we've seen a number of well-loved establishments in Pembrokeshire, such as pubs and shops, being transferred from private businesses to co-operative models of operating over the last few years. Two of the most recent are pubs such as Crymych Arms in Crymych and Tafarn y Cross in Hayscastle Cross, which also received financial support from the UK Government. I know, too, that the Welsh Government is supportive of these assets being taken over in this way for the benefit of the community. I'm sure you'll agree with me that what is vital is ensuring as many volunteers as possible can come forward to support such co-operatives and to make them hugely successful. Given the importance of volunteers, can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to help promote the importance of these community assets so that as many volunteers as possible come forward to support such ventures? Can you also tell us what is the Welsh Government doing to support community organisations who have helped facilitate such ventures to become co-operatives in the first place?

Llywydd, I thank Paul Davies for both of those points. It's only a few weeks ago that I was with his colleague Darren Millar in a community-run shop in his constituency, and the person we met, who is the person in charge of it, said to me very directly, 'I'm not the important person here, it's the volunteers that allow this shop to continue to offer the service that it does to this local community.' So, I absolutely understand the point that Paul Davies is making, Llywydd, and, of course, here in Wales we're lucky enough to have a robust infrastructure for volunteering. We have not only the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, which takes that Wales-wide view of supporting volunteers, but we have county voluntary councils that adapt those policies and those grant possibilities to the needs of local communities. They do that not just in supporting volunteering and encouraging people to come forward for that, but they also support community organisations themselves. So, I entirely endorse the points that the Member has made, Llywydd, and I believe that in Wales we are particularly well placed, not simply because we are a nation of volunteers—a higher percentage of people volunteer in Wales than any other part of the United Kingdom—but we also have the infrastructure in place to support them in doing so.

Of course, the very idea of co-operatives isn't something that's a foreign concept to Wales. The very idea started in Wales, so it's important that we lead the way into the future. Now, back in October I raised with the First Minister the untapped potential of the sector here in Wales, because, at the end of the day, it does make up 0.6 per cent of Welsh GDP. If we want to see an increase in that figure, of course, increasing the number of co-operatives operating is important, but also, as well, looking at the sizes of those co-operatives and looking at opportunities in other industries where we might be able to grow sizeable co-operatives in the same way in which they've done in Mondragón in the Basque Country. So, my question is: how will the Welsh Government not just look at increasing the numbers of co-operatives, but also look at scaling up the size of those co-operatives as well, so that they deliver the levels of growth we want to see, but also, as well, the good-quality jobs that we know they can?

14:10

The Robert Owen co-operatives were on a significant scale, weren’t they? New Lanark was a whole town devoted to the co-operative way of doing things. I was asked a question, as the Member said, earlier in the year about employee-owned businesses becoming co-operatives in Wales and I was able to say to him then that we were making very good progress towards our target on it, and, in fact, that pace has accelerated since I answered that question: 70 employee-owned businesses now in Wales, three more in the legal stage of the transition process and a further five new enquiries now being taken through the process you need to go through to become an employee-owned co-operative.

I remember being told in Mondragón, when I was there, that they hadn’t succeeded in persuading people in the two valleys either side of them to adopt the model, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much in Wales if we haven’t done as much as they had managed. But there are lessons from other parts of the world, and from those large-scale co-operatives, because we do now have some genuinely large-scale employee-owned businesses here in Wales, and our aim always is to assist businesses on that journey, so that they stay rooted here in Wales and use their capacity for growth to go on making that contribution to the wider Welsh economy.

Permitted Development Rights

5. Will the First Minister make a statement on permitted development rights in Wales? OQ60592

Permitted development rights enable development with limited planning impacts to proceed without needing a planning application. These are kept under review in consultation with planning authorities, businesses and other organisations with an interest in the planning system.

Diolch. In response to a similar question on 9 January, Dawn Bowden MS, Deputy Minister for tourism, told this Parliament

'The Welsh Government is committed to supporting a vibrant visitor economy all year round throughout Wales'.

Now, the facts paint a different picture. There's now a growing perception that, in Wales, this Welsh Government supported by Plaid are on an anti-tourism agenda. And you’ve got to realise this is a £6.2 billion industry, so let’s look at what’s been introduced as a result of this co-operation agreement: a 182-day rule for self-catering accommodation, registration scheme for holiday lets, licensing scheme for hospitality accommodation, tourism tax, slashing the 75 per cent—[Interruption.] I’m well within my time.

Yes, you're within your time. [Interruption.] You're within your time, Janet Finch-Saunders; I'm not sure whether you're within your topic at the moment.

Right. So, further to the consultation on extending development rights for temporary campsites, and in order to help the sector, will you now increase the number of days from 28 to 60 for these businesses? Diolch.

Well, Llywydd, I did eventually understand the point the Member was making. The Minister has a range of topics that she will consider in the coming 12 months in relation to permitted development rights. That will include air-source heat pumps, electric charging, the bottle-return scheme—of which the Member was such a strong supporter—and caravan parks, so it is on the list for the Minister to consider this year. When she does, she will inevitably be weighing up the balance of rights here. I understand the points that the Member has made and the sector has made about if it had more days in which it was able to open caravan parks without planning permission, that would be of advantage to some people in the industry. But we also know that there have been complaints in the past of those pop-up caravan sites creating traffic that is unregulated, that there is smoke that affects people who live nearby, there is noise from people—who are, after all, coming on holiday to enjoy themselves, and they’re very close sometimes to where people live their lives. So, what the Minister will be doing will be to be weighing up those different considerations. If it is possible to extend the number of days that caravan parks can pop up without planning permission, then there will have to be safeguards for people who live nearby as well.

Royal Mail

6. What consideration has the First Minister given to Ofcom's announcement that Royal Mail could reduce letter deliveries to three days a week? OQ60613

14:15

The challenges faced by Royal Mail are not best resolved by a service confined to only three days a week. The Deputy Minister for Social Partnership will meet Ofcom next week to make it clear that any changes to postal services must take into account Welsh needs and any impacts on vulnerable people.

Diolch. Since Royal Mail was privatised, it has been asset-stripped. The universal one-price letter was never profitable on its own, it was part of a package of services. And recently, workers have been told to deliver the more lucrative parcels and leave letters behind, as rounds have become too big to deliver for the workforce that is left; all while chief executives have had massive pay awards and shareholders have profited. Has the Welsh Government considered the impact reduced letter delivery will have on health appointments and those that are digitally excluded?

Well, Llywydd, Carolyn Thomas makes a very important point at the end of her supplementary question. I said in my original answer that one of the two key points that the Deputy Minister will be conveying next week are general Welsh needs—. And a universal postal service inevitably means that you get the same service if you are hard to provide that service to, if you live remotely and it's inevitably more expensive, as if you live in a densely-populated inner city area, where it's much easier to provide that service; that's the nature of an universal service and we will be making that point. But we'll also be making points on behalf of those vulnerable individuals in our community. We know our health services are used far more by people later on in life than people who are earlier on. We know that those people are, on the whole, less likely to use digital means of communication. It's fantastic that the health service uses text messaging and other things to remind people of appointments, but, if you don't operate in that world, you rely on the letter coming through the door, and if you're only getting a letter on three days of the week the chances are far too high that someone will not get an appointment or not know about their appointment in good time to be able to make the necessary arrangements to be able to keep that appointment. Those are really important points for the most vulnerable people in our society and the Minister will be conveying that point very directly to the regulator.

The chief executive of Ofcom made the point that we're sending half as many letters as we did in 2011 and receiving many more parcels, but the universal service obligation hasn't changed since then. Ofcom also noted that many other European countries, for the same reasons, have reduced frequency of delivery or extended delivery times for letters, including Sweden, Belgium, Norway and Denmark, in their document. However, last Wednesday, the Prime Minister pledged to maintain Royal Mail's obligation to deliver letters six days a week. Given that Ofcom will now be consulting on its proposals before providing an update in the summer and your indication that you will be engaging with Ofcom, including a meeting next week, what, if any, proposals do you have to square that circle, where consumer demand has changed drastically, but, at the same time, the public want that universal six-day service?

Well, Llywydd, I don't disagree that there is a dilemma to be solved there, with the number of letters falling and the nature of the business changing. It is why Ofcom has itself come forward with its proposals. We will engage with those proposals, of course; as I said, the Minister is meeting on 9 February with Ofcom. What we are concerned with is that, in any resolution of that dilemma, Welsh interests are not neglected and that vulnerable people are protected, and I don't imagine for a moment that the Member would dissent from either of those principles.

Enhancing NHS Services in Islwyn

7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to enhance NHS services in Islwyn? OQ60633

Llywydd, we constantly look to improve services for the Member's constituency, as demonstrated last week, when Aneurin Bevan University Health Board opened a new £19 million health and well-being centre. Islwyn residents will also benefit from a £14 million investment in the emergency department at the Grange University Hospital, as well as a new breast care unit opening next month.

14:20

Thank you, First Minister. The Welsh Government's and indeed this Senedd Cymru Welsh Parliament's ability to deliver and oversee vital public services is predicated on the finances it receives from the UK Tory Government in Westminster. The Welsh health Minister has informed the Senedd that the Welsh Government has escalated intervention at the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board. This is welcome oversight in an incredibly challenging environment. I also welcome the news of the announcement, as the First Minister said, that Welsh Government has made an additional £14 million available to expand and reconfigure parts of the Grange University Hospital. The Grange has been an important new facility for the people of Gwent as healthcare demands have soared, and it is vital that the Grange improves, as it has become a key centre of healthcare in Gwent. First Minister, what principles and actions guide the Welsh Government in protecting and enhancing the national health service in Gwent, whilst public services have been so roughly damaged by the UK Tory Government now entering its final death spiral?

Before I ask the First Minister to answer, can I just check that the First Minister has understood the question, because the broadband connection wasn't sufficiently good? If you've understood the question, you can answer. But if I can just say to Rhianon Passmore, if you are to take part later on in the session at all, you will need to improve the broadband connection you're currently working on. First Minister.

Llywydd, can I thank other Members for the relative silence in which the question was put? It wasn't easy to follow, but I think I was able to understand the key gist of what Rhianon Passmore said.

She asked me at the end what principles guide the Welsh Government's actions in relation to the health service and, well, those are our continuing commitment to the founding principles of the health service. The new centre that I mentioned in my answer, the £19 million health and well-being centre, was in Tredegar, of course, and no more fitting place to demonstrate investment in a twenty-first century health service than in the place where the health service itself was born. So, we continue to be committed to a service that is comprehensive, universal, free at the point of use, and where access is based not on the amount of money you have in your pocket or the influence that you are able to bear, but on your clinical need. That's what guides the investments that are made by the Welsh Government.

I agree with the point that the Member made about the need for improvement at the Grange University Hospital in its emergency department, given the part it now plays in that ecology of health services in the Gwent area, but that's why the Minister has provided that additional investment. It will more than double the capacity at that emergency department and make sure that it goes on providing the service on which Rhianon Passmore's constituents rely.

Excessive Profits in the Economy

8. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of how excessive profits in some sectors of the economy are impacting Welsh residents? OQ60618

Well, Llywydd, there is no doubt that profiteering has added to inflationary pressure on Welsh household budgets. To cite just one example, the Competition and Markets Authority concluded in November that makers of some popular food brands had raised their prices more than their costs during the cost-of-living crisis.

I'm grateful to the First Minister for his answer. You're right, First Minister; the CMA have done their own piece of work, but so have—. Research has been done by Unite the Union, Llywydd, and I refer Members to my declaration of interests. Unite found that, in many industries, excess profits were pushing up prices—[Interruption.] Presiding Officer, the Conservatives can shout all they want, but they'll want to listen to the reality of what many of my residents are facing and many of theirs are facing in their own communities: excess profits pushing up prices. The UK Conservative Government, Presiding Officer, were forced to act in a tokenistic way in the energy sector. However, this hasn't been the case anywhere else, and it's not been anywhere near good enough. In other sectors, such as car insurance, it's affecting their constituents on a daily basis. In other areas, such as food, it's affecting their constituents on a daily basis. These behaviours have gone unchecked. First Minister, last winter we saw some companies making excessive profits gleefully switching vulnerable customers to prepayment meters at the same time. These excessive profits were inflammatory, they were damaging to growth, and they were damaging to my constituents and the Welsh population. Can I ask you, First Minister, therefore: what is your assessment of what needs to happen to get the Government in Westminster to take this problem seriously?

14:25

Well, Llywydd, I thank Jack Sargeant for that. I too am proud to declare my membership of Unite the Union and to endorse the work that it's done in this area. When I saw the question at the weekend, Llywydd, I was reminded of a famous saying by that great socialist and political thinker, R.H. Tawney. I think it's 100 years ago almost to now when he said,

'what thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice a problem of riches'.

And that's at the heart of the point that Jack Sargeant has made, isn't it? We live in this deeply unequal society. We talk an awful lot here in this Chamber about poverty. We talk a little bit less than maybe we should about the problem of riches and the need to make sure that the assets that are available to us as citizens of the United Kingdom are more fairly distributed between us. Despite everything that has been done, Llywydd, to improve the position of prepayment meter customers, Citizens Advice was reporting last week that 2 million people who depend on prepayment meters will find themselves involuntarily without a supply. They will have disconnected themselves from lifeline supplies because they're simply not able to afford to feed them. That despite the astonishing profits that have been made by those energy companies during this cost-of-living crisis.

And, Llywydd, it's not only there. Jack Sargeant has drawn attention to the food industry, to the insurance industry and energy. But we had a powerful contribution on the floor of the Senedd last week from Jane Dodds talking about the elimination of profit from services for looked-after children, and there the Competition and Markets Authority concluded that, in that industry, where a reasonable return on investment would be 6 per cent, the industry was taking twice that as a return in excessive profits. The Competition and Markets Authority itself said that the UK had sleepwalked into a dysfunctional market where excessive profit taking was at the expense of those vulnerable children who depended upon it. In the way that Jack Sargeant has said this afternoon, Llywydd, we need a Government prepared to level that playing field for the benefit of citizens in Wales and across the United Kingdom.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item will be the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make the statement. Lesley Griffiths.

Diolch, Llywydd. There are two changes to this week's Plenary business. Tomorrow's committee debate will be on the challenges facing the creative industry workforce in Wales, which was postponed from last week. Therefore, the debate on the Culture, Communications, Welsh Language, Sport, and International Relations Committee's annual report on international relations 2022-23 has been postponed until 28 February. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Can I call for two statements today, please, Trefnydd, the first on the future of our high streets in Wales? Many town centres have been struggling in recent years. We know that the competition presented by online retailers and out-of-town developments, with their free parking opportunities, has made it tough doing business, sometimes, in our town centres. And, of course, the latest impact of the reduction in business rate relief is causing many businesses in my constituency to get in touch to say that that could be make or break for them. I do think that we need to ensure that there's more discussion on the future of our town centres, how we can make sure that they are vibrant in the future, and I wonder whether we could have a statement so that we can have an engagement and a discussion on this on a cross-party basis to see what might be done to protect them.

Secondly, can I call for a statement on whether Transport for Wales represents value for money for Welsh taxpayers? We know that £125 million was recently awarded to Transport for Wales, in spite of there apparently being no business case for that ever having been published, and in spite of it not having been part of the Welsh Government's budget arrangements for last year. It's been brought to my attention by a constituent that Transport for Wales recently spent £5,500—I know it's a small sum in relative terms—wrapping a train in a 'Made in Wales' advertising slogan and sign. Now, clearly, that is unnecessary discretionary expenditure at taxpayers' expense, and I wonder what else is going on that's being wastefully spent by Transport for Wales without there being a proper business case around it.

So, I would appreciate a statement from the Minister on Transport for Wales, on why these significant sums are being given to that organisation when it seems to be able to spend frivolously on that sort of advertising.

14:30

I will agree to a statement on your first question, but not to your second. 

Trefnydd, I'd like to request a statement following an investigative piece published at the weekend by The Sunday Times regarding cash for courses, which exposed that Cardiff University was one of the universities named that were offering to recruit foreign students on far lower grades than we would expect from students here in Wales, meaning that students are missing out, having to have excessively high grades of A*s and so on to get onto some courses, which are absolutely vital in terms of the Welsh economy, of course, and missing out because of the situation that many of our universities are facing in terms of their financial difficulties.

I think we need clarity on this, and I'd appreciate a statement from the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language to understand what discussions he may have with Cardiff University to ensure that Welsh students aren't missing out, and also, that we're not exploiting international students unfairly.

Well, obviously, we welcome foreign students to our Welsh universities, but I think we do have to be very careful. I know the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language is currently speaking to vice-chancellors in general around foreign students, and I'm sure he'll be happy to update us at the appropriate time. 

Trefnydd, I'd like to ask for a statement, please, from the Minister for Economy about the £70 million clawback that the Welsh Government had from the Superfast Cymru broadband scheme. I know the Welsh Government is going through a procurement exercise on how they could supplement the Welsh Government scheme with regard to broadband, but it would be useful if we could have an update in the Chamber, please, on this procurement exercise, because people in my constituency want some assurances that that scheme is going to enable our harder-to-reach properties to have equitable access to fast broadband in our rural communities. 

Thank you. I will certainly ask the appropriate Minister to update via a written statement. 

Well, very conveniently, I want to follow the same track and ask for a statement from the Minister for Economy, because I've raised concerns in this Chamber previously about areas of rural Carmarthenshire, and rural areas in Ceredigion also, that have been disappointed time and time again by companies that have pledged to implement the voucher schemes, but have let those areas down. And I have to declare an interest: I live in one of those areas, and I've been one of those people who've expressed an interest. The Broadway company went bust and let people down. And then they were bought by a company called Voneus, and, last week, we heard that they weren't going to commit to follow the voucher scheme. So, having spoken to Openreach originally, then Broadway, and then Voneus, we are, in these areas, still lacking the kind of broadband service that we deserve.

So, can I ask—I know that many elements of this sit with the UK Government—what is the Welsh Government intending to do to provide services in these notspots in rural areas?

Thank you. Well, what I will do is ask the Minister to encompass your issues as well in the written statement. It's really important that our rural communities have access to broadband in the way that urban areas do too, for business and, obviously, for personal use as well. So, I will make sure that's encompassed in that statement.

I would like to request a statement from the health Minister, please. Last week, it was announced that the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board supported the plan for Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny in my region to be closed every night of the week. It has previously operated 24-hours a day, seven days a week, and my constituents and I are deeply concerned at the decision to close the minor injuries unit every night. This is the wrong decision for my constituents and it is not putting patient need first. The decision is not supported by local residents or politicians alike. It will mean people in my region having to travel a significant number of miles to receive treatment, and will only add to put further pressure on the Grange, at a time when it's already under tremendous pressure.

So, I'd like the Minister to release a statement to update the Senedd on what discussions have taken place with the health board, what is being done to ensure that this crucial service remains available for my constituents to get help when they need it, and whether the Minister believes these changes are sufficient. My constituents also obviously need to know what the alternatives are for them, what transport will be available to them. I'm sure the Minister will agree with me that all my constituents need to be aware of this significant change in service. Thank you.

14:35

Thank you. Well, this isn't a matter for the Minister for Health and Social Services; this is obviously an operational matter from within Aneurin Bevan health board. My understanding is there was only one patient a night, on average, attending. And again, it's a matter for the health board to make sure that the information about where they should attend in the case of an emergency, that the general population that they serve know that.

Well, actually, like Laura, I'd like to have an oral statement, please, from the health Minister about the provision of minor injury units in the region. We've seen, as has been outlined already, the closure, overnight, of the minor injuries unit at Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny. Many patients are concerned about where they'd go late at night if something goes wrong, and over 5,000 people have signed a petition in support of that facility. Limited hours are also going to be made permanent at Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr in Ystrad Mynach. I would appreciate if a statement could address those local concerns, whether legislation could be made possible to ensure that there is provision 24 hours a day offered to people, particularly those who find it difficult to get to A&E, especially when A&E services have become so centralised across the whole region, because people feel isolated and worried about where to get help.

Now, on a related matter to that, I've been contacted by a constituent who is expressing concern about the level of pressure being put on staff because of workloads, I think, in Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr, actually in the minor injuries unit—staff, who, by the way, they commended for their dedication, but there is a worry that they might be being overworked. I have contacted the health board. They told me that the staffing levels at the unit conform to Government guidelines. They also admitted that those staffing levels were under review. So, in that same statement, please, could the health Minister commit to a review of the current guidelines, to ensure that staff and patients are getting the support they need, please? Diolch.

Well, I don't think I have anything more to add, really, to my answer to Laura Anne Jones. This is not a matter for the Minister for Health and Social Services; this is a matter for Aneurin Bevan, so you've done absolutely the right thing writing to them. But I do think it is important that the health board make the population that they serve aware of the changes. I appreciate no-one likes change, but it is important that people know where to go to access the correct health service, at the correct time.

Trefnydd, can I please request two statements? Can I request the first from the health Minister, on the delivery of emergency services and ambulance waiting times in Wales? I've been made aware of a constituent whose relative had to wait 26 hours for an ambulance after an initial first responder arrived. Another constituent's family have been in touch to tell me of their relative who waited over an hour and a half for an ambulance after having a heart attack on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, that person passed away at the age of 40, leaving two small children. I'm sure you'll agree with me that that is absolutely appalling, and my heart goes out to the family. Minister, given these unacceptable cases, it's vital that some time is now made available, I think, to discuss emergency health services, and ambulance waiting times in particular, so that Members and the public can understand what the Welsh Government is doing to improve services and ensure lessons are being learnt.

And secondly, Llywydd, can I request a statement from the Welsh Government regarding footpath connectivity? I've received representations from a constituent who has expressed concern at the lack of connectivity of footpaths, and calls for them to be better linked up across the country. I appreciate that this involves buy-in from landowners, from local authorities, from national parks, and indeed other stakeholders, but I'd be grateful if a statement—written or oral—could be provided, outlining the Welsh Government's position on this particular issue.

Thank you. In relation to your first request, clearly, the two situations you outlined are unacceptable, and I too send my sympathies to the family involved in the second example that you gave. If we look at our ambulance service, and certainly if we compare it to this time last year, we have seen some improvements, despite the very highest demand that we've had for red calls on record last month. The median response time for immediately life threatening red calls was just over eight minutes, and 80 per cent of red calls received a response within 15 minutes. Again, emergency departments, we know that the system is very much under pressure, but people are still receiving a very good standard of care within our emergency departments across Wales, and this is absolutely a testament to the hard work of our health staff.

In relation to your second point, I think it might be better if you write directly to the Minister for Climate Change around footpaths, and she'll be able to answer your specific concerns directly. 

14:40

Can I ask for two statements, if I may? Could I have a statement from yourself as rural affairs Minister on the economic impact assessment of the sustainable farming scheme, which has been the focus of some coverage this week, outlining the potential loss of 5,500 jobs and £200 million-worth of losses to farm incomes? I know you've said that the assessment is based on a previous iteration of the sustainable farming scheme, but, of course, fundamentally, not that much has changed, really. So, a statement, I think, explaining the relevance of the impact assessment to the current proposals would be useful, on how, maybe, the impact assessment has led to change in what you're now proposing and how you will, therefore, secure a just transition that avoids thousands of job losses and hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of farm income losses as well. And maybe you could also tell us when an updated impact assessment will be provided to inform the current consultation that's ongoing around the SFS.

Could I have a statement from the Deputy Minister for culture, if I might ask for one? There are a number of budget cuts that are going to impact organisations directly funded from her portfolio, which will lead to jobs being lost. Now, I know some of these bodies are already undertaking redundancy processes. So, I would want a statement from the Deputy Minister that reassures us that those processes are being undertaken in an appropriate manner, that they treat everyone fairly, and that they allow sufficient time for people who have to make important decisions about their future employment—that they're given the support and the information they need to make those informed decisions—and that they happen with a degree of consistency across the organisations and the sector, because, clearly, there will be significant implications. And, I think, those reassurances would be welcomed by many people. 

Thank you. Regarding the economic impact assessments on the economic analysis ahead of the consultation for the sustainable farming scheme, I don't think I will be doing an oral statement around that. I've made it very clear that this is very old data, and the reason I shared it in the way I did was to be open and transparent about it, because I thought it was really important, ahead of the current consultation regarding the sustainable farming scheme, that that data was available. I've made it very clear that there will be a new economic analysis, and that will be done after the consultation closes, which I think is on 9 March, ahead of the final decisions being taken on the SFS this summer.

Regarding the Deputy Minister for culture and her budget for next year, as you know, we're currently going through draft budget scrutiny. I fully understand the concerns that you have, and the Deputy Minister is making sure that she talks to the organisations that you refer to as the process has gone along. Once the budget is set, I think those conversations will obviously continue.  

Diolch, Llywydd. Well, Trefnydd, can I ask for two statements, please? Can I ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership on the impact of the Post Office's Horizon scandal on post offices in Wales? The post office in Nefyn has recently closed, and, unfortunately they're struggling to find someone to take on the contract. It closed, partly, because of a loss of confidence in the IT systems, and I'm led to believe that other communities are experiencing similar responses too. The post office provides an essential service for many people and we need to have the assurance that these services will be maintained. So, can I ask for a statement, please, on that? 

Secondly, I'd like to ask for a statement from the Minister for Social Justice on actions taken by this Government to tackle sexual assault and rape. Last week, I met with RASASC, the Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre North Wales, in Bangor. I was frightened hearing some of the statistics and understanding that a third of women who were asked at the freshers' fair last year knew someone who had been raped or sexually assaulted. In fact, north Wales has the highest rate of sexual violence anywhere in the UK outside of London, and we're seeing increasing numbers of referrals, with a 30 per cent year on year increase this year, especially amongst children. The data is staggering, and I'm really concerned about the welfare of women and children. So, I'd like a statement on what action the Government is taking to this effect. Diolch.

14:45
3. Statement by the First Minister: The final report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales

Item 3 is next, which is a statement by the First Minister on the final report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales. I call on the First Minister.

Llywydd, publication of the final report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, 10 days ago, was a major event in the short history of Welsh devolution. My first job this afternoon is to pay tribute to the 11 members of the commission, and particularly its co- chairs, former Archbishop of Wales and Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the distinguished Welsh academic, Professor Laura McAllister. Behind the commission sat an active and influential expert group and a secretariat who did much to support the production of the lucid and persuasive final document.

Llywydd, I should also thank those senior members of all the parties represented in this Senedd for their help in identifying those commissioners who contributed the political perspectives that shape the constitutional debate of our nation. It is a remarkable tribute to the skills of the co-chairs that, faced with a commission full of individuals of robust and strongly held views, the final report is, to quote Dr Williams and Professor McAllister, the product of

'reasoned, inclusive debate based on data and evidence',

leading to unanimous conclusions. That a cross-party commission should come to so many shared conclusions lends a real extra weight and significance to the final report, and I thank once again all those who helped to make that happen.

Now, Llywydd, the genesis of the commission is to be found in Welsh Labour’s manifesto of 2021, when we promised that we would

'Work for a new and successful United Kingdom, based on a far-reaching federalism. We want to foster a national, civic conversation in Wales about our future. We will establish an independent, standing commission to consider the constitutional future of Wales.'

That is what we said in our manifesto. The final remit of that commission was set out in the programme for government and refined once again in the co-operation agreement between this Welsh Labour Government and Plaid Cymru.

The circumstances in which the notion of a commission was formed reflected the many stresses and strains that have been felt in the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom. The Brexit vote referendum in both Scotland and Northern Ireland had returned majorities in favour of remaining in the European Union, while Wales and England voted to leave. The Scottish National Party had won 56 of the 59 parliamentary seats in the 2015 general election, by which time it had already been in government in Holyrood for nearly a decade. In December 2019, the Conservative Party was able to form the first clear majority Government at Westminster since 1992, and the first since devolution. The Prime Minister of the time, Boris Johnson, told his supporters that he regarded devolution as the greatest mistake of the New Labour Government and proceeded to deal with legislatures in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh on that basis. The era of muscular unionism, as it was called in Downing Street, added new tensions and further widened fissures in an already fragile United Kingdom.

Here in Wales, in that 2021 Senedd election, it was clear that voters would have the opportunity, if they so chose, to support candidates dedicated to reversing devolution altogether—the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party—and candidates dedicated to leaving the United Kingdom.

Now, Llywydd, there are those who believe that the constitutional turbulence of that period has come to an end, that the undoubted travails of the Scottish National Party mean that conventional unionism has triumphed and that rule from London has been reasserted. That, I believe, is a conclusion that is both foolish and dangerous. The constitutional challenges facing the United Kingdom, especially for those of us who believe in the continuation of the United Kingdom, are as real today as when the commission was established. By this time next year, there may be a Sinn Féin first minister in Northern Ireland—and I welcome the developments overnight to restore an Executive in Northern Ireland—and there may be a Sinn Féin government in the Irish Republic. Anybody who thinks the constitutional turbulence is over is simply indulging in wishful thinking.

The commission, by contrast, was established to provide thinking of a very different calibre, and it has done just that. The interim report decisively set out the 10 greatest challenges facing devolution: the instability of the devolution settlement, the fragility of inter-governmental relations, problems with the system of financing devolved nations, the absence of leadership on the union, and so on. Now the final report sets out some answers to these dilemmas. The commission advances a set of measures that can entrench and enhance the current settlement, making it less vulnerable to attacks from a hostile administration in Westminster. And, as well as deepening the roots of devolution in that way, the report explores the case for widening the responsibilities of this Senedd, and does so in six different fields: broadcasting, employment, energy, justice, transport and welfare. As a background to these specific proposals, the commission assesses the three broad constitutional futures available to those who share a progressive approach to strengthening Welsh democracy: an enhanced and protected version of the current settlement, a federal future for the United Kingdom, and an independent Wales.

Now, Llywydd, it was never the intention that the commission should come to a conclusion that instructed Welsh citizens on the model to be preferred from those it explored. Rather, the report offers each of us a serious analysis of the pros and cons of each possibility, allowing us to come to a better informed, evidence-rich conclusion of our own, both as individuals and as political parties. And, Llywydd, all of this is summed up in 10 recommendations. How often have we seen in this Senedd reports bristling with recommendations guaranteed to sink under their own weight? By focusing on a small number of key proposals, the commission has, I believe, gone a long way to ensuring that its work will go on being powerfully influential in the debates and the discussions that will flow from it.

One final point, Llywydd, if I may: in my first conversation with Dr Williams, asking if he would be prepared to consider help leading the commission, he told me that he would be willing to do so, but only if the work of the commission could be conducted in a way that involved as many as possible of those people who make Wales the country it is today. The result is that the authority of the report comes not simply from the intellectual rigour of its evidence and conclusions, but from the thousands of our fellow citizens who have been part of its conversation. Indeed, the very first of the final 10 recommendations urges both the Welsh Government and the Senedd to strengthen our own capacity for democratic innovation and community engagement in the work that we do.

If colleagues are only able to read one chapter of the report, beyond its summary and recommendations, then let me commend to you chapter 3, 'strengthening democracy in Wales'. For anyone who practises on the democratic front line, here are ideas on which we might all draw upon in our constituencies, here in the Senedd and in the Welsh Government. The way that our country is organised, the future of the United Kingdom and of Wales, and the amplified voice of citizens in making such determinations, all of that is to be found in the commission’s final report, and it deserves to be taken seriously by all. Thank you very much, Llywydd.

14:55

Thank you, First Minister, for your statement this afternoon. As someone who was involved heavily with the Silk commission and the setting up of the Silk commission, I would've preferred, if a commission was to be established, it be established on the remit that the Silk commission operated. I can remember the many times that we sat in Cathays Park—the then First Minister, the leaders of the other political parties and me—and discussed and worked through a programme and, ultimately, what would emerge as legislation. And I can remember leaving this place after First Minister's questions one day and heading up to Westminster to sit in the leader of the house's office, with the other leaders, and working through how devolution could move forward and, ultimately, transfer powers that were transferred via two successful Government of Wales Acts in the House of Commons. That wasn't the model that was chosen by the Welsh Government, and when the Counsel General made contact with me about putting forward Conservative representation, it was made quite clear to me that those individuals were not party spokespeople on that commission. I respect that, but, in the report, it does seem to try and indicate that the views expressed by the Conservative nominee on the commission is the view of the Conservative Party. That is not the case. We put through three names for consideration and the commission determined who that person would be to be sitting as the commissioner. One was a barrister, the one had experience in local government at cabinet level, and the other had experience at a Westminster level in the special adviser role that she fulfilled. That was what the Government chose as the model they wished to put on as commissioners. And I respect that, but I do believe that the Silk commission would've been a better way to look at, if there was to have been a discussion and a conversation, how devolution could have been enhanced and developed and moved forward.

From my personal perspective, I believe that the settlement, with some notable exceptions, such as the budget, for example, that you alluded to in First Minister's questions, and the financial arrangements that you have with the Treasury, do need change, but the overall settlement that we have, given the two legislative Acts that were passed by Westminster, are robust, are empowering and do turbocharge this Welsh Parliament in meeting the expectations of the people of Wales.

I would much prefer, today, to actually be responding to a statement from the First Minister on him putting the Government resource into a Wales-wide COVID inquiry, but I fully understand this was a manifesto commitment, maybe looking at, obviously, a deal with Plaid Cymru, at the end of the 2021 election, when maybe a coalition had to be put in place. Now, that would be the prerogative of the Government, because, obviously, you would've won that election—I accept that. And, obviously, that discussion could have gone on with, obviously, Plaid Cymru and you. But I think what most people's priorities here in Wales are is looking at why the Welsh Government did or did not do things in the COVID era, and that's why we would prefer to see a Wales-wide COVID inquiry. It is important to recognise, as well, how quickly colleagues of the First Minister at the other end of the M4 slapped down the proposals within this commission. I quote from Jo Stevens's point of view here, where she says,

'But we will not be looking at devolution of policing and justice.'

That's pretty clear. I had sympathy with the leader of Plaid Cymru last Tuesday—not that he'd be looking for sympathy from the leader of the Conservatives—when he tried to explore this with you in First Minister's questions. That's pretty clear, that is, that statement:

'But we will not be looking at devolution of policing and justice.'

This is a major tenet of this piece of work that has been undertaken by the commission on behalf of the Welsh Government in looking at further powers of devolution. And so, I would ask the First Minister how does he see reconciling the differences between his colleagues at Westminster and, obviously, here in the bay. And it is interesting to note that there's only one of the two leadership contenders in the Chamber for this important constitutional statement, and the one who's missing has the most endorsements from MPs at the other end of the M4—quite telling to say the least.

I would also ask of the First Minister why the Welsh Government doesn't look at the more empowering role it could play in reforming public services here in Wales. Devolution isn't just about devolving power from London to Cardiff; it's actually devolving power out of Cardiff to the regions of Wales. When we have a local government settlement that is still pre devolution, and each time the Government benches come forward with a proposal it's found it too hard to make any changes, it hasn't chosen to do anything on that, why doesn't the Welsh Government look at the settlement that it's got and use the levers that it's got in local government, in the health service, and the structures that could be empowered by greater devolution away from Cardiff to the regions of Wales? That would be something on these benches we would welcome with open arms.

I'll close on this remark, if I may. The First Minister finished his statement by addressing the needs of empowering the people of Wales, and the conversation he had with Dr Rowan Williams. He agreed only to take part in the commission if the commission's recommendations about empowering people's voices was a central theme of the Welsh Government and indeed the Senedd. We have just had the largest petition come before the Senedd of nearly 0.5 million voices signing up to a petition to get rid of a policy that his Government has brought forward. When you talk about listening to people, that is one hell of a loud cry from the people of Wales to change direction and change course. So, rather than just put those words in a statement that you have read out today, why don't you put that into action and get rid of the blanket 20 mph? 

15:00

I share the leader of the opposition's positive view of the Silk commission. I think for the job that it was asked to do, it was the right vehicle to do it. It's just that this was a very different job and needed a very different vehicle. To take his final point next, what Dr Rowan Williams said to me was that if he were to co-chair a commission, he wanted the confidence of knowing that the commission would be able to involve as many people as possible in its debates as could be managed. He didn't want a commission in which people went from here to a closed room in Cathays Park to decide what the outcome would be. It's a very different model because the purpose was very different. 

I was very grateful to the leader of the opposition for putting names of people to sit on the commission, not because they represented their party, but because they would bring that perspective to the debates of the commission. And if I could say so, I think the contribution of Lauren McEvatt, the person who was from that Conservative perspective, had a real impact on the commission. She was a very active, very thoughtful contributor. I was in London last week at the Institute for Government; she was in the audience there, and she made some very important points there too. So, I was very grateful for the fact that she was there to contribute those views, not because she was speaking for the Conservative Party, but because she could make sure that the traditions, the ways of thinking, the approach that would be taken by that party would be heard around that table. 

I don't agree, of course, with the leader of the opposition that the current settlement is robust. How could anybody come to that conclusion following the ways in which the Sewel convention has been so consistently disrespected by Governments in Westminster since 2019? It's a convention that was never broken by Labour Governments or Conservative Governments until 2019, and since that time, it is broken absolutely time after time after time. The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill, trade aspects of the Procurement Bill, the Illegal Migration Bill, the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill, the Energy Bill—all of these were debated on the floor of the Senedd. Permission to legislate in devolved areas was denied, and in every single case that Government went ahead and legislated in the teeth of the refusal of this Senedd to give them permission to do so. How can anybody conclude that the settlement is robust when it turns out to be as vulnerable as that?

On policing and justice, I made my answers last week. I made clear the policy of this Government and the party here in Wales. The Gordon Brown report commissioned by Keir Starmer says that that process should begin with the devolution of youth justice and probation, and I look to my colleagues in Westminster to make sure that that happens.

As to devolving powers beyond the Senedd, we are signatories, for example, to the mid Wales growth deal, which his party did so much to try to damage in the Gilestone Farm example. We believe in passing powers to local government. The visitor levy—[Interruption.] I think it's a very good example indeed. We are signed up to the mid Wales growth deal. The Gilestone Farm proposal would have brought jobs to mid Wales. It would have produced jobs for young people in mid Wales. It was supported by other partners to the mid Wales growth deal. We believe in things being done regionally, and I don’t think you can say the same is true of the opposition here.

I believe in giving local authorities more powers to do things. That's why we’ll bring a visitor levy in front of this Senedd, to give local authorities the power to implement that where they choose to do so. You would deny them. Week after week after week you stand up here to say how much you don’t want local authorities to have that power. So, when you say to me that devolution doesn’t end at Cardiff Bay, I believe that, and we are doing things to make sure it happens. You deny it whenever you don’t like it. Your policy of devolution to local government is you’ll give them the power if you like what they’ll do with it, and you won’t give them the power if you don’t. That’s not devolution, Llywydd, at all.

And as to the COVID inquiry, I look forward to the COVID inquiry coming to Wales. It will be here for the last week of February and the first two weeks of March. It will apply to actions that were taken here in Wales the same robust scrutiny that you have seen it apply to the actions of UK Ministers and Scottish Ministers. I look forward to the opportunity to answer as best I can the questions that will quite rightly be put to us.

15:05

I would like to start today by congratulating and thanking Laura McAllister and Rowan Williams and all the commissioners for all of their work. They have held a conversation on our constitutional future that has been broader and more inclusive than we have seen since the inception of devolution; more than we have ever had, perhaps. Over two years, they had more than 15,000 engagements with people from all parts of Wales, from all backgrounds. This has demonstrated, despite the claims from some on the benches opposite, that it’s not just the anoraks who are interested in our constitutional settlement. I would argue that one of the greatest successes of the commission’s work is to show that constitutional issues are bread-and-butter issues, and that constitutional questions are bread-and-butter questions, too.

Despite claims from some on the Conservative benches, there is nothing in the least bit vain about exploring our shared future in a spirit of openness, collaboration and objectivity. I might remind the Members opposite that the Conservative Party was an active participant in this process, and that the commission's report was signed off by somebody they appointed to it. I invite the Conservatives to consider that to be a strength of this report. 

It has been almost two weeks now since the report was published, and it has, I think, already been a game changer in terms of redefining in many ways the constitutional debate in Wales, giving it both a new urgency and impetus, and a valuable new resource on which to draw. I say 'new urgency' because it states in pretty stark terms—stark cross-party terms—that the status quo is untenable. Something has to change, and there is consensus on that. And as we contemplate now and plan for that change, the commission has established a new evidence base and a new framework for analysing it.

Excitingly from my point of view, the evidence base shows that independence is a viable and achievable option for Wales. Of course, we in Plaid Cymru believe that this is the optimal choice for Wales, the best means for fulfilling the ambitions for our nation—ambitions that, hopefully, we share across this Siambr. And the commission is clear on this: without access to all the levers we need to change our economic fortunes, our story is likely to continue to be one of stagnation and managed decline, and with the full range of powers that only independence ultimately can deliver, we can change the story.

But I also know that this is a journey, and many, for perfectly understandable reasons, aren't convinced yet. The report highlights risks, yes, but that's true for all the options that face us, including the risk of staying as we are and the entrenched poverty that our membership of the UK has delivered for so many families and communities. So, people want more evidence, more discussion, of course they do. We all do. And I tell you, I am up for having as many conversations as possible, however difficult the questions are that arise.

As I say, we on these benches are clear about the scope of our ambition for and our belief in Wales—others not so much. It was disappointing, as I stated last week, that before the ink had even dried on the commission's report, the shadow Secretary of State for Wales had already taken to the airwaves to dismiss some of its key recommendations. Conversely, if I may say also in the presence of the two of them, there's been almost total radio silence from where I'm listening on the commission's recommendations from the two candidates looking to lead Welsh Labour, and I would invite them to break that silence.

I'm interested, of course, in seeing how the First Minister proposes to take this debate forward within his own party. I'm eager to work with him, or anyone who wants to take Wales's constitutional journey forward. He was such a key part of instigating this work and, despite his imminent standing down as First Minister, I doubt he will want to distance himself too much from the wider debate on the future of Wales.

Notably, there has been remarkably little said, according to the constitutional commission's joint chairs, by those who support the status quo. Why is it that they believe that this is as good as it gets for Wales? What's key, I think, is that the discussion, the genuine national discussion that we have had through the commission on Wales's future journey, should be able to continue. Will the First Minister, then, support my wish for the momentum gathered through the commission's work to be able to continue and ask for this work to continue? A permanent commission would stand us in good stead, I think. Wales's constitutional future, of course, belongs, ultimately, not to us as political parties here, but to all the people of Wales. We here can make sure that our citizens have their say, and the commission has shown how vibrant that conversation can be.

15:10

I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth. I agree, of course, that the nature of the work, the way that the commission went about its task, underpins the report and gives additional power to the content of the report itself. 

I should say, just for the record, Llywydd, that it was the Government who appointed all members of the commission. Political parties put forward names, and then the Government appointed all members, including Leanne Wood, who represented Plaid Cymru, and I know played a very, very active part in those community events and making sure that the conversations that informed the report were as lively as you would want to make them. 

I agree that there is urgency in the recommendations of the report. They're particularly urgent for someone like me who believes that Wales's future is better off in the United Kingdom. Because I want to see a United Kingdom that people in Wales would want to belong to, that they would see the advantages of it, that they would see that our future is better linked with the future of other people who live in England and in Scotland in common causes. I think the debate that lies behind the report shows how urgent it is to go on building that case and making it convincing. 

The report does indeed say that independence is a viable option, but in some ways that's not the real question, is it? It's not whether it's viable, it's whether it's desirable. And I am very clear, the reason I don't believe in independence is because I don't think it's desirable for Wales. I don't believe in building new barriers. I don't believe in creating new borders when borders don't exist. There is so much that links working people in Wales with working people in other parts of the United Kingdom, and that is more important, I think, as a building block for that successful future that we want to see. 

The thing that surprised me the most in what the leader of Plaid Cymru said is that, in this instance alone, he doesn't appear to be paying attention to discussions within the Labour Party, which preoccupy him so often, because had he been listening carefully he would have seen that these debates are very lively inside the Labour Party and always have been. 

I want to see the report as the basis for further discussion and debate. I want to find ways in which we can continue to draw on the expertise and the experience of those people who've been part of the journey that led to the report. And we'll work as a Government to find ways of making that happen. I myself look forward to being part of all of those debates. I sometimes say, when people ask me about ceasing to be First Minister, that, in the words of Tony Benn, I'll be stepping down from this job in order to spend more time in politics. [Laughter.] And in that case, that will give me scope to make this a part of what I will continue to be interested in for the future. 

15:15

I'm grateful to the First Minister for the statement this afternoon. It's a fascinating and a challenging document. It's a serious document that challenges all of us, including, dare I say, the Conservatives, to think seriously about these matters. And it sits alongside the Thomas commission as a serious contribution to the future governance of our country. And those documents, and that evidence, and those arguments can't be dismissed in the Chamber on a Tuesday afternoon. They have to be taken seriously and engaged with. And I hope that one day a Conservative opposition is capable of doing that. 

But what we need to be able to do is to look towards a different United Kingdom, First Minister. And my question for you is: how do we face up to the challenge of engaging a largely disinterested London establishment in a different future, and a future that for us in Wales is significantly different to that in which we are located today?

The commission did not discuss the financial structures of the United Kingdom and for good reasons, and I recognise that—I recognise why that was not addressed. But unless the financial structures of the United Kingdom are also changed in order to address some of the fundamental issues of power and democracy in the UK, we may have the structures but we won't have the tools to do the job. And so those things will also go together. 

And finally, First Minister, it's very tempting for many people, particularly perhaps on this side of the Chamber, to say that when the Conservatives are out of power, the job is done. How do we then persuade our colleagues in the Labour Party, who will see the objective as delivering a Labour UK Government and who will then believe that the urgency of the constitutional debate is over?

Paul Davies took the Chair.

I thank Alun Davies for all of those points, Dirprwy Lywydd dros dro. He has made serious points and he is right to say that the report does make for serious and challenging reading. You would have expected no less, I think, when you look at the calibre of the people who populated the commission and the strength of the advisory group that they were able to draw on. There is a genuine depth of analysis and rigour in the way that a framework was applied to the evidence in order to come to the analysis and the conclusions that the report draws from it. 

There's always a danger that, in the Labour Party, people will believe that because the Conservatives have been defeated, somehow the constitutional job is done. But I will just remind everybody that it was a Labour Government, in its very first year in 1997, after 17 years of Conservative Government, that decided that time had to be found for the constitutional reforms that led to the establishment of this Senedd. So, while there is often a tension, and there is an argument to be had, we have very solid evidence that devolution is the product of the Labour Party. We are here because of a Labour Government and the commitment that that Labour Government delivered.

How can we, in Wales, go on influencing that discussion? Well, here's my experience of being in the room with colleagues from Scotland and Northern Ireland and the UK Government. Scottish colleagues always have in their pocket the fact that they are elected as a Government with a mandate, as they would put it, to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom. That means that they are always listened to seriously. Colleagues from Northern Ireland come into the room with all of their troubled history, and the need for everybody to attend carefully to making sure that decisions are made that do not reignite those troubles. They come with the force of that in their pocket. What Wales has is simply the strength of our argument. That's our significance, and that's why I think that many independent commentators conclude that, where there has been serious thinking about the constitutional future of the United Kingdom, then, for the last 10 years or more, it is Wales that has contributed most to that debate. Whether it is the Thomas commission, whether it is the independent commission, whether it is the influence that Carwyn Jones and Paul Murphy had in the final report of the Gordon Brown work, I think that you can see Wales's contribution being there in our willingness to try to do the serious thinking, the lining up of arguments, the practical solutions that can be brought to bear. That's why this report, the final report of the commission, is so powerful: because it stands very solidly in that tradition. 

15:20

First Minister, this report has cost so far a total of £1.5 million and counting. Quite frankly, it is not going to be taken forward under a Conservative Government, and before the ink was dry, it was slapped down by the Labour secretary of state, who said that an incoming Labour Government would be, and I quote, focusing on the issues that matter. So, I look forward, First Minister, to this report returning to the shelf and becoming the most expensive dust gatherer of all time.

Now, I wanted to pick up a point that Rhun ap Iorwerth made in his contribution, where he called for the introduction of a permanent commission to continuously look at this. I noticed that you didn't address that in your answer, so can you rule that out—the establishment of a permanent constitutional commission here in Wales?

Well, sorry, Dirprwy Lywydd, it is a deeply depressing contribution, isn't it, that the person makes? You would think that he might have thought himself sent here to make some sort of serious contribution to the future of the United Kingdom. But if he thinks that's all he has to offer—if what we just heard is all he has to offer—then I can tell him now that, as others here said, he understands the cost of everything and he understands the value of absolutely nothing.

My colleague Jo Stevens will be pleased that he has referred to her as the incoming Secretary of State for Wales. It was good of him to endorse her in that way. On that, at least, maybe he has read the writing on the wall. In fact, had he been listening, I did address the point that Rhun ap Iorwerth made. I said that I thought that it was very important for the conversation to continue, that it should do so in a way that captures the experience and the expertise of people who have been on the commission and who have been part of producing that report today. I am not, this afternoon, going to say that we will do that through a standing commission, or we will do it by this vehicle. The object we are agreed on. There is room for plenty of debate about the vehicle through which you achieve it.

May I think the First Minister for his statement this afternoon, and also for his leadership in ensuring that the commission came into existence and has contributed in the important way that it has already, but also for the inclusive and open spirit that both co-chairs delivered in terms of their work?

Wales is a land of commissions, as the commission says. But it does suggest, doesn't it, the need for something more durable, more permanent than simply a series of commissions over the years if we are to continuously improve our democratic health. In its first recommendation, it calls for a dedicated capacity, with new leadership supported by expertise and experience, generating new energy, new ideas for democratic innovation and civic education—a cross, if you like, between a laboratory of democracy and a nationwide school for citizenship. Indeed, as was already referenced, the commitment in the programme for government was for a standing commission.

So, I understand that the First Minister doesn't want to choose a vehicle at this point, but could I suggest a number of possibilities—spaces where we could look, maybe, to create that new capability? The soon-to-be renamed Democracy and Boundary Commission Cymru de facto has a broad purpose already in promoting democratic health—could we give it that duty explicitly? Or could the soon-to-be-created national school of government be widened in its purpose, not just as a training school for civil servants, but also as an academy for the next generation of politicians and also active, informed, engaged citizens, with a research and development function for democracy as well? And wherever we decide to incubate this new capability, does the First Minister agree that we need something, a new focal point, if you like, for our democracy, working across party, beyond party—a new element in our democratic infrastructure? Because when we look at the crisis across the world in democracy, my fear is that this Siambr, whatever size we become, risks becoming an echo chamber in a vacuum unless we do something—unless we do something to revitalise our democracy. Democracy, after all, is the best hope we have in Wales, as everywhere else, to achieve progress on behalf of the people we represent.

15:25

Temporary Deputy Presiding Officer, I thank Adam Price for his words about the spirit behind the commission, and I thank him for the contribution that he made when the commission was established and when we were discussing the work that the commission was going to do.

What a difference, Dirprwy Lywydd dros dro, in the quality of two contributions we've heard, one after the other. Many of the things Adam Price has said this afternoon I think we should think about. I think the possibility of the national school of government, for example, becoming a way in which we educate the civic leaders of the future, not simply the public service leaders of the future, is one we certainly should debate and consider. And he is right, isn't he, about the democratic crisis that we see across the world? If we're not careful, we simply believe that democracy is bound to continue, that it's inevitable that we will go on having a country where the people who end up here are here because they've been chosen by people in Wales to do the jobs that we're chosen to do. But democracy only flourishes if you tend the garden in which it is sown. And that's what this report was intended to do. To be optimistic, the reason I said in my opening statement that if there was only one chapter for colleagues to read it would be that third chapter is because of what that third chapter says: that when the commission had a room full of people who didn't quite know why they were being asked their views about these things and couldn't quite see why a discussion about constitutional futures meant anything in their lives, what they found was that it wasn't many minutes into that conversation before those links became completely evident to people—how they could see that the pethau bara menyn, the things that happen in everyday life, are rooted in the structures that the report was concerned with. And I think that is a source of optimism, but it tells us, as the report does, that that won't happen unless we're all prepared to think imaginatively and creatively, and then invest new energy in it.

15:30

I really thank all those who have contributed to bringing forward this report. It's a very serious report. It's intellectually robust. I think it's very well balanced in its considerations, and it is worthy of serious consideration by all those who think about the future, not just of this place, but the future of Wales, but also the future of Wales and these islands as well, and the governance and the government of these islands as well. And I think it deserves that seriousness of thought and engagement from all parties. And I do believe, by the way—I'll come to it in a moment—that there are things that the Conservatives will want to engage with on this. 

And it does matter, because it is about the quality of our governance and our government. It is about inter-governmental and inter-parliamentary relations and respect. It is about protecting the devolution settlement right now, and putting forward proposals that could bring a constitutional settlement here in Wales, and across the UK, more suited to the current post-EU situation, and, I have to say, fit for the future as well.

And the point that I want to put to Senedd colleagues today, of all parties, is: there are recommendations in this report about not where we go in the future, but protecting devolution now, and I would say some of these recommendations echo—and I'm speaking in a personal capacity today, but they echo—some of the thoughts of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, but also House of Commons and House of Lords committees, of the inter-parliamentary forum and others, and they refer to embedding in legislation the Sewell convention, and embedding in legislation inter-governmental relations on that basis of a duty of co-operation and parity of esteem between the Governments of the UK.

So, First Minister, and Conservative colleagues, can I just suggest: those are ones that we can, right here, right now, agree to work on together, make representations to the UK Government and the UK Parliament to say, 'That, at least, we need to bolt down', because the danger highlighted in this report is one that others have already flagged up—including the LJC committee—that, without bolting those down, we are in danger of rolling backwards down the devolution hill. 

Well, Llywydd, the report is very clear that, unless action is taken, then devolution in Wales will atrophy, that you can't just stand still. And we haven't been standing still, because we've seen things flow away from this Senedd and back to London. And, as Huw Irranca-Davies has said, Dirprwy Lywydd, it also is very clear in many of its pages that its audience is not just the Welsh Government; it is very much the Senedd itself. And Huw makes a really important point about the way in which parliamentary action—which is reflected in many reports, in the House of Lords and the House of Commons, as well as here and elsewhere—and the capacity of legislatures to get together to enhance the way in which power is properly distributed through the United Kingdom and then comes back together again to discharge common purposes, for which we agree that we want to share that sovereignty—. I think the report is very powerful in those instances too. 

Diolch, Llywydd dros dro. First Minister, I was very taken with the report, which, obviously, I read in detail, and I think there's a lot of useful information to glean from it. Obviously, like you, I'm a committed unionist. I want to see Wales playing a full part in the UK, and the fact that Wales has two Governments batting for it—one at one end of the M4, and one at this end of the M4—I think is a good thing. 

Now, obviously, there were some things that were concerning in the report, which the commission has highlighted, and I want to thank them for their work, by the way. One of those things was the lack of awareness amongst citizens in Wales of the powers and responsibilities and where they lie, whether at the Senedd or at UK Parliament level. And I wonder to what extent you are prepared to look at what might be done not just in terms of our education system, with citizenship education—which, of course, is very important—but for the wider population, many of whom will not be going through the education system at the moment, but still need educating about where responsibilities lie. 

Of course, the report focused also on the poor relationships there have been in recent years between the Governments of the United Kingdom. We know that there are often stresses and strains when there are different political make-ups in different places, and no doubt that that has added to it, as has, of course, the whole Brexit situation. But, clearly, there is a desire amongst the public for those things to improve, regardless of the colours of the political parties in each place. And again, I wonder to what extent you might reflect on the fact that things have improved significantly since there's been a change of premiership in Westminster, over the past 12 months, at least.

And thirdly, just to pick up on the issue in relation to inter-parliamentary relationships—and I think this is a really important one, actually—as you'll know, I'm a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and like to play a full part in the work of that Assembly. And that of course looks at the relationship across the islands, including with the Republic of Ireland. But I think that we do desperately need a forum for relationships within the United Kingdom, without the Republic of Ireland being part of that, because there are some things that are of interest to all of the Parliaments of the United Kingdom that are not, frankly, being discussed in an open way, with proper engagement. And therefore, I wonder what work the Welsh Government will do to develop an inter-parliamentary assembly of sorts, working with the Senedd, of course, as its representative—

15:35

—in order to make sure that those sorts of debates and discussions can be facilitated. Because this report doesn't dwell on that, but it is an important thing that does need to come out of this work.

Dirprwy Lywydd, I'm grateful to Darren Millar for that thoughtful contribution and for the respect that he showed to the work of the commission and those who have contributed so much to it. I think the citizen awareness issue—I'm absolutely agreeing with him about the need for us to do more and to do more education. My own experience over, now, certainly more than 40 years of bothering people in their own homes, knocking their doors at election, when somebody comes to the door, in some ways, it's all Government, isn't it? I've knocked doors in community council elections, local authority elections, Senedd elections, parliamentary elections, European elections. The person who comes to the door, in some ways, they don't want to know about that, they want to know, 'Why can't I park my car?', 'When's that rubbish going to be collected?' It's the things that they see from their own doorstep, aren't they, that they want to talk to you about. So, while I'm in favour of us doing more so that people do understand the system better, know where responsibility lies, I think probably we all recognise that what people are most interested in, whatever level of government that you are involved in, are the things that they see, that matter to them, day in and day out.

Look, there's been some improvement in the tone of inter-governmental relationships since the arrival of Rishi Sunak as Prime Minister. He does have a greater willingness to recognise that the United Kingdom is made up of different component parts and deserve respect. But it has to be more than that. The inter-governmental relations machinery, which took five years to agree, commissioned by Theresa May, concluded, as I say, five years later, has at the heart of it a council of Ministers. It didn't meet once in the whole of 2023, despite the many challenges we know that we were facing—the cost of living and other crises. Not once did that council meet. And while the tone is better, the actual performance, it's hard to say that there has been the improvement there that is necessary.

I agree with what Darren Millar said as well, Llywydd, about inter-parliamentary, the strengthening of that, and there's a lot of work going on at a parliamentary level to do that. It's not for the Government to lead that or to try to influence it, but I myself am pleased to see it. What we need, though, is that more robust machinery that Darren Millar pointed to. It's there in the pages of the report. The Gordon Brown report proposes a new council of the nations and the regions, as a place where we can all come together and discuss and discharge those things that we know matter to people wherever they live in the United Kingdom. And I think if that council was meeting today, they would want to see this report, and there would be a forum where we would be able to take it forward. And I think that's also another very important part of this constitutional jigsaw. Dirprwy Lywydd, diolch yn fawr.

15:40
4. Statement by the Minister for Climate Change: White Paper for a proposed Bill on environmental principles, environmental governance and biodiversity targets

We'll move on to item 4, a statement by the Minister for Climate Change, a White Paper for a proposed Bill on environmental principles, environmental governance and biodiversity targets, and I call on the Minister for Climate Change, Julie James. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Today, I've published our White Paper on establishing environmental principles, strengthening environmental governance and introducing biodiversity targets for a greener Wales. This White Paper sets out proposals to introduce a Bill into the Senedd that will embed environmental principles into Welsh law, ensuring there is no drop in environmental quality or standards following our departure from the European Union. It will strengthen environmental governance in Wales by establishing a new body to oversee implementation and compliance with environmental law by Welsh public authorities. And, finally, it will introduce a new approach towards biodiversity targets to combat the ongoing nature emergency.

The proposals reflect our commitment towards a greener Wales to tackle climate change and the nature emergency, as set out in our programme for government. The proposals have been developed as part of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. Here in Wales, we have responded to the climate and nature emergency through our programme for government. We have prioritised reform of agricultural support and introduced new clean air legislation. We have progressed implementation of a new net-zero target and set out a pathway to delivery. We have created new grants for nature restoration, radically redirected transport expenditure, made planning reforms and have supported investments in meeting water quality targets.

We have rightly prioritised active reform to support the environment, and the proposals in the White Paper published today will secure these essential reforms by strengthening our overarching governance framework. In doing so, we will ensure public authorities in Wales comply with environmental law according to the expectations of people in Wales. This approach is not simply an exercise in replacing structures and legislation that were in place whilst we were a member of the European Union; our approach is tailored to the Welsh context. We will be placing a duty on Welsh Ministers not only to give due regard to the EU-derived environmental principles, but to set out in statutory guidance exactly how these principles will be regarded during the development of policy.

The governance body will similarly reflect Wales’s priorities. The body will work in a spirit of collaboration and take an escalatory approach, working with Welsh public authorities to put things right. However, where this is not possible, the body will be rightly empowered to take effective enforcement action to ensure compliance. In publishing these proposals, I would like to acknowledge the work of the interim environmental protection assessor for Wales, Dr Nerys Llewelyn Jones. The IEPAW has, and continues to, carry out a valuable role in relation to the functioning of environmental law in Wales, and the White Paper sets out proposals that will build on the important work of the IEPAW.

In December 2022, I set out our ambitions for addressing the nature emergency on the world stage at COP15 in Montreal. As part of our response to the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity framework, I committed to setting ambitious nature targets to protect and restore biodiversity. Recognising the need for sustained and long-term action to deliver the transformative change needed, the White Paper introduces a strategic nature recovery framework to protect and restore biodiversity, as well as providing increased accountability and transparency. This includes statutory biodiversity targets, comprising a headline nature positive target to be detailed in the Bill, and a suite of supporting biodiversity targets to be set in secondary legislation. We anticipate that some of these will be new targets, whilst others will align with existing environmental targets that have already been designed to support reducing pressure on ecosystems and increasing nature restoration. Once established, we would seek the input of the new governance body in identifying new targets that can most effectively drive additional positive progress on nature. 

The White Paper proposes the Welsh Government will produce a nature recovery strategy that sets out the Welsh Government’s long-term vision for a nature positive Wales, and a nature recovery action plan, which will detail the shorter term actions needed to achieve the statutory biodiversity targets. Achieving this ambition will require a Wales-wide approach. That is why I am also proposing local nature recovery plans to be produced by Welsh public authorities. These will outline priorities and action at the local level, whilst supporting regional collaboration. 

This approach complements our broader focus on a resilient Wales, the scope of which encompasses the whole of Wales, not only designated protected sites. Our ambitions are to ensure protected sites are maintained and enhanced, to avoid unnecessary environmental damage right across Wales and undertake proactive restoration of nature in areas where it has been degraded. Dirprwy Lywydd, I am very grateful for the help and energy of all the stakeholders who have come together to support this work to date, and we will continue these detailed discussions as we refine our policy proposals and bring forward legislation.

This Government's approach to the environment is rooted in social justice. Our obligations under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 are to ensure that we meet the needs of the people of Wales today in a way that does not deprive future generations of their ability to meet theirs. In this way, conserving natural resources and sharing the benefits of them is a matter of fairness. The proposals published today are designed to help shape the agenda of public services in Wales, including how they work together with communities and businesses to secure a more sustainable relationship with our natural world. Diolch.

15:45

Thank you, Minister, for this statement. The White Paper is certainly a step in the right direction, because it does put nature, the environment and biodiversity at the forefront of our minds in terms of legislation. However, could you solve a little problem for me, Minister? Could you advise as to why this White Paper has not yet been published, according to the Library? Once I know you're coming forward with statements, we normally get the paper and read it, so that we can actually raise any concerns, and I'm struggling to find it.

We need to embed our response to the climate and nature emergency in everything we do. During the legislative process of the Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) (Wales) Bill, a majority of this Senedd passed over our amendments, which would have pushed forward the creation of an environmental governance body for Wales. This is already long overdue and has been requested through our environment and climate change committee so many times. And it gets worse: I heard in our committee last week that there is now even some uncertainty as to when regulations required as a consequence of that Act will come forward. 

Despite the biodiversity deep-dive resulting in the adoption of the aim of the protection of 30 per cent of land and sea, you have still not taken up the opportunity to put this on a statutory footing. Of course, you have invested £15 million in the Nature Networks programme, to protect Wales's diverse natural habitats, from salt marshes and estuaries to forests and grasslands, and I'm really, really grateful to you for doing that, and it's something that we're both keen to ensure happens, but you are missing a real opportunity to go further, especially in the marine environment.

There are specific projects, as you know, which are exciting, such as salt marsh work in Carmarthenshire, the Conwy estuary and the Severn, and sea cliffs on the Llŷn peninsula and Ynys Môn, but these are not seeing change nationwide. For example, I have previously called for the creation of a national blue carbon recovery plan for Wales, designed to maintain and enhance our invaluable marine blue carbon habitat. That would have targets set for all of Wales, including on marine sediments, seagrass, salt marshes, subtidal sedimentary habitats and shellfish. Despite the Senedd backing our legislative proposals to have a national marine development plan for Wales, which would help to create certainty for all parties and avoid any confrontation at the application stage, because the sea bed could then be mapped out, like we do with local development plans—it's that kind of action we're looking for you to take.

I have personally written to you and I've met with your officials to discuss ways we can also integrate renewable energy with marine nature recovery at the same time. Belgian offshore windfarms offer the unique environment to restore oyster reefs, and I love the work that you're already helping to support on this. The project, known as UNITED, focuses on synergies between offshore wind production and flat oyster aquaculture and restoration. Bottom fishing is not allowed in wind parks, which prevents reef damage. I was just wondering whether you would just say something today on bottom fishing. The hard substrate used as scour protection around wind turbines actually is ideal for oyster larvae to settle and initiate natural reefs. It would be really good if we could follow that lead here in Wales.

I would really like to see a statement or something from you today about whether you are essentially blocking renewable energy projects on or near our peatland and the reasons for that. I have written to you with evidence believing that both can co-exist and that the wording of chapter 6 of 'Planning Policy Wales' could be changed so that there is this flexibility. This is an area of policy that I know we are both particularly interested in, so I look forward to working with you and making that joint dive that you've invited me to in a seagrass meadow.

So, could you please clarify the timeline for the White Paper to become a draft Bill before this Senedd and explain why some of the targets will be set in secondary legislation, rather than primary, because we're already seeing now, with the infrastructure Bill coming through, how over-reliant it is on secondary legislation, and that has been described to us as not satisfactory? Could you give an indication as to when we should expect to have an environmental governance body up and running? Would you use the legislation as a means of creating a legal duty for the Welsh Government to plan and create a national marine development plan, a spatial one, outline what progress has been made so far on achieving the 30:30 aim, and explain what consideration has been given to the considerable pressures within public authorities before expecting them to produce local nature recovery plans? Diolch.

15:50

Thank you, Janet. I don't know if you managed to attend the technical briefings that were offered this morning. E-mails did go out with copies of the White Paper there, apologies if you didn't get one, and it's been published today, so that's why it's not in the Library yet. There's obviously then an opportunity to put all the points you've made about what you'd like to see included in the targets, and not included in the targets, as part of the consultation process. I'm sure you'll respond to it.

There are a number of things that you raised that we probably would like to see a target for. The targets are going to be set out in secondary legislation, much as the clean air Act was structured, so we'll have the headline global biodiversity goal in it, the Kunming-Montreal global biodiversity goals for 30 per cent, but we're being very specific: 30 per cent of our land, our rivers and our sea. That's not just 30 per cent of everything, because it does actually work out differently, if you do it like that.

The whole point of this is to set up the governance body to make sure that we then do what we say we'll do, but also to give us advice on those targets as the thing progresses. That would include the best way to do restorations, or the percentage of restorations we might do, and the difficulties of what goes with what, so the windfarm thing that you point out. Actually, as you also rightly pointed out, marine windfarms can be very useful in terms of preventing bottom trawling and behaving as nurseries for various species and so on. So, the point of this process is that this is the White Paper, the consultation on which will lead to the Bill. It will feed into the Bill. The Bill is already under way. It takes a good year to get a Bill in shape to come to the committee, especially with the translation process and the equivalency checks and all the rest of it. So, this is the beginning of that Bill making its passage through the Senedd.

So, Dirprwy Lywydd, I would say that we all should encourage as many people as possible in all of our constituencies right across Wales—I don't mean just our political constituencies, I mean our constituencies of communities and all the rest of it—to make sure that we get as much response as possible. It is directly coming out of the deep-dive work, so the structure of it has directly come out of the stakeholder work that we did. I'm not expecting any of our major stakeholders to have a real show-stopper response to this, but we are expecting, of course, nuances around how the thing should be structured and so on. 

Minister, I welcome this statement. There is a genuine need for urgent legislation on this issue. We appreciate the opportunity to discuss it, of course, because now is our opportunity to close a gap that exists in our nation’s environmental protections. I welcome the determination of the Government to respond to the nature emergency. We, as a party, of course, held the debate to declare the nature emergency. It was an important moment, but there is no momentum behind a moment unless action follows. So, now is the time for that action, and I welcome that.

There is a great deal to welcome regarding the content of the White Paper. The overall target is important, and establishing independent environmental governance arrangements will, again, be another significant moment. Of course, we've been waiting too long for this—the climate change committee has looked at this already—and we will need to ensure that the arrangements not only work well, but that the public understand them. So, what assurance can you give us about your engagement with the public, to ensure that they are more aware of where to turn to access advice and help, particularly if there is confusion regarding the difference between this body and NRW?

In terms of the timing and implementation—you've had questions on this already—could you confirm that every effort will be made by the Government to avoid further delay unless such delay is unavoidable, please? Of course, I welcome the targets, although they will be set in secondary legislation. But I would like to understand more about the methodology that will be applied to set and monitor the targets. I know that that information might not be available at present, but when it is available, will it be made public, please?

On the effectiveness of the regulatory body, what enforcement powers will that body have, again, as compared to NRW? Because there are problems in terms of NRW’s capacity for enforcement action when the rules are breached, as with sewage releases in our rivers, for example. What assurance will there be that this body will not suffer that same fate? And finally, how will you ensure the independence of this body from the Government?

So, quite a number of questions there, but I certainly welcome this development. I look forward to working together and to seeing this body being scrutinised, of course, so that all of our concerns about the natural world are responded to and that wildlife is protected. And I’d like to echo your words in thanking Nerys and everyone who’s been working with her on the important work that they have been doing in that interim period. Thank you.

15:55

Yes, diolch yn fawr, Delyth. You make a number of very good points, of course. So, it is a significant moment, I think, and it is an absolute fact that we're the last of the nations to do this. However, I do honestly think this is a chance to leapfrog the other nations, so we will go from last to first, because we're able now to learn from the problems and difficulties that have been in both the English and Scottish models. Officials there have been very happy to share with us things they wished they'd done or hadn't done or whatever, and to learn from the things that they've done well, and we've been able to pick up that as well. So, I think we will end up having the best of that, because we've been able to pick up a lot of what's been learned, and, of course, I can't say often enough how well Nerys and her team have done.

I should apologise in public: I had a horrible virus that all of you may be familiar with last week, so I was confined to quarters, and it meant I couldn't meet her in person as I'd planned to do. It was fantastic to get a negative result on Saturday and be released. [Interruption.] Well, exactly. But it was a shame not to have been able to. I hope to be able to rearrange that meeting.

But her team's expertise has been invaluable in addressing some of the issues around resource. You know we've put more resource into her team, for example. And of course, when the Bill does come in front of the committees, it will come with a complete financial and regulatory impact assessment associated with it, and in the budget scrutiny in committees, I've been very plain that we've protected the legislation budgets in order to be able to get the legislation through, in order for that not to become one of the issues, for obvious reasons.

The interface will be an interesting one; it's something that we will get more out of in the consultation, and it's something that the committees will want to have a look at. But, broadly, this is not a regulatory authority; this is an authority that gives guidance to public authorities on how to set the targets and monitor and make sure they do them. We would expect a regulatory breach to go across to NRW, but we will need to work on the edges of that and we will expect the organisations to work collaboratively with one another, so that we don't have a complex landscape. You're right to highlight how will members of the public understand that, and part of the duty of the governance body will be to make sure, in the same way the commissioners do, that its own work is understood.

In fact, we've looked very hard at the Welsh Language Commissioner's office structure in looking at the proposals here, which I'm sure you know already are for a commission rather than a commissioner, because we expect to need a range of different scientific expertise across the commission, but, of course, with a chair that would become the focal person, if you like, because I do think that's important.

We think it's very important that it is independent of the Welsh Government, that it holds our feet to the fire. One of the discussions that will occur as part of this consultation is to what extent should other public bodies be included in the Act. There are pros and cons to that, and I'm sure that will be part of the consultation. So, should individual local authorities be specifically bound by it, or should they be done as regional consortia, or what is the structure of that? The committees will take, I'm sure, an interest in that and be able to assist us with that. That's very much part of what the consultation is about.

The last bit is just to say that we haven't got any room for slippage here. We want to make sure the committee does its work well, and therefore we have to get it into the committee in the slot that's been identified. And it's the second-to-last Bill to go through the Senedd in this Senedd term, so slippage is not an option, and we have to get this right. It's why the consultation needs to be thorough, we need to make it land properly, and then the results of that consultation need to feed into the drafting so that we can all be reassured that we're making the best law we can.

16:00

I very much welcome the White Paper, Minister, and it's very good to hear you say that although we are in a relatively weak position at the moment in terms of our governance structures and lack of targets and other very important elements of protecting our nature and our biodiversity, we will leap ahead, as it were, in terms of other parts of the UK, because obviously that's where everybody within this Chamber, I think, would like to see our country placed. Minister, would you agree that it's very important that we focus on some very good examples in terms of our biodiversity and our environment and the need to protect it and give it these structures and targets for protection, such as the Gwent levels, for example, which I represent part of? There, we have a real focus on these issues, very good buy-in from organisations like the Gwent Wildlife Trust and a huge number of volunteers working day in, day out. And, of course, we have iconic species like the water vole, which I'm very pleased to champion. We need to take the public and groups with us, Minister, and I think we need to focus on areas that enable us to do that.

I couldn't agree more with you, John. I think one of the things that we'll be very interested in doing is making sure that the governance body, in looking at the targets it sets for the various public bodies that are taken up by it, takes into account the citizen science that's very readily available, much of it of the absolute best quality, global standard quality. So, we will certainly be building on that. The purpose of this is to set secondary targets, sometimes across Wales, for species decline or restoration, but actually, sometimes, for very specific areas. I know the Gwent levels is very dear to your heart, but there are other areas like that. I recently visited the Dyfi biosphere, for example, who have a very similar group of volunteers equally determined to make sure that that area stays in that condition, or actually is recovered back to the condition for some parts of it.

We will need to look at geographical targets, pan-species targets and at ecology system targets. That's part of what we want to do and it will be part of what the committees look at in terms of what the secondary legislation is enabled to do. The Bill will need to enable the different kinds of targets that can be set in order to get the kinds of outcomes that you're looking for. I really do think it will set us on a different course as we look to protect those systems. That is very much the green lung, isn't it, of the conurbation of the south-east, and the same can be said of the Dyfi biosphere and, indeed, of Gower, where I happen to live. These things give life to our cities and our planet, and, indeed, to us as humans; it's not just for their own sake. So, I do think that will be very important.

Thank you very much for your work as being both the custodian of combating the climate emergency as well as the biodiversity emergency. I'm very pleased that we are now setting in stone the environmental protection we need moving forward. Clearly, this is going to involve quite a lot of work with your colleague Lesley Griffiths, as the Minister for rural affairs, where public money for public goods is a really important principle of the new sustainable land scheme.

Talking to farmers in Treorchy 10 days ago, it's clear that farmers are often really not aware of the huge value of their peat bogs and places for nature on their farms—both for biodiversity and in financial terms in the future scheme. So, whereas one of the organic farmers who is farming on the edge of Cardiff West was able to tell me, 'I've got 275 species happily co-existing with my cows and sheep', I'm reasonably confident that she's quite unusual in understanding what biodiversity assets she's husbanding. So, how do you envisage this co-construction of these local nature recovery plans to achieve the baseline of biodiversity depletion or wealth that already exists on many farms, so that we know what objectives we're paying for, and how we're able track the outcomes of the public investment specifically designed to improve biodiversity?

My second question is around water pollution. In the climate change committee, we've heard from Glenys Stacey, the chair of the Office for Environmental Protection for England, and, for the time being, Northern Ireland, and she's really clear that the OEP won't rely on fines to enforce the regulations, because the directors of whichever company it is just pass on the fines to the public in their bills.

16:05

What levers do you envisage in these regulations for tackling the water pollution that's absolutely one of the key serious issues that we face?

Thank you, Jenny. I'll do that slightly the other way around. The policy intent of the Bill is that oversight of private persons exercising functions of a public nature in Wales that could relate to or impact the environment will be captured. So, the water companies will be captured, and there are others as well; harbour authorities and others will be captured. And so, the Bill will bite on them, and so when they put their infrastructure investment programme to Ofwat, et cetera, they will have to take into account the embedded environmental principles of the Bill. In that way, it drives a different approach to that. It won't solve the problem of the water industry only being funded from its bill payers, which is something the UK Government needs to do, and I hope an incoming Labour Government will do. It is an absolute nonsense that the Government spends money on road intersections but can't spend on water infrastructure because they're allegedly the property of the water company. That's just a nonsense, but it's a not nonsense I can particularly change in this Bill. What I can do is drive a different investment strategy for the market that exists. We will certainly be doing that.

And yes, it absolutely interacts with the sustainable farming scheme. I do think we have a very large number of farmers across Wales who are very well aware of biodiversity. We had a large number of farmers contributing to the biodiversity deep-dive, in fact. I think Members will have heard me telling the tale of the eight-month pregnant young woman farmer showing me her biodiverse farm in between Amroth and Saundersfoot, up a cliff so steep that I could not keep up with her. She was amazing, and the enhancement of the biodiversity on that working farm, and the actual enhancement to their income as a result of that, was quite something to behold. She now has a very healthy next-generation farmer coming along nicely. But she was inspirational, and we had a large number of other farmers on our deep-dive who were absolutely inspirational too. So, I think the combination of reward and imperative from the governance bodies will see a step change in that.

Obviously, the sustainable farming scheme is about an income for farmers as they change those practices, as well as rewards for farmers who are changing faster, and Lesley and I have had a large number of conversations about that interaction. But we can't do this without our landowners coming with us. So, part of what this body will have to do is it will have to look at the interaction of the public duty with the landholdings across Wales. So, in looking at, for example, national parks, it will have to look at what the policy for farming inside the national parks looks like, and make sure that people have sustainable incomes on their farm as we change to a new system. So, it's very much part of what we're doing, and I think it will drive a real change in attitude. It also, of course, goes alongside the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, which is globally famous. Everywhere we go as members of the Government, we're asked to comment on how on earth we got the future generations Act through. Perhaps we take it a bit for granted now, but it's seismic in its operation, and I think this new Bill will only enhance that reputation.

Minister, you promised that after COP15 and after the biodiversity deep-dive you would come back to us with something better, more meaningful, more well focused on really positive outcomes for nature, so here we are today. I really welcome the statement and the publication of this White Paper with an extremely long environmental name. As part of the consultation, maybe we could look at a short title for the Bill when it comes forward, and my opening gambit is 'nature recovery and environmental governance Bill', so it says on it exactly what it's meant to do. We can do the other stuff and it might be even shorter again.

Could I ask you, Minister, within the proposals coming forward—? I'm going to go to the high level, because we'll dive into the detail, I know. But on the high level, what does this mean for citizens and their ability to see where our approach to nature recovery is working and where it is failing, and how they can then challenge that failure?

Secondly, we talk about this will be taken forward, this governance body working in the spirit of collaboration, taking an escalatory approach, working with public authorities to put things right. Does she agree with me that, actually, let's not put things right after the event, let's put things right in advance, and that's got to be one of the roles of what we're doing here?

Could I ask her, in terms of the targets, which were always the things that were going to be difficult with this—and she said she would come back after COP15 better informed as to where we should shape those targets—will there now be full, detailed, meaningful engagement, not just with the wider citizenry, but also with all of those environmental organisations, as well as farmers and so on, to get those targets absolutely right? Because that is critical.

And finally, on the issue of designated protected sites, this has long been an issue of contention, because as we have climate change, it means those sites change themselves—the habitats change, the species move. So, where are we currently? What will this Bill do in terms of the way we look at protecting our most special sites, but also the fact that climate change is shifting the movement of those sites as well? Lot's more questions to follow, but there's an opening gambit.

16:10

Joyce Watson took the Chair.

Thank you very much, Huw. Bill titles are always an interesting conversation between the office of the legislative counsel, who have a very determined view of what the Bill title should do, and those of us who'd like something slightly more snazzy. But they become known for what they are. So, the clean air Act is not, of course, called 'the clean air Act', but that's what it's now called in common parlance. I suspect we'll have something along those lines. People will respond to the consultation that 'nature positive Bill' is the one that seems very favoured at the moment from a large number of people. But that's where we're going with it, because that's what it will be.

The point here is it's not just about restoration or recovery, it's about being positive about nature in all of its aspects, understanding that without nature, our ecosystems, we can't exist, and that they're pretty fundamental to what we are. It always fascinates me that people just simply do not see that, without the various parts of nature, we couldn't breathe or drink or eat. These things are fundamental to the human race. And you've heard me say before that this isn't about protecting the planet—the planet will go on. It's about protecting humankind on the planet. That's a very different thing. So, I couldn't agree more.

In terms of the targets, the proposed headline nature positive target is that of the global biodiversity framework—so, to reverse the decline in biodiversity with an improvement in the status of species and ecosystems by 2030, and their clear recovery by 2050. That's obviously aimed at driving ambition and actions to tackle both the nature and the climate emergencies, because they're two sides of the same coin. And that business about things moving around is, of course, driven by the climate emergency. So, as we look at being resilient to the climate emergency, as well as trying to prevent some of the more catastrophic changes in the climate, we will, of course, have to have a better attitude towards the hard-edged designated landscapes, which we'll certainly be looking at. And it aligns with the well-being goals of a resilient Wales and recognising the need to protect our natural resources. Let's not forget we've already got that in law in Wales. We do tend to forget that.

As we go through the committee, we will have a discussion about what else needs to be on the face of the Bill and, no doubt, we will have a robust discussion about it, as we did with the clean air Act, because I think there is a balance to be struck between what the Bill says upfront about what we should do and what the governance body will do, and then what we're able to put into secondary legislation that drives forward a constant improvement. As you know, if you put things on the face of the Bill, they tend to get set in stone and become outdated pretty quickly, especially in this area where a lot of science is shifting all the time. So, it will be a task for the committees to work with us to make sure that we get that balance right. I hope we will be able to put some of the secondary stuff in front of the committee, but a lot of that depends on what we can do with our scientists behind the scenes who are working on some of this, and indeed on some of the consultation responses as we get them back. But I think, at the end of this Senedd term, we will have a Bill that we can be rightly proud of on a global stage as well as here at home.

Oh, a different Dirprwy Lywydd is ending the debate.

5. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip: Holocaust Memorial Day

We'll move on now to a statement by the Minister for Social Justice on Holocaust memorial. I call on the Minister for Social Justice—Jane Hutt.

16:15

Diolch yn fawr, acting Presiding Officer. Saturday was Holocaust Memorial Day, and here at the Senedd we marked this day by illuminating our building in purple. In the darkness, this light reminded us of the millions of people who were persecuted and killed during the Holocaust and subsequent genocides. At 8.00 p.m. on the same day, people across the UK joined in with the 'light the darkness' moment by lighting candles and placing them in their windows. Other buildings and landmarks across the UK were also lit up in purple during this national moment of solidarity. Many places across Wales took part, including the bandstand and Canolfan Alun R. Edwards in Aberystwyth, and County Hall in Carmarthen.

Alongside the First Minister, many of us attended the Wales Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony on Friday, 26 January, at the Temple of Peace, which provided an opportunity to reflect on a part of history that we and future generations must never forget. It was a very moving ceremony, with addresses by John Hajdu MBE, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, and Isam Agieb, who had fled the genocide in Darfur. The South Wales Jewish Representative Council, Disability Wales, Stonewall Cymru, Romani Cultural and Arts Company and the Equality and Human Rights Commission all participated in the service, which highlighted some of the different communities of people targeted during the Holocaust. Current conflicts in the middle east and Ukraine, the thousands of lives lost in those conflicts and the suffering still being endured, were uppermost in the minds of those who attended the ceremony. I know people across Wales will join the Welsh Government in showing solidarity with all those who continue to suffer persecution and violence.

Numerous events took place across Wales, including Father's House Sabbath Congregation in Flintshire, who held their annual Holocaust memorial service, themed 'no escape'. The memorial was presented by Pastor Michael Fryer, along with guest speakers Mark Tami MP, Carolyn Thomas MS, Jack Sargeant MS, and a pupil from Queensferry C.P. Primary School.

The Josef Herman Art Foundation commemorated Holocaust Memorial Day in partnership with the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea. On 27 January a special film screening took place of The Silent Village, a 1943 British propaganda short film. The film is based on the true story of the massacre of the Czech village of Lidice, retold as if it had happened in Wales.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2024 is the 'fragility of freedom'. In their introduction to this year's theme, the Holocaust Memorial Trust highlighted that freedom cannot be taken for granted and we must not be complacent—we must fight to ensure it is never lost. They emphasised that the erosion of freedom is often a subtle, slow process and the impact is far-reaching:

'Not only do perpetrator regimes erode the freedom of the people they are targeting, demonstrating how fragile freedom is, they also restrict the freedoms of others around them, to prevent people from challenging the regime. Despite this, in every genocide there are those who risk their own freedom to help others, to preserve others’ freedom or to stand up to the regime.'

The theme this year underlined the numerous ways in which freedom is restricted and eroded. It shone a light on the individuals who risked their freedom to save others and emphasised that liberation does not necessarily mean to be completely free. Ordinary people find themselves having to move to a new country; they are often separated from their families and are required to rebuild their lives. All of this whilst simultaneously trying to overcome the trauma resulting from their persecution.

The Welsh Government funded the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to employ a support worker in Wales who, for the past few months, has been working with communities and organisations to plan and support commemorative activities across Wales.

The Welsh Government continues to fund the Holocaust Educational Trust to run the Lessons from Auschwitz project in Wales. This is a unique four-part course, comprising two seminars, a one-day visit to Poland, and a next-steps project through which students pass on the lessons they have learned. Much more than just an excursion, it's a powerful journey of learning and exploration about the history of the Holocaust and the world we live in. In 2023 110 students from 55 Welsh schools took part in the project. This included six schools who took part in the programme for the first time. The next Lessons from Auschwitz course for Wales is expected to take place this year, in February or March.

Tackling antisemitism remains a high priority for Welsh Government. In July I met with the UK Government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, Lord Mann, to discuss his report on 'Tackling Antisemitism in the UK 2023' and how we as a Government will support the implementation of the recommendations in Wales. Lord Mann welcomed the Curriculum for Wales and its focus on helping children and young people to develop as ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world, recognising it as a platform to address antisemitism in Wales.

In December I issued a joint letter with the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language to all headteachers in Wales to provide guidance and support to schools and education settings on how to effectively address antisemitism and Islamophobia, including ways of supporting learners and their families. While it is important to reflect on the past, it's equally vital to consider what we can do now and in future to ensure that Wales is, and will remain, a compassionate, globally responsible nation. In an increasingly unstable world, individuals need to be supported to achieve integration and acceptance, regardless of their background or circumstances. In the face of these challenges, Wales must be vigilant in our resolve to tackle the latent and blatant forces that drive the persecution of minorities at all levels in our society, whether that be institutional, social or cultural.

The theme for National Hate Crime Awareness Week 2023 was faith-based hate, with a focus on antisemitism, which provided an opportunity to raise this issue to a range of audiences via many collaborative events that took place across Wales. The Deputy Minister for Social Partnership spoke at a national event, organised by the Wales Hate Support Centre, to mark the week. We remain grateful to the centre, which is funded by the Welsh Government and run by Victim Support Cymru, for the support it provides Jewish and other faith communities in Wales, and for working closely with police as part of this work.

The faith communities forum, which was established in the wake of 9/11, is co-chaired by myself and the First Minister. Through the forum, the Welsh Government has worked closely with faith representatives on matters affecting the social, economic and cultural life of Wales. This forum also has a vital role in promoting good relations between people of different faiths and beliefs. These strong relationships are so important now as a way for us to work together to build a safer world in the future. 

So, I will close this statement by thanking the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and the Holocaust Educational Trust for their vital work. We condemn the vile hatred expressed by individuals who seek to create a climate of fear and aim to fragment our communities. Today and moving forward we have a duty to ensure that Wales continues to stand up to all forms of hate, to help create a safer and more equal nation, where difference is accepted and embraced. Diolch.

16:20

Diolch. Well, Holocaust Memorial Day takes place, as we've heard, on 27 January each year—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, on 27 January 1945; remembering the millions of people murdered during the Holocaust under Nazi persecution and in the genocides that followed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur; and educating generations of young people about this terrible history and the need to stand up against acts of bigotry and hatred today. In addition to the 6 million Jewish people murdered in the Holocaust, Nazi authorities also targeted and killed other groups, including children because of their perceived racial and biological inferiority, Roma and Sinti Gypsies, disabled Germans, LGBT people, and some of the Slavic peoples, especially Poles and Russians. Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological and behavioural grounds. So—and I'm sure she will—will the Minister agree that the past informs the future and that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat its mistakes and atrocities?

Auschwitz initially served as a detention centre for political prisoners. However, it evolved into a network of camps, where Jewish people and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state were exterminated, often in gas chambers or used as slave labour. I visited the rightly unsettling Holocaust museum, when in Israel, and last September I made a moving visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. The empty barracks, the barbed-wire fencing, the solemn exhibits, the telltale chimneys—all these vestiges left a strong impression. But what struck me most was the sheer vastness of the sprawling memorial to history's most notorious death camp. I also made an evocative visit to Oskar Schindler's factory in Krakow. So, how can the Welsh Government hardwire education about the Holocaust, including the horrors that happened in Auschwitz-Birkenau and other death camps, into our schools and wider information sources for each generation? 

You state that the Welsh Government funded the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to employ a support worker in Wales. You also shared this with us in your statement on Holocaust Memorial Day last year. What update can you provide on their activities since then? 

Several of my own children who attended Castell Alun High School in Flintshire benefited from a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with the school. They happened to be one of those schools that recognised how important it was that this was given attention, but there are many others that don't. How can we ensure that this becomes embedded on a more mainstream basis, not just in those schools that are at the forefront of this sort of issue, but those that perhaps need to be helped further along the way? How will this also embed the new resource for secondary schools in Wales about the Romani Holocaust, or porajmos, launched by the Romani Cultural and Arts Company with funding from the UK Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities? And how will this ensure public awareness of the close to 0.25 million disabled children and adults who were also murdered under the Nazi regime? 

North Wales Police recorded a rise in religious hate crime in the weeks following the outbreak of the Hamas-Israel conflict last year. The number of antisemitic hate crimes recorded by several of Wales's police forces have also seen similar rises. Does the Minister agree, and I'm sure she will, that this is a grim wake-up call? Therefore, what further action is the Welsh Government taking to counter this rise in religious and racial hate crime? 

I attended the moving 2023 Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Tŷ Pawb in Wrexham, organised by the Association of Voluntary Organisations in Wrexham, when the theme chosen by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust was 'ordinary people'. As you stated, the theme this year is the 'fragility of freedom', reminding us of the slow and subtle erosion of freedoms that create the circumstances that allow genocide to take place. It also urges us not to take our freedoms for granted and to be mindful of our own responsibility in defending and strengthening freedoms in our communities. Would you therefore join me in endorsing the recent statement by Pope Francis that

'Saturday, 27 January, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. May the remembrance and condemnation of that horrific extermination of millions of Jews and people of other faiths, which took place in the first half of the last century, help everyone not to forget that the logic of hatred and violence can never be justified, because it denies our very humanity.'

I'll close by quoting how he closed, in encouraging, as he did, us all to pray for peace across the world. Diolch yn fawr. 

16:25

Diolch yn fawr and thank you very much, Mark Isherwood, for your contribution to this statement, and it is an important contribution. As you say, we have a duty to stand up against hate and persecution, and commemorating the Holocaust is important to ensure that we'll never forget how divisive hateful narratives can be and what can happen if people in communities are targeted and dehumanised because of who they are. Thank you for sharing your experiences and your learning as a result of your visits and your engagement. Of course, the Holocaust didn't happen overnight; it began with the gradual erosion of human rights, and, of course, this divisive rhetoric against people who were different or perceived to be different to others. And it was very powerful on Friday—and I know others who were there on Friday and, indeed, last Wednesday, when we had an event in the Pierhead building—the fact that we had contributions during the prayers from Disability Wales, Stonewall Cymru and the Romani Cultural and Arts Company—Isaac Blake also participated. It was really important it came through, that strong message of the erosion of human rights and that rhetoric against people, which of course the Holocaust drove out with stigma and hatred.

So, I think the investment that we’ve made has been important. I’ve only mentioned some of the events that took place over the weekend, and some more to come in terms of our support for community events and the 'light the darkness' national moment. We’ve got some good other reports of what happened from the community engagement, for example, Tredegar Town Council lighting candles at Aneurin Bevan memorial stones, Tredegar—the Member Alun Davies may be mentioning that—also, just recognising voluntary services, Glamorgan Voluntary Services adding information to their website, e-bulletins; the office of the future generations commissioner arranging a webinar on 18 December about Holocaust Memorial Day to the future generations department; Love Your Library Monmouth group—. There are many others—Neath Port Talbot standing advisory council on religion, values and ethics. And also in north Wales, you mentioned the police—North Wales Police had marked the day as well. And Bangor University held an event in Powis Hall main arts building, College Road in Bangor.

But I do want to turn to the important points about education particularly and the role of the Holocaust Educational Trust. Those of us who attended either the event last week in the Pierhead building, or indeed on Friday, will have heard from the young people, the young ambassadors, who gave such important contributions at those events. We have to be so proud—we are so proud—of our young people when they speak up about their experiences. And I just want to make the point about the role of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which of course we’ve been funding, as I said, since 2008, and the participants learning about pre-war Jewish life and the former Nazi death and concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, before considering the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust. They become ambassadors, and they indeed were, the young people who spoke last Wednesday, and indeed on Friday—such strong, powerful ambassadors inspiring us, and inspiring them of course, the experience, to share their knowledge in their communities. I think one of the ambassadors was talking about sharing it in the primary schools. Of course, the fact is that they're learning, they're understanding, and meeting, indeed, as they did, some of the survivors—the power that that had for those young people.

I think this does reflect in our curriculum, has been recognised, because diversity is now a cross-cutting theme in the Curriculum for Wales, and this does help and equip our young people to understand and respect their own and each other’s histories, cultures and traditions—and that’s very important, that our new curriculum does reflect that true diversity of the population and learners—and understand how diversity is shaped.

Just finally, also, I want to comment on your point that has been made particularly about addressing hate crime, and this is something that I spoke of in my statement, but just to again reflect on the fact that it is important to recognise that the issue around hate crime—. We are actually the first—. The Wales Hate Support Centre is the first service of its kind in the UK to offer as well a children and young people-friendly hate crime service, and we have our Hate Hurts Wales communications campaign, but are also trying to understand ways in which we can reach out to those who are particularly affected by race hate or sexual orientation or religion hate crimes, and I’ve already commented on the focus last year.

It is important that schoolchildren learn about the wrongs and consequences of contemporary antisemitism, and I’ve mentioned the letter that I and the Minister for education sent to all headteachers, raising that awareness about antisemitism and, indeed, Islamaphobia. This is all about the ways in which we, through education, and the ways we intervene and support Holocaust Memorial Day. And the Holocaust Educational Trust can actually live up to that very important point, which I do understand, agreeing that the past informs the future. Diolch yn fawr, Mark.

16:35

As you reflected in your statement, Minister, at the heart of our acts of remembrance, in response to the horrors of the Holocaust, is a reflection on humanity's ability to cause such suffering to fellow humans, and also humanity's ability to remain silent in the face of such suffering. A refusal to remain silent in the face of a state's atrocities against a specific group of people, such as the Jews of Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, can require a great deal of bravery—incredible acts of personal bravery, as in the case of people such as Sophie Scholl in Nazi Germany. It also takes a great deal of political bravery on Governments' behalf to oppose the oppressive actions of powerful nations. 

I'd like to quote, in this context, a tribute written for one of the most prominent philosophical minds of the twentieth century, and one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the United States, namely Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The tribute is by a scholar of philosophy from Wales, W.D. Davies, and it was read by him at Rabbi Heschel's funeral in 1972. W.D. Davies was the son of a miner and his wife in Glanamman, a few miles away from where I live in the Swansea valley. He had a glittering career here and in the United States, including holding chairs at Princeton and Duke universities. And his words of tribute to a fellow scholar are particularly relevant to the act of remembrance, and its nature.

'I recall once, at his home, that he referred to the silence of decent people in Germany, and elsewhere, in the presence of the monstrous and unspeakable deeds of Hitler, and spoke of the need to make public protest against such.... That he very publicly marched to Selma and very publicly opposed the Vietnam war...all this was no accident. It was his passionate reaction against the craven silence of decent people in the presence of wrong unendurable. More than one great jurist has said that it is important not only that justice be done, but that justice be seen to be done. Abraham Heschel felt that it was important not only that one protest against evil, but that one be seen to protest, even at the risk of being misinterpreted and misunderstood. That he was seen to protest was, in his mind, a necessary part of his resolve not to be guilty of a compromising silence.'

The Holocaust, therefore, demands that we take a stand. It calls publicly for an end to prejudice and hatred or violence on the basis of race, religion, sexuality or gender, or any characteristics that are used as grounds for oppression, injustice or limited freedoms, as grounds for causing suffering, as grounds for causing famine, as grounds for driving people from their homes, as grounds for merciless killing. I'd like to remember today those Governments that have stood against powerful nations to prevent such actions, from the second world war to this day. I'd like to remember the people who have taken a public stand against this, calling for peace and for justice.

I'd like to know, Minister, how the Welsh Government is ensuring that your act of remembrance this year is not simply a passive one. How are you pressing the UK Government to stand against oppression and violence and to call for peace and justice on these isles, and in their relations with Governments worldwide, specifically at present in thinking about the interim judgment by the International Court of Justice that there is a credible case, under the 1948 genocide convention, against the Government of Israel, and that the Palestinian population of Gaza is at genuine risk of irreparable harm?

You mentioned that the conflict in the middle east was at the forefront of your mind during the remembrance ceremony last week. How is the Welsh Government trying to tackle the increased levels of antisemitism and Islamaphobia in our communities, which have been intensified by the actions of the Government of Israel in Gaza and the Hamas attack on the citizens of Israel? Do you agree that the Westminster Government must call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and for the safe return of Israeli hostages, and that this would help to decrease tensions and, therefore, levels of hate crime in Wales? And if so, are you willing to add the Welsh Government’s weight to calls for an immediate ceasefire to achieve this?

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the fragility of freedom. Do you agree, Minister, that the Welsh Government should urge the Westminster Government to respect international law, ensuring that human rights are protected without exception in Wales and the United Kingdom, and that sanctions are applied to nations that contravene conventions and international law by restricting people's freedom to have the right to life, freedom from torture and inhumane or degrading treatment, and the right to safety?

Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to safeguarding peace and human rights in today’s world. Do you agree, Minister, that we should never remain silent in the face of injustice and suffering, that a Government should not be guilty, as Rabbi Heschel said, of compromising silence—even if there is a risk that we are misunderstood and misrepresented in so doing? 

16:40

Diolch yn fawr, Sioned Williams. And thank you, again, for your contribution to this statement, and also for just drawing attention to the courage of people who've stood up and not stayed silent, very much following on from the point of Mark Isherwood's about agreeing that the past can inform the future. But the refusal to stay silent—. You've spoken of those people of courage across the world and in our history, and, of course, I think this also reflects back to the importance of our curriculum and the fact that developing informed and ethical citizens is about history. It's also about learning about the diversity about today's people and, actually, I'm very proud, as I'm sure the Minister is, and all of you are, that human rights is a key part of the curriculum. 

But thank you for also remembering that tribute to Rabbi Joshua Heschel and making the connection to Wales with W.D. Davies. It's important, of course, and many of us recognise, that public protest is an important way in which we can express our views. It's part of our thriving democracy that we play our part in that. But I do think that the expressions of solidarity and support that we saw last Wednesday in the Pierhead building, where, across party, we were coming together and hearing not just our young people, but also the testimony and life experience of Eva Clarke, was really important. 

Yes, we have acknowledged, and I did in my statement, that conflicts across the world are at the forefront of our thoughts. And, of course, just in terms of the situation in the middle east, we need a sustainable and lasting ceasefire in order to ensure that we get urgent humanitarian relief, warding off famine, and also freeing hostages, and provide the space for a sustainable ceasefire so that fighting doesn't restart. And, obviously, we acknowledge and look at the situation in terms of the international court of justice's interim ruling. But I think, just in terms of our role and the points that we make, we have to be responsible, as I said, for community cohesion, for the compassionate and caring and ethically-informed Wales that we want to see in our young people and indeed in all our citizens. And so I think it was very important that on the day of Hannukah and a very powerful event on the steps of the Senedd, the First Minister and I were also meeting with Muslim leaders as well. 

Minister, can I thank you for your statement this afternoon? In your statement you recognised the work of Pastor Michael Fryer and those at Father's House in my own constituency in Queensferry. They play an incredibly important role in making sure that we remember and we never forget the Holocaust and those tragedies across the world. And they play an important role in making sure that our future generations never forget. 

Minister, you said the event over the weekend was supported by Mark Tami, and Carolyn and I have had the privilege of speaking there on many occasions—not just on Holocaust Memorial Day, but right across the year. I wonder if you could join me in thanking Pastor Michael and the team at Father's House for all of their work, and perhaps talk further about how we can support these organisations, like Father's House, in the role that they do in educating and enlightening the people of Wales, year round. Diolch.

16:45

Diolch, Jack Sargeant. I have acknowledged that important event that took place at Father's House Sabbath Congregation in Flintshire. I think that the important point, not only in terms of your contribution and the guest speakers who attended, but the memorial: it was a memorial that wasn't just a one-off memorial. I would certainly like to come and visit Father's House and meet the congregation, because I can see that this is imbued in everything that they do, not just on Holocaust Memorial Day.

Minister, can I thank you for your statement? I think that it is important that Holocaust Memorial Day is marked in the Senedd in this way with a ministerial statement every year, in the same way that, on an annual basis, we mark the event in the Senedd, as was the case last week. I, of course, unfortunately, was not able to be present at that event, but I believe that Eva Clarke spoke very clearly about the impact of the Holocaust, not just on her and her immediate family, but of course on the Jewish people and all of the others who suffered at the hands of the dreadful Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.

It is important that we celebrate these things locally as well, and I'm pleased that a number of events have been held around Wales remembering the Holocaust, including one that I attended over the weekend in Llandudno, where the Christian Friends of Israel in north Wales get together with the local Jewish community in order to host an annual event at which young people, old people, Holocaust survivors always take part.

I was particularly struck this year by the impact of the Lessons from Auschwitz programme on the young people who shared about their visit to Auschwitz at that particular event. I would be grateful if you could confirm the ongoing commitment of the Welsh Government to that programme, in order to ensure that many more young people can have the opportunity to become ambassadors for those who have experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, particularly at Auschwitz.

In addition to that, there was a book that was talked about at the event over the weekend by one of my constituents, Andrew Hesketh, who has written a book, Escape to Gwrych Castle. It's about the 300 Jewish refugees who came across as part of the Kindertransport programme, and were at the castle—the largest single centre of Kindertransport arrivals and refugees in the whole of the United Kingdom at the time. I didn't know that that was the case. I knew that there had been some Jews that had taken refuge at the castle during the war, but had no idea that it was the largest single centre. I would commend that book to anyone with an interest in the events of the war, the Holocaust, and indeed in the generous response of the Welsh public to those individuals in need.

Just finally, Minister, if I may, I'd like to thank those universities in Wales that have done work in trying to promote awareness of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and have adopted it—both Bangor now and Cardiff. There is still more work to be done among our higher education institutions, and I would be grateful if you could continue to work with your colleague the Cabinet Minister for education to address those shortcomings in some parts of our education institutions across Wales. Thank you. 

Diolch yn fawr, Darren Millar. Thank you, again. I know that you were hoping to be at—. You helped organise the powerful event last Wednesday with the cross-party group and Jenny Rathbone. It was extraordinary hearing about the life story and circumstances of Eva Clarke and her family, and also hearing from the young ambassadors.

I have mentioned many local events, but it is good that we have heard on record about the event in Llandudno, and the contribution of the young people who have benefited from—. Clearly, their whole life experience will benefit from the Holocaust Educational Trust, which we have funded since 2008—I believe I was actually the education Minister then—and I know we'll continue to fund it. It's interesting that we had an online situation during the pandemic and the Lessons from Auschwitz in-person and online project reached 1,957 students and 226 teachers from across Wales.

It is important that you've mentioned the work that we're doing in terms of the adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, which, of course, we adopted in May 2017, and the work that we continue to do with further and higher education institutions. We did write in December to all the further and higher education institutions to ask them, for example, to ensure that they're supporting students, looking at issues, learning about antisemitism and, indeed, Islamaphobia and discrimination. And