6. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport: D-day and Armed Forces Week

– in the Senedd at 4:20 pm on 11 June 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 4:20, 11 June 2024

(Translated)

Item 6 is next, a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for North Wales and Transport on D-day and Armed Forces Week, and I call on the Cabinet Secretary, Ken Skates. 

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. Last week marked the eightieth anniversary of D-day, a day long in planning, heavy in sacrifice, suffering and loss from many countries, and a critical milestone in the liberation of Europe from Nazi oppression. This year is particularly significant. D-day 80 is very much a milestone commemoration, where we are still fortunate to have living testimony from amongst the veteran community of their part in this historic event. 

The First Minister represented Wales at the commemoration event at the British memorial in Normandy on 6 June. This was primarily a day for those last surviving veterans; however, it also provided opportunity for the people of Wales to remember the important contribution we made as a nation. I had the pleasure recently to meet 99-year-old D-day veteran Donald Jones at his home in Mold. Donald was in the Royal Navy, crewing a landing-craft on D-day. I was incredibly humbled by his experience and sacrifice in the name of freedom.

The South Wales Borderers landed early on D-day in the second wave of one of the British sectors at Gold beach—the only Welsh unit to land that day, advancing nine miles inland. The First Minister was able to honour their memory, laying a wreath at their memorial in Asnelles during his visit last week. The United Kingdom memorial, which provided the focus for the UK commemoration, bears amongst its 22,000 names many from Wales who served in the army, the navy and the Royal Air Force who lost their lives on D-day or later in the Normandy campaign, across 85 hard days of fighting.

Acts of commemoration to mark D-day 80 recently took place in communities across Wales too, and will continue across this month with Armed Forces Week on the horizon. I am sure that Members will have been present at many of these events and wish to celebrate those in their contributions today.

We have some 115,000 veterans living in Wales; one in 12 households have someone who has previously served. Some like to be called ‘veterans’, others choose something different or not to declare. Our veteran population is predominantly male and elderly, but slowly changing to mirror our wider population. In the main, they are a successful and achieving population to be celebrated, set up for life by the skills and values acquired through their service, with jobs, homes and good health. That said, service life is unique for service people and for their families, and that's why we have an armed forces covenant as a safeguard to act against the potential for disadvantage from having served, and, in some cases, to justify prioritisation in relation to health, housing, education and employment.

As Welsh Government, we continue to support our armed forces community. Our investment in specialised mental health support continues through Veterans' NHS Wales. Our NHS Wales chief executive wrote to local health boards and NHS trusts just last month on the armed forces covenant, identifying services and resources available across Wales, including how some health boards are funding peer mentors to provide additional support in this area. Organisations have been asked to consider awareness of and compliance with the due regard duty, and of Welsh Government’s intentions to conduct an annual baseline review across healthcare in Wales.

Awareness of veterans is vital, and that's why we have produced an accreditation scheme with training for GP practices. Encouraging practices to sign up is something we can all do within our constituencies and our regions. Our funding for armed forces liaison officers continues, and I'll shortly be considering the recommendations from an external evaluation, looking at 2025-26 and beyond. We also continue to fund the Supporting Service Children in Education Cymru project, reflecting the challenges that mobility places on young people’s lives. 

Llywydd, we provide 7 per cent of the armed forces strength, from just 5 per cent of the UK population. Service is usually outside Wales. Service people acquire great skills and values, and we are in competition to secure this talent. We want service people from Wales to return home and contribute to our country.

This is a time of year when, through Armed Forces Week and Armed Forces Day, we both celebrate and remember those who serve: regular and reserve. We celebrate the contribution they make to the defence of the country and to wider society. That contribution will be celebrated nationally in Swansea, in tandem with their airshow on 6 July, and in other local events across Wales. We've previously supported the local authority hosting this Wales-level event with up to £20,000 towards their running costs of this important day, and I am pleased to maintain this level of support to Swansea Council this year and to Monmouthshire County Council for 2025.

Regular and reserve service is demanding on service people and on their families. Supportive and understanding employers are key. In my own portfolio, for example, Transport for Wales demonstrate the art of the possible as gold award holders in the defence employer recognition scheme; and Cardiff Bus have started that journey too, with their signing of the armed forces covenant in April. We work with the Career Transition Partnership, the armed services and the Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations to help that search for good jobs here in Wales. We have been doing this through employment fairs and workshops in south Wales, and we are shortly to hold our first north Wales event in Wrexham.

In conclusion, Llywydd, we celebrate and say thanks for the sacrifice of those who gave their lives on the Normandy beaches and also more widely in world war two. We celebrate also our serving armed forces and veterans through Armed Forces Week and Armed Forces Day, and as Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for armed forces, veterans and their families in Wales, I commit to playing my fullest part in supporting them.

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative 4:27, 11 June 2024

I'd like to thank the Cabinet Secretary for your statement this afternoon and outlining the Welsh Government's contribution to our armed forces community across Wales. I want to join with you and my group in your commitment, and our commitment, to veterans and their families across our country. Their service and sacrifice deserves our deepest gratitude. As you rightly mentioned, Wales does punch above its weight in terms of our armed forces personnel. Ensuring their well-being is paramount, because Wales does send the most service personnel, out of any part of the UK, to serve in our armed forces.

You mentioned D-day, and we all join together to respect those who gave so much during those D-day landings, and they made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our freedoms. And I just think it's absolutely phenomenal what they did, and what they had to go through, to make sure that we actually have got peace in mainland Europe. I attended an event in Llandrindod Wells, and I was deeply moved by some of the contributions that people made there and actually the stories that some of the people told me.

Cabinet Secretary, I'd like to dive a little deeper, if that's okay, into a few areas you mentioned in your statement. You mentioned the review of the armed forces liaison officers programme. You mentioned that, and it is very critical that we keep that programme going; they do absolutely phenomenal work. But it'll be understanding the recommendations that'll be vital for advocating for their continued support, so perhaps you could share some initial areas of focus for the review that you're having, and how you will engage with stakeholders, going forward.

You also mentioned the support for armed forces personnel within our health boards and the peer support system that they've got there. Something that the cross-party group on the armed forces has talked about is having dedicated people within the health boards who fully understand our armed forces and armed forces personnel, and whether they could be funded by the Welsh Government to create full-time posts. I'd be interested to know your views on that, because, as a group, we were going to write to you on that, so if you've got any updates on that, I'd be very grateful.

You also talked about mental health support for veterans, and I think some of the work Welsh Government has done around that is commendable and to be celebrated, actually; I think we should always find areas of common ground that we agree on, and I think that is one place we do. Increasing funding is a positive, but perhaps you could elaborate more on the specific programmes that the Welsh Government is pushing, with health boards, because many veterans may be very hesitant to go out and seek support because of what they've actually had to go through, and it creates quite a macho culture, where people don't actually want to seek support. So, I think if you could outline today what programmes are available, it might actually help anybody who's listening from our veterans community to go and seek the support that they need.

Furthermore, I do strongly agree with you about encouraging employers across Wales to engage with the defence employer recognition scheme. Showcasing best practice is important—as you say, from Transport for Wales and Cardiff Bus. It's a great start. However, can you elaborate on any additional plans to promote the scheme across the country and best practice to Welsh businesses of all sizes, highlighting the valuable contribution that veterans can bring to the table in the workplace and the skills that they've learnt within our armed forces? 

Another thing I wanted to talk to you about was the role of armed forces champions within our local authorities. I think they do fantastic work within councils across the country in raising the profile of our armed forces in local government. In my own local authority in Powys, the local authority there has taken a decision to remove our champion roles. I think that's a mistake, especially in terms of the armed forces champion role. I'd be interested to know your thoughts, Cabinet Secretary, on that to make sure that we do have strong representation from our councillors in local government, because a lot of the services that veterans require are the responsibility of our local authorities across Wales.

I also believe in the continued collaboration that you've talked about between public bodies. As I've just said, it's important for supporting our armed forces community. And effective communication and outreach strategies are vital to ensuring, as I've said earlier, our mental health support, housing support—exactly what people are aware is available and how they can access them. From my end, Cabinet Secretary, I am committed to working with you in this area, as, I know, is the chair of the cross-party armed forces group, Darren Millar, who has done phenomenal work in raising the profile of our armed forces community here in the Senedd. I know he would like to be making a statement himself, but he can't, I'm afraid—he's not here.

Additionally, I'd like to echo finally some of the sentiments you made around Armed Forces Week. I think that is another great event that happens across our country to highlight our armed forces and the work they do to keep us safe day in, day out, night and day. They go to some of the most dangerous places in the world to make sure that we can actually sleep safe in our beds at night. I think anything we can do to support them more is to be encouraged, and I'm pleased with the money that the Welsh Government is providing to do that. I wish we could have a bit more money to support Armed Forces Week right across the country, but maybe you could talk about that.

In closing, Cabinet Secretary, I'd like to thank you once again for your statement and say I look forward to working collaboratively with you to support our armed forces community here across Wales to make sure they feel cherished and empowered for the vital role they play in our society. Diolch. 

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 4:32, 11 June 2024

Diolch, James Evans. Can I thank James sincerely for a heartfelt tribute to our armed forces and our veterans? I know James is clearly passionate about this area of Welsh Government responsibility, and I do thank him for his questions today. There were a number of very valuable points that were raised, including the mental health of our armed forces veterans and serving personnel, the defence employer recognition scheme, and the role of local authorities in supporting and promoting the armed forces of Wales and the wider United Kingdom.

In terms of D-day, I would agree it was a most remarkable occasion. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that we read so that we know that we are not alone, and I think it's invaluable at this time of year to read the stories of those who gave so much for Europe in the darkest of times. I personally attended the commemoration in Wrexham and followed this with a visit to the city's armed forces community hub. In regard to mental health, that hub has proved to be invaluable. It's a fantastic means by which veterans are able to access information, be steered towards relevant support groups, and I know that similar hubs exist across Wales. For example, near Wrexham, in Colwyn Bay, there is an equally effective hub that serves the armed forces community, and indeed their families as well, and I'm looking to do all I can to support the growth of such hubs, because they are vital in helping armed forces veterans access the services that they need.

A huge amount of work is taking place within the NHS. I referenced a letter to local health boards recently that invited them to look at best practice across Wales. It's absolutely essential that we learn from the very best, and that same message applies to local authorities. I was with the local authority armed forces champion on Thursday and then again on Friday in Wrexham. You may know the armed forces champion in Wrexham, Councillor Beverley Parry-Jones, a fantastic advocate for armed forces veterans. I was very pleased to be with her at both those events. I think some local authorities are to be commended on the way that they do support their armed forces champions, and I would advocate all 22 local authorities maintaining the support for them.

With regard to the defence employer recognition scheme, this has been massively valuable as well, and it's something that I've discussed with a number of employers. Indeed, I was recently at Zip World, meeting Sean Taylor, who has an incredible passion for supporting the armed forces and veterans. It's through employer groups such as the CBI that we are able to promote the defence employer recognition scheme, as well as through some of the regional employer groups that exists in Wales.

In regard to armed forces liaison officers, I would agree that these have been held in the greatest regard across Wales. They really are fantastic. I was with the armed forced liaison officer, again in Wrexham, on a number of occasions last week, discussing issues that face the armed forces—serving personnel, veterans and their families—and the role that they play in their communities. Funding has been confirmed again—£275,000—and we do know that our AFLOs are highly valued for the work that they do, but I think it's also important that we take stock of this, to consider how we deliver for veterans over the longer term. That's why we commissioned an evaluation of the network of AFLOs to help inform long-term planning. My view is that AFLOs have been invaluable, and the question is not whether they should continue to be supported, it's whether we can actually expand their role and how we can support them in discharging their functions. I will, of course, engage widely with stakeholders and partners regarding the future of AFLOs across Wales, and I would be very pleased to bring the recommendations to the cross-party group for armed forces. Diolch.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru 4:37, 11 June 2024

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement today. It's good to hear about the resources being invested in improving the lives of veterans. In Wales, veterans make up 4.5 per cent of the adult population, compared to 3.8 per cent in England. It's crucial that we ensure their treatment is handled correctly here in Wales. As we've heard this afternoon, there's agreement that recognition shouldn't be limited to just one week a year on Armed Forces Week. Increasing awareness and an understanding of the needs of the armed forces community is a continuous effort.

I'd like to ask the Cabinet Secretary about a number of issues I raised at Armed Forces Week last year to understand the progress that has been made. There needs to be equality of service for veterans, regardless of where they live in Wales. There are good examples of health boards following the military covenant, but I flagged to the Deputy Minister for Social Partnership last year that I had heard anecdotal evidence that some health boards were not paying it the regard it deserves. Given the struggles the Welsh NHS is currently facing, how is the Welsh Government monitoring compliance with the military convenant and ensuring successes across all health boards, including dental care, which I've raised here on a number of occasions? Last year, we saw the launch of the veteran-friendly GP accreditation scheme. We were lagging way behind England when it came to this initiative. What percentage of our GP practices have now been accredited? Have we caught up with England?

Finally, Cabinet Secretary, I'd like to make a broader point. Our armed forces, which comprise of relatives of my family, fought to keep us safe and against the rising fascism in Europe, but across Wales and England we have seen a rise in discrimination and hate—whether that is racism, Islamophobia, antisemitism or homophobia—over the last few years. In the course of this general election, we've seen concerning comments about Hitler emerge that have led to an apology from a certain right-wing candidate. I'd like to just put a reminder out there that we must remain vigilant against all forms of hate and discrimination as well as uphold the values of tolerance and inclusion. This would be one of the best ways in which we could honour the sacrifices of those who fought against tyranny in world war two. We continue to fight and stand firm against hate and oppression in all its forms. We continue to stand on what they fought and died for, and we will remember them.

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 4:40, 11 June 2024

Peredur, can I thank you for recognising the value of our armed forces—our serving personnel and our veterans and their families? I think to the point that you made towards the end of your contribution, there is no place for hate and discrimination whatsoever. This is something that I discussed recently with the armed forces commissioner and it is certainly something that is being given more priority in terms of the forward work programme, including discrimination against LGBTQ+ serving personnel and veterans and ensuring that we stamp out any sort of online abuse of people who have served and given so much.

Through NHS Wales, we are able to monitor adherence to the armed forces covenant, and on 14 May, the chief executive of the Welsh NHS wrote to all health boards to remind them of their duties. With the permission of the NHS Wales chief executive, I would be more than happy to circulate the letter that has been distributed, because I think it does raise the important points that Peredur has highlighted today around the need for consistency of the highest standard across all health boards, no matter where armed forces personnel and veterans live. I will endeavor to do that as soon as possible, provided I reach agreement with the NHS Wales chief executive on distributing that letter.

In terms of dental services, this is an area, of course, where we've been working with the armed forces. We've been providing advice on how to make contact with health boards in advance of posting to Wales and highlighting to health boards service children and their mobility as a particular factor for consideration in relation to the duty of due regard. Peredur also makes an important point about the accreditation programme for general practices in Wales. So far, 38 practices have signed up. It is still lagging behind England, unfortunately, but the scheme in England has been operating for longer, and we are doing all we can to promote this particular scheme to GP services across Wales. Certainly, I would welcome any assistance that Members can offer in promoting this scheme in their respective areas. Diolch.

Photo of Jenny Rathbone Jenny Rathbone Labour 4:42, 11 June 2024

It's right and proper that we commemorate the bravery of all these soldiers and sailors and other people who were involved in the invasion of Normandy, which was obviously the beginning of the end of Hitler and his appalling regime. But I want to speak today about the largest loss of life since the second world war, which occurred on 8 June 1982. Last Saturday was the forty-second anniversary of the bombing of Sir Galahad, and it is merely coincidental that the meeting I hosted in the Pierhead this afternoon also occurs, presciently, on Armed Forces Week. I'm very glad that you were able to come along briefly and hear some of the people who are mourning the 58 people who died, the 150 people who were physically injured, not discounting the psychological impact on all the personnel who were on board who witnessed terrible things that they have never been able to forget.

On top of that, there is a psychological impact on all of the families who lost their fathers, their sons, their brothers, their uncles, and we heard really powerful testimony from them of the post-traumatic stress disorder inflicted on them—all of this exacerbated by a relentless campaign of blame against the Welsh Guards, as if they were in some way responsible for being stuck on this ship, with no way of getting off it apart from through one landing craft, which was faulty and could not lower its ramp. So, anybody who was getting off the ship had to be abseiled down from the cargo ship that they were on. It is disgraceful to read in the Ministry of Defence's commemoration 40 years on that on the MOD official log there are still people talking about them being unfit and unable to walk across the Falklands. This is a complete travesty of what actually happened.

This problem is made worse in that it's still going on, because the navy and the marines were so desperate to make it their triumph in the face of all the cuts that otherwise were going to occur back in 1982, and the fact that all the documents have not been released to enable these people who are now in their 60s; they were very young when this occurred to them, but now they are in their 60s, and their families, many of them are dead, and they have gone to their graves not being able to hear that they were completely exonerated and to understand the reasons why this terrible and avoidable tragedy occurred. So, it is outrageous that so many of these documents are being withheld till 2065, when I certainly will not be around, and nor will many of them.

So, I know that this is not a devolved matter, but what can you as well as the rest of us do to assist the Welsh Guards in getting justice and clarity on what went wrong, and particularly the board of inquiry that occurred within the very same year, that all these documents have not been released? Mrs Thatcher is dead, Admiral Fieldhouse is dead, yet we still do not know why all these terrible things occurred, which means that we are destined to repeat them. If we do not understand how not to conduct war, then that is what will happen. So, what do you think, Cabinet Secretary, you and the Government and the rest of us in the Senedd can do to help the Welsh Guards get justice?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 4:46, 11 June 2024

Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for her contribution, and more importantly, for the events that she hosted at lunchtime today in the Pierhead building? The accounts of psychological impact, those who were attending, were potent and very difficult to listen to. They highlighted the continued feeling of deep injustice, and my thoughts are with all those for whom the Falklands campaign, and in particular the 8 June 1982 tragedy involving the Sir Galahad and Sir Tristram—. It was a tragedy for the Welsh Guards and for Wales in particular.

The release of some files earlier in the year was welcome, so too the clear statements then that the Welsh Guards were not to blame in any way, and I do know that there is a campaign that was discussed over lunchtime for complete release of files. It's an ongoing campaign; it's a matter for the MoD to address, but it is something that I will be raising with whomever my counterpart is following the UK general election, because securing truth and transparency is vital for the Welsh Guards.

The incident was horrific. Jenny Rathbone has outlined the human loss at the time, the injuries and the ongoing impact that it is having on scores upon scores of people who wish to see closure to the pain that they're suffering.

And can I finally just pay tribute to the Member herself? I know that, as a journalist, Jenny Rathbone has pursued the truth in regard to this matter, and I will work with Jenny and others in making sure that the Ministry of Defence listens to the concerns of those who spoke today.

Photo of Paul Davies Paul Davies Conservative 4:48, 11 June 2024

Cabinet Secretary, you'll be aware that I've been campaigning for several years for the better protection of war memorials in Wales, which I believe is one way in which we can show our respect and gratitude to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.

Now, you'll know I've called for a statutory duty on our local authorities to record war memorials in their own areas and for each council to have a designated war memorial officer who would be a public source of information on how best to protect local war memorials and who would also visit schools and colleges to talk to pupils about the importance of past conflicts, and why war memorials are such an important part of our community. So, Cabinet Secretary, I've raised this with many of your predecessors, but there's been little progress on this front, and so perhaps you could tell us whether the Welsh Government will once again look at this proposal, and also could you tell us what it's doing to generally protect war memorials across Wales?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 4:49, 11 June 2024

Can I thank Paul Davies for his contribution and the question regarding the future of war memorials? Some of course are protected through Cadw designation as monuments, but many, many, many more are not, and they are largely protected by virtue of civic society respecting them, but sadly, in some instances and in some places, that is not the case, and they are defaced, they are vandalised. That is totally unacceptable.

I wish to work with our local authority armed forces champions, who are probably best placed to identify all memorials across Wales, and to ensure that we are giving due consideration to how we better protect them in the future. There is no condoning any defacing or vandalism of war memorials, but I'll be pleased to work with the Member, with the cross-party group, and, as I say, the local authority armed forces champions to discuss other ways that we might be able to protect them in the future.

Photo of Rhianon Passmore Rhianon Passmore Labour 4:50, 11 June 2024

Thank you for the important statement, Cabinet Secretary. I was honoured to represent the communities of Islwyn constituency at a D-day memorial service organised by the Royal British Legion district branch of the war memorial in Cefn Fforest, so I wish to also recognise their partnership working with Cefn Fforest community association, and the vital work of Caerphilly county borough's armed forces champion, Teresa Heron. And I do want to use this opportunity to say 'thank you' to all.

It was so heartening to see such a big presence from the local community wishing to pay their respects to the veterans of Operation Overlord, and I was, myself, moved to hear first-hand of the experiences of veteran Seth Thomas, who is 96 years of age, and who is looking forward to discussing more with me next year. There was a poignant poetry recital from Islwyn High School, followed by pupils from Cefn Fforest primary, who sang wonderfully our national anthems and songs from the 1940s. I also want to thank Julie Farmer, headteacher, and her staff for their year-round commitment as a school to recognising the role of past sacrifices in the education of future generations. And as these events slowly move from living testimony from the last surviving veterans, it is crucial that we pass on the torch of knowledge to tomorrow's citizens, tomorrow's leaders and tomorrow's military. I commend the communities across Islwyn, including Risca, Abercarn and Newbridge, who held services of remembrance.

Llywydd, as we see the rising of the far right across Europe once again, and volatility and instability across the world, what can the Welsh Government do to ensure that future generations learn and understand the events of D-day? And noting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's recent findings that only 48 per cent of people aged 18 to 34 recognised what D-day was, how do we in this place cement their sacrifice and their legacy, both for today's children and for the defenders of our nation tomorrow?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 4:52, 11 June 2024

Can I thank Rhianon Passmore for an incredibly heartfelt contribution this afternoon and for the work that Rhianon does more widely, year round, in promoting the armed forces and promoting the value of our veterans in our communities across Wales? Rhianon talked about how she was moved to hear the stories from the people that she met on D-day. I have to say the First Minister and I feel the same way about the stories that we heard on D-day. The First Minister in Normandy met Donald Jones, who I'd met just days before in Mold—99 years old. I met him with his fantastic son. It was moving, just as you've described, for two reasons, actually—one because of the experience of fighting for Britain and fighting for peace in Europe, and also because Donald and his son actually knew my late father, so we were able to talk about someone that we both knew. Vaughan Gething also met with Reginald Pye, who served in the Royal Engineers, who went to Normandy as well. It's from hearing these real-life stories that sadly, tragically, will not always be the case because of the age of our veterans—. That's what really reminds us of our role as civilians in society and the value of civil society.

It is my view that we are seeing, sadly, the growth of extremism on all sides of the political spectrum. The only way that we can push back against that is by ensuring that progressives and centrists protect civility, and we do not accept the arguments based on what they may call alternative truths, but that many of us call untruths, and instead that we do pursue the objective truth at all times. I'm afraid that the growth of extremism is being fuelled by a lack of objective truth and the peddling of untruths. I think that's what the Welsh Government can focus on in making sure that people are armed with facts and with the truth.

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative 4:55, 11 June 2024

I would just like to say how lovely the tributes have been here for the D-day commemoration. I took part in three events. I went to Conwy, the Mulberry stone, and then I went to Llandudno cenotaph, and I also went to the bandstand in the evening of Thursday. Every service was very special, and it was an honour to be present.

Four thousand four hundred allied personnel died on D-day. Over 70,000 gave their lives during the battle of Normandy and they changed the course of war and secured the freedoms and democracy that we now enjoy in this nation and across Europe. Aberconwy played a key role in this campaign, with so many involved. Alongside men and women going to the front line, key preparations were made at the estuary of the Conwy river. It is there, ahead of D-day, that around 1,000 people worked on developing Mulberry harbours.

On the eightieth anniversary, I believe that it is incumbent upon us as Members of this Senedd and the Welsh Government to look at what we can do to highlight local connections to D-day. By strengthening the understanding of these local links, we can help to ensure that our locals remember and understand the significance of what did happen eight decades ago. And I would like to thank the Minister for his statement and the reassurances; the points that have been made about the health service and whether our veterans and ex-service military personnel are receiving support with homes, support with mental health conditions and support generally, with their health needs—those are things that I feel we need more information on, as a Senedd. But, Minister, will you clarify what steps the Welsh Government will be taking to take forward and to help promote the role that all individuals in north Wales played in preparation for D-day? We will never forget them and I have to say that it's probably been one of the most emotional weeks of commemoration that I have known since I've been an elected Member, and that's 30 years. I just feel that we need to raise this more and more in our Welsh Parliament. Thank you.

And I just want to pay tribute to Darren Millar for the work that he does, working with the armed forces and the veterans. It's important that we all, each and every one of us, appreciates those who gave their lives for us just to be able to sit in the Senedd. Diolch yn fawr. 

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 4:58, 11 June 2024

Can I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for taking the time, as she outlined, to pay respect on multiple occasions, to those who gave their lives and to those who are still suffering today and their families in north Wales, and in particular in her constituency? It strikes me that, today, we see more people, not fewer, attending such commemorations, and in particular Remembrance Sunday, I think, certainly from my own experience, is attracting more and more people every single November. And I think that demonstrates that respect is still highly valued in society. And to the point made by Rhianon Passmore, people generally, in society, regardless of what we see on social media, are incredibly respectful and dignified in the way that they go about their daily lives, and respect our armed forces in particular.

I do believe that, in terms of promoting local links, there's a role for education here, and I think with the new curriculum and the significance of events through the year, through history, there is no doubt that the new curriculum will be utilised to promote the value of our veterans community and the importance of our armed forces in our communities as well.

Janet Finch-Saunders made reference to health and what we are doing to promote services for veterans with regard to health services. Of course, the covenant applies very much to the NHS. And as has already been raised by Peredur, we do have the GP accreditation scheme. Now, it was launched last year, and so far, around 10 per cent of practices in Wales have signed up. It's only a year old, but I would encourage all Members to promote that particular scheme, and also to work with armed forces liaison officers as well in identifying how we, as elected Members, can help them in their work in their communities. Diolch.

Photo of Joyce Watson Joyce Watson Labour

Diolch, Llywydd. I want to thank you for your statement today, and I want to join Ministers and colleagues here today, and outside, in paying tribute to those who risked their lives, and those who, sadly, gave their lives, for our futures, and recognise the huge debt of gratitude to armed forces personnel and veterans. The second battalion of the South Wales Borderers advanced the furthest inland of all the units that landed on the Normandy beaches on D-day. Like me, many Welsh families have personal connections to the efforts to end the war and to liberate Europe.

I'm pleased that Labour has committed to a new package of support for members of the armed forces and also their families, and to setting up a new armed forces commissioner as a strong, independent champion for them. A new armed forces covenant will ensure that everyone who serves or has served in the armed forces and their families are treated with fairness and respect. So, Cabinet Secretary, can you please give assurances to those serving and those who have served that the Welsh Government will stand by them when they find themselves in their hour of need?

Photo of Ken Skates Ken Skates Labour 5:01, 11 June 2024

Yes, I absolutely will, and I know that Joyce Watson, throughout her career, has done so as well, has been a powerful advocate for the interests of veterans and the armed forces that we see serving on a daily basis in Wales and further afield as well in conflict. The reservists as well—we should not forget the role of reservists and the importance of their contribution either.

Many of our veterans are elderly and rely on key flagship schemes that the Welsh Government is responsible for, including free prescriptions and free bus passes. Also, veterans rely on the armed forces covenant, and I am very interested in the potential for a new armed forces covenant, which Joyce Watson has already outlined. I'm also very keen to learn more about the potential of creating a new armed forces commissioner who could hold the Government to account, an independent champion for serving forces and their families. It would require legislation, and I believe that that particular policy may well be in the first King's Speech, depending on the outcome of the UK general election, but it's something that I would expect to be consulted on and to be a part of in the design of such legislation. It may be a reserved matter, but it is something that has significant relevance to Wales, and I'd want to be fully involved in that framing of the legislation. Diolch.