Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

16/04/2024

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 back to the Senedd. 

Before I call the new First Minister to answer his first set of questions, this is the first time that I've had personally to congratulate Vaughan Gething on his election as First Minister. 

Many congratulations. I wish you well. 

It may surprise a few of you to know that I worked out this morning that I've known Vaughan Gething longer than I've known any other Member of this Senedd. When I was mayor of Aberystwyth back in the last century, Vaughan was the president of the student union in Aberystwyth, and, for the record, there'll be no obvious favouritism for graduates of Aberystwyth University in this Chamber. [Laughter.] 

1. Questions to the First Minister

So, we'll move to questions to the First Minister, to be answered by Vaughan Gething, and the first question is from Russell George. 

The Infrastructure (Wales) Bill

1. Will the First Minister make a statement on how the Infrastructure (Wales) Bill will impact Montgomeryshire? OQ60916

Thank you for the question. The Bill will establish a new, simplified consenting process for significant infrastructure projects, which will benefit all of Wales. It will help the timely delivery of essential infrastructure projects that make a positive contribution towards our social, economic and environmental prosperity, indeed in addition to our net-zero ambitions, while providing opportunities for enhanced community engagement.

Thank you for your answer, First Minister, and congratulations on your new post. My significant concern and opposition to this Bill is that, despite the claimed aims of the Bill to empower communities to better understand and engage people across Wales in large-scale projects, particularly when they have concerns with those large-scale planning applications, the Bill does not do that at all. The Bill does not tell us key details about the pre-application consultation and publicity, about how applications for infrastructure consent are to be made, time frames, the form of consent and local impact reports, how open-floor hearings will be triggered, the examination procedure. I could go on, but there's a lack of detail on the face of the Bill, and many of the provisions, of course, in the Bill will be decided by Welsh Ministers later once the Bill is passed, if it is passed later today.

So, you will be aware, First Minister, of my long-held views in terms of opposing the industrialisation of the mid Wales landscape with hundreds of onshore wind turbines and the associated infrastructure that comes with that, which I certainly believe will be devastating for the tourism industry in mid Wales. So, First Minister, can you set out how the people of mid Wales will be able to voice their views and play a part in deciding what infrastructure is built and where it is located? And can you explain how, in your view, this Bill will empower local communities and increase their voice in the planning process?

I don't accept the great majority of the Member's criticisms and comments about the Bill. It's actually been designed to offer a transparent and thorough and consistent consenting process across Wales that will allow local communities to better understand and effectively engage in decisions that affect them. I'd encourage the Member—indeed, all Members—and other stakeholders to engage in the forthcoming consultations that will be associated with the implementation of this Bill to help further shape the consenting process. 

I, in particular, don't share his view about the industrialisation of the mid Wales landscape. This is actually about the balance between the requirement to generate energy in a different way and to have a balance with the environment and our landscape. And you can see what happens if you take a hard approach to prevent us actually taking advantage of our on- and offshore assets. When England undertook a ban in 2015—it prevented onshore wind development—it actually cost UK bill payers £180 extra. That's because of our additional reliance on gas, which is not just bad for the planet, but actually bad for bills. There's the balance to be struck about the environment, about landscape, but our ongoing climate responsibilities as well.

School Essentials Grant

2. Will the First Minister provide an update on the school essentials grant? OQ60906

Thank you for the question. We are proud of the positive impact that our school essentials grant is having for children across Wales. Nearly 90 per cent of this year’s £13.6 million budget has already been taken up, and we urge eligible families to apply before the current scheme closes on 31 May.

13:35

This grant—a Welsh Government initiative—is hugely important at helping families meet the costs of sending their children to school. In Mid and West Wales alone, there are at least 11,500 pupils eligible for the school essentials grant. But I recently visited a foodbank in Ammanford and was alarmed to hear from volunteers and service users that some families are being hindered in applying for the school essentials grant due to delays in applications for universal credit. These are families that are already in crisis. These delays, in my opinion, are both cruel and unnecessary, and it's hindering applications for a number of other benefits, like free school meals, housing benefit, council tax reduction, and many more. So, whilst I welcome the help that we're giving, it is at odds with those barriers that are being put in place by the UK Government, First Minister. So, what discussions is the Welsh Government having with the UK Government about the impact of these known delays, and the impact that those known delays are having on other applications, when we're trying to help people?

I think there are two broad points in response to the Member's question and the points she makes. The first is that the school essentials grant has a real impact in helping families in need with the additional costs of making sure your child can go to school and take advantage of all the opportunities that every child should be entitled to. In fact, within this current application period, across Mid and West Wales, nearly £2 million has been paid out in school essentials grant.

The second point is that the delays from universal credit are deliberate. They're not a mistake—they're deliberately designed into the legislation. And if you think about the number of families that are potentially a month away, a pay packet away, from falling into destitution, having a deliberate five-week delay adds to the fear, adds to the concern, and is the reality of people who are facing a harder life than they should do. The benefits system should be there to support people in need, and this group of people are assessed as having an entitlement and a need to be met. We have regularly called for the five-week wait to be reduced, and, indeed, Lesley Griffiths, as the new Cabinet Secretary with the responsibility for our response to welfare reform, will no doubt be continuing to make the case to UK Ministers for a change. The sad truth is, though, that that's unlikely to be the case with the current UK Government, and it would require a change at a UK level in terms of values and decency in how we direct the benefits system, to see the sort of change I know the Member will want to see. In the interim, we carry on doing all we can and should do to make sure that families across Wales do take up what they're entitled to through the benefits system. In fact, our single advice service across Mid and West Wales, in all of 2023, ensured that more than £10 million was paid out to nearly 18,000 different claimants, to ensure they have their entitlement paid out. This Government will carry on doing the right thing to support families right across our country.

First Minister, free-school-meal eligibility was used as an indicator to see which families were able to access the pupil development grant. As the roll-out of universal free school meals continues, the data of who will be eligible will become less and less accurate. The previous education Minister said in a statement that this would be kept under review. I'd be interested to know from you today what mechanisms the Government is planning to use in the future to ensure that it has the most up-to-date information to ensure that those most in need get the support that they require.

We'll continue to have those conversations with the new Cabinet Secretary for Education, about how we ensure the free-school-meal entitlement is provided, and the gateway that that then provides, in terms of the children in need, continues to guide how we spend the pupil development grant. I'd like to have partners in the UK Government who recognise the same requirement to support families in need, and, as Joyce Watson pointed out, having a deliberate five-week delay to universal credit actually pushes more families in need into greater financial difficulty. I'd welcome the opportunity to work with Members across this Chamber to ensure that not only do we properly direct our own resources here in Wales, but we have a UK Government that is similarly committed to doing the right thing and supporting not punishing families in need.

Good afternoon, First Minister. I warmly welcome the Welsh Government's continued support for the school essentials grant, and I do echo the sentiments of my colleague Joyce Watson. Focusing in, though, on the school essentials grant and what Wales can do, I was very concerned to read a report from the Bevan Foundation that highlighted how most local authorities are currently excluding children from the school essentials grant based solely on their immigration status, particularly those families who have no recourse to public funds. This is really concerning. These are our poorest families who are stigmatised and traumatised already, and the fact that the families cannot access this really important fund is concerning. So, I would just like to ask you whether you're able to do anything about it to ensure that the Welsh Government does make sure that all children, including those children who have a different immigration status, can access the school essentials grant. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

13:40

I think it's an important point that Jane Dodds makes about the reality for people who have no recourse to public funds and the potential for them to become destitute. What we have done is we've taken a number of steps to clarify the information on our own Welsh Government website. We've also shared that information with local authorities, explicitly making clear that asylum-seeking children are eligible for the school essentials grant, but, more than that, encouraging them to look again at their discretionary powers that do exist to ensure, for example, that they can provide free school meals to children from families who don't have recourse to public funds. The risk otherwise is those children will become destitute, they'll be hungry, and there will be poor outcomes for those children and, indeed, what it says about us as a country. So, we have already encouraged local authorities to look at those powers, and I look forward to the ongoing engagement we all have with them, and the new Cabinet Secretary for Education, to ensure that no child goes to school hungry.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

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

Thank you, Presiding Officer, and can I also congratulate you, First Minister, on assuming the role of First Minister here in Wales? It's the first time you and I have been across the Chamber in our respective roles. The first time I met you wasn't quite as long back as the Presiding Officer, but it was in the campaign to save the Rumney rec, which you might remember, when the public meetings were held, and I'm pleased to say that facility is still in place to this day. 

First Minister, on your journey to the office of First Minister, you had to undertake an election campaign in the Labour Party, where Jeremy Miles was obviously the rival in that campaign. There was a significant donation made to your campaign during that election bid. That amounted to what I assumed was £200,000. Can you confirm that that was the figure, it was £200,000, or was it a figure in excess of that from the developer-recycler David Neal?

I'm grateful to you for confirming that you received a donation of exactly £200,000. Was all that money spent during the campaign, or was money handed over to the Labour Party at the end of the campaign so that, obviously, that money can be used within the wider Labour movement?

The rules require that, in this internal Welsh Labour contest, all donations are declared and both campaigns would need to file their accounts at the end, and if there is any money left over, that would then go to Welsh Labour as a political donation. Once the accounts are filed, I've no doubt there will be continuing interest, and I look forward to being clear about that. I need to finish off the accounts for all the donations I received, of varying amounts.

In Welsh political terms, that is a huge donation that you received during your leadership campaign. You weren't successful in securing more than just a third of the Labour group here in the bay to back your leadership bid, but you were successful in making sure that a local businessman contributed nearly £0.25 million to your leadership campaign. What measures have you put in place now that you are First Minister to make sure that there is not the continuing perception that money can buy influence within your Government and a seat at the Cabinet table?

I think, when you look at where we are and our adherence to the ministerial code and the requirements to separate ministerial interests from constituency ones and personal ones, this Government and every iteration of a Welsh Labour-led Government has a good track record on doing the right thing. Where there have been challenges, action has been taken. I'm very clear that I cannot and will not make any kind of ministerial choice within my constituency, as I have done throughout my time as a Minister—for example, Celsa steelworks. I believe in a future for the steel industry, as indeed does the new Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language, but I cannot and will not make choices around Celsa Steel, either in my current role or, indeed, as I have done previously. In fact, I've been scrupulous in policing the divide between constituency and ministerial interests, and I have sent back submissions that have, on limited occasions, erroneously come to me with constituency interests in them. You can expect that from all members of my Government. I only wish the same could be said for other administrations within the United Kingdom.

13:45

Thank you, Llywydd. We do welcome the new First Minister to his first session of weekly questions, and I extend my congratulations to him. But I want to know immediately from him what difference he will make. 

The new First Minister came into the job under a cloud, but at least we know that he had a skill for leveraging in money after he persuaded one individual to donate £200,000 to his leadership campaign. Now, I'm sure that the First Minister wouldn't want me to remind people of the dubious source of that money, and there will be further questions to be asked about that, but the question today is: will he be as successful with his Labour bosses?

He was recently seen sitting around Keir Starmer's shadow Cabinet table, so will he confirm whether he was just there as a photo op, or did he manage whilst he was there to get a firm pledge of fair funding for Wales if Labour win the next UK election? 

Of course, my bosses are the electors and members of the Welsh Labour family. I recognise that Mr ap Iorwerth continues to be obsessed about internal Labour Party matters, just as he was when the Member for Cardiff West was the First Minister. I look forward to an ongoing and engaged conversation with the current shadow team within Westminster. I look forward to putting my shoulder to the wheel to ensure that they are a future UK Labour Government, and that election cannot come soon enough. That would be good for Wales and good for Britain, to have two Labour Governments working together in the shared interests of the people we are privileged to serve. I look forward to being part of not just that conversation but how we govern and how we make decisions for the ambitious and fairer Wales that I want to see. 

Guilty as charged of being obsessed with wanting fair funding from a UK Government of whichever colour. And it's a shame that we have a First Minister that isn't equally obsessed with pursuing that. He complains enough about the lack of funding that he has; he has a political party that are his bosses in Westminster who hope to form the next UK Government; they should be giving Wales that pledge, rather than taking votes for granted. 

Now, the First Minister's predecessor did tell me many times that any incoming UK Labour Government just wouldn't know how much money they had until they took office so we shouldn't expect any fair funding pledges until then. Now, I guess the same would be true across Government—defence, for example. Yes, we need to see reasonable amounts spent on defence, but presumably, just as with funding for Wales, Labour can't say how much money they would have to put into defence. Well, apparently not. We're now told by Keir Starmer that he would increase defence spending to 2.5 per cent of GDP—a tangible, permanent funding commitment. So, there's money for weapons, but still no funding announcement for Wales. Can the First Minister perhaps explain why, and does he agree that there's real inconsistency there?

No, not at all. In fact, Keir Starmer has already pledged that, when it comes to former EU funds, for example, funds that were stolen away from Wales, powers that have been exercised here for nearly a quarter of a century, those funds and the powers over them will return to the Welsh Government and to this Senedd to scrutinise—a clear pledge on funds coming back to Wales. The wider picture is much less clear. If anyone really thinks they can predict now the mess that a future UK Government will inherit after the current shower finally leave the stage, then I think you'd be a magician or you'd be a fantasist. None of us can know. 

The longer term challenge, though, over a range of these areas, is having a range of ambitious but clear spending plans that the public will look at and they will take seriously what goes into a Labour manifesto, because it's a real manifesto for government. And, as the Member knows, there is always a different test for a Labour opposition to meet, compared to a Conservative one, when it comes to how you spend money and how you raise it, not just the policies we have. Again, I look forward to being a part of a manifesto discussion and agreement. I am convinced it will be good for Wales and good for Britain, and I think the people of Wales will agree that too in the way they vote.  

I'm deeply concerned that he is not more concerned that, whilst the money is being made available for defence at this time, the same pledge can't be made for Wales, with a desperate need for that money. Now, the First Minister himself spoke yesterday about difficult choices in the face of the current funding situation. Now, 'choices' is a word he uses a lot, and one of Labour's recent choices has been to cut funding for Amgueddfa Cymru—something the First Minister robustly defended yesterday; the same is true for the National Library of Wales.

Now, Keir Starmer recently said he would end what he called 'the war on culture', but, here in Wales, Labour, I'm afraid, appears to take the opposite approach: 90 jobs hanging in the balance at the museum; national collections, the soul of the nation, threatened by leaking roofs. Too often, Wales has forgotten her own history, but today's Labour Government appears willing to consign future generations to an impoverished account of where they're from and who they are. Just four weeks into the job, is the First Minister really prepared to be the leader remembered for leaving Wales with no national museum and for silencing our nation's history? 

13:50

I do appreciate this is an exercise in how you make extraordinary comments and demand that any particular fiction you create is accepted as real. When you look at where we are here in Wales, we actually had very constructive conversations with Siân Gwenllian, as the designated Member, around the culture budget, and the extraordinary challenges that we faced in trying to make a budget that balanced, given our overwhelming priorities and indeed—[Interruption.]—and indeed the money that we put into the health service, which is a clear priority for the people of Wales. That means there are difficult choices across the rest of Government, driven by the fact that, over 14 years, our budget has been reduced. In the last three years, indeed, our budget has been reduced by £700 million in real terms, in addition to the £1.1 billion that has disappeared from Wales because of the way the Tories have taken money away from us from former EU funds—actually, a permanent loss of nearly £0.25 million to the rural economy, because of those Conservative choices. We are dealing with the reality of what that means, as the people of Wales would expect us to. I look forward to a new future where it is possible to continue to invest in the things that we believe matter, including our history. I want people to be proud not just of the history of Wales, but, more than that, prouder still of the future that we will create, and that will continue to be the focus of my Government.

Transport

3. What are the First Minister's priorities for transport in Wales? OQ60901

Thank you for the question. Reliable and sustainable transport infrastructure, including roads, is essential to both our economy and society. We're committed to listening to people and communities to ensure that we design, build and maintain our transport network to meet people's needs within the resources available to us.

First Minister, as everyone welcomes you to your first FMQs, I wondered if we could take a moment to reflect on comments and commitments that you actually made during your leadership campaign. During the campaign, when being quizzed on the default 20 mph policy, you stated, and I quote,

'you've got to have a conversation with the public',

and:

'If you don't give the public the opportunity to comment'

and consider their thoughts before making further decisions they

'will say it's being done to us, not with us.'

You also went on to say that Welsh Labour's approach to this controversial policy was a prime example of people wanting to know if you're humble and decent enough to reflect if something's gone wrong. First Minister, I genuinely welcome this statement, and sentiment too, and I wholeheartedly agree that public opinion should be at the forefront of the decision-making process in any Government, regardless of where we are in the United Kingdom, which is why the submission of the record-breaking petition, with just under 0.5 million signatures, to rescind and remove this default policy approach, was so significant.

We already know that a transport adviser who helped shape the 20 mph policy has been appointed to lead a review of its implementation, but, First Minister, will you confirm today whether you will, in your own words, be humble and decent enough to reflect on this policy by allowing the Welsh public to take part in this review? Thank you.

I'm very pleased to make the commitments I have set out, and, indeed, to build on the work that has been done, with a recognition of a review of the guidance being part of that. You'll recall, of course, that the Member for Llanelli was very clear that we would expect, after that, that there would be changes in some of the roads around Wales, but also to make sure that there is public engagement around those choices. You will, of course, hear more from Ken Skates next week, when he makes a statement about future transport priorities, but I look forward to meeting my pledge and showing that we are indeed listening to the public, and then taking action.

The report on poverty in Arfon by the Bevan Foundation demonstrates clearly that a lack of public transport in rural and post-industrial areas in the constituency is contributing towards poverty, as part of what is called the poverty premium in rural areas. Without a fair funding settlement for Wales, and austerity policies likely to continue despite a change of Government, do you agree with me that integrating bus services with community transport is part of a realistic solution that is needed in Arfon and other rural parts of the nation? And what will your Government be doing to facilitate finding such solutions? That is, will rural transport be part of your priorities?

13:55

Thank you for the question. I actually think that, when you look at rural transport—. And I grew up in a rural part of the world, I understand what it’s like to have a regular service that appears twice a week, so I do understand the very real challenges for people who live in rural communities in Wales. And again, going back to the reality, the undeniable reality of our funding settlement, you have to look at the fact that maintaining the current bus network has been a real challenge for this Government.

But we understand that, actually, the bus network is essential for the future of transport—its integration with not just community but with rail transport as well. It’s why this Government is so clear about the need to re-regulate the buses, to have a franchise system that can ensure that not just the individual economic routes that current companies actually compete with each other for, but also the really socially important networks, are also provided, in a coherent and sensible franchise system that should make better use of the money we provide to the network, to make sure there’s a network that better serves the public. Indeed, I hope that in the future we will be able to invest more into it, because actually having effective bus routes for rural and urban communities is essential to how the economy works, and indeed our social interaction with each other as well. 

First Minister, we do need a much more integrated transport system in Wales, and in south-east Wales, of course, we’ve had the Burns commission. We now have the Burns delivery unit, working to create that more integrated system. A very important part of that is new railway stations, three of which are proposed for Newport East, at Magor, Llanwern and Somerton. Of course, rail infrastructure is not devolved, and it would take several hundred million pounds to build those new stations and carry out the associated infrastructure work. So, First Minister, given that Wales has had such a paltry share of UK rail infrastructure funding for quite a period of time under the current administration and its Conservative predecessors, will you continue to press very hard to get that fair share for Wales so that in south-east Wales we can see these railway stations built and we can create that more integrated transport system?

I think it's a point that is well made about how we actually both deal with the current congestion that exists at various points in time with real impacts, I know, on the Member’s constituents as well, but actually how we get people onto a more sustainable form of transport as well. That will require more investment in our rail network.

I look forward to having the follow-up report from the Burns delivery unit, the work that is now being chaired by Professor Simon Gibson. I understand he’s due to meet the new Cabinet Secretary for transport later this month. We look forward not just to his report, but continuing to make the case that the Member identifies for new investment in a reserved area to ensure that we do have the transport networks people deserve and, again, that will make a real difference to our economy and indeed the social networks that exist and are essential to the way we live our lives now and in the future.

Youth Homelessness

4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s commitment to ending youth homelessness? OQ60922

Thank you for the question. We are committed to ending all forms of homelessness and are investing almost £220 million in homelessness prevention and support services this year. This includes over £7 million specifically targeted at the early identification of youth homelessness and assistance to help young people develop the life skills they need to live independently.

Thank you for that response, First Minister.

And of course, I met with End Youth Homelessness Cymru over the Easter recess, who highlighted some of those key markers in those who are more likely or susceptible to be homeless when young—people with disabilities, for example, and those with caring responsibilities, to name just a few. They identified a need for a serious cultural change in the public sector, whether that's across education, health, and others such as housing, in order to actually get to grips with this challenge—a real cultural change that talks about really focusing in on preventing youth homelessness. So, to this end, will the Government support the further implementation of the Upstream Cymru programme, which has been so successful in identifying those young people at risk of homelessness, and will he also today commit to providing a strategy that's specifically focusing in on preventing youth homelessness? 

14:00

Well, this work is hugely important to this Government. I restate what I said in answer to the initial question: we're committed to ending all forms of homelessness. That means you need to understand not just the drivers for why people end up homeless, but actually how you support them to have successful tenancies. That broader work in taking on board the evidence from the housing first model with pilots in Wales, and the initial evidence from that is actually very encouraging. It shows that housing first, where implemented, is in line with the international evidence of 80 per cent to 90 per cent of successful tenancies as a result.

We're looking to take that learning into the work we're doing to try to tackle youth homelessness, and I'm pleased the Member's pointed out that this is an issue that doesn't present itself at one point in life. If you look at the work we're doing with our youth engagement and progression framework, where we're looking to identify those young people who are most at risk of becoming not in education, employment or training at the end of their time in compulsory education, many of those people are at greater risk of becoming homeless themselves. So, it's actually work between more than one department to identify earlier who may be at risk of becoming homeless, as well as the support if people do find themselves homeless during their lives. That's the focus of our attention.

We are, of course, having conversations as a Government with the coalition, who are looking to have a conversation around Upstream Cymru to look whether the evidence they have gathered from different parts of the world can be applied here in Wales. And I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning has already had conversations with that coalition. We will, of course, carry on to work constructively with all partners to ensure that the approach we have is effective and delivering the results that all of us want to see to finally end all homelessness, including for our young people.

First Minister, in December last year Bridgend County Borough Council said that they'd experienced a significant increase in people waiting on the common housing register; it had risen by 200 per cent since 2019-20. And in the report, the council listed reasons why they thought the figures were so stark. In their view, the biggest reason was the number of legislative changes made by the Welsh Labour Government, and their capacity to deal with them. It goes on then to mention the need for further funding to follow those legislative changes, which doesn't seem to have happened so far.

So, it seems the view of the council is that the Welsh Government has done the easy bit, which is making those legislative changes, but failed to provide the funding to go with it. So, First Minister, a Labour-run council in Wales is putting blame on your Welsh Labour Government for the pressures that they face in dealing with homelessness, so how will you respond?

I think it would be interesting if I took the word of Tom Giffard about what a Labour-led council is and isn't saying about this Government, when all the evidence suggests that the reality of the cost-of-living crisis, the reality of what that means for people being able to afford their own accommodation and stay in that accommodation are much bigger drivers for why people end up not having their own home. We will carry on working with all councils to try to ensure that the money that we are putting in to end homelessness is effective and well spent. That means looking at the evidence, which I don't think comes through particularly strongly in the Member's comments.

I'd also point out when it comes to resources that the public just don't buy this line that the Conservatives are somehow not responsible for the budget realities that we face in the Government. It is undeniable that people across Wales face real challenges with the cost of living, with the rising tax burden for working people, and they know that your party has primary responsibility for those challenges. I welcome the fact that you want to carry on having a conversation about the reality of the public funding available to us. I don't think the public will be on your side when it comes to deciding where responsibility lies.

One important step towards ending youth homelessness is ensuring that we build the right type of affordable social housing available to young people across Cymru. Does the Prif Weinidog agree with me that to achieve this we must tackle the backlog in the planning system by removing the barriers there, and urgently build on the Welsh Government's decision to embrace modern methods of constructing houses, including off-site modular builds?   

I welcome the comments made by the Member. In fact, I've had some of this conversation this week with the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning about how we can inject greater pace in land supply and decisions around this, and, indeed, the practical work to ensure that modern methods of construction are consistently adopted across Wales. There is real opportunity in the economy in delivering more low-carbon but high-quality housing, and, indeed, in unlocking land supply. I'd be very interested in a conversation with the Member and, indeed, the Cabinet Secretary, about how we can take that work forward.

14:05
Timely Healthcare

5. How does the Government ensure that residents of South Wales West receive timely healthcare? OQ60907

Thank you for the question.

NHS delivery of timely care is a commitment this Government stands by. It is supported by additional investment and targeted resources to support transformation. We've seen long waits reducing every month, but more is required. We continue to prioritise investment in our NHS to improve performance and delivery against this commitment.

Diolch. For five days this month, from 4 April until 9 April, the highest level of escalation was declared at Morriston Hospital—a so-called 'black alert'. Patients in accident and emergency were facing 15-hour waits. Swansea Bay University Health Board advised people, for five days, to avoid coming to the hospital's emergency department unless they were seriously ill or badly injured. This alert is triggered only under exceptional circumstances. It's the highest level of alert that a health board can declare. You'd expect, therefore, for it to be a very rare occurrence. Well, Brif Weinidog, Morriston Hospital has declared such an alert five times over the last five months. There have been nine over the last year.

During the last incident, a 77-year-old constituent of mine from Neath, who later found he had broken his neck, had to wait for 20 hours for an ambulance and then had to wait a further five hours to be seen by a doctor in Morriston. Another constituent from Crynant waited 30 hours in A&E. A constituent from Pontardawe, who is undergoing chemotherapy, was referred to A&E at Morriston, made to wait for 11 hours, then only to be told they were unsure why she'd been told to go to them. These are people who needed to be there, who had been told to go there; they weren't drunks. Do you agree, Brif Weinidog, that this is simply unacceptable? The severity of this pressure on health services must be directly addressed. Can you reassure people who live in my region that their largest emergency department is able to meet their needs when they are most in need?

This Government recognises the need for further improvement when it comes to access to timely and high-quality care across our NHS. It's the primary focus of the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, and you are now seeing waiting times falling in Wales in successive months. We regularly have the comparison with England; in fact, in 15 of the last 18 months, A&E department performance has been better in Wales than in England, but we recognise much more is required.

The progress on long waiters needs to continue. The progress on standard referral to treatment needs to continue. In fact, in the Swansea bay health board area, the median wait for a referral to treatment now is less than 19 weeks. That, again, is progress from a year ago. But this is why it is the prime focus of this Government, the reason why, in very difficult circumstances, we have still invested more than 4 per cent in an increase in our NHS budget—it's less than 1 per cent in England—because we know it requires resources, reform and innovation to drive down those waiting times for people in all parts of our healthcare system. That is the continuing commitment of this Government.

I expect to see further improvement made over the rest of this year. It's why, in my early engagement, I prioritised a conversation with the British Medical Association, to try to ensure we can bring to an end the industrial action, so that doctors who want to be back at work, together with the wider staff group, can do that, so that patients who rely on our health service—as indeed I have done at various points in my life—have the health service they deserve, that is ready and willing to give them the high-quality care that is still the standard experience of people across Wales.

First Minister, may I also welcome you to your new role? But, as a former health Minister, you're well aware that the challenges facing primary care well predated both the pandemic and the challenge in Government finances. We have known about the crisis in our GP practices for well over a decade, and a serious lack of workforce planning has exacerbated the situation. Morale is so bad that, according to the recent survey by the General Medical Council, a quarter of GPs plan to relocate overseas within the next 12 months. First Minister, will you and your new Cabinet now address the crisis facing the gateway to the NHS, in my region, across Wales, before it is too late?

Well, I thank the Member for at least acknowledging the challenging finances that this Government faces. It's not something we regularly hear from Welsh Conservative Members; that, at least, is some progress. When it comes to a workforce plan, the challenge isn't about having a workforce plan; it's about the resources to deliver that workforce plan, both the people to recruit to bring them into our system, and then to keep them in our system to ensure they have hope. That requires real money, of course, and in fact, during the time that I've been the health Minister, we actually saw real improvement in getting more people to undertake GP training places. We regularly did not fill those training places, and now we've managed to overfill them and reset our targets. So, there is a pipeline of people who want to come to work in Wales because of the deliberate way that we try to prioritise primary care within our wider system. It's essential for having a more preventative service to ensure we do more in primary care, not less. I look forward to continuing to have not just a conversation with the current workforce, but the workforce of the future about the sort of primary-care-based system that we want to have, and I think there should be encouragement for that here in Wales, but it does require real resources as well as continued political commitment.

14:10

The main problem with healthcare in Swansea East is that, in certain GP practices, it is very difficult to get a primary care appointment. If they tell the primary care provider that it is urgent, they are told, 'Go to A&E.' Patients are visiting A&E as they know, even if they have to wait several hours, they will be seen by a doctor. Does the First Minister agree with me regarding the importance of primary care being available, and that more resourcing into primary care would reduce A&E demand and lead to better health outcomes?

We have this situation in the health service that the overwhelming majority of contacts within our healthcare system take place in primary care, and yet the overall majority of our resources are spent in hospital-based care, because hospitals are very expensive to run, and most of the focus, actually, when it comes to criticism and challenge around the health service are around hospital-based services and specialities. To move, though, to move more resources into primary and more preventative healthcare, is easier to say out loud than it is to achieve in practice.

Every Member here will have experience of constituents coming to them, campaign groups, and they're almost all focused on the secondary part of our system. We actually need a much better joined-up way that our whole system works, both the staff working together—and I think there's real good will to want to see that, and we've already taken steps on that. We've moved more and more of our services into primary care, whether it's optometry, whether it's dentistry, where there are more appointments now than a year ago, and, indeed, what we're able to do within the local primary care team. I remember coming to this place and people were talking about a virtual ward as a new and innovative way of treating people. Actually, in Swansea bay health area, you see virtual wards as being standard practice now. So, we're seeing innovation becoming standardised.

There is always more to do to ensure people have good access to good-quality care, and we can deliver more and more of our services within the primary care sector, where money is actually used really well, but also the experience for the patient is almost always a better one if you can deal with those challenges earlier.

Support for Small Businesses

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s support for small businesses in Cardiff North? OQ60912

Thank you for the question. Our Business Wales service provides individuals and entrepreneurs with access to a wide range of information, guidance and support, both financial and non-financial. Our south-east business and regions team also provide dedicated support to help companies to survive and to grow.

I thank the First Minister for that response. Since the beginning of the year, a number of small independent shops and restaurants in Cardiff North have closed due to rising costs with the cost-of-living crisis and the mismanagement of the economy by the UK Government, and these closures are particularly noticeable in areas like Whitchurch Road, for example, which has become quite a hub for small independent restaurants and shops. So, I really welcome the Welsh Government's recent announcement of the £20 million futureproofing fund, which I know will help small businesses, but what else can you do to help small businesses in Cardiff North?

Thank you for the question. It might not be in my constituency, but I do know Whitchurch Road and the hub of small businesses in that particular part of Cardiff North. It's more, though, I think, about how all of those businesses add to a sense of place and the vibrancy of a community where you live, and that's why we have a retail action plan, developed with the retail forum in social partnership—that's trade unions and businesses working together to try to chart out a more successive future for retail. It's why we continue to invest money in rate-relief support as well; it's actually our permanent relief, so worth £0.25 million a year, and it covers more than 70,000 properties across Wales.

When it comes to Cardiff North, I'm interested in the work that we can do together with those other key partners, our local authorities, on the work we're doing on Transforming Towns, on the work that we're doing to ensure that there are not just placemaking plans but opportunities to take more powers to deal with some of the vacant units that may be a problem for existing businesses. We will carry on engaging with small businesses and local authority partners—I know it's a priority for the new economy Minister as well—around how it leads into a much wider point about how we do have vibrant communities that people are proud to live in and want to shop in and support their own local businesses in.

14:15
Economic Development

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on his approach to economic development in Blaenau Gwent? OQ60921

Thank you for the question. The Welsh Government works with partners such as the Cardiff capital region, Blaenau Gwent council and key businesses to deliver prosperity and the benefits of economic growth to all parts of Wales, and all parts of south-east Wales, including Blaenau Gwent. I recognise that sustained growth in Blaenau Gwent requires intervention and long-term commitment from this Government and other partners. 

I'm grateful to the First Minister for that. I'm grateful also to the First Minister for bringing his Government to Blaenau Gwent yesterday, to Ebbw Vale. It's something that we very much welcome. But we need that focus to be a continual focus, First Minister. In terms of how we take this forward, the development of the A465 dual carriageway has made an enormous difference already in Blaenau Gwent, and what we're looking at now is how do we build on the success of that as the whole project is completed across to Hirwaun.

Will the First Minister work with me and other Members across the Heads of the Valleys to ensure that we have connectivity around that new corridor and that we are able to invest in the industrial estates and business parks around the Heads of the Valleys to ensure that we have a business environment that can sustain and encourage further growth as a consequence of the investment that the Welsh Government has already made?

I think the point is well made around how sustained investment actually requires the public sector to take part in that; it won't all come from the private sector when you get to the northern Valleys. That's been recognised by the Cardiff capital region with their northern Valleys initiative, launched with northern Valleys authorities on 10 April. I am keen—as, indeed, I know the new economy and energy Secretary is—to ensure that we have practical conversations with those partners about how we open up sites for development, because there are businesses that want to go there. We actually find quite good demand for business premises where the sites are appropriate. But more than that, it's not just the premises, but the continued investment in skills and ambition.

When I was in Coleg Gwent yesterday, I'm sure the Member will be pleased to know that I managed to meet some of the young people who were there studying on engineering and business courses. They have high levels of ambition for themselves and their local community, a recognition of the excellence in the facilities that Coleg Gwent provides. In particular, we were highlighting the work of the high-value engineering project—a deliberate intervention by this Government and other partners to ensure there's real quality for young people to learn, but also for current businesses to make use of those facilities as well. It's exactly the sort of partnership we need more of, together with sustained ambition and intervention from this Government and others. I'll be very happy to work with the Member and other stakeholders to ensure there is a coherence to our plan for economic development in the northern Valleys.

Rural Poverty

8. How is the Welsh Government combatting rural poverty in Mid and West Wales? OQ60934

Thank you for the question.

Building a stronger economy and supporting people to prosper in that economy is fundamental to reducing poverty in the longer term in all parts of Wales. Our economic mission sets out priorities for a stronger economy and our ambitions to deliver a more prosperous, greener and more equal Wales.

Thank you very much for that. I welcome the opportunity in my first question to you as First Minister to ask exactly what the Welsh Government intends to do to tackle rural poverty. We know that there is a premium paid by those who live in rural areas: wages on average are lower, the cost of public services is far greater than in urban areas, the cost of childcare is higher, heating homes costs more. On average, people pay £27 per week more on transport and £4 more per week on food.

Before Easter, I organised a conference on rural poverty, and one of the things that emanated clearly from that conference is the need for rural-proofing for every Government policy, particularly those aimed at tackling poverty, and Audit Wales agrees with that. So, may I ask you, First Minister, how you intend to go about setting out a rural-proofing test on your policies, and would you be willing to consider the possibility of putting that on a statutory footing?

14:20

I think the challenge of always asking for a statutory footing is how that then gets into practical choices around the ability of this place, with a very full legislative programme, to consider future legislation. I'm interested in the practical action people can take in all of the different portfolios within this Government to make sure that we are properly serving all parts of Wales. We already, of course, have a range of areas looking specifically at economic development. The Arfor programme, which the Member well understands from his role as a designated Member, is investing in the future of the economy in north-west and south-west Wales, looking at what we can do to ensure there's a proper future for the language as well as the communities where the language currently thrives. The broader perspective on economic development support and the partnership of local authorities is a key part of how we're going to be able to build an economy that works for everyone in every part of Wales.

That goes alongside the work we already do to support people who are in real need. In fact, during the last two years, the Welsh Government support that we have provided has been worth more than £3.3 billion to help people with the cost-of-living crisis. And just in the Member's region, of course, I set out earlier in response to Joyce Watson that the single advice fund in 2023 provided more than £10 million of otherwise unclaimed benefits to his constituents within the region. More than that, though, there's the immediate crisis support that we continue to provide, like the discretionary assistance fund. In February this year alone, more than 2,200 awards were made. So, we need to do what we can with the resources we have to provide immediate support and assistance, as well as our longer term plan and delivery to make sure there really is a sustained economic future in rural Wales as well as urban Wales.

2. Motion to suspend Standing Orders

The next item is the motion to suspend Standing Orders in order for the next item of business to be taken. The First Minister to move the motion formally.

Motion NNDM8530 Jane Hutt

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:

Suspends that part of Standing Order 11.16 that requires the weekly announcement under Standing Order 11.11 to constitute the timetable for business in Plenary for the following week, to allow NNDM8529 to be considered in Plenary on Tuesday 16 April 2024.

Motion moved.

Thank you. The proposal is to suspend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

3. Motion to approve the nomination of a Counsel General

That allows us to move now to the motion to approve the nomination of a Counsel General. I call on the First Minister to move the motion. Vaughan Gething.

Motion NNDM8529 Vaughan Gething

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Section 49(3) of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and Standing Order 9.1, agrees to the First Minister’s recommendation to His Majesty The King to appoint Mick Antoniw MS as Counsel General.

Motion moved.

I nominate Mick Antoniw to continue in the role as Counsel General, and ask Members to support his nomination.

There are no further comments on that nomination, and therefore the proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed, and Mick Antoniw's nomination is approved. 

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

4. Nominations for Committee Chairs

The next item is nominations for committee Chairs. I now invite nominations under Standing Order 17.42F for the election of committee Chairs. Only a member of the political group that has been allocated that committee may be nominated as Chair, and only a member of the same political group may make the nomination. The allocation of Chairs to political groups has been agreed in accordance with Standing Order 17.2A and 17.2R. When a political group has more than 20 members, the nomination must be seconded by another member of the same group. If any Member objects to a nomination, or if there are two nominations or more for one committee, a secret ballot will be held, and I will continue with nominations for the remaining committees until all nominations have been made.

We'll move on first to invite nominations for the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, which has been allocated to the Labour group. I therefore call on a member of the Labour group to make a nomination.

There is a seconder. Are there any further nominations? There are none. Does any Member object to that nomination? [Objection.] Yes, there is objection to that nomination. Because of that objection, the vote for the Chair will be taken by secret ballot.

The next item is to invite nominations for Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, again allocated to the Labour group. Are there any nominations? 

14:25

Yes, there is, namely Hefin David. Therefore, we have two nominations. Are there any further nominations? No, there are no further nominations. As there are two nominations, there will be an election by secret ballot for the position of Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee. We will therefore vote by secret ballot in accordance with the Standing Orders. I inform Members that the secret ballot will be held in briefing room 13 in  the Senedd. Voting will open in the next few minutes and will close at 16:30 this afternoon. Any Member who has informed us that they wish to vote remotely will be able to do so. The clerk will be responsible for supervising the voting and counting processes, and, following the secret ballots, I will announce the results of the two elections before voting time this afternoon. Thank you all for that.

5. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item is the business statement and announcement. I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement. Jane Hutt.

Thank you, Llywydd. There are several changes to the business for this week. The First Minister will shortly be making a statement on delivering Wales's priorities. The statement on the health and social care Bill will now be given on 21 May, and oral questions tomorrow have changed in accordance with the new Cabinet. Draft business for the next three weeks is noted in the business statement and announcement, which is available in the online papers for this meeting.

Congratulations on your new role, Trefnydd, in assuming the duties of the leader of the house this afternoon.

I would like to call for a statement from the new Cabinet Secretary for Education on the decrease in 18-year-olds enrolling in Welsh universities. I had the pleasure of visiting Wrexham University during recess and meeting with the vice-chancellor, Maria Hinfelaar, who informed me that enrolment of international students is increasing, which is great, but the number of Welsh 18-year-olds enrolling at Wrexham University is down 5 per cent this year. There was also a dip across Wales between 2021 and 2022, with the percentage of Welsh 18-year-olds that were accepted for a place at university in Wales also dipping from 33.7 per cent to 32.4 per cent.

Obviously, this is concerning for north Wales, as international students are more likely to leave after gaining their qualifications, and we need to retain these skills in north Wales. Wrexham University is a huge asset for my constituency, as their excellent medical training facilities are a magnet for training regional talent, which will ease staffing pressure on emergency services and the Glan Clwyd Hospital. I'm aware that the Welsh Government has schemes to retain students in north Wales after graduation, but what is the Cabinet Secretary doing to ensure that there are incentives available for young people to choose a university in Wales when they are considering their options after A-levels? Thank you.

Thank you for your question.

It is really important that we value, as you have done today, our universities in Wales, and Wrexham University in particular, in terms of your constituency—huge assets, as are all our higher education institutions across Wales. Of course, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, now, will very shortly be meeting with our universities, not only in terms of all of the vice-chancellors, Universities Wales, but recognising that this has been an issue that's come forward in recent days and weeks as a challenge. And there are many reasons for those challenges, and some of those are a responsibility for the UK Government.

But I would say that, in terms of the recognition of our universities, and the role that they play, not only in terms of education and lifelong learning, but also in terms of their economy, their local communities and progression for education, they are hugely valued, and, of course, supported by our very generous student support system as well. So, I'm sure the Cabinet Secretary will be following up those points you've made.

14:30

I'd like to request a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care on the provision of NHS and primary care services for deaf people. There are around 575,000 deaf and hard of hearing people living in Wales, including over 4,000 people who use British Sign Language. Now, a constituent of mine, Andrea Eveleigh, is one of those 4,000 people. Andrea has recently been in touch about her shocking experience of trying to book a dentist appointment. Andrea and her husband's repeated appeals to their dental surgery have been completely overlooked and Andrea continues to receive phone calls. Now, an overwhelming majority of services simply expect everyone to use audio services, but this isn't accessible or at all appropriate for those deaf BSL users like Andrea. So, I'd be grateful for clarification in the form of a statement from the Cabinet Secretary about the Welsh Government's work to ensure equity of access to health and primary care services for deaf people. 

Thank you, Luke, for your question. 

Equity of access is crucially important and very key, underpinning the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care's support, objectives and ambitions for a truly inclusive national health service here in Wales, particularly in relation to deaf people. We are fortunate as well that we do have full engagement with disabled people, including deaf people. Our disability equality rights taskforce, which the Cabinet Secretary has attended herself, is looking at all the issues in relation to health equity and inclusion. But I think, also, it's recognising BSL and the ways in which, in fact, this is not just a health issue, it's an education issue that our children and young people increasingly learn BSL in an inclusive way. But, certainly, in terms of primary care, the Cabinet Secretary, who is here, will be following that point up. 

Two statements, please, if you would. As a result of a freedom of information request, I was really concerned to read that there have been approximately 230 unsafe discharges from medical facilities in the Betsi board. The unsafe discharges were as follows: wrong patients conveyed—five patients; discharged to wrong locations—five; wrong address and destination provided—approximately five; discharge inappropriate—a staggering 221 patients. In the last couple of months, I've been made aware of two very unsafe discharges actually, then, needing the patients to go back to hospital. This does clearly outline that whilst some improvements have been made to this board, you cannot have a sustainable position where we're having such unsafe discharges. So, if we could have a statement from the health Minister on that, I'd be grateful.

I also would ask for a statement from the Minister for rural affairs—an immediate statement. Our farmers now are facing a crisis never seen before at this time of the year. Fields are waterlogged, very high water tables, people having to bring lambs in, which is extra feeding. They really are facing an immense crisis. So, I really want to see what support, in terms of funding, or any support that the rural affairs Minister— . Surely, they are aware of the situation I'm aware of across Wales, and what are they going to actually do to support our farmers? The first crop that should have gone in, many have been missed, and it's actually quite a bad time for farmers. Thank you. 

Thank you very much for your question, Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Two important questions this afternoon. I think that, importantly, the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care heard the point that you've made about the safety of discharges issues in Betsi Cadwaladr. And also, of course, we have our Cabinet Secretary for north Wales as well, Ken Skates, who will be hearing that point, and I know that he, alongside the health Secretary, will be engaging on those points with Betsi Cadwaladr.

And you raised a really important point in terms of farming and the wet weather, which the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs is very aware of. We recognise that this is about changing climatic conditions, increasing weather extremes, already affecting Welsh soil, water resources and livestock, intense and prolonged rainfall and flooding—we saw it ourselves over the Easter period—but also linked to recurring periods of summer droughts and wildfires. But I think the issues around particularly the wet weather—we're monitoring it, the Cabinet Secretary and officials are monitoring it carefully, in terms of impact on farmers, and also linking to the UK-wide agriculture market monitoring group. The Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs is going to convene a summit of key stakeholders to discuss the current situation, and what interventions may be necessary from across the supply chain to deal with the exceptional circumstances that some farmers are facing.

14:35

There is a scandal that's unfolding at Ffos-y-fran opencast mine near Merthyr. Up until earlier this year, the company in charge of the site had been illegally extracting coal for more than a year. They have now abandoned the site, but to add a further insult to the injuries done to that landscape, they turned off the water pumps when they left. So, now, the residents of Merthyr are left with not just a gaping hole in the earth, but a hole that is rapidly filling with contaminated water. Now, I'd like a statement, please, from the Government, setting out what urgent actions you'll take. You've said that you'll keep a close eye on the situation, but we are running out of time. The concentration of the chemicals contaminating the dirty water is increasing, just as water levels are rising. Now, that poses a risk, not just in terms of environmental health, but a danger to life. The walls of the tip could fail—it is a landscape that is prone to landslips—and we are fast approaching a time when it will be too late to pump out the water. So, can an urgent statement clarify what the Government is doing to ensure that independent surveyors are allowed access to the tip, that the pumps are turned back on, even if that means compulsory purchase of the land, and whether legal proceedings will be taken against the company for allowing this contamination to happen?

Thank you very much for your question, Delyth Jewell.

This is an issue, very clearly, in terms of Ffos-y-fran, that the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs has been addressing, closely monitoring the situation with Ffos-y-fran. And the priority, of course, as you've acknowledged and reminded us, is ensuring the safety of the local community. So, the Cabinet Secretary's officials, and himself, are in regular contact with the local authority and a range of public sector partners, being clear about the safeguarding and the restoration of the site. That's the objective, but, alongside, wishing to see the full restoration of the site, in line with planning permission. The leader of the council has provided assurances that the water level in the void, for example, isn't an immediate concern. But Welsh Government is providing support to the council, to ensure that they are able to assess independent assessments on potential flooding concerns and environmental impacts.

Good afternoon, Trefnydd, and welcome to your new role. I wanted to ask a question that actually straddles your previous role as Minister for Social Justice, which was concerned with the refugee welcome bus ticket. That has now been stalled, paused, awaiting a further iteration. But in the interim, we have refugees across Wales, particularly in rural areas, with actually no funding in order to transport themselves, take their children to school, for example, and it's particularly affecting, as I say, those in rural areas, who have to rely on buses. I wonder if I could ask for a statement from the Minister for culture—sorry, the Cabinet Secretary; we'll have to get used to saying that now, won't we—the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and Social Justice on a timetable for the reintroduction of the new scheme for the refugee welcome bus ticket. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

14:40

Diolch yn fawr, Jane Dodds, and thank you for your good wishes for my new role as Trefnydd. This has been a really important scheme, hasn't it, the welcome ticket? It contributed over the last two years to help so many refugees, and I recognise the point you've made about rural areas particularly. I think just a few words, because of obviously my previous role, to reflect that it was introduced as part of our response to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, and we estimate that over a million free journeys have been provided to people seeking sanctuary from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Hong Kong and refugees from across the world.

I'll just also, just for the record, say the scheme was a condition of the £200 million emergency funding package for the bus industry to help it recover following the pandemic, and, as you know, was extended over the last two years. But as this came to an end at the end of March of this year, the length of the scheme was always going to be determined in relation to availability of funding.

So, as was recognised, the first phase of the welcome ticket ended on 31 March, and the intention is to use the learning guided over the last two years to develop the next phase of the scheme, which needs to be sustainable and fit for purpose, ensuring that resources are focused on those most in need. Very importantly, stakeholders were involved all the way through the development of the predecessor scheme—Welsh Refugee Council, local authorities, Transport for Wales, all of the stakeholders—and work is under way with the key stakeholders to launch a new phase during this financial year. So, I certainly will share this with the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and Social Justice in terms of any further information and clarification on the timeline for this.

I call for two statements from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care. The first on action by the Welsh Government to reduce the numbers of autistic people or people with a learning disability still locked up in assessment and treatment centres in Wales and England. A 'homes not hospitals' protest outside the Senedd tomorrow lunchtime, supported by Learning Disability Wales and 13 other organisations including Mencap Cymru, will raise awareness of the lack of movement by the Welsh Government on this issue.

After I wrote to the former Deputy Minister for Mental Health and Well-being as chair of the cross-party autism group, jointly with Hefin David as a group member, regarding the sectioning and detention of autistic people due to placements breaking down rather than any specific mental health issue, her reply confirmed that data on this is not held centrally by the Welsh Government, which questions how they can make informed decisions about service delivery.

There's been a learning disability strategy in place in Wales since 2018, which seeks to ensure that autistic people or people with a learning disability who are in long-term placements are discharged and able to live their lives in their community. However, Learning Disability Wales states that approximately 150 autistic people or people with a learning disability are known to be in a hospital setting, over two thirds for over 10 years, although numbers don't include all people and all settings. We therefore need to know why such a high number are still in long-term hospital placements. I call for a statement accordingly.

I also call for a statement on the pain management service in north Wales. After the Countess of Chester Hospital told me that Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board was repatriating pain management services for people in north-east Flintshire to Wrexham Maelor Hospital, with a consequent explosion in waiting times, the then health Minister, Mark Drakeford, told me that it was a matter for the health board and otherwise did nothing.

Only yesterday a constituent living in Hawarden suffering with chronic pain e-mailed the team dealing with bookings for the pain management clinic at Wrexham Maelor and they informed him that he would have to wait another two years before he would get an appointment, meaning he will have to wait three years in total. He asks what steps are you taking to hold them to account and bring about significant improvement, or do you consider a three-year wait for treatment acceptable? I therefore put that question to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and call for a statement from that Cabinet Secretary on this matter also.

14:45

Thank you very much, Mark Isherwood, for those questions. I think events like the event held today at the Senedd are really important in terms of highlighting the need for access, particularly to autistic people, people with learning disabilities, and the organisations that were represented, as you have outlined, today—Learning Disability Wales, Mencap Cymru. And, of course, I know that that will have included—. Many of the people who were gathering together were people with lived experience and lived experience of the need to have access to an inclusive health service in terms of the way forward. And I'd also very much acknowledge the 'homes not hospitals' steer and approach and ambition of the Welsh Government and our Welsh NHS. So, certainly, that will be taken back, acknowledged and taken forward in terms of a response to the event today.

On your second point, in terms of the service in north-east Wales in particular provided by Betsi Cadwaladr, in terms of access to it and what will be really important to people, particularly people with chronic conditions in terms of pain management, again, I will raise this with the Cabinet Secretary and, indeed, the Cabinet Secretaries for health and also for north Wales in terms of looking at that situation. 

May I ask for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language on—? I will wait a moment. I was seeking a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for the economy on the role of Wales in arming the Israeli Government and the Israel Defense Forces. The Trefnydd will be aware that over 33,000 have now been killed in Gaza and that 1.7 million are suffering famine at the moment. Canada, Spain and others have ceased the licensing of the sale of arms to the Israeli Government, whilst the UK Government has continued to license the sale of arms to them. The International Court of Justice has called on the Israeli Government to cease actions that, according to the ICJ, appear to be falling into the definition of genocide. So, the fact that the UK is allowing for such arms to be sold and to be used by the IDF means that the UK is culpable in these atrocities. Companies from Wales do provide components for these weapons, so can we have a statement on what steps the Government is taking in order to prevent this from happening, and an assurance that Welsh Government funding isn't being provided to companies that are funding these weapons?

Diolch yn fawr, Mabon ap Gwynfor. Thank you for raising this important issue. Of course, over the weeks of the Easter recess, we've seen the horrendous and appalling situation in the middle east and have seen the impact of the famine on the people, and children particularly, of Gaza. Certainly, this is something where, in terms of our powers and responsibilities, we have no role in terms of defence and the sale of arms, but certainly I will be sharing this question with the Cabinet Secretary for economy in terms of Wales and where we sit in that situation in terms of that question.

Trefnydd, can I request an urgent statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs on the ongoing situation at Withyhedge landfill site in my constituency? Residents in the area continue to suffer terrible odours from the site, despite the operator promising action to resolve this by 5 April. It's even more important that the Welsh Government intervenes and ensures there is a resolution to this problem, given that, as was said earlier, the operator donated a huge amount of money to the First Minister's recent leadership campaign. For months, residents have had to suffer. It has gone on and on, and it has got to stop, because this is completely unacceptable. Now, I've made representations to Natural Resources Wales and to the First Minister, and I'm still waiting for a full response, but we need the Welsh Government to set out its stall and explain what it's doing to address this serious environmental and, indeed, public health matter. I'm sure you'll agree with me, Trefnydd, that people's health and well-being is more important than anything else, and so I urge the Welsh Government to issue a statement as a matter of urgency so that residents do not have to suffer any longer, because, quite rightly, my constituents want action, not words.

14:50

Diolch yn fawr, Paul Davies. Clearly, I understand the concern that's been raised—and you've raised it today—amongst the local community in terms of the Withyhedge landfill site. I understand that the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs is receiving updates from Natural Resources Wales, and the need for swift action to prevent the odours has been emphasised to Natural Resources Wales. They've increased their presence onsite, NRW, and they're continuing to update the community via their website as activities progress, and an enforcement notice has been served on the landfill operator, who is required to cover all exposed waste and complete landfill engineering work to contain and collect landfill gas.

Congratulations on your new role, Cabinet Secretary, leader of the house. I would like to request a statement from the relevant Cabinet Secretary to enable an important discussion on the floor of this house on the Cass review, the final report. I first flagged up my initial concerns over the Cass review when we were privy to the interim report, but, sadly, it fell on deaf ears in this Chamber, when I called for a Wales-specific review, yet, this Welsh Labour Government ploughed on with its ideological path and did nothing. The outcome of Dr Cass's findings are hugely significant for Wales as well as England. In Wales, the pathway for young people diagnosed with gender dysphoria includes referral to gender services in England, as you know. The Cass review highlights concerns and the dangers of prescribing untested and irreversible drugs, such as puberty blockers, to young people. The Cass report also warns against teachers being forced into making premature and, effectively, clinical decisions. Yet, this is implicit throughout the Welsh Government's LGBTQ+ action plan and the compulsory relationships and sex education here in Wales.

For years, we've seen this Government and its Ministers burying their heads in the sand when it comes to safeguarding these children and young people. The people who were previously vilified for expressing these very real concerns have now been vindicated by this final report. Parents, teachers and health workers across Wales will expect this Welsh Government to take heed of the findings and to act on them, no matter how uncomfortable that makes them feel. I am now calling on this Welsh Government to have some humility and admit that what they've been advocating for has been part of the problem, and now commit to looking at the 32 recommendations on how to make gender services for children and young people in Wales the best and the safest that they can be, including looking into banning puberty blockers in Wales.

There are shared concerns, across party, about the findings of the Cass review, the final report, so we urgently need to address this on the floor of this Chamber, please, Cabinet Secretary, and I ask that this Welsh Government accommodates that. Thank you. Diolch.

Well, Laura Anne Jones, the Cass review did aim to ensure that children and young people who were questioning their gender identity or experiencing gender dysphoria and required support from the NHS receive that high standard of care that meets their needs and is safe, holistic and effective. I think what's important is that we take the toxicity out of this debate and that we recognise here in Wales that we're committed to improving the gender identity development pathway, the support available for young people in Wales, in line with our commitments in our LGBTQ+ plan. But we will consider the report's findings. We will continue to be driven by the evidence to best support the needs of young people. And I think that is the most important role, in terms of the Cabinet Secretary for Heath and Social Care, this Government and, indeed, this Senedd, to take in terms of understanding what this means for our young people in Wales, and seeing it in the light of the fact that this is a very difficult situation for so many young people and, indeed, those who care and learn with them and teach them, and we need to understand and consider this carefully and responsibly together.

6. Statement by the First Minister: Delivering Wales's priorities

The next item, therefore, will be the statement by the First Minister on delivering Wales's priorities. The First Minister, therefore—Vaughan Gething.

It is a great pleasure to be able to set out today the priorities for this Welsh Government and our commitment to work with the people of Wales to create a future that works for the people of Wales.

It is a great pleasure to be able to set out today the priorities for this Welsh Government and our commitment to work with the people of Wales to create a future that works for the people of Wales.

In my first three weeks as First Minister, I have met with the British Medical Association to discuss NHS strikes, with farming unions to listen to their concerns, and with steelworkers to discuss how we press the case for the best deal for steel, not the cheapest deal. I'd like to thank everyone involved in those productive and constructive discussions, where I, alongside our new Cabinet Secretaries, have had an opportunity to engage on difficult issues that require partnership working and compromises to find a solution for the future.

These early engagements were a priority, and they serve, I hope, as a signal of the investment that Ministers across the Welsh Government will put into the serious business of dialogue, negotiation and partnership working. I am proud to have brought together a team with the vision, values and experience needed to serve Wales.

We know that it has never been more important to ensure that all of our resources across Government are focused on what matters most to people's daily lives. After over a decade of austerity, we must focus on a set of core priorities if we are to deliver the positive, progressive change that we want to see. As we drew together and debated the Welsh Government budget, we all engaged with the gravity of the financial situation that we face. The £1.3 billion drop in the value of our budget is worth four times the economy budget of this Government. As growing numbers of major local authorities in England issue notices effectively announcing that they are unable to form a budget, we have avoided that crisis, using our values to steer a progressive course through stark challenges. That involves decisions that none of us came into politics hoping to make, and fine judgments that no Minister ever takes lightly. 

Having a relentless focus on the most important issues will demonstrate what we, as a Government, stand for and what we are determined to deliver. It will also drive a sharper focus within the Government, at a time when families and businesses are living with such uncertainty and the continuing cost-of-living crisis. It cannot, however, mean offering impossible commitments without complete answers on how they are to be funded and delivered. Such commitments actively threaten the services that those most in need of support rely upon.

It's clear that the NHS, and reducing waiting times, is a top priority for the people of Wales, and the same is true for us as a Government. The suspension of strike action, announced following our meeting with the BMA, is an important first step in that work, and I am pleased that formal discussions can now take place. Patient care will be at the forefront of everything that we do. This means that we will prioritise funding for our NHS and social care in our budgets, tackling waiting lists, and investing in technology and innovation.

Over the last 14 years, we have seen how the endless cycle of austerity and low growth in the economy have held down living standards and held back Wales's economic potential, as well as that of the UK as a whole. It has driven people into poverty, caused living costs to skyrocket, and piled pressure on the public services that we all rely upon. That means that this Welsh Government must work twice as hard to support people that need our help and support the most.

That's why the fight to lift children out of poverty will be at the heart of this Welsh Government's mission. No childhood should begin blighted by poverty. We will do everything we can in making sure that children can grow up feeling happy and hopeful for their future. To do this, we will renew our focus on supporting the first 1,000 days of a child's life. Those very earliest days lay the foundation for a child's life, and for their family as a whole. We will improve support for children and look to empower parents and families during this vital period. That will require a long-term and co-ordinated response across Government, across public services and, indeed, across Wales.

We will do everything in our power to help achieve excellence in our schools, with a sustained improvement in educational attainment being the top priority. We know that a good education is key to building ambitious futures and healthier lives. How well a child does at school plays a significant role in their life chances. So, we will continue to roll out the Curriculum for Wales, with a renewed focus on literacy and numeracy. It is essential that children are in school with their friends, learning, if they are to reach their full potential, so we will prioritise improving attendance and attainment, recognising the investment in equality that this also represents. And we will work so that the next generation, and everyone in society, can feel a new prosperity through a strong and greener economy, in a transition that Wales is perfectly placed to exploit.

We will prioritise building a greener economy where people find good, secure employment. It is good for the planet, good for business and good for the secure economic futures that people across Wales expect and deserve. We'll have new clean growth hubs to deliver better paid jobs, green business loans to help businesses decarbonise and lower energy bills and training for net-zero skills, planning reforms and ambitious investment to unlock green growth. Wales led the way in a previous industrial revolution. Now, as other nations race to compete for the jobs of the future, I want Wales to be at the very forefront of that race. Together, we must grasp this opportunity so that Wales can lead again.

And lastly, we will improve the transport networks that make and shape the places that we live in, helping to tackle the climate emergency and restoring a sense of belonging, connection and community. This Government will radically shake up the way the public transport system works in Wales, including legislating for a new bus Bill. It means moving from a privatised system that puts profit before people to a system that brings buses and trains together around the needs of people.

Reducing NHS waiting lists, support for children in early years, educational excellence in our schools, better, greener jobs, improved transport links across the country—these are Wales's priorities, and these are our priorities. This goes to the heart of what devolution is all about and why we must always protect it: Welsh solutions to Welsh problems and opportunities. We will go on making the compelling argument for genuine partnership with the UK Government and for further powers and increased funding that Wales needs to support the outcomes that Wales deserves. This is what will guide us going forward into the next chapter of devolution in Wales.

We are now beginning a new journey, a new chapter in the history of devolution.

I've established a new Cabinet Office role within the ministerial team, and the Cabinet is already working on how we can turn our action and our priorities into the strongest possible outcomes for communities and businesses that face such a challenging backdrop. But, Llywydd, we must confront the reality that too much of our politics and our public life is overshadowed by those who seek to divide us, to push us against our better instincts. Wales is not immune to this challenge, but we can choose a more positive path.

Last week, I had the honour of attending and presenting the St David Awards. Amongst the many inspirational winners, I met Callum Smith, a teenager from Porth in the Rhondda, who saved a young man about to take his life. That day, Callum was brave enough to offer the hand of friendship to a stranger in desperation. Callum, like so many winners, showed genuine courage and demonstrated once more that it is a sign of true strength to do the right thing, to serve and to help others. Those who choose to trade in cynical populism lack the strength to do so and only serve themselves. Worse still, theirs is a politics that invites us to turn our energy into obsessive arguments about where we differ at the expense of all those things that draw us together.

But the St David Awards winners remind us of the innate goodness to be found in the acts of people across Wales—all of the small things that we can do together for each other. I hope that it can remind all of us that we really do have more in common than that which divides us.

I hope we can draw upon strength and optimism represented in the acts of those award winners.

I hope we can draw upon the strength and optimism represented in the acts of those award winners and work together on these priorities to build an ambitious future for a fairer Wales. Diolch, Llywydd.

15:05

First Minister, I wish you and your Government well in your endeavours, because you have a mandate and the people of Wales look to the Government to obviously deliver on that mandate, and, if it works, it improves people’s lives the length and breadth of Wales. But listening to your statement and the reference to the Cabinet Office that you’ve created under Rebecca Evans, I hark back to the days of Carwyn Jones and his delivery unit, and it would seem to me as if all you’re doing is giving it another tag, and it’ll have the same function. And as we know, regrettably, on many of the key targets, your predecessor Government, led by Mark Drakeford, sadly missed the waiting times targets that it set itself, the Programme for International Student Assessment targets on educational attainment that it wanted to achieve, and the economic targets that you, as economic Minister, were charged with delivering.

When it comes to health—and we’ve talked in First Minister’s questions today about budgets and the shrinkage, as you see it, in the overall budget of the Welsh Government—one of the key planks that, obviously, can help balance the budget is working with the health boards to make sure that they don’t constantly go over budget and end up having to be bailed out by the Welsh Government, and us having then to have interim budgets taking money away from other portfolio responsibilities. So, how will you work with the health boards to stay within their budgets and deliver on the key target of waiting time reductions that we all want to see, and ultimately we know, sadly, year on year is being missed? It cannot be right that nearly 25,000 people are waiting here in Wales for a procedure on the Welsh NHS for two years or more. That, surely, has to be a bull's-eye that you want to hit and bring down. So how will you be working with the health boards to stay within their budgets and deliver on the targets, so that other portfolio areas can ultimately deliver on their goals that are set out in the programme for government?

When it comes to working in the education sector, we know full well that obviously the PISA results that came out in November last year were disappointing, to put it mildly. Previous Welsh Governments have set targets for where they want the next PISA target to be for Welsh education. Leighton Andrews, when he was education Minister, had a go, Kirsty Williams had a go. Will you be setting a similar target for your education Minister to work with the educational establishments across Wales? Because through good education you tackle those poverty blankets that you see in many communities, which, sadly, are so stubborn to remove. And if you have that goal, the whole education system can move towards improving that education experience in our schools. So, can you confirm whether the Government will be setting its targets for the next round of PISA examinations?

Also, in the last budget round, I appreciate it was reinstated, but the Government’s manifesto commitment on apprenticeships was taken away for a short period of time because of funding cuts. That, as I appreciate, was reinstated, but can you commit that there will not be a similar assault on that manifesto commitment for the remainder of the term that the Senedd has up until 2026, so that further education colleges can have certainty in delivering that important manifesto commitment of increasing the number of apprenticeships here in Wales?

When it comes to the economy portfolio, we know that many businesses here in Wales are at a disadvantage because of the budget decision taken to lower the rate relief that is available on business rates here in Wales from 75 per cent to 40 per cent. Is there any consideration going on in Government at the moment to reinstate that 75 per cent relief? Because that would be a massive shot in the arm for small and medium-sized businesses the length and breadth of Wales. Because, as I’m sure you remember from your time as economy spokesperson in the Government, that money stays within those businesses, it protects jobs and it protects investments, and isn’t salted away in some savings fund. So, can you confirm what action the Government is taking to work with businesses to mitigate the original decision and, in an ideal world, reverse that decision so that, ultimately, businesses on this side of Offa's Dyke can enjoy the same relief as other parts of the country do on business rates? 

When it comes to transport, what is of critical importance is for us to understand the review that the new transport Minister has indicated into the road building schemes that he is going to set new tests for whether they go forward to be considered for construction. We heard from the Member for Blaenau Gwent the importance of the Heads of the Valleys road and, ultimately, the economic spin-offs for that important investment in the Heads of the Valleys. Why should other parts of Wales be disenfranchised when the decisions have been, in effect, mothballed by the previous transport Minister to take these projects forward? So, I'd be grateful if, in your response to me, you could indicate how those decisions are going to be recalibrated, reconsidered, within the guise of the new Government that you lead? 

Also, as has been pressed in FMQs, the 20 mph national speed reduction that was brought forward in September has had a difficult start, to say the least, but will have a continuing difficult impact on the economic performance, and, ultimately, what review processes are in place that weren't in place prior to you taking the role of First Minister? You indicated you were going to have a meaningful discussion on this policy position. Is it just the review that the previous transport Minister instigated, or is it a genuine new review and a new discussion around this legislation that was brought forward by the previous Government? 

On the sustainable farming scheme, the rural affairs Minister indicated last night in an interview that there would be no moving of the date of implementation, it would take place next year, but there were other solutions that were being considered by the Government around the 10 per cent tree cover and other matters contained within the sustainable farming scheme. Are you able to indicate, given that your statement included a reference to the very first meeting that you held with the farming unions, what the direction of travel that the Government are undertaking on this important area of policy, which, for the first time since devolution, the Government will have responsibility in bringing forward that package and that proposal to support agriculture here in Wales? 

And when it comes to the doctors' strike, if I can go back to where I started, and the suspension of industrial action pending negotiations, the health Minister in her previous commentary on the industrial action has said there is no more money available within the Welsh coffers to increase that offer. So, can you confirm today that the talks around the strike action are more around terms and conditions, or have you as First Minister, unlike your predecessor, been able to identify new money within the Welsh budget that—? I'm not asking you to disclose what that amount would be because, obviously, you're in negotiations, but can you disclose whether there is new money on the table, or is it, really, addressing terms and conditions and sticking to the existing financial offer that has been made to the doctors previously? Thank you, First Minister.  

15:10

Thank you for the series of questions. I look forward to our engagements across the Chamber. We may find opportunities to agree in amongst the points where there are going to be clear and sharp differences, as you would expect given that we lead different parties with a different view on what the future of Wales and the UK should look like. I tend to see the last 14 years as the problem; no doubt he will say the last 14 years of Conservative leadership have been a giant success story for Wales and Britain. People will get to make their own choices when the next election comes on that central choice. 

I'll run through the points that the Member has broadly made, and just a word more broadly about our priorities—as I set out, early priorities in conversations with doctors, steel workers and farmers, and a number of those points came up in the Member's comments, albeit not commentary about the steel sector. When it comes to the NHS and our budgetary challenge, this runs through a range of the comments the Member has made. In my opening statement, I set out that we have a responsibility to set out answers on how we'll fund them and how we'll deliver them. Much of what the Member asked for was a shopping list for extra spending without, at any point, identifying where that money would come from. And yet the Member knows in real terms since 2021, our budget is worth £700 million less in real terms now after the latest budget round. In addition, there's the £1.1 billion of former EU funds that have not come to Wales. That is a direct and permanent loss to Wales that has not been made up for by the shared prosperity fund that, of course, we have been deliberately excluded from.

When it comes to how the different national health services manage, of course, the NHS in England has always had the ability to convert capital to revenue at the end of year; that has never been available to us. Different financial means are made available to different parts of the UK. We, nevertheless, in all of the difficult choices we have made, have invested more than 4 per cent in our NHS's budget, compared to less than 1 per cent in England. That is both about keeping the wheels on the bus, so the health service keeps on running, but also the challenge of how we deliver improvements. In 15 of the last 18 months, we've had better four-hour performances in A&E departments in Wales than England. It does show that the effort that is being made across our health service, and the leadership of the Cabinet Secretary for health, is starting to see a turnaround in longer waiters and standard waiters too. We look forward to the trend continuing.

This is also, though, about how we look at accountability and demand within our system: how do we expect the NHS to meet the targets we are providing? The 4 per cent and more does not come cost free; it comes at a real cost to other areas of spending across public services and, indeed, how we support the economy. We haven't seen an alternative budget from any other party in this place, so, actually, we aren't able to understand what alternative priorities would look like: whether you'd want more to go into the NHS and where it would come from; whether you'd want less in the NHS and where that would then go. None of those choices have ever been set out in an alternative budget for more than a decade.

When it comes to how we'll see improvements, part of that is about keeping our workforce in work. That's why I was so pleased to meet with the Cabinet Secretary for health and the BMA. We have had an element of end-of-year money. It's both a possibility for us to use that, which was not available during the eight previous meetings that Eluned Morgan had with the BMA, but it also reflects on the fact that the way our financial system works is wholly unacceptable. We have gone through a budget round making very painful, difficult choices. If we'd known about the end-of-year money, to be able to plan into that, we could have made different choices where we may not have had industrial action in the health service, or we could have avoided some of the painful choices we had to make to present a balanced budget to this place to pass. So, I look forward to being able to do better in the future, when I hope we'll have a different UK Government that will recognise the stability that Wales and Britain needs. And, in fact, in my engagement with the wider public, they understand that lots of our budget challenges are directly related to 14 years of the occupants of Downing Street.

When it comes to education, before the pandemic we saw increases in literacy, numeracy and science. The reduction in performance we've seen since then is not something that we take lightly. Of course, the last Programme for International Student Assessment didn't assess any people who have been undertaking learning through our new curriculum. I'm interested in working with the IFS and others, as we look at improving performance and the key points for reform to help deliver attainment and attendance in a new curriculum that prioritises both knowledge and skills; it is not one or the other. And you can expect there to be a relentless focus on improving outcomes for children and young people from this Government.

That also links into the challenges around apprenticeships. I heard much talk about wanting to see more money spent. I've never heard, from the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, an acknowledgement that huge amounts of money have been taken out of our apprenticeship budget because of the betrayal on former EU funds. It is factual and undeniable. If he doubts it, he should talk to the Chair of the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee, who could show him the report that his committee undertook. There is an assault on our budget that has undeniable consequences. I look forward to a pledge being delivered for former EU funds and powers being returned to Wales, and we can restore the investment we want to make in our apprenticeship programme for apprentices of all ages, and that would be good for the economy.

On transport priorities, you'll hear more about this from Ken Skates next week. On the road-building test, the policy remains the same; it's about how we implement it. And, of course, the challenge of our budget has not gone away. We've actually done incredibly poorly on our capital budget in the recent rounds of budgets from the UK Government. So, capital expenditure is simply not available there, even if we did have ambitions to undertake a huge road-building project. But, actually, the challenge isn't the policy, it's about the delivery on it and the purposes of it as well.

We are reviewing the guidance on 20 mph, as I've said more than once. We're working with local government partners on that, and there will be an opportunity for public engagement around proposals for change, as I have pledged many times.

On the sustainable farming scheme, it was a very constructive meeting that I had with the new Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs, with farming unions. There was a recognition about where we want to move through, with nearly 12,000 responses to the consultation, the ongoing conversations around some of the knottier and more difficult issues, but a determination to want to find an answer that prioritises high-quality food and drink production here in Wales, and the requirement that every sector of our economy and public services will need to make to the climate and nature emergencies that we face. It was also very clear, though, that people don't want to see the scheme that is being implemented in England. I know that there have been points in time when people have said that they want what's over the border, but that isn't the view of farming representatives. We will carry on working to understand what a scheme could and should look like here in Wales, and I look forward to further reports from Huw Irranca-Davies in his new role.

Finally, on delivery, I'm very optimistic about what we're going to be able to do in having more coherence about what we do across the Government with the different challenges we have faced. That will though mean that, for some interest groups and committees, we're going to need to say 'no' to requests for new strategies and policies. If we're going to have priorities, we can't keep on adding more priorities and more strategies into what we do. I think people will see a consistency in the way we approach that both within the Government and in our engagement with wider stakeholders too.

15:20

I welcome this early statement of the new Government's priorities, and I wish that Government well in its work, and do so sincerely. The challenges facing the Government are numerous and substantial, and they emerge partly from Conservative austerity at Westminster, and it doesn't surprise me at all to see the First Minister giving so much attention to that in the statement. I agree with him, of course, on the impact of the Tory cuts, but it's impossible to blame them for everything. The list of priorities that we've heard being set out are ones that I'm happy to support in general terms. There is, in a limited number of areas, an agreement where we can try and influence the Government to deliver, and we've succeeded in doing that in important areas, but my frustration far too often is with the Labour Government's inability to act in earnest on its priorities across all of these policy areas, in economy, health and education, that they are responsible for, and where they are responsible for making a difference on behalf of the people of Wales. 

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

I hope the Senedd will forgive my slight cynicism at the beginning of this new term, but it feels all too familiar, that there has been some musical chairs in the Cabinet, but otherwise it's a rehashing, a reforming of what we previously had.

I'll begin with some comments about what I see as weaknesses, fundamental weaknesses in the Government's approach: they give up too often when faced with failure. For too long, when targets have been set in pursuit of delivery, too many have been changed or dropped altogether, particularly when it comes to the NHS in recent times. Secondly, I think we need a recognition that you can't do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. At the start of devolution, the first Labour administration had some pretty bold targets to narrow Wales's productivity gap with the rest of the UK—a prerequisite for building a more prosperous and more dynamic economy. At the time, we stood at 74 per cent of the UK average, but there's been barely any change, with targets discarded through lack of ambition. Wales remains eleventh out of the 12 nations and regions of the UK on gross value added per capita with no change in six years.

On health, look at the figures for 2018, with just over 1,500 people waiting more than 14 weeks on an NHS waiting list; it now stands at over 43,000, and those lists were growing well before the pandemic struck. So, to include economy and health among the priorities, that is fine; my disagreement isn't so much with the priorities, but rather Government's inability to address the challenges it identifies. They've identified priorities before; it's that Labour's record in delivery has been too poor, too often.

Take child poverty: a sobering illustration of my earlier point that when the Welsh Government looks likely to miss a target, it has a record of simply dropping it. A cross-party committee of this Senedd came to the view that the Government's approach to child poverty lacks ambition. The Children's Commissioner for Wales said that the Government was focusing on what it can't do, rather than what it can do. Similarly, a failure to develop a sustainable workforce plan in the NHS has resulted in longer waits, a burnt-out workforce and spiralling profits for private companies resulting from an over-dependency on agency staff. And we can't expect anything other than economic stagnation if the attitude of Government is one of penalising ambitious companies by cutting business rates relief.

I guess I have one simple question for the First Minister, and I asked it at the start of First Minister's questions today: what will he do differently? Under that, you can break it down to a number of other fundamental questions. Why is the First Minister so relaxed about the prospect of treasures for future generations being lost as a result of his cuts to Amgueddfa Cymru? When will pay be restored for front-line health workers and a long-term plan developed to recruit and retain more staff? How long will we have to wait? Why do farmers see a Government working against its best interests? That's how farming feels. And why does the Institute for Fiscal Studies conclude that low educational outcomes are the consequences of Welsh Government policies?

The very existence, I think, of questions of that fundamental nature highlights the need to adopt a different approach. I encourage the First Minister to adopt a different approach to secure better outcomes, or else managed decline will remain the hallmark of Labour Welsh Governments.

Now, in Plaid Cymru, we are clear as to what we would do differently and, first of all, we must stop looking at things constantly through the Westminster prism. We are supposed to believe that the election of a Labour Government will be some sort of silver bullet, although no pledges have been made on the fundamental things that Wales is seeking. Putting Wales's fate in the hands of another Government isn't a concept that my party is willing to accept. The well of clear red water has run dry, I'm afraid, and the First Minister must think very carefully before being so willing to give in to the demands of his colleagues in Westminster. That's why hearing pledges on arms and nothing on HS2 and funding for Wales is frustrating. [Interruption.]

The leader of the Conservatives was given some more time than this, if you could bear with me.

And what about policing and justice? With the elections for the police and crime commissioners on the horizon, these benches are entirely committed to a justice system for Wales. During the leadership race, the First Minister said that he wanted more powers, but I'm afraid that he will have to explain himself better than that. Who is Labour's voice in Wales really? It is him, the First Minister of Wales, or the Labour MP who told Politico,

'Jeremy and Vaughan are living in gaga land if they think they're getting justice devolved'?

I hope the First Minister will be making the case for empowering Wales and this Parliament, and prove that his priorities are driven by the interests of our communities and not the Labour whip in London.

15:25

Thank you for the series of comments and some questions within there. I want to start with the point that the Member makes about the form of this Government. I actually think that people in Wales rather like having a stable Government able to make choices, even in difficult times. Other models are available, as the welcome return of Liz Truss to the airwaves reminds us all that different models have been tried repeatedly in the last few years and we are all living with the consequences.

And with respect, the Member can't have it both ways. He can't complain bitterly about the reality of Conservative austerity and then deny its impact. I'm clear about where austerity and our budget has a very real impact on the choices we make. We all saw that in the budget that we had to pass just a few weeks ago. I'm also clear about areas where I want to see improvement. I set those out in the statement on the NHS and wanting to see improvement in waiting times. The investment that we are making at real cost to other parts of the budget in Wales needs to come with the ability to deliver better within our health service. That's also the view of Eluned Morgan: making sure that we have clear lines about accountability, but also what we need to invest in, to make sure that we're giving our staff the best opportunity to do their very best job for the communities that they serve.

And the health service really is personal to me. I know exactly what it is like to have your whole life reliant on the quality of what takes place within our service. If I had been a resident of a different country when I was seriously ill at the age of 19 and 20, it's entirely possible that I would not be here now. I know what the health service means and the experience of care as well as the outcomes that are delivered. That's why the NHS is an undeniable priority for this Government and the way we have formed our budget reflects that.

And when it comes to education, if anyone doubts the commitment of Lynne Neagle to see better outcomes for children and young people in their health and well-being, but also their opportunity to have a fairer future, then I don't think you've been paying attention for the last 25 years. I look forward to working with Lynne as we look at the IFS report, as we look at the challenges that it provides to us, but also about our ability to work with them on delivering a system that really will deliver improvements in attainment and attendance. I say again, though, that the report recently from the IFS did not look at the reality that the PISA learners who went through the last round had not undertaken the new curriculum in Wales. We are serious about making sure there is a better future for children and young people here before school, during school and afterwards.

When it comes to productivity, that's a key part of the challenge for the future of our economy. The productivity puzzle is a challenge right across the UK, where the length of hours worked doesn't always mean we're seeing greater productivity in our economy. During the piece of devolution, we have seen improving productivity. Our challenge is that there's still an appreciable gap between us and the rest of the UK, largely driven by the massive inequality in the south-east of England. But it's why we're so keen to see powers restored to Wales to invest more in skills and the longer term future, to use the levers we have to actually invest in the future we really could have. It's why green prosperity is at the heart of this Government's approach to the future of our economy. 

When it comes to child poverty, my earliest role within the Government was as the Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty, looking at what we were doing across the Government, looking at what worked and how we were able to deal with it with our different levers—many of them long-term levers, and those that provided immediate support and assistance—and knowing that a UK Government moving in diametrically the wrong direction, as they have consistently during all of my time as a Minister, has extraordinary consequences. What we're doing in our own strategy is being honest with people about what we can be responsible for, what we are going to do, and how we'll measure the outcomes that get delivered. The challenge always is that deliberate choices have been made in the tax and benefits system that we know actually make life harder for families with children. It's the reason why so many children in poverty grow up in a household where an adult is already in work. The bargain that work should be a route to prosperity has been broken by this current UK Government. I look forward to being able to fix that in the future with different partners in Wales and across the UK as well.

I think people in Wales instinctively understand that having two Labour Governments committed to working together for the future of Wales would be a good thing and we can make real progress on this and so many other areas. I make no apology for setting out that a different future is possible. It's one that I'll be proud to campaign and fight for, not just in the run-up to an election, but afterwards, where I will be the voice for Wales as the First Minister, and no-one should doubt that I would do that. I'm proud of what I'm able to do for my country, and I'm prouder still of the bigger opportunities I believe exist in the future. We have never taken the public for granted—it's why we've been so successful in elected politics in the devolution era—and we will not take the public for granted as we move into those difficult challenges that lie ahead of us, but also the ambitions and opportunities for our country. I am proud to lead a Government full of ambition for our future, and with honesty about the challenges we face to get there. 

15:30

We have taken 40 minutes out of the 45 allocated. I have several speakers left. I will call each one, but I'd like to remind you and make it clear that each remaining speaker has one minute to make their contributions, and I will cut you off after one minute.

As leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, I know I have one minute to respond to what you've said. I do welcome you to the role on behalf of the party, and I look forward to working with you. At this pivotal moment, the Welsh public needs hope. It needs hope for a better healthcare system. It needs bold environmental action, and it needs action to address, as you've talked about, child poverty. We need hope for our NHS. People are exhausted, with long waiting lists, and our staff are stressed out by the pressure on them. I particularly want to see dental services improved and for us to have NHS dentists across all areas in Wales, particularly rural areas. We need hope for our environment. Let's see more green skills, a green transition, and a transition universal basic income as well, where Wales can be the first, the leader, the world leader on everything green. And we need hope for our children, as you've talked about. We need hope for the poorest. I'm pleased to hear you speak about this and say that you're putting it at the centre of your agenda. And yet we have no Minister for babies, children and young people, a cross-cutting Minister—

15:35

—who can address poverty. I do hope that you will take that forward. I look forward to working with you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Thank you for the comments. On a range of those areas, I think you'll find a Government that is ready to listen and to work with you. I think you'll find Jayne Bryant, as the new Minister for early years, will take seriously the challenges in the first 1,000 days of a child's life, working across the health and social care team, and, indeed, working with the education Secretary. It's deliberately created to try to draw together all the different levers we have and to understand the difference that that can make in child poverty. I'm very proud, as a Welsh Labour Member, of the fact that we created Flying Start. It was before I was a Member, but you can now see the direct improvement in outcomes for children that that programme has made. That's why I'm proud that we're committed to rolling it out and extending it; it shows that you really can make a difference. It's a long-term investment, with a long-term benefit. And on dentistry, the environment, climate, the economy and housing, I'm sure we'll have much more to talk about and have much more to agree on and co-operate on.

Thank you, First Minister, for your statement here today. I welcome the tone that it sets for your Government—a tone of optimism, strength and ambition. I also welcome the policy ambitions that you've set out so clearly—in particular, your promise to focus on building a greener economy with good, secure employment. I know that my constituents would be keen to hear more about your plan for green growth hubs and green business loans. What more can you tell us today about these two policy areas?

Thank you. We have a good basis to build on, because we already have green growth hubs in some parts of Wales. We can take learning from those to understand how we deliberately gather together businesses that are interested in environmentally sustainable growth. And there are different aspects to that. If you go to north-east Wales, you'll see on Deeside—and Jack Sargeant may take an interest in this—some of the challenges about not just carbon capture but actually about looking at fuel switching as well. Some of the work there I think is really interesting. Enfinium have recently been highlighted as a business looking to do that. And when you look at the alternatives that exist for not just green growth but the green business loans scheme, it builds on what we've already done with our pilot, delivered through the Development Bank of Wales. We are helping business do the right thing for the planet, in decarbonising how their business works, but also doing the right thing for their bottom line, because most of them are invested in their own power generation—it reduces their bills, makes them more predictable, and some of them are able to generate income in returning that to the grid. Those are two examples of policies we have already piloted. I'm keen and ambitious for us to do more, to do what works to make a really big difference in every community, in north, south, east and west.

First Minister, how do you intend to build bridges with our rural communities, particularly the agricultural sector, and how will that be reflected in any possible changes to the sustainable farming scheme? Also, on the continuation of the role of a Minister for north Wales, this could clearly be seen by some as being tokenistic, because, after all, where is your Minister for mid Wales, west Wales, or elsewhere? Surely every Minister in your Government should be a Minister for north Wales. In fact, isn't your need for a Minister for north Wales a statement in itself that those other Ministers, potentially, haven't been representing the whole of Wales maybe as they should?

No, I don't agree with that at all. I actually think that stakeholders across north Wales welcome the creation of a Minister for north Wales, and look forward to Ken Skates continuing the work that Lesley Griffiths has already done previously. I look forward to working with Ken, and, indeed, Ministers across my Government, to make sure that we do deliver for the whole country. On the challenge of a Minister for north Wales, it was a recognition that some stakeholders do think that there is a challenge in making sure that the whole Government acts for the whole country. We are deliberately looking to do that, to reach out, to make sure that people can see clearly someone who holds the ring for the Government around north Wales, with real whole-Wales responsibilities. I think that stakeholders in north Wales welcome the continued appointment of a Minister, and can see that this is a Government that genuinely looks to serve the whole country.

When it comes to rural bridge building, of course, I grew up in a rural community. I know exactly what it's like to live in a more rural part of the world. I know what it's like, as I said earlier, to have a bus service that is regular but not particularly frequent. I understand the challenges, not just from being, I think, the first First Minister who's the son of a farmer, but to understand how you need to reach out and have a conversation with those communities and rural Wales as well. It was a very constructive opening meeting that we had with farming union representatives. I think everyone wants to lower the heat in the conversation and look at answers for what we might be able to do together. There is a need to design a new scheme to support the future of farming, to do it within the parameters of the budget we have, to look again at what's come from the consultation. As has always been said, the consultation was a genuine one. We will now look to see what changes we could make to deliver a scheme that meets all of our objectives, properly supporting food and drink production in Wales, whilst making the serious contribution we all need to make to the climate and nature emergencies that we face. Farmers themselves know those emergencies are very real.

15:40

First Minister, may I firstly offer congratulations from Islwyn? I hope to welcome you back again shortly. You rightly point out the devastating consequences of 14 years of Tory UK Government austerity when you state the £1.3 billion drop in the value of our budget is worth four times the economy budget of this Government—let that sink in.

First Minister, one of the success stories of devolution has been the rebuilding and upgrading of the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff—and now Newport—railway line. It has seen innovative railway services return to Islwyn communities to our two main cities since Beeching took away those services. The building of Cardiff Parkway offers the potential of further upgrading of this capacity on the line and facilitating more services for Islwyn residents, in addition to training, apprenticeships and jobs. Two years on after Cardiff Parkway was given that planning permission by the local planning authority, what is the timescale for the Welsh Government's decision on the release of this permission, which would directly benefit my constituents?

There are two points I'd like to make. The first is to thank the Member for the good wishes of Islwyn, and I look forward to visiting. I should point out that, when it comes to rail performance in Wales, there are Members in this Chamber who can take real credit for the sustained investment we've made to our rolling stock, the money we've had to put into improving the rails themselves. When we took control of the Valleys lines, we actually found a very distressed asset that required a large amount of capital expenditure. That has had real consequences for the whole Government. It is good news, though, that Transport for Wales is now the best performing operator in Wales when it comes to punctuality, when it comes to quality of the rolling stock. Compared to all other operators in Wales, Transport for Wales is the best performer by some distance.

The second point to make is I must decline the opportunity to answer the question on this particular point around Cardiff Parkway, because it is in my constituency. I am not in a position to make any kind of ministerial statement. I have a view, of course, as a constituency Member, but I'm more than happy to direct her towards the Cabinet Secretary for transport around some of our wider ambitions. It is a planning issue that we'll need to run through properly and in which, of course, I will have no part.

Thank you for the list of priorities, First Minister.

How can we tell if something is a priority? Usually, there are clear objectives and targets designed to support that priority. This year alone, I've raised child poverty 20 times in Plenary, and I'll continue to do so, because, for Plaid Cymru, it is a priority. You say the fight to lift children out of poverty will be at the heart of your Government's mission, but you didn't state when you ran to be leader that you were in favour of devolving powers over welfare, although there's no denying that creating benefits that are fit for purpose, such as the Scottish child payment, which has been transformative in tackling child poverty, could be done if we had the powers to do so in Wales. Welfare reform isn't enough, especially given Keir Starmer's refusal to consider scrapping the two-child cap should he get to No. 10. So, given that it would make one of the biggest differences to alleviating child poverty, will you honour the stated commitment of the previous iteration of the Welsh Government to work to devolve powers over welfare? 

I think the example of the child payment in Scotland is a good example of not just powers but actually the different budget to be able to do so. It is something that we are interested in, the sort of difference it could make for children and young people here in Wales. It's why we do need a better settlement on both powers and resources for this Welsh Government and this Senedd. I continue to be interested in pursuing a conversation and a decision around the administration of benefits. I believe we could do a great deal more here in Wales with our own support that we provide to make sure we have a humane approach to a system and a more effective approach to how we support people. It remains one of my priorities. I look forward to the conversation and a future UK manifesto that could deliver it. I look forward then to voting for that manifesto to be implemented. 

15:45

I'd like to welcome the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport, Ken Skates. I'd just like to focus on highways. Our highways, local and strategic, are one of our biggest capital assets that we have, and I'm really concerned that, after 14 years of cuts, they're really deteriorating and that we need to start investing in maintaining the existing infrastructure. And they are further impacted by heavy rainstorms and flooding. So, I'd like to ask you: would you make maintenance of our existing highway infrastructure a priority, going forward, for transport?

Yes, I think it's a really interesting point around the direct consequences of reducing budgets. And you don't always see these in the first run. But, actually, we have invested some money in trying to make sure that we're able to respond to the damage that is done by particular weather events. I want to look again at the review that has already been undertaken on how we have an approach to roads maintenance that we've done within the Welsh Government, on the trunk road network, to work with local authority partners to understand what they could do as well. And I know it's something that the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport is interested in, too. 

This is also about not just resourcing the infrastructure, what we're able to do with capital, it's also about people and skills as well. And I know this is something for the Cabinet Secretary for Housing, Local Government and Planning is interested in, in how we maintain the expertise that local authorities require, individually or collectively, to undertake some of these functions. That's a conversation we need to have with them as partners to make sure the future is genuinely sustainable for local decision makers, as well as the choices we make here for the whole country. 

Well, the most important resource of the health service, of course, is the workforce that works for it. We've given a cautious welcome, of course, to the announcement last week regarding junior doctors, but more details are needed. But the issue within the workforce is more deeply rooted than junior doctors. We need to look at providing new contracts for nurses, consultant contracts, general practitioners and many more. We haven't heard to date from you what you will do to retain the staff that we currently have, not to mention recruiting additional staff. You've given those warm words, yes, but we have the same Minister and, to all intents and purposes, the same Government. So, what will you be doing differently when it comes to retaining and recruiting the healthcare staff and workforce?

And secondly, in terms of the housing crisis, it continues to be particularly acute here in Wales. In your personal manifesto, you spoke about social housing being the best and right solution, but there is no sign that your Government is going to reach your own target, not to mention responding to the need. So, again, what differently will you be doing to solve the housing crisis?

Thank you for the comments and questions. When it comes to our NHS workforce we have, of course, been through this several times already today, about what we already have done to try to make sure we're in a better position to train more of our own workers here in Wales, as well as wider recruitment. And crucially, that really matters, about how we retain the current workforce to make sure there really is hope for the future. And contract reform is part of what gives people that hope for the future—the job they do, where and how they do it. So, we are both looking at pay but also conditions to look at what improvements we can make in negotiation and partnership with all of our different staff groups. 

We're talking now, or we will be in the coming days, in formal terms, with the three different groups of doctors. We know that, later in the year, there will be recommendations for the Agenda for Change unions, for nurses, therapists and others. There's an ongoing, rolling programme of reform that is essential to give us the workforce for the future and some hope about the job that they will do and the way that this Government values them. 

And when it comes to social housing, I think, perhaps, I might just replay you the conversation with Jack Sargeant about making sure that we look at land supply, modern methods of construction to prioritise the building of social housing, to address the housing need we have, but also these will be good-quality homes for people—no dumbing down on the quality. Actually, social housing has a very high quality because they all have to meet the Welsh housing quality standard. We should all be proud of what that's done in delivering good-quality homes, but also what that means in terms of investing in the local economy. So, lower carbon homes that are more energy efficient and, crucially, alongside that, not just the homes, a decent place for everyone to call home, actually makes a really big difference to the local economy. So, multiple missions across different Ministers, and it's a role that I look forward to taking forward with my team of Ministers. 

15:50

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'd like to touch on priorities for steel. Yesterday in a press conference you stated that we want investment and need a healthy future for primary steel making, and, as you know, I completely agree with you on that. You also touched on the need to see where talks with Tata go as a result of the strike ballots. Now, Tata shamefully have threatened to pull favourable redundancy packages from those workers who go on strike. They made that threat prior to the Unite ballot; they make that threat again. So, what would you say to Tata in response to this threat? Because I worry that such actions don't fall in line with that vision of a healthy future for primary steel making that we all here want to see.

Well, as I said earlier, I've had three early meetings in my initial weeks: doctors, farmers and steelworkers. It was good to meet with Tata, and indeed local representatives at Port Talbot, together with the economy and energy Cabinet Secretary. The conversation is very clear about where the Welsh Government wants the future to be. We want a future that invests in the future of steel making, a different partnership with greater capital investment from the UK Government to unlock investment from the company as well. That needs to be accompanied by ambitions for the future of the economy, so the company and other steel makers can see that investing in steelworks here means there is also activity where those products will be required in numbers for them to carry on investing. That does mean that we want to see a negotiation between the three steel unions and the company that does not lead to compulsory redundancies, that does not lead to a position where the workforce is significantly and permanently reduced, and I'd like to see people undertake the negotiations in good faith with each other in public and in private.

I recognise that an industrial action ballot is part of a negotiation process: announcing you're going to ballot, then undertaking the ballot, then when the ballot results are in, what that does to your negotiating position. As well as Unite the Union, of course, the GMB and Community are having their own ballot; I look forward to understanding what the results of that are. And you can be absolutely assured that not just with me as First Minister, but with Jeremy Miles as the economy and energy Secretary, the commitment of this Government to the future of steel will be unwavering, and we will carry on in our good-faith conversations with all sides in this. That includes continuing to make the case for the current and what I hope will be the future UK Government about the investment we can see in the future of steel and what that will mean for steelworkers here, to have the best deal for steel, not the cheapest deal, and unlock our own ambitions for a greener economy.

7. Statement by the Minister for Social Care: The Health and Social Care (Wales) Bill

Item 7 has been postponed until 21 May. 

In accordance with Standing Order 12.24, unless a Member objects, the two motions under items 9 and 10 will be grouped for debate, but with separate votes.

They're all going, so they don't object.

8. & 9. The general principles of the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill and the financial resolution in respect of the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill

I see that there are no objections, therefore I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Cabinet Office to move the motion. Rebecca Evans.

Motion NDM8533 Rebecca Evans

To propose that Senedd Cymru, in accordance with Standing Order 26.11:

Agrees to the general principles of the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill.

Motion NDM8532 Rebecca Evans

To propose that Senedd Cymru, for the purposes of any provisions resulting from the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill, agrees to any increase in expenditure of a kind referred to in Standing Order 26.69, arising in consequence of the Bill.

Motions moved.

Thank you. I'd like to begin by thanking all three Senedd committees for their careful scrutiny throughout Stage 1 of the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill, and for their conclusions and recommendations. I move the motion and the financial resolution.

Before addressing the committee recommendations, I think it's worth me briefly reminding Members what this Bill is about, as it has been several months since introduction. The Bill makes an important contribution to our wider local tax reform agenda in Wales, addressing many of the limitations of the current arrangements, identified from extensive research and from our experience of operating the current systems for over 20 years. The Bill will enable us to make changes in a more timely manner to adjust our systems in response to evolving priorities and circumstances. It will reduce the need for emergency non-legislative measures such as those used to target support in recent years in response to the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, and it will significantly reduce our reliance on provisions in UK Government legislation. In the time we have available this afternoon, I'll be able to provide a brief summary of the Government's response to the main points raised by each committee, and to explain our rationale for the approach that we're taking, but I have included further detail in my recent letters to each committee.

So, turning first to the report from the Local Government and Housing Committee, I welcome their recommendation that the general principles of the Bill should be agreed by the Senedd, and I am pleased that the committee agrees with the many witnesses they took evidence from who expressed support for this Bill.

Whilst the committee's report is generally supportive of the provisions of the Bill, many of its recommendations focus on the procedures that apply to the regulation-making powers it contains. For example, the committee makes a number of recommendations proposing that any subordinate legislation we bring forward on non-domestic rate reliefs, exemptions and multipliers or council tax discounts should be subject to extended laying periods and statutory consultation duties. I've explained in my written response to the committee why such requirements would potentially disadvantage taxpayers and businesses in Wales. In my experience, these would delay or even prevent the provision of new support in situations where it's necessary for us to move at pace, for instance where our budget is affected by the UK Government's autumn statement.

Secondly, such requirements would be disproportionate in the many cases where we would be seeking to only make minor technical or administrative adjustments. Members will know that we routinely undertake consultation as a matter of course on any significant proposals relating to non-domestic rates and council tax. Recently, for example, we have consulted on improvement relief and heat networks relief and improvements to the council tax reduction scheme. Our commitment to meaningful consultation as a Government will continue to be the case in future. I've already confirmed that we will undertake consultations on any future proposals relating to differential multipliers and anti-avoidance arrangements.

The committee also asks that we include a duty on the face of the Bill to undertake a statutory review of these regulation-making powers before the end of the next Senedd. I understand the committee's reasons for including this recommendation, and whilst I do not believe that such a requirement is necessary on the face of the Bill, I will ensure that the explanatory memorandum is amended to include a commitment to undertake a post-implementation review of the operation and the impact of this legislation before the end of the next Senedd.

I'm happy to accept most of the committee's other recommendations. I thank Members for their considered approach and I look forward to working with the committee throughout the remaining stages of scrutiny.

Turning now to the report from the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, the Government has accepted all of the committee's recommendations other than those relating to the omission of certain sections of the Bill that provide delegated powers. I've provided the committee with additional information were this has been requested. In my letter of reply, I've also addressed the committee's 14 conclusions and the six related recommendations, which propose that we remove the relevant regulation-making powers from the Bill. I've explained why I believe introducing separate primary legislation each time a change is required in those areas would be impractical, unnecessary and would potentially disadvantage Welsh taxpayers, businesses and local authorities. I appreciate this isn't the first time the committee has raised issues in this Senedd regarding the balance of provisions on the face of primary legislation and those delegated under regulation-making powers. I recognise that the wider discussions between the Government and the committee on this matter will continue beyond scrutiny of this particular Bill. On this occasion, I believe the detailed explanations and the specific examples that I've provided in my written response help to assure the committee that there is no intention of seeking to circumvent scrutiny or accountability.

Colleagues on the Local Government and Housing Committee have acknowledged in their report that primary legislation doesn't provide for an agile and responsive taxation system, and it's for this very reason that we have taken the approach that we have with this Bill. Our aim is to ensure that we're able to legislate in a timely and proportionate manner for Wales when it's necessary for us to do so.

I'll now turn to the report of the Finance Committee. I'm grateful to the committee for its recommendations, all of which I accept. I'm also pleased that the committee recognises the Bill forms a vital part of this Government's wider programme of local tax reform, seeking to create a fairer, more progressive non-domestic rates and council tax system in Wales. The committee's interest, expertise and considered approach to scrutiny is appreciated, and I look forward to continuing to work with all Members of the Senedd in this same positive spirit as we continue the journey of reform. I very much look forward to the contributions from colleagues this afternoon.

15:55

I'd like to make a correction to the Record of Proceedings. 

It's items 8 and 9 that are being debated together, not items 9 and 10.

I call on the Chair of the Local Government and Housing Committee, John Griffiths.

16:00

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm very pleased to speak today as Chair of the Local Government and Housing Committee, which has undertaken Stage 1 scrutiny of this Bill. I would like to start by thanking all those who contributed to the committee's inquiry and the Cabinet Secretary for her response to our report.

The Bill, of course, contains a range of provisions relating to council tax and non-domestic rates systems here in Wales, and, having considered the evidence presented to us, we concluded that we support the general principles of the Bill and therefore recommend that the general principles are agreed by the Senedd. However, while we note the broad support from stakeholders, we also acknowledge some concerns. Our report details our consideration of each of the provisions, and our recommendations seek to make improvements where we believe they are needed to strengthen this legislation.

We recognise that this is, in part, an enabling Bill, which provides a framework for a number of future policy changes to be made by Welsh Ministers in secondary legislation. However, we heard concerns from stakeholders that this approach provides limited opportunity for public engagement and scrutiny by the Senedd, particularly relating to sections that provide for the potential introduction of significant new policies by regulations. We acknowledge the Welsh Government's view that the use of secondary legislation provides for a more agile and responsive taxation system, but we believe that, due to the nature of the potential future changes that could be made, some provisions should be subject to additional opportunity for scrutiny by the Senedd. We therefore recommended that the Welsh Government should bring forward amendments to the Bill to provide for enhanced approval procedures to guarantee a minimum period of time for scrutiny of certain regulations proposed under sections 5, 9, 10, 13 and 18. Further, we also recommended that amendments should be brought forward to expressly require Welsh Ministers to undertake consultation before making specific regulations under sections 5, 9, 10 and 18. We are disappointed that those recommendations have been rejected. I will outline some of the reasoning behind our recommendations today and why we would urge the Cabinet Secretary to reconsider. 

In terms of non-domestic rates, we heard broad support for the proposed move to three-yearly revaluations and we recognise that this is a proportionate, reasonable cycle. Section 5 of the Bill introduces provisions that would enable the Welsh Ministers to confer new, to vary or withdraw existing non-domestic rate reliefs in Wales. As already noted, we recognise the Welsh Government's view that the provisions would allow for responding to changing circumstances in a more agile way. However, we also note that any policy changes made via these provisions could have significant implications for ratepayers. We agree with the views of stakeholders about the importance of transparency when Welsh Ministers make decisions relating to the introduction of new reliefs or the withdrawal of existing reliefs. For this reason, we recommend that any draft regulations proposed under the powers in section 5, where the powers are to be used to confer or withdraw reliefs, should be subject to enhanced scrutiny. The same reasoning applies to recommendations 8 and 9 of our report. These relate to section 9, which provides Welsh Ministers with expanded regulation-making powers to confer new exemptions, or vary or withdraw existing exemptions. The provisions in sections 10 and 11 deal with the calculation of the non-domestic rating multiplier; they would give Welsh Ministers new powers to set, by regulations, different multipliers for different descriptions of properties. We were told that Welsh Government currently has no intention of bringing forward any particular proposal. However, we acknowledge the potential risks of setting differential multipliers, in particular, a concern that was raised about the potential for market distortion. It is therefore key that any future policy change should be subject to full and thorough scrutiny by the Senedd. We also believe that Welsh Government should commit to statutory consultation arrangements to allay some of the concerns raised by stakeholders.

Section 13 seeks to reduce opportunities for non-domestic rates avoidance, by permitting Welsh Ministers to specify artificial avoidance behaviour in regulations. The avoidance provisions are supported by a power for Welsh Ministers to make regulations for the imposition of financial penalties. We note the Welsh Government's rationale for using secondary legislation in order to respond quickly, given that techniques to avoid paying tax constantly evolve. Nevertheless, we believe that the potential implications for ratepayers warrant the application of an enhanced scrutiny procedure. We believe there should be sufficient opportunity for the Senedd to scrutinise policy decisions in such a significant area.

Council tax discount and reduction schemes play a vital role in supporting households. In particular, the single person discount provides a lifeline for many households struggling financially. We welcome the Welsh Government's commitment to maintaining this discount at 25 per cent. However, we are conscious that a future Government may take a different approach. Because of the wide-ranging nature of the powers proposed in section 18, relating to council tax discounts, we recommend that any draft regulations under section 18 should be subject to guaranteed minimum periods of scrutiny by the Senedd, other than when changing rates of discount.

The new powers in this section, together with the pending revaluation, used alongside the existing powers to amend rates and/or bands, have the potential to significantly impact people in Wales. We would therefore encourage the Cabinet Minister to reconsider her position on our recommendation. We also believe it is important that the Welsh Government should be required to consult on any new policy linked to discounts, given the potential significance of any changes.

Section 20 replaces the current requirement on local authorities to publish council tax notices in local newspapers with a new duty to publish those notices online and to put in place suitable alternative arrangements for those with limited access to online facilities. We heard concerns about this section, including the potential for digital exclusion and the potential impact on revenue for local newspapers. We recognise that people receive information in many different formats, and understand the benefits of not being overly prescriptive. However, without easily accessible information, there is a risk that some people may become disengaged. We are pleased that the Cabinet Secretary has confirmed that the Welsh Government will work with local authorities to monitor implementation of the provisions in section 20, and would welcome an update on this work at a future date, should the Bill be passed.

Section 21 provides for revaluations of domestic properties to take place every five years, starting in 2030. We agree that this new requirement should help to ensure that the tax burden is distributed more accurately in future. However, as this will be the first revaluation in 20 years, there will be an impact on a number of households. Local authorities may also see an impact on their council tax base. So, our final recommendation was that Welsh Government update the Senedd on its proposals for any transitional arrangements that may be required to support households and local authorities as a result of the pending council tax revaluation. We are pleased that the Cabinet Secretary has accepted this recommendation, and we look forward to receiving an update in due course.

So, Dirprwy Lywydd, whilst we support the general principles of the Bill, we believe that acting upon our recommendations would make this legislation more effective, guard against potential unintended consequences for taxpayers in the future, and ensure the Senedd is afforded sufficient opportunity to scrutinise such important matters. Diolch yn fawr.

16:05

I call on Alun Davies to speak on behalf of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee.

I'm grateful to you, Deputy Presiding Officer, for the opportunity to comment upon this Bill this afternoon. The report of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee contains 13 recommendations, and I thank the Cabinet Secretary for her response, which we received at the end of last week. Unfortunately, I think, despite the warm words, perhaps, that the Cabinet Secretary used in her introduction to the legislation earlier this afternoon, it's fair to describe the committee and the Cabinet Secretary as having very different views on the legislation in front of us. Whilst the Cabinet Secretary did make the point in her introduction that she accepted a number of the recommendations of the committee, it's fair to say that she also rejected all of the recommendations that suggested amendments to the Bill, including the removal of certain sections, because of our concerns over constitutional propriety. The Cabinet Secretary robustly argues that the Bill is consistent with the long-standing principles of legislating, and that it enhances the Senedd's role in decision making. I recognise the power of the argument that has been made by the Cabinet Secretary. However, I am not convinced by those arguments, and the committee is not convinced either. 

Since 2011, the Cabinet Secretary has been very clear that Welsh Government has sought to utilise UK Government Bills in this area on at least 13 occasions. In our report, we note that we were unclear what legislative competence barriers there had been to prevent Welsh Government from legislating itself, and we asked why the Senedd would not have been able to pass such legislation. The Cabinet Secretary, in response, directed us to the legislative consent memoranda in respect of each one of these UK Bills. Clearly, the committee is aware of what is contained in those memoranda, and we do not consider that they provide the necessary information, or the information we described. We ask the Cabinet Secretary to reconsider her response to this recommendation and write again to the committee. I would wish to emphasise that the committee is very willing to continue a conversation with the Cabinet Secretary on this matter, and I note the new Counsel General is also in the Chamber this afternoon, and this is a matter that the committee would be very willing to continue debating and discussing with Government.

In justifying the introduction of a framework Bill with such significant powers delegated to the Government, the Cabinet Secretary argued strongly that the powers will reduce the Welsh Government's reliance on seeking provision for Wales in UK Bills. Were this to be the case, I must say that the committee would warmly welcome this Bill and the principle that the Cabinet Secretary outlines.

The Welsh Government's using a UK Bill to legislate for Wales, or proposing, through its own Bill, to take regulation-making powers to be exercised by the Welsh Ministers, have one major element in common: they deny Senedd Members the opportunity to seek to actively improve, via the amending stage process only available to primary legislation, law that will apply in Wales. We did not welcome, I'm afraid, the Cabinet Secretary's suggestion that, should the Senedd not approve the powers in the Bill, the Welsh Government would make more use of seeking provisions for Wales in UK Bills. 

We're also concerned that the views expressed by the Cabinet Secretary overstate the influence a legislature can have on statutory instruments. This again has been a theme of the committee's interaction with Government throughout this Senedd, and potentially previous Seneddau as well. Significantly, the Cabinet Secretary's comments do not acknowledge the fact that statutory instruments are not amendable. The Welsh Government's view is that draft affirmative statutory instruments and Bills are subject to the same, and I quote, 'threshold for success'. However, the Cabinet Secretary is aware that the simple majority threshold that applies to primary legislation follows two amending stages, during which individual Senedd Members can seek to make changes and improvements to a Bill, and, through proposing such amendments, are able to initiate a far more profound conversation with Government about the nature of the individual aspects of a Bill. Such scrutiny and influence is not available to Members in the case of subordinate legislation.

The Cabinet Secretary implied that the decision to include many delegated powers in this Bill, rather than continuing with the current system, which would require primary legislation to bring into effect certain changes, was, and I quote again,

'a question about what's reasonable and proportionate'. 

In response, we ask: reasonable and proportionate for whom? We do not consider that the approach being taken in this instance should be at the expense of a long-established principle of when primary and secondary legislation should be used. Furthermore, we do not believe that the approach that the Welsh Government has adopted in the Bill is in line with the ongoing work and efforts to enhance opportunities for better scrutiny by the Senedd through the Welsh Government’s Senedd Cymru (Members and Elections) Bill.

And so, Deputy Presiding Officer, we have arrived at a series of conclusions, and I will conclude myself with this remark. Whilst we disagree with the Cabinet Secretary’s statement that the arrangements proposed in this Bill will enhance the Senedd’s role considerably, we find the comments that the Bill is a legislative framework for futureproofing to be at odds with the Cabinet Secretary’s view that it is also consistent with long-standing principles in relation to the role of the legislature. Whilst we have disagreed with the Cabinet Secretary on a number of different matters in this Bill, and the way that the Bill has been constructed, we recognise the goodwill that the Cabinet Secretary has outlined, both in her response in writing to the committee and also—

16:15

—in speaking this afternoon. We would therefore welcome the opportunity to have further conversations with the Cabinet Secretary as this legislation makes its way through the Senedd.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I welcome the opportunity to participate in today’s debate. In our report, we came to one conclusion and made 11 recommendations. I’m grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for responding to our recommendations prior to today’s debate and for accepting all of them.

Whilst we have concluded that we are broadly content with the financial estimates accompanying the legislation, subject to our recommendations, we note that the Bill is only part of the reform of local taxation, and as such the costs of the Government’s wider programme are unknown. Furthermore, the full picture in terms of associated costs remains uncertain, as the policy of the Bill will be delivered through secondary legislation and through other legislative and policy initiatives.

Turning to our specific recommendations, we support the key aim of the Bill to reform council tax and non-domestic rates to create a fairer and flexible system that can respond to economic change. I am pleased by the Cabinet Secretary’s response to our recommendation 3, that further work is being undertaken to explore alternative systems of local taxation. This is essential to ensure that the correct decision is reached about the most appropriate system. I’m also pleased that further exploration is being undertaken on a local land value tax. I understand the Welsh Government has set out a commitment to produce a road map by the end of this Senedd term, and the committee looks forward to receiving updates on this work as it progresses.

The Bill will increase the frequency of non-domestic rates revaluations from every five years to every three years, with similar changes being taken forward across the UK. The committee welcomes the benefits and economies of scale of aligning with England in relation to the Valuation Office Agency’s services in Wales. However, if the Bill is not implemented and the next revaluation is out of sync with England, we have concerns about the risks and cost implications of divergence between Wales and England.

I am grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for agreeing to update the RIA with further information on the resourcing implications for the Valuation Office Agency, in line with recommendation 5. I am also pleased that further information will be included in an updated RIA to explain the cost to ratepayers of the new duty to supply up-to-date information to the valuation office, and that the completion of the 2026 revaluation is not dependent on the launch of the valuation office’s online system, and therefore there is no risk to ratepayers associated with the timing of the launch. 

Moving on to council tax, the provision that allows for regular revaluations of domestic properties was met with some scepticism during the Welsh Government’s public engagement as a vehicle to raise council tax. We were reassured by the Cabinet Secretary that the intention is to raise the same amount of revenue, but through a fairer system. Given the regressive nature of council tax, we support the aim to make it fairer without affecting the tax base. At the time of scrutiny, the Welsh Government’s consultation on its potential approaches to council tax reform had just closed. We recommended that an update is provided once a decision has been taken following the Government’s consideration of the consultation responses, and I look forward to receiving the information, including the cost analysis, in due course.

The Bill also gives Welsh Ministers extended regulation-making powers to apply discounts and disregards. We accept that there needs to be flexibility to create these. However, there could be significant costs associated with them. We are also mindful of the impact that revaluations will have on taxpayers, and we are pleased that transitional arrangements are being considered. The Cabinet Secretary has committed to including the costs, benefits and impacts in relation to discounts and disregards, and the transitional arrangements, in the relevant RIAs that will accompany the legislation needed to give effect to these.

Finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, I have expressed my view several times in this Chamber that Bills that contain several regulation-making powers do not provide the full financial implications of the legislation being considered. Sadly, this Bill is no exception in that regard. Whilst I acknowledge that the powers proposed in the Bill to make subordinate legislation will reduce the Welsh Government’s reliance on UK Government Bills to deliver changes for Wales, it does reduce transparency, and we urge the Welsh Government to keep this under consideration for the remainder of its legislative programme. Thank you. 

16:20

I'd like to join Members in thanking all those who've engaged in the process within committees, but also engaged with me personally in relation to this Bill, and I certainly recognise their views. To begin with, from our side of the Chamber here, we agree with the general principles of this Bill. There are some areas that we'd like to see improved as this Bill proceeds. 

Firstly, Cabinet Secretary, in relation to the non-domestic rates, the proposals as they currently stand, as we know, will see the revaluations of these non-domestic rates occur much more frequently, certainly more frequently than revaluations for council tax. There is a risk, of course, that this may place some additional pressure on those businesses, perhaps some level of uncertainty in their longer term plans as well, especially at a difficult time for many of those businesses at the moment. Groups and individuals in the committee have highlighted the impact that the increased frequency of revaluations of those non-domestic rates will have on Welsh businesses, so I'd be grateful to hear what will be done to minimise the negative impact on those hard-pressed businesses that are already suffering without the much-needed business rates relief. I understand and acknowledge that there are benefits to those more frequent revaluations, but some of the downsides need to be addressed as well.

On the issue of the non-domestic rates, there are concerns that the Bill does put more power in the hands of the Welsh Government, rather than with local authorities. There are several powers conferred on Welsh Government Ministers here in Cardiff Bay that I believe would be better placed with local authorities, who I believe know their areas better. So, I'd be grateful to understand how you believe that squares with your stated approach to devolving more powers down to local people. What you're doing here is looking to take those powers away from those local authorities. 

I'm also concerned that the Bill is a stepping stone for introducing higher taxes through the back door. As we know, this Bill in and of itself does not necessarily do that, but it certainly enables future changes to local taxation. So, I'd welcome a comment on the Government's broader plans for taxation with a new First Minister in place.

Just a brief comment on what isn't included in the Bill, I'm disappointed that there isn't a particular comment or legislation being drafted within here on the future of the local government funding formula. You'll know, Cabinet Secretary, that—I'm getting used to calling you Cabinet Secretary; I do apologise—the local government funding formula, in my view, does not work as it should, and I think there was a missed opportunity within this legislation to have a review of that and to put in place a regular review of that funding formula as well. 

Going back to what is within the Bill, there are stronger eligibility conditions for charities when it comes to rate relief. I would like some reassurances that those conditions aren't going to be overburdensome on those charities. As you'll know, many of those important charities are staffed by dedicated, hard-working volunteers who don't necessarily have the raft of skills, perhaps, or professionalism to deal with increased legislation and burden on them. So, I'd like that reassurance from you as well, please. 

The final point is my opposition to any moves ending the requirement to publish a council tax notice in the local press. We believe it's a really important part of the democratic process in local government, especially in relation to transparency, and I believe it will have an outsized impact on our older population as well. We know that digital exclusion is a very real concern, and Welsh Government, in my view, really shouldn't be making this worse for members of society who are digitally excluded. And you will have heard from a broad number of local media outlets and representatives, who've added their voices, to ensure that the notice requirement will continue, and I share their views in this regard. So, an update on your stance in this area would be much appreciated. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

16:25

I'd like to thank the committees for all the work they've done. I think the committees have made some very sensible recommendations. Actually, I find myself agreeing with Sam Rowlands as well, around it being slightly disappointing that the local government formula isn't part of this Bill, although I do worry that we might have bitten off more than we could chew if we were to have included that in this particular Bill. A conversation, I think, a discussion needs to happen at some point around how we fund local government, nonetheless.

I think the general principles of the Bill are fairly welcome. I think it's fair to say that local taxation has been rather outdated for some time now. The only thing that I would want to focus on, and one of the concerns that I have, is that for all the potential that we see in this Bill, ultimately, it will require something to be done. And what I mean by that is that action, once the Bill has passed, will then realise the potential.

So, I'll talk about non-domestic rates here specifically, because we've had many exchanges over the last months around non-domestic rates and how I'd like to see us varying the multiplier, setting out, actually, trying to ensure that different sectors are paying different amounts, whether they're paying more or less, depending on their impact on the economy and how much they're bringing in. That's something I think, actually, would be really worthwhile discussing as part of this Bill, as a potential action that this Bill allows us to do. The reason I say that is because, with conversations I've had, particularly with the hospitality sector on this particular point, they've been quite excited about that. They've been quite excited, then, as a result of what this Bill potentially offers. Imagine that, conversations around taxation, people get excited, who are not the Chair of the Finance Committee. I mean, that's something to be really welcomed. So, what I hope to see, through the progress of this Bill, is actually some of those ideas coming to the forefront, from Government, yes, but also from across the Chamber, about how we actually might be able to use these powers. I think that would really enrich the process of scrutiny, when it comes to this Bill progressing.

I want to also touch on land value tax, if I may, because during the committee's scrutiny, the Minister mentioned that the Government is actively exploring it. In that case, would the Minister be able to give some outline, some road map, as to where the Government is on this and when we could expect a settled view from the Government? I think some clarity on the Government's position on LVT would be gratefully appreciated by many.

So, I'll just conclude, Dirprwy Lywydd, by saying that the general principles are very welcome, but I think the opportunity is here now for us to really engage meaningfully and to make some serious progressive changes to local tax, which I hope to see throughout the process of this Bill. I think it would be very meaningful for engaging with the wider public, and I think that's something to be welcomed.

We're discussing the two taxes that are most disliked by the rich. It is very difficult to avoid council tax, and it's very difficult to avoid business rates. I support the proposals for council tax to include a regular revaluation exercise to ensure people are paying the right level of council tax. Council tax pays for around a fifth of spending by councils, varying from substantially less in Blaenau Gwent to substantially more in Monmouthshire. But the current system is nearly 20 years out of date and contributes to inequality.

Council tax was never meant to be fair. It was a short-term fix to deal with the poll tax. And the 30 per cent discount for single people and the regressive nature of the system means that it's fundamentally unfair. Someone living in a property worth £100,000 pays around five times as much council tax relative to the property value as someone living in a property worth £1 million. A £420,000 house only pays twice as much as a £120,000 house. To me, this is unfair, because payment is not proportional to the value of property, and the value of property is probably the best indicator we've got of personal wealth. I support a future system that would balance the tax burden on households, fund services that benefit everybody, and has regular updates to keep the tax fair.

A complete revaluation of all 1.5 million properties in Wales to ensure valuations are up to date and people are paying the appropriate amount is incredibly important. This would enable different bands to be created with new tax rates chosen for each band, creating a fairer tax. The purpose of the revaluation is to rebalance the tax payable between households. The last revaluation was in 2003. While the value of homes has increased significantly since then, council tax changes relative to the increases in property value would not necessarily lead to increased council tax. Anybody's house would have gone up by roughly the same amount as the general movement would stay exactly the same.

We know we need more regular revaluation. Every 20 plus years is not acceptable. I welcome the proposal in the Bill to establish statutory five-yearly cycles for council tax revaluations, beginning in 2030. I'm requesting again that an additional band is added to the bottom for those who are living in the cheapest properties, and at least two higher bands are added to the top. I would like to see bands going up every £250,000 without any limit at all. This, I think, would be much fairer.

Who benefits from the student discounts? Is it students or landlords? I, amongst many other people, would argue that it is landlords. We know that local income tax is preferred by the rich, because it would save them money via tax reduction schemes or receiving payments via dividends. Property taxes are, for them, difficult to avoid. But we also know that under the current system, those with the least ability to pay spend a greater proportion of their wealth on council tax.

On business rates, I've always supported the returning of them to local authorities. We don't need an all-Wales system; let each local authority set its own business rates. In comparison to the irregularity of council tax revaluations, non-domestic rates revaluations have been more routine, with the last one undertaken in 2023. Rates revaluations have generally been done on a five-year cycle. However, the Welsh Government makes the case for a more rapid and responsive cycle—one I agree with. The rationale is that it would provide greater stability and more accurate bills for businesses. Income from business rates is a major source of local authority income.

Currently, business rates are a tax paid on non-domestic properties. Some businesses may be exempt, while others may qualify for a relief. There are also other rate relief schemes that include relief for properties occupied by charitable, not-for-profit organisations, as well as relief on empty properties. Currently, the non-domestic rates provide a statutory framework for the provision of rates relief for small businesses. Rates relief is incredibly popular. What we also know is that some people pay joint rates and rent, and what else we know is that every time the Government reduces the rates, given rate relief, the landlords decide to increase the rent. We know, because it's public knowledge, that the rent last year on music venues went up by on average over 30 per cent.

I think that we really do need a system that is fair, and we don't really want to put money in the pockets of landlords. I know I've got concerns about rates relief. Why should somebody with a 'cash for gold' shop—effectively acting as a pawn broker—get the same rates relief as those that are effectively the types of shops we're trying to attract? I think that we do need to have some method of dealing with that. 

I oppose the removal of the duty to provide council tax information in writing in newspapers. There are many people who are not online, who do not want to be online, and they should have the same right to information as everybody else. 

Finally, on land value tax, it's a brilliant idea, but it just means you will never have any social housing in the expensive areas, because the value of the land would be such that people would not be able to pay the land value tax on it, so you'll end up with all social housing in certain areas and all private housing in other areas, and I think we want the opposite of that, don't we?

16:30

I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Cabinet Office to reply to the debate.

Diolch, and thank you to all colleagues this afternoon for their contributions. I know in some places we've necessarily talked about our areas of difference that we have. I think it's also important that we just remain focused on what the Bill is about. We've got some really positive things, I think, that the Bill is trying to achieve. For example, the three-yearly cycle of non-domestic rates revaluations and the five-yearly council tax revaluation cycle will be critical to the future integrity of our local taxation system. The Bill will also enable us to deal with the issues around the exploitation of charitable rate relief, to modify non-domestic rate relief exemptions and the multiplier to support policy priorities, and also to implement a new anti-avoidance framework for non-domestic rates as well. On the council tax side, it will allow us to modify those council tax discounts, disregards and exemptions in a more effective way, as well as establishing a single national council tax reduction scheme that would allow for in-year changes. That's very much been welcomed by stakeholders as well.

To respond to some of the specific concerns, particularly those, I think, at this point, raised by the Chairs of committees in relation to the desire for those 60-day laying periods, our concern is that that could disadvantage taxpayers by delaying or even preventing the provision of support, and that's especially the case when the budget available to inform our approach to those matters is affected by the UK Government's autumn statement.

Also, it's important to recognise that none of the existing powers for Welsh Ministers to provide for NDR reliefs, exemptions or setting the multiplier by regulations or council tax discounts are subject to the superaffirmative procedures. In my responses to the committees, I set out some examples of the circumstances where we couldn't have acted to provide support to ratepayers in the required timescales if such a procedure had applied. Superaffirmative procedures would also be disproportionate where we are often only talking about minor administrative amendments being made to regulations.

In relation to those statutory consultation duties, when considering whether to consult and how to consult with stakeholders, we do take into account the Welsh Government's policy on consultation and we do act in accordance with common law consultation duties, and that will, of course, continue to be the case in the future. Statutory consultation in all circumstances could disadvantage taxpayers in Wales. Again, that would be by delaying or even preventing the provision of new support, especially where, again, the budget available is informed by the UK Government's autumn statement. And it would be disproportionate, again, where we're only talking about some minor amendments, particularly administrative amendments, being made to regulations. Again, it's a case that none of the range of existing powers that we have are subject to statutory consultation in the field of NDR reliefs, exemptions and the multiplier or council tax discounts.

Again, I've set out some examples in that space for committee. One example that I would highlight at this point would be our approach to the multiplier. We've got the annual process for confirming the multiplier, and that's heavily time constrained, and we could be potentially finding ourselves in situations where we're not able to provide timely support to taxpayers in that space.

Another really good example, I think, here, is the support that we provided to businesses when we undertook the last revaluation in 2023. We were able to provide transitional support for businesses that saw an increase in their NDR liability. Again, that's something that we wouldn't have been able to do rapidly had we had to take the steps that are being suggested by the committee in that particular circumstance. So, I do think the circumstances for each of those matters around superaffirmative procedures, and, also, consultation, do depend on what we're trying to achieve. But, obviously, I'm more than happy to continue having those discussions with committees and I hop