Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

15/05/2024

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

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

1. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Cabinet Office

Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary meeting. The first item will be questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Constitution and Cabinet Office, and the first question is from Mark Isherwood.

Council Tax Reform

1. What consideration is the Cabinet Secretary giving to council tax reform in Wales? OQ61083

Having listened carefully to people’s views from our consultation, there was a clear appetite for reform but delivered over a slower time frame. I'll deliver some improvements to make council tax fairer this term, and continue engaging on the right structural reforms for 2028. I have issued a statement today setting out the plans.

Thank you. Well, the 182-day rule means that legitimate, well-established, local self-catering businesses have become liable to pay council tax, sometimes at a premium rate. When the secondary legislation introducing this threshold was proposed, the sector warned that this would harm legitimate Welsh businesses and damage the fragile ecosystem that is the visitor economy. Over 1,500 self-catering businesses have now responded to a new survey commissioned by Wales Tourism Alliance, UKHospitality Cymru and the Professional Association of Self Caterers UK. Only 25 per cent said they would hit 182 days this year, 70 per cent are discounting to try to hit 182 days, and 42 per cent are either putting their property on the market, or considering it, with the likelihood that they'll be purchased as second homes. How do you therefore respond to the request made by the Wales Tourism Alliance in their letter to the First Minister for a commitment to a date for a review of the 182-day policy, and to discuss what further exemptions from council tax premiums are needed in order for a balanced Welsh visitor economy to survive and thrive?

Well, I'm grateful for the opportunity just to restate the purpose behind the 182 days that was introduced, and that is very much because the Welsh Government believes that owners of properties and residents of properties, be they domestic or business, should pay a fair contribution to the communities in which they are based. I have seen a previous survey, which was undertaken by the tourism sector, and, actually, that survey did suggests that our aims through the policy were actually starting to achieve what we have set out to do. So, I'm not sure if this is a new survey that provides different evidence. If it is, I'd be very, very keen to look at that. 

I just want to be really clear, though, in terms of a review: we have no plans to undertake a review. The rules have only recently come in. I think it's important that they do bed in. I don't want the sector to be falsely labouring under the assumption that there is going to be an immediate review when, actually, the efforts of the sector should be looking to either meeting those 182 days or considering the options that are available to them, and options are available to them. 

Council tax was not meant to be fair. It was brought in to replace the hated poll tax. As it currently exists, it's regressive, but also very difficult to avoid, compared to income tax, which is progressive, but which is very easy to avoid, especially by the rich. The problem with council tax is that the bands are too wide and that very expensive houses are in the top band, no matter how valuable they are, above the minimum for band I. Will the Minister consider more bands above the current band I and increasing the number of lower bands by splitting the current bands in two?

I'm very grateful for that question and that clear recognition that property taxes are stable taxes but also taxes that are much more difficult to avoid in many ways. For that reason, we think that council tax absolutely plays an important part in our local tax structure and has been stable for a very long time. But, that said, we are undertaking huge efforts to make council tax fairer for the future. So, I've made a statement today that reflects on the phase 2 consultation. The phase 2 consultation looked at two things: it looked at the pace of reform and the scale of reform. In relation to the pace of reform, today I've made an announcement that we will be looking to introduce that revaluation from 2028, and the Valuation Office Agency will be undertaking the necessary work for that.

In terms, then, of the scale of change, and that includes things such as introducing new bands, those were included in our consultation, and there was definitely some support for doing that, both in terms of additional bands at the higher end, but then also, potentially, an additional band at the lower end to help those people in the least expensive properties. And absolutely, that will be part of our thinking as we move forward. I do want to be clear, though, that there would have to be a further consultation closer to the 2028 date, which would look again at those issues in relation to the scale of reform.

13:35
Reviewing the Fiscal Framework

2. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on progress in reviewing the fiscal framework of Wales? OQ61092

Yes. The fiscal framework is subject to regular internal review. In the main, it is operating well. However, there are elements relating to fiscal flexibilities where I have been making the case for improvements with UK Government Ministers.

I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that, Llywydd. By the end of this Senedd term, it will be nearly 10 years since the fiscal framework was first negotiated, yet the figures in it, as we have heard, remain stuck at the level that they were agreed back then. In the meantime, budgets have risen, inflation has eroded the real value of those figures. In the meantime, as well, agreement has been reached in both Scotland and Northern Ireland to have greater flexibilities in managing what is, after all, money that belongs to this Senedd. Does the Cabinet Secretary see any prospect of putting this right for Wales in the dying months of the current UK Government, or must we wait for the election of a different administration in London to treat Wales fairly and sensibly, so that public money can be managed here in the most effective way and in ways already available to every other part of the United Kingdom?

Yes, it's absolutely the case that the value of the flexibilities that we have has been eroded since the point at which they were set. So, in this financial year, our reserve capacity and also our borrowing powers will be worth 23 per cent less than at the time they were originally agreed. So, we absolutely think there is a very strong case for the powers and the flexibilities that have been given to Scotland recently to be given to us in terms of the indexation of the borrowing and the reserve. I will absolutely continue to make that case at the Finance: Interministerial Standing Committee. I'm very pleased to tell colleagues that I do still have the support of my counterparts in Scotland, and also now in Northern Ireland, for these measures. Despite the fact that they have had improvements, they're still very keen to support us in making the case, because they know it makes sense for all parts of the United Kingdom in terms of the devolved Governments.

I again find it rather amusing that, as the ex-First Minister, you are asking questions that are drawing attention to your own fiscal chaos, and yet it was never raised during your own tenure. These have not just sprung up now since you—[Interruption.] According to the Office for National Statistics, the figure in 2022 for the Welsh deficit between public spending and revenue was estimated to be an eye-watering £20.3 billion. Wales has the highest net fiscal balance per head in Great Britain, with a staggering £6,500 per person. For comparison, where do we think England comes in that chart? Roughly the same? Half? No. It was six times lower, at £1,100 per person—a country that has faced the same challenges as Wales, yet clearly is far better at balancing their public finances. I wonder what the difference is. Councils across Wales are facing more than £5 billion of debt. Why is it always Labour Governments that make a mockery of taxpayers' money and public finances? Will the Cabinet Secretary agree with me that the Welsh Government's own frivolous spending has wrecked the fiscal framework of Wales, and that, clearly, the socialist economic strategy of tax and spend is not only exacerbating the problem, but is drowning the Welsh dragon entirely? Diolch.

I'm afraid I don't recognise any part of that contribution at all because it mixes up a whole load of different matters, including the way in which the UK Government is responsible for pensions here in Wales, the way in which the UK Government is responsible for benefits here in Wales. Colleagues will know, of course, that we have a generally much older population here in Wales than other parts of the United Kingdom, and that is reflected through then in terms of the amount of money that is spent on people here in Wales. I think the important point to recognise, though, about the fiscal framework is that, thanks to the agreement made by the former First Minister, and finance Minister, as he was at that point, as well as providing the additional policy tools—and we've had a debate about how those need to be improved—the devolved taxes negotiated by Mark Drakeford have so far made a positive net contribution to the Welsh Government budget. Over the years for which outturn is available, this amounts to over £400 million in total, which we've been able to invest in public services here in Wales. And the Barnett needs factor, which, again, was introduced by part of the fiscal framework agreement, led by Mark Drakeford, has also provided additional funding, and is contributing around an extra £300 million to the Welsh Government settlement in 2024-25. So, there are certainly areas of the fiscal framework that are working for us; it is, really, that matter of the fiscal flexibilities that we need to see updated.

13:40

The former First Minister has made the case very eloquently in favour of a review. Now, the automatic mechanism for a review under the agreement—the periodic review—is some years off. But the agreement does have within it the ability, the power, for the Welsh Government to ask for a review now. So, have you asked for a review, or will you, given what we've heard?

So, I've just set out the ways in which the fiscal framework is working very much to our advantage at the moment, and particularly in terms of the Barnett needs factor, whereby we have an additional £300 million in the settlement. So, I think that's important to recognise. There are things that absolutely aren't working for us, but let's remember that we're dealing, at the moment, with a UK Government that sees everything as a zero-sum game—everything as a negotiation where they have to take something from that table as well. This isn't a UK Government that is interested in working with the Welsh Government for the benefit of the people of Wales. So, when you look at the way in which the Scottish framework was reviewed, certainly, the Scots gained a number of things, but then they also had to put on the table a number of things to lose. Their framework is different to ours. Now, if the UK Government wants us to put anything on the table, all we really have to put on the table in those negotiations is the Barnett needs factor, and we've heard time and time again from the benches over there how the Conservatives think that we're overfunded in Wales. So, I don't think that this is the right Government to go into those negotiations with. However, there could be a case for a future review with a Government that is more disposed to devolution and one that respects this Government and this Senedd.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Peter Fox. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, this is the first formal opportunity to say congratulations on retaining your position in the Cabinet and in the Government, and I look forward to constructively working with you over the coming period. So, today, I had to change tack a little, because your statement came out this morning, and I was disappointed that it came out as a written statement and wasn't presented, perhaps, to the Senedd yesterday so that we could have debated it. And, of course, it came after topical questions time as well, so that didn't give an opportunity for us to debate. But I've got an opportunity now to put some questions to you, Cabinet Secretary. In your written statement, you highlighted the need for a transition fund to support people through changes to council tax—well, that's what I assume that's what it's meant for—and that comes to the crux of my question. Can you, Cabinet Secretary, explain what the transition fund looks like and who will be eligible for it?

So, I'm not able to set out those details today because, whilst the announcement has said that the revaluation will take place in 2028, and we'll be amending the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill to reflect that, what we don't have now, at this point, is that decision in terms of the scale of reform. So, we don't have, at this point, the bands. We don't have, at this point, the rates. Those will be subject to further work and further consultation closer to the date. When those decisions are made, it's at that point, then, that you understand the impact on households and so on, and it's at that point, then, that you would consider what a transitional scheme might look like. But we've been very clear from the outset that that absolutely has to be part of the work before any scheme is introduced, so that households have certainty. When there was a previous revaluation, I think that the consensus now is that, perhaps, those transitional arrangements came too late, which is why we're very keen to at least reassure people that that will be part of our thinking when we get to that point. But we're not at the point yet where we can start putting a figure on it, because we are some years off.

Thank you for that, Cabinet Secretary. That transition fund will be absolutely fundamental to so many people when whatever happens, I'm sure, because there will always be winners and losers when you change something as profound as the council tax structure.

Some cynics might say, with the announcement today—and, yes, the announcement around the single farm payment moved off to 2026— that there must be some elections on the way that might be driving some of the Government's decisions here, but I'm not necessarily one of those cynics. Cabinet Secretary, in your written statement, you highlight the use of new technology used for valuation methods resulting in systems in place that provide comprehensive and robust information about up-to-date property values. Minister, I'm sure you will be aware of the report last week across lots of national press that the Welsh Government will be using satellites to access changes to house values. Cabinet Secretary, can you elaborate as to the technology used and whether this will include the use of satellites?

13:45

The first thing to say is there's been an awful lot of misreporting. I'm aware that the Conservatives have had their wrists slapped somewhat in relation to their use of the phrase 'a blanket ban' in terms of the 20 mph and so on. So, I would urge the Conservatives to reflect on that and try to stick to the facts in terms of council tax reform, and then we will all stay out of hot water. 

What I will say is that the article in The Daily Telegraph I think was poorly informed, to be generous. The fact is that property valuations for council tax purposes are undertaken independently of the Welsh Government. They're undertaken by the VOA. It uses the same technology for Wales as it would for England, and it's important to recognise it's entirely separate from Government, where we take those decisions about the overall design of the tax. It's important that there is that separation.

The VOA is an executive body of HMRC and the range of ways in which they use technology is a matter for them, but we are assured that the methods are internationally recognised as best practice and they are based on freely available information. It is important for council tax bills to be based on accurate and robust information. We do have a service level agreement with the VOA, which provides that level of accountability on the work.

I just don't understand this clutching of pearls that we're using publicly available information and the latest technology to accurately ensure that households are paying the right council tax. Technology has always been used, but technology is evolving.

The question was driven from your statement within your statement where you were quite excited about the new technologies that were being used by the VOA to do this, so I think it's quite right that we challenge it, especially in light of the public discourse over recent weeks where some might argue that Wales is going down this Big Brother type of situation where George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four is playing out, perhaps. That's what some people are leading us to believe. I'm sure that isn't the case.

But this isn't the only concern many of us in Wales will have with the statement. Another concern is the fact that these revaluations will have a massive impact on families that are very much cash poor. They may live in larger, rural houses, perhaps, perhaps in quite poor disrepair, but still triggering a higher council tax band. Those are very vulnerable and worried people.

So, whilst I welcome—and I absolutely do welcome—the fact, hopefully, that the 25 per cent discount will remain place, I'm concerned that your explanatory memorandum for the upcoming Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill highlights the fact that Ministers have the powers to allow councils in certain circumstances to disapply or reduce discounts in their area. If you are committed, Cabinet Secretary, to the 25 per cent council tax reduction, why are you giving local councils the power to disapply these discounts?

I recognise the concerns about the impact on households during the cost-of-living crisis, and that was very central to our considerations as we looked at the pace of reform. The slower pace was the favoured response in terms of the consultation, so we listened very carefully to that. Some of those arguments that were made to support that request for a slower pace were about the cost of living and the way in which council tax rises might affect families and so on. So, we have, I think, responded well to that. 

What we also recognise is that there are people living in properties that might be high value but they might have a lower income, and it's for that reason that we're undertaking our review of the discounts, disregards and exemptions. That's going on at the moment, and that won't have to wait until 2028; that's work that we're doing at the moment to look at that. It is the case that councils are able to disapply council tax bills for certain properties. So, if there is a reason why they're able to do that, they do have a good level, I think, of flexibility to be able to do that locally. But, as I say, we are currently undergoing that quite significant work, looking at the 53 different categories of discounts and exemptions and so on to make sure that they are fit for purpose. Our working group has suggested that many of them are, but some might need some further work, and then we also need to look at the other groups who should benefit from a discount or an exemption. 

13:50

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, since your reappointment to the Welsh Government, we've heard a number of commitments from your colleagues relating to their portfolios. These announcements have a bearing on budgets and on the bottom lines of each department. My first question today, therefore, relates to the recent Cabinet reshuffle and the transferring of responsibilities between ministerial portfolios. We have seen, for example, the responsibility for the national museums and galleries of Wales, which we know are facing a financial crisis, transferred from the economy portfolio to a new culture and social justice portfolio. Likewise, responsibility for the Welsh language is now part of the reconfigured economy, energy and Welsh language portfolio. These are just two examples of high-level changes. Can I ask what assessments you have undertaken as to the impact of the changes in ministerial responsibilities on the Welsh budget? How has that impacted on the make-up of the Welsh Government's main expenditure groups? Are there knock-on consequences for the quantum of funds made available through particular portfolios? And can I ask when any such assessment will be published? For example, will it be published alongside the supplementary budget to give this Senedd the opportunity to scrutinise those decisions? 

Yes, certainly. I think that what you've set out is very much our approach to the first supplementary budget, which we will be publishing in June, as normal. Officials have been working through the implications of the changes in responsibilities in terms of MEGs, but then also looking to see if there are any budget expenditure lines that need to be looked at again if, for example, there are things that might be undertaken now in different parts of Government. That's quite a complex piece of work in terms of resetting the MEGs against the new portfolio structures. But it is ongoing at the moment, and the intention is to publish that detail in full at the first supplementary budget. 

Thank you for that answer. It would be very useful to see that tracked through in terms of where it's moved to and from. I'm hoping that level of detail will be available in that. As you've said, as June approaches, we do anticipate the imminent publication of the first supplementary budget. This time last year, we were invited to scrutinise and approve the first supplementary budget, which alleged to have accounted appropriately for the impact of inflation, including through the increased draw-down on the Welsh reserve. However, only a couple of months after the supplementary budget was passed, we were told that the Welsh Government was facing £900 million shortfall in its budget, and that Ministers across all departments had been asked to make substantial cuts in funding to public services. I think it's reasonable to expect a supplementary budget to survive first contact with fiscal reality and that it accurately reflects Wales's real financial position. Can I ask you to confirm, Cabinet Secretary, that we will not be blindsided again this year by a similar financial bombshell over the summer recess, and that the work being undertaken to prepare this year's first supplementary budget is more robust and durable? And what changes have you made to the process to ensure that that's the case? 

I wouldn't say that the Senedd or anybody else was blindsided by the work that we did to respond to the impacts of inflation on our budgets, because we were really clear. We did have some debates about it in Government and we decided at the end to make a statement in August of that year, whereas the work, actually, was only completed in October. So, we felt it was important to be transparent about the level of pressure that the Welsh Government was under at the time, and also, then, the work that we would undertake, which culminated in the changes that we made to the budget in October. You'll have seen then that the budget for this financial year baselined some of those changes. So, those things, if you like, have been dealt with and we've moved on from that. But pressures, of course, still remain on the budget, and colleagues are managing their budgets very carefully in order to deliver on their commitments.

What you can see, I think, from the first supplementary budget will be that kind of recasting of the MEGs and so on. We have to manage things as we go through the year. You'll know that our levels of reserves are very minimal as we start this financial year because of the choices that we've taken to allocate as much as we possibly could. There may be things that come forward in the financial year that we need to respond to, so we'll have to maintain a level of ability to respond in that agile way if necessary. But I think that we've dealt, in the main now, with the massive impact of inflation that we saw last year, bearing in mind that those budgets were originally set back in 2021, when we weren't aware of the challenges that were coming our way in terms of inflation and also the war on Ukraine, the high prices of energy and so on.

13:55
Barnett Consequentials

3. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had with the UK Government regarding the Barnett consequentials for Wales as a result of childcare funding in England? OQ61087

I was informed of the Barnett consequentials for Wales as a result of the childcare funding in England in a call with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on the morning of the UK spring budget 2023.

Thank you very much. The cost of childcare in Wales for a child aged two is 63 per cent of a parent's average take-home pay, and as the parent of a daughter who is under two years old, I know from first-hand experience that it costs nearly £1,000 a month for her to be in full-time nursery, and many other parents in the Vale of Clwyd feel the same. With close links between the north-east of Wales and England, people are seeing, particularly in border areas, the positive news coming from the UK Government in terms of childcare funding being in place from nine months and the clear disparity of that being not the case in Wales, with that being two years. I've got many constituents who are desperate to get back to work, they enjoy working, they're young, they're ambitious, they want to do things in life and they want to get back to work, knowing that there's a robust nursery system in place to support their ambitions. So, what would your message be to my constituents who are desperate to get back to work and see the obvious and ever-growing disparity between the systems in England and Wales?

We're focusing on a roll-out of our childcare measures in a way that is focused, structured and budgeted for, and a way in which the sector is there ready, if you like, to deliver on, which isn't the case in England, which I think we can all agree has been quite chaotic in terms of its attempts to roll out the policy. In Wales, we're investing more than £100 million in childcare provision across Wales. That's through our Flying Start offer, and also our childcare offer, but alongside that, £70 million capital in the sector, and also providing support for the workforce directly through training, skills and development and so on.

Also, I know the Conservatives are always very interested in non-domestic rates relief. We're providing 100 per cent business rates relief for registered childcare premises here in Wales, and that goes through until March of next year. That will save registered childcare providers around £10 million in their overhead costs. And also, we're working with Social Care Wales to respond to the challenges of recruitment in the sector, which I think is also really important.

But in terms of our roll-out of our programme here in Wales, we're very much focusing resources on our most disadvantaged communities in the first instance, ensuring that that support reaches the families who are in greatest need at the earliest opportunity. Ultimately, our ambition is for Flying Start childcare services to be available for all two-year-olds in Wales, and we're working with the sector to build capacity to deliver that.

Funding for Bus Franchising

4. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had with the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport regarding additional funding for bus franchising? OQ61110

Decisions about the funding available for bus franchising will be a matter for the budget-setting process in the appropriate years, noting the challenging fiscal outlook that we're facing.

Many of us in north Wales look jealously at the investment going into the south Wales metro, the £1 billion plus upgrade of services, which, of course, is welcome, but, by contrast, we have a rather ambiguous candy floss concoction that's been branded a north Wales metro that merely links up existing rail and bus services. Bus services, as we know, have long been a poor relative of rail, with services in decline since before COVID, actually. I welcome Government proposals around bus franchising and ending the grip that private bus firms have on those services, but for it to work properly, it obviously has to be funded properly. So, can you assure us today that you will be investing more money in bus services to ensure that the proposed bus legislation is as effective as we all hope it to be? And can you also assure us that north Wales will get its fair slice of the cake?

14:00

I can't say anything about the budgets for the years that we don't have a settlement for at this point. I think something that needs to be recognised is that we provide significant funding already to support bus services across Wales. But what franchising will allow us to do is to make better use of the funding that we provide and give us more control over the risk and also the power to control the funding that we invest, making sure that it can be spent where it has the greatest impact, reducing inefficiency and improving the integration of the services to make that funding go as far as possible. You will, I'm sure, be very familiar with the bus reform road map that was published; that really does, I think, recognise that future funding will be challenging, so it matters how we spend the limited resources that we have.

Unfortunately, I'm not able to say more in terms of the future funding for the bus franchising, purely because we haven't yet had those discussions, we haven't yet had our settlement from the UK Government. We haven't entered into a spending review period of that sort yet. But we absolutely will be considering the importance of bus services, as we enter those discussions.

North Wales relies on buses, certainly in Aberconwy, they do—one in five households do not have access to a car, with four in every five bus users not having access. Clearly, maintaining our bus system is crucial. However, I am concerned about the financials for the franchising model, which, I know, are still under development, and, indeed, we took evidence last week in our climate change committee. Indeed, there are suggestions that London-style franchising will cost at least £300 million a year. You propose to adopt an incentive-based gross cost model, for which Transport for Wales will pay operators a fixed sum to run specific services, and this will keep the revenue in-house. However, it will also mean that TfW is obliged to run services that are at risk of decreasing passenger numbers and thus fund non-financially viable services. 

Now, TfW is known well to this Chamber for its performance in the rail system. As the chief executive of TfW, James Price, has outlined, future funding will be a challenge. Now, again, last week, as we were in the climate change committee with those actually working on the franchise model in England, several concerns were raised as to whether TfW even has the capacity, the resources or the ability to carry out the franchising model in Wales, but also within the timescales set. So, how will you, Minister, work with Transport for Wales to ensure that it does have the resources to make the franchise scheme a success? And what additional funding are you planning to transfer in order to ensure that this is not a failed exercise? Diolch.

The first thing to say is that we haven't yet developed the contracts that we will use for the franchising, but our existing contracts for TrawsCymru services will be used as a starting point because they have, already, some of the features that we would expect to see in franchising contracts. This work is being led by the Cabinet Secretary for transport, so he would be much better placed to provide you with detailed answers. But on the financing of it, as I said in my previous answer, we don't yet have budgets for these financial years, so I'm not able to provide any level of certainty to colleagues at this point. But I know, when it does come to the point of scrutinising the budget for those years, this will be a focus for colleagues.

Procurement Policies

5. What is the Welsh Government doing to strengthen its procurement policies? OQ61082

Procurement is one of the most important levers we have to support a more equal, more sustainable and more prosperous Wales. Implementing robust procurement policies can help us achieve our ambitious net-zero aspirations, support a green recovery and contribute to our shared ambition for a Wales of fair work.

Cabinet Secretary, I believe that the Welsh public sector should be procuring Welsh goods and services as much as possible. And so when a constituent contacted me with concerns about Cadw's procurement of goods, I was really disappointed to learn recently that only around 60 per cent of suppliers who provide products sold at Cadw sites are actually based here in Wales.

Now, for many years, the Welsh Government has talked about the need to support Welsh businesses, and it's vital that we see organisations such as Cadw—which, after all, is a Welsh Government funded organsiation—doing everything it can to support Welsh suppliers. So, Cabinet Secretary, can you tell us what action the Welsh Government is taking to ensure that all Welsh Government funded organisations and sites are supporting Welsh businesses as much as they can?

14:05

I'm very grateful for the question, and it leads me to think of some work that we've been doing through the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru in relation to better understanding Welsh spend in terms of procurement. So, we've been looking at how we can map out spend more accurately in Wales, and there are lots of questions, even fundamentally, that we have to answer. So, how do you go about defining a Welsh company? Is it a company that has a business here in Wales, or a postcode here in Wales? Some businesses that contribute an awful lot to the Welsh economy aren’t Welsh businesses, if you like. So, what credence do we give to the number of Welsh employees? That kind of thing. So, we've been looking very closely at how we go about defining that work, and we hope to say a bit more about that in due course.

But then we're also considering how we can establish a kind of ‘made in Wales’ mark that businesses can use themselves to identify themselves, looking at the ‘made in Ireland’ mark that has been given to businesses over there. That does help businesses, as we understand it, to be able to market themselves in Ireland as Irish products. We're looking to see what more we can be doing here.

We do have a great deal of public policy advice notices that are provided to the public sector to enable them to better support businesses that are here in Wales, and also to deliver on some of our other priorities, such as supporting small and medium-sized enterprises in particular. So, there are a number of things going on in procurement at the moment, not least our new procurement legislation.

Following the exit from the European Union, we have had to look fundamentally at the way in which we procure, so we're able, through that legislation, to put a greater focus on procurement in that kind of local context. Equally, we have the work that we've been doing with the UK Government on this as well, and our own social services—. I always say social services, but it is our our social partnership Bill, which again seeks to drive those public goods, if you like, from our procurement.

Along the same lines as Paul Davies, one of the things that is most frustrating for me, certainly, in terms of public bodies in Wales is the fact that many of them are outsourcing their work to other companies—companies that are very often not located here in Wales, and that don't even have a workforce working here. It's even more frustrating when you consider that that work doesn't have to be outsourced. There are skills within those public bodies that could do it, but for whatever reason, the public body decides that the best decision is to outsource to an external company. So, what steps are you taking in order to ensure that not too many of these projects and plans are outsourced to external companies, and if things do have to be outsourced, that they are outsourced to companies that bring economic benefit to those communities that are being worked upon? 

We know that this is a concern to a number of public bodies, which is why we've worked to develop an insourcing toolkit. We know that a number of local authorities are very interested—local authorities, but you could read across to other parts of the public sector—in what more they could insource. So, we worked hard with, I think it was—. The organisation's name escapes me now, but perhaps I will write to the Member with more information. But we did develop an insourcing toolkit that we felt met the needs that public bodies were telling us that they wanted, in terms of understanding the arguments for insourcing and then testing how they would compare one contract against another, and how you can demonstrate value for money in a different way and so on. So, I think that that toolkit has been well received, and I'd be happy to send you a copy.

Non-domestic Rates

6. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on work to reform the non-domestic rates system? OQ61095

We remain on track to deliver the programme of reforms that I set out for this Senedd term. Several improvements have already been made, including delivering the 2023 revaluation. Through the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill, we will deliver on the range of specific proposals that we consulted on in 2022.

14:10

Thank you for your answer, Cabinet Secretary. With regard to business rates, amongst the issues most frequently raised with me by constituents is concern at what can feel like an unresponsive system, with there being too long a gap between revaluations. So, could you expand on how the Welsh Government will address this in the Local Government Finance (Wales) Bill, and what mechanisms would you like to introduce to ensure a more flexible, responsive system that supports our small businesses on our high streets?

I'm really grateful to Vikki Howells for raising that, and I know that she's been talking to businesses in her local area a great deal, and they have been expressing concerns about those gaps between revaluations. That's one of the reasons why we're introducing, through our local government finance Bill, three-yearly rolling revaluations now for businesses for non-domestic rates. We think that three years does give that balance between certainty for business, but then also reflecting more up-to-date and current market conditions. So, three years is the number that businesses and their representative bodies have been telling us that they would welcome. I think that that's a particularly positive part of our reforms that we're undertaking.

The 2023 revaluation was surprisingly smooth, so I think that we can take some comfort from how well that revaluation went. We were able to provide, of course, some transitional support for businesses that saw an increase in their bills, but when we do have this cycle of more frequent revaluations, we should see a little less churn.

Cabinet Secretary, unfortunately, for many hospitality businesses, these reforms will be far too late. The sector is facing a perfect hurricane, in the words of UKHospitality Cymru. By the time the business rates system is reformed, we will have lost many businesses, and many town centres across the country will become ghost towns. Cabinet Secretary, the industry is on its knees. Will you, therefore, take urgent action to support the sector by eliminating non-domestic rates for hospitality businesses until a new fairer system is introduced? Thank you.

I'm afraid I can't eliminate non-domestic rates for a very large sector of our economy here in Wales, just because non-domestic rates—. Let's remember the purpose of those non-domestic rates—they are there to provide vital funding for our public services. So, unless colleagues want to tell me where I need to find the money from elsewhere, or what I need to cut as a response to that, I'm afraid that's not something that I can commit to today.

HS2 Consequential Funding

7. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the funding lost to Wales as a result of the UK Government's refusal to class HS2 as an England-only project? OQ61108

Up to the end of 2024-25, Wales will have missed out on around £350 million as a result of the incorrect classification of HS2 as an England-and-Wales project.

Thank you. Cabinet Secretary, in a written answer to me yesterday, the First Minister stated that the Welsh Government budget is worth £700 million less than when it was agreed. So, if you add to this the clearly disgraceful decision by the UK Government to class HS2 as an England-and-Wales-only project, even though not an inch of track—or centimetre, even—will be built on Welsh soil, any fair and objective person can ascertain how Wales is being short-changed by the Tory UK Government, whilst the party opposite do nothing to stand up for Wales and Welsh interests. So, Cabinet Secretary, what practical differences, then, would it make to Welsh public life and the tough financial decisions being made every day by the Welsh Government, and our hard-working and hard-stretched local authorities, if the money Wales rightly should have and deserves was actually honourably given to us, or is this simply another great train robbery?

Well, £350 million could have made a significant difference to us here in Wales in terms of the investment that we're able to make in public services. I think that the UK Government should return that money to Wales. There's absolutely no argument now that the HS2 project, which is basically a London-to-Birmingham railway, has any benefit to us here in Wales. Those kind of flimsy arguments that we would benefit in the past I think have been completely washed away now, so that money I think does need to be returned to us. We're being short-changed in so many ways. When you think about replacement EU funding, for example, that’s a classic example of the UK Government short-changing the Welsh Government, and when you look at the ways in which the UK Government has provided specific funding for Northern Ireland to help Northern Ireland to meet its challenges in terms of public services, but not providing the same for us here in Wales, I think again that’s an example of where we’ve been short-changed. As I’ve said to the Minister in Northern Ireland, we don’t begrudge a penny. We recognise the pressures on public services there, but what we want is fair treatment and fair play right across the United Kingdom.

So, what I would like to see as we start our discussions in terms of the next spending review period is absolutely for this project to be categorised now as an England-only project, as it should have been all along.

14:15
Budget Processes

8. What steps is the Cabinet Secretary taking to improve the ability of the Senedd to influence the process of shaping the Government's budget? OQ61102

I'm continuing to work with the Finance Committee to agree improvements to our budget processes. Further discussions are planned over the summer with a view to agreeing an updated budget business protocol.

Under systems based on processes in Westminister, there is a tendency for the Executive, the Government, to keep a very tight hold of the ability to set the budget. We in this Senedd, and, truth be told, in the Scottish Parliament as well, have inherited that stance. In the Scottish Parliament they have a Finance Bill, but it's only the Government that can bring forward amendments.

But this is not the only way of doing things, of course, and, as we now reform the Senedd, we are moving towards a European system in terms of the electoral system, and when we look at Parliaments in those nations—Scandinavian countries, for example—because of the negotiation between parties, very often where the Government doesn't have a majority, they provide for more powers in the hands of, for example, committees—the finance committees of those Parliaments—to table specific amendments to the budgets. And not just in Europe. Also, there are some Parliaments that do operate on a Westminster basis—Canada, India, South Africa—that also give that ability to committees to bring forward specific amendments. Why don't we emulate that here?

I'm always interested in finding out what’s happening in other countries. I think that the way in which we can operate in a collaborative and co-operative way here in Wales is demonstrated through the co-operation agreement that we have with Plaid Cymru. I think I’ve had, over the years, some really excellent discussions with Siân Gwenllian as the designated Member there in terms of our preparations for the budget. I hope that those discussions have gone on in a respectful way, where Plaid Cymru is able to see the influence that it has had on our wider budget. So, I think that the way in which we’ve approached things here has been on that kind of party political, if you like, approach to budget setting.

Of course, I’m interested in what’s happening elsewhere. Ultimately, we have to make things balance, if you like, so you could conceivably find yourself in a situation where you have amendments on different tax matters, for example, which mean that the outcome of those amendments leads you then to have to go back and look at your whole budget again to make it balance. But of course I’m happy to consider good examples of what’s happening elsewhere.

I think the budget protocol has been really important in terms of trying to find those additional points through the budget year where we can have that engagement. So, the debate that we have is really important. If we’re not able to publish an early budget because of choices made in Westminster, I go to the Finance Committee to have those discussions, and I know that the sessions with the chief economist have been well received as well. So, we’ve managed to agree quite a number, I think, of things in terms of the changes to the budget protocol, but there are some areas where we’ve yet to come to an agreement, and I know that we’ll have some more discussions over the summer on that.

2. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs

The next set of questions will be to the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs. The first question is from Siân Gwenllian.

New Gas-fired Power Plants in Arfon

1. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had with the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language on the impact of plans to build gas-fired power plants in Arfon on Government climate change targets? OQ61091

14:20

Thank you, Siân. I cannot make comments on specific cases. But, as the First Minister made clear yesterday, our general policy does not support the construction of new power plants that are fossil-fuel powered. We must reduce fossil fuel emissions and increase generation from renewable sources to meet our ambitious climate targets.

Thank you very much for restating the Government's stance, and I was very pleased to hear the First Minister also saying this during questions to the First Minister yesterday. 

Siân Gwenllian's connection seems to have frozen. We will move on to Mark Isherwood's supplementary question at this point in the hope that Siân Gwenllian will have reconnected. So, Mark Isherwood. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Also questioning the First Minister about this yesterday, I noted that the International Energy Agency defines energy security as the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price, that current levels of energy technology and infrastructure necessitate back-up for intermittent renewable energy, which remains dependent upon fossil fuels, predominantly gas, for rapid response and to balance demand, particularly when wind and solar outputs are low, and that it's likely to remain the case for much of the transition period to a carbon-neutral future, and it would be a disservice to the public to pretend otherwise. I then asked him how the Welsh Government proposes to ensure energy security during the years of transition to a carbon-neutral future. In his response, and as you indicate, the First Minister said there is a presumption against new fossil-fuel-powered production in Wales. How do you therefore propose in your new role to address the technological and scientific reality that this is not an either/or choice, and that failure to accept and plan for the risks risks leaving people cold, hungry, thirsty and exposed to life-threatening instability?

Thank you, Mark, for that supplementary, and this isn't an either/or because climate justice and social justice are our twin economic missions and achieving both of them requires collaboration. For our part, the just transition to net zero is at the very heart of this Government; it's embedded throughout everything we do. We will ensure workers and consumers are front and centre in the net-zero transition and that the people of Wales benefit. But, to be absolutely clear, we do need a secure, affordable energy supply and a sustainable industry in Wales.

The climate crisis and our current dependance on expensive globally sourced fossil fuels underlines the importance of an affordable clean energy that is generated in Wales. We need sustainable industries that support the well-being of our economy and citizens and contribute towards decarbonisation. Our programme for government requires that we embed our response to the climate and nature emergency in everything we do, so we do uphold our policy of opposing the extraction of fossil fuels in Wales, both on land and in Welsh waters, using the powers available.

And just to remind the Senedd and colleagues—I'm sure nobody needs reminding—our statutory commitments are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 63 per cent by 2030, 89 per cent by 2040, and at least 100 per cent by 2050, based on 1990 levels. This is not mutually exclusive. We need to deliver climate justice and social justice at the same time. 

Deposit-return Scheme

2. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the progress of the Welsh Government's deposit-return scheme? OQ61100

I will, Tom, and thank you. On 25 April, a joint statement on the deposit-return scheme was published, outlining the interoperability positions agreed by all four nations. Having worked closely with England and Northern Ireland on the development of their legislation, it forms the basis for our legislation, which is now being drafted.

Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for the response? I know the Welsh Government in its new iteration is keen to create the impression that it is in listening mode. We've heard that from the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport as regards 20 mph, the Cabinet Secretary for Education as regards additional learning needs reforms and from yourself yesterday regarding the sustainable farming scheme. So, I wonder whether you'd be willing to listen to those breweries across Wales who are concerned about the impact that the inclusion of glass in the deposit-return scheme would have on their businesses. Last year, with the Secretary of State for Wales, I visited Bang-On Brewery in Bridgend—I know you're familiar with it; I meant more from a geographical perspective than a familiarity with the product, Cabinet Secretary, but I'm sure you're familiar with Bang-On Brewery, nonetheless. [Laughter.] And they informed me that they thought the impact of the deposit-return scheme meant a bottle of beer there could cost as much as £12.50 or more. So, I wonder whether you've taken time to reflect on the fact that England, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not progressing with glass in the deposit-return scheme in the initial instance, and whether Wales now, under your tenure as Cabinet Secretary, might want to follow suit.

14:25

Well, a couple of points to make in response, Tom. First of all, not only are we keen to engage, but we have been engaging, and I've had two or three round-tables, including with the supply chain, including with brewers, the retail and hospitality sector, over the last few weeks that I've been in post. I'm keen to engage with them, keen to work through how we take this forward.

But just a reminder of why we see glass as being so critical: it is, for a variety of reasons, not least our trajectory to zero carbon, touched on in the previous question—. The fact that we have to, to recycle glass, heat it to 1,500 degrees before we turn it into a recyclate product is significant. Reuse of glass is a major breakthrough in our zero-carbon trajectory, and Wales is far ahead of many others on the recycling of plastics, what we're doing on single-use plastics, what we're doing on aluminium and so on already. We are already third in the world and possibly moving upwards in terms of our recycling, because of bold measures we've taken. But glass needs to be in there; it needs to be an all-in scheme. It's not a question of 'if' but 'when'—it is not a question of 'if' but 'when'. Because this is not only to do with zero carbon, it's to do with litter and the effects of litter on communities, and litter and the links with deprivation, and litter and the links with deprivation and then with criminality, if it's not tackled. It is to do with animal welfare as well. So, there are a number of reasons.

But we will continue to work with all businesses, Tom, very closely indeed, as we seek not only to take forward the four-nation statement on DRS, which we have signed on, but also our fundamental principled position on glass. There are reasons—very good reasons—why glass should be in, and reasons, by the way, why leaving glass out for too long or at an early stage will lead to additional costs for businesses as well. Look at the increase in some of the landfill costs in England at the moment—that's what we're trying to protect against.

It's very typical that we have three Members from Bridgend contributing to this question and we all want to talk about Bang-On Brewery. But Bang-On Brewery is a good example, as are other small breweries across Wales, of some of that concern that is there around glass being included in the DRS, particularly the administrative burden that'll be placed on these smaller producers, who, more often than not, are more like passion projects, staffed by one, two or even three people. So, my question to you, Cabinet Secretary, is: how do we actually ensure, then, that those smaller producers, who, to be fair, aren't the ones that are contributing the most to the litter on the streets, how do we ensure that that administrative burden on them isn't so much to the point where they then start considering what actually their future trading in Wales is actually going to look like?

Thank you, Luke, and I get a feeling I'm going to get some invitation from Bang-On Brewery at some time to go down and visit their premises. I'll clearly be hugely reluctant to take up that invitation—no, I'll definitely accept it, if it does come.

But just to say that working with businesses has already been extensively under way. Can I just remind all colleagues who are contributing to this, that there was a position, only a couple of years off, where there was a UK-wide sign-off on everything, including glass? It's not that Wales has changed its position or Scotland has changed its position; it's that England has changed its position. [Interruption.] Sorry, there are some comments behind saying Scotland has changed its position. Scotland were confronted by a UK administration that said that they would use UKIMA, the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, to thwart their ambitions to move ahead. But, actually, there was sign-off across all the nations on that consultation only as recently as two years ago.

Can I just say, in terms of small breweries, there are ways in which we can deal with this, and small producers as well? So, for example, recognising the potential impact on small producers, producers may choose to register product lines with less than 5,000 units placed on the market across the UK per annum as a low-volume product. Now, this exemption is designed to support those producers with low-volume sales products or specialist sales products who would find DRS requirements disproportionately burdensome. We actually want to work in Wales with our small producers, so that we can support them to make the most of the opportunities, from more resilient supply chains to decreased material costs, and particularly through our plans on reuse in Wales. So, we will continue to work with all of our small producers.

14:30

Can I welcome this question being put forward and the Cabinet Secretary's answers already? I note the Cabinet Secretary's ambition around the importance of the four-nation approach. I also note his comments around glass being included in a scheme. Very similar to the comments we've heard from Tom Giffard and Luke Fletcher, in my role as chair of the Senedd cross-party group on beer and pubs, I've spoken to a number of small and microbreweries who do have those concerns that have been raised this afternoon, particularly around glass, and when that would be introduced.

Your commitment is really welcome to the industry. I think you're demonstrating that already by meeting a number of times, through round-tables and other avenues, with the industry and stakeholders of the industry. Can I ask you therefore: will you carry on engaging and speaking to the industry—perhaps through the cross-party group as a vehicle to engage with many small and microbreweries across Wales—to make sure that any scheme doesn't disadvantage small and microbreweries across Wales, which play an incredibly important role in our Welsh economy? Diolch.

Jack, we will, of course, continue that engagement. My thanks for your engagement in this role, with your chairmanship of that group as well, which is a very well-loved cross-party group, I have to say, here in the Senedd.

We'll continue that engagement, but just to reiterate: this is not Wales being the odd one out here. This is Wales trying to do the right thing for our planet, for recyclate as well, and also for a resilient industry. There are real costs, I have to say, to phasing glass in at a later stage, or blocking it from being phased in. It has considerable issues. So, for example, it excludes the material with the greatest carbon footprint and what has the greatest potential in sustainability, but it also means that we could be into the 2030s at the earliest before we introduce glass. Bear in mind that there are over 50 countries that currently have this and the majority actually with glass as well. If we have an initial roll-out without glass, imagine the costs of the redeployment of the equipment that would then take glass subsequently. So, there are a number of reasons why—. And also there wouldn't be a level playing field. So, between aluminiums and plastics and steel and glass, there wouldn't be a level playing field.

But we will, Jack, continue to work in partnership with you, the group, but also with those wider, small-and-medium-scale businesses, which are so important to food and drink within Wales, on whatever proposals we take forward.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.

Diolch, Llywydd. Only last year, we in the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee branded the Welsh Government's efforts on environmental governance as inadequate. Over several months, we've actually, or I certainly said it was woefully inadequate. The crisis here in Wales is now worse. Wales still remains the sole region in the UK without a permanent body dedicated to scrutinising its Government's environmental performance. Welsh Water has breached regulations more than 200 times since 2018, but was only fined twice. The Wales environment network also agreed that current arrangements for the interim do not constitute a route to good environmental governance.

Enforcement by Natural Resources Wales has resulted in only 50 fines across 880 breaches in recent years. And even after NRW undertook a year-long investigation into the illegal dumping of waste in a site of special scientific interest on the Gwent levels, and David John Neal was given a three-month suspended sentence, the First Minister deemed it acceptable to accept a £200,000 donation. Called out in this Senedd by Paul Davies and Andrew Davies, our leader, Vaughan Gething MS, otherwise known as the First Minister, has sold any credibility on the nature crisis down at the Gwent levels just to ultimately become First Minister. Would you, Minister, have accepted this donation? Should it be returned? And how do you mitigate the embarrassment felt by, I'm sure, other Members of the Welsh Government, backbenchers and indeed, us, as Senedd Members?

Well, Janet, can I deal with the substance of your question rather than the political points that you're making? The substance of your question is to do with the environmental governance within Wales, and it is a factor of our withdrawal from the EU that we lost that framework, and we now have to put in place—. And I give credit, I have to say, to the interim assessor, and a very small unit, for the work that they've done already. But I'm glad, I think, taking it from the comments that you've made, that we have your support for the work that we will bring forward on the environmental governance and biodiversity targets Bill, which will actually fill those gaps that we have now lost. That will put in place not only a permanent environmental governance body, which is important—we need that—but it will drop down those environmental principles. We always made clear in Wales that we will not take a step back, and I would ask for consistency from all Members of this Chamber, then, when we come to difficult decisions on environmental matters, that we stand steadfast with it, in line with the well-being of future generations approach as well. And we will also put in place, following the COP on biodiversity last year, which my predecessor Julie James attended, all those targets that drop down from the United Nations high targets into Welsh domestic targets as well. That it is the way to proceed. If you don't mind, I'll ignore the politics that you're trying to make of what is actually a very serious and substantive issue, but thank you for your support.

14:35

That was not an answer to the questions I raised with you. Referring to the case against Mr Neal, NRW said:

'The outcome of this case shows that companies and individuals who seek to exploit the regulatory framework...will not be tolerated by Natural Resources Wales.'

NRW has actually drawn a clear red line that they do not tolerate those who seek to exploit regulations that protect the public and our environment. However, as reported in March, the First Minister shockingly asked NRW, allegedly, to ease restrictions on one of Mr Neal's companies, Atlantic Recycling. If only it ended there. The First Minister then accepted £100,000 in December 2023, £100,000 in January 2024. Shockingly, this coincided with Mr Neal pleading guilty to another offence in January—not once, not twice, but three times a charm. This absolutely stinks. Jeremy Miles MS and Mick Antoniw MS have both said that they would not have accepted this money.

Do you, Cabinet Secretary, not believe that the First Minister has crossed his own red line and that he's undermined his Welsh Government by not only tolerating, but supporting an individual and companies that have fundamentally undermined our environment, and have caused misery to so many people?

Well, Llywydd, today on the Senedd floor, the privilege we have to be here, there are 101 important environmental matters that could have been brought to my attention by Janet as the frontbench spokesman. Rather than that, she's focused on issues that the First Minister has already addressed repeatedly. And let me just say in terms of the red lines on this as well: there is a Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs—that's me. My responsibilities are there. In the same way that NRW has those very firm lines on what they do, without influence, and so on, so do I. That is my role. So, unless, Janet, you are directly questioning my integrity, then I say to you, let's talk about matters of substantial interest to Wales and the people of Wales and the quality of our natural environment, and let's get back to doing the day job.

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. I wouldn't dream of questioning your integrity because you didn't accept the money. But that the leader of Welsh Labour has publicly accepted money from an environmental law-breaker is unacceptable, and we should not be accepting this. I find it quite appalling that there appears to be no redress on ethical and moral standards by the First Minister.

Just look at the suffering in Pembrokeshire: Public Health Wales feeling the need to tell residents that they should keep their windows closed, and doors, during what is now—hopefully and thankfully—warm weather, because the emissions may be harmful to health, and to contact any health provider if there are any concerns. This week, the head of south-west operations for NRW said:

'We fully understand the strength of feeling and growing impatience amongst people living and working in the surrounding communities.'

Do you acknowledge that the First Minister's refusal to return the donation is causing him now, and your Government, to be perceived as backing a donor instead of the local community, which is now clearly suffering from this environmental disaster? What pressure will you now put on NRW to ensure that these breaches end now? And also, are you looking, with NRW, at the permit that this operator is actually using to carry on with this shocking situation that is affecting so many people's lives? Diolch.

14:40

Thank you, Janet, for moving on to the particular matter that is causing high concern around the Withyhedge landfill site. If you'll excuse me, I'll choose not to conflate it with, again, the wider political points that you're making, because, on the ground, there is a situation where I have the most enormous amount of empathy with those individuals, and we heard earlier, actually, and at First Minister's questions yesterday as well, Llywydd, some of the concerns there. 

Public Health Wales, and of course NRW, are on the ground. I know we have a further question coming on this very soon as well. But I've made clear, when asked about this in previous questions—and so has the First Minister—that NRW, as the regulatory and enforcement body on the ground, are not only there, and also engaging with residents, but have put in place the measures that they require of the operator, and if those measures do not take place and are not made effective, and if the concerns of residents are not addressed, they have enforcement powers to use. And one of those deadlines passed yesterday. So, on that basis, rather than take—. I think we'll come back to this question with another Member, which I'll address in further detail. 

Thank you, Llywydd. I'd like to ask you about global mapping trends in terms of climate change, please, and how that impacts on our work here in Wales. There is now a consensus amongst some of the most prominent climate scientists that the world is on a very damaging course. Global temperatures will rise by at least 2.5 degrees C, and with that, there will be more floods, fires, heating and storms—a nightmarish scenario. 

So, first, what impact will this have on Wales? But also, at the same time, there is another crisis when it comes to communicating that challenge. Westminster politics increasingly downplays the importance of reaching net zero. The Conservatives, of course, have led on this in Westminster, but Labour on a UK level are retreating from the ambition that we need to see. So, what effect is that distance or that gap between what needs to happen as a matter of urgency, and the way that Westminster politicians discuss these issues—? What impact is that having on public confidence, and on that feeling of perseverance?

Delyth, thank you very much for that question. The global trends are incredibly worrying, and we're not immune from this. We can see this in the recent mapping that was done in Wales in terms of flood and coastal inundation, which was the latest set of mapping. It's no surprise to us now, and we need to put in place, then, the toolkit of how we respond to that. We saw it over, not just this winter, but in the trends that we've seen over the last decade and more in the farming community, and to do that, we need to put in place the toolkit. Part of that is, by the way, the sustainable farming scheme that we debated yesterday, about how we can deliver resilience into our farming as well, recognising they're going to have extreme wet weather for prolonged periods, and then drought as well within Wales. So, it's really impacting us directly. And, sometimes, we as policy makers, and as parliamentarians, need to do all we can to explain in very direct terms what this means.

So, if we do not deal with this, it will mean more expensive food on our plates. If we do not deal with this, it will be more people exposed within their homes to risk to property, but also to life and limb as well. It's that scale of it. That's why we need to do it. It's now, as well as our children and grandchildren. Because that way, we can then bring the public with us. But it isn't a question of scaring the public, or making them so pessimistic that they think we can do nothing. It's being realistic about the incredible challenges that we now face, because the projections on where we are with the climate heating, as many people refer to it, rather than global warming, are stark and clear. And that's why the sooner—as Lord Stern warned us all those years ago—the sooner we invest in the multiple ways to deal with this, across my Cabinet colleagues, in housing, in transport, in farming, et cetera, et cetera, then the sooner we start to turn the tide again. And we have to give people that optimism to bring people with us, but not run away from hard choices. 

Thank you for that. Would you agree that, at the same time—and I agree with you, we must not scare people—playing it down is equally damaging, and damaging not just for the climate, but for politics, trust in politics, and all sorts?

Thank you for that. We've heard your agreement with those points.

A number of us, the majority in the Senedd, want to see more powers being devolved, such as powers over the Crown Estate, over the grid, and over sustainable energy generation on a larger scale. What are you doing to ensure that these powers do come to Wales? How will you be working with the Cabinet Secretary for energy, the General Counsel and the First Minister to secure these powers? There's a great deal of talk and there are very warm words spoken about why we should have these powers, but will you outline a strategy about how you will be ensuring that these powers do come to Wales—a strategy to respond to the Westminster Government, but also to a prospective future Labour UK Government after the next election?

14:45

A very good point to end on. I think the way that we do this is—I know it wasn't meant in the question—rather than write out a strategy, it's a plan we're already involved in. It does mean consistently arguing the case, whether it's in letter or in bilateral meetings with the current Government or with any future potential Government as well. It does also mean working this across Government, so doing it hand in hand with other Cabinet Members, including my colleague Jeremy Miles as well, so that we are saying exactly the same thing in whichever meeting we go into and repeating and repeating ad nauseam until it actually happens.

Meanwhile, on issues like the Crown Estate, we still need—and the Cabinet Secretary, my colleague, would agree with me as well—to continue to work with them very closely prior to any devolution of those powers to actually make sure that the benefits in Wales that we can get are retained here within Wales. But, the point is well made. We have a clear position stated not only in the programme of government, but also as part of the co-operation agreement, on devolution of the Crown Estate and we look forward to either this or a future Government of a different colour, perhaps, helping us make that happen.

The Organic Support Scheme

3. Will the Cabinet Secretary explain the rationale for the differences in payment rates for different land types under the organic support scheme 2024? OQ61103

Indeed. Thank you, Adam. The difference in payment rates reflects the costs incurred and the income forgone for undertaking organic farming practices in the four different land use categories. The scheme offers higher payment rates on land where the greatest environmental benefit can be achieved through organic management practices.

I understand that response, but the backdrop to all of this is that payment rates have fallen across the board. If you happen to be in one of the lower categories—in the sheep sector, for example—the situation is very fragile indeed. From the conversations that I've been having with farmers in those categories, they've farmed organically successfully for decades under the various schemes that have been in place, and now they're facing a situation where they are either having to leave farming entirely, or they are having to intensify their farming for the first time in decades, which is entirely contrary to the Government's policy direction.

The Cynefin programme will now have to continue for another year. It was supposed to be a stopgap, wasn't it? I, of course, welcome the opportunity to have more discussion on the SFS, but could I ask the Cabinet Secretary to look as a matter of urgency at the impact of the Cynefin scheme on farmers in these vulnerable areas and the impact that that will have on organic, where there's been a good news story for Wales over many years?

Indeed, Adam, we're very, very keen to continue our support for the organic sector and will keep on talking to those who want to continue farming organically as well. You rightly draw attention to the fact that, outside of the support that we provide to those four different land categories, there are other things that can threaten the sustainability of particular farms within that. That can be, as you say, prices for lamb on the hills, or it could be a drop in prices, for example, for dairy organic support as well, which many would argue doesn't reward with the premium price that organic farmers need for their investment within organic schemes. So, there are things outwith the support that we can put as a Government as well. But we will continue, not least as we take it forward over the next year in this preparatory phase with the SFS, before we transition forward, to make sure that organic is firmly in there as part of that consideration. And we will keep talking as well directly to those farmers, because we know that some have left the market, because they are not getting rewarded in the way that they feel is commanded by the added investment that they put in. Some of this, though, is outwith the actual fee structure payment; it's actually those wider market forces, but we need to be alive to that as well.

14:50

During the Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee's evidence session on the sustainable farming scheme last week, Soil Association Cymru, representing the Welsh organic forum, stated that 

'it's only recently that there's been this sort of recognition that organic systems need something specific within the SFS.' 

There were similar comments made by the Tenant Farmers Association too, who stated that there were just too many people on the round-tables in previous years for the needs of tenant farmers to be heard. Yesterday, you made your announcement on the delay to the sustainable farming scheme and the round-table work that's going to be undertaken to right the wrongs of the current policy. So, I hope that these round-tables will be far smaller than previous ones so that no specific points relating to tenant farmers and organic farmers, for example, are lost. But, sticking to the theme of payment rates, have you, as a Cabinet Secretary, made any calculations to determine what it will cost to deliver the sustainable farming scheme, and, if so, have you made any representations to HM Treasury of that cost? Diolch, Llywydd. 

Sam, in answer to your closing question there, 'No, we haven't', because we'll determine the cost of it when we've done the final design, as I mentioned yesterday. I'm very keen to keep engaging with you and all Members on this as we take this forward, but the final design will determine the cost. At this moment, I repeat the ask I made of you and colleagues—and all colleagues here—in any engagement they have with the UK Government at the moment. The envelope that we have for support of primary food production in Wales is less than we were promised. It's not a political point; it's a factual statement. Now, on that basis, many farmers in England as well are saying, 'Can we have the quantum of funding that we were promised when we left the EU?' I would welcome that, because, at the time, some people were saying to them, 'Don't you worry, when we've left the EU—this isn't refighting, by they way, the Brexit thing, but I remember being at farmers' platforms, hearing it said—'When we leave the EU, you will have more funding'. And people wiser than me, at the time, said, 'When you're confronted with the choice between social services, and health, and education and many other things, the idea then that farmers would—'. Sam, I know I'm in some ways preaching to you things that you are already aware of. But, if the UK Government were to say that they were to put a greater quantum of funding in, and this is where I do ask for your help, then we're all in a better place. For the moment, however, we will design the SFS, and then we will actually say, 'Here is how the payments within it will line up and it's within the cost envelope we currently have', unless there is suddenly a switch thrown and the UK Government say, 'We're going to make good that promise that we made all those years ago'. But, for now, we are where we are. And I think the farming unions and others are realistic about that as well. They know that's the envelope we're currently working within. 

Environmental Priorities

4. What are the Welsh Government's environmental priorities for Preseli Pembrokeshire? OQ61079

Thank you, Paul. Protecting and improving our environment in Pembrokeshire and across Wales is a priority for this Government. We have provided Natural Resources Wales with powers to take strong action to regulate and enforce environmental controls at polluting activities. Additionally, an interim environmental protection assessor for Wales has been appointed to oversee the functioning of environmental law.

Cabinet Secretary, as you've just said, one of the Welsh Government's environmental priorities for Preseli Pembrokeshire must surely be to keep people from harm, and yet, as we've just heard, residents living around the Withyhedge landfill site are still living in fear of the potentially toxic stench and stink coming from this site. Now, as was said, on Friday, Public Health Wales issued advice saying that the odours and emissions coming from the site could be harmful to people's health, and they urged people with symptoms to seek medical advice. Now, I'm surprised that we've not heard more from Public Health Wales. But, this morning, I've written to them, asking them what action they've been taking to resolve this unacceptable issue. But it's quite clear to me that this matter has been handled very badly, and I believe there now needs to be an independent public inquiry into the handling of all this, given it's been ongoing for around nine months, and how it's badly affected so many of my constituents. However, in the short term, given these huge environmental and public health concerns, can you tell us what discussions the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care has had with you about this issue, and can you also tell us just how bad the side effects have to get before the Welsh Government will intervene to remove this operator from the site permanently?

14:55

Thank you, Paul. First of all, at the outset, can I just reiterate my empathy with those residents who have been having to suffer what they've had to suffer for the past weeks and months there? This needs a resolution, I absolutely, entirely agree with you. Just to reassure you, both the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care and I, and our officials, are in close liaison on this because the two organisations that are critical to resolving this include Public Health Wales, who, of course, have issued advice to local residents and people on the ground. They're also taking forward, I'm informed, work to obtain monitoring data to inform a full health risk assessment. They have given advice to the public at the moment. From my perspective as the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs, NRW are very clear what our steer is and what our priority is: that the enforcement orders that have been put in place to do the work on the ground and to resolve the problem need to be done for the benefit of local residents. There are deadlines with this, as you're fully aware as well, and NRW are aware that they have a range of enforcement powers that they can take if those measures to benefit local people are not adhered to, and that's what I would say. I don't think this is a question of an inquiry; this is a question, I have to say, for you and also for residents, of seeing the enforcement bodies on the ground, NRW, but also Public Health Wales, doing the work that they should do in order to resolve these issues very promptly and speedily now, because it's been going on too long for those local residents.

I also want to support Paul Davies in saying that some action has to be taken on the Withyhedge site. I do feel that anybody shouldn't be subjected to the fumes that may or may not be toxic and the sheer stress that has been imposed on people. I'm not, at this stage, supporting any public inquiry, but what I will ask, Cabinet Secretary, is that we are seen to support, where that's appropriate, the actions that should be taken on the ground. I know that several actions have been taken and several of them have been met to date. There are a number of outstanding actions that are causing real concern to those residents that need to be fulfilled. So, my question to you will be what conversations you're having with NRW and the local authority to help support those people who so desperately do need that support that we can give them.

Thank you very much, Joyce. I'm glad to see there's real support from all Members of the Senedd here to alleviate these problems for local residents. It is unacceptable and it has to be dealt with. Can I just be as absolutely clear here as I possibly can be? NRW are on the ground—they've increased their presence because of the matters ongoing. They will continue to update the community as well. I understand that there's been a lot of communications, including newsletters. They've served enforcement notices on the landfill operator as well, who is required to cover all the exposed waste, complete the landfill engineering works, and to contain and collect the landfill gas. That's pretty explicit, pretty clear. If the operator fails to comply with the final deadline of the notice, NRW will be looking to take enforcement action in line with their enforcement and prosecution policy. So, NRW are responding as a priority to resolve this issue. I would encourage, however, both you and Paul to tell all residents to continue to report, as they have been doing, any instances of odour to NRW, as this will help, actually, NRW in terms of informing the effectiveness of their enforcement.

Biodiversity Projects

5. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the efficacy of biodiversity projects in north Wales? OQ61086

15:00

Thank you, Gareth. The Environment (Wales) Act 2016 requires robust monitoring and reporting of our environment through the 'State of Natural Resources Report'. Our environment and rural affairs monitoring and modelling programme provides further evidence at an all-Wales level and on a scheme basis on the efficacy of our projects.

Thank you very much. Biodiversity is still declining in Wales. The number of bird species in Wales categorised as 'declining' has increased by 122 per cent in the last 20 years, for example. The 'State of Natural Resources Report' in 2020 also highlights that Wales has not met any of its four aims on the sustainable management of natural resources approach. The new 'State of Nature Wales' 2023 report reveals the devastating scale of the nature loss across the country and the risk of extinction for many species. Welsh wildlife has decreased on average by 20 per cent since 1994, and one in six species are threatened with extinction. In my constituency, the protection of little terns has been successful, and we see some projects yielding results. But, overall, despite the money being invested into biodiversity projects, we are not seeing the results. The EU has been placing more emphasis on nature-based solutions, and the London School of Economics and Political Science recently published a report on incorporating nature into finance, placing more financial incentives on biodiversity, and attracting more private investment towards ecological projects. So, has the Cabinet Secretary reviewed the efficacy of the Welsh Government's biodiversity projects in north Wales? And what efforts have been made to work with private enterprise in addition to local authorities and other stakeholders? Thank you.

Thank you. Gareth. You raise some important points. I mentioned how we do the monitoring of the efficacy in my initial response, but that wider question about how we go beyond public resource to actually attract ethical green investment with real integrity behind it is an interesting one. What we don't want to do, and we discussed this briefly in the debate on the sustainable farming scheme yesterday, is open up a market to, if you like, commodity trading that just simply takes all the value out of Wales and perhaps has negative consequences. But there is something within that space that needs to be looked at with careful consideration, which is to do with how we lever in additional funding for the right reasons, into biodiversity gain, biodiversity restoration, but also wider land use management as well.

Some of this falls within the work we're doing, for example, with the nature networks programme, where we've just announced £17 million of additional funding throughout Wales for those schemes, and you'll see these in your local area as well. But some of it does go to that thing of, 'Well, is everything we're doing sufficient, or could there be an additional quantum that we could lever in somehow?' But if we were to do that, it has to be absolutely gold standard of ethical investment within Wales so that local places actually benefit, local people actually benefit, rather than sucking the value out of Wales entirely for international investors and so on. But it's an interesting thought, and I'd be interested to see, over time, where the views of those in the wider Chamber rest on this as well.

Water Safety and Drowning Prevention

6. What steps is the Cabinet Secretary taking to improve water safety and drowning prevention? OQ61111

Thank you, John. I was honoured to announce last week a newfound partnership between Water Safety Wales and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. This partnership enhances our combined efforts in reducing water-related accidents, and the Welsh Government has allocated up to £150,000 for 2024-25 to support these endeavours.

I was very pleased to sponsor the water safety coalition event in the Pierhead building the other week, and it was very good to have you there to speak, Cabinet Secretary. You will know that the mother of Mark Allen, who tragically drowned in a reservoir in Wales, was there to speak about the importance of having throwlines at reservoirs, lakes and canals as part of improving our water safety. And we also heard that too few children are learning to swim now as part of the primary school swimming programmes.

As well as perhaps addressing those two sets of issues, Cabinet Secretary, might I also mention SARA, which is a volunteer-led lifeboat service operating in and around the Severn estuary and includes the River Usk? As part of improving water safety, they would like to have a new base on the River Usk near the city centre in Newport so they could get into that river more quickly if people were in difficulties in the water. I just wonder if you could tell us how the policies that you're taking forward and the investment that you've mentioned might help them establish that new base, which would be very important in improving safety on the River Usk in the centre of Newport.

15:05

Thank you, John, and thank you for hosting that event last week, because it was truly excellent. It was a real pleasure and a privilege to speak with Leeanne. She, of course, addressed from the main stage in the Pierhead those who were gathered there. I think her work and her campaigning that went to, indeed, the Petitions Committee, as well, has been instrumental in pushing us along and encouraging us to go further and faster. I think we both want to use the floor of this Senedd to thank her for all the work she has done, and she continues to do, because there is no better legacy to Mark Allen's memory than that. This will actually save lives, what has been already achieved.

Part of that is, within this partnership, really practical measures such as enhancing safety measures at high-risk locations with open water and on the coast, improved signage to get the message across, life-saving equipment installation, regular risk assessments at those big water bodies as well, and so on. These are simple but exceptionally important steps in reducing water-related incidents and fatalities. We have too many fatalities. And the other aspects, of course, are what we can do in schools, not just on swimming but on water safety awareness, and also engagement with the local communities themselves, who know these water bodies, to get the message through there about how to look after themselves properly as well.

In respect of SARA and what they can contribute, it's amazing to see how many organisations out there can be part of this. I'd be interested in learning more, John, if you were to drop me a line or have a further conversation with me, and let's talk about how they and others can get involved with this important piece of work. We're approaching that time of year now where many people of all different ages will want to go out. The approach, now, to open-water swimming is interesting, but do it safety and so on. Youngsters, particularly, will want to go out and enjoy themselves in our great outdoors. That's fantastic, but do it safely. Be aware. Know what your limits are and know what you should be doing in the right place and so on. So, I think, working with organisations such as the one you've highlighted today is the way forward, and working with local communities. There's a big job of work to do, but if we save lives over this summer—. We know there are too many fatalities out there, but let's do the very best we can, and this partnership approach is key to it.

Communities at Risk of Flooding in South Wales Central

7. How is the Welsh Government supporting communities at risk of flooding in South Wales Central? OQ61097

Thank you, Heledd. We will provide more than £75 million to flood risk management authorities across Wales this financial year. This includes £5,706 million to risk management authorities in South Wales Central, which will be used for improvement works to flood risk management infrastructure, benefiting approximately 5,706 properties.FootnoteLink

Thank you very much. Clearly, some of that work emerged from the co-operation agreement.

I'd like to ask you specifically, though, about the practical support for communities at risk of flooding. You'll be aware of the trauma felt by many for years after a serious flooding event, the trauma that they feel every time it rains heavily. The Welsh Government has funded some flood forum work, to develop flood action groups, but this is quite inconsistent across Wales. We don't have a national flood forum here in Wales. There is one in Scotland and one that operates in England, which sometimes is funded to work here in Wales. Do you think there is merit in exploring a Welsh flood forum specifically to support flood action groups? And how can we empower communities? Because I think some of the advice about raising your plug sockets and so on is all very well, but for people who have this continuous risk and may not be equipped to fill in forms or know how to form a committee, how can we provide that practical support so that they feel empowered when the worst may happen again?

We often look outside the boundaries of Wales, and we should sometimes, to look at what other areas are doing to see if it works, but there are different approaches as well that we can do, bespoke to Wales. A national flood forum isn't an approach we take currently in Wales. It wasn't considered as an option, as NRW are being funded to undertake this work, but actually, in my own communities, I've faced exactly the same challenge. We haven't had the sheer scale of devastation as some others, but we have had now properties that haven't been flooded for decades that have now been having street-level flash flooding incidents on a more regular basis. So, we've tried to work with them to say, 'We have the expertise out there', and actually we have brought in, then, the various agencies that we have in Wales to sit down with them, including local partners, the local authority, as well as NRW, to say, 'This is how we can actually establish your localised response to it.'

But we are putting funding into this. We fund Natural Resources Wales and local authorities to engage in flood awareness and resilience activities through the year. NRW have provided guidance as well on what to do before, during and after a flood on their website. We fund community groups and individual members of the public to work with advice and guidance. And, of course, NRW, with our support, work in close partnership with other organisations to provide support and to signpost groups to others who can help them. That includes, for example, Public Health Wales, Flood Re, the National Flood Forum, the Met Office and the Association of British Insurers. Indeed, this is what we did in our local context as well. There's also, of course, a flood warning service that we operate now from rivers in Wales that NRW operates, and there's more.

We'll always keep an open mind to how we can improve this, because what we do want are resilient communities who know what to do, who know, when they can, how they can play a part, both for themselves as individual householders or property owners, but also for their wider community. And when this works well, it works very well indeed. We always keep an open mind, but at the moment, what we want to roll out is that signposting, advice and best practice so that any community that needs it can have it.  

15:10
Bovine TB Cattle Vaccine

8. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the planned deployment of the bovine TB cattle vaccine? OQ61107

Field trials to collect data for the use of TB cattle are continuing. In tandem with this research and development work, we are considering strategies for incorporating cattle vaccination into our TB eradication programme. The future scale of use would be informed by the analysis of effects following the initial authorisation.

Thank you for the answer, Cabinet Secretary. As we all learned through COVID, breaking chains of infection is important, and vaccination, as well as hygiene, is a key part of this. Studies have shown a reduction in transmission in vaccinated cattle, with a total vaccine efficacy of 89 per cent. These suggest that vaccination could represent an important tool for bTB control. As of 2024, the UK has culled 330,000 cattle, with around £150 million paid to support farmers' losses each year, and this is added to the 210,000 badgers culled at a cost of £58.8 million. These figures don't sound very effective and are still heavily pursued in England. Cabinet Secretary, please could you outline a time frame for a cattle vaccine roll-out, how you anticipate this will help us tackle bovine TB going forwards, and how this should be the most effective strategy, along with hygiene? Thank you.

Carolyn, thank you very much. You are right that this could be something of a step change in the way that we deal with bTB, which is such a devastating illness for cattle but also for the farmers who see so many of their cattle then destroyed as a result of this. We have reason to be optimistic, but what we can't do is put a timeline on it, because we have to test and prove the efficacy of this. So, in order for cattle BCG to be used, we first of all have to have a diagnostic test that is capable of differentiating infected from vaccinated animals. That is needed. Once such a test is available and validated, then the use of cattle BCG, combined with a DIVA test, could indeed be approved. But we don't have a timeline on that. The work has got to be done and carried out. 

The field trials to collect the safety data for the use of TB cattle vaccine and the companion DIVA skin test and to gather additional data on the DIVA test specificity—I always have a problem with that word—and to explore options to optimise the performance of the new test are ongoing. We continue to work at pace, but to make it clear, we, and I suspect other nations within the UK as well, will only deploy the vaccine and the companion DIVA skin test when we've got all the right evidence and the right steps in place. So, our aim is to deliver an effective cattle TB vaccination strategy within the next few years to accelerate our continued progress towards eradicating bovine TB in Wales. Thank you.

As you're still a keen new Minister, I'm going to take you back to question 1 [OQ61091] and the supplementary that Siân Gwenllian had attempted to ask. I’m going to allow her just to ask the supplementary again and for it to be answered. 

15:15

Thank you for your patience, Llywydd. I was pleased to hear the First Minister yesterday, and yourself, Cabinet Secretary, this afternoon, restating the Government’s stance, namely a presumption against new gas-fired power stations in Arfon and elsewhere, and I was also very pleased to hear your emphasis on creating an affordable clean energy supply. But, unfortunately, that isn’t the view of the Conservatives, and constituents in Arfon will be very disappointed and very concerned to hear that the Tories do support the building of a gas-powered fire station in an old quarry in Caernarfon, which would emit toxic fumes and endanger the health of local people, given that homes, a hospital and a school are all nearby. In addition to the health problems, do you agree with me that the impact of new fossil fuel developments is very damaging to biodiversity and is entirely contrary to this Senedd’s legislation, including the future generations Act, the environment Act and the clean air Act?

Thank you, Siân, and it's nice to have you back.

Nice to have you back. Llywydd, it’s helpful if I can restate our approach here and in Net Zero Wales—it’s how we increase renewable energy in Wales whilst also committing to phasing out unabated gas-fired generation, and it’s for the reasons that you outline. Where the Welsh Government is called to decide on future proposals, and I cannot, as I said in my response to you earlier, Siân, comment on individual proposals that might come forward, but in general, where we’re called to decide on future proposals to build unabated power generation in Wales, it would be the intent of Welsh Ministers to maintain that strong presumption against new fossil-fuelled power plant, and also to avoid, I have to say, replacing our current fleet of plant with alternatives that may themselves have the impact of becoming a source of greenhouse gas emissions or even, I have to say, a costly stranded fleet of generators as well. So, this presumption may well have the effect of discouraging local decision makers from consenting to new small-scale fossil-fuelled plant. But, Siân, those comments are in the generality of our approach in Welsh Government, which I’m happy to restate, rather than in respect of one individual proposal, Llywydd.

3. Topical Questions

The topical question today is to be answered by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and Social Justice, and is to be asked by Luke Fletcher.

HM Prison Parc

1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the issues highlighted at HM Prison Parc? TQ1083

Thank you. I send my sincere condolences to all those affected by the recent deaths at HMP Parc prison. The operational running of prisons is reserved, however Welsh Government is liaising with the UK Government and other partners to ensure action is being taken following the deaths. As with all deaths in custody, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman will investigate.

 Thank you for the response, Cabinet Secretary.

And, of course, it’s good to hear that liaison is happening, but what direct conversations is Welsh Government having with the G4S officials at Parc prison? The stories coming out of Parc prison are very concerning: two deaths within hours of each other, those being the eighth and ninth deaths in the space of two months, as well as alleged open drug use, neglect of inmates’ health—I could go on. Would she also support the calls of her colleague Beth Winter that Parc should ultimately be brought back under Government control, and would she also agree that the long-awaited devolution of justice would help us actually deal with the situation ourselves?

Thank you. As I say, there is that partnership approach going forward. Whilst the running of prisons is a reserved matter, of course, the health of prisoners here in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Government. I’ve already met with the Minister of State for Prisons, Parole and Probation, Edward Argar, last month. I’ve also written to him this week. As you mentioned, there have been two further deaths this month. I think it’s really important that we recognise we don’t know the cause of death of the individuals. That’s a matter obviously for the coroner, and the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman is looking into these and will publish reports in due course, but, of course, the police did confirm in March that they believed some of the deaths were linked to substance misuse.

I heard the call, I think it was yesterday, in Parliament by Beth Winter to have the Ministry of Justice replace G4S in running the prison. At the current time, what's really important is we all come together to work together to ensure the safety of both prisoners and staff at Parc, but that's certainly something that I will be speaking to the Minister in the UK Government about, and, as you know, the Government supports the devolution of justice.

15:20

Thank you, Llywydd, for granting this topical question today. As the Member for Bridgend, I'm obviously getting a lot of constituents who are getting in touch with me, and I also want to refer to Chris Elmore, the MP for Ogmore, who put in an urgent question in Westminster as well this week. My thoughts are, of course, with the inmates who are no longer with us and with their families. Every death is a tragedy, regardless of the circumstances, and I would also like to thank Heather Whitehead, the governor of Parc, for engaging with me over the recent months as the deaths have, sadly, increased.

The UK Minister made reference in his speech to the spice in the prison and questions around naloxone, which is needed, obviously, in those very desperate circumstances to prevent tragedy. There are also concerns within the Bridgend community that the prison is a catalyst for spice, because it is being transferred in and out of the prison. So, Cabinet Secretary, can you expand on the work that is being done with the MoJ, Public Health Wales officials and Bridgend County Borough Council intervention teams to bring some sort of control of the drug abuse taking place inside and outside the prison?

I also want to pay tribute to the prison staff. They are working in what are extremely difficult circumstances. Issues around staff-to-prisoner ratios have still not been dealt with, and it is vital that we ensure that prison officers who are having to deal with the deaths over the past nine to 10 weeks are receiving the mental health support that they so desperately need. I would just like to say that there is a lot of speculation, accusations and abuse of those prison staff online. They are unable to comment or say anything back, but I believe that it is really making things very difficult for them.

Finally, can the Cabinet Secretary expand on any work that is being done with our health board, Cwm Taf Morgannwg? I have had some constructive meetings with the health providers over recent weeks, but there does appear to be a disconnect between the reality on the ground in the prison and what the Ministry of Justice seems to be saying. I would be grateful for any update that you can give, really, to bring some calm to the situation, as my colleague Chris Elmore MP also asked for in Westminster, to the prison estate and also to the wider Bridgend community. Diolch.

Thank you. I think you raise some very important points, and I too want to pay tribute to the staff at the prison who are having to deal with a very difficult situation, and I suppose that's what I was trying to say in my answer to Luke Fletcher—a lot of this is around speculation. It's really important people do not speculate and we wait for the reports to be published by the ombudsman, and also for the causes of death to come forward from the coroner.

As I say, there's a huge amount of work being done. I think it's really important that the UK Government focus on ensuring that they gather intelligence on the drug entry points. I think that's a really important piece of work that needs to be done. Movements within the prison—there have been extensive searches, I know, undertaken of prisoners and staff, and they've run drug amnesties, for instance, and they've expanded the use of naloxone at the prison. As a Government, obviously, we are looking at what we can do to support the health board in the delivery of that healthcare in our prisons. As you know, as a Government, we're doing work around mental health and substance misuse strategies, we've also got a new substance misuse treatment framework coming forward for our prisons here in Wales. So, I'll be very happy to update Members as we go through this process at the current time.

Thank you for the update, Cabinet Secretary. I know colleagues at Westminster, as you said, have raised concerns with the MoJ and the prisons Minister. The number of deaths at Parc is deeply concerning, and I sought to raise a topical question on this subject last week. My thoughts are with the families of those who have passed. Although we don't know the whole picture at present, it does appear that many of these deaths are drug-related, and while the running of the prison estate is a matter for the UK Government, the Welsh Government has a role to play in ensuring the health and well-being of those on the estate. Therefore, Cabinet Secretary, what discussions have you had with the Cabinet Secretary for health about ensuring that sufficient drug rehabilitation services are available to Parc inmates and the number of inmates on substance misuse registers?

15:25

Thank you. I repeat that I really do not want to hear any speculation, but I absolutely accept Welsh Government's part in the delivery of healthcare at HMP Parc. I haven't had a specific meeting with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services, but, obviously, our officials are working very closely together, along with other partners—Public Health Wales, for instance—in ensuring that the staff at the prison are able to access the healthcare for the prisoners that is required. I think, once we have the reports published by the ombudsman, once we have the coroner's reports as well, we really will need to look at learning lessons, not just us, but the UK Government as well, and we really will need to draw on the expertise of the ombudsman.

4. 90-second Statements

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a crucial time for us to focus on our own well-being. The theme this year, set by the Mental Health Foundation, is 'Movement: moving more for our mental health'. Llywydd, it's all about finding something that both moves your body and your mind, whether that's football, walking or any other activity you may enjoy. It can significantly boost your mood and overall well-being.

I am not a particular fan of running, nor am I an avid gym-goer, but as the Presiding Officer knows, I do have a love of football and recently started playing for the Senedd parliamentary team. Presiding Officer, our recent 5-4 victory over the BBC at Cardiff City Stadium, the home of the red wall, certainly raised my spirits over the bank holiday weekend. It was a great team effort from both sides, but, importantly, raising money for a great cause, in the mental health charity Mind Cymru. Can I thank everybody for supporting that important cause? And can I thank the Mental Health Foundation and everyone involved in organising this week's important awareness event, but also thank those involved in daily work to support people with mental health issues? 

Presiding Officer, a reminder to all who may be struggling or know someone who is struggling with their own mental health: please do reach out, there is support out there for you. Diolch.

Diolch, Llywydd. Congratulations are due to Ystrad Mynach's Lauren Price for becoming the world boxing champion. Lauren has created history by becoming the first Welsh woman to do this. After winning the world title, she dedicated it to her grandmother, Linda, and her late grandfather, Derek, who recognised and nurtured her sporting talent from a young age. They raised her from when she was three days old and she has paid tribute to the love and support they gave her. And the community in Ystrad Mynach have shown their support too, by welcoming her back last Sunday in style.

Lauren has managed to fit a lot into her 29 years, from playing international football for Wales, representing her nation at the Commonwealth Games and, of course, winning the gold medal at the Olympic Games. And she always shows her pride in being a woman from Wales. She told the Caerphilly Observer recently:

'Being Welsh, we’re a small country but when it comes to supporting our own we’re a very proud nation.'

What an important message for other young people in Wales to hear. So, congratulations, Lauren, from all of us at the Senedd.

I'm sure the best for you is still to come.

Congratulations to Ysgol Pentrecelyn school, which is celebrating its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary this week. As a former parent and current governor of the school, I want to mark such a major milestone for this small rural school in the beautiful Vale of Clwyd.

Now, the school was opened on 11 May 1874, with 34 children on the register, and Mr Owen Henry Owen, Gaerwen, as head. Sarah Ann Winter from Siop Pentrecelyn was the first name on the register and many hundreds of pupils have followed in her footsteps on that register since then. People such as the actors Rhys Ifans and his brother, Llyr Ifans, the actor Victoria Pugh, the internationally renowned pianist Teleri Siân and the well-known singers Sera Baines and Elis Jones, and Elis, by the way, is also a world champion clay-pigeon shooter, and that's just to name a few of the former pupils.

And the school of course continues to go from strength to strength, with a glowing report from Estyn last year demonstrating that Ysgol Pentrecelyn is an outstanding school that provides high-quality education and learning experiences for its pupils. 

Several hundreds of people attended a celebratory concert a few weeks ago, and there will be a day of celebration and a big birthday party at the school this Saturday. Gareth Neigwl wrote in his wonderful englyn:

'Its teaching was my mooring—all my days, / I belong to its playground; / Wherever I may roam, / All roads lead home to Pentrecelyn.'

Happy birthday to Ysgol Pentrecelyn from all of us here at Senedd Cymru.

15:30

Thank you for those statements.

The next item is the motions to elect Members to committees, and, in accordance with Standing Orders 12.24 and 12.40, unless there are any objections, I propose that the motions to elect Members to committees are grouped for debate and for voting. Does any Member object? No. There is no objection.

Motions to elect Members to committees

I call on a Member of the Business Committee to move the motions formally. Heledd Fychan.

Motion NNDM8583 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Rhianon Passmore (Welsh Labour) in place of John Griffiths (Welsh Labour) as a member of the Petitions Committee.

Motion NNDM8584 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Sarah Murphy (Welsh Labour) in place of Jack Sargeant (Welsh Labour) as a member of the Local Government and Housing Committee.

Motion NNDM8585 Elin Jones

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects John Griffiths (Welsh Labour) in place of Sarah Murphy (Welsh Labour) as a member of the Health and Social Care Committee.

Motions moved.

They have been formally moved. Is there any objection? No. Those motions are therefore agreed.

Motions agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

5. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Control of tobacco and nicotine products

The next item will be a Member debate under Standing Order 11.21 on the control of tobacco and nicotine products, and I call on Mabon ap Gwynfor to move the motion.

Motion NDM8571 Mabon ap Gwynfor, John Griffiths, Altaf Hussain

Supported by Carolyn Thomas, Delyth Jewell, Heledd Fychan, Jack Sargeant, Julie Morgan, Llyr Gruffydd, Mark Isherwood, Peredur Owen Griffiths, Rhys ab Owen, Sioned Williams, Vikki Howells

To propose that the Senedd:

1. Notes that:

a) smoking kills 5,600 people a year in Wales and places a huge burden on the Welsh NHS of more than £300 million each year;

b) smoking is the leading cause of preventable ill health and premature death in Wales, causing 3,100 cases of cancer each year;

c) Wales is experiencing a marked increase in the reports of young people vaping, coupled with a sharp increase in the number of retailers selling nicotine products;

d) an increase in nicotine dependency among younger people will demand additional nicotine cessation support in Wales; and

e) the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 requires public bodies in Wales to think about the long-term impact of their decisions, to work better with people, communities and each other, and to prevent persistent problems such as poverty, health inequalities and climate change.

2. Calls on the Welsh Government to:

a) commit to the full implementation of chapters 2, 3 and 4 of the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 which would enable the:

i) establishment of a national register of retailers of tobacco and nicotine products;

ii) adding of offences which contribute to a restricted premises order in Wales, enabling enforcement officers to prohibit a retailer from selling tobacco or nicotine products for up to a year; and

iii) prohibition of the handing over of tobacco and nicotine products to a person under the age of 18;

b) ensure that the Tobacco Control Strategic Board makes the implementation of a tobacco and nicotine retail register a priority action in the second phase of the tobacco control action plan for Wales 2024-2026;

c) commit to a fully-funded communications campaign to support the implementation and subsequent regulatory and legislative changes; and

d) establish a working group to;

i) oversee the timely implementation of the retail register;

ii) explore how the retail register could provide a pathway to a licensing scheme and/or tools for additional enforcement; and

iii) present the data gathered from the register to help target smoking cessation and public protection efforts.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. Since 2017, more than 20,000 children in Wales have smoked their first cigarette. By now, 15,000 of those children will be well on their way to becoming long-term smokers. And in a future none of them can yet see, 10,000 of these children will eventually die from their deadly addiction. 

As shocking as they are, these numbers represent just a fraction of the young Welsh lives affected by the cruel consequences of smoking. I reference 2017, because, on the 16 May of that year, the Senedd passed legislation that could have, and would have, reduced some of this harm and saved some of these lives. Heralded by the Minister at the time as a landmark day for public health in Wales, almost seven years to the day on and the law to introduce a tobacco and nicotine register has never been implemented. We have wasted time at a huge cost to children’s health. We must now put that right.

Smoking is an addiction of childhood. The majority of people who smoke in Wales had their first cigarette when they were children or teenagers. When surveyed by ASH Cymru, 71 per cent of these smokers say they wish they’d never started in the first place, and, although more than half want to quit, many are trapped by their childhood addiction.

Smoking remains the No. 1 cause of preventable death—5,600 people die from smoking every single year. Cigarettes are the only consumer product, which, when used as directed by the manufacturer, will kill two in three long-term users. If tobacco was brought to the market today, it would never be approved for sale.

As well as cancer, heart disease and lung disease, smoking is also a major contributing factor in still birth, stroke and dementia. Smoking continues to drive devastating discrepancies in health outcomes. The tobacco industry tend to airbrush over the fact that they’ve made people addicted to their uniquely dangerous products, and, sadly, they have had the most success in the areas of Wales that are most disadvantaged.

New data published this week by ASH Cymru shows that, while 9 per cent of homeowners smoke, when we look at those who live in social housing, that figure rises to 30 per cent. But we have a huge opportunity within our grasp to do something about all of this—to close existing loopholes, reduce health harms, save lives and protect our future generations. We can use existing legislation to implement a tobacco and nicotine retail register here in Wales. A register would require all businesses and retailers who sell either tobacco products or nicotine products in Wales who sell either tobacco products or nicotine products in Wales to sign up, and it would be an offence to sell tobacco or nicotine products from premises, including mobile units and pop-up shops, if those businesses were not on the national register.

15:35

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

The legislative mechanism for a tobacco and nicotine retail register is already contained in the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017. If implemented, it would benefit everyone, from retailers to consumers and enforcement teams. Most importantly, it would reduce health harms and save lives. It could offer support, advice and training to the vast majority of retailers, who would only ever sell tax-paid products to adults. And rather than subcontracting this responsibility to future generations, the implementation of the retail register would show that this Senedd used its powers, did what it could, when it could, and acted on its commitment to a smoke-free Wales by 2030.

Over the years, regulation and laws on cigarette promotion and price have played a huge part in tobacco control. But, in today's market, with the explosion in unregistered retail outlets and a surge in youth vaping, a fresh approach is needed, and we must meet the scale of this growing challenge. Until now, tackling the availability of cigarettes and vapes in our communities has been very much a poor relation. A retail register for Wales will help address that gap. At the moment, we don't know for sure if the most disadvantaged areas of Wales have the highest density of tobacco retailers and vape shops. We can guess, because of what we see in our communities, but we lack true evidence.

Local availability of cigarettes matters enormously to health. Research by Dr Jamie Pearce of the University of Edinburgh shows that adolescents in areas with a high density of tobacco retailers are more likely to have ever smoked. Adults in high-density areas are more likely to be current smokers and less likely to quit, and pregnant women in high-density areas more likely to smoke in their first pregnancy and less likely to quit. As part of his research, Dr Pearce also used GPS to track 700 volunteers aged 10 and 11 for a week. It showed that children from income-deprived areas were seven times more likely to be exposed to tobacco retailing than those from affluent areas.

Knowing exactly where these products are being sold, and by whom, is also important for public health teams, to make sure that precious resources are being used in areas of greatest need. A retail register would give us new and previously unavailable data for where the most nicotine is being sold, allowing smoking cessation efforts to be targeted in those communities. And for every Member who has been approached by a constituent concerned about an explosion in vape shops in their area, imagine how a retail register, had it been implemented in 2017, would have helped us monitor, manage and mitigate what has happened on every high street in Wales.

I wanted to reassure you on one other important point too. When surveyed by ASH Cymru, 86 per cent of people questioned said they're already on board with a retail scheme for tobacco products, and supported it. This includes 65 per cent of current smokers in Wales and 74 per cent of current vapers. Not only that; support for tobacco control more widely is growing in Wales. If I can take you back to 2015, when ASH Cymru conducted its annual YouGov survey, almost four in 10 people thought that the Welsh Government wasn't doing enough. Fast forward to 2024, and, when they asked that exact same question again, the proportion of people in Wales saying that the Government isn't doing enough had increased to 52 per cent.

The retail register is also supported in the recently published recommendations of Public Health Wales's incident response group report on youth vaping, by leading health charities, including ASH Cymru, Cancer Research UK, British Heart Foundation Cymru, and Asthma and Lung UK Cymru, and also by trading standards and medical professionals. It also has cross-party support here in the Senedd. So, we urge Welsh Government to implement the existing legislation for the tobacco and nicotine retail register without further delay, and use the enormous opportunity that we have within our grasp to protect our most vulnerable.

15:40

I very much support what we've heard from Mabon ap Gwynfor, which I think makes a very clear and strong case for that retail register. I know from my own constituency—I'm sure this applies to other Members—just how prevalent the problems caused by tobacco and vaping are at the current time. Vaping, for example, is increasingly a problem even in primary schools, where headteachers are very concerned about the health and well-being and keeping good order in the school aspects of vaping and the problems that vaping brings to those concerns. And parents, of course, are very concerned as well. And, as I say, that's at a primary school level, let alone what's happening in our secondary schools. 

As we've heard from Mabon, tobacco use is still such a huge problem to our health and well-being in Wales, isn't it? And, again, we're all very familiar with the statistics, and just what a cause of preventable death and injury smoking is, the fact that it affects our more deprived communities to a greater extent and it's a very strong driver of health inequalities and that gap in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy between our most and least deprived communities. So, there's an awful lot to be done on tobacco still.

Illegal tobacco is a very big problem, and those illegal operators are very much concerned with selling illegal vapes, as well as illegal tobacco. And very often, it goes together as a package, as it were. So, there's a great deal for trading standards to do in terms of enforcement. And recently, in the cross-party group on smoking, we brought some of the key players together—the deputy future generations commissioner, academics, trading standards, ASH Cymru, of course, the health sector—and looked at some of these problems, and we reflected on some of the statistics that Mabon has already rehearsed in terms of the survey and the key statistics that ASH Cymru put before us.

It is a very, very clear case, and it does have very strong public support. And that does give a very fair wind, I think, in terms of what Welsh Government might do with key partners to establish that retail register and have that licensing scheme. And that cross-party group, I think, with all the key partners involved, was very clear in terms of the need for that register, that licensing scheme, and the benefits that it would bring.

As I said in beginning my remarks, Dirprwy Lywydd, I do think that, at the beginning of this important debate, Mabon has very clearly outlined a very strong case for this action—this retail register and this licensing scheme. Much of what I was going to say Mabon has already said. And I would just like very much to support this proposal, these proposals, and hope that Welsh Government—which I'm pretty confident it does—sees the sense of having this approach and will do all it can to bring about that register, that licensing scheme.

I was delighted to be asked to co-sponsor this motion today. Sadly, smoking remains one of the biggest killers in Wales. Despite years of public health interventions, we are still seeing thousands of people each year losing their lives needlessly, which is why I support a tobacco and nicotine register in order to target our stop-smoking initiatives in Wales and link it with the UK Government's tobacco and vapes Bill. We have to stop the deaths, and that means stopping people from getting addicted to nicotine in the first place. I believe a retail register would help aid the fight against young people getting hooked.

Colleagues will no doubt address the issues with cigarettes, as Mabon has done, and John has also said about it. So, I want to focus my contribution on shisha smoking. More and more young people are getting hooked on hookah. Since the ban on smoking in public places, there has been a 210 per cent increase in shisha bars and cafes. Shisha, also known as hookah, narghile, water pipe, hubble bubble or jajeer in Kashmir, is a method of smoking tobacco invented in the sixteenth century by a physician named Hakim—'hakim' means physician, homeopath—Abdul Fateh Gilani. He was a physician in the Mughal durbar, or you can say 'court'. The purpose of the device was to pass smoke through water in an attempt to purify the smoke, a myth that has since been disproven by medical science, but sadly one that persists to this day.

Shisha utilises specially prepared tobacco that is heated to produce smoke with bubbles through a bowl of water and into a long hose-like pipe to be breathed in. The tobacco can come in different flavours, and sometimes it's mixed with molasses or sugar, often making the smoke smell sweet. It is usually heated by burning wood, coal or charcoal. Shisha smoking is popular in south-east Asia, the middle east and north African communities, especially among young people. It is becoming increasingly popular here in the United Kingdom. A shisha session typically lasts for about 45 minutes. Research conducted by the New South Wales Government suggested that each session is the equivalent of smoking 100 cigarettes. Shisha smoke is toxic, it contains chemicals including carbon monoxide and tar, which are bad for health—your health, my health and those around us—yet many young people still think it is safe.

In the short term, shisha can increase your heart rate and your blood pressure, reduce your lung capacity, impact your physical fitness, and has been known to cause carbon monoxide poisoning. In the long term, shisha smoking can cause head, neck, lung and other cancers, heart diseases, lung diseases, and lead to early ageing. Shisha smoking, far from being a safe alternative, is as dangerous if not more so than cigarettes. Its flavour and ceremony appeals to young people and it gets them hooked on nicotine incredibly fast. Ensuring that shisha cafes and bars need a tobacco licence can help regulate the growing industry and prevent under-age users. Taken alongside the Tobacco and Vapes Bill, we can ensure future generations will be free of smoking-related harms and death. I urge Members to support our motion. Diolch yn fawr.

15:45

Thank you, Mabon, for bringing this important debate before us today. It is a problem, and we have to recognise it as a major problem. As Plaid Cymru's education spokesperson, I often have teachers, but also pupils, approaching me telling me how concerned they are specifically about vaping, but also smoking among young people is still a problem. 

I was brought up in the 1980s, I'm now 43, and the norm at that time was that almost every adult around me smoked. You could smoke anywhere, and that was the norm. But, there was an excellent campaign in our primary schools, and secondary schools, which did highlight those dangers. Because, by that point, they were well known. They saw the impact on previous generations, a number of people who had been smoking from a very young age. And I have to say, I found these campaigns very effective. I was one of those who would go home and preach to the adults around me about the dangers of smoking. Certainly, those campaigns had an influence on me. 

We've seen huge changes too in terms of all the changes there have been in not being allowed to smoke in cars with children, not being allowed to smoke in parks and school playgrounds and so on, and also that we ensure that when we go out—. Who remembers being in a pub late at night and your clothes stinking the next day, and your hair and everything else smelling too? There have been major changes made, but I think, by seeing those changes, it is easy to rest on our laurels. And what we have seen is that companies, who can financially benefit from this, will always find a way to take advantage. And what we are seeing now is this targeting of young people specifically. I would like to say, and I think it's important to emphasise this point, that there is support for vaping for those trying to quit smoking. There is an important role for vapes in our society, but they must be regulated. And I think a national register is crucial. 

If we look at the Wales youth vaping survey from ASH Cymru, those statistics are frightening, in that 24 per cent of all children between years 7 and 11 have tried vaping, 7 per cent vape regularly, and 37 per cent of the 7 per cent also smoke. Ninety two per cent of those who are using vapes use those that contain nicotine, and 45 per cent can't get through the school day without vaping. Well, this creates huge problems in our schools. It means that pupils can't get through a lesson, they have to leave the classroom to vape, and schools then don't know how to deal with that situation, often choosing to lock toilets to try to deal with this, which isn't fair when we think about those learners who need to access those toilets. It does have a major impact on all levels. 

If we also look at the statistics from ASH Cymru, 55 per cent of all pupils who have vaped have used vape products that are likely to be illegal vapes. Well, this is also extremely worrying. We know, from trading standards statistics, that some illegal vapes correspond to smoking 20 cigarettes in one session. And, as has already been mentioned, they do target children. There is no doubt about that. You see the shops, and they are very attractive to children—very colourful. We know that vapes themselves are so attractive, aren't they? Why else would you produce vapes that look like a Prime bottle, for example, or have incredible flavours, or bright colours, if you're not actively targeting children? A national register would respond to some of those challenges. 

But we must also look at the online element, and that many children and young people do buy these vapes online. Primary school pupils were entirely honest with me, telling me that Tiktok Shop is the best way to access them. Many children can buy these things online themselves with debit cards. We must get these messages across. So, the register is one important element, but we must also improve resources within our schools to get the message out there about the dangers of these vapes, and how we stop children and young people from being exploited. There is a place for vapes to help those quitting smoking, but no young person should be vaping in our schools. 

15:50

I'm grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate this afternoon. I've been quite excited to speak on it, actually, because I did a study into smoking for my foundation degree back in 2018, and gave a presentation to Bangor University. Do you know that one of the first places that brought in an indoor smoking ban was the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, back in the 1800s, I think? They banned it in committee rooms, initially. It was really groundbreaking at the time. And, I think, it was up until 2006—. It was as late at 2006, when they brought in a ban for cigarette advertising in Formula 1, and it ran all the way up to only, gosh, less than 20 years ago. I remember the cigarette brands on the back of Schumacher's car, and Mika Häkkinen and Damon Hill and all of them. So, it shows how far we've come in a relatively short space of time, really.

There has been a real resurgence in the attention being paid to smoking and nicotine cessation in recent years, and I think perhaps brought about by the explosion in young people using vapes and e-cigarette devices. And I absolutely share these concerns regarding under-18s using disposable vapes and e-cigarettes, and the action taken by the UK Government with the smoking and vaping ban has been quite extensive. The debate on nicotine and tobacco, however, does seem to be increasingly coercive, and is indicative of some of the worst rhetoric of nanny statism. And I think there are better ways that we can handle public health issues than we currently are. We know that the harms of smoking are very well understood at this point. Smoking is devastating for one’s health. It also places a huge burden on the NHS. But I sometimes get the impression that we are simply flogging a dead horse, continuing to fight a battle that we have already won, and that there are more important public health battles to fight. I’m not sure if this is due to the influence of the anti-smoking lobby, or an attempt to demonstrate that we are on the right side of history.

Anti-smoking rules in the UK are the second strictest in Europe. Data from 2022 shows that only 14 per cent of adults in Wales smoke, and this number is decreasing. Data from 2021 shows that 12 per cent of 11 to 15-year-olds have tried a cigarette at least once, and the vast majority of these are not regular users of tobacco. This is also down from 50 per cent in 1996. We have done more than other countries in the world to reduce smoking, and often at great cost to individual liberty and personal choice, which instinctively makes me feel very uneasy.

15:55

Thank you very much. This argument about personal liberty and freedom is rehearsed quite often in this debate. Would you see that there is an inherent contradiction in the idea of giving someone freedom to become addicted? That's an oxymoron. It contradicts itself. As well as that—if I may, briefly, Dirprwy Lywydd—when you said that the risks of smoking are well known, and so it is up to people, presumably, to make that choice, the logical extension of that argument would be the same for heroin, wouldn't it? So, would you want to legalise heroin as well? 

Delyth, I think that's not a fair comparison to be honest. Heroin is not a fair comparison at all. Heroin wrecks people's lives, and the addiction level between tobacco and heroin—that is not a fair comparison at all, and I don't accept that at all.

I believe that this issue does not always require ever-increasing legislation, which often isn’t intended to garner results, but to show that our hearts are in the right place. We instead need to better enforce the laws already on our statute books. It’s already a crime to sell products containing nicotine to people under the age of 18, but adequate resources are not lent by the state to ensure that these laws and regulations are abided by.

We have seen that it is incredibly easy for young people to buy vape and e-cigarette products on the high street, and we need to do more than legislate to get these devices out of the hands of children. I understand how a national register for retailers, which Mabon is advocating, could be advantageous for that, and I am broadly supportive. Despite laying out my unease with some of the more coercive, paternalistic actions taken by the state, I care about getting nicotine products out of the hands of children, I care about reducing rates of alcoholism and obesity, and I care about removing ultra-processed foods from children’s diets, which Jenny Rathbone has raised many times before.

The Welsh NHS has published itself that our diet and being overweight or obese have far more impact than tobacco use. As rates of smoking are falling, the number of overweight and, particularly, obese people is increasing. We should shift our attention to these more pressing issues, as our health will continue to deteriorate unless we treat other issues with the same concern. Thank you.

Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. I'd like to thank Mabon ap Gwynfor, John Griffiths and Altaf Hussain for tabling this Member debate today, and for the points made about tobacco and nicotine. Members will recall the statement that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care made just over two weeks ago, in which she set out the measures in the UK Tobacco and Vapes Bill that will apply to Wales.

Before I turn to the Bill, I want to reiterate some of the startling facts about smoking. Mabon raised that in his opening statement, and I think it's always important to remember those stark facts. They should always stick with us. Smoking remains the leading cause of avoidable harm and death in Wales. Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body and, uniquely, it harms not just the smoker, but the people around them. It has a devastating effect on our health, whatever our age, and I'm pleased that Altaf was able to mention shisha in his contribution.

The Bill continues to make its way through the UK Parliament, and the Chief Medical Officer for Wales gave evidence during the Committee Stage about the importance of the proposals for Wales. It provides a unique opportunity to take decisive action to free a generation from nicotine and tobacco addiction. The Bill also includes provisions to strengthen the enforcement system by introducing on-the-spot fines for under-age sales of tobacco and vaping products in England and Wales, which will enable trading standards officers to take swifter action when needed.

I'm clear that the measures in the Bill are not the only actions we need to take in our continued battle to protect public health. As discussed today, there are provisions in the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 that have come into force. These were hard won and provide us with important tools to use. But it's important to recognise that we have made progress in bringing other provisions in this wide-ranging Act into force, such as protecting young people from inappropriate cosmetic piercings, pharmaceutical needs assessments and the provision of local toilet strategies. As part of our efforts to denormalise smoking, we made school grounds, playgrounds and hospital grounds smoke free in 2021, and we're currently developing regulations to reduce health inequality in Wales by embedding the use of health impact assessments.

There are other areas of the Act where powers are available to strengthen our approach to tobacco and vapes, particularly the introduction of a retail register, that have yet to come into force. As we know, this industry moves rapidly. We have kept this policy under review and we regularly discuss with stakeholders what they require. We have provided funding to Trading Standards Wales to undertake enforcement action on illegal vapes, trained officers and raised awareness about the impact illegal products have on our communities. But the introduction of the UK Tobacco and Vapes Bill changes the landscape that we are working in.

We'll also need to consider—[Interruption.] Yes.

16:00

Thank you. I'm curious to know the answer to the question—because I was up in the office before thinking to myself—if the matters that Mabon's proposing to the Senedd do get agreed, then with the UK Government's legislation, does that then create a duplicate system in Wales, and we'll see a difference in smoking legislation and a disparity across UK nations? Because if we're looking at significant public health legislation, then surely we've got to adopt pretty much a universal approach to stop any wriggle room, if you like, within those systems, so that whatever is agreed can be delivered on a universal basis, where everybody knows where they stand and the information's quite universal and easy to understand.

Thank you, Gareth. As a Government, we're clear that we must consider all our options to support our ambition to be a smoke-free Wales, and this includes whether we look to develop a licensing system, or if we move ahead with the implementation of the retail register. As you know, the Tobacco and Vapes Bill is currently progressing through the UK Parliament and is expected to change the landscape considerably. It's also important to recognise the difference in views at the moment, and what will be needed in future. This is something that we are looking at.

We will need to consider any amendments to the Bill, one of which proposed the introduction of that licensing scheme, and reflect on the recommendations in the independent Khan review to support a smoke-free society. If the Bill passes, whether amended or not, it will give us even more tools to support our ambition to make Wales smoke free. Because of this changing legislative landscape, we have decided to pause implementation of the outstanding areas of the public health Act in relation to tobacco. However, we will undertake a full review of our legislative tools in our next tobacco control delivery plan, which is currently in development. The retail register may well be an effective enforcement tool, and my officials are currently discussing and learning from the approaches taken elsewhere, including Scotland, where a retail register is in place.

In relation to the other part of the motion on a communications campaign, I do agree that it's a crucial part of our approach and an area my officials continue to work with other UK nations on. We want consumers and retailers in Wales to be aware of any changes to the law in relation to tobacco and vapes, and as the Cabinet Secretary said last month, we will continue to update Members about our work to control the sale and use of tobacco and vapes, which is so important for the protection of young people and public health. Diolch yn fawr. 

16:05

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd, and thank you very much to everyone who has participated in this discussion. It has been very interesting, and on the whole the Senedd seems to be supportive. I look forward to seeing the Senedd and the Siambr supporting the motion.

I'll start with Gareth's point. He put forward the libertarian arguments about smoking. First of all, during your contribution you said that you wanted to see, for instance, ultra-processed foods being controlled. That doesn't tally with your libertarian arguments when it comes to smoking. If you want people to have that access to smoking of their own free will, then they should be able to use that free will to consume ultra-processed food. 

There is clearly a difference between smoking and ultra-processed food. The difference is that cigarettes and smoking products have been significantly taxed with price rises over an incremental period, over many, many years, but ultra-processed food is very, very cheap. I'm not calling for price rises, but just better quality food that's more accessible to people, so that anybody, no matter what their background, can access good quality food, no matter what their budget.

So maybe we should aim to get better quality cigarettes, or better quality vapes. The argument doesn't hold, I'm afraid. You've also said that the battle is already won, but say that to the 5,600 people who die in Wales every year as a consequence of smoking. Say that to their families—tens of thousands of people who are suffering from bereavement because of smoking.

Thanks, Mabon. We've got to keep remembering that smoking is legal. It's not illegal, and like I said in my remarks, it's an informed choice, because if you're over a certain age, you've learned from quite a young age in school that smoking's pretty bad for your health. Everybody accepts that. I get that. I worked in the NHS for 11 years. I fully understand the health implications of smoking. So, it's an informed choice, because they have been aware of the health implications from quite a young age at this point in time.

Thanks, Gareth. I'm afraid it seems to be a confused argument, but nevertheless, I am concerned that you've misunderstood the proposal in any case, the motion. The motion isn't to do with impacting on people's right to smoke. It's to do with bringing in a retail register so that we can control who sells tobacco and nicotine products. People will still be able to buy those products. So, hopefully that will convince you that the motion is the right way to go, because it doesn't impact on your libertarian concerns.

As I said, smoking kills 5,600 people in Wales every year. John Griffiths and Altaf Hussain made a point of explaining how smoking still impacts on people's lives, and they made that very strongly. We also know that it costs in excess of £300 million to the NHS every year. And smoking accounts for 5 per cent of all hospital admissions. That's the impact of smoking, and that's what this motion aims to try to decrease and help. 

Also, thanks to John Griffiths, who referred to the work of the cross-party group. The cross-party group has been doing some excellent work, and I thank the cross-party group. You mentioned in your contribution, John, as did Heledd, schools, and the impact on schools, and the fact that a lot of young children are now starting to vape—vape especially, which leads them on to smoking cigarettes. Coincidentally, I had two schools from my constituency here yesterday, Treferthyr and Llanystumdwy. I spoke with them about the proposed motion, and they were 100 per cent in agreement on needing a retail register. They said that they knew children and their siblings who were vaping, and they saw the benefit that this motion might bring. 

The Minister was right in thanking Altaf for referencing shisha. I've seen people smoke shisha and think that because it goes through water, it makes it better somehow, without realising the impact on their health. And as you say, the impact of one shisha session is the equivalent of dozens of cigarettes. This proposal would help license those cafes and bars as well, so thank you, Altaf, for your support. 

Minister, thank you for the response. Overall, I think there's general support for the principle. The Cabinet Secretary did mention about three weeks ago that, as a principle, she very much would be willing to look at whether this is something they could look at as a Government. That seems to have been diluted since then, because in your response, Minister, you did say that things have changed now—the landscape, I think you said, has changed because of the proposed new Bill.

I know you mentioned that the Bill would allow for on-the-spot fines, which is good, but having a retail register would be even better. You wouldn't necessarily need those on-the-spot fines. You wouldn't need to chase people down the street. You wouldn't need to look after people. You'd know where the products were being sold. You'd know which people were licensed to sell these products. 

And isn't it ironic that we have a system in place that licenses the sale of alcohol, amongst other things, but not tobacco and nicotine, which are just as dangerous if not more so in some cases? I'm also concerned that you said that you've funded Trading Standards Wales for enforcement. Again, you wouldn't need to fund those elements if you had a retail register, because trading standards could monitor exactly who sells tobacco and nicotine products.  

You also then went on to say that you're pausing implementation because of the new Bill. I'm afraid I don't buy that, because we've had the ability to introduce a retail register since 2017, long before Westminster's proposed vape Bill. So, there's still a strong argument here to get the Government to introduce a retail register. I think the argument has been well put by everybody here this evening, so I'd urge every Member to support the motion tonight. Diolch yn fawr iawn, Dirprwy Lywydd. 

16:10

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There is objection. Therefore, I'll defer voting under this item until voting time. 

Voting deferred until voting time.

6. Debate on the Health and Social Care Committee Report, 'Unheard: Women's journey through gynaecological cancer'

Item 6 today is the debate on the Health and Social Care Committee Report, 'Unheard: Women's journey through gynaecological cancer'. I call on the Chair of the committee, Russell George, to move the motion. 

Motion NDM8581 Russell George

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the Health and Social Care Committee report ‘Unheard: Women’s journey through gynaecological cancer’ that was laid on 6 December 2023.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the motion tabled in my name. Each year, around 1,200 people are diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer in Wales. The incidence rate for gynaecological cancer in Wales is higher than the UK average and so is the mortality rate. Sadly, around 470 people die from a gynaecological cancer in Wales each year. As a Health and Social Care Committee, we agreed that women's health should be one of our priorities, and this is why we decided to carry out an inquiry into gynaecological cancers and the experiences of women with symptoms of gynae cancers. 

The committee was fortunate to be assisted in its work by some incredibly brave women, some I know are in the gallery today, who wanted to share their stories and be heard. And you can see some of their evidence in videos in the supporting documents attached to today's agenda. I would urge Members who have not seen those videos to make time to watch them, but I would warn you they are certainly difficult viewing. I really want to take the opportunity, though, to pay tribute to their honesty, their bravery and their determination to see changes made to the way that women's health is treated. 

Speaking personally, I've been a Member for 13 years and sat on several different committees and been involved in dozens of inquiries, but I would say that the evidence that I heard through the brave women who spoke to us was the most powerful and emotional evidence that I have come across in my 13 years as being a Member here.

Now, the evidence we heard during the course of this inquiry was pretty shocking. The women who shared their stories with us told us how they felt that their health concerns were not being taken seriously by health professionals and how they dealt with them. The women knew that something was wrong with their bodies, but they struggled to get any health professionals to listen to them. Their symptoms were often dismissed or downplayed and they were made to feel, sometimes, that they were being a nuisance, and this was described to us most memorably as medical gaslighting.

Now, our report made 26 recommendations to the Cabinet Secretary. In addition to this, the committee took the opportunity to share the Cabinet Secretary's response to our committee's report with our stakeholders, and I'd like to share some of their feedback with you.

The Cabinet Secretary said that she is ambitious for change on women's and girls' health. However, her response to our report, I would suggest, is light on detail in prioritising the distinct needs of women. She outlines actions to support improvements in cancer care in general, including initiatives like rapid diagnostic centres and waiting-time recovery programmes, but there is an absence of targeted actions addressing the specific challenges faced by women with gynaecological cancers. And Claire O'Shea, a cancer patient who has experienced gynaecological cancer services in Wales, who some of us met just before this debate today, once again—she documented her experiences on video and she told us this: she told us that she had been deeply disappointed by the tone and lack of concrete commitments by any transformative change that can meet the challenges and needs of women in Wales now and in the future. And significantly, although the Cabinet Secretary accepted 24 of our recommendations, either in full or in part, her response does not commit to any additional funding for implementing the committee's recommendations, or to reprioritise existing funding for this purpose. Indeed, the recommendations she has accepted will be implemented within existing resources. Now, Tenovus Cancer Care told us that this sends a regrettable signal to women affected by gynaecological cancers, that investment in resolving the issues uncovered by the inquiry is not forthcoming, despite that it is a priority for Welsh Government and the NHS. Similarly, Claire O'Shea said that the rhetoric that women's health in Wales is a priority doesn't appear to be met with the ambition and resources that it demands.

Now, I'd like to draw your attention to the opening comments of the Cabinet Secretary's response to our committee's report, which stated:

'the vast majority of those receiving cancer care for gynaecological cancer consistently report high levels of patient satisfaction with NHS services.'

This particular statement was met with real surprise and disappointment by a number of our stakeholders who felt this did not represent their or their families' experiences. Claire O'Shea told us this: 'As a patient, at no point have I been asked about my satisfaction levels with the services I have received'. And Sioned Cash, whose mother Judith Rowlands passed away shortly after her video evidence was shown in committee, said that making this claim at the start of her response sets the tone for the rest of the report to be one that is quite dismissive of there being any issues. So, I hope, Cabinet Secretary, you will reflect on these comments and offer some reassurance to the women who shared their experiences with us, that the much-needed changes recommended in our report will become a reality.

I'll now talk to some of the points and recommendations in our report. In 2019 the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommended that the four UK nations published a women's health plan to address areas of unmet need for women's health. The Scottish Government published its plan in August 2021, the UK Government published its women's health strategy for England in August 2022. Wales still does not have a women's health plan, and in the Cabinet Secretary's response, she says that this plan will be published by the end of the calendar year, but that's still some seven months away, so I'd ask the Cabinet Secretary, perhaps, in her remarks today, to set out why—why is it that we are so behind the curve in Wales?

In our report we recommended that the women's health plan includes a specific focus on gynaecological cancers, and the aim of this was to help improve women's health inequalities by raising awareness around the issues, improving access to healthcare and improving cancer outcomes for women diagnosed with a gynaecological cancer. So, it is disappointing that the Minister has chosen not to fully commit to including a specific focus on gynaecological cancers within the plan. I hope the Minister might be able to explain the rationale behind her decision in that regard.

The committee's report discusses the importance of funding for gynaecological cancer research, and during our inquiry we heard that research in this area has not been adequately prioritised under the current arrangements, and that the specific needs of women are being overlooked in favour of funding research into other types of cancer. So, it's hard to see from the Cabinet Secretary's response just how gynae cancer research will be prioritised in the future, especially when the Cabinet Secretary says that no specific funding will be made available in this area. Needless to say, this response, of course, was met with disappointment and concern by our stakeholders, who felt that this was a missed opportunity.

Now, we understand there will always be a certain number of cancer cases that are diagnosed through emergency admissions. However, in Wales this figure is unacceptably high, and during our inquiry we heard that receiving a cancer diagnosis in an emergency setting can be overwhelming for patients and their families, with accident and emergency departments not equipped to support patients to cope with the diagnosis. The number of women being diagnosed with a gynae cancer following an A&E admission suggests that something is wrong in primary care, and it really is crucial, I think, for health bodies to priortise efforts to understand and address the factors contributing to emergency presentations with a gynae cancer. This is why the committee recommended that the Welsh Government should commission an urgent review of these presentations. But, Cabinet Secretary, you did reject also this recommendation, saying that there is insufficient resource to undertake a formal review. Now, as you say in your response, emergency presentations of cancers can often lead to an inferior outcome for patients, so with this in mind, I hope you can commit to exploring other options for conducting such a review within the resources that are available.

Finally, I want to talk about the lasting impact of the pandemic and the need for those gynaecological cancer-related services that wer