Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

20/02/2024

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.

Statement by the Llywydd

Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Plenary meeting. Before we begin, I wish to inform Members, in accordance with Standing Order 26.75, that the Environment (Air Quality and Soundscapes) (Wales) Act 2024 was given Royal Assent on Wednesday 14 February. 

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question this afternoon is from Russell George. 

Apprenticeships

1. How is the Welsh Government increasing apprenticeship opportunities in mid Wales? OQ60687

Llywydd, I thank Russell George for that question. The Welsh Government will continue to make significant investment in apprenticeships throughout Wales. Creating new opportunities in mid Wales relies upon promoting the benefits of quality apprenticeship routes to both employers and learners.

Thank you for your answer, First Minister. Last week, I was pleased to congratulate Calum Greatorex, an apprentice working at Carpenter and Paterson Ltd in Welshpool, who recently won the apprenticeship of the year from Skills Academy Wales as a level 3 apprentice. It was also good to speak with Leighton Rowlands Jones and Spencer Roberts, also apprentices at the company. The company in Welshpool is well established. It's involved in the business design and manufacturing of products for industries such as power generation, renewable energy and nuclear, and the workforce is currently made up of approximately 12 per cent apprentices. It was also good to meet with Myrick Training Services, a not-for-profit company that helps to support businesses linked with apprenticeships, and also offers apprenticeships from level 2 through to and including level 5. They do have concerns with the Welsh Government's draft budget in regard to the proposed budget cuts in regard to apprenticeships. So, I wonder, First Minister, if you could outline what discussions you've had with apprenticeship providers about these concerns, because I'm sure you'll agree with me that we need to back apprenticeships in Wales in order to increase future talent as well, and success, such as in the story of Calum Greatorex.

Well, I thank Russell George for that, Llywydd, and, of course, congratulate the young people that he has referred to. It is great to hear of a firm that has 12 per cent of its workforce as apprenticeships, because they are, as he said, the young people who will be learning the skills that they will need for the future. And the Welsh Government will go on—we will spend over £400 million in apprenticeships over this Senedd term, and, in the next financial year, we will continue to invest £138 million, as you see in the draft budget. 

Now, of course, the Minister and the finance Minister have been listening carefully to the points that have been made by committees, including Russell George's committee, during the scrutiny process, and will be looking to see where there are any changes that can be made when the final budget is brought before the Senedd. But, as the Member will know, right around the Senedd there have been calls for additional funding for a whole range of purposes, and that has included apprenticeships. We continue to be in dialogue with all 10 providers—all 10 providers are active in mid Wales. Officials held a meeting with all 10 of them earlier this month in order to plan ahead and to make the very best use of the very significant investment in this important area that is still there in the budget proposals for next year.

Domestic Violence

2. What steps is the Government taking to deal with domestic violence? OQ60714

Llywydd, the practical actions to which the Government is committed in dealing with domestic violence are set out in our national strategy. Partners across the private, public and specialist sectors are delivering these actions. Devolved services, and those that are not devolved, have come together in support of this agenda in Wales.

I thank the First Minister for that response. The statistics from north Wales are shocking. Sixty-five per cent of all crime in north Wales relates to domestic violence. There are more cases of domestic violence and sexual violence in north Wales than in any other part of the UK outside of London. That's why the work of Gorwel is so very important. The First Minister will be aware of Gorwel—a programme by the Cynefin social housing group, which is funded through the housing support grant, and supports those who are suffering domestic violence, among other important work. For every £1 that Gorwel receives, it produces £3.56 in community value. But if the Government doesn't increase the housing support grant, then this programme, and other similar provisions across Wales, will be under threat, and we will see more cases of domestic violence, more demand on police services, and more pressures on health and housing services. Given the importance of this, therefore, is the First Minister willing to commit to ensuring that the housing support grant receives the necessary increase in order to continue with the important work that these providers deliver?

13:35

Llywydd, I thank Mabon ap Gwynfor for that question. I'm very aware of the work that Gorwel is doing, of course. As to the figures that the Member has referred to, it's very painful to hear them. But one of the reasons why we have those figures is because agencies such as Gorwel, and others, raise awareness and provide confidence to people to come forward and report incidents to the police, and so forth. As I said in response to Russell George, across the Chamber Members are asking the Government to find more money for a range of things—and important things, of course. But when the funding that we have is not adequate to do everything that we want to do as a Government, there are tough decisions to be made. As I said, the Minister for finance has been listening to everything that the Senedd committees have said through the scrutiny process, and the final budget will come before Members before long.

First Minister, sadly, domestic violence remains very high, with 7 per cent of women and 3 per cent of men experiencing domestic abuse in the past year, largely unchanged from the previous 12 months. If we are to put an end to domestic abuse and violence, we need to educate potential perpetrators that violence and abuse is never the answer. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effectiveness of the Live Fear Free campaign in educating future generations of the impact of domestic violence on victims and society as a whole?

Well, again, Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. He points to the same dilemma that was there in the original question. The purpose of our programmes in Wales is to persuade more people to come forward and report incidents of domestic violence when these occur. You can then read the success of persuading people to have the confidence that there are services available as a sign that there is more domestic violence than there was in a previous period. I think there is a very plausible argument that we are simply uncovering more of what was already there. And the Live Fear Free helpline, which is there 24 hours a day, every day of the year, is there to give confidence to people who find themselves in these awful circumstances that there is always going to be help available to them. And the fact that there are more calls to the line in some years can be thought of as a success of that effort, rather than a sign that things are getting worse. We have just to be careful about the way that we interpret those figures.

Where I absolutely agree with what both Members have said is that those figures are far, far too high, and that there is a huge amount to be done in education, in providing services, both to survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence, to get to the sort of Wales that we want to be, where people don't live in fear of what might happen to them inside their own homes.

I'm really glad to hear the First Minister give a shout-out to the Live Fear Free helpline. It's timely because, whilst we've heard today that violence against women and girls is still a major problem right across society, in all parts of Wales and all types of domestic settings, we also see a rise in violence around that time of major sporting events, including of course the six nations rugby championship. Now, part of the solution to this has to be the high-profile support of our rugby institutions and our rugby clubs, including the Welsh Rugby Union, of course, but also clubs like the fantastic Ospreys, who've done promotions on this themselves—and they had a great result on the weekend, by the way, against Ulster, which we all commend—but all of our regional clubs, also our local clubs too, who have such a role to play and such an influence to make in championing the campaign against domestic violence and abuse. So, would he join me in calling for everyone to cheer on Wales on the weekend, when they've got a mountain to climb in Dublin, though we're used to scaling mountains, of course, in Wales, and calling on everyone in the rugby family to speak out against domestic violence and abuse?

13:40

Well, I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that. Of course, those organisations that have such status in Welsh communities and in Welsh public life can do so much to encourage and persuade people to act in the ways that everyone in this Chamber would wish to see. We discussed the Welsh Rugby Union on the floor of the Senedd only a few weeks ago, and I am pleased to commend the work that the union is doing, it's promotion of the women's game, but also in the way that it can help to tackle attitudes that in the past may have gone unchallenged and today we know we have to confront in that direct way.

I'm very grateful for the help that the Welsh Government has received from sporting organisations in the Sound campaign, that campaign aimed at young men as they embark upon forming relationships in their own lives. We've had around 100 direct participants in the campaign—role models, people who speak out to others. In the first phase of the campaign, around 400,000 young people in Wales have been reached by the different ways in which that campaign aims to communicate the importance to young men, in particular, of having respectful relationships with others embedded in the way in which they themselves grow up. And as to the points that the Member has made about rugby clubs, and other sporting organisations as well that are of standing in those local communities, they can do a great deal to help.

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, and I draw Members' attention to my declaration of interests on the register. First Minister, yesterday, in your press conference, you alluded to the fact that, on the sustainable farming scheme, farmers just want to be able to do whatever they want with the money and not be held to account. Is that your understanding of the anger, the frustration and the deep, deep concern that farmers have around the SFS, because I know of no farmer who doesn't expect to be held to account for the money that they receive from the taxpayer in receipt of the goods that they provide in return for the actions they take on their farm? And, indeed, every survey indicates that, for every £1 spent by the taxpayer in support of the agriculture industry, between £7 and £9 is returned in public good.

Well, Llywydd, the Welsh Government is committed to going on supporting farmers and the rural economy. It's why we have sustained the total amount that we put into the basic payment scheme in full here in Wales—an enormous contrast with the way farmers have been treated in England, of course. The point I made yesterday, and I make it again today, is that the public in Wales will go on investing in farming, and the public is entitled to see a return on that investment. That is what the sustainable farming scheme is all about. At the very top of the list is the investment that we will make in sustainable food production, but, alongside that, there are other things, very important things, that farmers do today that we want to go on rewarding them for doing in the future—all those environmental stewardship things, that, in an era of climate change, take on an even greater significance. So, there is a bargain here. That is the bargain that the sustainable farming scheme represents. It's why we've had a seven-year conversation with farmers in Wales about getting that bargain right. We're in the final days of the latest consultation, and I hope that as many people as possible will take part in it, so that we can get to a final scheme that continues to invest in the future of the countryside and our farming communities, and does so in a way that delivers the return on that investment to which the public is entitled to look.

13:45

I agree with you that the public are entitled, and that's why I used those important figures of the return for the investment that the taxpayer makes. But you did go on in that press conference to say that your understanding was, 'Just do whatever farmers think they would like to do with it'—'it' being the money that the taxpayer puts in to support agriculture. And it's a really tough sell, because your own analysis talks of 5,500 job losses, a reduction of 125,000 cattle, 800,000 sheep, and a £200 million loss in economic activity in the rural economy. Those aren't my figures; those are the figures that, obviously, the Government has put forward. 

When we talk of trying to have a sustainable farming scheme that provides food security, on those sorts of numbers, clearly there is little or no weighting for food security. How on earth can farmers have confidence in the Government's position when those numbers are attached to the briefing? Can you confirm today, First Minister, that food security is a vital ingredient of these consultations that you are having at the moment and, ultimately, that food security will have equal weighting with the critical environmental gains that we want to see farmers play a part in delivering to reach net zero by 2050?

First of all, to deal with the point the Member made about the financial analysis that was published, at least the Welsh Government has published a financial analysis. We learned today that the UK Government has refused to publish the financial analysis of its proposals for farming communities in England, whereas we have put those figures into the public domain. We put them into the public domain precisely in order to have an informed consultation, where we can agree proposals for the final sustainable farming scheme that will mitigate some of those risks that otherwise would have been there. Not only can I confirm to the leader of the opposition that sustainable farming is a vital ingredient in the SFS, it is the top ingredient. It is the first thing we say: that the sustainable farming scheme is designed to secure sustainable food production here in Wales. 

When you look at the figures that I've put to you, First Minister, and in particular those critical job losses and economic output losses, it is difficult for any reasonable person to come to the conclusion that the SFS, as currently constructed, will deliver that sustainable farming offer from the Welsh Government or future Welsh Governments. So, I ask you again to confirm that food security is a vital part of the proposals and that you will make sure that food security has that equal weighting with the environmental gains that, ultimately, we all want to see, and that there will be a rethink on the 10 per cent compulsory tree cover that is a demand of the current proposals that are on the table. Because that SFS document that is brought forward will devalue farms, cost jobs and devastate the ability to deliver food that the nation requires for the future. 

I think it's important that I remind the leader of the opposition why we are in the position that we are in: it's because farmers in Wales took his advice and voted to leave the European Union. That's why that is—[Interruption.] Well, there we are. Believe me, we are in the position that we are in today because we have taken back control of farming support in Wales, as we were obliged to do. If farmers in Wales were still able to have access to the funds that were available through the European Union, they would be in a very different position than they are having heard and followed his advice. I've answered many of his questions already this afternoon; I won't go over that again.

As far as tree planting is concerned, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of farms in Wales already have 10 per cent of their land under tree cover. Nobody is forced to plant trees in Wales; we were determined to offer farmers the first chance in Wales to grow the trees that we will need, because we will need thousands and thousands more trees in Wales in an era of climate change. We're committed to doing that and we're committed to offering farmers the first chance to do so. Where it is not possible, where, because of the topography of the land or other considerations, it isn't possible to reach 10 per cent, the Minister has already set out proposals so that farmers wouldn't be expected to reach that. Where farmers can, where it is reasonable to expect farmers to make a contribution to mitigating climate change, they will be rewarded for doing so in the sustainable farming scheme.

13:50

Diolch, Llywydd. Last week came confirmation that the UK economy had entered recession. But it's not just the economy that's in reverse; the decline of vital industries in Wales and the communities that they sustain, whether that's agriculture, steel or hospitality, bears all the hallmarks of a social recession too. Steel is fighting for its life; the tractors, we know, are already on the roads; and the latest 'closed for business' sign is going up in yet another eatery in the First Minister's own constituency. I've stood here long enough now to know that the First Minister will lay blame at Westminster's door: 'It's lack of funding'. And, of course, Plaid Cymru has long argued that Wales is not funded fairly; we can certainly agree on that. But does the Labour Party agree—Keir Starmer's Labour Party? Does he agree that Wales is not fairly funded? And if he does, why isn't he still pledging to put that right, even on something as fundamentally unjust as the loss of billions of pounds of HS2 consequentials? And why is the First Minister failing to persuade him?

We have this question week after week after week, in which the Member wants to ask questions of somebody who isn't in the Senedd about responsibilities that aren't exercised in the Senedd. I've said to him before that there's a place where he could ask those questions, and maybe he'd rather be there. Let him, just for a moment, ask me a question about what I'm responsible for and I'll do my best to give him an answer.

I'll repeat the question. What is the First Minister doing to persuade the leader of the Labour Party to get to grips with fair funding for Wales? Plaid Cymru MPs will gladly hold Keir Starmer to account if Welsh Labour Ministers here are unwilling to.

The thing is that people want to know that Government is on their side. I think it's pretty clear that the Conservatives are on no-one's side but their own, and that is why I fully expect them to be thrown out of power this year. It is long, long overdue. But Plaid Cymru is ready to hold whoever is in power at Westminster to account. After the ousting of the Tories, people would then look to see if Labour is on their side. Of course, they're already doing that in Wales, and many have concluded that Labour is falling short here. And it's falling short in areas that you'd expect Labour, from their own rhetoric, to prioritise.

One of the cornerstones of the First Minister's manifesto for the Labour leadership was the promotion of equality through the real living wage, but I can tell him that two thirds of workers paid through the housing support grant, for example, are still paid less than the real living wage. Does the First Minister regret that, and when can we expect that to be put right?

Selective quotation from manifestos doesn't get us very far. I've looked at Labour's manifesto; it makes no reference at all to paying the real living wage in the context that he just described. What it does make a commitment to is paying the real living wage to social care workers here in Wales. That was the single most expensive commitment in our manifesto and money has been mobilised year after year to deliver it. I am glad, every year, that there is a growing number of real living wage employers here in Wales and more people benefiting from it. I hope that that number will go on growing in the future, and I hope there will be opportunities for people in the field to which he has referred. In order to do so, you have to have the funding available. Week after week, he asks me to find more money for this and more money for that, and no doubt he's about to ask me to find more money for another purpose again; what he never ever does is tell me where that money would come from.

I'm very surprised, I must say, that the First Minister doesn't seem to regret that those working on housing support grant projects aren't paid the real living wage. Maybe I misunderstood what Labour had promised. There's certainly a possibility of overpromising going on, but we can certainly see plenty of signs of underdelivery.

This Labour Government is failing to meet its own key performance indicators on many topics. That doesn't help when Government then sets KPIs for others to meet that are not only difficult to meet but could be detrimental to their well-being, and that's how the agriculture sector feels right now: a top-down Welsh Government telling them how to farm whilst being out of tune with what it takes to ensure productive and environmentally friendly agriculture, which is what the sector strives for.

Yesterday, we heard the First Minister telling farmers on one hand that their voice will shape the sustainable farming scheme and on the other that it's not up to them how the scheme works. Whether it's steel, whether it's hospitality or retail or it's agriculture, surely the role of the Welsh Government is to be leading a partnership, championing Welsh workers, working with them. Does the First Minister agree that if they're to show that they are on people's side, the emphasis has to be on the listening and not on the lecturing?

13:55

I've heard three lectures this afternoon from the Member purporting to be questions. I am very grateful to the over 3,000 farmers who have taken part in the 10 consultation events that we have held on the latest proposals in just the last few weeks. I know there will be hundreds of others who have taken part in conversations through the farming unions. We are absolutely committed to that way of co-producing with the farming sector a way in which the very large sum of money that we are committed to sustain for the support of the agricultural community goes on being made available to them. The Minister is in continuous conversation with farming interests. I will meet others with her next week for this purpose. The reason we do it is because of our commitment to that sector and to devising here in Wales a way of rewarding farmers for the work that they do that is recognised by the rest of the Welsh public as vital to our collective futures.

Toxic Sites

3. How is the Welsh Government working with local authorities to ensure the safety of toxic sites in the south-east? OQ60715

The legislation that deals with safety at such sites in Wales is set by the Senedd. The Welsh Government provides statutory guidance to assist local authorities in the discharge of their responsibilities. Further assistance is available through Public Health Wales and Natural Resources Wales.

Thank you for that answer.

As with the map of category C and D coal tips in Wales, people also have the right to know the location of historic toxic sites. Unfortunately, there are many toxic sites throughout our country as a result of our industrial heritage and multinational corporations using us as a dumping ground for all sorts of nasty chemicals. These corporations may have long since disappeared from our communities, but the legacy of their work lingers on with polluted watercourses. Has this Government considered publishing a map of toxic sites throughout Wales to better inform the public of the dangers that may exist in their community, and when will we also get a taskforce dedicated to pulling together all the relevant agencies pursuing polluters and dealing with the legacy they have left behind?

I thank the Member for that important question. He is right, of course, that the landscape of Wales is scattered with examples of the legacy of events that happened many, many years ago. The current system is that it is a responsibility of a local authority. They have a primary duty in this area to identify contaminated land in their area. But the work that the Minister is doing on the disused mines Bill is being designed with the possibility of extending the scope of the arrangements we will set up in the first instance in order to be able to take account of other forms of industrial legacy in the future. I hope that when the Bill comes in front of the Senedd, the Member will see that. While it begins with, as he said, the legacy of mining in Wales, there are other legacy issues that the structure that will be established could be used to respond to in the future, and that would allow us, for example, to take into account the metal mining remediation programme that we have here in Wales, where there is international interest in the way in which we have been able to extend the scope of our remediation programme. So, there isn't going to be a swift route to the sort of register that the Member suggests, but there is a potential route that will come in front of the Senedd later this year, and I'm sure Members who represent areas where these legacy issues are very prominent will want to take a close interest in the passage of that Bill.

14:00

I too share the concerns of the fellow Member for South Wales East and, for example, on the proposal to reclaim the Bedwas coal tips, which has been met with a lot of concern by constituents in my region. Although the Welsh Government has claimed the tips are not necessarily unsafe, there is a risk, of course, as you know, of run off of water that could result in an incident.

But I'd like to make the First Minister aware of the Tŷ Llwyd quarry in Ynysddu near Caerphilly, which was found to have had toxic chemicals in the water leaking from the landfill into a woodland used by children and dog walkers last year. My constituents in the area still believe that the area is still contaminated and have voiced their concerns over the health and safety risk associated with this site. The drainage system currently that is there is inadequate, and contaminated liquid is still a prevalent issue. In 2011 Monsanto agreed to help clean up the quarry, yet 13 years later, my constituents are still having to deal with that fallout. So, First Minister, how is the Welsh Government working with Natural Resources Wales to deal with this issue and clean up the quarry once and for all? Thank you.

Well, Llywydd, I thank the Member for that important question. Just to be clear that, based on current information, the regulators do not currently consider there is a risk to public health at Tŷ Llwyd, but the local authority—who, let's remember, themselves identified this quarry as a cause of concern back in the 1990s—has commissioned Arcadis to do an options appraisal to look at better ways in future in which leachate from the site can be managed. In an era of climate change—we've talked about that this afternoon already—severe weather events, including concentrated rainfall, has rendered the challenge at that site more significant than it would have been in the past. Now, I understand that the consultants have now narrowed the scope of their work down to four options for future management of the site, that that report has now been presented to the local authority, but, together with Natural Resources Wales, there is a monitoring programme going on over this winter to look at ground and surface water, which will help to further refine those options. Now, when those options are refined, I imagine myself that it will lead to the council needing to apply for an environmental permit for the way in which the site is managed in future. I would anticipate that there will be stringent conditions attached to that permit to make sure that local residents can have confidence that there isn't leachate from that site that would cause environmental and public health damage.

Bedwas tip has already been mentioned, and it is a legacy of our coal mining heritage. There is a company that is interested in remediating Bedwas tip at no cost to the public purse, and when you're talking of upwards of £30 million, that's a significant offer to be considered. There has been, unfortunately, some opposition councillors spreading, through leaflets, some direct untruths about the project. I think we need to keep an open mind about what the project will entail. We need to make sure that the proper processes are followed to ensure that the public have their say. Would the First Minister therefore support that and agree that, in order for this kind of remediation project to be considered, we have to keep an open mind about how successful it can be?

I thank Hefin David for that, Llywydd. Laura Anne Jones mentioned the Bedwas tips, and there are three disused category D coal tips above Bedwas, and we know that, thinking of the question I was asked originally by Peredur Owen Griffiths, because the Welsh Government has put that information into the public domain. Now, my understanding is that the company proposing a different future for those tips is currently in the pre-planning application phase. I was very pleased to see that there's an exhibition at Bedwas today and Cwmfelinfach tomorrow of the proposals that they are bringing forward. They will then have to come forward with a full planning application, and at that point, if there are concerns by local residents, they will be able to be voiced and they will be able to be considered in that orderly way, rules-based way, that the planning system allows, and then the merits and the demerits, if there are any, of the proposal, can be properly investigated and reported upon.

14:05
The Heads of the Valleys Road

4. Will the First Minister provide an update on the dualling of sections 5 and 6 of the A465 Heads of the Valleys road? OQ60716

I thank Vikki Howells for that, Llywydd. Work on dualling sections 5 and 6 of the Heads of the Valleys road is currently three years into its construction period. Despite the project starting during the height of the COVID pandemic, good progress has been maintained and the scheduled and anticipated completion is due in the summer of 2025.

First Minister, it was a pleasure to visit with you and Dawn Bowden to see the ongoing construction works on sections 5 and 6 of the Heads of the Valleys road last week. I'm sure, like me, you'd want to thank Future Valleys Construction and their partners for hosting us and giving us a very informative tour. It was good to hear about the economic, environmental and community benefits that the project is already delivering, but how is Welsh Government working to ensure that these approaches are embedded to deliver lasting improvements for the Cynon Valley and the surrounding areas?

Well, I thank Vikki Howells for that and for the invitation she made on the floor of the Senedd to make that visit, which I thoroughly enjoyed, together with the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. It followed an earlier visit that I'd made with Alun Davies to a different part of the road, and while we made our visit, it was the words that the Member for Blaenau Gwent often uses on the floor of the Senedd that were in my mind, that this is much more than a road, it is a series of really important economic opportunities for people who live in this part of Wales.

And the benefits that we saw in front of us last week, I think, absolutely are benefits that will last into the future: those active travel measures that will now be planned, the cycle routes that we saw, the separation of pedestrians from traffic, the fact that 120,000 trees will be planted as part of the work on sections 5 and 6. We were told about the 8,000 plants that were being specially brought on in order to safeguard the future of the marsh fritillary butterfly, as well as everything else we saw to make sure that biodiversity and lapwings and bats and dormice, and all the other things that are there now, will be there guaranteed for the future. And that's without all the investment that will last into the future: £105 million in the supply chain as a result of the work on the Heads of the Valleys road. Those will be companies that will be there to thrive into the future.

And to go back to the very first question I was asked this afternoon, we heard about and met apprentices, people who will have learned their skills over the decade of investment that this Welsh Government has made in that road, and we met and heard of people who started as level 2 apprentices in the early stage and who are now in charge of some very important parts of this construction. So, I think there will be a whole series of economic and environmental legacies that this scheme will provide for those communities well into the future.

First Minister, you and I both know that I'm a huge supporter of having a strong transport infrastructure across Wales. However, in this instance, your Government has not failed to surprise me. On the one hand, the Welsh Government says that there's a climate emergency and bans all major road building as part of its anti-motorist agenda—[Interruption.]—and on the other hand, we see you, the deputy tourism Minister and Vikki Howells all smiling and posing at the Heads of the Valleys for a photo op, which you just mentioned—

14:10

I can't hear the Member, sorry, and I'm not sure whether the First Minister can, so can the Member be heard in some silence, please?

Thank you so much. Now, I must say, First Minister, I am personally really, really glad to see this anti-road building Government finally recognise the benefits of investing in these really important infrastructure projects—I truly am. However, I'm not sure the fact that this scheme, which is seriously over budget and massively behind schedule, is something to celebrate. So, First Minister, given that you're hailing the Heads of the Valleys road as a success story, can the people of Wales now expect to see this Government start building other important road infrastructures now as well? Thank you.

Well, it is a shame, Llywydd, that the Member's welcome for the scheme is shrouded in such a mist of misinformation. She's entirely wrong about the Government's approach to road building. She's entirely wrong about sections 5 and 6, which is being constructed under the mutual investment model, where the risks of cost overrun do not lie with the Government at all; they are entirely in the hands of the construction company, who has been contracted to build that part of the road. So, she can be sure that her concerns are ill-founded, and in future she will be able to celebrate the success of the road without surrounding it with a set of entirely erroneous anxieties.

The Sustainable Farming Scheme

5. Has the Welsh Government done an up-to-date impact assessment on the sustainable farming scheme? OQ60712

Llywydd, an integrated impact assessment was published on 14 December last year, as part of the current sustainable farming scheme consultation. An updated assessment, together with supporting evidence, will be published before any final decisions are made.

Thank you for your answer, First Minister, and I should hope that you will do an updated impact assessment as soon as possible.

Over the last week I've visited farms, livestock markets, agricultural suppliers, and I attended the YFC drama finals in Radnor. All the people that I spoke to are worried, they're scared and they're angry because of the uncertainty around their futures. Rural mental health charities are also being inundated with calls from people who need help and support due to the huge pressures they are currently under because of unrelenting form filling, TB and a Government here that seems to ignore their concerns.

First Minister, so with the colossal 5,500 job losses, the £200 million loss to the economy and the massive reduction in livestock numbers, outlined by an impact assessment that this Government commissioned, how can farmers trust you and the rural affairs Minister when you say that you will listen to the consultation, when it seems to many that this Government ignored farmers during the co-design phase and also did not take account of the evidence that outlines the untold damage that this scheme would do to rural Wales?

Well, Llywydd, let me begin by recognising that, when change happens, people find that challenging, and in rural Wales, there are many changes that are inevitably on their doorstep. They're there because we left the European Union, with the security and certainty that that gave to farming here in Wales. It is just unavoidable that, while we are no longer members of the arrangements that had sustained farming in Wales for so many years, we have now to put alternative schemes in place. And when change happens, people are anxious and people are worried and people are indeed distressed. I understand that. That is why we go on having the conversations that we do.

It absolutely does not help those conversations, it absolutely does not help to address the stress to which the Member referred, when he ends his question with the sort of alarmist nonsense that he offered. And I just put that point to him, because he's often quite a sensible contributor to debates on the floor of the Senedd, but if we are anxious for people and their futures, then it would be better if we all conducted those conversations in a more measured way than he did in the way that he ended his conversation, because this Government has certainly not ignored the voice of farmers. We have had a seven-year conversation. I am very grateful—I said in an earlier answer, I am very grateful—to the 12,000 responses that we had to the 'Brexit and our land' consultation as far back as 2018. I'm grateful to have over 3,000 responses to the 2019 'Sustainable Farming and our Land' consultation, to the 2,000 people who participated in the co-design exercise in the following year; 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, we have a White Paper on the Agriculture (Wales) Bill, 2022, 1,600 contributions to the second phase of co-design, and this year more than 3,000 farmers coming to the consultation exercises, the roadshows, that have been held in every part of Wales. I think they deserve better than his contribution, because their views have not been ignored, because, at every iteration, there have been amendments to the scheme, and I am confident there will be further amendments to the scheme as a result of the consultation and conversations that are currently being held.

But it is a conversation between two parties. It is a conversation between farmers, and it is a conversation between the Welsh public who provide the money that goes into the sustainable farming scheme. And in a conversation, there will be more than one point of view. That's why we carry out the conversations so carefully and over such a sustained period. It's not over and we will go on listening and go on responding, and, once again, I urge as many people as possible to take part in the opportunity that is there in front of them to influence the future of the scheme.  

14:15

Can I ask you, First Minister, to put yourself in the shoes of somebody maybe who's trying to eke a living out of a family farm? You are asking them, as a Government, to make a choice: effectively, to set aside potentially 10 per cent of their land for tree cover, another 10 per cent maybe for habitat. That will squeeze what are already very fine margins in terms of the viability of that business. The alternative, of course, when you're giving them that choice, is that they don't enter a scheme and they forego the basic payment equivalent, which is what's absolutely been keeping many of those business afloat over recent years. So, my question to you is: do you get it? Do you really get what you're asking the sector to do? And I say this in as constructive a way as I can. Is that alarmist nonsense, or is that the reality that people are facing? Is it any surprise that there's utter dejection and despair out there in the country at the minute?  

I don't regard the point that the Member made as alarmist nonsense, because he's right that this goes to the heart of the bargain that we want to see there in the future for Welsh farming. It's why the total amount of the BPS has been sustained here in Wales and is on the table for that future scheme. We're not asking farmers to simply set aside 10 per cent of their land. We'd like to pay them to do it. We're offering them to be first in the queue to grow the trees that will be needed in the future. I remember here on the floor of the Senedd being bitterly criticised by the then leader of Plaid Cymru for the failure to grow sufficient trees here in Wales to meet the climate emergency. And the way we want to do it is to put farmers at the front of the queue, to give them first refusal on growing the trees we will need in the future, and then to reward them for it.

It is, as Llyr Gruffydd said, in the end a voluntary scheme. About half the farms in Wales today aren't part of BPS, but, because it is a voluntary scheme, we want to design that scheme together. That is an absolutely genuine offer from the Welsh Government. As I've said many times this afternoon, I am very grateful to those thousands of farmers in Wales who turn up to be part of that joint endeavour.  

Good afternoon, First Minister. I think the language and the tone of this issue needs to be respectful on all sides. The place that we might have got ourselves to is actually not really helping anybody and affecting the mental health of those who are going to have to deal with this going forward. I was one of 500 people who attended a meeting in Brecon a couple of weeks ago where we heard about the 17 universal actions and the two schemes that are required of farmers to adhere to in order to get the basic payment. The presentation of that took around an hour and a quarter, and, in that, believe me, I was particularly confused, and I was sitting near farmers who were very distressed by what they heard. One farmer said—and it was with sadness, it really was—'I just want to farm.'

We know the consultation is ongoing, and I’m grateful to the Minister for rural affairs—I’ve had a meeting with her and I know that she has met with the Farmers' Union of Wales and the NFU only recently, because there really is sadness and distress at what farmers can see is going to be a very upsetting and stressful time ahead. I know the consultation deadline is still to come, but I wonder, in your ongoing impact assessment, whether you would look at the impact on farmers’ mental health not just of this scheme, but of all of the other requirements as well, because we need our farmers to be healthy, to be able to work on their land and to keep our communities—particularly our Welsh-speaking communities—alive and thriving. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:20

Well, Llywydd, I agree with what the Member says, but, when any community is facing change, then mental health pressures will be part of what any Government would need to respond to. When I was at Tata Steel with my colleague the economy Minister only a few weeks ago, we had a very serious conversation there with the company about the mental health impact that losing between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs in a community the size of Port Talbot will have in that community. So, wherever we see change, we are aware of that wider impact on people’s lives. It’s why we invest in mental health services, particularly, for farmers here in Wales, and have some fantastic organisations in Wales, like the DPJ Foundation, which do so much good to respond to people who face that distress.

In the quotation that the Member has offered us, you sum up, in a way, the dilemma that is there: people 'just want to farm', and I’m afraid the future isn’t like that. The future isn’t going to be just allowing people to do what they themselves have always done. Change is absolutely inevitable, and that’s what this Government is embarked upon—change that we want to carry out in a way that secures a successful future for Welsh farming. I’ve no doubt that, for some, that change will be difficult and painful, but by thinking that we solve the problem by saying we won’t have change, that we can avoid change—that isn’t an answer either. So, change is inevitable. We want that change to be brought about together with the sector. We want to go on investing in its successful future, while recognising that that will be a difficult journey for some people who see change not just as something that is peripheral to their lives, but is in some ways requiring them to think again about the whole way in which they are able to go on living on the land and to be supported to do so.

First Minister, thank you for your clarity on this matter, but, for the avoidance of any doubt, can you confirm again that you will consider every response to the consultation thoughtfully and with great consideration, and that those responses will help to shape and to finesse a final programme of support for the farming community, and that no conclusions should be drawn at this time about that final shape of the programme?

It's very important, Llywydd, as Ken Skates says, that people recognise that this continues to be a deeply iterative process. I don't think it does help the process when people portray it as a process in which no change has been made, because changes have been made at absolutely every stage in the consultation process, in the co-design process, and I'm absolutely sure that there will be further changes that emerge from the current consultation. And people ought to invest in the consultation with the confidence of knowing that their views are listened to, that there are practical things that change as a result of what we are told, and that nothing will be final in this scheme until all the responses to the current consultation have been read, considered, that a new integrated impact assessment will be carried out, and then final proposals will be brought in front of the Senedd.

14:25
Renewable Energy

6. What is the Welsh Government doing to support the renewable energy sector in Preseli Pembrokeshire? OQ60681

Llywydd, the sector in the Member's constituency has huge potential to meet our energy needs while retaining wealth and value in Wales. We are streamlining planning and consenting processes, leading strategic work on energy plans and working to maximise the potential for new technologies, including floating offshore wind.

I'm grateful to you for that answer, First Minister. Now, you'll be aware of the Fit 4 Offshore Renewables programme, which is delivered by the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult, in partnership with Floventis Energy, the developer of Llŷr 1 and 2 in the Celtic sea. Now, the programme helps businesses bid for work in the floating offshore wind sector by giving Welsh businesses the skills and expertise to deliver success in this rapidly growing industry. So, First Minister, will you join with me in welcoming the programme and the investment made by Floventis in the supply chain? And can you tell us what the Welsh Government is specifically doing to build on this work and support Welsh businesses in the renewable energy sector for the future? 

I thank the Member for that question and for the clear and consistent support that he gives to this sector, which will do so much to help people in his part of Wales. Maybe I'll give just one example of a very recent action, because I wrote yesterday to the Prime Minister to support the UK Government's intention to give the Crown Estate the ability to borrow against the assets that it holds, particularly in central London. This is a commitment that the UK Government has made, and yesterday I wrote to the Prime Minister both to support that, but to urge him as well to bring that very small piece of legislation in front of the House of Commons as rapidly as possible. Because one of the things that the Crown Estate impressed upon me and the Minister for Climate Change, when we both participated in the potential bidders event in Swansea on 31 January, was that if they were able to borrow against those assets, then they would use some of that to invest in the supply chain here in Wales, in just the way that Paul Davies has described the actions of Floventis.

Now, the Crown Estate recognise that, if we are to make maximum use of the opportunity that is there in the Celtic sea, we will need to prepare a supply chain in advance of that development, ready to be able to do the job we wanted to do in Wales to retain those jobs here. I think they're a willing partner in that. I think the UK Government's commitment to allow them to borrow is a good one, and the Welsh Government will certainly support them in bringing forward that legislation.

Unpaid Carers

7. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s commitment to supporting unpaid carers? OQ60717

Llywydd, the Welsh Government remains committed to supporting all unpaid carers in Wales, ensuring that they are aware of their rights, as outlined in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. Since January 2022, we have allocated £42 million of additional funding to support unpaid carers.

Diolch, Prif Weinidog. I'd like to welcome that additional funding in this area as well. Yesterday, the Wales carers assembly was held in Tŷ Hywel here in the Senedd. Organised by Carers Wales, the event was attended by unpaid carers from across the country. I'd like to put on record my thanks to those unpaid carers, who raised many important questions throughout the day, including on health, social care and employment.

I joined a panel discussion focusing on how carers balance employment and caring responsibilities. Striking this balance is very difficult for many unpaid carers, and it has a significant impact on their mental health and well-being, as well as individual and family finances. Prif Weinidog, what is the Welsh Government doing to support carers of any age, whether to stay in work, return to work, or to pursue new employment opportunities and continue to care for their loved ones?

14:30

Well, Llywydd, I thank Jayne Bryant for that, and for the part she played in yesterday's event. I know it was addressed by the Deputy Minister with responsibility for services for unpaid carers. And the panel that the Member for Newport West took part in, Llywydd, I thought was a particularly important part of the programme. We talk about 'unpaid carers': they're unpaid for the care they do, but they're often working at the same time. And in an economy that has fewer people now working in it than prior to 2016, we know we have to do more to enable people who would like to be in the workforce, but are prevented by their domestic circumstances from being able to make that contribution. And that focus on the economically inactive, as they're rather inelegantly called, is a really important priority for the Minister for Economy.

So, you can be sure that, across the Welsh Government, we are looking for ways in which we can make it easier for people who are not currently in the productive economy, but who would like to be, to be able to make that participation. And people who have caring responsibilities are very much part of that. It will rely, we know, on employers recognising the adjustments that they need to make in the workplace in order to be able to attract those people who are often skilful, experienced, and have a great deal to offer, given the opportunity to do so.

People who Suffer from Migraines

8. How is the Welsh Government supporting people who suffer from migraines? OQ60691

I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. An all-Wales toolkit was launched in June of last year, to support clinicians in diagnosing and caring for people with different types of headaches, including migraines. The toolkit was co-produced by the membership of the neurological conditions implementation group, including the Wales Neurological Alliance.

Last month, I co-sponsored a migraine awareness event here in the Senedd with Jayne Bryant MS and Luke Fletcher MS. Migraine is a common condition affecting one in seven adults, and one in 10 children across the UK—around 10 million people, including 450,000 in Wales. Migraine remains a debilitating condition, but basic misunderstanding of the reality of it means that migraine is often dismissed as, quote, 'just a headache'.

The Migraine Trust have recommended steps that can be taken to improve migraine care in Wales, incorporating a number specifically relating to the planning and needs assessment responsibilities of local health boards, including, reviews of the migraine needs of local populations; ensuring optimal pathways are implemented; increasing the availability of headache specialists; developing and rolling out training and resources for GPs; ensuring that all guidance for healthcare professionals is updated; strengthening the role of pharmacy within primary care for migraine; and public awareness campaigns and resources. 

So, what action is the Welsh Government planning, if any, to address these issues raised here last month and to meet the needs of people with migraine in Wales?

Well, I thank the Member for that question, and congratulate all Members across the Chamber who took part in that migraine awareness event. The purpose of the all-Wales toolkit is to respond to a number of the practical suggestions that Mark Isherwood just raised on behalf of those who work in this area, because it is essentially to do with improving the way in which primary care clinicians are able to identify and respond to people who suffer from the debilitating condition that a migraine is for so many people. 

At the other end of the spectrum, we recognise that there is a need for more specialist support for those people whose migraines are of a particularly debilitating sort. We expect the appointment of a national clinical lead for neurological conditions very soon, and I hope that, as part of their work, they will look at how we can both strengthen that front end of the health service, where most people will continue to get their care, while also strengthening the very specialist end of the care spectrum for those people whose conditions need more than a primary care response would be able to mobilise.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

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

14:35

Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to today's agenda. The statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on special measures at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board, one year on, has been brought forward from next week to today. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers, available to Members electronically.

Trefnydd, can I call for a statement from the relevant Minister on Welsh Government support for public conveniences, please? We know how important public conveniences are. Access to loos is really important, particularly for older people and people who might have some sort of disability, and, indeed, people who might need to use them as a changing room or as a baby-changing facility. But, unfortunately, the facts are that over half of our public conveniences have closed since the 2010s, and, unfortunately, even though we had an opportunity to address this issue with the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 that we passed as a Senedd a number of years ago, there still isn't a legal obligation on local authorities to ensure that they have a sufficient network of public conveniences; they're simply required to report on what they have.

So, can I call for a statement from the Deputy Minister with responsibility for public health, to ensure that this is an issue that the Welsh Government shines a spotlight onto? And in that statement, can we have an understanding as to whether the Welsh Government could pick this issue up again and put some statutory obligations in place on local authorities, to make sure that there are minimum access requirements? Thank you.

Thank you. I think the Member raises a very important point, for the reasons he highlighted. Whilst of course it is a matter for local authorities where public toilets are placed, and obviously funded, I think it's really important that the work continues that I know many local authorities have done to ensure that, where there are public toilets—whether that be in a shop or a restaurant—they're able to be used in the absence of toilets that, as you say, have been closed, unfortunately, mainly due to budget pressures.

Trefnydd, I'd like to ask for two statement, please. First, you'll be aware, I'm sure, that we've all had a number of e-mails from members of unions in the National Library of Wales and Amgueddfa Cymru, conveying concerns about cuts, but specifically in terms of the safety of the national collections. I'd like to ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister, outlining how she is ensuring the safety of these collections in the face of these cuts.

Also, could we have a statement from the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, updating us on the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 and what's happening following the review? A number of councils are consulting in terms of changes to their school transport provision, which is a cause of concern for a number of parents and pupils. Naturally, we need clarity in terms of what's happening with the travel Measure, and I'd be grateful if the Government could outline a timetable in order to progress this work.

Thank you. In relation to your first request, I know the Deputy Minister is currently working with the library to ensure what you set out, and I know her officials are also in discussions. I will certainly ask the Deputy Minister for Climate Change to bring forward a written statement in relation to the learner travel Measure.

Trefnydd, can I request a statement from the climate change Minister regarding the effectiveness of Natural Resources Wales and the Welsh Government's position on the management of landfill sites in Wales? There is an ongoing issue in my constituency at Withyhedge landfill site, where, over the last few months, residents have had to endure severe odours coming from it. I've contacted Natural Resources Wales, asking them to look into the matter with urgency, and to take enforcement action against Resources Management UK Ltd, who own the site. Unfortunately, residents are continuing to suffer as a result of these terrible odours, and they are understandably very angry, upset and dismayed. Given the huge impact on their lives, residents are now calling for this company's licence to be withdrawn. The people who own the company and operate the site already have direct access to Government Ministers, and have even donated money to one of them. And so, this should already be on the Government's radar, and I hope that there will be some intervention to support the residents who are affected by this awful problem.

I'm sure you'd agree with me that this is totally unacceptable, and so, therefore, I'd be grateful if a statement could be forthcoming as quickly as possible, to provide some support to the communities affected, and ensure that Natural Resources Wales is being effective in undertaking its regulatory and enforcement duties.

I'm unclear as to whether you've had a response from Natural Resources Wales, but I would think that that's the most important thing at the moment. Perhaps you could write to the Minister for Climate Change, who can ensure that you do get a response as a matter of urgency.

14:40

Storm Babet, of course, struck back in October, and Conwy County Borough Council, amongst others, were left with huge clean-up costs—in Conwy's case, up to £1.5 million or £1.4 million. Now, whilst the council has notified the Welsh Government that they'll be seeking support through the emergency financial assistance scheme, or EFAS, to give its acronym, there is, of course, a threshold of just over £0.5 million that the authority themselves have to meet initially. However, the council—and it's not unique to Conwy, other councils are facing this dilemma as well—are still awaiting confirmation from the Welsh Government, and the finance Minister in particular, as to whether you will open EFAS for applications from local authorities. If it isn't opened, of course, then the whole £1.4 million cost will fall on the shoulders of Conwy council, increasing their forecast overspend and adding significant risk to their budget for next year and the council's ongoing resilience. So, can we have from the finance Minister a statement, giving urgent clarity to local authorities as to whether and, if so, when she will open EFAS for applications?

Thank you. Well, the Welsh Government does have a very strong record of supporting our local authorities, when, unfortunately, flooding has occurred. I know that the Minister for Finance and Local Government is aware of the request. She's currently considering it, and will inform the local authorities once a decision has been taken in the very near future. 

Good afternoon, Minister. I'd like to request a statement from the Minister for Climate Change, please, regarding building and fire safety, because the suffering for many residents in high-rise buildings goes on, particularly in light of the recently announced Redrow and Barratt merger. It's been 12 months now since the Welsh Government and developers' contract was signed, and, sadly, remediation payments are painfully slow. A merger of this magnitude, with an expected £90 million in cost savings, may absorb substantial management focus and further delay remediation efforts.

Additionally, given the special governance measures put in place for the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, and the concerning statements from the Welsh Government about the service's failures to learn the lessons of the Grenfell Tower fire, residents deserve renewed confirmation, as soon as possible, that building safety continues to be prioritised through this transitional period. So, I wonder if we could have a statement from the Minister on how the Welsh Government plans to ensure that fire safety still remains a top priority for those residents. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

Thank you. Well, in respect of the developers' obligations, there's no need to amend or enter a new contract with the developers as a result of the merger that you referred to. The definition of 'participant developer group company' was sufficiently wide, when it was brought forward a year ago, to capture the changes that have been brought about by a merger. And I know the Minister for Climate Change's officials will continue to meet with representatives of the developers concerned in the coming weeks to discuss any practical impacts.

I would like to call for a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services this afternoon on the availability of hydrotherapy treatment within Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. The Minister has outlined previously that the health board can use local community resources, but I have heard from patients who have received a referral that there are often delays and a lack of community resources available, with many in need of reinvestment. The closest hydrotherapy pool for my constituents is in Bangor, and the hydrotherapy pool at the Glan Clwyd Hospital was closed back in 2014, with no plans, as far as I am aware, to open a new hydrotherapy facility. The use of hydrotherapy is highly effective in alleviating pain for those suffering from rheumatism and a plethora of orthopaedic and musculoskeletal conditions. Therefore, hydrotherapy and physiotherapy are effective in reducing pressure on other NHS services.

Could the Trefnydd outline whether the Welsh Government has assessed or, at least, considered the possibility of opening a new hydrotherapy pool within the physiotherapy department at Glan Clwyd Hospital? And what is the Minister doing to improve the relationship between the health board and community resources, to ensure that when a referral is made the patient does actually receive the treatment they need? 

Thank you. Well, the issue you raise is not a matter for the Minister for Health and Social Services. It's absolutely a matter for Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board. So, I'd urge you to write to the chair.

May I ask for two statements, please? First, a statement by the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language on how we can enforce the place name regulations for Wales. In the light of opening the new bridge over the Dyfi river, new signs have been placed referring to Aberdyfi with the old spelling. However, the old spelling has long since vanished, and, according to the standardised Welsh place names, Aberdyfi with the original spelling is the standardised spelling. So, how has the Government been able to place a new sign that is incorrect? So, I wonder if we can have a statement from the Minister as to how he intends to ensure that standardised place names in Wales are respected.

Secondly, can we have an oral statement in this Chamber on the announcement by the health Minister last week on education and training for professional healthcare workers? The written statement raises a number of questions. It talks of funding, yes, but how many placements for students will this mean, how many people will be funded, how many people were consulted on this statement, and who did the Minister consult with? So, there are a number of questions arising from this, and I'd be grateful for the opportunity of an oral statement here in order to raise those issues directly with the Minister. Thank you.

14:45

Thank you. In relation to your first request, I would suggest that you write directly to the Minister for Education and the Welsh Language about the point you raised about the sign that has been installed in relation to Aberdyfi. 

With regard to the second request, the Minister for Health and Social Services, every year, announces funding for professional training. It's done on an annual basis, and the written statement clearly set out what would be expected, what would be brought forward and the funding, and I presume that will be worked up as we go through the year. If you have anything specific, again, the Minister is in her place and is asking for you to write to her directly. 

Business Minister, I'd like to request a statement from the education Minister. Since 2011, the number of teachers of the deaf has fallen by 20 per cent—one in five teachers. It is expected that, in the next 10 years, one in three teachers will retire. If no further action is taken, it will get to a point where there are no teachers of the deaf left here in Wales. So, deaf children will be left unsupported and we will have another preventable crisis in education on our hands. I would like to hear what the education Minister is doing, in the form of a statement, please, to encourage more teachers to take on that extra two years of training to become teachers of the deaf. As I'm sure you'll agree, business Minister, all children, including those with hearing impairments, should be able to enjoy the same standard of education as everybody else. Thank you.

Yes, I would absolutely agree with your final point. The point you raise, really, is part of the workforce planning that the education sector here in Wales undertakes. 

This is the business statement, Janet Finch-Saunders, the second item on the agenda.

So, why didn't you ask it? Why were you consulting with your fellow Member to ask her what was happening? Ask your question.

Okay. I'd like to just raise a concern about the way that Arriva Bus Wales have completely cut off a village in my constituency, the ward being Penrhyn-side. They did it without warning, leaving about 450 or 500 people completely, now, feeling that they're in social isolation. It's a very steep village on the side of Nant-y-gamar mountain. Frankly, I've written to the Minister, but I would like a statement, because this isn't just happening in my constituency or in this area, and they're just literally pulling the service without any consultation with elected members, without any consultation with residents and affected travellers. So, it is something that I feel really passionately about.

Thank you. This is a matter for Arriva. It's not a matter for the Deputy Minister, and I suggest you write to the chief executive of Arriva.

3. Statement by the Minister for Social Justice and Chief Whip: Anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Nation of Sanctuary update

The next item will be a statement by the Minister for Social Justice: the anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine and nation of sanctuary update. The Minister to make the statement—Jane Hutt.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. The twenty-fourth of February marks the second anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Putin. Since that time, more than 7,500 Ukrainians have been forced to relocate to Wales, with millions more displaced across Europe. This week is a grim milestone for Ukrainians everywhere, but we are determined to show our continued solidarity. Though the war is long, as President Zelenskyy said in the early days of the invasion,

'light will win over darkness'.

14:50

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

To symbolise this, we will be lighting up some Government buildings in Cardiff this week, and tomorrow evening I will be speaking at an event sponsored by Mick Antoniw MS, here at the Senedd. This is a landmark visit to the UK by front-line medics from Ukraine, including those who have been held in Russian captivity, who are touring the UK alongside a bombed-out ambulance. The event will shine a light on the barbarism of targeting medical facilities—a war crime.

Mick Antoniw MS has also recently returned from a visit to Ukraine with a team of volunteers, transporting much-needed supplies provided by Welsh communities. Our support for Ukrainians here in Wales is unwavering. On a recent visit to the Safe Haven project in Maesteg, I saw the importance of the welcome offered to Ukrainians. I was moved by a powerful speech from a school student who spoke of the history of the conflict and the support opportunities she has received. I would like to thank the host families who have welcomed Ukrainian guests into their homes across Wales.

For months I have been seeking commitments from the UK Government for extensions to visas or a right to settlement. And I was pleased to see an announcement yesterday that those with Ukraine schemes visas will be able to extend their right to remain in the UK for a further 18 months. The period of extension is not quite what we had hoped for, and there is still no right to settlement, but I know many Ukrainians in Wales will value the certainty of knowing that another 18 months in Wales is achievable. We know many will not have homes to return to at the end of that period and we will continue to work for a compassionate and person-centred approach in months and years ahead.

There are clearly many finer details of the extension arrangements that need to be worked through and answers communicated to Ukrainians in our communities. The UK Government also introduced many changes to the immigration rules relating to existing Ukraine schemes yesterday afternoon, but we need some time to understand their likely impact in Wales. We will continue to engage with the Home Office to ensure the Ukraine schemes are fit for purpose and the actions Ukrainians need to take are fully understood and supported.

For supersponsor beneficiaries who have travelled and taken up our offer of initial accommodation, we continue to make great progress in supporting people to move to longer term accommodation across Wales and beyond where Ukrainians can continue to settle amongst our communities. There are now fewer than 90 individuals remaining across three initial accommodation sites, and we are working closely with local authorities to support these remaining households to move on, including through our transitional accommodation capital programme. We remain on course to close our initial accommodation sites entirely during 2024. Our team Wales approach, with all local authorities and third sector partners pulling together to support Ukrainians to move on across Wales, facilitated by the national move-on taskforce operated by Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, has been critical to this success. Over 2,000 guests have now been supported into longer term accommodation within the last year, enabling us to close 28 initial accommodation venues. Not only have we been able to support hundreds of households to successfully settle within our local communities, but we have also significantly reduced our anticipated initial accommodation budget at a time of severe financial pressures.

Despite these successes, we have also had to grapple with some acute challenges in supporting sanctuary seekers in recent months. In particular, the Home Office’s drive to eliminate their legacy backlog of asylum claims led to a large increase in homeless refugees in the run-up to Christmas. As a result of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and Illegal Migration Act 2023, we have two other asylum backlogs operating for those arriving since each Act was passed, despite claims to have solved these issues. 

We are currently experiencing a crisis in the availability of immigration legal advice, which will have knock-on homelessness, destitution and exploitation impacts in our communities if not addressed. We have repeatedly asked the UK Government to use its powers to ensure sufficient legal aid is available in Wales, but it has so far declined to act. The legal aid system is a reserved matter and we are reliant upon the UK Government to take the necessary actions to prevent the collapse of this sector. But we are exploring limited Welsh Government actions we could take and are continuing to call upon the UK Government to recognise the impact of a failure to act.

Working with the Welsh Local Government Association and our local authority partners, we've recently introduced new governance arrangements to underpin our team Wales approach. This includes the establishment of a nation of sanctuary strategic oversight board, which I co-chair with the WLGA’s spokesperson on housing. Members include local authority leaders, representatives from our wider public sector services, third sector partners and representatives from the Home Office and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We've also established a nation of sanctuary partnership board to ensure engagement at senior official level across all our partners. Whilst the asylum system is a UK Government responsibility, this board provides an important platform to try to work with them to deliver an effective system that supports local communities and sanctuary seekers. We will continue to help them deliver their asylum dispersal plan and highlight issues where they arise, recognising that it is clearly the responsibility of the UK Government to ensure that the dispersal plan is implemented.

Dirprwy Lywydd, Wales is a nation of sanctuary. We are proud to offer people fleeing war, conflict and abuse a place of refuge, safety and sanctuary in Wales. We've been overwhelmed by the generosity of people across Wales who've opened their homes to people fleeing the awful conflict in Ukraine. But Wales has also welcomed people fleeing Afghanistan, Syria and Hong Kong. Being a nation of sanctuary in Wales means supporting everyone who comes to Wales to play a full part in our communities and economy. Wales needs migration to maintain and grow our population and to support businesses and the public sector. Migration keeps our communities vibrant and helps our economy thrive. Diolch.

14:55

Russia is a country that is a magnificent country, and its people deserve so much better than Vladimir Putin and his fascist gang. With the anniversary of Putin's illegal invasion of Ukraine next Saturday approaching, and with his barbarous attempts to silence democratic opposition of recent days, we must remember that Putin is not only an international war criminal and mass murderer, but a despicable little man and vile tyrant.

I'm sure the Minister will agree that a huge gratitude is owed to the people of Ukraine for defending the front line of western freedoms on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. Questioning you here last June, I noted that, in responding to your previous statements on both Ukraine and nation of sanctuary, I had repeatedly raised the issue of housing and proposed modular housing as part of the solution, as across the water in Ireland. You'd previously referred to the need to remove our Ukrainian guests into longer term accommodation, some of which is modular accommodation developed across Wales. So, what, if any, specific allocation is being provided for refugees?

I also noted that, then, the £150 million fund to help Ukrainians into their own homes had been formally announced by the UK Government, with £8 million for Wales, and asked you to confirm how this would be allocated and whether it would be distributed by the Welsh Government and/or to councils to help Ukrainian families into private rented accommodation and find work, as in England. In your response, you stated that 936 additional properties were funded under the transitional accommodation capital programme 'for this year and into next year'—i.e. this year—and it's a range of accommodation solutions across Wales, not just modular housing, but bringing void or mothballed properties back into use, converting buildings, demolition and new build as well. Given that almost 90,000 households in Wales are on social housing waiting lists at present, how many properties have now been funded through the transitional accommodation capital programme, how many of these have been allocated for Ukrainian or other refugees, and how many additional homes, including new builds and new modular housing, have been delivered to meet the needs of Ukrainian and other refugees in Wales? Given that the UK has offered or extended sanctuary to more than 238,000 Ukrainians, how many of these are now in Wales, and is Wales taking its fair share, where England houses 16 asylum seekers for every 10,000 people, but Wales takes just nine? What action will you be taking to address this, if any?

When I last visited Mold Jobcentre Plus, as I previously referred, I learned about the great work they were doing supporting Ukrainians keen to work and contribute. In this context, can you provide an update on English for speakers of other languages courses, ESOL, and on the transferability of their qualifications to Wales?

The Wales free bus travel scheme for refugees, the welcome ticket, which commenced on 26 March 2022 and will continue until 31 March 2024 with arrangements for after then being considered, provides eligible persons with free unlimited travel on all local bus services across Wales, including those that operate into England where their journey starts and finishes in Wales, with exclusions only applying to National Express and Stagecoach Megabus services. What is now planned for after 31 March? I e-mailed you at the weekend on behalf of constituents hosting their second family from Ukraine, and I thank you for your holding response. The driver on the bus service through their village, provided by Townlynx based in Holywell, told them that he would take their Ukrainian guests this time, but that they wouldn't be allowed on again. How did the Welsh Government, therefore, commission the free bus travel scheme for refugees and what action can or will you take in such circumstances?

As you indicated, yesterday the UK Government announced an 18-month visa extension scheme for Ukrainians who sought sanctuary in the UK following Russia's illegal invasion, meaning that they will now be able to stay in the UK until September 2026. Those in the UK under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, the Ukraine family scheme, or Ukraine extension scheme will be eligible to apply for the extension within the last three months of an existing visa. Although the Ukraine family scheme is being closed, Ukrainian nationals who would've qualified under this will still be able to apply to Homes for Ukraine, and families settled here can still sponsor a family member to come to the UK under Homes for Ukraine. How will these changes impact on Welsh Government planning, and what action are you taking to meet this extended need, both at Welsh Government level and through engagement with the UK Government? Diolch yn fawr.

15:00

Diolch yn fawr, Mark Isherwood. I concur with you fully on your words about the barbarism of Putin and, as is, I think, reflected across this Chamber, the great gratitude in recognition of the bravery, courage and strength of the people of Ukraine for their ongoing courage to fight and resist Putin's invasion of their nation. It is important that we are making this statement here together today. They are important questions that you raise about how we have supported. Two years ago, we were here just to express together our shame and horror at Putin's invasion and recognise, also, the courage of those people in Russia who are now also standing up against Putin, taking great risks with their lives. We know that there are so many civilians in that position.

But what have we done? It is time to acknowledge and take account of what's happened and how Wales and, as you say, the people of Wales and its institutions, local government, third sector, churches, mosques, and how everyone has responded. Just, again, to repeat, we've welcomed over 7,400 Ukrainians under the Homes for Ukraine scheme to the UK, including almost 3,300 under our supersponsor route, and it is important that that's on the record today. We've helped over 2,600 people move through our initial accommodation, those welcome centres, across the whole of Wales, and I've mentioned the fact that we're going to move to closing the last few welcome centres this year. So, we have to thank, again, our key partners supporting us to help those 2,600 people from those welcome centres, that initial accommodation, into longer term accommodation—the team Wales approach. And I've already acknowledged the role, of course, of the people of Wales who offered their hearts and homes, kindness and commitment as hosts. I think that's something where, again, we are looking at some of the detail of the announcements.

I met with the UK Government Minister alongside the Scottish Government Minister, the Deputy Minister for Northern Ireland and the Minister for Northern Ireland. It was so good that we were all meeting together last week to discuss these announcements that were coming forward. But we raised questions about whether, for example, thankyou payments can continue—these are details that we need to look at, because we also want to support those hosts who are still coming forward. And just to say, in terms of our welcome centres, I mentioned that we've only got 90 guests left in our welcome centres because of the success of the move-on. At the peak of the project, there were over 1,900 guests in more than 40 venues across Wales, and many of you will have visited those venues.

Just to follow up your question about the accommodation that's been used, the transitional accommodation capital programme, in the first year, provided £76.4 million to local authorities and registered social landlords to bring forward 936 homes. It is now open for new applications in this financial year, and we'll continue to work with RSLs and local authorities to deliver more homes. It includes a range of projects: bringing empty properties back into use, remodelling and conversion of existing buildings, the modular buildings that many will have seen in their own constituencies, and also recognising that, actually, these are homes for people in temporary accommodation, including those being resettled from Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine.

You've mentioned employment and ESOL. It's key to supporting our Ukrainian guests to move into their own accommodation and gain independence. And, of course, the skills that Ukrainian guests have brought to Wales are much needed, and also their desire to improve their English, fitting lessons around work and studying commitments. I just wanted to share that over 600 Ukrainians in Wales have signed up to STEP Ukraine, which is an intensive virtual 12-week English language and employment programme for Ukrainians in the UK.

As far as the welcome ticket is concerned, we are pleased we've been able to provide the welcome ticket free public transport scheme for two years. Changes to the way the bus industry is funded means that we are considering alternative methods of delivering support in the future. We are making these decisions now and will communicate these fully as those discussions are concluded. Thank you for contacting me at the weekend, Mark, giving me an account of a disappointing and upsetting incident. There have been these incidents where people who are seeking sanctuary have either being wrongly denied travel or feel that they have been unfairly treated. In any case where this happens we will look into the circumstances and work with the travel operator. It's the travel operator's responsibility, but we will look to the travel operator responsible to try to rectify matters.

Just finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, it is important that we look at what is going to happen with the Ukraine schemes' future. They are important schemes, and I hope I will be able to update Members. We only just got the details yesterday. There are questions to be clarified so that those forthcoming arrangements will support safe and legal routes, and, obviously, we're working very closely with the Home Office on this matter. There's a new permission extension scheme to enable Ukrainians in Wales to plan a little further ahead and reduce anxiety about where they will be from March 2025 onwards. But what we have said is applications for extension of visa must be free, must be low cost, they must be simple and not need legal advice. They mustn't be left on a cliff edge in terms of their status. So, that is something that we're clarifying. But, of course, closing the Ukraine family scheme, reducing the period of leave to remain for Homes for Ukraine visas to 18 months instead of 36 months, are major changes, and ending the opportunities for chain sponsorship. These issues we have been seeking clarifications on. And, also, just in terms of our own schemes, our understanding is that the changes announced by the UK Government don't prevent anyone issued with a supersponsor visa from travelling to the UK if they've not done so already.

15:05

Thank you for the statement, Minister.

It's a terrible anniversary that we are marking today: two years since Ukraine's lands were illegally invaded, its cities bombed and people driven from their homes in terror. We have rightly condemned the illegal and barbaric actions of Putin and have played our part in helping support refugees from this conflict find sanctuary and refuge in Wales. Wales has been praised for its humanitarian response, the supersponsor scheme, the involvement of our local authorities and national organisations like Urdd Gobaith Cymru, a shining beacon in the darkness of these last two years of war and displacement. I’d like to place on record Plaid Cymru’s thanks to all those in Wales who have helped and who are helping our Ukrainian brothers and sisters in their time of need.

The contrast of the international response to the war in Ukraine to the ongoing attack of the Israeli Government on Gaza is one that must be highlighted in this context, because you’ve said, Minister, that Wales as a nation of sanctuary must support all of those needing sanctuary, fleeing war. Therefore, do you agree that the state of the United Kingdom, of which we’re a part, should not be selective in its support or solidarity for victims of war and displaced people? Because Palestine has the longest unsettled refugee crisis in recent history, a crisis that is almost now beyond horrific adjectives. As the Ukrainian people do, they want nothing more than to return to their houses, their classrooms, their businesses, much of which have been obliterated by the bombs of an aggressor. The people of Gaza have not in the main had the same ability to flee the bombs and the bullets and the degradation inflicted upon them, and even if they could have found their way out of what the United Nations Secretary General has called a humanitarian nightmare, they would not have been granted a specific legal immigration route to get here.

Plaid Cymru’s leader Rhun ap Iorwerth and Westminster leader Liz Saville-Roberts have both pressed on the UK Government to reinstate funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency, which has provided crucial support to millions of Palestinian refugees, calling the suspension of support by the UK Government a moral and strategic error. Does the Welsh Government support this call? What conversations have you been having with the UK Government on ensuring support for those displaced by the war in Gaza and facing this humanitarian catastrophe? And now that it seems your Labour colleagues in Westminster are finally beginning to understand that a pause in the fighting is not sufficient, will you as a Government make the call for an immediate ceasefire yourselves, given your righteous condemnation of the actions of Putin and the plight of the people of Ukraine?

Powers are, of course, reserved over immigration matters, as you said, and the ongoing support provided to all those who have been forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in Wales is limited by Westminster. So, although you’re obviously seeking clarification, do you agree it’s disgraceful that the Tory Westminster Government have announced that they will be stopping Ukrainians from joining family members in Wales without warning? What message do you think this sends to those who have lost everything and to whom we want to and should offer sanctuary from war? Do you agree that there should be an end to these kinds of ad hoc policies like this and ensure Government introduces a global scheme that gives the same rights, including family reunification, to everybody needing it, regardless of nationality?

Plaid Cymru has received concerns from Welsh local authorities and also the Welsh Refugee Council concerning the long-term planning for the scheme meant to support Ukrainian refugees. With the UK Government ending their thankyou support payment in April next year, hosts in Wales will no longer receive the financial support that they need to continue their wonderful hosting of Ukrainian refugees. The payments, of course, acted also as an incentive to encourage people to become hosts. So, how is the Welsh Government addressing this risk that Ukrainian families will be forced to find their own accommodation and perhaps face homelessness, adding to an already huge pressure on housing and homelessness services, which seriously underfunded local authorities are already trying to deal with? Will you be expecting local authorities to undertake the same duties with fewer resources, especially given the proposed cut in the budget for support for Ukrainian refugees?

And finally, in the ‘Nation of Sanctuary—Refugee and Asylum Seeker Plan’ progress report recently published, work to ensure homelessness prevention strategies in the four dispersal areas take account of the vulnerability of new refugees to homelessness was marked as amber. Can you outline what action is being taken to address that? Diolch.

15:10

Diolch, Sioned Williams. Yes, as you say, it's a terrible anniversary that we mark today. Again, I thank you for recognising the widespread humanitarian response in Wales that we’ve seen. It’s good again to put on the record remembering the role of the Urdd as one of the first welcome centres. And of course, I would also like to thank the Urdd for the work that they did in responding to the Afghan evacuation, those fleeing from the Taliban, and how we saw that response here on our doorstep, with the Urdd opening their doors to Afghan children and families. And I do want to say, just on that point, that Wales has now welcomed over 800 people from Afghanistan and work continues to increase this further. And I think Welsh local authorities again must be recognised and must be praised for the amazing outcome in successfully moving on most Afghan families from UK Government-procured hotels. In August of last year, we visited—well, over the course, that was nearly two years—hotels and worked with local authorities to have that amazing move-on. And particularly recognising Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan councils, as well as all the others who supported their move-on, working tirelessly to reduce the number of families who had been made homeless. As, of course, we were working with those families who came from Syria and supporting them as well.

Well, yes, you have obviously reflected on wider issues of world conflict, which are important to us in terms of our international relations and understanding and our global responsibilities and citizenship. What we have to see is that in terms of—. The fact is, it's a humanitarian crisis that we see in Gaza. Too many civilians, including women and children, losing their lives. And we must get greater aid into Gaza—and, most importantly, the safe return of hostages and supporting British nationals. So, I mean, this is something, where—. Again, this links us not just to the nation of sanctuary, but to community cohesion, and we have stood with and met with Jewish and Muslim communities since the conflict began, and we continue to speak with Muslim and Jewish communities to see what assistance that we can provide.

It is important that we get clarity of the issues that you raise in terms of the future of the Ukrainian scheme. I've already said that we've made a number of calls, as I did at the inter-ministerial group last week. We need to ensure the proposed arrangements so that Ukrainian people, our neighbours, our guests, have the information and the advice that they need, because it is going to be a major change, closing the Ukraine family scheme—. It was really important, the family scheme, at the early stage of the invasion, but, actually, applications have now run their course and we've asked the Home Office to take learning from this scheme into their other family reunion schemes. And reducing the period of leave to remain under Homes for Ukraine—it appears concerning, but we have been told all Homes for Ukraine visa holders will be eligible for the permission extension scheme. So, this would grant 18 months, followed by a further 18 months. And it's important that visa holders are able to apply earlier for an extension to prevent difficulties in securing tenancies or jobs, which is, of course, as we've said, the ways in which there's been such settlement and integration as a result of our guests coming to Wales.

I've mentioned the supersponsor scheme; we're working to confirm urgently that no-one will be prevented if they have a supersponsor visa from travelling to the UK. And I've also mentioned earlier on the importance of the 'thank you' payments to be available for the hosts of those who extend their visas and for them to understand how the application processes work.

I think it is important that we look at this in the wider context, at ways in which we are trying to engage, as we seek to do, with the UK Government, working most closely with our local authorities in terms of grappling—and it is grappling—with the asylum policy. The UK Government has a hostile environment strategy. We have pressed for sufficient safe and legal routes for asylum seekers to claim asylum from outside the UK, and, of course, this would negate the need for perilous journeys and disrupt the people smugglers, but what we need to do is ensure that quicker asylum decisions are made, but they must not lead to homelessness and destitution, which actually happened when the backlog was being reduced. But we must also ensure that our team Wales approach works to effect the most important need to welcome sanctuary seekers from across the world. But we do know that this requires us to work closely together to ensure that we can, with our local authorities, and that's why the strategic partnership board I mentioned will be so important. We've got a real important—. We've gone on an important journey together in terms of welcoming Syrian, Afghan and now Ukrainian refugees. Today we are focusing on those Ukrainian guests, thinking of their circumstances, their lives, their families, the families they've left behind, their loved ones at war and loved ones lost, the homes that they've lost, and ensuring that we can continue to ensure that that welcome is here in Wales.

15:20

Minister, thank you very much for your statement today. Two years may have passed since the predatory Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the threat to democracy and the values that we all here in this Chamber hold dear in Wales and the west has also greatly increased and not diminished. As Finland joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the middle east almost reaches the top to boiling point, we witness the shocking death of Putin's greatest threat to a Russian spring. Just today, we have seen Yulia Navalnaya's X—formerly known as Twitter—account suspended, just a day after she used the platform to continue her husband's lifelong campaigning for free and fair elections and a democratic Russia, and that will never be silenced.

In your statement, Minister, you rightly commend the work of our colleague and friend, Mick Antoniw, who has vividly brought the Ukrainian invasion and conflict home to the people of Wales, with regular visits to Ukraine and with volunteers transporting supplies donated by Welsh communities. The danger, though, that these conflicts present to democracy and democracies reverberates across the world, and the geopolitical faults are widening as western and Russian allies coalesce around the middle east. Bearing in mind, then, the increasing call for further sanctions against Russia and this Senedd's limited jurisdiction and mandate and as a nation of sanctuary, how, then, do you envisage, Minister, the Welsh Government support for the people of Ukraine developing throughout 2024? And with the withdrawing of UK-Ukraine family schemes, what further moves do you hope to see from the UK Government to show solidarity for the cause of freedom and democracy?

Diolch yn fawr, Rhianon Passmore. I'm glad you've also widened this to reflect on the situation with the horrific death of Alexei Navalny and to recognise Putin is there, Putin is responsible, and also to acknowledge the huge courage and bravery of Yulia Navalnaya. I just want to comment on a piece that was written about Alexei at the weekend by Odessa Rae, when she said,

'He spent the last 15 years of his life working through his foundation in the hope of dethroning Putin from his authoritarian regime. I know he would urge that mission, and his message to Russia would be to not become something of the past but something that is continued in some way—that they do not, in the words of Dylan Thomas, go quietly into the night.'

And I think it is important that we reflect on that today, as we look at the impact of this with a global perspective and recognise that that's why we must support Ukrainian people.

I'm grateful to you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and grateful also to the Minister for her statement this afternoon. I think it is important that we join together to recognise the courage of the people of Ukraine, who have been withstanding Putin's invasion for two years now. I would also like to pay tribute to the leadership that the Minister has shown during that time, but also to the leadership of Mick Antoniw, who was last week in Ukraine delivering more materials, support and aid to the people who are on the front lines, and I think we should all across the Chamber recognise the work that Mick has undertaken in this period.

The two years of horrific violence against Ukraine by Putin, of course—it's impossible not also to reflect, as has already been done, on the murder of Alexei Navalny last week, murdered by Putin. He couldn't break him, so he killed him, and I think that demonstrates the nature of the regime that the people of Ukraine are fighting against. I was disappointed to hear yesterday that UK Government has closed the Ukraine family visa scheme without any warning at all. It would be useful, Minister, if the Welsh Government could speak urgently to UK Ministers to ensure that all people who require sanctuary in Wales and the United Kingdom are able to access that support without any hesitation or without delay. Also reducing the length of visas from 36 months to 18 months is very difficult for some families, and I think we need to take that on.

And, finally, Minister, in your discussions with the UK Government, I also think it's important that we recognise what Ukraine requires in order to continue the fight for democracy. What we've seen over the last few weeks is Ukrainian forces being pushed back by the power and strength of Russian forces who have greater arms and greater access to manpower. Ukraine does need the support of western allies, but it also needs missiles. It needs rockets, it needs shells and other munitions in order to defeat the Russian invasion. Warm words from politicians are worth nothing on the front lines of Donetsk and eastern Ukraine at the moment. We need to ensure that they have the arms and the munitions to defeat the Russian invasion.

15:25

Diolch yn fawr, Alun Davies. It is important that we stand up to Putin. We can all stand up to Putin—we are today—and to the aggression of Putin and his forces. And this is why marking the courage and the strength of the Ukrainian cause is so important today in terms of this anniversary. And it is also why we have to ensure that these changes are robust and that they do enable Ukrainians to not only stay here, those who fled that conflict, but that others can also come here. And, of course, I would extend that to other refugees in other parts of the world who we've supported, like our refugees from Afghanistan and Syria.

I have said that I am asking the Home Office to learn from the Ukraine family scheme and recognise the impact it has had, because I think one point, and I think Mark Isherwood raised this, is that we've had this chain sponsorship that's been used to unite families here in Wales. I raised this. We're concerned about the loss of this element for Homes for Ukraine, because it enabled families to unite. We have asked the UK Government to work with them on alternative routes to support family reunion. We know that families are separated and they continue to be separated. So, we seek to look at that as well.

And also, I think there is a point, and I've raised this regularly, that some Ukrainians want a route to settlement in Wales. Many won't have homes to return to in Ukraine. We do continue to push for this, but, obviously, offering a route to settlement—we have to do this in partnership and with the understanding of our Ukrainian friends and Government. We know that the Ukrainian Government will need most of their citizens to return to help to rebuild in time. An extension scheme is a pragmatic step forward. We asked for two years—18 months. But how it is delivered and how it's managed—now, you can certainly be holding me to account, and this Government, in terms of how we take this forward in the way that you describe.

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this statement as we approach the second anniversary of the illegal invasion of Ukraine. So, three days ago, I returned from Kyiv delivering three vehicles and supplies on behalf of the Senedd cross-party group supporting Ukraine. So, I particularly want to thank Alun Davies for his work on this group, and his support for the delivery of the material support, including driving thousands of miles across Europe to Pavlohrad in eastern Ukraine. Support so far has amounted to 15 vehicles delivered, and supplies with an estimated value of around £1 million. I also recognise the considerable support from the National Union of Mineworkers, Welsh trade unions and branches, companies such as Alcumus in Nantgarw and Highadmit in Talbot Green, and many individuals and groups who have supported this work. And I also recognise the support from Welsh veterans and Welsh-based groups such as UK for UA, a fantastic Welsh group who are on their forty-eighth—their forty-eighth—delivery of material aid to Ukraine. In Kyiv, we met with members of the miners' unions, volunteers and front-line soldiers. There was an absolute determination in Ukraine to win the war with Russia because there is no alternative. It is a war against Russian fascism. It is a war Ukraine and the democratic world must win. The alternative for Ukrainians is the deportation of children to add to the estimated 80,000 children already stolen, the systematic rape, torture, execution, mass deportation of population, Russification and destruction of the Ukrainian language, culture and identity. This is happening already in occupied parts of Ukraine.

It was expected that Ukraine would collapse within a week, and it didn't. Ukraine has forced a Black sea fleet out of the Black sea despite not even having a navy. Grain exports have been restored. Russia has lost an estimated 380,000 soldiers, but has little regard for the lives of its citizens, most of whom come from ethnic minorities within the Russian Federation. But it has been replenished with considerable supplies of weapons and ammunition from North Korea and Iran. So, the war is now in a perilous situation. The lack of long-range missiles and ammunition, the paralysis of support from America, the failure of Nato so far to deliver the level of ammunition promised encourages Putin and puts victory at risk. There remains much more the UK Government can do and should do.

Failure to defeat Putin will destabilise the whole of Europe. Moldova, Georgia, the Baltic countries and others are all under threat. The murder of Navalny in Russia, murders on UK shores and in other parts of the world, are a return to the Stalinist tactics of the past. The world must now unite to defeat Putin, and, for those who say we cannot afford the cost, I'd say that we cannot afford not to. There will be a long-term price for failure for every citizen in the UK and Europe if he is not stopped, for generations to come. As ever, I and the Ukrainian communities in Wales that made their home in Wales, welcome and appreciate the ongoing support from the Welsh and from the UK Governments, and, in particular, from the people of Wales. Ukraine must now be given the weapons and support necessary to win and end the war. And as we learnt from history in 1938, you cannot appease fascism. Слава Україні! Героям слава! Перемогам!

15:30
4. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Special measures at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board—One year on

Item 4 today is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: special measures at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board—one year on. And I call on the Minister to make the statement. Eluned Morgan. 

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. Next week will mark 12 months since I placed Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board into special measures. Today, I want to take the opportunity to reflect on the last year and to share with you how the health board, despite the ongoing pressures, continues to deliver day in, day out in a really positive way for the vast majority of people in north Wales. 

It’s worth remembering that the health board is the biggest employer in Wales, employing over 20,000 people, serving a population of around 700,000 people, carrying out an average of around 16,000 patient contacts, over 2,000 patient appointments, and around 450 planned procedures every single day. So, I want to acknowledge the excellent work of everyone who works in the health board, and thank them for everything they do to ensure patients are seen and treated safely, compassionately and in a timely manner.

I also want to highlight just a couple of examples of some of the innovations the health board has introduced over the last 12 months. These include becoming the first in the United Kingdom to use artificial intelligence to diagnose breast and prostate cancer. I was also pleased to help launch the new e-prescribing service at a pharmacy in Rhyl back in November, as part of an all-Wales roll-out.

Dirprwy Lywydd, it has been a challenging year for the health board, but I do think the difficult decision to put it into special measures was the right one. And that is because this board is now in a much better position to drive substantial change and improve health services for the people of north Wales.

So, what have we done? Firstly, there has been a focus on rebuilding and stabilising the board. There is now a permanent chair, chief executive and vice chair. The final four independent members will be announced very soon, and this will give the organisation the stability and focus it needs in order to improve. I was pleased to see that Audit Wales recognised a marked improvement in terms of board stability in its recent follow-up report on board effectiveness, and that the dysfunctionality within the board described in its previous report is no longer evident.

As part of the special measures intervention, a small number of independent advisers were contracted to work with the board, and a number of independent reviews have been commissioned into problem areas. Dirprwy Lywydd, I must say that many of the reflections from the advisers, and the reports from the independent reviews, make uncomfortable reading and have exposed some very serious issues that the health board must now address. While it has been encouraging to hear about the improvements that Healthcare Inspectorate Wales has observed through its more recent inspections, Members will be aware that His Majesty’s coroners and the ombudsman have highlighted a number of consistent themes, and I hope the health board has now uncovered all of the key issues that need to be addressed and has structures in place to address these issues.

Audit Wales has also, over the last year, reported on poor financial management and accounting practices. I've discussed these with Members of the Senedd on a number of occasions, and you are all aware that I am unable to comment further as disciplinary processes are still ongoing. But the recent Audit Wales report suggests that the board is responding to the issues identified in their audits of the 2021-22 and 2022-23 accounts, as well as those identified in the Ernst & Young review. It's also worth noting that North Wales Police has decided not to take any further action on the findings of the Ernst & Young report.

Like all other health boards in Wales, Betsi faces significant financial challenges as a result of inflation and austerity measures. We're actively monitoring the health board’s response to these challenges.

All of this is key to changing the culture within the health board and its organisation. But the key question is: what difference is this making for people living in north Wales? Well, they should take comfort from the fact that performance in the board is improving. The health board has reported a 65 per cent reduction in the number of people waiting more than three years for their treatment to begin, between February and November 2023. The number of those waiting over 52 weeks for their first out-patient appointment has fallen by over 15 per cent in the same period. Also, there has been a 33 per cent reduction in the number of people waiting over eight weeks for their diagnostic tests. I do appreciate that people are still waiting too long, but things are moving in the right direction.

In November 2022, a few months before the health board was put into special measures, I made an unannounced visit to Abergele Hospital. That day, a Thursday afternoon, there was no orthopaedic activity going on. This was despite the fact that Betsi had one of the longest orthopaedic waiting times in Wales. Now, I was both surprised and disappointed to find that the management team and the board were unaware of the lack of activity, showing their lack of grasp of the situation. But, today, thanks to a great deal of support from the Getting It Right First Time team, the Welsh Government and the new board, we are now seeing far more activity on that site. 

Waiting times for orthopaedic pathways have improved across the health board. In November, the number of patients waiting over 104 weeks was at its lowest level since April 2021. And we expect to see this positive progress continue, as the construction of the new orthopaedic hub in Llandudno will be completed by the end of this year.

Pressures in urgent and emergency care continue. Between February and December 2023, there was an increase of over 2,000 monthly attendances at emergency departments in north Wales. Focusing on eliminating four-hour handovers is resulting in some improvements. In December 2023, there were 786 handover delays in excess of four hours. Although this is still too high, it does represent a 23 per cent reduction compared to the previous year. 

There's been a great deal of talk about the challenges facing the vascular service. I have visited the department on many occasions to monitor progress, and I was pleased to see, in June of last year, that Healthcare Inspectorate Wales de-escalated them from a service requiring significant improvement to a lower status. An independent assessment against the vascular plan by the NHS executive vascular clinical network concluded that the service has improved and now provides a much safer service. To give further reassurance, a vascular case note assessment is in place. The final report is expected in March of this year. 

So, what next? The health board has been in special measures for 12 months, and there is still a lot to do. Last year, I set out a series of sustainability conditions for the board, which are still valid and will need to be met before a de-escalation to level 4 can be considered. And, over the next few months, I will publish escalation criteria for each area. 

Without doubt, the health board faces significant challenges, but it is important that we collectively support the board to develop and build a sustainable organisation, capable of delivering the services that the people of north Wales deserve. Thank you. 

15:40

Can I thank you, Minister, for your statement? You'll appreciate that it's a very sobering reminder of the dire situation in the health service in north Wales. It's another year for residents in north Wales with their health board being in special measures, and, of course, it's spent all but two of the last nine years in special measures in north Wales—the longest of any NHS organisation in the whole of the United Kingdom; not an accolade that I want to celebrate, or anybody wants to celebrate.

I do want to put on record the thanks of my constituents and me and the rest of the Welsh Conservatives group to those hard-working staff who work hard day in, day out. But I won't be thanking every employee of the health board, because we know that, unfortunately, some of those employees are still failing people in north Wales. Some of them are former executives that are still in the NHS and ought not to be, frankly. And, for that reason, I won't extend my thanks, unlike you, to everybody at the health board in north Wales. 

There are many people, of course, who are experiencing significant delays in their treatment. There was a briefing that was circulated to Members of the Senedd from north Wales yesterday, by the chair and chief executive of the health board, celebrating the fact that they'd eradicated six-year waits in north Wales for treatments. Six-year waits, can you believe it? So, up until fairly recently, there were people in north Wales still waiting six years for their treatment. In that report as well, it told us that there were still many people in north Wales—hundreds, in fact—waiting for over three years for not just treatment, but for their very first out-patient appointment. We hear a lot of talk about the two-year focus in this Chamber, but what about the three-year focus that some of my constituents are having to face in north Wales? It is truly shocking. And, frankly, we need more regular access to information on this, or else these issues are not going to be dealt with appropriately. I'd like to know how many people are waiting five years, four years, three years, two years, one year, and the rest, because that is the sort of transparency that we need to see.

The other thing in the report, which you didn't completely refer to in your statement today, but the other thing in the information shared by the health board yesterday was that 10 reviews have been undertaken—10 reviews into services, with recommendations. We haven't seen one of them published. Where do we go to see what those reviews are? You've made reference to reviews finding all sorts of horrors that people need to get to grips with today; I haven't seen any of these reviews, nor has anybody else in this Chamber, nor, more importantly, have the public, who pay for these services and have a right to know how those services are performing. So, in spite of the progress that you like to report, I'm afraid I'm still very concerned, and I'd like to see some transparency from this Government so that we can have confidence in the system.

You made reference to the fact that the coroners' reports and the ombudsman's are regularly raising concerns about treatment in north Wales. You said, in addition, that North Wales Police have decided not to take any further action on the findings of the Ernst & Young report into accounting irregularities, but we know that there are still people suspended, we know that there were findings of false accounting, we know that there were individuals, including in the NHS Wales Shared Services Partnership, who were covering up documents and circumventing the proper governance arrangements around the letting of contracts. Frankly, it's shocking that not one single person appears to have been sacked as a result of those failings in the organisation. 

You made reference to Llandudno. I'm very pleased to see that Llandudno is going to be getting an orthopaedic hub. Of course, most of that activity at the moment, or a great proportion of it, is being undertaken in Abergele, at Abergele Hospital, which you said that you visited some time ago and were shocked to find that not all of the beds were occupied. I too was shocked just a few weeks ago, when I visited, and just one bed was occupied in that hospital. And my staff were shocked as well, this weekend, when they went to visit a member of their family and just two beds were occupied in that whole hospital. That does not seem as though you're sweating the resources to get rid of those overly long orthopaedic waits in the way that we need to. So, I do not accept your complacency on that front.

You talked about the problems we're having in emergency care. Of course we're having problems in emergency care in north Wales, because we know that we need a new minor injuries unit in Rhyl, which you haven't bothered building in spite of the fact that it was promised 10 years ago. So, can you give us an update on that too?

And then, finally, if I may, there was a patient safety report attached to some board papers that were recently published. It has been reported in the media today that one of the things that that report highlighted was concern about oxygen administration for patients, with staff not correctly connecting oxygen supply and that having catastrophic consequences for some patients. And it wasn't just one isolated incident, there have been further patient incidents as well. Can you tell us what action is being taken to ensure that those things do not happen? And can you tell us also what the actual outcome was? What was the catastrophic outcome? Have people died? Have people lost cognitive ability as a result of this lack of oxygen? We need to know, and I think the public deserves to know. In addition, that report—

15:45

No, you've done a lot of questions and I've been very flexible. We've got more Members to ask questions and we have got quite a few going.

It is. That report also makes reference to an audit of urology services, in which a search of offices was undertaken and they found, and I quote

'100+ radiology reports, internal referrals, histology reports and tertiary centre letters have been identified that have not been reviewed or actioned',

over 300 of them in total, with referrals going back to March 2023 that have not been triaged. And one final point here, on this—

I appreciate that time is of the essence, but a minute's worth of time in order to hold the Minister to account for the failings in north Wales surely is appropriate. This is the one—

You've spent a lot of time because you want to make points. One final question, please, and it must be a question, or I'll close it.

15:50

It is a question. They also identified that there was a backlog of 1,133 letters dictated by clinicians that have not been issued. Now, can I ask you, Minister, why is it that when constituents of mine, and I, and other Members in this Chamber representing north Wales, have made countless complaints about urology services in recent years, that that has been allowed to happen while this organisation is in special measures, because it's unacceptable?

Wel, diolch yn fawr. I did make it very clear that there is still a long way to go in relation to Betsi, and we're only in year 1, and actually there has been, I think, quite a long road travelled in the right direction, but I make no apology on behalf of the board that they recognise that there is a long way to go.

Just when it comes to staffing in the health board, obviously this is something that is a decision for the board, and I do think it's important that we're absolutely clear about accountability here, because there does seem to be, once again, confusion about where accountability lies. I set out the parameters for what is expected to be delivered, but then I pass on that responsibility to the health board. Now, clearly, when they're under special measures, we have a far more vigilant approach in terms of what they need to deliver, but it is still the responsibility of the health board to deliver and not the responsibility of the health Minister in the Welsh Government.

Now, just when it comes to disciplinary processes, obviously I can't comment on some of the ones that are still ongoing, which is very frustrating, but that is the situation, that the disciplinary processes in relation to some of the financial issues are still ongoing, I'm afraid, and we do have to follow due process.

When it comes to performance, you're absolutely right that there is still a long way to go. The fact is that I am monitoring this incredibly carefully. I have fortnightly meetings to monitor waiting lists in Wales; I know exactly how many people are on what lists, in what health boards, so I am monitoring it in absolute fine detail. I think it's really important that, actually, the fact that those waiting lists, the longest waiting lists, have come down not just in Betsi, but the whole of Wales, have come down, is because of that absolute focus that I and the Welsh Government have put on that.

Just in terms of reviews, I think, certainly, there's more transparency, and an example of the transparency is the fact that you mentioned the issues relating to oxygen administration. The fact that the health board is being open about it and transparent is a big shift from where we've seen things in the past. The health board have confirmed that they're investigating one catastrophic outcome related to no flow of oxygen, but I'm unable to give any more detail than that included in the report due to the confidentiality concerns.

When it comes to urology, the health board have identified administrative processes that resulted in information not being shared between specialities and GPs in a timely manner, and work has already taken place to review this information to ensure it's still appropriate in every case. Any patients affected by this are, I understand, being contacted.

When it comes to the situation in relation to pressures, I get frustrated as well when I see beds that are empty, but, actually, having lots of beds full all the time is not a prize. I think we've got to be clear about the fact that, actually, I'm very unapologetic about the fact that I would like to see more care happening within the community. The fact is we've got significantly—significantly—more beds per head of population than they do in England, and also—[Interruption.]

One minute, Minister. Darren, I would like to hear the Minister's response, and you're continually trying to speak over her, so please let the Minister respond to the many questions you raised in over the time you had. Minister.

If you look at what GIRFT recommends—the Getting It Right First Time experts in the field—what they say is, actually, we should be doing far more day-case surgery. So, it's a sign of success if you've got fewer patients, because it means that they're being more efficient in terms of their day-case surgery.

And then, just when it comes to the Royal Alexandra Hospital, the health board have decided that they wish to review their proposals for this site, and they're doing that in partnership with local authorities. I believe that the plans will include a minor injuries unit, intermediate care beds and integrated care, and I'm waiting for a new proposal that I can consider.

15:55

I'll be as brief as possible. Betsi Cadwaladr is my health board, and my loved ones are reliant on the workforce there to support and heal them in periods of ill health. And let's be clear: the workforce there are dedicated people and they do excellent work in very difficult circumstances. And that's why the disappointment about the board's failures is so much greater, because it's not just the patients who are being let down, but also the workforce. But it would be unfair to say that this was only a board failure. It is also a failure on the part of this Government and previous Governments: a failure in failing to identify the weaknesses earlier; a failure in failing to tackle the weaknesses when they emerged; and a failure in failing to put a clear programme in place to improve the situation when needed.

The Government, of course, is happy to blame Westminster for failing to fund Wales adequately. This is of course true, but the evidence shows that this Government is not lifting a finger to try and secure a better financial settlement, and it's unlikely that the Starmer Government will provide financial fairness for Wales. But the truth in the case of the north Wales health board, as with the health service as a whole, in all honesty, is that there is a much deeper problem here that needs to be tackled. And that is not a financial problem, but as I have pointed out here many times, it's a cultural problem.

I therefore welcome the recent report by the auditor general showing that progress has been made over the last 12 months since the board was once again placed in special measures, but this, of course, reflects the folly of the Government's decision to move the board out of special measures in the first place. But one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and it's clear to me that these structural weaknesses remain; the gulf between the board and the workforce on the ground remains. This dates back to the original restructuring, and a series of chief executives have failed to address this fundamental weakness.

But before doing anything fundamental, you have to have an entire board in place. So, I wonder whether the Minister can tell us when she expects all appointments to have been made to the board. This instability that there has been at board level, involving not only the independent members but chief officers as well, has led to a lack of accountability and a failure to take responsibility. We have seen senior members being brought in to work there without any understanding of the area and being unwilling to even put down any roots in the area. The constant change in managers that has taken place at Betsi Cadwaladr—this incessant churn—has contributed to the sense of instability in the board and has created an unclear picture in terms of the lines of accountability.      

What's frightening is that, as far as I know, neither the Government nor the Minister have set any criteria for de-escalation. What is the strategy for improving the situation, and how can the board know that they are moving in the right direction without those criteria for de-escalation? So, I would be grateful to the Minister if she could set out clearly for us today what the criteria are for de-escalation, so that the board can put a strategy in place. Furthermore, will the Minister commit to stating who will contribute to the decision to de-escalate and who will make that final decision? After all, we don't want to end up in the same place as we were before, with the Government taking the board out of special measures due to political imperatives and against the advice of specialist bodies.

Finally, of course, there are constant pressures on the board, such as waiting lists, the rurality of the region, demographics and so forth, which are proving to be challenging. But I would like to know what the Minister's vision is for health service provision for north Wales. What does the Minister believe are the challenges and the needs of people in north Wales? What work has she done to identify these, and in identifying them, to put the right benchmarks in place in order to achieve that vision, so that the board knows which actions need to be taken in order to improve the service? I wonder whether the Minister could enlighten us on that. Thank you.

16:00

Thank you very much. You're quite right to focus on the fact that the workforce in Betsi is crucially important, and they are there to ensure that healthcare is provided to the people living in north Wales. There are over 20,000 people working for the health board, which in itself means that it touches upon all aspects of society.

The previous board had struggled to get a grip of the situation. I think that's a fair comment. The fact that the current board has taken a different path, that the atmosphere has changed, that people don't fear speaking out any longer—. I think that cultural problem that previously existed—. There is still a long way to go, but I do think that we are on the right track in that regard. I know that compassionate leadership is crucially important, and I know that people are coming in to provide training for the board in that area. 

I know that Plaid Cymru is always interested in talking about restructuring. What I want to see is that we focus on what's important to people on the ground, and I think what they want to see is improved performance and they want to ensure that everything is safe. 

In terms of what's happening in terms of the board, there are four people still to be appointed as independent members to the board. I am waiting for those recommendations to arrive in my inbox, and I expect that to happen over the next few days. Then, hopefully, that will mean that we are in a position to have a full complement in terms of the board. 

I think it's probably worth setting out that there have been lots of very new appointments to key positions. We've got a new chief executive, of course, but there is also a new interim finance director, a new interim executive director of operations, a new interim chief of staff, a new interim executive director of public health. There have been changes made to the office of the board's secretary, and there's a new director of corporate governance who is going to start in April. It sounds like lots of those are interim, but this is a necessary first step. We need to stabilise the ship, get people in place. Obviously, we have to go through a formal process to now make sure that those interim appointments go through the correct process. 

In terms of what the de-escalation conditions are, we set out the sustainability conditions, and that was referenced in the oral statement that I made previously. These include things like setting out strategic vision, integrated performance and quality, culture change, structures and delivery, effective and functioning board, a responsive organisation, a learning and improving organisation, stronger leadership and engagement, programme management, clinical leadership, strengthened clinical services, improved access, outcomes and experience. 

What's going to happen now is that I'm going to supplement those sustainability conditions with clear de-escalation conditions in the coming months, but I want to do that with the board so we all are agreed on what is necessary to do. And then, of course, we'll go to the normal approach, which is the tripartite approach. HIW, AW and the Welsh Government will make recommendations, and I will determine when is the correct time for people to come out. Thank you.  

16:05

Minister, thank you for your statement this afternoon. It’s one year on since the return of the health board to special measures, and residents in Alyn and Deeside, and in north Wales, understandably want to see the change on the ground. However important the changes at the top are, at board level—and they are crucially important, as you’ve described—they mean less to them than how easy is it to get a GP’s appointment, how easy is it to get a dental appointment, or how long they and their loved ones are waiting on the list for treatment. So, with that in mind, what more can you update the Chamber on with regard to the progress on those issues, the issues on the ground? And also, can you reassure us again today that the priorities of my constituents and myself remain the priorities of you and the Welsh Government? Diolch.

Diolch yn fawr. I think you're absolutely right—it's all very well that we need to change the culture at the top, we need to change the organisation, but, actually, what is it that matters to the public? What they want is access on time to a service that they require. That’s why I’m really pleased that, actually, in terms of general practice, not just in Betsi but across Wales, what we have now is a new approach to access to GPs—and let’s not forget that 90 per cent of people access the NHS via primary care and GPs.

Ninety-one per cent of practices in north Wales were achieving 100 per cent of access standards by 31 March last year, so I think that is something that is commendable. So, things are improving. You may have noticed—I’ve certainly noticed in my postbag—that the volume of complaints in relation to GP access has come down significantly. There is still a way to go. Eight per cent of practices even in north Wales still need to comply with that. We’re building on investment in digital infrastructure and there's additional investment in staff resources across the whole of Wales. So, I’m hopeful that that 8 a.m. bottleneck has gone.

In terms of recruitment, we’ve got to make sure we focus on recruitment of GPs to those surgeries. I’m very pleased that a recruitment campaign meant that Wrexham and Flintshire have seen a number of posts being offered to five clinical lead GPs and 18 salaried GPs recently. So, things are improving there, and I think that’s encouraging more to come to Wrexham and Flintshire. I think the introduction of permanent salaried GPs will provide that important continuity of care that your constituents are keen to see. 

I just want to put on record that I stand by every single word that my colleague Darren Millar has said today. As north Wales Members, and for me as the Member for Aberconwy, not only do we read the very negative reports that have come from some shocking stuff; I had to raise only the other week about dirty suction equipment, and that was in a report from well over a year ago. Of course, now it has gone back into special measures. We were all very much of the opinion, ‘Will anything change?’; I have to be honest, I have seen a difference in terms of engagement, but it’s a little too little, really.

I want to put on record my thanks to the new chair that has been appointed—rather than interim, he's now the chair—Dyfed Edwards, because he has been absolutely excellent. When we get an emergency situation that we get no response from, he responds and he acts, and we get results. But it shouldn’t be the chairman’s role to automatically have to do this. There should be a mechanism that works within the board.

I’ve got patients now who’ve been waiting four years for orthopaedics. The chief exec told me herself six weeks ago that AS1 and AS2 uncomplicated cases—people who haven’t got other issues, who just need the orthopaedic operation—would be dealt with now very quickly in Abergele, but I haven’t seen any improvement to the numbers of patients that I have waiting.

So if you could just comment on that. But I want to record my thanks to Dyfed Edwards. Thank you.

Thanks very much. I'd like to put on record my thanks to Dyfed Edwards as well. I think he's shown real leadership in what is a very difficult situation. He's made it clear that he's there to listen and he's engaging with communities, and there's a real difference, I think, in the way that he's communicating with the public. So, I would like to add my thanks to Dyfed Edwards, and the rest of the board as well. I meet with Dyfed regularly—I have monthly meetings with him; I had the latest one this morning—just to monitor progress, just to make sure if there's anything else that we can do to help. Because he has got to take responsibility, he's still in charge, but I am there to stand by him, if he needs that.

The other thing, just in relation to orthopaedics—I know you're delighted to see that development in Llandudno—is that orthopaedic waits are reducing. We have seen an improvement in the over 36 week, over 52 week, over 104 week and over 156 week waits, and we have, since February, seen a 15 per cent reduction in the number of outpatients waiting over 52 weeks for a first appointment. So, things are improving. I think it's really important to recognise that, because people are working really hard, they're trying to turn this ship around, and it's really important to give praise where that is merited.

16:10

Thank you, Minister, for your statement today. Minister, you referenced, in your statement, the report from Audit Wales, which came out last week, and you referenced it in responses today as well. It did make for a sobering read and it shows there's still much to do. While there is a level of improvement, there's much, much more to be done to give the people I represent in north Wales the health service that they deserve.

The report talks of fundamental challenges that still face the health board, and you referenced some of these in your response to Mabon ap Gwynfor a moment ago. There are references to substantive appointments, the need for a cohesive and unified board, the need to deal with personnel issues. This, to me, points to significant issues within the management structure that still haven't been fully fixed. Granted, it does take time, but we are a year down the track.

In amongst all of this, in the bigger picture of things, there are real people—patients, a stretched workforce, residents that I'm elected to represent. They've been waiting a long time for these issues to be fixed—not just this past year, but for years and years beforehand. So, I wonder, Minister, if you have a date in mind as to when you expect to be satisfied that my residents have the right level of access to healthcare in my region.

Thanks very much. I think you're right to draw attention to the fact that the Audit Wales report recognised that there are still challenges, but I think it's really important that they also recognise that substantial change has been made and the board is in a far more stable position. They concluded that the dysfunctionality within the board, which was described in the previous report, is no longer evident, and that working relationships amongst senior leaders are far more positive. It hasn't made any new recommendations to the health board, because it felt that the actions that were still needed are already included in the overall improvement plans that the health board has already got in place. 

I think it is important also to set out that the vast majority of people in north Wales are getting a really good service, and we mustn't lose sight of that. I just quoted to you the statistics in terms of access to GPs. Those are stunning statistics, and I think it's really important, because 90 per cent of people get their access to the NHS via those initial contacts with GPs and primary care. I'm not saying that all is perfect—it's far from perfect. There is a long way to go. There's a huge need to drive up that improvement in performance, in quality and in safety, and those are the things that I've asked them to really focus on.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you very much for your statement this afternoon, Minister, on the 12-month anniversary of you placing Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board back into special measures, and, indeed, the changes to the structure and the personnel of the board.

You briefly mentioned in your statement sustainability conditions that the health board will need to meet in order to achieve a de-escalation to level 4, which I can only assume is a move away from special measures if improvements are made in the future. So, can you describe, Minister, the specific, qualifying criteria that Betsi Cadwaladr will have to display and meet in order to eventually exit special measures in a way that is safe, sustainable and in the best interests of patients and the 20,000 people that the health board employ across north Wales? And I understand, obviously, the complexities and the logistical issues in coming out of special measures, but surely that has to be the goal and the overarching ambition here? We need to see a timeline of events because we've had enough of the scandal and the perennial crises. It's time for tangible action, delivery and results, and as you say in your statement, Minister, it's what the people of north Wales deserve.

16:15

Thanks very much. Well, I think I covered some of that answer in response to Mabon, which was the listing of the sustainability conditions that I've already set out: strategic vision, performance and quality and culture change. So, there was a long list that I read out earlier. But what I have also said is that I'm going to be supplementing that sustainability condition with a clear de-escalation condition that I will agree with the health board in the next few months. So, that is coming. We're not ready for it yet, and what I'm not going to do is to give you any random date for when the board is going to come out of special measures. That is not the approach that we're taking. They will come out of special measures when they're ready to come out of special measures, not before.

5. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being: The Mental Health and Well-being and Suicide and Self-Harm Prevention Strategies

Item 5 is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being: the mental health and well-being and suicide and self-harm prevention strategies. And I call on the Deputy Minister, Lynne Neagle.

Thank you, Deputy Llywydd. Today I am delighted to launch the mental health and well-being strategy, and our new suicide and self-harm prevention strategy for consultation. The strategies aim to build upon 'Together for Mental Health' and 'Talk to me 2'. The previous strategies have been a catalyst for a cross-Government and multi-agency approach to mental health and suicide and self-harm prevention. The consultation documents published today set out our commitment to develop this further, with partners, as part of a whole-system approach to protect, improve and provide support for mental health, and to reduce suicide and self-harm in Wales.

The strategies are the result of significant engagement. Listening to people affected by the issues in each strategy has been fundamental. The pre-consultation survey alone included over 250 responses. We have worked with a series of reference groups including our national mental health partnership board, the Wales Alliance for Mental Health, our minority ethnic mental health task and finish group, our national service user and carer forum and our suicide and self-harm prevention drafting group. We have also worked with the youth stakeholder group and the Welsh Youth Parliament, and the 'Young Minds Matter' report has helped shape the strategies. I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to this process so far. This has been a genuine partnership and co-production approach.

Importantly, the consultation documents have a clear focus on tackling inequalities in access and outcomes. The Senedd Cymru Health and Social Care Committee inquiry, 'Connecting the dots: tackling mental health inequalities in Wales' covered this issue in depth, highlighting those in the population that have the greatest risk of mental health inequality and how different groups and communities experience this inequality, and it made a number of recommendations that have informed the development of the strategies. 

Both strategies recognise the critical role of other ministerial portfolios to tackle the wider determinants of mental health and to prevent suicide and self-harm. My officials have worked with officials across Government to ensure key areas of work are reflected in the new strategies.

The mental health and well-being strategy is a joint health and social care strategy to reflect the responsibilities of both to provide mental health support. I have also convened a new joint ministerial board to oversee the strategies, and the Deputy Minister for Social Services has agreed to be vice-chair. That board will meet for the first time this week.

A key theme in our engagement so far is not to medicalise mental health. Mental health has become a term that is used to describe a wide range of circumstances. We want to see a shift in how we talk about and support mental health issues to better reflect the needs of individuals. The majority of people who we might define as having a mental health issue do need support, but don’t need specialised mental health services. For those that need specialised mental health services, we have also been clear about how we intend to strengthen these further. The strategies are a first step to work with stakeholders to reset the language around mental health and well-being.

The two strategies are separate but interconnected. This approach recognises that suicide and self-harm are not diagnosable mental health conditions and that many people who die by suicide are not known to mental health services. There is also a prevailing misconception that people who die by suicide have a mental illness, and it is vital that we challenge this perception to remove the stigma and support people who need it.

Our draft strategies have each been developed around two high-level visions. The mental health and well-being strategy aims for people in Wales to live in communities that promote, support and empower them to improve their mental health and well-being, and be free from stigma and discrimination. We will take a rights-based approach to ensuring that everyone has the best mental health possible.

There will be a connected system of support across health, social care, third sector and wider, where people can access the right service at the right time and in the right place. Care and support will be person centred, compassionate and recovery focused, with an emphasis on improving quality, safety and access. Care and support will be delivered by a workforce that feels supported and has the capacity, competence and confidence to meet people’s needs.

Our suicide and self-harm prevention strategy aims for people in Wales to live in communities that are free from the fear and stigma associated with suicide and self-harm, and are empowered and supported to both seek and offer help when it is needed. 

All available modelling suggests mental health demands will continue to increase. Without continued cross-Government and multi-agency support, as set out in these strategies, the NHS is likely to become overwhelmed. We have invested to ensure there is new and dedicated support for mental health services, and for suicide and self-harm prevention, in the NHS executive. This resource will be critical to provide the central drive and support to improve the quality, safety and accessibility of mental health services. This will ensure that we continue to develop services, building on recent transformation of services through the implementation of '111 press 2' for mental health.

Of course, we recognise the unprecedented financial pressures that we are facing, and the strategies aim to provide direction to services and partners to ensure value-based targeting of resources, rather than set out a list of new funding commitments. On the basis that we expect significant engagement from similar groups of stakeholders, we are proposing a 16-week consultation period. This provides another opportunity to further explore the issues people are facing in Wales, which are leading to poor mental health and well-being, self-harm and, in the most tragic cases, suicide. This will help us strengthen our cross-Government response to the issues people are experiencing to promote good mental health and well-being and ensure that timely support is available for people.

We have done our utmost to ensure this consultation is as accessible as possible. The consultation is available in full on our website alongside easy-read versions, and we have developed specific resources to support children and young people. We have also created engagement packs to support those working with vulnerable groups or people with lived experience to help them to respond to the consultation. We will all have an interest in this area and I encourage people to respond to the consultation. Diolch.

16:25

I'd like to thank the Deputy Minister for your statement today and the pre-advanced copy of what you just said.

Reducing the rates of suicide and self-harm in our society is vital. Suicide and self-harm, especially suicide, leaves far too many families and people and loved ones across Wales with a hole that can never be filled. And also, reducing self-harm is very important because we don't want to see the long-term lasting effects of that on people, and also, people lose their lives when they self-harm, as well, and that's something we need to get on top of.

It's good to hear, Deputy Minister, the organisations that you've worked with, especially the Youth Parliament. I think it's very, very important that we get the views of young people when we create these strategies, because a lot of young people do suffer with mental health conditions, so it's vitally important that we get their buy-in and input into these strategies. In the statement, you talked about co-design and cross-governmental working, and I know that that's a priority for you. These strategies, right across Government, are everybody's business, but I'm interested in how these structures are going to work. When we get feedback and input back from the strategies, how are they going to be monitored and what mechanisms are you putting in place so that the Senedd can actually be kept updated, through the committee structure and the Chamber, to make sure that these strategies are actually delivering on what they're supposed to do?

One of the groups that really does worry me, and it's mentioned, is young men and middle-aged men. We know that they're more likely to take their own lives and I'd be interested to know what work you're doing around that specific group to get their feedback into these consultations. Because it's very difficult for men to come forward to talk about their mental health experiences, so I think it'd be interesting and a lot of people would like to know what the Government is doing around that. 

For a lot of these strategies to work, it is going to need the buy-in and collective responsibility of health boards as well. So, one thing I'd like to know from you, Deputy Minister, is what conversations you've had with our health boards and the boards around these strategies and what their response has been and how they're going to feed into this consultation as well. Because as you mentioned around financial pressures, everybody is under financial pressure at the moment, so it'd be interesting to see how they can actually make these work in practice.

The higher level objective No. 4 was to increase skills, awareness and knowledge of suicide and self-harm. It states in there that it's going to be done through training and awareness, but we all know, anecdotally and from other areas, that when doctors and nurses are going through training in general practice, actually, the mental health element is quite a small part of their training. So, it'd be interesting to know what conversations you've had with the education Minister and the overall health Minister around this and how we can embed mental health more into our training so that people are more aware of it.

Higher level objective 6 talks about the media and I do totally agree with you about the language that we use when we talk about suicide and self-harm; it has to be done in an appropriate way. As we're all aware, media is still a reserved matter for the UK Government, so you probably had to have cross-governmental talks around how the media is managed and how those discussions are had. So, it'd be interesting to know what discussions you've had with UK Government, but also with the media outlets here in Wales, about how they discuss mental health, how they talk about suicide and how they talk about self-harm.

You did talk, at the start of your statement, about the Health and Social Care Committee and about the 'Connecting the dots: tackling mental health inequalities in Wales' report. So, I'd like to understand from you how that fed into this consultation and what recommendations they put forward that you're going to be driving forward as part of these strategies to make sure that those reports that we get from committees don't sit on a shelf. Some of the recommendations that they actually bring forward can really improve the lives of people with lived experience. So, I think that'd be very important as well.

Finally, Minister, as this consultation has gone out, you outlined that you will be engaging with as many groups as possible, but one thing I'd really like to know is about those people with lived experience, because I always think, in these consultation responses, we always get replies from the usual suspects who reply back to everything with the usual responses to almost every consultation that goes out; we've all seen them through health—. We greatly appreciate them, but we normally get the same responses back. But I personally think that those lived experience responses are the ones—. Even going through my own process now, my own Bill, which you're aware of, those people who respond to you really cut a deep chord and actually, really, what you want to listen to and understand and how you can develop those into strategies to make sure that those people live healthier and fulfilled lives—. So, I'm looking forward to the outcome of this consultation, as it runs in parallel with my own Bill's consultation—I'll drop that in, but I'm probably not supposed to, under spokesperson's questions, Deputy Llywydd, but I'll do it anyway. But I'd just like to thank the Minister for your statement and I look forward to this consultation as it goes forward, and how we can improve the lives of those affected by mental health here in Wales.

16:30

Thank you very much, James, for that very positive response to the statement, and can I just take this opportunity, Dirprwy Lywydd, to just place on record my thanks to Welsh Government officials for all their work on these two strategies? It's not an easy task to deliver two strategies in such a co-productive way, while doing all the things that they have to do on a daily basis, and I am really, really pleased and appreciative of the work that they've done.

James, you raised many points there, and thank you for starting with the suicide prevention strategy. I'm really keen that that is as much of a focus as our mental health and well-being strategy. They're separate, but interconnected. So, that's really important. We are committed to reducing the number of people who die by suicide. As far as I'm concerned, one person dying by suicide is one too many. The rates have been largely stable over the last few years, but we want to drive those rates down much further, and that's what this new strategy is about.

You referenced self-harm, and that's why we've focused on self-harm in the strategy, because we know that people who self-harm have got a much higher risk of going on and completing suicide. So, they are a group of people that we really need to focus on. But we've taken a very granular approach to high-risk groups in the strategy, so we've identified which groups are more likely to self-harm. We want to build the evidence base on self-harm, and that's an approach that we've also taken to men as well. We're used to saying that there is a problem with male suicide, but we know that it is a certain group of men, middle-aged men, that are much likely more likely to die by suicide. So, that's reflected in the strategy, and I can confirm that there is already a lot of work going on. We've had workshops with men to listen to them about the issues that they're facing so that we can really co-produce that response with men.

You highlighted the importance of this being a cross-Government strategy, which it absolutely is, and I'm very grateful for the buy-in from all my Cabinet colleagues. But you're absolutely right, once we have the completed strategies, we need to monitor and drive that implementation. That's why, with my colleague Julie Morgan, we've established a new delivery and assurance board to drive that, as two Ministers representing health and social care, to make sure that we've got that high-level Welsh Government mechanism to drive delivery. But as well as that, we also have cross-Government working with Cabinet colleagues. We've got two cross-Government officials groups, one looking at mental health and well-being, and the other one looking at suicide prevention. So, that work is really embedded throughout the Government, and it is absolutely the case that we will be providing—. I committed that we would provide reports on progress. The plan is that, when we have completed the consultation, we will publish the final strategies, with delivery plans underpinning them, and then we will also identify what those reporting arrangements will be.

Thank you for your comments about the health boards. Obviously, getting their buy-in is crucial, especially in the current climate. The NHS executive is going to be running specific workshops with the NHS to get their views on the strategies, so we'll be able to take their feedback specifically on that and to identify what more we can do in that space.

You mentioned, in terms of the suicide prevention strategy, high-level objective 4, which is the one about training. Now, I think suicide prevention is everybody's business. I've said it many times. I want to see us all upskilled in having those life-saving conversations with people. So, our approach to training is that kind of approach, really. We've got a new website with all sorts of training opportunities, but we also, as you say, need to embed that in the NHS, and we’ve got our new strategic mental health workforce plan that will help us with that, and obviously I have regular discussions with the health Minister on that.

In terms of high-level objective 6, which is on the media, we need to keep focusing on the media. I think there have been improvements; most media outlets are aware of the excellent Samaritans guidance on reporting suicide, but they don’t all follow it as much as they could do, and we’re going to continue that dialogue with the media in Wales and with the UK Government as well. But what I would say is it’s not just about the media; it’s about the language that we all use when we talk about suicide, and I would refer Members again to the Samaritans guidance that they issued at World Suicide Prevention Day in the autumn, which encourages us all to use responsible language when we talk about suicide, because vulnerable people could be listening to us and it could influence their behaviour.

Just in terms of the committee report ‘Connecting the dots’, obviously that was a really key, major piece of work; it majored significantly on health inequalities and the social determinants of mental health, and I think, if you look at the strategy, you can see that we have looked at that in great detail. We’ve taken the Marmot principles as the way to frame the actions that we’re taking on that. The other kinds of areas that we’ve picked up from their report are the need for there to be a bigger focus on serious mental illness, because that has tended to be an area that perhaps there hasn’t been the focus on; children and young people—a key priority area for us. But I hope that the committee, when looking at the consultation document, will see that the work that they did has informed our consultations.

16:35

Thank you for the statement from the Deputy Minister. I’m liking a lot of what I’m hearing. The landscape of mental health care ha