Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

22/05/2024

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 North Wales and Transport

Good afternoon and welcome to this afternoon's Plenary meeting. The first item on our agenda this afternoon will be questions to the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport. The first question is from Jenny Rathbone.

Bus Services in Cardiff

1. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on improving the bus service in Cardiff? OQ61174

9. What plans does the Cabinet Secretary have to support bus travel in Cardiff? OQ61161

Presiding Officer, I understand that you've given your permission for questions 1 and 9 to be grouped. I'm very grateful indeed.

I can say that Cardiff Council and local bus operators have been working proactively together to provide a sustainable bus network in the region, supported by significant funding support from the Welsh Government through our bus network grant, which was also introduced in April.

The Government funding for the bus station has been very welcome, but the delay in producing a new bus station is not. The central bus station was demolished in 2008 and the new one is, I understand, about to be reopened. And it's made it really difficult for both local people and visitors to our capital city to know how to navigate their way through the bus system. Meanwhile, huge developments have taken place, all of them welcome, but the needs of bus passengers have definitely dropped off the end. And it seems to me that we need to look at the procurement process as to how this could have happened, because I was told that it wouldn't be possible to get the developers to finish in a more timely fashion without incurring a lot of additional costs in amending the contract. I just really want to understand how we can learn from this process so that we ensure that, when somebody takes on a contract, they then complete it within a specific time.

Well, can I thank Jenny Rathbone for her question and I do recognise the importance of a new bus station to Cardiff and to the wider region as well? It's vitally important in ensuring that we get modal shift that we give people a decent, twenty-first century facility for them to wait at whilst they await their buses.

Now, I am pleased to be able to inform the Senedd today that the bus station will definitely be open by the summer recess. There have been delays—the Member is absolutely right. The latest one concerns the sign-off of the building. It was difficult to find the local authority officials with the appropriate skills and expertise, but we have managed to find them from Caerphilly, so we're very grateful to that local authority. And the station keys, effectively, were handed over to Transport for Wales on Monday. They'll be now meeting with various stakeholder groups to ensure that everybody's concerns around accessibility are taken on board and that if there are any last-minute tweaks that need to be made, they will be. But I can share that information today that the bus station will be opened in the coming weeks. Thank you.

What plans does the Cabinet Secretary have to support bus travel in Cardiff?

You don't need to ask the tabled question in that context, you can just move straight to your supplementary.

Diolch. As Jenny Rathbone has already said, there's been a huge delay over the bus station. My constituents have had to wait for nine years, I think, now. I hear you say, and I'm very pleased to hear you say, that it will be open before the summer, but we have been told this many times before, so, I think if we can remember that. 

But I wanted to bring up the issue of the accessibility of the new bus station, because, obviously, we want the interchange to be absolutely fully accessible. I'm told that the British Deaf Association in Wales were not consulted over the design of the interchange, and I understand that Guide Dogs Cymru have concerns regarding a lack of a central help point and that people who are blind or partially sighted will have to locate roving ambassadors to get assistance, which is causing a great deal of concern. So, I don't know if the Cabinet Secretary has got any information about to what extent disability groups have been worked with in order to produce this final version. And I do hope that the recommendations from the groups will be taken on board when this is completed.

Absolutely. Can I thank Julie Morgan for her question as well? I can assure Members that, given that the station was handed back to TfW this week, we are now absolutely certain that it will be opening before the summer recess. It's come back from the contractors ready for TfW to carry out final engagement work with a number of different groups, and they will include—I can assure Julie Morgan—the British Deaf Association and Guide Dogs Cymru. They'll have the opportunity to visit the bus station before it opens, for an opportunity to provide further feedback. And I can also assure Members that the Cardiff bus interchange will fully comply with requirements set out in the Equality Act 2010. To assist blind and partially sighted customers, there will be tactile flooring throughout the concourse, and there will also be an accessibility map, where there'll be information about where bus bays are located and where facilities are located. The ambassadors who will be available are not there to replace those vitally important support services, they are there to enhance them, and I'm sure that user groups will welcome them once the interchange is open.

13:35

As you will know, Cabinet Secretary, I have brought up previously in this Chamber that, for some time now, buses in England have been retrofitted with fans to help improve air quality. Indeed, it has been found that, over a 100-day period, one bus can remove approximately 65g of particles from the air, which is about the weight of a tennis ball. Removing these particles is an easy win for councils, to improve air quality and tackle toxic pollution, because no energy is required—the filters work as the bus moves around. With this in mind, why don't we have these buses in Cardiff? Thank you.

Can I thank Joel James for his question? Just to assure him, bus fleet decarbonisation is a programme for government commitment for this Welsh Government. In the spring, we've been sharing our plans to deliver on this commitment and the target set out in 'Net Zero Wales'. We've been investing in electric buses across Wales—in the north and the south. There are also exciting plans for hydrogen services as well. Decarbonising the bus fleet in Wales by 2035 is an ambitious programme, but we are confident that we can deliver on it and we're keen to work with partners to deliver against this agenda.

Eco-friendly Vehicles

2. How is the Welsh Government supporting the use of eco-friendly vehicles on the transport network in Wales? OQ61139

Supporting the switch to zero-emission vehicles is central to our approach to tackling transport emissions. We are investing in active travel, new electric trains, zero-emission buses, electric car clubs and the charging network to support electric vehicles across Wales.

Diolch. Thank you. After reports in February that Cardiff-based FleetEV had agreed a multimillion pound deal with the Welsh Government to supply electric vehicles, I was contacted by a senior transport professional in north Wales, expressing concern that the company had only been incorporated since October 2022, with no trading figures and a net worth of just £6,316. They added that this is hardly an established financially stable company to go into such a big spend with, and that the sole director and 100 per cent shareholder has previously been the director of four companies, all of which have gone into administration. Do you share this concern, will you investigate, and how do you respond to my constituent's concern that, although the Welsh Government states that Welsh Government commercial delivery followed the Welsh procurement policy statement, FleetEV's second year accounts were not posted until 28 December 2023, and the Welsh Government waited until early January, as the other tendering companies sat waiting, before proceeding with the procurement progress, which led to the announcement that FleetEV was the successful bidder?

Can I thank Mark Isherwood for his questions regarding this matter? I'll examine the issues raised today and provide feedback to Members. There are some serious concerns that have been raised. They require investigation, I believe, and so I'll share the feedback as soon as I can with Members across the Chamber.

Cabinet Secretary, there can be no doubt that a move to electric vehicles is an essential part of our journey to net zero, and it's a move that many of my constituents are keen to make. However, there can be hurdles, and, representing a Valleys constituency, the most common worry that residents raise with me is how they can make that change to an electric vehicle if they live in a terraced street or other types of housing without access to off-road parking. They ask me what infrastructure Welsh Government is suggesting for people like them to help them charge their vehicles at home. Now, we know that there's an increasing number of charging points available in public spaces, usually due to Welsh Government funding streams, but I would say that access to these is not currently sufficient to give those without access to their own off-road parking at home the confidence that they need to make that shift to electric cars. So, Cabinet Secretary, what reassurance can you provide to my constituents on this thorny issue?

Can I thank Vikki Howells for the question that has been raised today, which is hugely important to many communities, especially in the Valleys, where there are many, many terraced properties that are immediately on the street, and which would not currently lend themselves well to traditional types of EV charging? For those properties, and in those local authorities, Transport for Wales is working on solutions, and I'm sure that we'll have a package of ideas brought forward soon for consideration. But, Vikki Howells is absolutely right—we are investing very heavily in EV charging points, public EV charging points. We've invested, I believe, over £6 million to help local authorities increase the number of publicly accessible charging points, and we now have over 2,500 in Wales. Now, that's an increase of 55 per cent over the last year, so a very significant increase. We do lag behind London, where there are 221 publicly available charging devices per 100,000 population. However, Wales is faring better today and now leading many English regions.

It's absolutely vital that we look at emerging technology as well. Toyota have promised a dry, solid-state cell vehicle by 2028. Now, we need to understand what implications there may be for electric vehicle charging points if this is successfully developed and made available on the open market. I'm sure that all manufacturers would wish to follow that technology, given that it has potential to offer a far greater range and far quicker charging speeds. So, we also need to make sure that all of the EV charging points that we are investing in are futureproofed, because it may well be that we reach a point where, a bit like with Betamax and VHS, we have to choose one over the other, and we want to be able to back the eventual winner. 

13:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, in your capacity as the Cabinet Secretary for north Wales, can you tell us what action you're taking to ensure that north Wales gets its fair share of investment from the Welsh Government?

Well, I could talk for many hours on this subject—and I have done in the past—about the vital role of initiatives like regional indicative budgets, of making sure that Welsh Government Ministers work with the Minister for north Wales on issues that are relevant to north Wales. We have a Cabinet sub-committee that considers major issues relevant to north Wales, and I'm determined to ensure that, as we seek out opportunities for the whole of Wales, we do so in a fair and equal way, and invest fair'y and equally in opportunities to drive prosperity across the country.

Well, you make all the right noises, but we're yet to see the right actions from the Welsh Government, aren't we—that's the reality. Local government settlements are usually worse in north Wales. We're seeing a lack of investment in our road infrastructure in north Wales. You're building new hospitals in south Wales, but not in the north. That is the record of this Government, and I'm hoping that you as an incoming Cabinet Secretary, representing a north Wales constituency, might be able to change that. 

The UK Government, of course, has its levelling-up agenda, and it wants to level up across the whole of the UK. We need a Welsh Government to have a levelling-up agenda within Wales, but that is not the reality, is it, because let's take the disparity, for example, between spending in north and south Wales, just on the metro projects. The south Wales metro has been awarded in excess of £1 billion by the Welsh Government, and has a set of major infrastructure projects elsewhere in south Wales that are well under way. In the north, the metro project there has been allocated a mere £50 million. Now, even when accounting for population differences, south Wales is still getting more than five times the investment per capita—five times—than north Wales. That is not good enough, is it, Cabinet Secretary? What are you going to do to address that gross unfairness?

Well, can I thank Darren Millar for his second question today? Let me just run through the facts of the matter. The south Wales metro is a very significant investment—investment as part of the city deal. The north Wales metro, and the north Wales infrastructure improvements on rail, are not part of the north Wales growth deal—the equivalent. To ensure that we can see delivery of infrastructure improvements to enable a north Wales metro, we have to have those responsible for funding them writing the cheques. We're not getting that. We've had a vague promise of money for the north Wales main line electrification, which, with just £1 billion, would probably only electrify it from Chester through to Prestatyn at best. We need firm commitments from the UK Government not just on the main line, but we need them to make a firm commitment to upgrade the Wrexham-Bidston line, for which they're responsible, the Marches line, for which they're responsible. We need them to promise that it won't just be electrification from Chester to Prestatyn, but the whole way through to Holyhead. And crucially, to enable more passenger services, we have to ensure that capacity constraints at Chester station are resolved as well. These have all been priorities of the Welsh Government, of Growth Track 360, of the Wales rail board, which combines Welsh Government officials with UK Government officials. Unfortunately, time and time again, UK Treasury have said 'no'. That's the reason why we've seen more heavy investment in south Wales than north Wales. Once we get a new UK Labour Government in power at Westminster, I am confident that difference in spending and investment will be resolved.

13:45

Of course, the current UK Government, the Conservative Government, has actually delivered some electrification in Wales, unlike the promises made and not kept by the previous Labour Government, and it's committed itself to in excess of £1 billion-worth of investment in the north Wales railway network to electrify it. But let's get back to your responsibilities here. The reality is that hundreds of millions of pounds have been allocated by the Welsh Government to projects in south Wales, and a pittance has been thrown, like crumbs from the table, to the people of north Wales, who, frankly, are very angry with the Welsh Government for that situation. 

Let's talk about another issue where there's a huge disparity and unfairness for the people of north Wales. Let's take Transport for Wales, for example. Ticket prices on Transport for Wales: between Swansea and Cardiff, you can pay £5.50 for a single ticket; a similar journey in north Wales between Llandudno Junction and Chester is £13.10. It's a huge, significant difference, which is grossly unfair. Why should people in north Wales pay double for their railway tickets, not get the investment in the metro that you promised them in a manifesto two manifestos back, and why should they put up with the unfair settlements that they receive in terms of capital investment from the Welsh Government?

Your answers, frankly, today are not good enough. I want to know what you're doing to address these problems and what specific action you will now take to deal with this disparity from Transport for Wales. 

Can I just pick up on one point regarding rail and north Wales and investment? We were consistently asking UK Government to spend money on the Wrexham to Chester doubling, were we not? They kept saying 'no'. As a result of a deal between ourselves and the Welsh Liberal Democrats, we were able to invest in it. We will go on investing in it. We shouldn't have to. The UK Treasury is responsible for that piece of rail infrastructure, but the UK Treasury, under the Tories, once again said, 'No, we will not deliver for north Wales', just as they said, 'We will not deliver for north Wales on the Wrexham to Bidston line', just as they said that they will not deliver for north Wales on capacity constraints at Chester station, which will facilitate more services into north Wales.

They've said 'no' to us when we've asked for a degree of control over Avanti West Coast. You pick up on rail services in north Wales, so let me tell you: Transport for Wales's punctuality is far higher—far higher—than Avanti West Coast's, which the UK Government is responsible for and refuses to allow us any say in who should control that franchise. Indeed, they reappointed Avanti West Coast without even asking whether we agreed with it. They went ahead with giving Avanti West Coast, a very poor performer compared to TfW, another several years of operating that failed rail service. 

Now, in terms of north Wales investment, let's just pick up on some of the recent investments that we have made. Let's say AMRC, the advanced manufacturing research centre at Airbus, a hugely valuable piece of infrastructure that will drive prosperity not just at Airbus but across the region. Also, the development bank headquartering in north Wales—

Hugely important—I'm glad that you welcome it. And not just that, as I said, we are investing—

It's not crumbs. We are investing in opportunities right across north Wales, but there is more that we want to do and will do. We'll do it in part because we've invested £800 million in new rolling stock. TfW, when they took over the franchise in 2018, had one of the oldest fleets in the UK. By the end of this year, they will have one of the newest fleets. We took over just 270 train carriages in 2018. By the time the orders are finished, we'll have more than 470 train carriages on the lines, brand-new trains operating in north Wales. The franchises the UK Government operate in Wales can't boast the same.

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, I'd like to ask you about transport for young people, please. The Welsh Government's most recent child poverty strategy acknowledges that the cost of transport feeds into child poverty and exclusion. Now, there are a number of Government schemes aimed at partially alleviating transport costs on young people. I welcome that. But the Welsh Youth Parliament has found that 72 per cent of young people aren't aware of the discounts that are on offer. Could you tell me how the Welsh Government is helping young people to travel sustainably and affordably, but also how you're raising awareness amongst those young people about the discount schemes that could actually help them to make those journeys?

13:50

Well, can I thank Delyth Jewell for her question? I know this is a subject that she's passionate about, and has raised with me not just in the Chamber, but also in our discussions privately. There are huge opportunities once we've passed the bus Bill, I think, to create not just an integrated transport system, but also to make sure that we have fairer fares, and that includes for young people. Now, there are already, as the Member has highlighted, discounted schemes and free travel for children and young people on public transport in Wales. We keep it under review. It is based on the availability of funding as to how far we can go with it. We are open to considering all options for young people, including those that could come into being once we have started regulating bus services again. 

Thank you for that. Now, you alluded obliquely there, possibly, to the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008, and some of the discussions that we've had about that. We have been told, on the learner travel Measure, that the current review won't result in any increase in the distance eligibility for free school transport. Now, the costs of school transport for children has led to children missing out on school, because their parents can't afford to get them there on the school bus. Now, I worry about the effects of this on education, on worsening poverty, as we've already discussed, social exclusion, also on the Welsh language, because—again, we've discussed this before—there are cases across Wales where parents want to send their child to Welsh-medium education, but they're not eligible for free transport to their nearest Welsh language school. So, could you tell me, firstly, please, how this links up with 'Cymraeg 2050'? And also, Cabinet Secretary, you mentioned funding there. It does concern me that the Welsh Government isn't pressing the UK Government or Keir Starmer on fair funding for Wales enough about this to help to rectify this issue, which lets our children and our young people down. So, what steps, please, would you take urgently to address that?

Again, can I thank the Member for her question on this subject? Twenty per cent of young people, I believe, in parts of Wales are unable to get to their job interviews because they don't have access to public transport or because public transport is too expensive. So, there is a huge social injustice in the system that operates today, which is why we're so determined to pursue the bus Bill by the end of this parliamentary term. The review that took place is aimed to provide us with something of a bridge to the point where franchising takes place. And the key point with franchising, insofar as young people are concerned in education, is that it will enable us to utilise all services for the purposes of getting young people to school; it will enable us to blend regular passenger services better with school transport. I should just say that the problem isn't just with affordability, in terms of the bridging plans. It's also about availability of bus drivers and buses, which is a major challenge. And in some parts of Wales, there have been challenges in recruitment to the sector. It's one of the reasons, actually, why we established the diversity in public transport board, because we recognised the need to increase the number of people who were training not just as bus drivers, but also in the rail industry, and we needed to make sure that we had a more diverse workforce. So, that work is ongoing, but it's not just down to the actual funding for the service; it's also about the availability of buses and drivers as well. 

Thank you again for that. Now, when it comes to the bus Bill, I welcome what you've said, certainly about the need to bridge that gap. Now, before that bridge is completely built, when those building blocks are still on the side, what can we do to make sure that the cohort at the moment that is missing out on free school transport between now and then don't get let down? And when we do have bus franchising, do you agree with me that we should, actually, go further and introduce a free young person's bus pass? Because I know that Scotland have introduced this in the last few years—free bus travel for five to 21-year-olds. The resulting extra patronage actually allowed some bus companies to increase service provision. So, actually, although there might be upfront investment, it could actually pay dividends and help to free up more money for extra services across the board. So, is a free young person's bus pass something that you are looking at already? And, if not, would commit you to start looking now at the potential for introducing that in Wales when the bus Bill is implemented, please? 

I'm very interested in this sort of initiative and the potential to go even further as well, actually. In some parts of Europe, you have free bus transport, which is actually paid for through the equivalent of our council tax. So, there are alternative and additional ways of raising revenue to improve not just the number of services that operate, but also improve accessibility by removing the cost to those who can least afford to pay.

So, with franchising, it will offer up that opportunity to create not just one network, with one timetable, with one ticket, but to introduce a far fairer fare regime on rail and on buses. So, I am keen to learn from other places, because there are some excellent examples across Europe and further afield, and within the United Kingdom, and I'm very, very keen to learn from any experiences that Members in this Chamber may have.

13:55
Rail Services for Rural Communities

3. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to improve access to reliable rail services for rural communities? OQ61170

The Welsh Government has invested £800 million in new trains, which are starting to operate across Wales. As the new trains have entered service, reliability and performance have improved. We'll continue to build on this progress, as well as better aligning our timetables with changing post-COVID travel patterns of our passengers.

Thank you for that response.

Cabinet Secretary, you have previously acknowledged the need to drive up patronage on the Heart of Wales line, and yet we are seeing a perpetuating cycle of declining ridership if services become increasingly impractical and unappealing. Local stakeholders, such as the Heart of Wales Line Travellers' Association, have criticised the proposed new timetable from Transport for Wales, stating that it will make it nearly impossible for individuals to commute or have reasonable travel times. With just three tourist-friendly weekday trains, the timetable also fails to capitalise on the line's significant potential for attracting visitors and promoting sustainable tourism. In its consultation, the association highlights two consultant reports that have found the need for at least one train every two hours for the line to operate optimally. Therefore, Cabinet Secretary, what discussions have you had with Transport for Wales to procure new, modern trains and address reliability issues to revitalise the Heart of Wales line? Diolch yn fawr iawn.   

Well, can I thank Jane Dodds for her supplementary question? The line is one of the most stunning anywhere in the United Kingdom. The Member is right that it's not just important for people who have to commute to and from their communities in mid Wales. It's also vitally important for the tourism economy in mid Wales as well. I'm hoping, following discussions with Network Rail, to be able to share some exciting news regarding the tourism potential of that line in the not-too-distant future.

I was on the line as well—I was on a rail service—just this week, and I met with the passenger group referred to by the Member, brilliant people who shared with me their disappointment at the reduction in the service. Unfortunately, the savings of £1 million to £1.5 million were resulting as a consequence of removing one of those daily services, but that daily service only averaged six passengers. But I do recognise that its loss is something that has been much regretted by people in the area. So, I have asked Transport for Wales to work with passenger user groups and with the local authority to discuss how the situation could be rectified through the use of high-quality bus service options in the short term, at the very least. I'd be very pleased to meet with Transport for Wales, alongside the Member, to ensure that her constituents are not being disadvantaged. 

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for your answer to Jane Dodds. Back on 24 April, I raised concerns with you about the cuts to the Heart of Wales line. You said then that you take incredibly seriously the needs of the people who live in rural Wales. You also went on to say that you would meet with residents and elected Members over this. Since our discussion on 24 April, I haven't had an opportunity to meet with you to discuss these challenges. Additionally, I haven't heard of any meetings that you've had with direct constituents regarding these cuts. So, I'm interested to know what steps have been taken by you to address the concerns that have been raised by people on the reduced services on the Heart of Wales line. And can you actually confirm today whether you do take this issue seriously, or is this actually just some warm words and PR spin from the Government? Because the people who live in my constituency want to see these services reintroduced, and they don't just need warm words from the Welsh Government; they actually need action. 

Can I thank James Evans for his question and say that I very much regret that we haven't had an opportunity to meet to discuss this in person ourselves? But I have met with residents and, as I mentioned to Jane Dodds, I've met with the user group just last week. There was an event that took place on the Heart of Wales line. I met with many organisations, including TfW, including rail managers and Network Rail. This issue was raised by a number of people, and so I've spoken with Transport for Wales about the need to address the concerns that were raised and the need to provide high-quality bus services, as I said to Jane Dodds, in the short term, at the very least. But I would still welcome an opportunity to speak about this matter with James Evans in person.

14:00

The Cabinet Secretary will—. I will just pause for a second. The Cabinet Secretary will be aware that there's been a consultation on a change of timetable for the Cambrian railway from Machynlleth to Pwllheli. These proposed changes have caused many concerns for people on the Meirionnydd coast—people who, if these changes are introduced, won't be able to get to their places of work or their education establishment. And what's a further insult is that the recommendations recommend increasing the number of services during the summer season, in order to serve more tourists, but reduce the service outside the visitor season, which is damaging to the opportunities of local people to access work, education, shopping, and so on. So, I want an assurance from you—whilst I am aware and appreciate that that was a consultation—that the recommendations in that consultation will not be implemented, and that you will listen to the voice of people living in the area and who are reliant on that train service to access work and education, and will develop a timetable that suits the needs of the people of the Meirionnydd coast.

Can I thank Mabon for his question and assure him that Transport for Wales will consider and take account of the consultation responses over the planned timetable changes, and any changes that might take place in the future as well? I would agree that the removal of two services between Machynlleth and Pwllheli, one in each direction, of course, is unfortunate, but is, again, as with the Heart of Wales service, driven by very low demand indeed. They have an average of four to five passengers, and therefore a very significant subsidy rate. And I know that Members in this Chamber have often called for equivalent subsidies to be applied to rail and bus services, but the problem with that is that subsidies for rail services are always going to be significantly higher.

Now, the question is: at what point do you deem a service to be unsustainable? And with only four to five passengers, this service was deemed to be unsustainable by Transport for Wales in the current financial environment. Now, we do hope that finances will improve. We also hope that people will change travel behaviours in a post-COVID context, as we see more people using transport to get to and from the office, rather than working from home, and to and from regional hubs. But I can assure the Member that there was a crucial element to the decision that was made by Transport for Wales, which is that the removed services do not or are not used by pupils for the schools at Harlech and Tywyn. That's one benefit of them having listened already, but I can guarantee the Member that TfW will take account of all consultation responses that have been received.

Community Transport Organisations

4. What support is the Welsh Government offering to community transport organisations? OQ61151

We continue to provide valuable core grant funding to the Community Transport Association to enable them to provide comprehensive support for the community transport sector across the country. We also encourage local authorities to allocate some of the bus funding that we award to them, to support local community transport initiatives.

Community transport organisations in my constituency have been providing an excellent service to those communities that could be underserved by major and traditional bus operators. Dolen Teifi, for example, serves many in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, and they're an excellent example of an organisation that fills some of the gaps in our public transport system at the moment. The launch of Bws Bach y Wlad was also news to be welcomed recently. Many of these organisations are on a very small scale and operate out of community hubs and centres, such as the one in Ystradowen, which provides a vital a service and, in many cases, they are saviours for local people. With the recent news that First Cymru is reducing its timetable on some of the major routes in my constituency, what additional support can the Welsh Government provide to these community transport organisations, so that they can grow and fill the gaps left by the traditional operators?

14:05

Adam Price makes a number of vitally important points in his question regarding social justice—that far too many people would be left without access to work, to services, were it not for community transport services in rural areas. Each year, around 0.75 million people rely on community transport services across Wales. It's a staggering number, and we now have a network of 110 community transport organisations that are working actively in their communities across Wales. 

For several years, we've provided core grant funding of just under £0.25 million to the Community Transport Association to support their activities in Wales, and in turn that has helped to lever in £2 million or more of additional investment to support community transport in Wales. However, I am due to meet with the Welsh team of the CTA in the next few weeks, to see what we can further do to strengthen our support for this key sector. And, again, there's a lot to be said for strengthening it as part of the bridge through to franchising, because once we're able to franchise bus services, we'll be able to better integrate the timetables of both the commercial and conventional bus services with community-based transport. 

I'm pleased to see a question tabled on community transport because it gives me the opportunity to talk about the very successful scheme that operates in Bishopston in Swansea, and I'm very keen to pay tribute to the local councillor there, Lyndon Jones, who's been very integral in the setting up of that community transport scheme. Now, that scheme has been so popular, it's so successful, it's such a lifeline for people in Bishopston, that they want to see that network expand, and neighbouring villages and settlements also want to see the continuation of that scheme. But the organisations tell me that they really struggle with the recruitment of bus drivers, and that is a real, real challenge for them. So, what can the Welsh Government do proactively to ensure that more bus drivers are recruited, so that we can enhance this scheme?

I thank Tom Giffard and agree with him that there is real pressure in the sector in parts of Wales, and in response to questions earlier from Delyth Jewell, I highlighted some of the work that we've been doing to address this. We don't just want to address the issues around recruitment; we want to make sure that we also use the solutions to the recruitment dilemmas at the moment to drive diversity within the sector, because it is still very much a male-dominated sector, and we want to make sure that it is more diverse. So, we are working with Transport for Wales and operators to determine what needs to be done to recruit more, to train more, and to make sure that the sector is more diverse.

Improving Public Transport in South Wales West

5. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on plans to improve public transport in South Wales West? OQ61128

Our national transport delivery plan sets out the projects and programmes that will improve public transport services in South Wales West. We are providing substantial and continued support through our transport grants, and also Transport for Wales are able to provide assistance wherever and whenever required.

Diolch, Cabinet Secretary. I was pleased to see proposals for a slight increase in service provision along some railway stations across South Wales West. However, concerns have been raised with me that, for some stations, the level of service being proposed falls short of what was previously promised. Stations that make up the Swanline service, such as Llansamlet, Skewen, Briton Ferry, Baglan, Pyle and Pencoed, will be served every two hours for much of the day. The previous commitment was for an hourly service to be provided. I don't think that a service once every two hours on such a well-used route is good enough, really, for my constituents. It won't encourage people to use public transport over cars, and it will contribute, of course, to failing to meet our carbon emission targets. So, do you think a service once every two hours is good enough, considering that some Valleys communities towards the east are now looking at getting four trains an hour? Do you agree that this feels inequitable for residents of the region that I represent?

Can I thank Sioned Williams for her question and say that we wish to transform public transport to drive up the number of services that people use, to integrate the bus and the rail network, to make sure that we have one timetable, one ticketing regime? And we'll do that in part through bus franchising, but also through rolling out more railway trains, and that's why the order of £800 million for rolling stock is just so important.

Now, in regard to the programmes that are not able to be delivered, there is a variety of reasons, and it's not just down to cost in these highly pressured times. There are also reasons relating to infrastructure works that need to be carried out by Network Rail for which we are not responsible, which have curtailed our plans, but I recognise that there's a variety of reasons across Wales. And so, I'll provide a comprehensive list to Members regarding why it is that certain services have not been introduced as planned.   

14:10

Cabinet Secretary, if we are to encourage modal shift, we need a fast, reliable and truly integrated public transport network. A Swansea bay metro, which is linked to the south Wales metro and provides a regular, reliable service, is vital. As it stands, people can't depend on the train or bus network to travel to major events across the region. Cabinet Secretary, when can the people of my region of South Wales West expect fast, reliable and cheap trains and buses?   

Can I thank Altaf Hussain for his question, and say that there are some services that Welsh Government is not responsible for at all and which we cannot influence, unfortunately? They include the services operated by Great Western Railway. That's a responsibility that is retained by the Department for Transport. In terms of what we are responsible for, the Member will be aware that punctuality has improved quite considerably on Transport for Wales services, including in his region.

Also, together with Transport for Wales, local authorities are working on regional transport plans across Wales, including in that metro area, co-designing services and infrastructure works that will be required to deliver far better transport outcomes. The transport plans, I hope, will be completed and published this time next year, and from that we'll be able to then roll out one integrated public transport system, utilising the bus Bill.

For most of my constituents, public transport means buses. It is important that buses are organised so that through travel is possible without lengthy waits. I want to highlight the need for evening bus services. Does the Minister agree that we need an integrated transport system where buses are scheduled to meet with trains? And again I will ask for Landore station to be reopened to reduce traffic on match days, and reduce city centre traffic.

Can I thank Mike Hedges for his question? He's absolutely right: we've got a fragmented network at the moment, one that is poorly integrated. As I've mentioned on numerous occasions this afternoon, our ambition is to have one network with one timetable and one ticketing system across rail and bus services in Wales. If we can accomplish that by 2027, we'll be the first place in the United Kingdom to have done that on such scale. It will also enable us to introduce far fairer fare regimes, as I've mentioned on a number of occasions as well. In the meanwhile, we're determined to look at how we can improve bus services in the short term; I've mentioned, again, on a number of occasions the need for a bridge to franchising. Transport for Wales is working with operators on how we can deliver that bridge.

I would also agree that the new station at Landore could be a magnificent addition. Transport for Wales are developing plans for up to seven new stations in the Swansea bay area, including at Landore, and that work will result in a preferred solution this summer. But, ultimately, we're going to be relying again on the UK Government, who are responsible for rail infrastructure, to provide the funding for the necessary works to take place. 

Road Projects in Pembrokeshire

6. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the implementation of road projects in Pembrokeshire? OQ61124

Of course. We are currently upgrading the A40 between Llanddewi Velfrey and Redstone Cross, and our current list of strategic network improvements is contained within the national transport delivery plan. We'll continue to monitor sections of the network that experience congestion and identify solutions aligned with the Wales transport strategy, where required.

Thank you for that response, Cabinet Secretary. You'll be aware of the Newgale coastal adaptation scheme in my constituency, given that the Welsh Government has provided funding for feasibility studies to take place. I appreciate that this potential project is the responsibility of the local authority, and it's quite clear that Pembrokeshire County Council's proposals for the road would cost millions of pounds to the taxpayer, but now the local community has put together an alternative plan that could save lots of money. So, given the significant savings that could be made, as well as the positive environmental benefits, I believe it's really important that the Welsh Government hears the community's proposals. Will the Cabinet Secretary agree to meet with me to discuss these plans further, given that the Welsh Government has already provided funding for feasibility studies to take place?

14:15

I'd very much like to thank Paul Davies for the question and the invitation—this sounds intriguing. If we can deliver the outcomes at less cost, that would be fabulous. I'm very interested in what he may be able to share with us. So, yes, absolutely, I'll certainly meet with the Member and with the community.

Question 7 [OQ61172] has been withdrawn.

Bus Services in South Wales East

8. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the future of bus services in South Wales East? OQ61130

The provision of good-quality local bus services remains at the core of our vision to create a fully sustainable and integrated public transport system for South Wales East. As well as providing better services, we are working hard to modernise the bus fleet and passenger infrastructure right across the region.

Diolch. The 26 bus run by Stagecoach used to link Caerphilly and Cardiff via Nantgarw, but the route has been changed to run over Caerphilly mountain, replacing what was the inadequate 86 Heath hospital route. Last month, a constituent tried to catch the bus, but it was 20 minutes late and the information at the bus stop was non-existent. There were also no paper timetables available on the bus when it did turn up, as there used to be. I've asked Stagecoach about this, and changes to this route were made, I understand, because it wasn't a particularly profitable service. But how could passengers know about this change when the timetables hadn't been updated? I'm not just asking about this one particular route, Cabinet Secretary, but the point is that many people rely on buses to get to appointments, they need to know when their bus will turn up and where it's going to take them. So, would you raise this, please, with bus companies, so that when changes are made, information is accessible to passengers, not just on a website or an app, but at bus stops themselves as well?

Can I thank Delyth Jewell for this question? On the points that she raises, actually, we've found, through our research, that the primary reason people choose not to use bus services is because they fear that they're not going to be on time or they're going to be cancelled. That's more important, apparently, than the price of the ticket. And so, reliable and punctual services are vitally important, and so too is the provision of information. Many of us might use an app, but lots of us don't, and having information—live information, ideally—at bus stops is hugely important. We're thinking about this as we move forward with the bus Bill—who will take responsibility for the provision of information at bus stops, who will take responsibility for the bus stops as well. There's a lot of thought being given to how we can improve this in the longer term. In the short term, I will certainly meet with bus operators, I'll raise it with local authorities and Transport for Wales as well, because if people don't know when buses are going to turn up, they're simply not going to turn up themselves at a bus stop.

2. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and Social Justice

The next item is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and Social Justice. The first question is from Buffy Williams.

The Collaborative Sports Facilities Group

1. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on funding for the collaborative sports facilities group? OQ61132

The Welsh Government has maintained capital funding for Sport Wales at £8 million in 2024-25. The artificial turf pitch collaboration group and the court collaboration group determine successful projects following an application process.

Thanks to Cameron Winnett and Keiron Assiratti, Rhondda has a growing number of rugby players reaching regional and international level. Last weekend, both Ferndale and Wattstown won their mid district finals respectively. Our women's and girls teams are also going from strength to strength, with hundreds of girls training with the Rhondda Miners, Penygraig and Treorchy. With the volume of rugby being played and at such a high standard, we're desperate in the Rhondda for a World Rugby-accredited 3G pitch with a shock pad. Meetings have been taking place recently, with a unique site identified at Coleg y Cymoedd that is already home to excellent training and playing facilities. It also has a library that can be utilised by players, parents and spectators to undertake qualifications, awareness-raising sessions and homework clubs. Partners are working tirelessly to make this a reality, but there is currently a shortfall in funding. I understand that front-line services must be protected during the cost-of-living crisis, but is the Cabinet Secretary aware of any potential funding opportunities for this site? Will she ensure the collaboration unit's budget is protected in the future? And does she agree with me that community sport can play a key role in reaching social justice?

Thank you. I absolutely agree with you on that last point, and that's why I'm so pleased that culture, which obviously includes sport, and social justice have been put together in one portfolio, because I absolutely agree with you that it does play a key role. I'm very happy to congratulate both Ferndale RFC and Wattstown RFC on their recent achievements. It's another sport, but yesterday I met with the Football Association of Wales and we were talking about Wattstown from a football perspective, so clearly there's a lot going on in your constituency.

I think it's really good to hear about the very positive strides that have been taken around women and girls playing rugby. I would like that to continue very much at every level, but certainly at a community level. Investing in sporting facilities is a key commitment of ours in our programme for government. Whilst we do have budget pressures, of course, we did maintain the budget, as I said in my original answer to you, at £8 million for capital for Sport Wales. They are responsible for setting their own internal budgets, and I know they've allocated £1 million to the artificial turf pitch collaboration group and £0.5 million to the court collaboration group for this financial year.

You mentioned Coleg y Cymoedd. The provision of a 3G facility in the Rhondda, which is a priority for the WRU, has been identified as a potential solution for this. I understand the application wasn't ready to be submitted within the current year's deadline—that's now passed—but I think it's really important that all parties come together now to work towards submitting the application for the project in the next financial year.

14:20

Cabinet Secretary, I recently visited the Battle Back Centre with the cross-party group on the armed forces. That centre does fantastic work supporting veterans in their recovery journey. Since the centre opened, it has helped 5,500 wounded, injured and sick service personnel with their recovery journey due to sport and recreation. That's how they actually get people back to be recovered to full fitness. They also do a lot of work with co-ordinating the Invictus Games, and I'm pleased to say that there's a lot of interest from serving Welsh personnel in entering the Invictus Games—something that's really, really positive. During our visit, we discussed the possibility of launching an accreditation scheme for sports clubs to become armed forces and veterans friendly. This scheme would encourage clubs to create a welcome and supportive collaborative environment for our veterans in our community. Cabinet Secretary, given your commitment to our armed forces and to sport, would you be willing to meet with me, Darren Millar and the Battle Back Centre to see how we can get this accreditation scheme off the ground to really make that welcoming environment for our service personnel in our sports clubs across Wales?

Thank you. Yes, I'd certainly be very happy to meet with you to discuss. We do have some armed forces-specific sport schemes. As you know, we've got our free swimming scheme, for instance; that continues to provide local authorities with the funding to enable our veterans to have free access, and serving members of the armed forces as well. I think that scheme has really grown in popularity over the years, and I know that other sports are also increasing their specific offers to the armed forces and veterans community. I recently met with Tennis Wales, and they were talking about their offers as well. There's also the Blue Light Cycling Club. But you mentioned something very specific, and I'm very happy to look at innovative ways in which we can help both our armed forces and our veterans communities. 

Support for Local Museums in Aberconwy

2. What support is the Welsh Government providing to local museums in Aberconwy? OQ61126

Museum development support in Wales is provided directly by the Welsh Government. This support includes a workforce development programme, a capital grant fund and revenue grants delivered through the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales. All accredited local and independent museums in Aberconwy can benefit from this support.

Thank you. I rise today to seek some support and funding opportunity for Llandudno Museum & Gallery, a museum that was formed in 1925 by Francis Edouard Chardon. They host school workshops and are really trying to make this a key all-weather attraction in north Wales. They hold over 9,000 artifacts and they also do a lot of educational programmes on natural history, geology, fine art, social history and military history. As one of your own party colleagues, Alun Davies, has said, the politics of devolution has seen this Government deliberately take a decision to deprioritise culture funding in terms of its overall budget—not just because of the crisis today or yesterday, but over the period of devolved self-government. We've seen cuts in the Welsh Government's 2024-25 budget pushing arts funding down the pecking order once again. The cutting away of these institutions that hold the history of Wales is harming centres across the country such as Llandudno Museum. They need extra funding now. They're seeing higher bills, they need staff, and they need all that just to keep the doors open. What plans do you have in place? Do you know of any grant funding that maybe they're not accessing at the moment? I know you've been to it, and I know that's going to come in your response. It is fantastic and the thought of it closing its doors would horrify the people of Aberconwy, but also our visitors who rely on this as a tourism destination.

14:25

I wasn't going to say, 'I visited', but, as you say, I have. I'm trying to remember if it was in 2021 or—. I think it was 2021 I visited. I remember I had to wear a face covering, so it was around that time. And I'm ashamed of say it was the first time I visited it. When you think I come from just along the coast, it was actually the first time I'd visited it.

I know Welsh Government has provided funding to the Llandudno Museum via its grants programme, administered by the Federation of Museums and Art Galleries of Wales, as I referred to in my original answer. I think they've also received funding for bespoke events also, so I'm not aware of any funding that they haven't accessed. But I fully appreciate the seriousness of the situation our arts and culture sector are currently facing.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Welsh Conservatives spokesperson, Laura Anne Jones.

Diolch, Llywydd. For those who witnessed the wonderful spectacle on the steps of the Senedd yesterday by the Welsh National Opera, the orchestra and the chorus, performing the Easter Hymn, conducted by Maestro Carlo Rizzi, I think it's plain to see why you need to do all that you can, Cabinet Secretary, to protect this world-class institution.

Cabinet Secretary, over the past few weeks, various Members, including myself, Rhianon Passmore from your own benches, and many Members across this Chamber, have been relaying their concern and outrage about the cuts to the Welsh National Opera. The crisis, of course, threatens the future of our flagship arts organisation and the only full-time opera company here in Wales. The Welsh National Opera is a jewel in Wales’s crown. It is the largest arts employer, created in the 1940s by a group of doctors, miners and teachers who wished to build a performing ensemble that would live up to our reputation as the land of song.

The Welsh National Opera currently stands on a precipice, having received cuts from both the arts councils of Wales and England that amount to 25 per cent of its yearly budget. This is clearly untenable. Unless further financial help can be found, WNO is going to be forced to make the orchestra and chorus—the beating heart of their company—part-time. It's already scaling back, as you know, Cabinet Secretary, its touring venues, and has already offered voluntary redundancy to the rest of its company. This will result in a vital loss of skills across the organisation. You will, of course, be aware—

I think the Cabinet Secretary is aware by now. Can you come to your question, please? I've been very generous.

Diolch, Llywydd. You'll, of course, be aware of the nearly 10,000-strong petition now to protect the WNO, and so I just wanted to ask you what recent discussions you have had with the UK Government regarding the Welsh National Opera. Can you today ease the current fears and assure us that you'll do everything that you can to ensure the future of the WNO?

Very unusually, I disagree with very little of what Laura Anne Jones has said. Have we ever heard a protest like that on the Senedd steps? I don't think so. It was truly incredible. I fully appreciate the concerns around the Welsh National Opera. I met with them yesterday to discuss what they’re doing to mitigate the impact of the funding cuts. When I came into this portfolio, I found it very unusual to have an organisation funded by the Arts Council of Wales and Arts Council England. I was very interested in how that set-up had come about.

I personally believe the WNO is probably one of our most global export successes. I was very fortunate to see them in Dubai when I was there for Gulfood in the previous portfolio, and the work they did with Welsh people and Welsh schoolchildren out in Dubai. There are so many aspects of the WNO. I have attended an inter-ministerial group on culture and sport with Lucy Frazer, Angus Robertson and the Northern Ireland Minister to discuss what we can do around this. I have committed to do all I can to see if there is anything further we can do in this financial year.

I won't repeat the difficulties that the Government is facing with our budget, but, clearly, I think it's fair to say that the cut that came from Arts Council England came overnight. It was very, very significant, and I think it was a complete shock. So, I do need to probably have a further discussion. Whilst I appreciate that both Arts Council England and the Arts Council of Wales are arm's-length bodies from the Government, and we wouldn't interfere with their funding decisions, I think there is a need now to have that discussion directly with Arts Council England, just so that I can understand this very unique way of funding an organisation.

14:30

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. It's great to hear that you will look into that and that you will work further to understand that and hopefully come to a positive conclusion along with people across the border.

I want to say that, as well as, of course, as you've mentioned, the Welsh National Opera being world-renowned far and wide across our globe, they also do an awful lot of work within our community and on the ground. And there are concerns that the Wellness with WNO programme will be in jeopardy following these cuts as well—a programme that was extended in 2003 because of its recognised results, like improvements in mental health, improvements in confidence, positive emotions and feelings and suppressing anxiety, depression and panic for those who are on that programme. This is obviously something that I don't think any of us would want to see not continue, and we want to see it protected. So, in that vein, even though the Arts Council of Wales is arm's length, as you said earlier, from the Welsh Government and the WNO, will you reassure us today, Cabinet Secretary, that you will do all that you can to protect this renowned, now flagship service, that is Wellness with WNO, and protect its future? Thank you.

So, I don't think you need to take my word for it. The WNO—one of the people who I met with yesterday, their finance director, Stephanie, was at great pains to tell me of all the work that they're doing to support that service, because they absolutely recognise the importance of it. I have committed to go and visit somewhere where I can see this service being undertaken, probably in the summer recess, because I think it's very important, as you say, that we don't just focus on their amazing productions. It is about all the other work: I mentioned the education work that they do; you now mentioned the work that they do within the health sphere. So, I think they themselves want to protect it. But my commitment to them yesterday—I met with the chair and their interim chief executive—was to do all that I can to help them get through this very difficult period.

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Well, it's good to hear that, but, of course, we need more than words—we need urgent action now with all that is at risk, which we have both outlined today. Without our arts and culture, we are nothing as a nation; without our arts and culture, we lose so much of our unique history here in Wales and all that makes us proudly Welsh. Without our art and culture, Wales loses its very best talent and we are the poorer for it.

We have a long-standing history of our arts enriching our culture, boosting our economy and making Wales a better place in which to live, perform and to visit. Now is not the time, obviously, to give up on the sector—now's the time to double down, as you've just said, and ensure that future generations get to enjoy the richness that all of our arts have to offer and make sure that it's for everyone, not just those who can afford it—those with money.

What the sector is crying out for is a structure and a plan in place now to ensure that funding cuts and threats like this will not happen in the future, because once it's gone, it's gone. So, Cabinet Secretary, I ask you again: can you ease current fears and ensure that long-term funding plans will now be in place with the Arts Council of Wales, through capital funding, to secure everything that we love dearly here in Wales?

Well, the Member will appreciate that I can't offer any long-term surety, because we don't know what our budget will be. We assume we're going to get another multi-year settlement, but we don't know. So, unfortunately, I can't offer the assurance. What I can offer is an assurance that I will work with the sector very closely.

You may be aware that we're just about to launch our priorities for culture consultation. I've been questioned as to why we should go ahead with that, and when I came into the portfolio, I had been working with Siân Gwenllian on that, as part of the co-operation agreement, but I did ask to have a little—not pause, but just to make sure that this was the right time. And having looked at the very exciting consultation document that we will be launching, I do think it's the right time, because one of our—. Well, we've got three priorities and the first one absolutely fits in with your point about it not just being for people who can afford it—it's about that accessibility for everybody. The second priority within the consultation will be us as a nation of culture, and the third will be to make the sector sustainable and resilient. And the point that you make about losing talent is very pertinent, because we don't want our singers and musicians, for instance, to go elsewhere—we want to keep them here in Wales.

So, what I'm trying to look at is—. The budgets aren't going to increase significantly in the very near future, but we need to look at ways of working, we need to look at ways we work with our partners, and perhaps be a little bit more creative in our thinking. So, I'm absolutely committed to that.

14:35

Thank you, Llywydd. May I warmly welcome the comments that you've just made in response to Laura Anne Jones? We were all enchanted yesterday outside of the Senedd, and I think we all sometimes need to be reminded of the importance of those things, in terms of our health and our mental health too. They inspire people in very different ways, as was clear from the audience there yesterday. But clearly, last week, we heard also that the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama were looking to cut their music lessons and acting lessons for children and young people, meaning that this will be the only college of music and drama in the UK without a youth department. At the weekend, the BBC published an article quoting Michael Sheen, who has currently been portraying Aneurin Bevan in the production Nye. He described the cuts in the culture sphere as

'an attack on culture in Wales'.

What's your assessment of the impact of cuts on our cultural and arts sectors in Wales, and do you understand and share the concerns of people like Michael Sheen?

Of course I recognise the concerns. You will have heard my answers to Laura Anne Jones about looking to see what I can do to support the sector. And I do think it's absolutely the right time to launch the consultation, and we will be doing that this week. Because I think it's really important that we get the responses to the consultation, to see how we can support it; apart from funding, what else we can do. And as I say, I don't underestimate the seriousness. It's arts and culture—you heard me say previously I've always thought that culture is the great redeemer of life, and it does have a bearing on our health, and it does have a bearing on our well-being. So, I will continue to work closely—. I will continue to work closely with the Arts Council of Wales, particularly, to see what—. They've had the investment review, for instance. I think it's really important that we bring all the pieces together.

Thank you for that response. You'll appreciate that a number of comments have been made that have been specifically critical of the Welsh Government's approach to culture and the arts to date. The Welsh writer of the play Nye, Tim Price, was vocal in his concern, stating

'Welsh theatre is in crisis with the cuts, still waiting for a theatre strategy from Arts Council Wales.'

And he went on to say:

'I think the Welsh Government doesn’t value arts in the same way that the other nations and regions and I think that’s going to have a huge impact on wellbeing and on the economy.'

I must say that, since you've been in post, I have appreciated the change in tone, and I am certain that you do get it, as the Cabinet Secretary. But can I ask, are you a lone voice in Government, or do you see a much-needed shift from your colleagues, to not only secure the future of these much-loved institutions but to support them in maximising their impact? You talked previously of finding out about Amgueddfa Cymru's work in terms of education and so on. We know that they do contribute, in terms of the contribution they make, in terms of health and social justice. So, how do we secure that the investment just doesn't come from the portfolio in terms of culture, but across Government?

No, I'm not a lone voice at all. I had a discussion with the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language around the export value of the WNO. He absolutely fully appreciates that. I've had a discussion with the Cabinet Secretary for Education around Amgueddfa Cymru, as you just referred to. I mentioned the well-being service that the WNO are doing. So, I absolutely am not a lone voice, and I really want to reassure you about that. Nobody wants to make budget cuts, not anybody; none of us come into politics to make budget cuts, but we did face some really significant cuts. So, I really want to reassure everybody that the Welsh Government recognises how important the culture sector, our sports sector, our arts sectors are to all of us.

You mentioned in an earlier answer about the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I know, again, that that's caused another layer of apprehension for people, and I really appreciate that that could have an impact on the provision of music, particularly for our young people. So, whilst that's an autonomous body, it's just another layer, really, and another area of concern.

Thank you very much. Clearly, there is a link between all of these cuts in terms of the broader sector. And, clearly, the culture strategy has been long awaited, but you will be aware too that we had agreed that the resources available should go to mitigating the most recent cuts.

So, one of the things I would like to ask you is: given the financial situation and the level of cuts across Wales—and not just from Welsh Government—being so complex, has there been an impact assessment commissioned in terms of what the situation actually is for culture and the arts in Wales at the moment? And if so, will you commit to share that with us as Members of the Senedd? But if there is no such assessment, will you commit to commissioning an impact assessment, so that the final culture strategy is one that will ensure the future of this sector and the workforce? Because there's always a risk that we will ask people to deliver against the strategy, but perhaps they won't be there anymore, and some of the services that we now take for granted won't exist any longer. So, we need to understand what the situation is and what the situation will be, in order for that strategy to be successful.

14:40

Diolch. I think it was really important that we launched the consultation. As I say, we're doing that this week, and I really pay tribute to the work that Siân Gwenllian has done with us, and Plaid Cymru, as part of the co-operation agreement. And as you say, the funding that I think had been set aside towards an implementation plan, following the consultation responses, was put to mitigate job losses. And I think that was absolutely the right thing to do. We needed to protect people's livelihoods.

So, I think the best thing now is to get the consultation out there. I've asked for an extended consultation, because as it's over the summer, I always find that you don't get the responses back quite so quickly. So, it's really important—so I've extended it a little bit, only a couple of weeks—to get those responses back, and then we need to bring forward an implementation plan. And at that time, I think we need to make sure there is funding available for the implementation plan.

As far as I know, no impact assessment has been looked into as yet, but it's certainly something I'm happy to consider. 

Devolution of the Probation Service

3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on preparations for the devolution of the probation service in Wales? OQ61141

Diolch. Welsh Government has been working with a range of academics and practitioners with experience in probation to advise on the future of probation services in Wales. The Wales Centre for Public Policy was commissioned to take forward specific research to outline options for devolution to Wales.

I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer. I recently attended the annual Welsh criminology conference in Gregynog and was very heartened to see both the sense of excitement at further devolution that may well come to this Senedd, and the practical sense of grappling with the technical and administrative challenges that devolution will bring.

So, does the Cabinet Secretary agree with me that the time has come to move on from making the case for the devolution of youth justice and probation, and instead for the focus to be on the practical preparation for this Senedd taking on those responsibilities in what, if we are to place any credence on today's speculation, may be only a few weeks away?

Thank you. I certainly do agree that the case is made for devolution. We've had a variety of commissions. We've had the Thomas commission. We've had the Brown commission, and, most recently, we had, obviously, the commission that was chaired by Laura McAllister and Rowan Williams. And I think it is the time to move on now from arguing for the case to doing the preparatory work. 

We've got an ambitious work programme in place to develop our understanding of how devolution might work in the areas most likely to be taken forward, and that includes probation. And we've also commissioned the Wales Centre for Public Policy, who are taking work forward to identify potential options for probation devolution, learning from the many experts we have around the UK, and also across Europe. That work is now drawing to a close. I understand we should be getting some feedback on those findings at the end of this month, and, of course, I should thank you for your role as the former First Minister for making sure we have that significant programme of work established. 

Heaven forbid that there should be any further devolution when one considers that, after 26 years, you've failed in health, transport, education, culture, arts, social care, the economy, and I could go on. I believe that the UK Conservative Government has made it very clear that it has no plans to devolve the probation service to Wales in the near future. I think that is a wise decision. Why would we want more power devolved when the Welsh Government has shown over 26 years such poor judgment when it comes to law and order and many other matters? How could we trust this Government to implement, manage and maintain a probation service when it is being led by somebody who clearly thinks that taking money for their campaign from somebody who is polluting in the way they are—? That is unacceptable. Does the Cabinet Secretary not agree with me, at a time when the Senedd is going through its biggest transformation in history, and when its own leader displays such poor levels of judgment, that powers of policing, probation and justice are certainly best left in the wise hands of a United Kingdom Conservative Government?

14:45

I'm sure the Member won't be surprised that I do not agree with her, and that's why we need a UK Labour Government as soon as possible.

Impact of the Cost-of-living Crisis on Disabled People

4. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on disabled people? OQ61173

Our assessment of the effects of rising costs in Wales, including for disabled people, has been informed by the voices of people affected and through consideration by our Cabinet sub-committee. Using the levers we have, during 2022-25, we have provided targeted financial support worth almost £5 billion.

Listening to the voices of those who are being affected, okay. Well, the Trussell Trust network in Wales distributed nearly 190,000 emergency food parcels in the 12 months from April last year. That's the highest amount of packages they've ever had to supply. In that period, 73 per cent of those people referred to foodbanks were disabled people, which is more than double, actually, the proportion of the population who are disabled people. Now, that's clearly a concerning issue. Indeed, research by Scope has highlighted that the cost of living is higher for people with disabilities, with disabled households spending on average £625 more each year when compared with non-disabled households. Considering this, do you agree that the proposals to increase the cap on adult non-residential social care in Wales are ill-advised and do you acknowledge that this will actually plunge disabled people even deeper into financial trouble?

This morning, I co-chaired my first disability rights taskforce, and it was a very interesting meeting, to hear from the working group's streams that had been set up by my predecessor, Jane Hutt. This was the tenth meeting of the disability rights taskforce. What came over to me was the detrimental effect of so many things on disabled people because of the additional expenses they incur and the significant barriers they face. As a Government, you will know we've been working with disabled people to make sure they receive everything that they should do, and we also have the Welsh benefits charter, which I look forward to taking forward.

Cabinet Secretary, as Llyr has highlighted, the cost-of-living crisis has had a dramatic impact on many disabled people. Thankfully, inflation is now under control, and the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England have upgraded the UK growth prospects once again. Sadly, decisions such as increasing the charge for non-residential care are certainly creating fear amongst many disabled people and leaving them with a choice between food or care. Cabinet Secretary, will you please urge colleagues in the Welsh Government to abandon the proposed increase in charges, which, according to Disability Wales, will do little to address shortfalls in local authority budgets and could lead to people opting out of social care?

I think it's very important that people don't opt out of services that they need, and this is something I will certainly be happy to discuss with my colleague.

The Welsh National Opera

5. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had with the Arts Council of Wales regarding the budgetary pressures faced by Welsh National Opera? OQ61168

Welsh Government funding for the arts is channelled through the Arts Council of Wales. I met with the chair and chief executive of ACW last month to discuss the current position of the arts sectors in Wales, including the music sector. Under the arm's-length principle, the Welsh Government does not intervene in ACW's funding decisions. I also met with the WNO yesterday.

14:50

Great. I think, Laura Anne Jones and Heledd Fychan have rather stolen my thunder a little bit in their previous question time. I fully support the principles that they were asking you about as to the Welsh National Opera. It was magnificent yesterday, and one of the chorus of the WNO, Angharad Morgan, is a resident in my constituency, and she was singing there yesterday as well. And one of the things she stressed to me is it's not only the regular work and regular tours that the WNO do, but also the community outreach work that they do with people with additional learning needs, for example, which is very close to my heart. And they do some wonderful things.

But what I wanted to do, just to add a new direction to the question, is just remind you of the widely supported statement of opinion that Rhianon Passmore has posted. She can't be here today, but this is her principle. She says that we recognise 

'the challenge posed by financial austerity and the funding cuts which have been made as part of the bi-national funding agreement.'

And she wants to stress that bi-national aspect. And she

'Calls on the Welsh Government to urgently work with partners, including the UK Government, to seek bi-national funding arrangements which will help the WNO maintain a full-time organisation in the short and medium term, until longer-term, sustainable plans can be put in place.'

Basically, what she's saying is we need to keep the WNO alive until such time as further funding can be found. Would you agree and support that, and respond to that, as well the responses you've given already? 

Thank you. Well, Rhianon Passmore, I think, on day three in the job, was knocking on my door around the WNO, and they know, in this Senedd—and certainly this was something we discussed yesterday—they have cross-party support, and I think that is really important. So, I'm absolutely committed to continuing to work with them. The community work is very important—you heard Laura Anne Jones mention the health work, you heard Heledd Fychan mention the educational work. You're right, the community work is just as important. And the first time, I think, I came across the WNO was when they did a workshop in my own constituency when I was first elected, about 17 years ago, and I remember the outreach work they were doing there. So, I do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation, but I am fully committed to doing all I can.

Cabinet Secretary, we've heard today in detail from colleagues around the Chamber the importance that they feel the Welsh National Opera has for our life here in Wales. And what I think comes across really, really clearly as well is that this is not the first cultural institution that has warned about financial issues in the last number of months. We've heard, for example, from Amgueddfa Cymru as well, citing financial concerns for their organisation. Now, we know, in the Welsh Government's last budget, that culture or the culture line in the budget probably took a bigger cut than any other part of the Welsh Government's budget. So, under your tenure as Cabinet Secretary, can you reassure the Senedd that that decision will not be taken again and that culture will be prioritised in future spending?

Well, you will have heard me say in an answer to Laura Anne Jones that I can't give any commitment about next year's budget because we've got no certainty on future funding at the moment. We are expecting another multi-year funding settlement. But, of course, there's great uncertainty in relation to the timing of that, given the uncertainty of timing for the next UK general election.

People with Hearing Loss

6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on access to public services for people who have hearing loss? OQ61123

The Welsh Government has set up a working group to focus on access to services as part of the disability rights taskforce. This work is integral to driving forward access to all services in Wales, including for those with hearing loss.

It is very important that people who have hearing loss have access, if they need one, to a British Sign Language translator when attending medical appointments, when dealing with councils and other public services. I often compare it with me and speaking Welsh: quite happy to speak socially, but, when it gets complicated, I use one of these that translates it for me. And I think a lot of other people do the same. I think it is important that, for people who are deaf to get the full understanding, they have a BSL translator. This is the only way to ensure the deaf community can fully understand what is being said. What is the Welsh Government doing to ensure access to BSL interpreters when requested?

Thank you. I think you raise a very important point, Mike Hedges. Under the Equality Act 2010, service providers must provide reasonable adjustments, and that includes BSL interpreters, who are essential to ensure access to services. But we do, however, acknowledge there is a shortage of BSL interpreters and translators in Wales, and that capacity building needs to take place. I mentioned in an earlier answer that I co-chaired the disability rights taskforce group this morning, and we have a BSL interpreter there to help some of our people who attend that group. I've had to learn to slow down my speech quite significantly, going forward, but it's really important that we have that discussion. It was good to hear somebody talking this morning about BSL being part of GCSE now, and, obviously, it's part of the curriculum, and the Welsh Government was one of the first to recognise BSL as a language. So, I don't disagree with what you say at all. I do think we need to look at the capacity to make sure we have enough BSL interpreters here in Wales, but, in the meantime, we certainly encourage service providers and service users to work together to make sure those services are responsive to the needs of all citizens in Wales.

14:55

Well, access to public services for deaf BSL signers is being held back by the lack of provision of BSL interpreters. The manager for the Wales Interpretation and Translation Service, WITS, attended the last meeting of the cross-party group on deaf issues, which I chair, highlighting a shortfall of interpreters, especially for emergency and unplanned care, with most requests being pre-planned, and with challenges in finding interpreters with appropriate skills at short notice. How do you propose to address both this and concerns raised about staff in the health service lacking knowledge about how to book interpreters, about a disconnect between staff in the health service and WITS leading to uncertainty about interpreter availability, about deaf individuals receiving appointment letters without clear information on whether an interpreter is booked, causing confusion and uncertainty, and about the lack of awareness in the medical profession about the needs of deafblind individuals?

Well, I mentioned the need to build up the capacity here in Wales. We were the first country in the UK to recognise British Sign Language alongside English, Welsh and other languages in its curriculum, and we now need to make sure that we support the increase in the services. It's very clear that BSL is the first or preferred language of the deaf community not just in Wales, but right across the UK.

Stalking

7. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government's strategy to address the issue of stalking? OQ61171

Our 'Violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence: strategy 2022 to 2026' prioritises tackling all forms of domestic abuse and sexual violence. Our commitment to tackling stalking and harassment is being delivered through our VAWDASV blueprint, which includes work streams focused on tackling perpetration and gender-based harassment in all public spaces.

Thank you for that response.

Cabinet Secretary, while stalking protection orders were introduced as a vital tool to safeguard victims of this awful crime, the stark reality is that these orders remain alarmingly underutilised across Wales. Recent freedom of information requests revealed alarming statistics from three Welsh police forces: over the past two years, these forces recorded over 13,000 incidents of stalking, but, during the same period, they issued only 12 stalking protection orders combined. Dyfed-Powys Police did not respond and weren't able to provide any data. The reasons for this failure are, of course, multifaceted, but the lack of training and understanding among our law enforcement officers cannot be ignored. According to a 2021 report from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, 50 per cent of stalking advocates said police 'hardly ever' or 'never' consider a stalking protection order without being prompted. This situation cannot continue. I'd like to ask you, Cabinet Secretary, whether you would consider taking this issue forward and championing multi-agency stalking intervention programmes, which is something that's advocated by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and other partners, in order to address this rising issue of stalking. Diolch yn fawr iawn.

Diolch. I am aware of the report that the Member refers to of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, and the recommendations within that report to tackle stalking. You'll be very well aware that we work very closely with our police colleagues. The issues, I think, raised in the report predominantly are not devolved, and it's for the UK Government to respond to these recommendations, but I was really pleased to learn that both north Wales and Dyfed-Powys police forces have recently recruited a domestic abuse stalking perpetrator co-ordinator to focus on the risks posed by perpetrators, taking a really proactive approach in this area. So, what that will do is investigate the effective use of stalking protection orders and have a look at a multidisciplinary response to stalking. So, it's something I will certainly raise with the PCCs when I meet them—I think it's the week after next. Also in north Wales, the force has commenced a new multi-agency stalking panel. That includes the police, victim services, probation and a forensic psychologist. So, I'll certainly be very interested to see how that plays out.

15:00

Recently, Cabinet Secretary, I was made aware of the acronym FOUR—fixated, obsessive, unwanted and repeated. I wasn't aware of that previously. I wonder, Cabinet Secretary, given what you said in response to Jane Dodds, what more you can say about any potential communication campaign that the Welsh Government can run in order to encourage people, if there are signs of stalking, to encourage them so that they feel able to contact the police and be aware of those signs?

I wasn't aware of that group, either. I think I wrote it all down correctly, but I will certainly have a look at that. Following my meeting with the four new—well, two new, two re-elected—PCCs, I'll certainly—. This is an area that I'm very keen to look at in relation to stalking. Obviously the Live Fear Free helpline could be used at the current time, because I'm not aware of any plans to have a specific line around stalking, but you'll be very aware of Live Fear Free. That's a free 24/7 service for everyone in this space, and I would encourage people to use that, or indeed ring the police, at the current time. 

Fuel Poverty

Diolch. Our discretionary assistance fund and support for the Fuel Bank Foundation provides a lifeline to households in immediate need. Our Warm Homes Nest scheme and optimised retrofit programme are transforming the homes of low-income households for the long term, lowering bills and reducing carbon emissions.

Diolch, Weinidog. According to Care and Repair Cymru, older people are spending an average of 19 per cent of their income on energy. According to Citizens Advice, 11 per cent of people in Wales are in debt due to their energy bills, meaning they have to worry about bailiffs invading their homes, along with struggling to cover their monthly essentials. The Welsh Government has set targets for 2035 that no households should be living in severe fuel poverty, however these aspirations mean very little to those currently living in fuel poverty. I know that the Government stated in 2021 that they would be looking into introducing interim targets on fuel poverty, but this is yet to happen. Will the Cabinet Secretary now commit to implementing interim targets in the tackling fuel poverty plan in Wales? Diolch.

Thank you. Well, the Member will be aware that I'm two months in post, and this is certainly something that we're looking at in the round around all issues of poverty.

3. Questions to the Senedd Commission

The next item will be questions to the Senedd Commission. The first question is to be answered by Janet Finch-Saunders and to be asked by Carolyn Thomas. 

Sustainability and the Natural Environment

1. How does the Senedd Commission promote the importance of sustainability and protecting the natural environment on the Senedd estate? OQ61138

I'd like to thank the Member, because it's important that we actually keep the natural environment in everything that we do here in the Senedd Commission. I went to see the bees last week. I believe you've been as well.

Amazing. I would just say in my response to you that any Member who hasn't been up to see the bees, you must go, and you can buy the honey. 

The Commission takes the sustainability portfolio very seriously. We have an externally verified environmental system in place, and we were the first UK legislature to publish a carbon-neutral strategy. We do publish progress updates in our sustainability annual report. We've made significant reductions to energy consumption over the past two winters, at a time when prices rose significantly, and we’ve provided staff with energy advice when they were themselves facing higher bills at home. We run a bike and environment week for staff in June. This year, we will be helping people with low-carbon travel and clothing repairs. We’ve made extensive improvements to the Senedd estate to support biodiversity, including the wildflower strip alongside the Senedd, extended garden areas, beehives, bug hotels and ponds. We’ve also done work in terms of hedgehog recovery, nature recovery. We’ve run biodiversity and well-being walks for staff in early May to explore those areas, and a local primary school have also visited the beehive earlier this month.

15:05

Thank you for that. It’s really pleasing to hear about all that goes on; it would be great to promote it on the Senedd website as well. I did look on the Senedd website and that’s where I heard about the bees, so I went to see them yesterday and really enjoyed the visit—thank you.

I recently sponsored a Senedd biodiversity day, bringing together 25 organisations from across Wales to showcase their hard work and dedication to promoting the importance of biodiversity and protecting our wildlife and natural habitats. I also advertised it to the public as well—it was a public event—and I have discovered that some visitors to the bay didn’t realise before that they can visit the Senedd without booking, and that the entrance isn’t very clear. So, as I said, the event was really well attended and received, by members of the public as well as Members of the Senedd, and it was lovely to see them enjoying it, and each organisation brought in a colourful array of objects as well and displays.

So, would you consider making the Senedd biodiversity day an annual event? Because they’d like to see that happen again. Maybe the first week in May would be really good. And would you look at finding new ways to promoting that the Senedd is open to the public? It was great yesterday, when I came in through the main entrance, to see an A-frame outside saying ‘entrance this way’. And I thought that was a really good initiative.

Thank you. Yes, of course, I’ll take those points on board and, when we next meet as a Commission, I will raise those, but I would like to thank you for hosting the event that you did. In fact, some of my constituents attended that event, so that just shows how you reach out when you hold such an event. As far as having a Senedd biodiversity day again, I can’t see any problem with that, but, again, I will raise it. It seems a no-brainer to have one.

We’ve committed to being an anchor client for the Cardiff Heat Network, which will provide our estate with low-carbon heat. Our connection to the network is currently being constructed. We’ve worked with RSPB Cymru and Buglife to make the Senedd estate an urban buzz area, to promote biodiversity. In our carbon strategy, we’ve committed to doubling the green space on the estate. We’re already making progress with this, with a larger garden strip in Tŷ Hywel car park, incorporating many pollinator-friendly plants. We do not use harmful chemicals to reduce weeds on the estate, instead employing vinegar or mechanical means. Changing the way we cut the vegetation alongside the Senedd has turned the land into—and this is really, really important stuff—an important wildflower strip, including two species of orchid, and many more insects are now present. We publish extensive sustainability data each year, both in the stand-alone report and the annual report and accounts. Our canteen sources food from around Wales where possible, and has recently gained the Soil Association’s Food For Life award. We have low rates of food waste and any leftovers and waste staff food are sent locally for composting. We have converted almost the whole estate to run on more efficient LED lights, and that again is really important work. We promote sustainable and active travel, with extensive facilities for cyclists and electric vehicle drivers, and we’ve recently completed the healthy travel workplace charter as part of the Cardiff public services board group.

In saying all that, I would like to thank the team led by Matthew Jones, because behind us all politicians there are people working in the background. It was Matthew that took me up to see the bees and he and his team are to be commended, and the Senedd Commission, to be fair, for all the work that we’re doing in terms of this. It’s important to us all, as Commissioners. Thank you—diolch.

15:10
Council Tax Increases

2. What discussions has the Senedd Commission had with the Remuneration Board regarding the impact of council tax increases on the Senedd Commission budget? OQ61177

The Commission is aware of the potential impact of the council tax increases for Members on the determination budget. The Senedd Commission has not had discussions on this matter with the independent remuneration board. However, officials have provided information to the board on this matter. The provision of the determination that allows Members to be reimbursed for council tax for their Cardiff accommodation is sufficient to cover the increases incurred by Members on the basis of their current accommodation.

Thank you very much for that response, Commissioner. Cardiff Council's proposed tax rise in January was 3 per cent, but this was subsequently doubled to a 6 per cent rise in their final budget. This will, of course, hit the pockets of Cardiff residents, but it'll also hit the Senedd Commission budget. Many Senedd Members have accommodation in Cardiff in order to carry out their duties in the Senedd and can claim residential accommodation expenditure. For Members defined as having a main home in the outer area, they can claim back council tax that is payable up to the amount of a property in council tax band F. There was an increase of 7 per cent in the 2024-25 Senedd Commission budget from the previous year's budget in funding for Member-related expenses, but this latest budget was published in November of last year, before Cardiff Council's irresponsible tax hike was announced. The 7 per cent rise in the budget for Members' expenses will also undoubtedly account for the rising cost of living and the increased costs of travel. So, I'd appreciate if the Commissioner could outline whether the Commission has made an assessment of the council tax rises and their impact on the Senedd Commission's budget for expenses, whether the 7 per cent rise for Members' expenses was sufficient to cover this and what contingencies does the Commission have in place so that it is prepared for future unpredicted expenditures?

Okay. Thank you. First of all, I don't want to get into any criticism of Cardiff Council. I think they are scrutinised through their members and make those decisions. There are such things as job-related accommodation for workers in this position, but it doesn't apply to Members, so it may be worth the Member speaking to the Government about this and seeing if there is an opportunity, perhaps, to amend the law. That is, obviously, beyond the jurisdiction of the Senedd Commission, but, certainly, he has raised an important point. He also said, of course, that, up to band F, the remuneration board covers fully the council tax for those Members living in Cardiff who have to travel from the outer ring, I think it's called. I'm a commuter, so I'm just getting to grips with these things and finding out what it is like to travel from so far.

One thing—. You raised a concern about the budget. The Senedd draft budget contains an amount set for issues of Members' expenses that the remuneration board has requested us to set aside. The good news for you is that most Members don't claim the maximum expenses to which they're entitled. I think it's worth us broadcasting that loudly: Members don't claim the maximum expenses to which they're entitled. And that gives us quite a lot of headroom to make up for contingencies such as this with Cardiff Council. So, it isn't a concern going into the future budget. As you've brought this to our attention, it will be considered as an issue in the future draft budget, but we aren't concerned that it's going to lead to any need for supplementary guidance in the future.

People who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

3. How does the Senedd Commission ensure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can actively participate in the work of the Senedd? OQ61149

I thank you, Julie, for that question. The Senedd Commission remains committed to optimising the active participation of people who are deaf or hard of hearing in the work of the Senedd. On our estate, services and facilities, including BSL interpreters, palantypists, lip speakers and hearing loop systems, can be used to facilitate participation for people who are deaf or have a hearing loss in Senedd business, tours and visits. All video content provided for the Senedd social media channels is issued with subtitles. This is done in both Welsh and in English. Commission staff are currently exploring how the existing provision of both live and recorded British Sign Language interpretation for Plenary items on Tuesdays and Wednesdays could be enhanced.

15:15

Thank you for the response.

Thank you very much, Joyce. Two weeks ago, I had a 90-second statement here in the Chamber to talk about the life of Dorothy Miles, who was a deaf sign language poet from north Wales. I was very pleased that the statement was interpreted live here into British Sign Language. There were members of the British Deaf Association up in the gallery and Senedd business up until the statement was not interpreted, and after the statement, it switched back to no interpretation, and I think this was very difficult, because we had deaf people here in the Senedd who weren't able to follow the proceedings.

So, I do think a lot more work needs to be done, and I'm very pleased to hear what you're planning, because we do want to make this place accessible to everybody. At the moment, current arrangements do mean that people can be excluded. I wondered if it might be worth you looking at the Scottish Parliament, where they have a particular page on the website, which helps people to negotiate all the different areas where there is interpretation. I wondered, to start with, because I'm aware that there's a shortage of interpreters, which came up in the previous set of questions, whether the Commission would consider live interpreting every First Minister's questions into BSL as a start.

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

Again, all the points that you make are absolutely valid, and I was really pleased to see, when you were asking your question, that the interpretation was here. But you're right, obviously, to say that that wasn't the case for all of that afternoon's session, and those people who would have hoped to have it didn't get it. However, on Senedd.tv, we do have subtitles for the business that is carried on here, and we also have the Record, which people can read. But I think it's fair to say that we're at the point where we're about to change this Chamber and it was raised in a meeting we had last week about the changes that will happen once it has been reconfigured. One of the issues that was raised was a space for a BSL interpreter, so the thinking is there, is what I'm trying to say.

We have also already engaged with Ireland and Scotland on what they're doing, and that already has happened; Commission staff have done that. And you're right that there is a shortage of BSL interpreters at the moment. But in terms of moving forward and making this an inclusive Parliament—and that's what we're talking about—we do other things beyond BSL for other people who are hard of hearing, or need help and support with limited hearing. So, it's a live issue. We are trying to move it forward, and we hope to do that as soon as possible, given the restrictions that I've just mentioned.

As I said earlier, for many deaf people, their preferred communication method is BSL and that means that they can fully understand what is being said. To get a full understanding, they definitely need BSL. Lip reading won't provide it, they'll get a fair understanding of it—and I compared it to me with Welsh previously—but you don't get the full understanding and the full nuance. If BSL is unavailable, subtitles are the second-best option, although people who watch subtitles on television realise that they can get things remarkably wrong on those. Does the Commissioner agree with me that it is important that we ensure that people who are deaf or hard of hearing have the same access to information as hearing people?

I absolutely do agree with you, Mike. Hearing loop provision around the estate has been audited and improved, and improved one-to-one loop systems are installed at reception in all three buildings. We have now purchased newer, more advanced portable loop systems, which can be used in meeting rooms and bigger event spaces, because, clearly, the pre-existing ones weren't adequate.

The Siambr, committee rooms and public galleries are all fitted with an infrared audio system. In addition to the in-room fixed system, we also have a portable version for off-site external committees and events. That system provides translation and verbatim audio amplification via headsets or an induction neck loop, available on request for Members, witnesses and the public attending proceedings.

Attendees at Senedd events, tours, outreach events and meetings are asked if they require any reasonable adjustments as part of the planning process. Similarly, organisations planning events on the Senedd estate have to adhere to an accessibility checklist.

British Sign Language interpretation is made available for First Minister’s questions each Tuesday and each meeting of the Welsh Youth Parliament. Commission staff are exploring how we can enhance that, and I have answered those questions in responding to the previous question.

Interpretation is available, upon request, for anyone wishing to watch a specific debate or committee meeting, for events and for Senedd tours. BSL interpretation has been proactively provided where the subject discussed is such—and we did that as well.

Commission staff have undergone disability awareness training, with extra deaf awareness and BSL classes provided. Our front of house and security colleagues have undertaken disability confidence training. The Commission’s newly designed inclusive customer service training module will provide best practice when liaising with members from the deaf community. The hope is that it will raise our staff members’ awareness and confidence when dealing with a diverse range of customers.

I have already mentioned that the inter-parliamentary learning at work provision included a sessions in the Oireachtas and the Scottish Parliament on BSL.

15:20
Ethical Investment Schemes

4. Will the Commission provide an update on the ethical investment schemes of its pension fund? OQ61163

There are three pension schemes connected to the Senedd. In relation to the Members of the Senedd's pension scheme, the Commission has no means to influence the allocation of the pension scheme's assets. The power to invest the scheme’s assets sits entirely with the pension board, which is independent of the Commission.

The support staff pension scheme is run by Aviva. The Commission is not involved in deciding how the assets are invested. The civil service pension scheme, which is available to Commission staff, is an unfunded scheme and therefore has no assets to invest. Benefits are paid from tax revenues rather than from assets set aside to pay them.

I hope that that was clear enough.

Thank you very much for that response. Well, of course, Hefin will be aware that a number of demands have been made over the years on divesting from investments in unethical companies. There is great concern at the moment that the Commission pension pot, and things relating to Commission pensions, could be used to fund arms companies, and those weapons, in turn, being sold to the Israeli Government, who would then use those weapons to attack hospitals, charities, schools and so on in Gaza. So, can you give us assurance that you, as a Commission, will look into this issue and put pressure, where it is appropriate and possible to do so, on pension investors to divest from companies that produce arms?

We have the three pensions that I mentioned that the Commission is related to—or Commission staff are related to. The Members' pension is the responsibility of the pension board. So, the Commission can't directly influence that. It has got to be through the pension board. I have got some good news and bad news. The good news is that I have just joined the pension board. That's good news. The bad news is that I haven't been to the first meeting yet. But certainly what he said, I think, is worth that dialogue, and perhaps a response from the pension board to you. Perhaps you might want to write to the pension board directly with these issues. Certainly, the pension board is interested in long-term investment in companies that are likely to be sustainable and keep a strategy that is around appropriate investments.

As I said in my answer to you earlier, the issue with the support staff pension is that it's run by Aviva, so we don't have a say on that one, but, again, you might wish to write directly to Aviva with your concerns, and raise those concerns with them. And then a little bit more good news for you: the civil service pension scheme, which is available to Commission staff, is an unfunded scheme, and therefore has no assets to invest.

So, where I can help you is with the Members' scheme, and make those representations via the pension board. So, perhaps we could have a discussion—. Mike Hedges is also a member of the pension board. I'm sure we would be willing to have a discussion with you—Mike—

15:25

—before our next meeting, and make sure that your concerns are heard loud and clear.

I'd just like to follow on from Mabon's question and ask specifically about what can be done to divest from Israeli companies in general, given that an increasing majority people are not just against, but reviled by Israel's continuing offensive in Gaza and its bloody consequences. It's long overdue that we act upon this. Many people will be horrified to learn that their pension investments may potentially be sustaining a war economy that is causing so much death and destruction for the people of Gaza. I want to know what the Senedd can do to do its part in bringing about the end of this horrific conflict and play its part in bringing about peace, humanity and a future for Palestine, through its pension schemes, but also through its procurement processes.

I think I'd refer you to the answer I gave to Mabon, but also the pension board reviews the environmental, social and governance credentials of its managers annually, and questions its advisors on the managers' approach to the environmental, social and governance issues at each pension board meeting. So, again, at the next pension board meeting, I'm happy to raise it, and I'm sure Mike Hedges would say the same thing. I'll repeat what I've said to Mabon, and what you've said is heard loud and clear.

Making the Senedd Estate Dementia-friendly

5. What work has the Commission undertaken to make the Senedd estate dementia-friendly? OQ61159

Thank you, Luke, for your question. The Senedd is committed to making the Senedd estate welcoming and accessible to people with dementia, and to the people that accompany them as well. Since the Commission committed to becoming a dementia-friendly organisation in 2015, we continue to build on this work in the sixth Senedd, including providing training to staff, as well as awareness-raising sessions and articles. We're developing customer service guidance on non-visible disabilities, which includes guidance relating to delivering an inclusive service to people with dementia, and that will accompany new training provision for front-line staff to provide an inclusive welcome for customers, building on previous training that they've received.

Thank you for that answer. It's welcome news to learn of the training that is happening. It's always surprising to a lot of people when you give them the information around how dementia can affect perception. Something simple like a black mark to us might appear as a black hole to somebody who is with dementia, and they will be, therefore, afraid to cross that hole.

As chair of the cross-party group on dementia, I was really glad to see the Alzheimer's Society's event in the Norwegian church just last week, as part of Dementia Action Week, where we heard directly from those who are living with dementia, and some of the concerns that they have, as well as some of the challenges they face. So, I was wondering if the Commission might commit to engaging with those who are living with dementia on a regular basis to see where the challenges lie in terms of changing the Senedd estate, but also to actively consult with them to ensure that, when they do come to the Senedd, those views have been taken on board and that their visit is a pleasant experience.

Thank you. We are always wanting to engage with people, and to make the experience of anybody coming here a good experience, so, of course, we would commit to engaging. And the Commission's newly designed inclusive customer service training module will provide best practice when liaising with people with dementia and those who support them. It will raise our staff members' awareness and confidence when dealing with a diverse range of customers with different requirements. The Commission's visitor engagement team works with groups and individuals ahead of their visits to ensure that their specific needs and requirements are met. The Commission has developed a 360-degree virtual tour, available on the Senedd website, to help visitors to familiarise themselves with the building and its features, particularly for those who might be nervous before they take on such a visit. We provide quiet rooms on the estate and changing places for adults.

Training and awareness sessions were held as part of inclusion month in 2022, and we continue to mark relevant diversity calendar dates to raise awareness. A lot of the good work was somehow interrupted and stalled through COVID. Of course, we need to make sure that all the good practice that was there before continues now. But we are already working closely with Alzheimer's Society Cymru. Their dementia-friendly team have delivered their Dementia Friends training and awareness session for Members. I've taken part in that, and I'm sure many others in this room have. We want to do the best. This is the people's building, it's not our building—we recognise that, and anything that we can do, we will do. So, the short answer is, 'Yes, we'll engage', but we also have published guidance, blogs and articles promoting dementia awareness and we do take our responsibility very seriously.

15:30
4. Topical Questions
The Infected Blood Inquiry

1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement following the publication of the report on the Infected Blood Inquiry? TQ1093

Thank you very much. On Monday, I apologised on behalf of the Welsh Government to everyone in Wales who suffered and was affected by the infected blood scandal. I would like to reiterate that apology here today and confirm that the Government will stage a debate on this issue in the Senedd on 4 June. I will inform Members at that point how we will continue to work with the other Governments across the UK in order provide the justice that the victims deserve.

Thank you for that response. I want to begin by adding my voice to those who have congratulated and thanked the survivors of this scandal, their families and supporters, who have had to campaign for far too long for justice. This was a scandal that could easily have been avoided. As the report from the inquiry has said, this was no accident; it was not misfortune. People received infected blood from people who knew the blood had been infected. It is a direct result of systemic failures, following a conspiracy to conceal the truth and information in order to protect reputations, and is the result of a lack of transparency and the failure of politicians and senior officials to acknowledge fault. It is an absolutely damning report and there are lessons to be learnt by all of us.

The Langstaff report gives voice to them and lays bare the systematic failures at every level that created the environment in which this scandal was able to endure for so long. That campaigners had to fight so hard against a system that circled the wagons, sought to defend its own interests and prioritised its own protection over correcting its mistakes is shameful. There are recommendations in the Langstaff report, including on patient safety and haemophiliac care, in areas of devolved competence. Can the Cabinet Secretary assure us that these are being implemented? More generally, does she agree with me that there is an important lesson in this about the paramount importance of the duty of candour and the willingness to address systemic issues in our health service openly, honestly and in concert with victims and survivors? What steps is the Cabinet Secretary taking to ensure that these are adhered to and implemented here? Does she also agree that there can be no delay in paying compensation to those impacted by this scandal, and that there is a role for Welsh Ministers in holding the UK Government's feet to the fire, ensuring that the cost is borne in full by Whitehall, and that the scheme is delivered at pace and in a way that ensures that no-one impacted by the scheme misses out on compensation for which they have already waited too long?

15:35

Thanks very much, Mabon. I think you are absolutely right in the tone that you used there. This is the worst scandal in the history of the NHS. I'd like to pay tribute to all those people, in particular those who suffered over so many years and whose voices weren't heard. But I'd also like to pay tribute to the campaigners who stood with them, and in particular, in this Chamber, to Julie Morgan, who, for years and years, stood by and with the victims, not just in this Chamber but also in Westminster. Thank you, Julie, for all your work.

I think you're absolutely right in your outrage, and I'd like to echo that outrage on behalf of the victims. They were very poorly served, and it is good at last that their voices have been heard. There are many, many recommendations in the report; it's a very long report. There are 12 recommendations, across all areas of healthcare, which we're going to take time to address. In terms of the next steps, the infected blood inquiry report next steps for Wales group will be set up. That's going to consider the recommendations and shape our response to them. That group will be chaired by our new deputy chief medical officer, Push Mangat.

Officials are already working with the UK Government in terms of next steps in relation to compensation, via the newly formed Infected Blood Compensation Authority. I have already received a letter from the UK Government Minister, who's very keen to see that there's no delay. He has suggested that that second interim payment, which was announced this week—£210,000 to those living beneficiaries who are registered on a support scheme—will be paid within 90 days. We will be channelling that via the Welsh scheme for the time being, just to make sure that they get paid. We have had it confirmed that the UK Government will be bearing the cost in full and will be paying for this.

Thanks very much to the Cabinet Secretary for her response and for her apology on behalf of the Welsh Government, and thank you to Mabon for putting the topical question.

As I said during the business statement yesterday, I was up in Central Hall Westminster when this very important statement was made, and I was with people from south Wales who have suffered and have been affected. I just wanted to use this opportunity to pay tribute to Lynne Kelly, who is a constituent of mine in Cardiff North, and has been the driving force behind our response in Wales. In fact, she first approached me when I was her Member of Parliament, back in 1997, to inform me about the scandal and about the need for an inquiry. She was there on that bus going up to London yesterday, looking after and paying attention to all the people who fought for so long. So, I just wanted to put on record my thanks and admiration for all that she has done.

The message from Sir Brian Langstaff was clear: it wasn't a mistake, it was a cover-up, and it occurred on a monumental scale. Obviously, it's now down to the UK Government, but it's also down to us, to make sure that every single one of those recommendations in the report is carried out. I think yesterday was very important to the people who were there to hear it, and those who watched it on television at home, who were infected or affected. But there was also this fear of, 'Will they do it?', because they've had 40 years of waiting for something to happen and nothing has happened.

Also, the announcement yesterday regarding compensation was very welcome, but it should have been made at least a year ago, when Sir Brian released his first urgent recommendation on compensation. Since then, more than 80 people have died, so people have lost that opportunity to at least have some financial help, and also to feel easy that their families will be supported. 

I think that those delay tactics that have already been seen by the UK Government are really making campaigners worried that they will not get the compensation, and that heels will be dragged about all the recommendations. I think it's been beholden on us, here in Wales, to make sure that this happens. What pressure will the Cabinet Secretary put on the UK Government to ensure that all these recommendations are carried out?

15:40

Thanks very much, Julie. Can I say how humbled I've been by the work you've done on this, over so many years? I know how moved you've been by the stories of those victims. Thank you for standing by and with them. You were someone who did hear their voices. You were somebody who did listen to them. It's a lesson to us all—that more of us need to listen and hear what our constituents are telling us. I hope that you and they feel vindicated by those years and years of campaigning where they weren't listened to. 

I want my officials to take time to consider this report. It's taken a long time. I don't want to give a snap answer, because I want to give it the respect it deserves. But, absolutely, we will take it very, very seriously. Obviously, many of the recommendations will be for the UK Government, but I will commit to you that anything in relation to Wales we will take very seriously. 

I absolutely hear you in terms of the urgency of those payments. There has been a commitment to pay within 90 days that additional interim payment of £210,000. We will be playing our part as a Welsh Government in making sure that the Wales infected blood support scheme will be paying out within that timetable. There have been delay tactics over the years. I want to make that commitment to you that we will move heaven and earth to make sure that we can make those payments within 90 days to those people who've been waiting for so long. 

Let me join colleagues and thank Mabon ap Gwynfor for raising this here today, and join the Cabinet Secretary too in paying credit to all those who have campaigned on this issue over the years. I also join the Cabinet Secretary in her words of clarity, by outlining that this scandal is one of the greatest failures of the British state, and also to reflect on the words from Sir Brian Langstaff, who wrote the report. He chose to use the word 'calamity', but, in truth, there are no words that can wholly sum up the tragedy that has taken place over decades, including the disgraceful cover-ups from senior people in the national health service, Government ministries and the civil service. The awful attitude towards victims, the callousness with which they were treated, is certainly beyond a calamity in my book.

They were, as we know, infected with contaminated blood, and then effectively gaslit by the authorities who covered it up every step of the way. There are so many innocent people who have suffered needlessly. Certainly, our thoughts are with them and their loved ones. We know that, in Wales, around 400 people are known to be infected, but we also know that this is unlikely to be the full number. The report that we are discussing today was clear in its criticisms of the UK and Welsh Governments, so I certainly welcome the formal apologies from both Governments to the victims. We must ensure that situations like this are never allowed to happen again, and that the groupthink and the secrecy that encourages cover-ups—the points that Mabon ap Gwynfor mentioned—are eradicated once and for all.

A number of us here today so far have mentioned the Prime Minister's commitment to a comprehensive compensation package. So, a question on that point first, Cabinet Secretary, just to join with colleagues also in terms of the timing of that. I wonder if you have any concerns, initially, about the speed. You said 90 days, but do you have any concerns that that will not be met? Are there any issues or barriers that may be in place to stop that happening sooner rather than later? And, then, just to again make the point on the secrecy and cover-up culture that seemed to come through in this report, I wonder, Cabinet Secretary, are there any proactive measures that you'll be considering to ensure that public bodies in Wales don't engage in that culture of secrecy and cover-ups, so that these tragedies don't happen again?

15:45

Thanks very much, Sam. Certainly, this is a shameful episode in UK political history, and it is important that we all reflect on that. There are around 264 people who are beneficiaries of the Wales infected blood support scheme. The word 'beneficiary' doesn't seem right to me. These are people who are victims, who've paid a huge price, and no money is going to compensate for the suffering that they've gone through, in particular those who've lost loved ones and who've suffered in very often immense pain. 

In terms of the 90 days, what are the barriers? Well, I guess the money needs to come into our account so that we can spend it. There are a lot of rumours swirling around this afternoon about a general election—we need to make sure that that doesn't get in the way. But also I think it's probably really important to underline the fact that, in Wales now, in relation to the national health service, there is a legal duty of candour—a legal duty. So, this is something that we have to make sure is applied and taken seriously. I know that there's a lot of training going on within our health service to make sure people understand what that means in practice.

The Co-operation Agreement

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's Co-operation Agreement with Plaid Cymru ending? TQ1095

Thank you for your question, Andrew R.T. Davies. The co-operation agreement was about mature politics. Through working together, we achieved a great deal. As the First Minister set out in Plenary yesterday, while we regret the early departure of Plaid Cymru, we're committed to working collaboratively in the Senedd on key priority areas.

I am disappointed that the First Minister isn't here again this Wednesday. Two weeks ago, he was not here for a debate on his portfolio responsibilities. Again, I've put a question down. It does beg the question, what is the point in putting questions down if Ministers don't turn up to answer them? Bitterly disappointing.

You said in your opening remarks this was about mature Government. That mature Government delivered national 20 mph, 36 more politicians and a failed sustainable farming scheme, as well as failure to tackle the chronic waiting lists within our NHS, the declining education standards as marked by the Programme for International Student Assessment on international rankings, and obviously the slashing of business rate relief for many small and medium-sized businesses. That's hardly mature Government and hardly delivering for the people of Wales.

But on a more organisational point, if I may, as you're leader of the house, Minister, I look at the forward programme for government business for the next three weeks, and the first week back after we come back from recess there are two items of business, I look on the following Tuesday, there are another two items of business, and the third week, there are another two—

I must remind the leader of the opposition, the question is on the co-operation agreement, not on business coming up.

Well, I'm just trying to lead in to the point about how is the Government functioning, bringing forward business that clearly it doesn't seem—[Interruption.]

Clearly, it doesn't seem to have got an idea of where it wants to go. Ultimately, this should have been dealt with by the First Minister to outline and give us confidence that he knows where he wants this Government to go. So, can you as leader of the house give a commitment that the Government will get its mojo back and start delivering for the people of Wales, rather than continuing this downward spiral that it seems to have set its course on?

In my response to his supplementary points, and I'm not sure where the question was—

I'll come on to the points that you made. The leader of the opposition will understand I'm going to focus on his question. It is a question about the ending of the co-operation agreement on 17 May. It was always a time-limited agreement, but I would have to say that the majority of the commitments—

Are you going to listen, leader of the opposition, to my answer to your question?

The majority of the commitments that we've worked on so collaboratively together are completed or are in the process of being completed, and we'll now look closely at—

15:50

There are too many Members on all benches speaking to conversations outside of what the Minister is trying to respond to. Now, I've asked that everyone gives the Trefnydd the decency of allowing her to respond.