Pwyllgor yr Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau - Y Bumed Senedd

Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee - Fifth Senedd

03/02/2021

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Hefin David MS
Helen Mary Jones MS
Mike Hedges MS Yn dirprwyo ar ran Joyce Watson
Substitute for Joyce Watson
Russell George MS Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Committee Chair
Suzy Davies MS
Vikki Howells MS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Duncan Hamer Prif Swyddog Gweithredu, Busnes a’r Rhanbarthau, Llywodraeth Cymru
Chief Operating Officer, Business and Regions, Welsh Government
Emma Watkins Dirprwy Gyfarwyddwr Polisi Economaidd, Llywodraeth Cymru
Deputy Director Economic Policy, Welsh Government
Jane Reakes-Davies Rheolwr Gyfarwyddwr, First Cymru Buses Cyf
Managing Director, First Cymru Buses Ltd
John Burch Rheolwr Cymru a Gorllewin Lloegr, Cydffederasiwn Cludiant Teithwyr
Manager Wales & West, Confederation of Passenger Transport
Ken Skates MS Gweinidog yr Economi, Trafnidiaeth a Gogledd Cymru
Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales
Lee Waters MS Dirprwy Weinidog yr Economi a Thrafnidiaeth
Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport
Scott Pearson Cadeirydd, Cymdeithas Coetsus a Bysiau Cymru
Chair, Coach and Bus Association Cymru
Sioned Evans Cyfarwyddwr, Busnes a Rhanbarthau, Llywodraeth Cymru
Director, Business and Regions, Welsh Government

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Andrew Minnis Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Ben Stokes Ymchwilydd
Researcher
Robert Donovan Clerc
Clerk
Robert Lloyd-Williams Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:47.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 09:47. 

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Croeso, bawb, i Bwyllgor yr Economi, Seilwaith a Sgiliau.

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee.

I'd like to welcome Members this morning to committee, and I'm grateful for the witnesses that are joining us this morning. Before we start, I would like to say that under Standing Order 34.19 I've determined that the public are excluded from the meeting this morning for public health reasons, and that this meeting is broadcast live on Senedd.tv. It can be re-watched later, and also, a Record of Proceedings is available in the normal way. If there are any apologies this morning, then—. Suzy Davies has agreed to stand in, if there are any problems with my connection. I'm just checking what else I've got to say. Apologies this morning: we've had apologies from Joyce Watson, and Mike Hedges is kindly substituting for Joyce Watson this morning, so he's joining the committee with us today. If there are any declarations of interest, please say now.

2. Cymorth a Chyllid i Weithredwyr Bysiau
2. Support and Funding for Bus Operators

In that case, I move to item 2, and this is in regard to support for funding for bus operators, and this session is really to explore some of the issues around COVID-19 and the ongoing pandemic and the associated emergency funds that have come with that, and also the potential of the Welsh Government's homeworking proposals on the industry, as well. So, with that, I'll ask the witnesses if they could just introduce themselves for the public record.

Good morning. Bore da. My name's Jane Reakes-Davies, I'm the managing director of First Cymru Buses.

Good morning. Scott Pearson, chair of Coach and Bus Association Cymru and MD at Newport Transport.

Good morning. Bore da. My name is John Burch, and I'm the manager for the Confederation of Passenger Transport with responsibility for Wales.

09:50

Thanks for being with us, and don't feel you all have to answer every question that's put by Members. I like it to be a free-flowing discussion, really, so if you do want to come in as well on something, just lift your pen or your hand or something just to indicate, and I'll lift my hand so I can note that I've seen you. So, what do you think of the Welsh Government's homeworking policy? Jane?

I'll start with that, Russell. We haven't had full disclosure of the homeworking policy at this moment in time, but we're more than welcome to have conversations with the Welsh Government to make sure that we are aligned to that strategy, and we will do all we can to support that, moving forward.

Lovely. And if I come to the others, and perhaps if I add to that, Scott—if I come to you, Scott Pearson—what opportunities do you think might there be for the industry with homeworking, with the Welsh Government's proposals, or, indeed, issues with the policy?

The main issue, I think, will be around how many people are travelling and where they're travelling to, clearly. If we've got more homeworking, then you're going to have more people based in local communities, so we'll have to adapt our networks to suit that. The major benefit would be probably to ease congestion in the inter-urban networks, but it may, if we have homeworking or localised working—and I try to take the two together, to be fair—if we have more home and more localised working, we'll have to have more transport hubs to suit that, to ensure we don't then increase the localised congestion we're having just now. But the rural aspect would be—. The main aspects, the main problem for bus services in the rural areas will be that actual inter-urban travel that happens now into cities. If that's not there, then that's a fairly big hit on the commercial revenue of bus companies, and the actual networks will adapt to suit that, but how that plays out at the end will be difficult to say, depending on how many people actually do that. Will it be 30 per cent, or less? We're not quite sure, are we?

No. Thank you, Scott. John Burch, do you want to come in on that?

Yes, if I may, just to add a little bit to that. Scott mentioned there the implications for commuters to and from work if the patterns change, but, of course, it's not just commuting; things like shopping patterns are likely to change, and indeed, home-to-school movement, where there is the potential danger—I think that's how we would look at it—for more people who are working closer to home and the educational establishments to be tempted to make more use of their car for local use, which is something that we're very keen not to see. It's also about encouraging use of those local hubs that Scott spoke of there as well. So, for example, we would look to consider new ticketing offers and facilities there as well. And in terms of the most extreme end—and this is a nationwide view, I think, and across the UK—the concerns that we may have, and others, about the changes to city and town centres is that, at the most extreme end, there might be journeys and operations that are currently viable but might cease to be viable in terms of their commercial side and may require additional support to maintain them. So, there could be some significant changes to the way that journeys within networks operate. And finally, I think, just to add to Scott's comments there, of course we would welcome the reduction in traffic flows. That's got to be a positive in terms of the environmental credentials of our industry as well. So, I think those are all positive points from that point of view.

Thank you, John. And, Jane, you mentioned that you are still perhaps waiting, or there's an element of uncertainty about what the proposals were yet. Has the Welsh Government consulted you?

Not formally at this stage, but we do have regular meetings with the Welsh Government and it will be something that we'll be looking to engage with more formally as a result of these questions being asked.

And to Scott or John, has the Welsh Government engaged with you on its proposals and had discussion with you?

We are aware of them, but I think we're at a stage of, currently, the data provision from operators to Government to facilitate that discussion, moving forward. So, as Jane says, not as yet, but we are aware of it and aware of discussions to come up. 

09:55

I'm just checking, before you come in as well, John, but the Welsh Government hasn't had any discussions with you about designing any schemes in terms of how homeworking might impact on your industry yet. That's the position by the sounds of it. Yes, okay. John. 

I concur with that. Obviously, with the bus emergency scheme 2 agreement and beyond, we're talking about networks generally, but the specifics of something like a 30 per cent homeworking target haven't yet been drilled down to. But, we do have those regular meetings and forums, so I'm sure that will progress imminently, yes. 

I'm just trying to wonder why, because these homeworking proposals have been around for some time now. If you have these regular meetings, why has this not come up in the meetings that have taken place? Is there an agenda set where it's on the agenda, or do you think it's just too early in the discussions for that to be appropriate? 

I would suggest that our priority has been the pandemic. It's been a very dynamic situation. We've had to increase and reduce our services at quite short notice and, of course, we've been dealing with the priority of the BES funding and BES 2 arrangements, so that has taken up a lot of our time, and that's been our priority. 

That makes sense, I think, in terms of priorities for those meetings, absolutely. Scott, did you want to come in on that? 

Effectively, I think the data provision that we've been doing over the past nine, 10 months I suspect will be the first stage of that discussion. So, Government understands what the data is now, what's currently happening, and we've also been receiving data for pre COVID as well. So, I suspect that is where discussions will continue, from BES 2, on to that 30 per cent homeworking. 

Thank you, Chair. What I want to talk about is the fact we're moving in a direction in which we've been going for some time—more homeworking. The Government might have a view on homeworking, but also a lot of other employers, both large and small. We've seen an increase in online retail—substantial over the last 12 months—but it was going in that direction anyway. If you talk to under-25s, online is the purchase that they prefer. We also know that there's a probability that hubs are going to start forming—somewhere in between working at home and going into a major centre. How do you expect those to affect the bus industry, especially as people working in retail make up a fairly large number of your daily passengers? 

That's correct. You've hit the nail on the head there. What we expect to see is that there will be an element of homeworking and, as I said earlier on, there will be a localised improvement of working, so people not necessarily travelling so far to work or to commute to work. There'll be an impact—there'll most definitely be an impact. The city centres, as we're all aware, are not in a good place. So, that off-peak travel, if you like, to retail is not there. If you then have less retail, less employment, then the commuter section of the day will then decrease, but you may have a separate bounce to that which may be that if you have more localised working, you have then more localised off-peak travel to shopping and to retail in the area, but not necessarily city centres. So, you might see a reverse effect there—that people might not travel so much to commute, but may travel better in the off-peak in the areas that they are working in. 

Did you want to come back, Mike, or did anybody else want to come in? 

I'm happy with that. There is an understanding of the direction we're moving in. It affects urban areas much more, but we have regional shopping centres in urban areas. I live in Morriston—I'm now a couple of hundred yards from Woodfield Street. We may well find a lot of people wanting to travel to their regional shopping centre rather then the city centre. Is that what you expect or what you're seeing?

10:00

We are seeing that now. We've been seeing that for many years, the move from high streets to regional shopping areas—definitely a move. Currently, a majority of them use a car. We'd like to see, obviously, more bus use for that kind of aspect.

Thank you. Unless anybody else wants to come in on that—

Russell, if I could just respond to Mr Hedges on, for example, the comment he made, quite rightly, about the increase in home delivery—home shopping, as it were—via the internet, and therefore the corresponding increase in such establishments. Already, as you say, our members across the whole of the UK have actually responded with specialist networks and operations, for example, to Amazon warehouses, where large employment hubs have developed there, and they've generated service networks to serve those. So, we will be flexible and respond to the needs, very definitely.

Thank you, Chair. Moving on to look directly at the impact of the pandemic on bus services, firstly, how have passenger numbers and service frequencies changed to date during the pandemic, and how does the current lockdown and its impact compare to what your industries told you in the early stages of the pandemic?

Shall I start with that one?

When we went into the 2020 lockdown, we saw a dramatic drop-off, I would say, and most operators then adjusted their networks, looking at their passenger numbers and assessing the situation as we went along. It was very challenging because there was no predictability, and actually, from my experience, when we first went into the pandemic we didn't get it quite right. Then, we had to adjust our network a little bit, and then we found the optimum for our customer numbers. So, we were watching and monitoring our customer numbers. Then, through the summer months, I think, when we had a little bit more freedom in the lockdowns, we saw a quite positive resilience to our bus services, where people were coming back out and using services, and there was some confidence in those services. Then, of course, we went into the autumn and we had localised lockdowns, so we saw the dramatic drop again. I think Bridgend, from my example, was one of the first that really fell off, and then we haven't really built a great deal up since then.

Now, because of the Christmas break, we then had to put new schedules in for the most recent December lockdown, and most operators now have adjusted their network. In my experience, we've adjusted our network by almost a 40 per cent reduction, ensuring that we are delivering for key workers and essential journeys, and, again, we're having feedback from customers where we need to adjust our network and we're putting journeys back in. But I would say, so far, we're at around about a 40 per cent reduction to our network, and we're carrying, probably, no more than 20 per cent of our normal numbers. One thing you have to factor in, because that could sound like you're running much more vehicles than you are customers, is of course we are also managing social distancing, which has been particularly challenging, and in the beginning of the pandemic, of course, we had social distancing at a more extreme position than we have today. We've benefited from consultation and taking Government guidance and improved that position so that we can carry—. We can carry more people, but we are being very cautious of the number of people we can carry on vehicles.

March to April 2020 was not a very good time for anybody, was it, to be honest? The numbers dropped off overnight, and, again, being a very small bus company, it was quite horrendous to be fair, seeing the passenger number levels drop away as they did. I believe that compliance by people at that point in time was higher than it is now. Therefore, that, coupled with improved cleaning regimes by bus operators and an increased level of confidence from our customers through the summer, tends to have changed it a little bit by the time it came to the November and December lockdown and currently. We are seeing a different level of passengers now than we were seeing right at the start of this pandemic, for a variety of reasons. In an urban network like Newport, we're running 45 per cent of our services for 10 to 12 percent of our passengers compared to a normal year. Social distancing is a big element of this, and that's one thing that we watch very carefully to see how long that element is going to last through the pandemic, because it's a major factor on the effectiveness and efficiency of bus operations. Clearly, carrying up to 10, 12 or 14 people on a bus that can carry 50 or 60 is certainly not efficient, but it's clearly safe. But with that, coupled with a variety of other cleaning regimes that we've done throughout the year, we seem to have got a bit more customer confidence back. But I think this time around, I have to say there's less compliance, from what we're seeing out there.

10:05

Could I just say, to add to that, that one of the agencies that we've welcomed a good flexible working relationship with is the office of the Welsh traffic commissioner, who has assisted greatly in the requirement, as Jane and Scott have said, to make short-notice changes to our network? I think the specific arrangements in Wales have been very useful there.

The other thing to say, I think, is that, certainly, the pattern of how the pandemic has affected us hasn't been identical across all of Wales. Some parts of Wales, for example, have seen a higher level of travel from home to school and work now than there was in the first of the lockdowns. That seems to have been a difference as well. We have seen larger numbers of young people going back to work because of the changes in key worker patterns and homeworking patterns, for example. So, there have been some changes.

The other thing that might be useful to you as a committee is that we as an organisation have been gathering information from our members during the course of the pandemic about the adjustments between the budgeted levels of passenger numbers and the actual numbers across the patch, and I would be very happy to share those with you at some point if that would be useful, to show you how the pandemic has affected us up and down, through the lockdowns. It hasn't been quite as we predicted; there were some surprises within there, maybe, and it might be useful to see that.

I was going to say to John, if you could provide that information at some point after the session, that'd be really helpful. Thank you, John.

Certainly, yes.

Sorry, Chair. My second question is how effective you feel the ongoing support from the Welsh Government and local government has been for your sector.

I'll start with this one. It was invaluable because we were facing a black hole of a significant drop in customer revenue, and, of course, we maximised the furlough position for colleagues, but at the time when we had that lack of certainty about the furlough position in October, we were faced with having a large amount of staff and no work for them. So, it has been invaluable. It's been important as well to our employees to have that level of job security, which has been very important to me in my company—that we've been able to support colleagues through what has been a very challenging time.

So, I think, in answer, Vikki, yes, it was invaluable and we continue to work with our local authority colleagues to ensure that we have the appropriate funding. Because it is a changing dynamic, as Scott and John have said. Even though we can predict some of the passenger numbers, passengers behave in a certain way, and actually, since January, we've seen a marked decrease again in customers, which has a real risk to operators being able to sustain their businesses.

Thank you. Any additional views, Scott and John? I will take from the silence that you agree 100 per cent with Jane.

10:10

I think I would just say a big thank you to the agency for assisting us, because you have done wonders to work with us in that respect there, and without that, this industry would be in a pretty awful condition. So, a big thank you, I think, is very important to say at this stage.

I think that I'd add to that as well that we have demonstrated, in the past 12 months, how well we can work together. It's amazing how things like COVID can turn things around, but the partnership working between Government, industry and Transport for Wales has been nothing short of excellent, and the communications have been very good as well. From my company perspective, through April, we were wondering how to pay salaries and how to pay wages—that's mortgages and rents—and the Government stepped up at that point in time and said, 'Here's what we're doing in the short term', and then worked with us to work out how to do it longer term, and then into now what is BES 2. So, to be fair, it has been clearly very valuable.

Could I ask about communication from the Welsh Government to the industry? Last year, we heard evidence that there was a little bit of uncertainty about future funding arrangements, with information coming through about emergency support at short notice. I remember speaking to Stagecoach about that, and raising their concerns with the Welsh Government. It did seem to be recognised, and improved afterwards. Do you think that the Welsh Government's communication with the industry has been effective during the crisis?

We can't fault them at all, because we've now, through the pandemic, had weekly meetings with senior officials in Government to understand what our problems have been. In the background, they have had TfW working through the data to make sure that they understand as well what the problems are and try to predict, as best you can, what's happening. So, we are in a different place completely than what we said before, at the last committee. They are working exceptionally well with us.

Sorry, just to add to that. I've experienced working with agencies across other parts of the UK during my time with CPT, and I can tell you now that the liaison and the communication that we have with you guys and the other agencies is very good indeed. Some of the best links that I have had are with you guys in Wales and with TfW, for example. So, definitely very good indeed.

Yes, just to reiterate what Scott and John have said. I think that, in the beginning, we were all finding our feet. It was a very changing dynamic from one week to the next. Actually, I operate across a number of different local authorities, and engaging with different partners wasn't easy. But, we all pulled together, and we delivered what we could for the customer, where we were able to do that, based on the climate that we were in.

I think that we'll end the meeting on that positive note, Chair.

I have got more questions; I'm only joking. Just regarding the level of support that the Welsh Government gives compared to the bus stimulus package proposed by the operators, is there a gap between what the Government gives and what is required?

It's very different. The bus stimulus package was about how to move forward at that point in time, to be fair. Now, we are looking at wholesale revenue loss support from Government, compared to costs. So, we are in a different place, to be honest, and I think that you may find that it will end up being more than what it is currently, depending again on lockdowns or new variants. That's where the uncertainty comes in.

So, Scott, with that in mind, the fact that the 2021-22 budget allocates £18.6 million in additional funding for the first quarter, is that going to be sufficient?  

I'm always asking for more, so I'm the wrong person to ask that, to be fair. I think that it will depend wholeheartedly on three elements: social distancing and how long that will last, any more lockdowns coming in, and any more variants coming through. So, as we sit just now, currently, the status quo has been fine, but we've got to be very careful on how we move it forward. Again, with passenger recovery, it will depend. If all of these other three elements go well, it's about us all again working together to make sure that we get passenger confidence moving forward, because if we don't, we've still got an environmental problem post pandemic, and it's one of these things I'm quite passionate about, to be honest.  

10:15

Would any other member of the panel like to expand on that as well, about the fact that the Welsh Government is aiming to allow 80 per cent of the network to operate? Will it be sufficient in the first quarter, particularly if restrictions continue? I think that's John, is it?

Yes, if you don't mind, it's just simply to say that it isn't—. Obviously, none of us know, as Scott said, exactly where we'll be in a few months' time. We hope that things will improve. But it's not just about the operators working, turning their networks back to as near to normal as they can be; it's also about instilling awareness among the public, and hopefully some that don't currently use the network will make use of that network. I guess what I'm saying is that we'll be looking for assistance from all agencies, actually, to promote the use of the public transport network and to make people aware of the way it gels together and hopefully can provide those movements. So, marketing and promotion of the network, in addition to what the operators do, is something that we're very keen to see, for example, from TfW et cetera, to follow through. How much that would be in terms of a financial package will depend very much on the levels of return that we see to the network as the pandemic begins to scale down.

One of my concerns is that when we went into the first lockdown in the pandemic I think we lost a little bit of customer confidence, because we were only able to carry such a small number of people. Individuals who may have gone out to catch a bus weren't always guaranteed that they could get a return bus back. So, it is vital now that we build that customer confidence. And, of course, along the way, because we've had to reduce networks at short notice, the communication with our customers has been quite challenging. Even with the use of the technology that lots of us have, we still have customers who still rely on knowing that at the bus stop is a timetable that they can rely upon. So, there is a big piece of work that I'm very conscious of in building customer confidence when we come out the other side. And as John said, it's also modal shift. If we are in a remote working scenario, it does give us the real benefit of improving bus modal shift if there's less congestion and buses have as much priority—or even greater, actually, priority—as a car user. That is something that we should be aiming to focus on as we come out the other side.

Jane, with that in mind, are you aware of the on-demand pilots that the Welsh Government are running in certain areas of Wales, and the impact of those?

Yes, and Scott, probably, can give you a better example, because he operates one. That has to be the focus moving forward—delivering the inequalities agenda that the Welsh Government wants to in its transport strategy. So, it is vital that the customer offering is what the customer demand is. As operators, we try and assess customer demand and try and ensure we have volume of vehicles and services where there customers need them, and that dynamic is changing all the time. This pandemic would have even changed our foreseeability of transport requirements in the next three to five years.

Scott, I'm trying to get Transport for Wales to run a pilot in my constituency. The on-demand services—how are they going?

It's going well, actually, but what it's driving is a data collection of what the customer needs. We're going to see changing patterns as we go forward, so what we're trying to do in Newport is provide the Fflecsi service alongside the normal scheduled bus services, just to see what kind of take-up there will be. We are looking at expanding that across Newport at present, just to give that data collection a bit of time to understand, as we come out of the pandemic, hopefully, what that travel pattern looks like and what the demand looks like, and will these kinds of services work in another urban environment. Clearly, in a rural environment, yes, absolutely—they've been tried and tested numerous times. I run, outside Newport, some of our demand-responsive transport services, and they work very well. But the Fflecsi one is more about making sure that we get as much offering to the customer as we can, to assist them to make that choice of public transport post pandemic, and again building on that confidence level.

10:20

I think perhaps, Chair, we could explore this in more detail at another session, but I'm really interested in that.

Can I just make one final point on that? Oh, sorry.

The other point on that is, of course, ensuring that we engage with the customer as the stakeholder of that service, and selling it on the basis of what they want, and it integrates with other solutions, as Scott said. There are good examples where we have a demand-responsive transport service that links into a far-reaching bus network, and the transport hub scenario will be vital in delivering that agenda, so you can integrate all your transport solutions, so the customer gets exactly what they need.

Thank you, Chair, and good morning, everybody. We'd like to understand a bit more about the second phase of the bus emergency scheme, and the agreement that you have with Welsh Government. So, can you start by telling us a bit more about what obligations the latest bus emergency scheme 2 agreement places on operators in terms of routes, services, monitoring? I don't know who'd like to start on that. Jane, do you want to make a start?

I will, yes. So, the aim moving forward—and we're very close to closing this out and getting an agreement that suits all the parties. We've spent a lot of time talking with Welsh Government from an operator point of view—and the local authorities have—to ensure that it delivers the priority moving forward. For most operators, that priority is building back a commercial network, and not having a reliance on public funding, but delivering what is required by Welsh Government, Transport for Wales and the local authorities. So, that's what the BES agreement does: it sets out clearly that any part of the network has been agreed as being necessary by all the parties involved. I think we've made great strides in doing that, so everyone is on the same page.

We now need to start the actual work, because we've been working on the agreement itself. So, now our priority is agreeing the reference network, what the bus network is going to look like, because we have had an opportunity through the pandemic to really challenge ourselves on our network, and ensuring that the bus network is delivering for the customers that it needs to. So, it is important now we move into that next stage, which is designing the reference network, and ensuring we deliver.

Of course, our commitment is also about investment. We've done a lot of work in the past few years investing in newer vehicles and investing in the right vehicles; we need to now consider things like the clean air agenda—and Scott will tell you a bit more about that because he's got some lovely, new, clean air vehicles on his patch. And that has to be now our priority: to deliver the strategy—the transport strategy—agenda for zero emissions. So, that's where we need to now focus our energy, as we've done the ground work of what partnerships would look like.

Effectively, what BES 2 does is formalise the partnership working we've done in the past 10 or 12 months with Government. I think that it clearly is a stage whereby we have to, as a commercial industry, understand this is public money that we're spending. So, the scrutiny through the BES contract is clearly there to make sure that we are doing that properly and we are doing that for the customers. But it also gives a transitional benefit that, when we do get customer confidence back and we do go back to being commercial again, that that document explains how that will happen, and how best to remove ourselves from Government funding requirements or, effectively, try to be commercial, but it still gives us a way forward on—[Inaudible.]—

Your connection's really poor, Scott, sorry. We might come—. Do you want to just carry on, and then we'll see—

We'll try again, sorry. Am I back again? 

Apologies there. I think it's about making sure that beyond BES 2, a transitional period back into commerciality again is done properly, and that we still work together beyond that period. We've demonstrated how well we can work just now currently through it, BES 2 formalises that, but beyond BES 2, we're then into a different scenario post pandemic. The environmental issue is still going to be there, and it's still a big, big issue for us all, and the ability to invest into the business currently is challenging at best, because we're not allowed to make profit, clearly, it's public money. So, we need to make sure that beyond BES 2, there's clearly a determination on how we make the environmental issue about zero emission of tailpipe work for us, for instance. That—[Inaudible.]—industry, because certainly, at the moment, we're just working. We are just ticking over just now; beyond BES, how can we invest?

10:25

Sorry, if I could just say that, widening out the discussion about the core networks and what BES is aiming to clarify in terms of what an operator can do, the industry is one that is quite diverse in terms of the types of operator, from the large operators such as those that you see before you today, and also the smaller operators, often a family business and quite often in rural communities. It's actually quite surprising. The assumption is that all of those operations are, as far as the bus network is concerned, linked into tendered and supported operations, but there are good examples where strong core networks exist in some of those areas as well, and where kick-start funding, for example, has helped to develop services that, perhaps, were more poorly and have moved on. Those networks, those businesses, rely very heavily on their local arrangements, the local knowledge, the coal-face knowledge, both between them knowing their own customers and their patterns of movement and the local authorities that they work with as part of the tendering operations. So, it's not just about the commercial networks, it's also about the effect that the agreement will have on the operators across the whole spectrum of bus operations. So, I just wanted to make that point, that it's just as much about the more rural communities as it is about the urban communities, as well.

I'll just pick up on that, if I may. You talk, John, about the smaller operators, and can you tell us a bit about how they'll be impacted by the obligations of the agreements? Are they going to be able to meet those obligations? Does this agreement work for those smaller operators as well as it does for the bigger ones?

Well, the thing is, of course, that if they are aware of their usage and the pattern—some of them have operated these services for significant lengths of time and are very aware of what works and what doesn't. The key, though, is that some of them are less well resourced, and so, picking up and adjusting, for example, to the homeworking and remote working patterns—and I've looked at some of your territories where you've got some local plans and they've been quite interesting—the operators need the ability to respond to that, and they probably need a bit of a helping hand in some cases to follow that through, even, for example, plotting some of the data patterns that other operators are able to do. Some of the smaller operators, perhaps, aren't quite so clearly resourced and need to work fairly closely, and I think local authorities, therefore, are very important in that respect there, and there are now discussions with the Association of Transport Co-ordinating Officers. And the local government association in Wales, for example, have, hopefully, exercised that and we've had a good working relationship there, and I think BES 2 and its follow-ons will, hopefully, take account of that and follow through. 

That's helpful, thank you. Can I just drill down a little bit more into what exactly bus operators who are participating in BES—what's required of you? Is it delivery on particular routes, is it data gathering? It's probably one of those things that you've all been so involved in it all that it's second nature to you, but, for some of us, those very basic things we perhaps need to understand a bit more clearly.

So, there are a set of standards that, as bus operators, we are committed to in terms of things that most operators would do anyway, but, of course, it is now linked to the funding. So, that is the main part of that, and in terms of services, introduction of new services and ensuring the services that we are running aren't competing with other operators, for example, and there is a bank of data that we have agreed that we will supply. I think for the last almost 12 months now, the level of transparency around operators, information—financial information, passenger information—has shown that we've been prepared to share what we can to drive delivering this agreement in a way that delivers for the customer and the agenda of the Welsh Government also. So, I think there are a lot of details; it's a big document, and it's legally binding, so it does show a commitment from all parties to deliver a united bus service for Wales.

10:30

Okay. That's helpful. Scott, did you want to add to that? I can see you agreeing with Jane there.

Yes. Jane's got it spot on. I think we've effectively, over the piece, managed to help Government understand our issues, our problems, better by providing the data behind all that kind of thing, so they can see how to plan forward. The BES document: clearly, it's public money, so yes, you'd understand there is a complete across-industry recognition that we have to then work with Government to provide that data, provide elements to influence our routes and services and fares and timetables, because at the end of the day, it's public money; it has to work across the board for Wales, rural and urban, in order to be scrutinised moving forward. So, yes, I would say that the document is, as Jane says, very lengthy, it's legally binding and we are at the very end now of the drafting of that document, and close to a signing position. So, it gives an idea of, potentially over the years, the division in the industry to Government has come very close over the past 12 months, and I for one am welcoming that, because it's been good for the customer at the end result post COVID.

That's really helpful. Just finally from me, then, Chair—I think I've almost heard the answer to this already: has the Welsh Government, through this process, have they been clear enough with you as an industry about what's expected of you in BES 2? It sounds as if there is that level of detail in the draft agreement that you need. 

Very much so. I think the comms have been weekly, bi-weekly, tri-weekly at some stages. The Government have been very clear in what their expectations are, and it has been that element: 'This is public money, we have to be very careful how we spend it; we do want to support the industry and we do want to see a thriving industry beyond the pandemic.' I'd like to say it wasn't that, but I can't; it's been very, very good.

It's our job as a committee, obviously, to scrutinise the Government on this stuff, and that's why we need your evidence, and I think that's encouraging. If it's clear for you, then you're obviously a lot more likely to deliver the right outcomes for your passengers, aren't you? Thank you.

And we've been very honest, I would say, from both sides of what we need to achieve. It's in our interest to get customers back onto our vehicles—

—and we saw a complete falling, as Scott said, it fell off a cliff, and that was worrying, because the bus network in Wales is probably more required than in many of the other devolved Governments. It is very well used, so it's important that we've tried to get it right for everyone involved.

Thank you. I'm ever so sorry; we're short of time. I've got a few quick questions myself, but I will allow plenty of time for Suzy Davies, who's got the last set of questions. If one of you could perhaps just address my questions just briefly. The Welsh Government has suggested that the BES will use public service obligations to allow public authorities to exert more influence over routes. Have any public service obligations been proposed to date?

Go on, Jane.

I was going to say, the BES agreement in itself is a public service obligation in its own right, but what we have agreed is that we will look at our networks and understand what is remaining from our commercial networks to then ensure that we are delivering the same services as are required by the local authorities and Welsh Government through public service obligations. So, we will assess that when we are defining the bus network.

And how could they be used to help the Welsh Government's proposals for homeworking?

I think there are a number of factors in there, because you need to understand what the network needs to look like in different areas. Using Scott and me as an example, I run as much of a non-urban environment as an urban environment in my areas, and the same with Scott. We have to understand the needs of the customer and ensure that we know where those workers are going to. There is a little bit more work, I think, we need to do to understand the agenda and how it is going to have a direct impact on people moving into work because, actually, there could be a scenario where there's a mutual benefit here if people are working a few days a week in an office, a few days a week at home. That's a different dynamic where bus operators can offer very flexible solutions that may improve the commute for someone, rather than driving a car. For example, if you're only travelling to work for a few days a week and you currently have a car, you may start thinking to yourself, 'Do I need a car for the whole of my week? I may be able to do some bus use in that time, rather than run a car'. So, I think there are a lot of opportunities that we need to scope out when we really know how this is going to happen, moving forward, and what organisations are going to really be able to facilitate homeworking or remote working, and what time frames that will lend itself to. 

10:35

Thank you, Jane. John might want to come in. Before you do—

Just very briefly, Russell, I just would like to say that, as an industry, we're used to this kind of working, anyway—the very fact that, in addition to our commercial networks, we've operated contracted tendered networks. In particular, for example, we've talked about the residents of Wales but, of course, Wales is a massive attraction for visitors as well. So, our networks in things like the national parks, in Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons, et cetera, you've worked very closely with us and the operators over the patterns of movement there to provide networks that may not be commercially viable, as such, but which are incredibly important—environmentally, amongst other things—to move people around as well. So, with that sort of environment, we're happy to work in that environment.

Sorry to interrupt, but I'm just conscious I need to give time—[Inaudible.] One last question I wanted to ask was in terms of redesigning schemes. Is there any comparison in terms of what's taken place in England and Scotland at all that you might want to comment on?

We're probably a little bit ahead of the game than some of the other devolved Governments at the moment in terms of the agreement that we've reached in terms of funding and ongoing partnership. I don't believe those have been formalised in England and Scotland to the same degree as they have so far. 

Thank you very much. Yes, you're all quite right that, obviously, with BES 2, this is taxpayers' money and you should expect conditions to be attached to it, but, as Jane said, the purpose of it is to rebuild a commercial network. Bearing in mind the conversations we've been having about the effect of COVID and there's no guarantee that there will be modal shift in the future, and bearing in mind as well that, with the bus services support grant, we've had some hints dropped that that's likely to be absorbed into the BES system in due course, there's a lot ridding on BES 2 now. If you can't deliver on what's in that agreement, what happens? Are you worried at all that this might be, ultimately, a shift towards crypto-renationalisation via TfW if you fail? 

I don't think any of us have gone into the agreement thinking that we would fail. I don't think we would be close to signing up to the agreement if we were in that situation. There are challenges, and the biggest challenge, actually, is building customer confidence to come back to bus, and I think that's the real burning issue, and social distancing. If we are seeing social distancing moving some way into this year, that is going to still be a challenge for people getting back onto the bus. I think, as an industry, we are confident that the BES agreement can deliver the desire for accountability from bus operators that it hasn't had before. In some ways, my personal view is that the legislation wouldn't really be required if we get this right, and we are all going into it with our eyes wide open, ensuring that we get it right and the agreement is evidence of the commitment from the bus industry to work with its partners to deliver services for the people of Wales.

10:40

I appreciate that you're going into this with the best intentions. I would ask you my question about legislation, but you've all talked about this 500-page legally binding document. That's going to have, if it's been put together in any kind of realistic sense, clauses and penalties for you as signatories to this agreement if things don't work out. That's what I'm trying to get to. If it goes wrong for you, how wrong does it go?

There are penalties, and those penalties have been agreed upfront with bus operators—

There are a number of them. There are a number of them in terms of the funding mechanisms, and, without taking up too much time now, there is a lot of detail in that document that will set out what we would have to pay back in terms of funding if we didn't deliver our services.

Okay, thank you. I'd love to go into that in more detail. We've heard from the Deputy Minister that TfW itself could run bus services, and they're reviewing bus services as well, themselves, at the moment. What level of input have you had into the TfW review?

At this stage, not a great deal. We're providing data en masse to TfW so they can understand the industry, understand the problems, but I think it's about that, if this fails, we all fail, and I think we need to make sure that we don't. There is always going to be that piece of work at the end of this, if we all fail, of what does Government then do. Do they then do a sort of renationalisation? That's for them at that point in time. For us and our partners now, it's to make sure that it doesn't come to that and it does work. I have to say that the partnership working we're seeing clearly now is better than we've ever seen before, which gives us encouragement that it will work, but let's be honest about this: if it fails, it fails. Government are then going to try and step in and do something. We're trying to make sure that, through our partnership working, that's not going to happen. But you're right—there's always something at the end of the rainbow that might not go quite right. If that's the case, then Government will have to step in and do something, because the commercial markets are not there, but that's something that we are not envisaging happening through our better working currently in partnership now.

That's the honesty I was hoping to get out of my question, really, that there's still some peril involved in this. I'll just move on, if that's okay, to the corporate joint committees. Again, how confident are you that TfW and the local authorities themselves, as they currently stand, have the expertise to move this particular agenda forward? I go back to a point that Lord Burns made about the South East Wales Transport Commission, which is that there, at least, to deliver on recommendations they need a single guiding mind. So, my question is, does this proliferation of people involved in this agenda make it less likely to succeed and more difficult to hold people to account?

I think CJCs are definitely the way forward, because we have to work regionally. Working with 22 local authorities is very challenging, to get any kind of transport network, so we would like to see the CJCs working well. Other parts of the UK have had similar. In Scotland they're called regional transport partnerships and work exceptionally well with Transport Scotland. The local authorities, over the years, have lost a lot of good-quality people, and that will be challenging to resource that moving forward. Is TfW in the right place? TfW is clearly in a learning position just now, on our industry, so it would be wrong to say either way if that's been good or bad or indifferent, to be fair. I think the way forward is definitely regional, because we have to take into consideration not just the transport element, but land planning, which is a big issue for the CJCs. Give the CJCs the power, give them the resource, and you will be surprised, I think, as you will find that far more good work will be done through regional working than we see currently through the numerous LAs, always trying their very hardest to do their very best, but on a regional basis it's difficult to do. So, we would support CJCs wholeheartedly, yes.

10:45

I would say that the benefits of having a localised view are things like infrastructure and highways and the ability to influence bus prioritisation at a local level. That's the only additional point I would make to Scott's.

All I was going to say, Suzy, was that, as far as this organisation is concerned, there are lots of examples of partnership working that have been really excellent. Some have exceeded the original aspirations in terms of turning passenger numbers around. In the very early days, some were a bit, shall we say, short of the mark, but we've learned by experience over the years, and there are plenty of good examples, which I'm sure TfW will look at as well and apply to some of the models for the network or the core network here in Wales. So, we're convinced it's the way to go and work.

Okay, well, that's comforting. I suppose my question still is, and I think Scott raised it, is that TfW is still relatively new and coming to terms with the existence of buses while it's still grappling with our rail infrastructure. Are they the best placed body to assume the top of the governance chain role, if you like? Or do you think there's a space here, either within the CJCs or separately, for, let's just say, bus consortia—I can't think of a better word—to actually be the dominant player alongside TfW rather than those responsibilities being absorbed into TfW?

I think TfW are clearly in a learning process just now. Whether they are the best people to lead on this is for Government, not for us. I think, with the regional element, it's definitely a way forward, and, yes, TfW to work alongside that would give you best outcomes. But, at this point in time, they clearly are in a learning position, and even the regionalist type of standards that are there, you've got to look at the resource that are in the LAs just now. There's not a lot of good bus industry or transport knowledge out there, but that's not to say it can't be learned and it can't be taught, and that will take time. Again, TfW are in that sort of learning process just now. Whether or not they are the best people to have the overriding control of it, it's not for us to decide; it's for the Government to decide.

Yes, it is for Government to decide, but it's for you to have an opinion. I don't know if anyone wants to add anything to that.

Look, Suzy, all I'd say is that the operators know their stuff. They understand their operational day-to-day requirements. They're good at what they do. Whatever relationship we have with TfW, or any other agency for that matter, draw on that experience, draw on that expertise, and let's all work together to continue to build on that network. I think that's all I would say from that point of view.

Thank you. We are out of time, but can I thank our witnesses for your evidence this morning? I think it was Jane, or one of you, who agreed—it could have been Scott or John, sorry—to send us some additional information after the meeting as well. So, I would appreciate that. And, of course, by all means, review the transcript of proceedings after the meeting, and if there's anything you want to add, then please do let us know as well. Okay, thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr. That brings this item to an end. At this point, we'll take a five-minute break—if Members could be back in five minutes.

Diolch yn fawr.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:48 ac 11:00.

The meeting adjourned between 10:48 and 11:00.

11:00
3. Craffu Cyffredinol ar Waith y Gweinidogion—Cymorth Busnes COVID-19
3. General Ministerial Scrutiny—COVID-19 Business Support

Croeso, bawb. Welcome back. I move, on our agenda today, to item 3, and this is general scrutiny with Ministers in regards to COVID-19 business support. So, I'd like to welcome back to committee the Minister, Ken Skates, and Deputy Minister, Lee Waters, and if I could ask the officials to introduce themselves just for the public record, starting with Emma.

Bore da—good morning. I'm Emma Watkins, and I'm deputy director for economic policy at the Welsh Government.

Bore da—good morning. Duncan Hamer, chief operating officer business and regions at the Welsh Government.

Bore da—good morning. Sioned Evans, director of business and regions.

Lovely. Thanks ever so much. So, I'll let the Ministers decide between them who might want to address the specific questions. The first question from me, really, is: do you think that Welsh businesses are aware of all the schemes that are available in terms of funding support from both the Welsh and UK Governments—or how aware are they? Minister, Ken Skates.

Thanks, Chair, and thanks to all committee members for helping over many, many months to respond to the crisis by giving us feedback and advice. It's been really, really valuable, so I'm very grateful to everybody. And likewise, I'm grateful to the real team effort that's been put in place, involving not just Welsh Government officials, but social partners, local authorities, Business Wales—incredible work by them—and others. And I'm really grateful for the way that they've been able to reach out to businesses to share information. There's obviously more that can be done—constantly we're monitoring and evaluating the support that we're offering to businesses to check whether it's reaching enterprises, to check whether business leaders are aware of the support.

We've got the social partnership model in Wales, which has really helped in terms of getting feedback and ensuring that messages are carried through to businesses. The likes of the Federation of Small Businesses, the Confederation of British Industry, the Business Wales network, the chambers of commerce, the Institute of Directors—they've been hugely helpful. And we're actively monitoring and assessing, through our Business Wales interactions, the degree to which businesses are aware of support offered by Welsh Government, and, of course, on the Business Wales platform as well, there's comprehensive information about UK Government support too. We've had I think it's in the region of 8 million web hits to the Business Wales site during the pandemic, which is pretty considerable. It shows the number of businesses that are aware of the service and that are accessing the service to find out what support is available. And there have been around about 45,000 direct inquiries. So, there's been quite a considerable degree of assessment and monitoring. Also it's worth saying that we're not alone in this either. The Development Bank of Wales, through their economic intelligence Wales unit, have reviewed the first two phases of the economic resilience fund, assessing the reach and the awareness of the support.

And we also have a really close working relationship, obviously, with local authorities. So, they are often really important in terms of being able to reach businesses that haven't perhaps engaged with the likes of Business Wales or our teams within Welsh Government. And I think where we've recognised that information has not been getting through to certain businesses, we've taken action. So, the taxi sector is a prime example of this. We responded to feedback from the unions who said that actually a lot of taxi drivers—specifically, actually, in Cardiff and Newport—were simply not aware of the support that was out there. And so we worked with them, with local authorities, to get more information out to taxi drivers, and indeed we've set up a dedicated page on the Business Wales website as well for taxi drivers. We could always do with better communication between UK Treasury and Welsh Government in terms of the announcements that are being made—greater transparency would be very helpful indeed. But I think, by and large, during the course of the pandemic, the Business Wales site, the Welsh Government site and the UK Government sites have been pretty clear and comprehensive at the same time about the support that's available from both Governments. 

So, you say that both UK Government and Welsh Government are clear on their websites about the information available. I think you said previously that Business Wales is like the one-stop shop where people can go. Is that appropriate? People, Welsh businesses, go to the Business Wales website. Do they, then—? They're then signposted, I'd imagine, from that—

11:05

—to the UK. Does that work well, or is there any confusion in that at all?

We've had no complaints about it. As far as we can ascertain, it works very well, that relevant signposting to UK Government information on gov.uk. Indeed, we've actually got a dedicated team of content officers within Business Wales that are able to constantly, whenever there's an announcement by UK Government, upload information, and the signposting exercise is renewed and refreshed. So, it's a—

Do you often upload information? I'm just thinking, if there's a signpost, if a UK Government scheme is launched, then is there a need for an update to the website? I'm pleased that you are if you are, but, surely, if you're signposting, then it's not required.

So, it's to capture—say a business visits the Business Wales website without any awareness of what UK Government or Welsh Government are offering, then what we're able to do is signpost, with some, if you like, headline detail of what UK Government's offer is. So, just to provide that, if you like, initial introduction to what can be gained from the UK Government and then the signpost with the direct link.

That's okay. That's good. I'm pleased to hear that answer. You mentioned, Minister, that you're working well with local authorities, and there's a role for local authorities in promoting the business support that's available. Are all local authorities working to the same level that you'd expect in terms of making sure that their local authority areas are aware of all the business support schemes, or are there some weaker areas and stronger areas across Wales?

I'll bring in officials on this, because they may have the latest data showing the proportion of businesses from each of the 22 areas, local authority areas, that are accessing and securing support. But, certainly, from what I can tell during the course of conversations that I have with the Welsh Local Government Association and economic development leads, the effort right across all 22 has been heroic. They really have performed amazingly well, and we've collaborated really well as well. We're all stretched, and collaboration is really important in order to make best use of human resource. The fact that local authorities have been able to distribute I think it's now 178,000 grants, worth £1 billion, demonstrates that, in spite of stretched capacity, they are doing a remarkable job. But I'll bring in, perhaps, Duncan just to talk about the collaboration and interface with local authority economic development teams.

Can I just ask, as well—perhaps if you can pick it up, Duncan, but I noticed on my own local authority website the other day, when I went to check for some business support for a constituent, the website said—from my local authority area—'Well, we're still waiting for information from the Welsh Government, so this might be a bit outdated,' or 'We're waiting for information'; something to that effect. Is that implying that they're still waiting for Welsh Government, for guidance, or is there another reason that that message might appear?

Would you like me to come in on that point?

I can. So, I'll come back to the Powys point, specifically, but, in terms of the 22, just to echo the Minister's comments, they are operating at pace across the board. There are some variations in roll-out—so, for example, if you're in an authority of Gwynedd, bigger rural areas, also some of the details around, for example, self-catering, where there are more specific rules for the main purpose of the business. So, you do see some variation.

I think that specific issue in Powys—we were made aware of it quickly, and addressed it quite quickly to reconfirm the position. So, as we stand here today, all the information, both for the December-January and February-March provision is with them in time. So, we're doing a few small tweaks around the details for this latest round, but, in effect, I think what you're seeing there sometimes is these things are moving at such a pace, it's very easy for one of 22 just to miss a little nugget of detail. So, our aim is to keep reiterating that, and keep going back.

We've also got two primary links into the local authorities, so we've got the finance side and the 151 accounting officers that we have to meet with the money finance, and then we've got the economic development side as well. So, it's really to the 44 times engagement with the local authority we have to do really effectively.

I accept your point, Chair, and those are the things that we want to pick up as quickly as we can, generally speaking. I know in that instance Huw Bryar and my team spoke straight away to the chief exec, Caroline, at the authority, and we resolved it within an hour. So, they're generally a resolvable position.

I just checked within that one hour, unfortunately, then. That was—[Laughter.]

It's interesting—I think the really good bit is that anything we pick up we'll address. This is a fast-moving piece, so we can resolve it quite quickly if it's known.

Okay, lovely. Were there any other areas that the Minister asked you to come in on, Duncan, or have you addressed them all? I think you have. 

11:10

I think it was just about the flow through the 22. 

That's lovely. And just finally, Minister, from me on this section, does Business Wales—does the Business Wales team have enough support in terms of advisers on the phones, clearly a huge capacity issue for them, or does it need more capacity again?

I've really got to hand it to Business Wales and to everyone who has supported Business Wales from different departments and through the contracted services, and I've got to give it to officials as well within Welsh Government—they have worked absolutely tirelessly during the course of the pandemic, done amazingly well. It's been a great team effort. But, in terms of the staffing capacity in Business Wales, we regularly review that, and staff can be allocated from elsewhere within the Welsh Government. An example of this is how Cadw staff moved from that department to support the helpline function. We're also able to move officials from other departments who have been supporting with the assessment of the economic resilience fund via what we call the pod assessment regime. And then, over and above this, we've been able to gain additional capacity through the Business Wales contracted services to deal with the increase in workload. But you're right, Chair, they are stretched. They have performed amazingly well; I've got to give credit to them. And, in addition to the process of administering grants and dealing with telephone inquiries, between me and Lee, we have received more than 8,000 pieces of correspondence during the pandemic specifically regarding business support, and so our Government business team, in liaison with Business Wales, have been able to respond to every single one of these pieces of correspondence uniquely. So, it's been a mammoth undertaking, but we've got through it so far. 

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, Minister. I'd like to discuss the latest round of the ERF, the top-up to the business restrictions fund. Firstly, Minister, can you set out the process for deciding on the type of support and the scale of funding to be offered in this latest round of the ERF? And I would be interested to know how it was designed and who was consulted in the process of developing it. 

Okay, thanks, Vikki. So, to that last point first, in terms of consultation, we've worked with employer organisations, trade unions, we've worked through social partnership with hugely important contributors in terms of the development of our schemes, and the process of deciding on the type of support that we can offer considers a number of factors: first and foremost, what we have that is tried and tested, in order to get money to businesses as quickly as possible. Then, secondly, we obviously learn lessons all the way through the process, so we apply any lessons that need to be learned. We also have to consider, as you can imagine, value for money. And then also baseline analysis of the support in other countries—so, we're constantly looking elsewhere. And, of course, as I said at the outset of this session, we're always getting feedback from Members across the Senedd, and that's been really important as well. 

The support that we offer is designed to meet operating costs beyond staff, beyond human resource. Obviously, the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme have been hugely important, and our role has been to make sure that we can add value to those schemes and offer the most generous package of support possible in the UK. And in terms of the support we offer, well, obviously the financial support is aligned directly to the alert level that the country is in at any given time. So, it's focused on the businesses that are most adversely affected given the alert level that we are currently engaged in. So, right now, it's obviously non-essential retail and hospitality, leisure and tourism sectors that are prioritised for support. 

I don't know whether there's anything further that Duncan, Sioned and Emma would like to add in terms of how it's designed and the process of consultation, but it is pretty comprehensive, the way that we go about designing the support schemes.

I'm happy to make a comment on scale, Minister, and Members. I think that it quite challenging for us in the sense that, if you think about the latest restrictions, compared to March where we were doing support to every business sector, we're now in the non-essential retail, hospitality and leisure, as the Minister said, directly related to the alert levels. And some of our tools, depending on the tools—. The non-domestic rate grant support is quite challenging, because it's difficult to define. So, we've gone with a view of making enough cover to ensure 100 per cent of the potential, which we can then reutilise, if needed, down the line. The discretionary elements—again, you're trying to make some based assessment, and we have to base it on the average business. So, we always build some risk in, scale it appropriately, but, again, it is demand led, so there are quite a few moving pieces to manage in that space, in addition to all the other areas the Minister mentions.

11:15

Thank you. My second question builds on that, really. During budget scrutiny, Sioned Evans told committee that you

'collect an awful lot of data across the whole Business Wales platform'

that enables you to know who's been accessing the ERF funds. How, Minister, was this factored into the design of the latest round of support? 

Can I bring in Sioned on this, if that's okay? Thank you.

So, what I was referring to, really, is the business accounts system that we have, to which the ERF is closely linked, and that's enabled us both to monitor the cumulative position of how we're progressing with the grants and how the applications are flowing, but it's also enabled us to grab some data around the equality position, so in that way, we're able to identify perhaps how many female business owners have applied for the grant, so that we can help you to develop that, to target more towards the areas that we need to, moving forward.

So, through each round of the ERF, we are building that evidence, so we're building that data based on previous rounds in order to make sure that the process itself for businesses that are applying is that much smoother as we learn how the businesses are responding to us. That data is then used to help inform us where some of the gaps are, and throughout this process over the last year, we have been able to identify them both through the consultation we've had with all the various groups and through the data we've collected on the BAS, which has helped us to tweak and continually shape the next round of support in order to ensure that the support that we're able to give as a Welsh Government does plug as many of the gaps as possible from the UK Government support.

Thank you. And Minister, how many businesses could in theory be eligible for support from the new round of the business restrictions fund and how many businesses do you expect to be able to support with the additional £200 million announced last week?

Thank you, Vikki. The £200 million in additional funding gives us maximum cover for all businesses that could be affected, so a maximum cohort of 67,000 businesses will be covered. We expect the actual claimant number, though, to be lower. Not every single business that's eligible will apply, in all likelihood, and so, whilst we've got the budget cover for every business, in all likelihood, there'll be a surplus, and that will then be used for the next steps.

Thank you. And my final question: lots of businesses have been able to use click and collect and to benefit from that, but for some sectors, that's a lot more difficult or perhaps impossible. So, in designing the funding, what consideration was given to providing additional support to, for example, close contact services such as the hair and beauty sector, which would find it really difficult to benefit from click and collect and internet sales, compared to other businesses?

Our aim throughout the pandemic has been to support as many businesses to operate as possible, so click and collect has been really important in that regard, but equally, there are a number of businesses like hair and beauty businesses that simply cannot offer services through a click and collect provision. But that shouldn't stop us from allowing businesses that can to go on doing it, because we want as many businesses as possible to survive. But it's worth saying that as part of the £650 million funding that's been made available to cover the December to March period, close contact services with a rateable value beneath £12,000 are going to be able to access support worth £6,000, which is a more generous offer than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and that's through the business restrictions fund, and if their rateable value is over £12,000, then they can secure £10,000, which is again a generous offer. And then, those that don't have a rateable value are obviously able to access their local authority discretionary fund.

Thank you, Chair. Good morning, everybody. Bore da, bawb. I want to ask some questions about looking forward and what happens when the current rounds of support are over. So, the top-up to the restrictions business fund is intended to cover the period up to the end of March, as I understand it. Minister, are you able to set out what support might be available to businesses after that should the current lockdown restrictions have to continue, or should those restrictions have to continue for some sorts of businesses? I suppose one can envisage a situation where, perhaps, non-essential retail might be able to open but hospitality still can't, or will still be very restricted.

11:20

Shall I take this one?

Okay, thanks. So, clearly, our support is in place until the end of the financial year because that's all we have the visibility of to be able to guarantee. The UK Government are not giving us visibility of what might come after the end of this financial year. I have heard the Secretary of State for Wales say in interviews that once they have a fuller picture of what the economy looks like in the new financial year, they'll be able to alter the budget cover that is available. Now, clearly, that is a sub-optimal position from our point of view to allow us to plan. Also, obviously, there's the uncertainty of the Senedd elections.

So, we are working on a series of assumptions and we are planning for a range of scenarios, but I think as a general principle we'll want to continue the level of support on the tiers that we had when the tiers previously existed. I think the fundamental issue here is that the UK Government seems to think that with vaccination, they think the economy will rapidly return to a normal state and they can then pull back their support. That's where we fundamentally disagree with them. We think there's a level of financial support and stimulus that's going to be required going on into the future for some considerable period of time. And it's significant that the Trades Union Congress and the British Chambers of Commerce are continuing to press the Chancellor to extend furlough beyond the end of April, not to prematurely pull back support.

We keep hearing these signals of financial distress coming out of the Treasury, and they're not really meeting, I don't think, the scale of the challenge of the times. There's no doubt that significant investment has been put in by the UK Government to date, but that is not something that can be switched off just because the vaccine is with us. It is clear, I think, to all that the restrictions are going to have to be eased slowly, and business confidence and economic activity will emerge in stages, I would imagine, and therefore the support available needs to match that.

So, all along, we have gone above and beyond what has been provided in other parts of the UK. We would want to continue to do that if we had the resources available but, as of today, we don't know whether we will or not. 

No, I think that's understandable, but I think that gives some reassurance that at least you are anticipating that support will need to continue and that, insofar as it's within your capacity, businesses are not going to be dropped off a cliff at the end of March. So, I think that will help the sectors to understand.

Minister, you said in one of your answers to Vikki Howells that you will plan the levels of business support related to the levels of restriction. Is it possible or would you consider making that more explicit so that it's clearer for businesses to see, if we are at level 3, these are the businesses that you would be planning to give some support to, taking on board what the Deputy Minister has said that you can't be specific about what that would look like financially? But is there a case for making that a bit clearer and a bit more specific, so that we—? You know, the levels do set out what you would expect to be able to open when. So, would it be possible to map the business support more clearly to that, do you think, or is that information there and it just needs to be communicated more effectively? 

Might I continue on these questions, if that's okay?

So, I think the difficulty is that, clearly, we would like to be able to do that, but when we don't have financial security ourselves, I'm not sure how we can responsibly say that in six months' time we will offer x per cent for level y. Clearly, that is our policy intent, but with the budget settlement we currently have, we'll not be able to say with any certainty we can do that. 

I accept that, in terms of you can't put figures on things, but would it be possible to look and make it clear and say, 'It would be our policy intention, if hospitality businesses are still—'? You know, I can't even remember—I haven't got the levels in front of me, so I can't see what would open where. But let's say gyms can open in level 2 or 3, 'Well, we won't support them when they can open.' Maybe it's not necessary, but I think it might—. I'll leave that with you to consider whether there is anything more that you could do in terms of communicating at least that intention, whereas you obviously can't put a figure on it. We'd all accept that, as a committee.

I'll move on then, Chair, to my last question. The First Minister said in his press conference on Friday, on 29 January, that the Government is giving active consideration to providing further support for freelancers affected by the lockdown. Are you, the Minister and Deputy Minister, able to elaborate any more on this, and if there is to be a further measure of support, when might freelancers expect to hear about that?

11:25

Very briefly, I think we'd just repeat what the First Minister said. We fully recognise that the need for support continues. We have put support in place to date. We recognise further support is required. We are working on the detail of that now, and we hope to make an announcement in the next week or so.

Thank you. On that line of questioning, Minister, in response—. I mean, Helen Mary asked you about future schemes being designed, and effectively your answer was, 'Look, we don't know how much money we've got coming, so it's difficult to do.' Helen Mary suggested, 'Well, look, at least you can put some figures on some of these support schemes and get them design ready', so they're in the bag ready to go, if you like. I'm just thinking about the evidence that was given the other week to committee, from you and officials, that—. I'm paraphrasing a bit and I hope I'm not misquoting, but effectively saying, when asked about that £1 billion that's yet unspent and the call on your finance Minister to try and pull back some of that funding for your department to provide business support as quick as possible, the answer was effectively, 'Look, we've got a challenge in designing these schemes quick enough in order to get that money spent.' So, I'm just trying to rectify those two thoughts and ask you whether there is more you can do in getting schemes design ready, even if you don't know what you've got in terms of funding in the next financial year, to a point.

Well, I think there are certainly two separate things. The underspend, obviously, by definition, has to be spent this financial year. We've already announced the support packages that are in place for this financial year, so that doesn't really help us with the next financial year. It's the flexibility we're asking the Treasury to give us that would allow us to roll that money forward that so far has not been forthcoming, which is deeply unhelpful.

On the point about—. Just to extend the conversation I was having with Helen Mary Jones, I think I would say, over the last 12 months, I think we have shown and we have demonstrated that we have stepped up to the plate in providing a level of business support to all sectors that has not been provided in any other part of the UK, and we are proud of that. Certainly, that would be our intention, to continue to respond in a similar way, were we able to have the resources to do so. That would absolutely be our policy intent. In terms of designing schemes, we obviously have those schemes in place from previous tiers. Those schemes are on the stocks, they are tried and tested, the delivery mechanisms are there. So, I think we have a model that we can point to that we would like to go back to, assuming we have the resources to do so.

Okay. I'm just thinking, in regards to that then, there was an element, in the last committee meeting, just a few weeks back, of putting a cap, if you like, on what you're asking the finance Minister for in order that you can get that money out to businesses quick enough. I think that's what was behind my question and the point I'm making in that regard.

Well, perhaps I'd ask one of the officials if they can answer further. Duncan, is that—.

Yes, sure. We are acutely aware of the position you're stating there, Chair, in the sense of it's firstly about maximising the opportunity we have in year, and we are in active development of a number of options, including some extension around what we're currently doing, to make sure we can basically use the envelope as best we can. I think the challenge is, then, as the Ministers have said—. We do have a tried and tested mechanism now, which we can align to timeline and frame. The issue is, once we pass 1 April, that's where we then get into next year's budget position. But I think I should reassure the committee, we have some pretty big developments in place to try and utilise any budget in the 2021 window, using whatever we can, Chair.

Much is made and often said about the fact that Wales offers the best business support of the UK. The problem I'm finding is that for those businesses that fall between the gaps, the ones that are on the cusp of being eligible for the larger grants, but not quite, it doesn't feel that way. I want to say thank you, as well, to the Minister and his officials for meeting with a group of businesses in Caerphilly to talk this through. Some businesses qualify for the big support and some don't and the margin is a very fine line. So, can I ask, to put that into context, what analysis has the department done with regard to the scale of business support available in Wales, compared to England and the other devolved administrations? 

11:30

Thanks, Hefin and thanks for your kind comments, as well. I really value the opportunity to speak with Members and your contribution and the businesses that you introduced us to have been really helpful in shaping the further round of funding.

We've conducted, as best we can, a piece of work looking at comparisons between the Welsh offer and the offer elsewhere in the United Kingdom. I can provide a table, if that helps, demonstrating the degree of support that's offered. But in brief, if we look at each of the nations and the support that's offered, if you've got a business with a rateable value of £12,000 or less in England at the moment—and I'll bring in Duncan because he may be able to correct me if I'm mistaken on this—the maximum in England would be about £4,000 that you'd gain. In Scotland, the maximum if you were a hospitality business would be £12,000, and in Northern Ireland, I think the figure is around £9,500. In Wales, the maximum claim would be £12,000, so we're up there with Scotland offering the most generous support to businesses with a rateable vale of £12,000 or less. Then, if we look at those with rateable values of between £12,000 and £50,000, the maximum in England would be £6,000, the maximum in Northern Ireland would be about £14,500 and in Scotland, for a hospitality business, it would be £12,000. In Wales, the maximum grant would be £25,000, so considerably more than any of the other—

Can I just stop you at that point there? Are the other devolved nations and the English Government using the same definition for what is hospitality, for example? I've come to you with these high-street businesses that are close-contact beauty, but are not offering the kinds of things that you would classify as hospitality. The anecdotal evidence I'm getting is that they feel that if they were in England, they would be getting greater grants. So, are you confident that the definitions you're using are the same as in the other devolved nations?

I think there may be some really small exceptions here, and I'm thinking in particular of gambling arcades, but generally, I believe that we are applying the same criteria and the same definitions. Is that right, Duncan? Do you want to—?

The England comparison is probably the easiest, because in effect, England are only operating the non-domestic rates-based grants, and in all cases, in all sectors, the offer in Wales is marginally more generous—it is. In fact, our offer also takes in slightly lower thresholds on the rateable value before it increases. There is more complexity, for example, in Northern Ireland, which has the core scheme and then lots of mini sub-sectoral schemes. Scotland, in recent days, have also done a wedding sector scheme, as an example. But that's where our economic resilience fund that picks up the whole of the hospitality sector comes in. So, it is a complex market out there. I know, with the group you referenced, we've tried to explain that through, and clarity of communication is really important here, but I don't think in the round the definitions of sectors are different; it's just making sure that each and every business understands where they can go and how they can get the offer.

Can I just pick up on what the Minister mentioned, Duncan, the gambling sector? You kind of think of these as exploitative dens of iniquity, but of course, a lot of cafes in the Valleys have next to them an amusement arcade that includes what might be classified as gambling, but it's part of their business. There are ones in my constituency in Bargoed, in Ystrad Mynach and in Caerphilly. They're kind of left out of this. Do you think you've been a bit strict there and that they might be included?

Sorry—is that to me or the Minister?

I suppose it's a ministerial decision, but I wonder if there are any civil service reflections. If not, that's fine for the Minister, but I wonder if there are any civil service reflections on it.

You're right, Hefin, it's a policy decision. Unfortunately, in those cases that you've outlined, it depends on what they class their business as, because we are able to provide support for those businesses where they have machines that would be considered for entertainment use. Without knowing the specifics of those cases that you identify, it's difficult to comment, but it does appear that, unfortunately, because of the way that they've defined themselves, they have, potentially, slipped through the gap.

11:35

I do feel that way, and I think it's a cultural issue in the south Wales Valleys, perhaps. I don't know. But I'd perhaps like to have a further conversation with you about that.

Let's look to the future. The Wales TUC have said that more than one in four workers in Wales fear they're going to lose their jobs in the next six months. Do you have predictions or working assumptions in that area in your department?

There are quite a few people in this session today who probably share that same fear. I think it's worth saying that prospects are highly uncertain, because we don't know the degrees to which those crucial UK Government schemes are going to be maintained. For example, the job-retention scheme, which is due to expire at the end of April—if that is maintained, then that will have a major impact in terms of ensuring that businesses can survive and people can stay in employment. The labour market is a clear concern. There's doubt about that. We are looking at the figures at the moment, and early estimates for December indicate that the number of paid employees in Wales was around 1.23 million. That was a decrease of around about 30,000, which represents about 2.4 per cent on February's figures. So, a drop of 2.4 per cent is alarming. The expectations were by now though that it would be even worse, and it's as a result of the combined efforts of the Welsh Government and the UK Government, through our various schemes, that we haven't seen the sharpest rise in unemployment that was predicted. The unemployment rate at the moment in Wales has, though, experienced the largest increase since mid 2011, so it's a really serious challenge. But everything depends on the continuation of those crucial support schemes—JRS, furlough and the self-employment support scheme.

The landscape, post pandemic, is going to be radically different to that which was there before. What are the implications for the support you're going to need to provide? This may go beyond what the Welsh Government is capable of doing in the future.

Indeed. This is why we've urged the Chancellor to maintain furlough. That's going to be required in all likelihood for quite some time to come. Other European countries are indicating that they're going to be maintaining it. Indeed, some European countries have had an equivalent scheme in place since the financial crisis, and they're just utilising what is now a normal form of businesses support. So, maintaining the job retention scheme is going to be hugely important.

Then, beyond that, we're intending, later this month, to publish our economic recovery and reconstruction mission, which will look at how we can—. It has to be said, we've developed this with social partners and utilising the council for economic development. So, we're going to be publishing that, and that's all about driving a well-being economy that is more equal and, as many governments have said, that enables the country to build back better, but that is genuinely focused on a more equal economy, a greener economy, and an economy that ensures that people are skilled for a very, very rapidly changing world.

Minister, can I just ask—? On your response to Hefin David, I've had a number of businesses myself contact me—high-street businesses, small businesses—that are also making the same claims as those businesses have to Hefin David, saying, 'Hang on, if we were in England, we'd get support.' They get frustrated when they hear, 'In Wales, we're getting the best business support package anywhere in the UK.' So, I just want to drill down on that, because if these businesses have got it wrong, then I need to tell them this. When it comes to the non-domestic rates system, a business, whether it's in England or Wales—if has a rateable value of under £12,000, they'd get about the same. It's not a like-for-like comparison, but on a weekly basis, they'd probably get around about the same kind of payment. But in England, there is the closed business lockdown payment that they would receive on top of non-domestic rate payment. In Wales, they wouldn't get that. Therefore, they're saying they're worse off because they're in Wales. Is that incorrect or correct?

I'll bring in Duncan on this, because I think that actually rolls everything into one in England. But I'll bring in Duncan.

11:40

I think there is some complexity, as you pointed to, in the comparison. It's all about qualification. So, they don't accumulate. The working assumption is that, in effect, you get the non-domestic rates offer, which is on the 42-day recurring process, and that's where it is an increase. Obviously, what we don't include on that is the sectors that get the additional support of the ERF sector fund as well, which tops that up quite significantly. You're right as a committee to point out that where we need to be really careful is on some of those—. For example, I think somebody mentioned earlier the hairdresser example, just to check that the grant we're putting out there actually covers, on average, the costs of a business through the period. So, I think, on balance, the Welsh offer—and England is the direct comparison—remains higher, but we do need to continually evolve and assess. Indeed, this week alone, we're doing another value-for-money assessment on where we're at, and just checking on all those stats across the different regions, Chair. I mentioned the 42 days in England; that's literally just come out in the last few days. So, we've reassessed on that basis alone, just to check in. I think you're right to point out that, in the smaller business, it works out about £5 a day, in the end, more in the Wales offer than the England, but obviously over a prolonged period, that builds up. But, again, it's a kind of active check piece, Chair.

I think that your analysis is right, Duncan, as I've worked it out: from a non-domestic rates point of view, businesses in Wales or England would get about the same, if you worked it out on a weekly basis. The issue, I think, as I can see this, is that most businesses in Wales are smaller businesses. We're talking about those businesses on the high street—the cafe, the restaurant, the hairdresser, the retail shop. In England, they are able to get the closed businesses lockdown payment, between £4,000 and 9,000; in Wales, they can't get that, but they can get the sector specific funds. So, I get that, but the problem is that most of those small businesses are not eligible for that because they're not VAT registered or because they're not on the PAYE system or they're not paying VAT. They're not eligible for those sector specific funds, so a lot of small businesses are at a significant disadvantage. How do we overcome that? How can you overcome that?

I think the big bit is that I don't think they get both, and so we need to work that through. I do think you're right to sort of—. What you're highlighting is that this is an ongoing challenge for us to understand. So, we're building schemes, in general, in the round, on the persona business, and we're always trying to unfold and adapt. A good example is our discretionary fund, which we introduced to recognise one of the groups that weren't on the NDR database, for example, to make sure you could pick up. So, a hairdresser, for example, who didn't have a property, wouldn't have got anything under the round until Ministers introduced the 'I'm not on the property' base. So, we introduced the £2,000 grant. I think what you're highlighting is the need—. We've got to continue and analyse and work through what people are getting and what they aren't. I still come back that, in the round, the offer is a more generous one, but we just need to keep checking that through all the time.

Can I just check, then, is it your understanding that, in England, if you're receiving the non-domestic rate funding, you cannot also then receive the business lockdown payment? 

It is, but I stand to be corrected if there's a detail that's been picked up.

Okay. I'd understood that you could get both, and that's the issue here.

My understanding is that that's almost the historic package, and then when the full lockdown comes in, it almost gets replaced. Where the difficulty is is that our timings aren't the same. If you look at the detail of the England offer, for example, their lower level £4,000 grant goes all the way up to £15,000, whereas ours changes at £12,000, and most of our micros sit in that—they get the benefit. We've got an awful lot between £12,000 and £15,000, so there's an awful lot of benefit. You almost need to look at each and every case. You end up coming back to the persona typical business in this sector. It is a challenge for us on an ongoing basis.

I appreciate it's difficult to do a like-for-like comparison; I think we can appreciate that. There are two issues, though, I think. My ask would be that the economic resilience fund criteria is less restrictive to allow some of those smaller businesses to access the fund—so, comments from the Minister on that. And also, in England, I think the advantage businesses have is they know what's coming up because it's on that—they know, on a weekly basis, what they're going to get, but in Wales they have to wait for an announcement to be made, and I think that perhaps leads to more uncertainty for businesses. So, perhaps the Minister can comment on those two points.

In terms of giving businesses surety over the medium term, obviously we've been able to make provision for the end of the financial year, but we can't go beyond that, for reasons that Lee has already outlined.

In terms of flexibility within the economic resilience fund, we're constantly monitoring the effectiveness of the fund to make sure that we're providing value for money, but, crucially, that we're actually making sure that we provide what businesses need to get through this pandemic. Going back to the question that was raised with me about would we set a cap on the amount of support that is needed, our view has always been across Government that we'll make provision for businesses to the degree that is required, and, in the same essence, we'll make any changes and apply flexibility to support that ensures that businesses survive. That's why we've been really keen, for example, with the discretionary fund that's operated by local authorities, to make sure that they have full discretion over how they are able to support businesses.

11:45

And on the discretionary fund, if a business has got access to the non-domestic rates grant, they can't get the discretionary fund, so that's where the issue comes there. But I think, crucial, though, is lowering the criteria for the economic resilience fund. Some of those criteria are restrictive to smaller businesses being able to access the funding.

May I come in on that point, Minister?

So, I think, again, a fair challenge, and some explanation behind that. In earlier rounds, we lowered the turnover for limited companies for this exact reason. I think it was in direct response to some of the committee briefings previously. One of the challenges we've got is that it is so fast in operating that we always need to be able to prove the businesses are who they say they are. So, in the area you're looking at, of the sole trader, self-employed, perhaps one employee but in a sole-trader-structure business, the issue is I've got no data set to prove who they are and what their actual costs are. So, part of the reason why there's some selection in there is that I have access to the VAT, to the Companies House data, so we can rapidly check, and the whole principle underpinning it is fast payment.

So, there are a couple of reasons. We are selecting where we can identify, but we're also trying to reach the ones in most need, and clearly that will be where we're trying to support higher costs and higher employment as well—so, both the jobs and the business. But, again, we are continually trying to evolve the design and delivery to try and pick up as many as we possibly can, but they are quite challenging when I've got no official data records, and I think we mentioned in previous committees that, with access to HMRC data, this would be a much easier fix, but, under statute, we don't have that access, so it is quite challenging in that particular space for us, Chair.

Could I just jump briefly in on that? I think you are really hitting here, Russell, on something we've been wrestling with all along—that desire to help as many people as possible, especially those businesses in the foundational economy. Hefin's examples were pertinent to this too, with that trade-off between being able to have an audit position that we could justify, to make sure there wasn't any fraud or any public money not being well spent, and a tension there that we're constantly trying to refine.

There are also some policy choices. So, I think, on your earlier point on the comparison with England, first of all, we don't have the upper hand they have, in a sense, in England, as they can make the rules up as they go along because they have got the financial flexibilities to do that, and we haven't. So, they announced these 42 days. We know we haven't had the ability to do that because we haven't had the financial security, but also we've had our regular, reliable rhythm of a three-week review period, and our tiers and our open criteria for moving between them. So, we've taken an overall different approach to managing the pandemic that is transparent and works in a different way. So, that comes into it a little bit as well.

But also, we've taken the policy decision to work very closely with local authorities, and that has been, I think, a huge success. The partnership working across party, across Wales on a very, very regular basis, both at officer level and the political level, really has been an advantage, I think, of devolution and the size and scale we operate at. But we've also decided to make that a real relationship, to give discretion to local authorities when it comes to these smaller businesses, to be able to apply the money available best to their circumstances as they best judge them.

And I think the final policy layer we've had to apply here is we have a finite amount of money. It's more money than other parts of the UK that Governments are putting in. We're diverting it from other areas that we also want to support. So, we have to be very hard headed in the choices we make, and the choices we've decided to make are to try to support the maximum number of jobs possible to save. That has involved some very tough choices—that we haven't been able to help some businesses in the foundational economy we'd want to help, because we have chosen to put the money where it can have the greatest effect for employment levels, and that has created some anomalies, some unfairness and some tough choices that we wouldn't want to be facing but we've had to confront.

I do understand some of the tensions that you've outlined there, absolutely. Helen Mary Jones, I think you wanted to come in on this.

Thank you, Chair. Just very briefly with a specific, and responding a bit to what the Deputy Minister has just said and what Duncan Hamer has said. Thinking about support for the self-employed, you will have seen an announcement from the north of Ireland last week, I think, that they've been able to extend their support to the unemployed people who—. Not unemployed, self-employed—I'm not making any sense this morning. [Laughter.] They've been able to extend that to people who have more recently become self-employed. Now, obviously, they would face some of the same issues that Duncan referred to about needing to spend public money responsibly and needing to be able to be sure that this is a legitimate business. I wonder if I can ask the Ministers if they'll take a look at what has been done in the north of Ireland and see if there’s any way that we could do that. It's probably not that many businesses, and it's probably not therefore that big a budget, but it could make a very big difference and, in terms of building back, some of those newer businesses may have potential for our future economy that we wouldn’t want to lose, especially, perhaps, some of those that have been started more recently by younger people. So, I wonder if you could—I don't want an answer today as to whether you could do it or not, as that wouldn't be fair—undertake to take a look at that scheme and see if there is something there that you could perhaps think about in the next phase, because it would make an enormous difference to those individuals, obviously.