Pwyllgor yr Economi, Masnach a Materion Gwledig
Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee03/03/2022
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Hefin David MS|
|Luke Fletcher MS|
|Paul Davies MS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Samuel Kurtz MS|
|Sarah Murphy MS|
|Vikki Howells MS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Arwyn Watkins||Ffederasiwn Hyfforddiant Cenedlaethol Cymru|
|National Training Federation Wales|
|David Chapman||UKHospitality Cymru|
|Dr Victoria Winckler||Sefydliad Bevan|
|Emily Rees||Y Ganolfan Ewropeaidd ar gyfer Economi Wleidyddol Ryngwladol|
|European Centre for International Political Economy|
|James Scorey||Coleg Caerdydd a’ r Fro|
|Cardiff and Vale College|
|Jeff Protheroe||Ffederasiwn Hyfforddiant Cenedlaethol Cymru|
|National Training Federation Wales|
|Michael Bewick||Fforwm Twristiaeth Gogledd Cymru|
|North Wales Tourism Forum|
|Professor Michael Gasiorek||Ysgol Fusnes Prifysgol Sussex|
|University of Sussex Business School|
|Sam Lowe||Flint Global|
|Sara Jones||Consortiwm Manwerthu Cymru|
|Wales Retail Consortium|
|Shavanah Taj||TUC Cymru|
|Suzy Davies||Cynghrair Twristiaeth Cymru|
|Wales Tourism Alliance|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Aled Evans||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Gareth David Thomas||Ymchwilydd|
|Lara Date||Ail Glerc|
|Robert Lloyd-Williams||Dirprwy Glerc|
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 yn y Senedd a thrwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:33.
The committee met in the Senedd and by video-conference.
The meeting began at 09:33.
Croeso, bawb, i'r cyfarfod hwn o Bwyllgor yr Economi, Masnach a Materion Gwledig. Dwi ddim wedi derbyn unrhyw ymddiheuriadau y bore yma. A oes unrhyw fuddiannau yr hoffai Aelodau eu datgan o gwbl? Sarah Murphy—Sarah.
Welcome, everyone, to this meeting of the Senedd's Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee. I haven't received any apologies this morning. Are there any declarations of interest that Members would like to make, please? Sarah Murphy—Sarah.
Thank you, I need to declare that I'm a member of Unite the Union and also the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers.
Diolch yn fawr iawn am hynny. Samuel Kurtz—Sam.
Thank you very much for that. Samuel Kurtz.
Diolch, Gadeirydd: chair of Pembrokeshire young farmers and director of the Wales Federation of Young Farmers Clubs as a charitable trust.
Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi am hynny.
Thank you very much for that.
Symudwn ni ymlaen, felly, i eitem 2, sef papurau i'w nodi. Rŷn ni wedi derbyn nifer o bapurau i'w nodi, a byddwch chi'n falch o glywed na fydda i'n mynd drwy bob papur, ond a oes unrhyw faterion yr hoffai Aelodau eu codi o'r papurau yma o gwbl? Nac oes.
We'll move on, therefore, to item 2, namely papers to note. We have received a number of papers to note, and you'll be very pleased to hear that I won't go through every single one of them, but are there any issues that Members would like to raise in relation to these papers at all? I see that there are none.
Felly, symudwn ni ymlaen i eitem 3 ar ein hagenda. Dyma'r cyntaf o dair sesiwn banel heddiw ar gyfer ymchwiliad y pwyllgor i letygarwch, manwerthu a thwristiaeth, gan ddechrau gyda chynrychiolwyr busnes.
Gaf i groesawu'r tystion i'r sesiwn yma, a gaf i ddiolch i chi am eich presenoldeb y bore yma? A gaf i felly ofyn i chi gyflwyno eich hunain i'r record, a wedyn gallwn ni symud yn syth i gwestiynau? Ac os caf i ddechrau, efallai, gyda David Chapman, sydd ar fy sgrin i o'm mlaen i.
So, we'll move on to item 3 on our agenda this morning. This is the first of three panel sessions on the committee's inquiry into hospitality, retail and tourism issues, starting with business representatives.
May I welcome the witnesses to this first session, and may I thank you for your attendance this morning? May I ask you to introduce yourselves for the record, and then we can move straight to Members' questions? If I can start, perhaps, with David Chapman, who is first on my screen.
Yes. Good morning, everybody. I'm David Chapman, executive director for UKHospitality in Wales.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. Suzy Davies.
Thank you very much. Suzy Davies.
Bore da. Suzy Davies, chair of the Wales Tourism Alliance.
Cadeirydd Cynghrair Twristiaeth Cymru.
Chair of the Wales Tourism Alliance.
Diolch yn fawr. Michael Bewick.
Thank you very much. Michael Bewick.
Bore da, bawb. Good morning, everybody. My name is Michael Bewick. I'm chair of the north Wales regional forum, today representing the four fora. I'm also managing director of JW Greaves, which owns Llechwedd, just outside Blaenau in north-west Wales.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. A Sara Jones.
Thank you very much. And Sara Jones.
Good morning, all. Sara Jones, head of the Welsh Retail Consortium.
Thank you very much indeed for those introductions. Perhaps I can just kick off this session with a couple of questions. Perhaps you'd be so kind as to tell us what you think are the most significant challenges or concerns facing businesses in your respective sectors at the moment. Perhaps if I can start with David Chapman.
Yes, thank you, Chair. Well, the last two years have been disastrous, really, for the hospitality industry in Wales. We've had, as you know, with COVID as the background, restrictions and lockdowns. Businesses have used cash reserves up; they've stretched their loan capabilities. They're repaying those loans, and although we had support that we were very pleased to have helped Welsh Government to design, and it's certainly helped keep our businesses going in the 18 months or so up until last Christmas, and the furlough contribution obviously contributed into that, the last set of restrictions, without the equivalent support of furlough, meant that our businesses went through a particularly difficult start to the year, which has just really brought them to the lowest level. So, we're starting from a very low level in terms of the recovery. We're obviously at a competitive disadvantage to businesses just over the border because of those 33 days or so of additional restrictions that began this, and we're now heading into areas where we have got a major problem with recruitment, which seems to have been partly created because of the destabilisation of the industry, if you like—the uncertainties that fell around whether we would be open or restricted or continue or whether each business had the wherewithal for sustainability to be able to continue, on top of other contributing factors.
The recruitment problem at the moment—I know we'll come on to it later, but, essentially, it's around about 30 per cent down on most businesses, and they're really struggling to be able to deliver the quality of services that they're normally used to. And on top of that, we have a serious issue now with costs, which I'm sure is right across both the sectors, but in hospitality is particularly complicated. We have next month, April, a return to VAT at 20 per cent, which we're really campaigning to retain, and we would like all of the Members of the Senedd to support that action with the Chancellor of the Exchequer; it would make a very big difference if we were able to maintain the 12.5 per cent level that we've had over the past year or so. But, if that failed, then the increase of VAT to 20 per cent would coincide with national insurance levels rising, with business rates returning to a 50 per cent ceiling from the 100 per cent support that we had during COVID, and also food and drink inflation, and, worse probably than that, energy inflation, which is absolutely enormous in the sector at the moment. The information I had this morning from members indicates that between 2019-20 and, say, 2023, most businesses will see a 2.8 per cent—sorry, a 2.8 times—increase in the energy bills that they'll be receiving, and that will take them into the higher six figures for a lot of this important hotel stock, in particular, and much more for some of the significant employers that we have in the sector. So, it's a really worrying time, I think, for businesses, because coming out of the—. The cupboard is bare. We're obviously hoping that we will get some degree of Welsh Government support as we go along and I'm confident that will happen. We certainly have had a very good partnership relationship with Welsh Government in the past, and I'm sure that will continue in the future, and we've contributed into the forward-looking plan. But, really, the combination of recruitment problems, which will drive our businesses to possibly only operate at 70 per cent levels of capacity, plus costs, are certainly posing the most significant challenges to us as we go into the recovery period.
Thank you very much for that. Suzy Davies.
Diolch. Yes, can I just reiterate everything that David Chapman said there? We certainly recognise that, and, outside the accommodation sector, within the industry as well; it's not just accommodation. The cost-of-living issue, of course, we're talking about that from the perspective of businesses, but we've got to remember that those cost-of-living pressures are affecting customers as well, and it's Welsh Government's own research that's shown that it's the family budget that primarily dictates if the family goes on holiday at all, or, if they do, what kind of holiday they're going to go on. So, the industry in the round has been affected by the cost-of-living crisis, both in terms of supply and in terms of demand.
I think it's worth mentioning as well that, Welsh Government policies, some of them are being embraced by the tourism industry, or at least would like to be. Certainly, the greening of the industry is proving quite an exciting prospect. Of course, that will need some financial support. But there are other Welsh Government policies that are contributing to the sense of instability and uncertainty within the industry at the moment, notably the announcement yesterday on the changes to thresholds on the difference between businesses and casual lettings, for example, changes to council tax on second homes, tourism tax. All of these are just coming into the narrative, which is—. It's confusing existing members of the market, if you like, and deterring others from coming into that.
And you will also know, Chair, that I've got my concerns about the structure of the industry at the moment—perhaps for another day. But it's a disconnected industry at the moment, and one that we would certainly like to contribute—. It's a problem we'd like to help resolve. Thank you.
Thank you. Michael Bewick.
Thank you so much. I think, echoing both points made by Dave and Suzy, what's happened is that we're coming out of an extremely pressured and difficult time for the industry into what one hoped was going to be a recovery period, but is clearly going to be very testing. Key points, I think, are that balance sheets are under great pressure as a result of COVID borrowing, which means that there will be pressure on investment plans, and that one can't overstate the impact of this business cost inflation. I'm going to give you two examples.
I was speaking to Steve Hughson of the Royal Welsh Show last night, who talks about inflation—real inflation—in his supply chain running at over 20 per cent, and, perhaps more concerning, that some of the supply chain is actually dropping out altogether, due to the pressure on skills that Dave just raised. The pressure on skills itself is in turn feeding into wage inflation, which means that potentially we might see employment falling, while margins are squeezed as a result of the increase in VAT.
And there's another real-life example. A hotelier I was talking to yesterday told me that, as a result of the skills shortage, his revenues were 20 per cent less last summer than they could have been, potentially. Now, of course, last summer, that was mitigated by the VAT change and by the grants that were coming in. There is no prospect, it appears, of that this summer, so one has to echo the call for intense lobbying on the UK Government to try and maintain the VAT rate at its current level. I'll come to what we might do about these things, I'm sure, in time. Thank you so much.
Okay. Thank you very much indeed. Before I bring Sara Jones in, I know Hefin David would just like to ask a very brief supplementary question. Hefin.
Yes. I'd like to focus my question to Suzy, and can I just say it's lovely to see you here, Suzy? You really are much missed; from this side of the fence, that's certainly the case. Can I ask, just about some of the anecdotal evidence we've heard with regard to last summer's bounce back following the—? You know, the staycations, people staying at home, did that not have a mitigating effect on some of the problems and the rather dour picture that's been presented so far?
Well, overall, the number of visitors coming to Wales was still down. It's still well below the 10 million mark that it was before COVID. Certain sectors did better than others. So, self catering, different types of self catering, perhaps did better than the serviced economy, because people felt safer in a self-contained environment rather than in hotels and so forth. Certainly, the attendance and spend was well down in the serviced sector and in hospitality—so, restaurants, cafes and so on. So, while there would have been a staycation bounce in some parts of Wales, and there certainly was, that was not replicated across the whole of Wales, even though things were better generally, and it's certainly not something we can rely on being what the future will look like once the international markets open up again. And you will have noticed, Hefin, that there is really fierce competition at the moment from the cheaper end of the overseas holidays market really gunning for British people to come back to destinations abroad.
Thank you. If I can now bring in Sara Jones. Sara.
Thank you, Chair, and I'll try not to repeat the points made by my colleagues, because all of them, I think, we'd echo as well, as the retail industry.
I could probably bring this into three key areas in terms of the impacts that we're facing at the moment. The first is around lack of customers and subdued footfall. So, those figures are really not anywhere near back to pre-pandemic levels. If we look at the same period from two years ago, we're about 17 per cent down in terms of footfall through our retail destinations. And in terms of people not being back at the workplace, that's been a real challenge for us, particularly in our city centres and our larger town centres. So, the advice to stay at home, work from home, that's clearly had an impact, particularly in terms of office workers, on footfall through those destinations during those busy lunch hours, for example.
The second challenge is the rising cost pressures for retailers, so, again, echoing many of the points that my colleagues have made, particularly looking ahead to the return of business rate liability in April. I know there are reliefs being offered there, but, again, it's going to really impact our businesses as we look ahead.
And the third one, I think, is probably—again, picking up on Suzy's point in particular—the cost of living, the pressures that our consumers are facing at the moment and the way that that's impacting in terms of consumer confidence. So, that's having a real challenge in terms of how we forecast things, looking ahead.
I think just one other point I'd like to raise in terms of some of the current challenges we're facing, and I think it's been picked up in the survey that USDAW have published today, and that's around retail crime and violence against shop workers, and I think that's something we've all got to be really cognisant of; it's really spiked during the pandemic, and it's awful to hear. The USDAW survey references that 90 per cent of respondents said that they'd received verbal abuse, and it very much echoes the surveys that we've done as the British Retail Consortium and WRC. So, that's something I think that needs to be tackled, albeit probably at a UK Government level in terms of the legislation that could be brought for that. Thank you, Chair.
Okay. Thank you very much indeed for that. Obviously, some of you have already alluded to what you'd like to see Governments doing in the immediate term. Is there anything else you'd like to see the UK Government, and indeed the Welsh Government, doing to support your sectors going forward in the short to medium term? Michael Bewick.
Thank you, Chair. I think one of the things I think would be particularly important as we come out of it, and reflecting on Visit Wales's role, is an increase in the promotional budget, which is remarkably modest. I think Suzy's point about the intense competition that we're facing, particularly from the cheaper end of the international travel market, is very true, and we need to be countering that. It's also clear that the huge uncertainty around international travel and geopolitics at the moment means that people will be uncertain about what they should be doing for their travel plans, and so, I think there's a huge opportunity for us here.
I do also, though, at this point, just want to raise the fact—because it's come up from so many of our stakeholders—about the timing of the consultation around the tourism levy or tax, and the sense that this is just not the moment to being engaging in this exercise for an industry that already feels it's under considerable pressure. Thanks so much.
Thank you. I agree with Michael on those points as well, particularly on the point of Visit Wales's own budget; it's not really grown in perhaps the last 10 years in terms of what it might be able to do. I have to say that the quality of what Visit Wales is putting out at the moment in terms of its marketing is high, and that's very welcome, but I think they could still do with some more investment in the way that they engage, particularly with the private sector—that's acknowledged in their own action plan.
I think the two points I would add, Chair, is perhaps some flexibility in the terms of repayment of the loans. David Chapman did allude to those a little bit earlier on. Some businesses are finding it difficult to pay back as swiftly as they might. And secondly, I would love Visit Wales to invest in a recruitment programme. If they're going to be promoting Wales, let's promote the fact that there are brilliant careers in Wales in tourism as well, and see some of those popping up in our social media ads and everything else as well.
Okay. Thank you very much. Sara, did you want to come in?
Yes, just very briefly, then. I think we'd like to see more positive, upbeat messaging from the Welsh Government. Obviously, as we move towards removal of all COVID restrictions, we need to see that positivity, because that will no doubt help in terms of the consumer confidence issue. And then, obviously, and I'm sure we'll come on to it, on numerous occasions, is around business rate reform. That cost pressure is huge for our retailers and we need to have a commitment that reform will take place, because it's the biggest cost that our retailers are facing over the next 12 months.
Thank you very much for that. And before I bring in other Members, I just want to ask you perhaps a general question to finish from me: what do you understand to be the Welsh Government's vision and ambition for your sectors over the next five to 10 years? Who would like to start on that? Sara.
So, we expect the Welsh retail strategy to be produced this spring, and I think that will be key in terms of having that endorsement for our industry from Welsh Government, recognising that the Welsh retail sector is a hugely important contributor to and employer in the Welsh economy. I think our reputation and profile with our key decision makers has really elevated over the last two years, and that's a really positive thing. I hope that the strategy itself will give us a vision for where Welsh Government want to work with us collaboratively to make sure that we can continue to deliver and invest in our Welsh communities. So, I think we're fairly clear of where the Welsh Government is looking to take us as a sector, and that's something we're working on very closely in partnership with officials and the Minister.
Thank you. We understand that we are currently in a transitional period, working with the action plan with Welsh Government, which was presented both to us at the stakeholder forum and also to the regional fora, seeing it very much as a short-term bridge. I think the key thing that I would say here is that I am aware that all our stakeholders and all our regional forum members are keen to see us return as quickly as possible to the 10-year strategy that was outlined, with its emphasis on sustainable tourism and its emphasis on improving revenues in the off-seasons and profitability. Thanks.
Just quoting, actually, from the plans: the need for recognition and reinforcement around the important role that this sector plays at the heart of the Welsh economy. I think that point needs reinforcing that tourism is at the heart of the Welsh economy, and if it continues to struggle like this, it's the whole of Wales and the underpinning of the economy that's going to suffer. It also says:
'to realise tourism's own potential to underpin the economic, social, cultural and environmental wellbeing of all kinds of communities across Wales.'
Again, that's a great vision, but it's not going to happen unless the money goes in to support it and that it actually does include greater private sector involvement, which is something that it is also acknowledging in the action plan itself.
Okay. Thank you. David, anything to add on that?
Yes, thank you. Suzy's point is a really good one. We've submitted a document to the Minister looking at the immediate period, looking at the transitional period and looking at the longer term. In terms of the immediate period, some of the economic resilience funding that applied in the period at the beginning of the year didn't actually stick with some of our members because of the turnover thresholds. So, short-term support for businesses that might require it could be helpful, but we also need investment backing. The Welsh Government's plan has very ambitious hopes for the raising of quality across the board, which we share, and those calls need to be financed by money that really most businesses just don't have at the moment. And that's the sort of nub about how we get back to being not only competitive, but to being market leaders is how we can do that.
Now, some years back, there was a scheme called the tourism investment support scheme, which allowed contributory money from businesses to be matched by Welsh Government money for infrastructural development and that would've raised the quality of the stock. And I've proposed, through our member outlets where we corral their views together and put them forward, this idea that we could look at that sort of incentivisation that would help. And then, going further forward, I think we need to develop a more dynamic partnership with Government that can respond to the changes in the marketplace that will occur to encourage greater investment in the industry and in the promotion of the industry, and to look at how we can probably help develop a live and interactive action plan going forward that can put our industry genuinely at the heart of the economy and at the heart of an economic policy, where it deserves to be. And I think probably the most important view of that would be to look at what happened over the last two years and just how significant tourism and hospitality businesses have been in the communities when restrictions meant that they weren't able to open. So, we need to adapt that thinking and to put ourselves right at the heart of the economy, at the heart of communities and at the heart of Welsh culture and to look at how we can combine all of those elements and to help drive the Welsh economy forward together.
Thank you, David. If I can now bring in Sam Kurtz. Sam.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. Good morning, panel. Thank you for joining us this morning. If we could cast our minds back to just before Christmas when omicron first made itself known and the Welsh Government introduced business support for the period 13 December to 14 February this year, could I ask for your views on the scale, focus and appropriateness of this Welsh Government support? And can I start with you, Sara, please?
Yes. Throughout the whole of the pandemic, support has been pretty substantial and swift from the Welsh Government and obviously we've supported it, particularly around the rates relief over the last two years. That period that you referenced, not hugely impactful in terms of the benefit it brought our businesses because they were still operational, and the restrictions, whilst they did have an impact because it was the return of social distancing, for example, so numbers in store, et cetera, they weren't necessarily seeing the drop in turnover that would have qualified us for some of those business support grants.
I think we're in a period now where we're not looking necessarily for direct support in terms of funding. Again, it goes back to those structural costs, those costs of doing business, which are within the Welsh Government's gift, and I'll repeat again the business rates ask, for example. Those are the things now that we're looking for further support from the Welsh Government with. But, as I say, throughout the whole of the pandemic, the support has been overall very positive and we've welcomed the speed at which it's been delivered to our retailers.
Thank you. Yes, the immediate feedback that we had on this, of course, was that it was most closely welcomed by the hospitality industry where capacity was down in restaurants and cafes because of the return of social distancing guidance and so forth. The main feedback we had was that self-catering properties weren't entitled to apply for this, and while it was probably true that it was the sector that suffered the least, there were certainly some businesses that did lose bookings and had cancellations at the last minute and weren't able to pick up any compensation for that, if you like. As ever, always very welcome. There are always people who slip through the cracks, but it was the loss of bookings last minute that was the area that wasn't covered as well as it might have been. But otherwise, very welcome. Thank you.
Excellent. Thank you. Michael.
Thanks so much. I think, like the other witnesses, we commend the timely interventions that took place, although with the most recent ERF intervention, I have to say, I'm not really aware of anyone very much who benefited from it, because the majority of people were able to operate to some level and therefore weren't caught by it.
I think I would like to bring up the fact that, at a recent forum, there was a very tearful intervention from somebody who operated a small bed and breakfast. And I think we forget at our peril that, whilst we are a large industry, we are large in many ways because we aggregate a lot of microbusinesses and that a lot of those microbusinesses actually did slip through the cracks throughout the entire period, and they are the ones who've been spending their own savings and working very hard to keep afloat. So, I think we need to remember them as well in this point. Thanks.
Thank you. Finally, David.
Yes. In the main, the support was generous and timely and well delivered, and, really, I think, saved a lot of our businesses at the worst times of the COVID crisis. I think the last period, as Michael explained, where there was limited trading and there was a 50 per cent turnover threshold, it meant that many businesses didn't qualify, and the amounts of—[Interruption.]
Sorry, I've just had a call come in there. I should have turned it off; I apologise.
But, in that period, we had a number of businesses that really felt that the level of support was way below what the losses that their businesses incurred would be, compared to the previous times. And that's almost certainly comparable with not having the central Government resource that furlough provided previously, because the set of restrictions this time was probably the first time we had an out-of-furlough set of restrictions in Wales. So, that was a significant amount, because calculations were that it was worth something like £450 million a month to the industry in Wales while that was qualifying, and so there was a very big fall in the real terms of what we had. But, not to labour that point too much, over the 20 months, the support that was developed with us as an industry, was really well delivered, I think, and we were very grateful for that. It does show, overall, the success of the industry-Government partnership that there is in Wales and the regular contact. And Michael and myself, and Suzy's predecessor, sat on an industry taskforce that the Minister had created that met weekly for over a year, and we were able to feed in members' views directly to that. And that was really gold dust, if you like, for us to be able to be able to make those cases so quickly and so directly. And so, that is a real tribute to the Welsh Government's partnership processes.
Thank you. And, Sara, you mentioned it, with regard to future support or future funding for this sector, you'd rather see support in terms of business rates rather than an injection of cash funding into supporting the businesses. But does anybody else on the panel echo Sara's thoughts on that, or are there calls for direct funding towards your sector at the moment? Or is it support in terms of business rates, et cetera, the value added tax through UK Treasury? Is that where the sector's looking for its support at the moment? Suzy, can I start with you?
Yes, I think I mentioned a little bit earlier on that one of the things we will be looking for is an investment in recruitment strategy for the industry generally. Now, that's not direct money to businesses necessarily. I think where they're likely to need the help is in the extension of periods for repaying loans or similar.
I think it's also worth mentioning that there have been issues with supply chains, which were mentioned earlier. If there are ways of encouraging value-for-money Welsh procurement, I'm sure that would go down well as well. I suppose I would say that in terms of the capital investment, there will certainly be need for some work in some attractions, for example, and that's why I have my concerns about the very low amount of £5 million being available to Visit Wales for capital works, when, particularly, it looks as if they've got that earmarked for other plans.
Is there anybody else within that specific sector? I can see you nodding, David.
Thank you. I think it's twofold, really, isn't it? Business rates have been an increasingly unjust system year on year going into this. Sara and myself hosted a round-table with representatives before COVID to highlight how the changing shift in the commercial climate had left property-based businesses such as ours in the hospitality sector adrift when internet-based businesses and out-of-town businesses were increasingly growing, but we were taking an unfair share of the cost base in business rates. So, that's been long term and there continues to be a desperate need to put us on a level playing field with others. The VAT argument Michael made and I made earlier is another important plank in terms of getting ourselves back to a recovery position.
But I wanted to make the point that 'additional support' is probably the wrong word, because it's an investment by Welsh Government. This industry produced something like £3.6 billion in contributions to the Exchequer in the year before COVID. We're not able to do anything like that at the moment with businesses being restricted to operate at, say, 70 per cent levels because of recruitment and because of the way that we're coming back from the crisis. The help that we could get to get us to that level as quickly as possible would be vastly beneficial to the public sector in that more money would be made available for health and education more quickly if we were able to get ourselves back on our feet the fastest way possible. And that's where I believe that a set of cleverly organised investment support grants, in association with industry contribution, will get us to that point quicker and help to bring about that repayment back into the Exchequer, and then, gradually, further grow payments into the Exchequer as quickly as possible.
Thank you. Michael.
Thanks. I have to reiterate the points about investment and the support for capital investment and the fact that we need more discretionary funding for capital. One of the successes of Welsh Government's intervention in tourism has, indeed, been its support for the creation of quality product. It seems to me that many of the challenges we're talking about around skills and around the development of our visitor economy outside of the key seasons is around investment in quality product.
But we have to note from our conversation today that the limitation on margins means that there's very little available within businesses to invest, and then, when you look at the pressure on margins, the return on investment is starting to look remarkably long for people. You then have trouble raising private money. The issue here is that Government support through capital investment will help develop high-quality product. We've seen it and how it works in terms of the development of adventure tourism here in north Wales and how that's been an absolute game changer in terms of the sort of margins that have been generated and, therefore, the ability to invest and the ability to create year-round jobs that pay sufficiently for people to have mortgages and raise their families.
The other thing I'd like to point out, which is a slightly longer term issue, is about the transition to a truly sustainable visitor economy. I think Suzy mentioned this earlier as well. We're going to need additional support in order to achieve that, and that's, I guess, mostly around supporting the efforts to spread tourism across the year, to spread it across the areas that we have. This both helps sustainable tourism and it also helps to help support our communities, many of whom have felt slightly bruised by the tourism experiences that have happened over the last 18 months. Thanks.
Thank you, Sam. If I can now bring in Sarah Murphy.
Thank you, Chair. Thank you all for being here today. I'm going to drill down a little bit more into retail, so I'm going to focus on asking Sara questions. There's a section coming up on tourism and hospitality as well, but if anybody wants to come in on anything, can you just raise your hand? That will be absolutely fine. So, to start, Sara, could you tell us the extent to which the Welsh Retail Consortium are involved in the development of the Welsh Government's strategy for the retail sector, please?
We were the organisation that pushed really strongly for a Welsh retail strategy, and we were really pleased that that was included a few years ago in the Welsh economic strategy at the time, which talked about an enabling plan for the industry. Obviously that was sidetracked because of COVID to some extent, but it's great that the Welsh Government has now turned its attention to developing this strategy for the industry. We've always felt like a bit of a cinderella industry; we've felt a bit unrecognised in comparison to some other sectors. So, it's really great that we've got this recognition now. In terms of our engagement in that whole process, yes, we've been involved in it, it's been great. The Welsh Government has set up a retail forum, and we sit on that retail forum with a number of other partners. There's also a specific working group that's developing up the strategy and, again, I sit on that, representing the WRC with a cross-section of other organisations like the unions and also other trade bodies as well. So, we've been very much involved, and we hope that in that partnership approach to developing this, and then obviously implementing the strategy and hopefully an action plan in the long term, we'll have a really strong role in that as well.
Fantastic. Thank you so much. Could you talk to us a bit, then, about the current expectations for the strategy in terms of timescale, focus and resource from your perspective, and also, I suppose, if you can give us any insight into others in the forum?
Our expectation, from what we understand, is that the strategy is likely to be published this spring, which is great. It has meant that the timescales have been quite short, I think, in developing the strategy. On that basis, I'm expecting it to be a strategy; it will be a collection of strategic aims and objectives. But I'd like to see an action plan to follow this. I think that would be our recommendation back to Welsh Government. It will be great to see the fact that retail will be embedded in the thinking, but it needs to have some serious actions behind it. Because retail is so cross-cutting across Government portfolios, it is difficult to capture this, but I think the strategy will help do that and ensure that we don't see that silo approach to dealing with some of the challenges that the sector faces. So, I think, going forward, there'll be a spring publication, but let's ensure that we see action that follows then in terms of a series of action plans.
Brilliant. Thank you very much. And then, just the last question: what are your views on the fact that the Minister for Economy told the committee that there isn't a pot of money set aside for the retail strategy?
I think in our budget recommendations report that we put forward last autumn we did say that there should be some funding to support the delivery of the strategy, but we totally recognise that a lot of the strategy itself will fall under different areas of activity that the Welsh Government is already working on and that has funding committed to it. To give an example, on high-street regeneration, the Transforming Towns budget has been committed for the next three years within the Welsh Government budget, and that's clearly going to deliver some of the aspirations of the retail strategy. So, there is money committed, it's just in other areas and other pots. But, I do think there needed to be some funding to help launch this strategy and really give it the profile it deserves, particularly in the early stages, as we look towards developing it further over the next 12 months.
Thank you very much. Suzy, I saw that you wanted to come in too.
Yes, just quickly to say that the retail offer, of course, is a major part of tourism as well and should be part of anything involving tourism. Certainly, the action plan at the moment talks about creating a sense of place and experience of place, and if you have a poor retail offer, that's a deterrent not just for visitors but obviously the community that would be benefiting otherwise from tourism. Diolch.
Absolutely. Is there anybody else who wanted to come in on any of that? Okay. Wonderful. Thank you all so much. Back to you, Chair.
Thank you, Sarah, and thank you, Sara Jones. I understand, Sara, that you now need to leave us, but thank you very much indeed for being with us as well this morning. If I can now bring in Vikki Howells.
Diolch, Chair. Welcome to all of you on the panel. I've got some questions this morning around skills. It's an issue that's very close to my heart. I represent Cynon Valley, which is a constituency that has one of the highest unemployment figures not just in Wales but in the whole of the UK, but when I go out and speak to business owners in my constituency, they invariably tell me about labour and skills shortages across the board. I know that that's something that's replicated across Wales as well. Just to start, I'd welcome your views on the causes and effects of the skills and labour shortages being seen in the workforce at present, particularly in hospitality and the retail sectors as well. David, I don't know if you'd like to start on that.
Thank you. A number of things impacted at the same time. We had Brexit, which, obviously, had an effect on migrant labour, but then of course COVID hit, lockdowns, and people were on furlough. I think a number of our workers were realising that they wanted to change direction, and would prefer to have a nine-to-five job or whatever, and they re-evaluated. Other contributing factors came in as well. I think the world changed and people had different ambitions, and I think the uncertainty of closures and restrictions was also something that led people to think that they wanted, maybe, what they saw, what they perceived, to be more secure employment at a time when everything was very precarious.
We've come out of that succession of events with quite a substantial shortfall. We're not the only sector to be in that position, as you know, but we are finding it a bit of a vicious circle, really, because where we have a shortage of employees, we are having to reduce the offer. That leads to less potential for the business to grow, but it also has an impact where we're not able to dedicate, in some places, sufficient time to do the in-house training that we want to do because the business is so stretched. The forward planning of a lot of businesses has been really disturbed by these two years, and I think that's one of the factors as well.
On the positive side of things, we recognised that Brexit was happening and that would be a factor to us, and so UKHospitality spent probably 18 months bringing together all of the partners that were involved in the skills area—that's everything from higher education, further education, to people like Careers Wales and others, including all our industry representatives from different parts of Wales. We set up a tourism and hospitality skills partnership to be able to look at the medium to longer term solutions for this. Because we realised that there was a need to raise the status of the industry and to take away the misconceptions that exist about the industry in the key areas that influence people joining us, right the way through from primary schools, through the careers process, through youngsters, to be able to show them what fantastic opportunities actually exist within the industry, and to give them the chance to be able to feel their way into joining us for what is a lifetime career.
That partnership is functioning and working, and it has helped, I should say, because Suzy's raised the point. To be fair here, one of the asks that we gave of Welsh Government, which sits on the partnership with us, was for help with a recruitment campaign in order to get across some of those misconceptions that exist and to show the quality and the enthusiasm and the enjoyment that people have within the industry. That recruitment campaign came to fruition in the autumn of last year, and was used in different media to project things. Clearly, omicron came along, and that set back the process, but in our discussions with Welsh Government now, there's every intention for that to continue for us, which is a real benefit.
What I think I'm suggesting is that we do have a dire recruitment position at the moment, but the idea for further development of the skills agenda moving forward, with Welsh Government support and with industry support and enthusiasm, is looking a lot brighter than it was maybe three or four years ago already. So, there are big positives there, but in the immediate situation, we have this circle where, without enough employees, we really can't get the industry back into the position that it wants to be in in terms of recruiting numbers.
Thanks, David. That's a really useful answer. You were talking there about changing people's perception of a career in the industry. Would you accept the suggestion from ColegauCymru that there's growing recognition and acceptance that the reality of the culture of the hospitality and catering sectors has to change radically as well in order to attract young people into a career there?
The industry—[Interruption.] Sorry, am I—? We do, but I think the thing to say is that the industry adapts and moves along with the labour market because we want to get the best people that we can get, and to retain those people. So, I think everybody has realised that there is a societal change that's gone on during the COVID period, and we are adapting to that. I think everybody would agree, certainly in the hospitality industry, wage rates have escalated in the last 12 months considerably. That still hasn't produced the numbers that we're looking for, but it has made a difference, and has kept us competitive with other industries and other sectors. But also, the way that people work within a business has changed, and we're offering more opportunities for them to be able to work certain days a week, and how that works. We're very aware that part of the necessary pressures that we're under at the moment could lead to the exemplar people that we have deciding that there's too much work on at the moment for them to be able to do. So, we're very careful, I think, as an industry generally to try to maintain the right balance there, and while there is the demand, that's quite a tricky thing to do. But I think there are absolutely signs of the industry changing to accommodate the needs of people to work within it.
Thank you. Suzy, Michael, anything to add from the tourism side of things?
Suzy, do you want to go first?
You're on camera, Michael, you go first. It's fine.
Thank you, very kind. Look, I think what's really interesting at this point is that it's the whole sector that's struggling to recruit, so those businesses that have the best working conditions and have been prepared to adapt and change working hours and all those things, they are still struggling to recruit. So, there are two fundamental issues at play here, are there not? They are a fundamental lack of availability in the market for staff and also this key issue about perception, which I think, absolutely right, the skills partnership is starting to address—individual businesses like Dylan's, who've got their academy up here in north Wales, and work done by Visit Wales and industry leaders. So, people are doing it, and businesses are working really hard to adapt and change. I think people are offering a four-day week, not five, flexible working, tailored training packages—all of these things—but as an industry we have to accept our structure. Hotels have to be open seven days a week. People have to be there overnight. People have to be there in the early morning. So, it is something that we need to address structurally within the industry, but at this precise moment—I think they've made this point—we are genuinely struggling to find sufficient people to work in the businesses, and that will have a severe pressure this summer.
And, again, I want to really reassure you about how we're changing our approach. I spoke to a hotelier last week who said, 'I'm not an HR person anymore, I'm a salesperson. I'm selling these jobs to people.' We no longer offer interviews, we offer chats. We no longer ask people to fill in forms, because we see the drop off at that point. Many people are introducing packages of incentives, including family discounts and all of these things. So, do you know what? It feels like a moment of good change is taking place, but there's going to be a lag, I suspect, and that is going to have quite a lot of pressure on the industry over the next coming two, three years. Thanks so much.
Thank you. Suzy.
Yes, just on that last point, on the issue of lag, I think that's an important one. Lots of operators within the tourism industry have realised that they need to up their game, if you like, in terms of employee retention. It's an employee's market at the moment and they're able to say, 'I'm only prepared to work so many days or so many hours', and it's something that the industry has to accept. But that's actually a good thing. I think it's opened the eyes of some employers.
In terms of longer term recruitment, yes, there is this perception that this is a low-wage, low-security industry, and it's true to say that there needs to be, or there will always be a need for, some flexible employment here. But I think what's been missing from the recruitment campaign that was pre omicron was the fact that it is also a context place to develop your skills. So, tourism needs lawyers, it needs accountants, it needs construction—it needs a whole range of professional, highly valued input, and we don't really talk about those careers in the context of tourism often enough. If we did that, I think we would take considerable steps towards improving the status, if you like, of the industry, as it is in other countries, actually, where it is seen as a very highly valued area of operation.
It's an ideal area for the development of degree apprenticeships, for example. We are very limited in Wales on where those are offered. And while there is a lot to commend in the apprenticeship space at the moment—Welsh Government has grasped that and is running with it—I think we also need to acknowledge the fact that there are many owner-managers within tourism who don't need to go on long courses, or don't necessarily need to send their employees out on training courses out of the workplace. And there's the idea—I think it's in the action plan, actually—of the development of a hub, a bit like the Hwb in education, where you can access things digitally for short periods of time, little bitesize pieces of really important training, which can be done in the workplace without taking anybody out of the space.
Thanks, Suzy. That's really useful. Thank you, Chair.
Thank you, Vikki. And if I can now bring in Hefin David. Hefin.
I'd like to pick up where Suzy left off there regarding degree apprenticeships, because at the moment, the degree apprenticeship scheme is focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and is very much in pilot mode. So, you're suggesting that there should be a tourism element of degree apprenticeships.
I just think it's the ideal territory to do this, because it's an opportunity to develop a huge range of skills at high level, including things like destination management, which is something where, at the moment, it's unclear who has got the major responsibility for doing that in the tourism structure that we have, and yet it's where the mistakes get made, if you like. We're talking about high-end vocational skills here, as well as the ability to be a great chef or the ability to be a great front-of-house person. If you haven't got people with not just the experience but the skills to see the big picture, then all of the things that we've been talking about today are unlikely to proceed at pace.
When I was at Cardiff Metropolitan University, they had a whole department for degrees in tourism and hospitality and some renowned academic experts providing qualifications in that field. So, do you think there's a disconnect between what academia is providing and what the industry is encouraging, perhaps?
Not necessarily. Obviously, you've picked an exemplar there. There are other universities that have now realised that the visitor economy is a place where their young people are going to need to be playing a role in future and have, perhaps, promoted or are starting to promote what they're offering for the visitor economy a little more—'positively' is the wrong word, but in a way that matches the promotion of the more traditional academic subject areas. They need to do more of that, I think.
Yes. Is there an academic body, a Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development-style body, for tourism?
I couldn't tell you, but I can certainly find out for you. There is probably one at a UK level, and the universities do speak to each other, but whether it's got a title I'm afraid I don't know, off the top of my head.
I think the fact that we don't know about this suggests that there is a lack of an academic underpinning of—
Well, I don't know, let's put it that way.
Yes, but I think if there was—. We all know about CIPD, for example, or the Chartered Institute of Payroll Professionals. It just seems that there isn't that kind of high-profile—. Michael is nodding there; were you going to add anything there, Michael? I can't hear you.
Sorry, I just unmuted myself. I think a lot of this goes back to this really long-term structural issue within the industry. Because if I think about the business I run, which encompasses quarrying, green energy and tourism, now no-one working within the quarrying or green energy business would expect to work at the highest level without some sort of qualification and academic background. That isn't so much the case in the hospitality or tourism element. Now, some good work's been done around adventure tourism because it requires verification of health and safety skill, but the other areas, I think, to my mind, there's an internal ambition issue that we need to address that forms part of this whole big perception issue. So, it's going to take quite some time to address, but it clearly is critical if we are to professionalise the industry. Thanks.
Okay. And Welsh Government would have a role there in developing things like degree apprenticeships. I'll just come back to where I started, really.
I think that's true, but I'd also say—sorry, I know David's got his hand up—but I'd also that, again, going back to the point that many, many very small businesses, and, as Suzy said, many owner-owned businesses—. So, I foresee a great role for Welsh Government in bringing together groupings of smaller businesses that are then able to access these sorts of things, because at the moment they're not really perceiving that there's anything for them.
Okay. Did David Chapman want to come in? I've got no more questions so I can round off there.
Yes, thank you. Obviously, I've put a lot of work into trying to develop the skills side. I also sit on the capital region skills partnership, and in that piece of work, we're looking to bring together higher education with the industry on a much closer basis than it has been in the past. I've attended meetings where there's been an industry person on one side of the table and somebody from academia on the other side of the table, and the person from academia has said, 'We're having real trouble filling work experience positions', and the person opposite said, 'Well, I could do that.' And so that disconnection needs to be resolved, and there's a will on both sides to do more of that. And so we're looking at how we can get the industry together with higher education to develop things like more work experience-related areas, and to utilise the premises that we've got for the educational process as well, because, obviously, we've got a fantastic resource there for people to try in situ work and to learn more from some of the people that are there. The point of the tourism and hospitality skills partnership is to get all of those players together and to maximise their contributions and to add value to that process, and I think we are on the way to doing that.
The final point I'd like to make is that part of that initial work from the partnership has been to bring in Qualifications Wales. They were due to review the sector from 2023 onwards, and I was able to get them to bring that review forward. Their interim report is now available and it will be a final report in July, and it indicates that there has been a fracture between the industry and the providers that we can resolve, and it's not been for any reason, for any party—it's just that there's an opportunity to get people together and to do it better.
And I think the other point from the qualifications side of things is that there's an opportunity also to level up all those qualifications. So, where individuals units have been issuing sets of qualifications for people who've come through with skills, they don't always match, and so employers are finding there's a retraining element that is needed to adapt them into their businesses. Hopefully, we can resolve that as well and to make the people who are coming in able to work directly from day 1.
So, there are a lot of advances going on already, I think, in the background, and I certainly feel that with the work I've done in the capital region skills partnerships that the industry is now much more in the process of the Welsh Government and the regional skills partnerships, and how that works, than it was two or three years ago, say, and that's a big advancement.
Diolch, Hefin. If I can now bring in Luke Fletcher. Luke.
Diolch, Gadeirydd. If I can just focus specifically on tourism and hospitality with my line of questioning, and if I come back, actually, to the stuff we were talking about—the change in culture, and just a couple of quick comments from myself. I think we've been talking about a change in culture within the hospitality sector, in particular, for decades now. It certainly was something that we were discussing back when I was a bartender when I first started, and something we were still discussing when I left the sector as well. So, I'm actually quite encouraged to hear some of the stuff that's been discussed today, and I actually agree quite strongly with Suzy in what she said about the variety of skills that are needed in the sector, as well as some of those transferrable skills; for example, if you can handle a bar on a rugby day in Cardiff, then you can handle some of the heckling in the Chamber. That's something I've been saying quite a bit, actually, since getting this job. If I can look at the forthcoming action plan for the visitor economy, I'd be interested to learn what involvement the witnesses have had in developing that action plan.
I'm happy to start with that. We've always been—. Our job is to try to get the information from the industry over to the politicians so it can influence the work that you do, and bring it up to date—up to the minute, if you like—with conditions that we're experiencing. So, we've tried to be—. Since the beginning of UKHospitality, which came from a merger of two associations, we've been trying to be as proactively involved as possible in all stages. We were involved in the 'Let's Shape the Future' work and, as I say, during the course of COVID, we've been involved with things like designing—helping to design, anyway—the economic resilience fund and various other elements. We've had a great reciprocal arrangement there, where that information has been well received and actions have followed.
In this instance—I mentioned it earlier—we've put forward our vision of where we want to be, our hopes for what support we can get and how we can contribute to that process, going forward. I'm very confident that—. We may not get all of the things that we want, but we may be able to discuss that further in the future. But I'm very confident that we'll get a fair listening and an involvement in that. And we'll come back to add—. It's not a finite document, it's obviously a working document, and we'll come back to add to that as positively as we can and as progressively as we can throughout the process.
[Inaudible.]—anything to add there?
[Inaudible.] Sorry. So, the regional fora, as you know, exist to bring together local authorities, the private sector and Visit Wales. Throughout the pandemic period, we continued to meet and consider these issues. The four chairs of the regional fora sat on the taskforce that Dave also referred to. So, I think that there have been many opportunities for us to feed into the process, particularly through the emergency, particularly through helping to design the ERF process, and also to identify any gaps that existed.
I think I mentioned earlier that the forum members now seem very clear that what our stakeholders are looking for is a return to the longer term strategic process, focused on the key issues, key structural issues, for the industry around sustainability and development of profitability, particularly with the out of seasons. That's, I feel, quite a clear direction that's coming from our stakeholders.
Thank you. Suzy.
Yes. You'll have to forgive me, of course, because I've only been the chair for half a year or so. So, what I understand from members is that they were involved in the—. I think there were roadshows regarding the strategic plan, the five-year plan. But, as for the action plan itself, no, we haven't been directly involved. I think we've had one meeting of the visitor economy forum, which was the first time I was on that, so I wasn't really sure what that was for at the time. But, subsequently, we haven't done that. So, we saw the draft action plan at a regional forum meeting recently. We're not members of these regional fora, as it happens, even though we're the Wales Tourism Alliance, and I'm grateful to Michael for the invitation to go to that particular one.
So, from the small and medium-sized enterprise perspective, I would say that they don't feel that they've been particularly offered the opportunity to contribute in the way that they might have liked to have done. The regional fora—in fact, the action plan itself mentions that the involvement of the private sector needs to be improved. That's no disrespect, obviously, to the chairs of those fora, but it's not an area where the WTA has felt particularly valued or asked for its opinion, and when you consider the number of members—it represents almost 7,000 businesses through its membership across Wales—that's quite an omission in the arrangement, if you like. I'm quite envious, actually, of David Chapman's direct relationship with Welsh Government because the Wales Tourism Alliance doesn't seem to have one of those at the moment.
I think it's particularly important, actually, for SMEs to have quite a bit of say in this, given their involvement in the tourism sector. More often than not, most of the rural areas of the tourism and hospitality sector is family-run businesses, or even medium-sized businesses, as you've rightly highlighted, Suzy. I saw that Michael did have his hand up. Did you have any additional comments you wanted to add?
Thank you. Yes, indeed. Suzy makes a very interesting point. It's been a challenge for the regional fora to really get substantial private sector involvement. I think, in the north, we're all working hard at that, and, in fact, the four chairs are meeting together and looking at the terms of reference for the fora to try and—. And one of the key drivers for that is to bolster private sector involvement. So, that's something we very much hear, and then, I guess, the next step is really how we develop the continuing relationship that Dave highlighted, the continuing of the very positive and continuous relationship that took place during the pandemic and take that forward.
Yes, I should add that, during the pandemic, the WTA was involved, but it's been—. It's outside that period I was talking about. Thanks.
Thank you. Talking about next steps, I'm wondering what your current expectations are for the action plan in terms of timescales. The focus on resources, for example—I note that there isn't a specific allocation in the Minister for Economy's budget for the 2022-23 period to deliver on the action plan, so I'd be very interested to know what your current expectations are. I'll start with Suzy, if that's okay.
Okay. Thank you. Well, as you'll have seen from the budget, and we've mentioned it before, there's £5 million there for capital spend. There's £1.15 million of revenue spend, which has got a wish list of about eight things that need to be spent on. And, then, of course, there's a separate pot of money, which is the seed corn money for the relationship with the Bank of Wales and loans, which, actually, is where the majority of the money for the tourism package, if you like, looks like it's going to come from; it's not even from Visit Wales. It's not a well-funded bit of a department within a department within a bigger directorate; I think it's a point I've raised before.
And while some of the ambitions in the overall strategy and the action plan are things we've seen and heard of before—raising the status of the industry, as you've mentioned—the timescales for even the action plan are already ambitious. And with the effect of COVID, and now, of course, the new pressure of the cost-of-living crisis, it's going to be a real achievement if they can get through quite a lot of the things they're looking for in the action plan.
So, it's not that the action plan itself is bad, but it won't work if the money's not behind it.
David, do you have any additional comments?
Yes, I think the thing is that we recognise that the Welsh Government's budget is tight. It's our job to make the case to get the biggest share we can year on year. And to do that, we've got to work and use industry resources, as well as Government resources. This is not an area—this is what I believe, and our members believe—this is not an area where there's a disconnect. It's not an area where it's sort of us and them; this is about how we can use all of the resources at our disposal to achieve those targets.
Now, there's no doubt—. I've been working in this sector for 20 years now, and I have no doubts whatsoever that the priority of the sector has been escalated in economic terms considerably. A long way back, we didn't even make the top 16, which is absolutely unbelievable, and that was in a programme maybe launched in 2007 or so. We became the top nine. We're now a foundation economy. But we've got to demonstrate the economic benefits and economic importance, our cultural and community importance as well, and I think that came across during COVID and has given us a new way to look at things together. And we are the welcome-to-all industries. We're the port of call where people who cross the border, whatever their purpose, come to stay, and we have a job to do to represent all that is best about Wales and the local communities in that position. And so there's a lot of work that we can do together, and I think we've started that partnership. I think we started the partnership before COVID, but obviously lots of things were on hold as a result when we went into emergency mode. We have a great opportunity now to be able to put together all of those components, with both industry and Welsh Government working closely together on it, and make something that is really quite exciting, I think, in the years to come, and this is the springboard time for us to be able to do that. So, the action plan is a key to the door, and we all hold the opportunities to see how much we can do once we go through that threshold.
Thank you. Michael.
I think what I would add to that is to commend the notion that it is fundamentally underfunded as an activity, both the promotion and the capital, but also to commend what Dave was saying about the way we've been working together. So, two additional points to that is: we've been having conversations from the fora about how we can align timescales for consultation with budget planning. Because, clearly, one of the reasons that holds back private sector involvement in any sort of consultation activity is a sense that they're being consulted after the decision has been made, or, indeed, after the money has been allocated. So, it's incredibly important, to give people a sense of real involvement, that those timescales align. And then the other thing, for me, is that each local authority is clearly involved in spending money on tourism promotion and destination management partnership, and getting those things aligned clearly is also very important. Now, again, this is in no way a criticism, because I think people are working together very closely and trying very hard, but it's something that we will need to keep on top of and keep managing. Thanks.
Thank you. Suzy, I saw you might—. You indicated you might want to come in there.
Well, just to make the point that, of course, we've lost a Deputy Minister with specific responsibility for tourism, and, when you have a big strategy and an action plan that is almost ready, it would give the industry some comfort, I think, to think that there was an individual member of Government who had the responsibility for driving that action plan forward as a priority. Again, this is no disrespect to anybody in Government at the moment, but they have a lot of things on their plate at the moment, and it would be such a disappointment if this were to slip through the cracks as a priority activity.
Thank you for that. I know we're tight for time, so I'll move swiftly on. I'd be interested in your views on the significance of the result of the latest Welsh Government tourism barometer survey, which shows that the experience of the past two years has prompted a quarter of tourism businesses to make permanent strategic changes, such as changing the services they offer and the way they operate their businesses. I'll start with Suzy, if that's okay, and then move to Michael and then, finally, David.
Just briefly, because there have been quite a few barometer findings recently, I think the main one that's come out of this is an understanding that, if you can't market digitally, you're not marketing at all, which is why some emphasis on the digital apprenticeships or digital courses has been very helpful. We've also seen, and this is a less beneficial thing, more businesses going for the big global online marketplaces, if you like, your Airbnbs and Booking.coms and Expedias and so forth, in order to get seen. That has many consequences—perhaps, again, for a different day. But if you compare Visit Wales to Visit England and Visit Scotland, who have their own booking systems, if you like, that would help, I think, in the future, avoid the drift from what's happening now onto the global platforms and back on to domestic platforms where that marketing could be done. But you cannot blame businesses for going for what they see as the most effective ways of promoting their business at the moment, and I think, there are—. As I said, there are many consequences to that, but that's something I'd like Welsh Government to think about, recovering some of the space on that.
Thank you. Michael.
So, negative first, I think one can see that, in some areas, the impact of the skills shortage has led businesses to consider their service levels, and, indeed, in some areas, to sort of unskill. We have examples here in north Wales of small hotels that are now being offered as large self-catering party venues, which is a step back from full-service provision. But on a much more positive side, I think it's absolutely fascinating the number of businesses that have taken this moment of pause to consider their business planning and really consider the route forward. Because what you're seeing is actually a surprising level of investment in quality coming forward as well.
And one of the other key moves that I see, and I can think of some very good examples here, is where people have taken the opportunity to consider what they provide and enrich the experience. So, taking advantage of the trends in tourism, which is very much about providing people with transformative experiences so that when they return home from here, they feel that their life has been changed in some way, and businesses are really responding to that movement.
Thank you. David, any additional comments there?
Very briefly. Michael summarised it all pretty near to what I wanted to say. I think there are two things here: one is enforced change and I know that there are some hotels, for instance country house premium hotels—they're reducing capacity because of the recruitment position, and they're adapting some of their offer to be able to function basically. And so that adaptability, though, works the other way around. And just looking at innovations, such as outdoor entertainment and new investment in those areas that probably wouldn't have been done pre COVID, and are now offering other customer attractions into businesses—it shows, I think, both ways around, how resilient, durable and innovative the hospitality business is. And that's why, year-on-year, it survives and sustains itself.
And so with the right support—and it's not only financial support, but obviously that helps, but with the right support and the right partnership working, I think that will just explode over the next three or four years, and that level of adaptability and innovation will be applied into the growth and the getting back to the sort of levels—. I mean, year-on-year, before COVID, we were increasing 10 per cent a year in growth terms. And the economic benefits to all the communities were a result of that and the supply chain, with 140,000 people being employed and another 40,000 in the supply chain being directly linked—that is of great benefit to every community in Wales. So, I think there is a very positive future out there with the way that the industry is capable of being able to reinvent, regenerate, innovate, but it's just this current moment where we need all the help we can get to be able to get ourselves into that next position.
Thank you, David, and thank you all for your comments.
Nôl i chi, Gadeirydd.
Back to you, Chair.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. And I'm afraid time has beaten us, so our session has now come to an end, but thank you very much indeed for being with us this morning. Your evidence will be very useful in our inquiry. A transcript of today's proceedings will be sent to you for accuracy purposes. So, if there are any issues with that, then please let us know, but, once again, thank you very much indeed for being with us today.
And now we'll take a short break to prepare for the next session. Thank you.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:54 ac 11:00.
The meeting adjourned between 10:54 and 11:00.
Croeso nôl i gyfarfod y Pwyllgor Economi, Masnach a Materion Gwledig. Symudwn ni nawr ymlaen i eitem 4 ar ein hagenda. Dyma ein hail sesiwn banel heddiw ar gyfer ymchwiliad y pwyllgor i letygarwch, manwerthu a thwristiaeth, gyda'r undebau llafur a Sefydliad Bevan. Gaf i groesawu'r tystion i'r sesiwn yma, a gaf i ofyn iddyn nhw gyflwyno eu hunain i'r record, ac wedyn gallwn ni symud yn syth i gwestiynau? Efallai gallaf i ddechrau gyda Victoria Winckler.
Welcome back to the Economy, Trade, and Rural Affairs Committee. We will move on now to item 4 on our agenda. This is our second panel session today for the committee's inquiry into hospitality, retail and tourism issues, with the trade unions and the Bevan Foundation. Can I welcome our witnesses to the session, and can I ask whether they can state their names for the record, please, so that we can then move straight to questions? Perhaps I can start with Victoria Winckler.
Hi. I'm Victoria Winckler, and I'm director of the Bevan Foundation, which is an independent think tank.
Thank you. Shavanah Taj.
Morning, everyone. I'm Shavanah Taj, and I'm the general secretary of the Wales Trades Union Congress.
And Mark Turner.
Good morning, all. My name is Mark Turner. I work for Unite as the community co-ordinator and hospitality organiser.
Thank you very much indeed for those introductions, and perhaps I can kick off this session just with a general question. I'm sure you would agree that hospitality, retail and the tourism sectors are crucial parts of our economy here in Wales, so, in your view, what further support should the Government provide to see the sectors grow in the future? And perhaps I can start with Victoria.
Thank you. They are crucial sectors, and they're also a very mixed bag in that some of them have received considerable support and others, such as retail, for the most part, don't benefit from sector-based support. One of the issues that we would see in respect of fair work is that a lot of that support for the growth of the sectors has been detached from the quality of the work that's on offer, and so it's entirely possible to anticipate that, in fact, growing employment in those sectors could actually increase some of the social and economic problems that Wales faces, unless you address the terms and conditions in those workplaces. So, I would like to see, going forward, that attempts to support or steward those sectors, if you like, are firmly rooted in measures to deal with poor terms and conditions in them.
I didn't realise I was already unmuted then. Just to add to some of the points that Victoria has already raised, I think for us it's very important that we talk about the low pay and the insecure work, and also the overall poorer terms and conditions that are a massive problem for many workers in these sectors, and it does actually impact people's whole life, including their retirement as well. So, it is important for us to think about the pay, of course, in this area. So, median pay is very low in these sectors. There is a higher percentage of workers who are on very close to the statutory minimum wage, so it's actually a very flat sector as well, and there are also very few jobs where workers can expect to receive the median UK salary. So, for example, in hospitality and tourism it's estimated that 70 to 75 per cent of workers earn below the real living wage, and in terms of terms and conditions as well, this rarely actually goes beyond statutory minimum for workers in the sector. So, for example, 60 per cent of hospitality workers and 10 per cent of retail workers don't actually receive any statutory sick pay when they become ill, because they don't work enough hours so their boss can't actually claim statutory sick pay. So, by focusing on just the hourly pay, we do actually miss that much bigger gap in the overall remuneration package. There have been lots of anecdotal reports of these large pay rises in the wider sector, the wider context for these workers, the vast majority of whom, of course, were furloughed on 80 per cent of their usual pay for many months of the pandemic. So, we have to then actually think about the overall income and how individuals have been hit really badly, and, actually, we know that personal debt reported amongst low-paid workers is at an all-time high as well.
So, this sort of, like, one-sided flexibility, and high levels of insecurity that come with this are a huge problem with employers often shifting a huge amount of that risk on to the workforce. So, for example, we know that one in four workers in accommodation and food services are actually on a zero-hours contract. The use of low-hour contracts that don't actually represent the usual hours, and someone is then expected to work, is common, and, of course, there's all of the informality of many employment relationships as well. That means that lots of workers can be let go without their rights actually being recognised.
So, we see constantly frequent violations of labour rights and employment law. There's a report—it's research that was done on the hotel sector, actually, for the UK Government a few years ago, and even that report actually concluded that the experience of non-compliance with employment rights is common in the sector. Workers' narratives mainly identified issues around pay, working hours, breaks and holidays, or more concretely, actually, unpaid hours and no or limited breaks were the areas identified by respondents as being extremely problematic in terms of violation of employment rights. So, these issues around minimum pay, leave breaks and other aspects of employment are really commonplace in hospitality, and there are, of course, lots of violations that we saw around health and safety in the retail supply chain premises during the pandemic—lots of it was in food-processing sites and in others as well.
So, there are lots of causes of this, and I would say that the employers' ability to take advantage of what we say are relatively weak and complex employment rights in the UK, the underinvestment in enforcement of labour rights, and also the fact that we have very low levels of union membership and collective bargaining coverage—so a relatively disempowered workforce, really.
Shav has more or less said what I was going to say. For me as well—the one thing Shav hasn't touched on is training. When you look around Wales at training opportunities for the sector, being honest, it really is low down on a lot of the colleges' and universities' curriculum, so we'd like to see more training. But not just in the hospitality sector itself, but also in workers' rights, because a lot of workers don't understand their rights when they go into the workplace, and, unfortunately, when they go into the hospitality sector—and I'm talking about places as well like McDonald's, Burger King—that's their first experience of work, and what they're getting, actually, is the wrong experience, and we would like to see more workers understand their workers' rights, so that when they're going into the workplace, they can understand exactly what their rights are. This is why we see abuses by employers, this is why we do see people on contracts that, when they bring them to us, really sometimes are laughable—they just do not know their rights and they accept that that is what they've got to work with.
If I can now bring in Sarah Murphy. Sarah.
Thank you, Chair, and hello to you all this morning. I'm going to declare again that I am a member of Unite the Union as well as USDAW.
So, just to build on what our Chair has just asked about fair work and the challenges, how effectively do you think the Welsh Government—? How effective is the Welsh Government in playing a part in responding to these challenges that you've raised, and, in your opinion, what do you think should be the top three priorities going forward? If I can come to you first, Shav.
Yes. So, I would say that we have made some really good progress, actually, in the area of retail, because much of the sector, primarily the larger chain supermarkets, are unionised, and we have got collective bargaining arrangements and, of course, trade union reps in these workplaces as well throughout the country. And that has meant that, during the crisis, Welsh Government did a really good job in regularly bringing together employers and unions around the table to work together to consider what measures and guidance were actually necessary for the sector to keep people safe and to keep the sector running as well. It's very difficult, I would say, to assess, though, what impact it's having in hospitality and tourism, because there are so few structures at the moment in place where joint work has taken place with a clear focus on the workforce, although, of course, unions have recently been brought in to the visitor economy forum structure that's recently happened. I know that Mark is a member, so I'm sure he could talk about some of that in greater detail.
I would say the Welsh Government's top three priorities should really now be focusing on leveraging fairer work outcomes from funding, and, of course, investment in these sectors as well, including considering how initiatives like childcare work specifically for those people in these sectors, and that we have a clearer vision and an honesty about the employment issues that are affecting tens of thousands of workers in these sectors. We often get confused that we're talking sectors down, which it isn't. It's actually about being realistic and having a very clear idea about what the state's role is, but also what is the role of the employer. I think that unionisation is really important, and we're hoping with some of the legislation that we are going to be, hopefully, seeing, as far as social partnership is concerned, that maybe things could change. But I would say that those are the key ones for me.
Thank you. I'll be coming back in on social partnership a little later on as well. Mark, can I come to you next then, please?
During the pandemic, it was actually great to sit down with employers and talk to employers to find out some of the issues that they have got as well. I think we all recognise that, for employees, there needs to be a business, and I think we all recognise that. But at the same time, we want our workers to be recognised for what they do for those businesses as well. I think one of the problems that we've had lately—and it was even more prominent during the pandemic—is we concentrate on the businesses a bit too much, so that the workers are not treated in the way that they should necessarily be. If I was to go to some of my members and say, 'What is the biggest problem that we have got at the moment?', it is the lack of understanding of issues that workers have got. We need to understand what the real issues are.
Shavanah has talked about childcare, but it's not just childcare. There are people in south Wales, in particular along the south-west coast, that have three of four jobs. They might be three of four jobs in a week, they might be three of four jobs in a month, or over a course of a year, because just to work, they have to move from one to the other to keep themselves afloat. There are a lot of people in areas like in St David's, for example—a very tourist area with second homes. You're talking about an area that has got a lot of deprivation when you really get down and look at the problems that we've got in those areas, because of the work relationship that they have with tourism. So, it's getting employers to also understand from a worker's perspective that it's not just about the businesses; there's got to be this inclusion of the workers, and the workers' voice has got to be heard as well.
Thank you very much. And Victoria.
I think the fact that the Welsh Government has now dipped its toe in the water of looking at workforce issues is very welcome. We're, obviously, not party to the kinds of activity that trade unions are, but what I would say is that the interventions have yet to make a difference at scale. So, when you look at the published statistics, for example, they're still not painting a very positive picture on terms and conditions in these sectors. And I should finish off and say, 'I hope they will do.' I hope we will start to see that translate through. So, I'm not being negative, I'm just saying that it hasn't yet reached all parts.
In terms of the top three priorities, I think there is—. For all the inadequacies, I think there are protections in statue at UK Government, and I think those need to be reinforced and seen as the absolute legal minimum. And I think the Welsh Government could do more to make sure that it is not supporting practices that are basically non-compliant—so, workers not getting payslips, people not having breaks et cetera. These aren't 'nice to haves', these are legal minimums. I think that that would be the first thing that I think the Welsh Government can do.
I think it then has a role in respect of education around employee rights. I'm sure that most individuals are far more aware of their consumer rights than they are of their worker rights. I think there's a role there, not necessarily for the general public, but students in further education, apprenticeships, traineeships, even higher education students—they are all supported by Welsh Government funding, and provision of information about their statutory entitlements I see could be part of that.
And then, I think the third area is what I've called 'co-investment'. So, as well as investing in the growth of those economic sectors and investing in the businesses, that must be coupled with an investment in the workforce so that the workforce is valued and not seen as expendable. And in all the work that we've done, that's been the overarching message—that workers are seen as and feel like they're disposable. So, a shift in mindset that sees that the person who greets you in the restaurant isn't just No. 3 waitress, that person is somebody who makes a crucial difference to your experience as a customer, and therefore that workforce needs to be valued, respected, trained and treated well. So, those would be the three areas that we would see as priorities.
Thank you very much. I'll be coming in a bit later. Thank you, Chair.
Thank you, Sarah. If I can now bring in Hefin David.
Can I ask the panel if you feel that the cost-of-living crisis and recovery from the pandemic is actually going to make it harder to create a fair work environment in the sector, or do you feel that there may actually be opportunities to press the case for fair work?
Victoria, would you like to start on that?
I think it's difficult to tell, and I hesitated because I hoped that my trade union colleagues would have experience from the front line. I think there's no doubt—. I won't bore you with telling you that it's workers in these sectors who are amongst the hardest hit because of their low wages and insecurity. It would be nice to think that they had some leverage in terms of negotiating higher pay rates and other terms and conditions, but I'm not sure that we will actually see that, and, indeed, as other people with disposable income may well cut back, it could be that we have a mini recession in some of these sectors, because they're dependent, to some extent, on disposable income. So, I would like to be optimistic, but I think my realistic view is that, as is so often the case, workers in these sectors are likely to be particularly hard hit.
So, Shavanah, whatever the Government does, if the economy has taken a hit in these sectors, then it makes equality in work harder to achieve.
I would say that we have got some real concerns about the cost-of-living challenges and the impact, of course, on fair work and how we can actually make improvements, particularly over the coming months. I would say that there is a significant risk that it could actually further undermine worker power and that ability to say 'no' to a boss in particular, because it is people's incomes that are being further squeezed. We could also see more people, of course, working dangerously long hours because they are so reliant on that hourly pay rate. And, of course, also, it includes lots of people who are taking on multiple jobs. Building on that idea, aspects of the UK's social security system have already limited the amount of freedom workers have to say 'no' to their employer, and we're really worried that we're going to be possibly seeing people making some really difficult decisions. There is going to be a growing amount of informal work, where people are going to be topping up their income with informal paid work, so that their welfare payments aren't affected and they can avoid falling into debt or homelessness as well. This makes those individuals, then, really vulnerable—extremely vulnerable, I would say—as it's virtually impossible for workers in that sort of situation to ensure that their basic employment rights are being upheld. So, there is that risk that the cost-of-living crisis is going to result in further labour exploitation, and it's going to be very difficult to rectify, given the wider employment rights challenges in the UK.
Mark, did you want to add anything?
We've got real concerns on the cost-of-living crisis, obviously, but in this sector in particular. There's the cost-of-living crisis we talk about, the effect it's going to have on the workers, but it can also have an effect on businesses as well, which will then get passed down to workers; that's one of our worries as well. And what Shav is saying is right; unfortunately, when these things happen, the black money market suddenly raises its head. So, we're going to get members who are going to be really struggling. And the benefit system doesn't really help, because if you earn less this week, you're not going to get it in your benefits next week; you're going to have to wait a period of time before you get it in your benefits. People have to still pay their bills and do all the things that they need to do. So, yes, we see some real challenges ahead for our members and low-paid workers across the board—not just in hospitality but actually across the board.
Diolch, Hefin. If I can now bring back Sarah Murphy.
Thank you. I'm going to ask some questions now about social partnership. To what extent has social partnership been used to develop the Welsh Government's retail strategy and its visitor economy action plan, do you feel? And do you think that the fair work issues been sufficiently considered to develop these documents? If I can come to you first, Victoria, this time.
I've got a simple answer, and that is that the Bevan Foundation hasn't been involved in any of those processes. So, unfortunately, I can't really comment, and I think Shavanah and Mark would have a much better idea. Sorry.
No, that's fine. Thank you very much. Shav, if I come to you, then.
I would say that it is very important for us to think about unionisation overall, particularly for this sector, because these workers in particular need that voice, and it seems very unlikely that the UK Government are going to help facilitate this through something like a sector wages panel. But the Welsh Government has got an opportunity to promote unionisation in sectors, particularly these sectors that have such poor employment practices. Because, ultimately and fundamentally, it is about that imbalance of power. You know, I referenced this earlier on: the retail strategy has been a brilliant example of working in social partnership; that is something that has been developed in social partnership, where you've got unions and employer organisations working very positively and jointly. I'd say, in fact, it's an excellent example of how to do social partnership and ensure that investment is a final plan.
There's also some work that's been taking place on the 2020-25 visitor economy action plan. That wasn't initially drafted in social partnership, but now work has happened to bring unions into the discussions about its delivery. As a result, because of the way that it was initially drafted, labour issues weren't considered at the time. And that then, of course, risks investing in employers who ultimately exploit workers. But we're hoping that that can actually change going forward now as well. Because what we don't want is this idea that, you know, Welsh Government has a duty to fund the training for low-paid workers and employers don't even have to pay this for themselves as well. I think if that is the case, that will be very reflective of some of the low aspirations that we have for the Welsh workforce in this sector in particular, and the state having to take on that responsibility. I think that responsibility should most definitely sit with the employer.
But there are some real concerns around the policy issues that we've already mentioned as well, but, like I say, there's a lot of work now that has happened where we've worked hard with officials to make sure that we integrate unions into that visitor economy work, and the officials that are leading on it are better aware of the employment issues that we've identified and that they are working very closely with their colleagues in the Welsh Government fair work directorate as well. So, two slightly different approaches, but I think that both are moving very positively.
Thank you. And Mark next.
Really, just to back up what Shav says. I see there are opportunities there that we need to grab with both hands, and if we allow things to go back to how they were, then we're missing a massive opportunity. All I really want to say is that this is a point at which we can make a big change and we need to make those changes for these people in these sectors.
Can I ask, then—? You've mentioned about employers who don't treat the workforce very well. Obviously, Amazon comes to mind for me, not only do they not treat their workers very well, there are horrendous stories of people working in Wales within plants and in factories and how they're being treated. Not only do they not recognise unions, but they're also heavily anti-trade unions, putting a lot of messages out there to say how awful trade unions are, but they are here in Wales. Is that something that has come up in any of these discussions? What do we do when you have a huge global company like this? Are they going to come and sit around a social partnership table in Wales for us? What do you think? If I can ask Shav first.
So, I would say that we aren't necessarily going to get them around the table, but I think that the model that we now have in terms of what we're trying to do with the retail sector and the hospitality sectors that I've just mentioned, that helps us and that's a significant step forward in terms of actually putting in place a structure to advise what action Government can take in this space as well. But I think that one of the biggest priorities for employers is often to secure further business rates relief, and lots of different companies will apply for that support, and this is something that is very concerning for us as, of all the levers the Welsh Government has to support business owners, I would say this is probably one of the worst ways for trying to leverage any changes in terms of employment conditions. I'm really worried that if this ends up continuing and it continues to be a significant way in which the sector is supported, instead of grant funding and other initiatives, it's going to be quite difficult to see how we'll actually achieve fair work outcomes as a result of that public spend, so this idea of the something-for-something agenda. It's also virtually guaranteed that those employers who actually practise illegal employment practices will receive Government support, because rates relief is so indiscriminate, and labour exploitation, of course, is rife in sectors like these. So, I think that we need to look at this again, and I think that when support is provided to businesses, even if it is during a pandemic, we need to go into it with our eyes open, and we need to be in a position where we are actively clawing back any support that has been provided if we find that bad practices are continuing. But I think that there's—. I'm always hopeful that we can do something better, going forward.
Thank you. Mark, did you want to come in on this?
I completely agree with what Shav says with money going forward, but I think also on the social partnership side, and also for companies that Welsh Government already use, and Amazon being a good example of that. You know, Amazon services in Wales are used by the Welsh Government and I think it's something that they really seriously do need to look at, the partnerships that they have with these companies who are not recognising unions, who've got bad working practices, and it's something that seriously does need addressing.
If we're talking about going forward with things like social partnership, then we've also got to look at what we're doing now. We can't just say 'in the future'; we've got to start now and looking at what we've got now. So, Amazon is a classic example, but there are other companies out there that we know the Welsh Government use. I don't know if this sounds like I'm attacking the Welsh Government. I'm not attacking the Welsh Government, because these are long-term issues. What I'm saying is that we've got to draw a line in the sand at some stage and start saying to these companies that we are giving public money to, 'Are you actually doing the best for everybody within the workforce?' and doing everything by the book for Wales as a whole. Because, if we want social partnership to work, then it's got to come from the top down and we can't expect the small employers to do things if we're allowing some of the bigger employers not to be held to account as well.
Thank you. Victoria, I saw you nodding along. I don't know if you wanted to come in on this.
I think, if we're serious or the Welsh Government is serious about fair work, it has to do more than talk the talk, and it does mean taking some tough decisions, using all the tools at its disposal, and that might mean not buying goods and services from certain companies, it might mean doing unpopular things like withdrawing business rates relief. It is about a mindset and actually doing it, not just talking about it.
Thank you very much. And just my last question: the Bevan Foundation and Wales TUC both called for the establishment of social partnership structures in sectors like tourism, hospitality and retail to improve working conditions. So, what progress has there been from the Welsh Government in establishing those, and would you like to see this model replicated for the tourism and hospitality sectors as well? So, I'll come to you first, Victoria.
As I said earlier, we're not involved in that process. I think social partnership is clearly a very important way forward, but unless that partnership is backed by trade union membership or employee voice in some shape or form, then the risk is it becomes a talking shop. So, the development of social partnership needs to be accompanied by investment on the ground that develops the membership of unions. It's as simple as that, really.
Thank you. Shav, did you want to come in on that as well?
Yes. I'd say that Welsh Government has taken on the advice from the Bevan Foundation, and, of course, this was something that the Fair Work Commission also included within their recommendations, and, of course, others like the Wales TUC. But it was very important that it engaged with both employers and workers if it was going to be producing policy solutions that support successful businesses and better employment practices as well. And, as I say, the retail forum is a direct result of this; it's a significant step in terms of actually putting in place a structure to advise on what action Government can be taking as well. But, for us, there's still a lot of work to be done in terms of further business rates relief. That's really important for us in terms of levers that the Welsh Government has to support business owners, and that's something that I think it's very important that we look at now, going forward.
So, do you think if we had a tourism and hospitality sector-specific social partnership council forum, do you think that that would make a difference?
I think that will make a difference, because, at the end of the day, having people working together and trying to address some of the difficult issues, you can move things forward. But, there is a role here then, of course, for Government to play as well in terms of how they fund employers, and that something-for-something approach—that whole agenda. And, also, taking action where possible.
Now, I know that there is difficulty because there are limitations in terms of what the Welsh Government can and can't do when it comes to employment rights in Wales, and, of course, enforcement as well, but I think that there are ways and means of addressing some of these issues, as I say, through some of that rates relief and also looking instead at grant funding and other initiatives that can be put in place.
Thank you. And Mark, finally.
I personally believe that us all sitting around a table and talking is the best way forward. We've always said that. And I have to say that, during the last two years, we have met, on a regular basis, with the industry from the workers' side, and that has to continue. I think that there is a benefit to us sitting down and understanding each other's problems. If the hospitality sector is saying that they've got shortfalls in staffing and things, then we can talk to them about those issues. We can tell them to their faces why those issues are there, and we need to develop—. The hospitality sector is a massive sector in Wales. The potential for growth in Wales is also huge. If people don't want to go abroad after the pandemic and they're starting to stay home, we've got a massive opportunity to grow this sector. But it needs to be done in tandem; it needs to be done with not just the businesses, but the workers as well. We need it to be fair and we need it to be robust.
The way that workers were treated at the start of the pandemic, we cannot allow to happen again, and the only way that I believe that that will go forward is if we are around the table talking to one another—all businesses, big or small. So, the different groups are there. We're speaking to UKHospitality, we're speaking to the major chains now, we're doing things in Wales that we didn't do in the past that we need to continue doing, because if we don't, we'll just go back to where we were before. If the Welsh Government can facilitate that and grow the sector—. We're talking about a sector that employs, at its height, 200,000 people, that was bringing in—the figures that I have, but I'd have to double-check—£6 billion to the Welsh economy at one stage. This is big money. We're not talking of a small industry. And the bit for me is that, if you were talking about 200,000 people that were in one plant on a site in Wales—. So, take Port Talbot steelworks, for example, if that had 200,000 people on it and suddenly somebody came along and said, 'Right, we're shutting that down', everybody would have jumped. But we did that to, say, 140,000 people in Wales at the start of the pandemic, and it was just like, 'Well, that's the way it is.' And that's the bit that's frustrating. We need to treat the workers in the hospitality sector the same way as we treat any other working group and any other sector. So, yes, I believe that a forum for the hospitality and tourism sector, really going forward, is a must.
Fantastic. Thank you so much. Thank you, Chair.
Thank you, Sarah. I know we're quite tight for time. I'll now bring in Luke Fletcher. Luke.
Diolch, Cadeirydd. If I could look at pay and quality of work, and this is something I recognise, a lot of the issues, actually, that are prevalent in the sector, from my own personal experience. You know, that power imbalance that we've talked about today is one of the reasons why a lot of these issues exist. We've touched on this already through that something-for-something attitude, something that I think is very problematic in itself: better pay and working conditions shouldn't be a bargaining chip; it should be the standard. But I'd be interested to know from the panel which additional levers within its devolved powers should the Welsh Government use to improve pay and working conditions in the tourism, hospitality and retail sector. I'll begin with Shavanah, and then move to Mark and then Victoria, if that's okay.
Thank you. That's a really important question for us as well, and something that we have been discussing with unions in the sector for some time now. I would say that grant funding is hugely important, because Welsh Government can attach that conditionality, and it should actually use this much more to achieve fair work outcomes. The skills policy should also be far more reflective of the labour market realities. I think that that is very much a key way through which Welsh Government can reach employers as well. So, for example, apprentices are at a very high risk of not receiving statutory minimum pay, so, Welsh Government could and should use the leverage it has here to address this issue. It should also invest in, of course, training—Mark has talked about this many times now—training that will make workers have a safer and healthier experience at work.
But there's also what can be done for low-paid workers beyond the employment setting as well. So, we very much support the measures that have been set out in the Bevan Foundation's cost-of-living action plan, for example, and we believe that the cap on the discretionary assistance fund should be raised so that people can claim more than five times a year. This cap ultimately has failed to take into account what happened to many workers in these sectors over the last two years, and the level of the precarity that defines these sectors, as well.
Finally, in terms of additional powers, this is one of those areas that our commission, the Wales TUC commission, is going to be looking at. Because we want to understand what devolution has actually meant for workers in Wales, and whether a lack of power in specific areas is actually undermining Welsh Government's actions and ability to improve the quality of workers' lives as well. So, I'd say 'watch this space', because I think those conversations that we're planning on having with workers are going to be very important going forward.
Yes, 100 per cent what Shav has just said. I think that the problem we've got is that employment law is UK based. We would love to see, on zero-hours contracts and minimum-hours contracts, some work around that. I'm not saying that we want them necessarily banned, because for some people, that is what they want. But within the hospitality sector in particular, they are used and abused, and something that we really need to look at is the contractual agreements between employers and the workers.
For me, I think when we talk about what difference the Welsh Government can make, conditionality is a big one. It was disappointing that, in all the grants that were given out, there was no conditionality. If I was a businessman, and I was running a business during the pandemic, all the money I had would have gone into a bank account, because there was no conditionality put on it. There was nothing there to stop a business doing that. As I said in the past, we need businesses to be there for their employees to have a business, but at the same time, we need the businesses to recognise the importance of the workforce that they've got around them. So there are things that the Welsh Government can do within their power, and we would like to see the Welsh Government doing more of that.
Thank you. Victoria, any additional comments there?
Just briefly, if I may. I think I'd reiterate the point I made earlier about the need for leadership. For example, we don't have a Minister with responsibility for the labour market. Responsibility is currently spread around several Ministers, and although we do thankfully have one now responsible for social partnership, the clue is in the name—it's not all aspects of it. So, skills is over here, and economic contract is somewhere else. I think sorting that out would be a first step.
I think the Welsh Government's lack of powers is overstated. It's more complex than employment matters not being devolved, because employment matters affect whole swathes of devolved matters, and it's that interface where I think the Welsh Government may well find some leverage that it doesn't have at the moment.
As Shavanah said, I think conditionality is important, but there's another side to that. There are also penalties. So, if there are employers who are breaching legal minimums or not complying with their economic contract, there need to be some teeth there, too, there need to be some penalties, and I think there's scope to be much more creative and innovative about compelling and supporting fair work rather than just fretting that, 'Oh, it's not devolved'. I think there's much more that could be done.
Thank you, Victoria. I was about to ask about what the panel would think of the penalties side. I'm not sure if Shav or Mark have any additional comments on that point. If not, I'll move on to the next question.
Yes, I'd just like to come back on that. That is one of the things that we called for—that you were giving money out as the Welsh Government, but there is no way of either getting the money back or penalising a business that has taken that money and is not being fair with it. That was one of the things we were saying all the way through, that any money that comes from the Welsh Government, there has to be these ways of either conditionality—. If you're not meeting those conditions, then there has to be a clawback. Unfortunately, it felt very much to us that, in terms of the money that was being given out during the pandemic, there was nothing there—it was just going to the businesses. I understand from a business perspective that they didn't know when the pandemic was finishing, and the longer the pandemic went on, it caused more hassle for them, but there was nothing that made sure that workers were looked after.
Thank you, Mark. My final question is probably more directed towards Victoria, but of course if anyone has any comments they'd like to make, please indicate. The Bevan Foundation has called for the Welsh Government to develop a fair work innovation fund to improve productivity and job quality in the foundational economic sectors. How would this fund operate, and are you aware of any evidence on how this could work in the tourism, hospitality and retail sectors?
The idea came from some work that we commissioned from some academics as part of our work looking at fair work and the foundational economy. They made the extremely important point that in the way in which jobs are designed, there are decisions that are taken by human beings. It's not inevitable that a lot of jobs are routine and have virtually zero scope for autonomy and discretion by the worker. And if jobs are redesigned in a different way, to allow more discretion and more autonomy and more exercise of skill, then that can boost productivity, increase job satisfaction and also help to increase pay rates.
They gave us some examples from elsewhere. I think they were examples from the States, from memory. For example, you could combine shop-floor and first-tier management tasks to create a different role, one we don't have in most retail outlets, and that might be preferable to workers and also better paid. So, our idea was that there would be some quite small-scale but intensive learning from experiments and pilot work like that. I think the crucial thing is that it's not about supporting innovation in, I don't know, Joe Bloggs's shop; it's about making sure that the learning from that experiment is then rolled out across the sector. So, it's not something that I would say can be done in isolation, it's not something that can be done on a large scale, but it's something that needs to have the support of the sector. And I think if it was done well, it could be a win-win for both business and for workers.
Just to add to that, in terms of how the fund could operate and so forth, I would say that it most definitely would need to focus on labour rights and not just on certain aspects of fair work or the roll-out of policies, because ultimately they just end up existing on paper. We'd be really concerned about further funding, for example, going towards more employers becoming accredited real living wage employers, because actually this gives no further guarantees that working conditions are actually improving or that workers are able to realise their labour rights. This is especially important in these sorts of sectors that we're talking about today, because they have such high levels of poor practice and exploitation. So, this sort of fund must explicitly seek to empower workers and establish those collective bargaining arrangements for the workforce, because that is the only way that you are genuinely going to be able to deliver fair work.
Thank you for all your comments. Unless Mark has anything additional to add—
I'd just back up what has already been said. Shav is right; you can pay somebody a living wage, but if you then say, 'We used to pay for your uniform but we're not paying for your uniform anymore', or, 'We used to pay for a taxi or transport for you to get backwards and forwards but we're not paying that anymore', then what have people actually gained? And that's where the real concern is, that employers can do certain things and then they can take something else away, and we cannot allow that to happen. We've seen it too many times, and the living wage is a classic one, where we have seen people being given the mark as a living wage employer, but they've actually taken something else away, which is of no benefit to an employee whatsoever.
Diolch. Nôl i chi, Gadeirydd.
Thank you. Back to you, Chair.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Luke. Before I bring in Vikki Howells, we are over time, so if I could just ask you all to be as succinct as possible. Thank you. Vikki.
Thanks, Chair. Some people might say that the economic contract is perfectly placed as an important vehicle to try to deliver on the fair work agenda. Of course, during the pandemic, the tourism, retail and hospitality sectors have received substantial amounts of funding that required them to all sign up to that economic contract. Is there any evidence that this approach has delivered fair work outcomes in these sectors, and what changes could be made to deliver better outcomes? Shall I go to Victoria first?
I'll be very brief. Boxes are very easy to tick. I'm not aware of there being any changes—there might be at firm level, but not overall—and without checking and monitoring and enforcement, at worst, it's a paper exercise.
Thank you. I can see Mark and Shav nodding there. Is there anything else different you want to add to that? No.
So, my second and final question, then. Victoria, the Bevan Foundation, and the Wales TUC—so, yourself as well, Shav—have called for fair work conditions to be placed on Welsh Government grants awarded to businesses. Which conditions would you prioritise and how would these add value to the requirements of the economic contract? I'll start with Shavanah first. I think you're still muted.
I think it's really important that we recognise that the economic contract doesn't actually set requirements as such, and it seems to be much more like a process whereby Welsh Government gauge where a firm is at in relation to the contract's pillars, including fair work, and then they agree steps to make improvement. However, these aren't actually a condition of support. So, the economic contract, I would say, is a poorly understood policy. For starters, it's not actually a contract, and there should, perhaps, be some consideration now given to how the policy is referenced, and that we have greater emphasis placed on ensuring that it's properly understood, because this is an issue for employers as much as it is, actually, for us as well.
In terms of the basic conditions, we wouldn't expect any firm that does not permit a trade union in to organise the workforce to receive Welsh Government funds, because anti-union behaviour by an employer should also set real alarm bells for Welsh Government because it means that they don't want their workforce to realise those labour rights that we've been talking about that are really important. And it means that employers, typically, have something to hide and want to keep their workforce disempowered.
We strongly welcome the letter that the former economy Minister sent to all the economic resilience fund recipients to this effect as well. Where Welsh Government actually works on the economic contract with a firm, it is essentially trying to improve practices, and we expect them then to work with trade unions in that workplace, where relevant, to determine what better employment practices actually look like in practice, and how to make that workplace greener, in line with the just transition principle, and so on.
So, it's still a bit of a point of frustration for us that the economic contract is only actually agreed with the employer, and there's no room at the moment for worker voice. So, we would also expect that, in relation to fair work, those pledges are then based on trying to raise minimum terms and conditions above the statutory minimum. Prioritising sick pay, parental leave, covering things like childcare are also really important, along with secure contracts as well that reflect the usual hours. So, again, a bit of an area I think that's misunderstood, and we need to have some clarity around it.
Thank you. And Victoria, what conditions would you prioritise for the awarding of Welsh Government grants?
I wouldn't disagree with anything that Shavanah has said, and I think having been through—. You know, you can come up with a check list as long as your arm of things that should be in there. I think the fundamental thing is that employees have a voice, because that is what underpins the enactment and meeting all other rights and standards. It's at the root of it, I think. So, that, for me, would be the No. 1 priority—that employees have a voice.