Y Cyfarfod Llawn
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 12:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
The meeting began with the continuation of business from Tuesday, 8 December.
Welcome back. We are now resuming the agenda from yesterday's meeting, which was adjourned due to technical problems.
Debate continued from 8 December.
The following motion was moved on 8 December:
Motion NDM7497 Jeremy Miles
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6, agrees that provisions in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the Senedd, should be considered by the UK Parliament.
So, we will resume with yesterday's item 7, which is the legislative consent motion on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. The first contributor to the debate today will be the Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd.
Thank you, Llywydd. I am pleased to speak in this debate today on behalf of the committee, and given the significance of this legislation, we explored, as a committee, the financial considerations associated with the Bill with the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd, and the committee reached a majority conclusion that the constitutional and financial implications stemming from the passing of the internal market Bill, in its original form, would undermine the devolution settlement, leading to the possibility of a reduction in the funding available through the Welsh block grant .
While we welcomed the Welsh Government’s approach of seeking support through the House of Lords for its model amendments to the Bill, we highlighted our concern that changes pursued through the Lords could be reinstated once the Bill returned to the House of Commons, and that was the case when some of the financial aspects of the Bill that had been changed were reinstated by the Commons.
We have a number of concerns regarding the Bill, and I will list some of them now in my contribution this afternoon. First of all, there is the possibility that the UK Government will spend in devolved areas and in a way that is not compatible with the strategic intentions of the Welsh Government. The Minister told us that it would be possible to use the financial assistance powers within the Bill for a very broad set of purposes, including within devolved areas. The Lords removed this clause, but, of course, it was reinstated by the Commons. We don't believe that these powers are necessary and we believe that they will serve to undermine spending decisions made in Wales.
Part 6 of the Bill gave power to the UK Government Ministers to directly fund any person on a wide range of matters that are within devolved competence at this time. The committee was concerned about the implications of expenditure by UK Government in devolved areas for the Welsh block grant, with the the worrying possibility that this spending will be funded by top-slicing the block grant. While an amendment was agreed in the House of Lords to remove clause 42 from the Bill, concerns remain over the UK Government’s intentions in the devolved nations.
The Finance Committee has concerns around the reservation of state aid and subsidy control without the agreement of devolved nations. The Lords, again, removed the clause that reserves state aid, but it was subsequently reinstated by the Commons. The UK Government said the clause is needed because it's necessary to reserve to the UK Parliament the right to legislate for a system to regulate the provision by public bodies of subsidies that are or may be distortive or harmful and to avoid the risk of inconsistent regulation of such subsidies in the different parts of the UK. We heard that the Welsh Government has always argued that state aid is not reserved under the Government of Wales Act 2006, and we believe there must be discussions with devolved nations on these issues.
There's a lack of clarity on the impact of the Bill in terms of subsidy control on tax devolution and the possibility that certain tax policies in Wales may be limited or open to challenge. We believe the lack of clarity on the impact of this Bill on tax devolution should be addressed to ensure there are no unintended consequences when different approaches to tax are taken in different parts of the UK.
Finally, Llywydd, it's disappointing that this close to the end of the EU transition period there still remains no clarity on the shape or form of the UK shared prosperity fund, three years after it was announced. We reported as a committee back in 2018 on replacing EU funding for Wales, at which time there were concerns about the lack of engagement from the UK Government with the Welsh Government, and, of course, we heard that this situation is still 'exceptionally poor'. There was little information on the fund in the Chancellor’s spending review announced on 25 November, which said further details would be set out in a UK-wide investment framework published in spring of next year. The UK Government has an important role to ensure that the Welsh Government and stakeholders in Wales have sufficient resource through the fund, and the UK Government must engage with the Welsh Government and other devolved Governments on this issue as a matter of urgency. With those comments, I look forward to hearing the contributions of others in this debate. Diolch.
It will come as no surprise to everybody in this Chamber that I rise to speak in support of the legislative consent motion. Labour, Plaid Cymru and others in this Chamber have done everything that they can to try to prevent the UK from delivering on the democratic mandate of the people of Wales. First, they tried to stop us from leaving the EU, then they tried to extend the transition period, and today they are trying to scupper the UK internal market Bill.
Other speakers in this debate so far, both yesterday and just now, have warned that this legislation is a snatch-and-grab at devolved powers and an attempt to centralise decision making in London. But, of course, that is not the case. It's a piece of legislation that has two principal aims: firstly, to provide an orderly transfer of powers from Brussels to the UK as the result of our departure from the EU; and secondly to protect the integrity of the UK's own internal market. The measures it contains will ensure that, when the transition period ends, businesses across Wales will continue to be able to benefit from the seamless trade that they already currently enjoy with the rest of the UK. Ensuring the continuity of this trade and the businesses and jobs that that trade protects is all the more important given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the Welsh economy.
The Bill reaffirms that the UK is made up of four nations and that no matter in which nation a business is based it will have an equal opportunity to sell its goods and services anywhere in the United Kingdom. The legislation also maintains current high standards across the UK on a range of subjects, including food hygiene, animal welfare and other matters. It will not diminish any of those standards, including on employment, at all. It will benefit, of course, Welsh farmers as well, actually, as we seize the opportunities presented by leaving the common agricultural policy, enabling us to create a new system that puts the interests of our farmers here in Wales first.
Contrary to what some in the Welsh Parliament would have you believe, the Bill actually respects and strengthens the devolution settlement. As a result of this legislation, scores of powers will be transferred to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on 1 January, and not a single power will be taken away. Powers in scores of new policy areas that previously resided in Brussels will be passed directly to the Welsh Government. Not one power will be taken away. And I refer to your comments on state aid yesterday, Minister. The reality is, of course, that state aid is fettered here in Wales as a result of the EU at present. So, transferring those responsibilities to the UK Government seems to me to be perfectly sensible.
Llywydd, the Bill amounts to a fulfilment of Boris Johnson's pledges to get Brexit done and to devolve new powers to the Senedd as a result of the departure of the UK from the European Union. And the need to improve this legislation is more important now than ever. Wales sells more to the rest of the UK than the rest of the world put together, so it's vital that we do all that we can to protect this economic co-operation and partnership between the four nations, because only that will help us bounce back from COVID-19.
The Bill will also help the economic recovery by paving the way for the UK Government to invest in communities across the United Kingdom, including here in Wales, through new spending powers. Currently, many UK investment decisions are taken by unelected European bureaucrats, but as a result of this Bill, the UK Government will take on those spending powers that are currently exercised by the EU. That will enable the UK Government to spend the money of UK taxpayers and invest it in communities and businesses across the whole of the UK. Isn't that a surprise? That spending would secure extra funding for Wales over and above that available to the Welsh Government via the Welsh block grant. All of us in this Chamber should be welcoming such significant potential investment to Wales, and yet bizarrely Labour Ministers are objecting. They object to the UK Government taking on such powers, yet they were more than happy for those powers to be exercised by those faceless unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. You couldn't make it up. Why on earth would anyone in this Chamber object to greater investment in economic development, greater investment in infrastructure across this country? Crucially, the UK Government has been crystal clear that the level of funding that Wales will receive following the end of the transition period will be equal to or greater than the funding that we currently receive from EU schemes.
So, let me remind Labour Ministers and Members of the Senedd today of a very inconvenient truth that they try to forget: the people of Wales voted clearly in 2016 for Brexit, especially in your heartlands and your constituency. They want to see a Welsh Government that supports the delivery of Brexit. They want a UK Parliament and a Senedd that makes decisions on laws and spending that were previously made in Brussels, and they want the Welsh economy to bounce back quickly from the pandemic that we're currently in the midst of. This Bill delivers on those priorities, so let's back it, let's get Brexit done, and let's embrace the opportunities that it presents.
Plaid Cymru will vote against giving legislative consent for the internal market Bill today. This Bill essentially takes a sledgehammer to Welsh democracy, totally undermining the devolution settlement by taking back powers in devolved areas and seriously limiting the ability of this Senedd to create any novel legislation in future that does not accord with Westminster's plans. Emboldened by the Brexit referendum vote and the vociferous and divisive campaigning that it engendered, and the constant entreaties to respect the result of that referendum and the fact that Wales voted 'leave', we have seen the drip-drip rollback of powers since 2016. No thought of respecting the results of the referendums of 1997 and 2011, when the people of Wales voted for powers here in Wales in the first place and resoundingly for more powers in 2011.
But we expect no different from the Conservatives. We started losing powers under the Wales Act 2017. Plaid argued strongly and were mocked by Labour and the Conservatives then. With EU withdrawal, Labour opposed Plaid and the late Steffan Lewis's plan for a continuity Bill to protect the Senedd's legislative competence during EU withdrawal, and relied on inter-governmental agreements with the Conservative UK Government instead. Well, that's turned out well: now we have three Senedd committees concluding that the internal market Bill drives a coach and horses through the devolution settlement. So much for the protection of inter-governmental agreements, so much for common frameworks based on shared governance instead of the continuity Bill. The internal market Bill is not merely economic, it is disastrously constitutional. There has been no issue with trading between Wales and England these last 20 years.
Even the House of Lords have been unstinting in their condemnation of the internal market Bill. Welsh Government was sidelined and ignored repeatedly during EU withdrawal negotiations over the last four years. Legislative consent was denied for the EU withdrawal Bill by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but the Tories carried on regardless. Now in the midst of the COVID pandemic, with Brexit negotiations oven ready, as the easiest deal in the world—that's going well—if all that was not enough, we have an internal market Bill imposed upon us. A Bill breaking international law, leading to fury in Ireland and elsewhere. Our European funding, the shared prosperity fund—so-called—hollowed out, not a penny less, not a power lost; not going well, is it? The internal market Bill means losing powers, losing funding, losing control over funding, and paralysing the Senedd's future ability to make divergent laws for Wales. The internal market Bill just draws us into England, Sewel convention gone, inter-governmental agreements a joke—it's imposed upon us.
With a fisheries Bill and a trade Bill and agriculture Bill going through at present, Welsh Government is still depending on inter-governmental agreements and despatch-box promises—as empty as they are meaningless. Still, Labour remains wedded to this union of an increasingly disunited kingdom to the detriment of Wales, bleating at the injustices but complicit. Over eight centuries, English kings and the Westminster elite have either oppressed or neglected the people of Wales, or both. People often mock when I go on about Welsh history, but we don't need to recall Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf, the treachery of the blue books, drowning Tryweryn, or any other historical betrayal, because the modern-day examples keep on flooding in, where the UK Government gazumps Welsh Government on testing kits, or directs PPE to England not Wales, or the crippling underfunding of rail infrastructure in Wales, or UK Government wrecking shared prosperity, decimating farming incomes, and dismantling Wales politically with the internal market Bill. Betrayal is heaped upon betrayal, and still Labour is proud to be unionist. UK Tories are laughing at Welsh Government and laughing at Wales because we can always be brought to heel. Soon, Scotland will be free of this charade; it's only Wales and England left. No UK, then. We glimpse a dystopian future beloved of that malevolent, misinformed minority that wants to ditch the Senedd and ditch Wales. Labour needs to be on the right side of history moving forward, not side with forces laughing at Wales. Give legislative consent to dismantling my nation? Llywydd, in ending, you know and people know me as a detached, considered and dispassionate analyser of constitutional affairs, and even I say vote against legislative consent. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch, Llywydd. My group will be supporting this LCM today, and we disagree with the conclusions drawn by many that the internal market Bill fundamentally undermines devolution. I would argue the opposite—without a sensible approach to the trade of goods and services between the home nations we could see a breakdown in the free movement of goods, which could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
Many of the people crying foul were quite content to accept the EU internal market, so why should a UK one be any different? It's not as if we don't have any say in making the rules. After all, doesn't Wales have 40 MPs to represent our nation in the UK Parliament? What we can't have is a free-for-all whereby nation competes against nation, and in that trade war all will lose. That would be particularly true in our case. How could our small nation of 3 million people possibly hope to compete with a nation of 56 million people? And to complicate things, we rely on the goodwill and taxes of those 56 million people to fund our health service and schools. If not for them, then our taxes would be so much higher and our nation so much poorer. We have to adopt a sensible, four-nation approach to ensuring our goods and services are of the highest quality, safety and efficacy, produced under the highest labour and welfare standards. This is the only way to maintain the free flow of goods and services across an essentially borderless United Kingdom.
So, at this moment in time, Wales needs interdependence. However, should there be a public appetite in the future in Wales for independence, it would not be possible financially for many years, due to Wales's poor infrastructure, which requires heavy investment, and I'm sorry to say that, whichever Government has been in power in Westminster, Wales has always been underfunded and treated as the poor relation—not one party any better than the other—and Wales has been left behind. For these reasons, we will support the LCM today, because now, post Brexit, is the time for change and for Wales to prosper, and investment in our economy is extremely important.
So, both Governments must start working together for the benefit of the people of Wales, instead of fighting against each other. Don't forget, around 85 per cent of people in the Senedd tried to scupper the Brexit referendum result, and this is not on. We need democracy, as opposed to dictatorship. The people of Wales decide what is best for them, and I rest my case. Thank you.
And the people of Wales, of course, have decided what is best for them, and they've elected this Parliament.
This Bill, which I hope—[Interruption.]—which I hope the Parliament will refuse legislative consent for, is one of the most dishonest and destructive pieces of legislation that I've had the misfortune to read in my time in politics. They set two clear objectives for this legislation: maintaining the single market, and enabling businesses to operate across the United Kingdom. Then they say that we need this Bill to invest in Wales and Scotland. Now, those objectives aren't objectives that anyone here, on any side of this Chamber, would oppose or object to. We want to see business occurring across the Wales border. We want to see investment from the United Kingdom Government in Wales, and you don't need this Bill to achieve any of those objectives. It isn't about those objectives, it isn't about the single market, and it isn't about investment. And I'll say to Darren Millar, who did his best, through gritted teeth, I think, earlier, to justify this nonsense—it is possible for the UK Government to invest in Wales today. You take rail funding, for example. They could invest in rail funding today, but they don't, and not only do they not invest in the rail network in Wales, they change the formula to mean that they'll invest less in the future. So, if they wanted to invest in our—[Interruption.] It's a fact. If they wanted to invest in our infrastructure, they could do it today, they could do it tomorrow, they could have done it yesterday. They chose to do none of those things. And the spending review that was announced a few weeks ago follows years of such underfunding.
We were promised the shared prosperity fund. We still haven't seen that. We still haven't seen a penny of those pounds that were promised to Wales. The basis upon which that was created is still not clear to any of us, and I'll say to Darren Millar that I was one of the Ministers who negotiated European funding in Brussels, and that process was far more transparent, far more open, far more democratic than what we have today, when we've essentially got the UK Parliament enforcing its will on this Parliament. If anyone here believes that the cuts in agricultural payments that we saw last week are anything except an absolute destruction of the industry, then they need to listen to what the NFU and the FUW are saying.
Let me say this on the single market: this is a solution in search of a problem. There is no issue with businesses doing cross-border trade—none at all. The single market can easily be managed by four Governments working together within the common frameworks under the supervision of four legislatures. That is happening at the moment, it could happen in the future, but what wouldn't happen under that system, of course, is that the Tories wouldn't get what they want. They wouldn't get their own way, because in a democracy they need to win elections, and in Wales they've been notably lacking in some success in that over recent years. Whenever the people of Wales have an opportunity to vote, they do not elect a Conservative Government, and I don't believe they ever will.
I listened to Laura Anne Jones. She stood in Blaenau Gwent a year ago and managed to get 18 per cent of the vote. If she wishes to stand in Blaenau Gwent in May, I'm very, very happy to show her round the constituency, but I can tell you now that the people of Blaenau Gwent will not be electing a Tory in May or at any other time.
And finally, let me say this—[Interruption.] And finally, let me say this: this isn't about the single market, it isn't about business, it isn't about Brexit, it isn't about UK investment; it is about one thing and one thing alone—it is about the imposition of political power to undermine Welsh democracy. That is what this Bill is about, and that is what this Bill seeks to achieve. And this is fundamental to us. I say this to you, Presiding Officer: it is important for all of us, wherever we sit in this Chamber, to uphold the rights and privileges of this Parliament, and to uphold the interests of what the people of Wales have voted for. The people of Wales have voted for this Parliament to hold these powers. These powers are being taken away from this Parliament without reference to this Parliament, and I say this to my own front bench: devolution is dead if this reaches the statute book, because devolution was predicated on a UK Parliament recognising and respecting the mandates of Parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the powers are taken away from us without our consent, and if this Bill and its provisions are imposed on the people of Wales without their consent, then it is clear to me that the democratic structures of the United Kingdom, the devolved democratic structures that we've enjoyed for the last 20 years, are no longer sustainable, and the United Kingdom's democracy is no longer sustainable. And I believe that this Bill should be withdrawn, we should not provide our consent for that, and, if the Tories do go ahead in undermining our democracy, then we need to find a constitutional settlement for the future that protects the rights not only of this Parliament, but of the people who elected it.
I am a member of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee, and the reason I speak is because I want to commend the committee's report. I do want to emphasise that I'm not against the principle of the internal market Bill, but I have to say I find that the one before us has been rushed and badly thought through, typically in regard to its constitutional implications. Unlike the previous speaker and some others that have spoken, I think this is rushed and clumsy, rather than a malign attempt to undermine the principles of devolution, but, even if those principles are undermined inadvertently, it still creates a very serious constitutional peril, and this is something I would hope my own party would reflect upon.
Regarding its impact on devolved administrations, I think it's important to note here that the Bill risks making the exercise of devolved powers much more difficult, and it's in their exercise that powers are significant. They can exist notionally, and many people have referred to the supposedly 70 more powers that come to us as a result of them being moved from Brussels, but if these things cannot be exercised just because of the general framework of a particular policy area, or existing policies are more difficult to exercise—for instance, how we regulate the housing market and the provision of services by landlords, for instance, or agents of landlords—that really brings home how it can have an impact in domestic policy making.
I do believe the UK Government would have been better advised to have treated this Bill as the first of a number of constitutional Bills that may be necessary to strengthen the integrity of the UK. I do regret that this has not been its focus. Of course, to be successful, a constitutional Bill needs to be the product of joint working in its drafting between the devolved administrations, or at least giving them every opportunity to join in that effort. Now, I'm not so naive as to suppose that support from the Scottish Government was ever likely to be forthcoming, and there are well understood reasons for that, but they still may have contributed to a process they didn't entirely agree with or in the end would be happy to support. But opposition from a unionist Labour Welsh Government should not be dismissed lightly. It sends an alarming signal.
Presiding Officer, in many ways, Brexit was about the reaction to the single market and its regulation, and the accusation that those regulations often hampered the exercise of domestic sovereignty. Yet what we have proposed today is an internal market that is much more centralised than the European single market and without those principles of subsidiarity and proportionality that do give genuine local decision making full scope within a single market—or as full a scope as is possible. We are not going to have that, and I think it's ironic that senior members of my party that pursued Brexit with such verve and success are now applying and multiplying the principles they so condemned in terms of the European single market.
Can I just finish by saying that in preparing the ground to break international law, this Bill is clearly repugnant? Now, I do understand that despite the decision of the Commons to reinsert the clauses that allow for the breaking of international law—the Commons say that they had to be reinstated after the Lords withdrew them—I understand now that the Government has indicated that it will not object to the Lords removing those same clauses again, and therefore at least that stain in this Bill will then be expunged. But the fact that that threat was ever made I think must cause great unease to the devolved administrations, and the ability of a British Government to negotiate in a way that is trusting and full and not capable of these underlying menaces. I think, in this regard alone, this Bill stood remarkably outside the traditions of the Conservative Party, when you look at Churchill and Maxwell Fyfe, who did so much to establish the norms of international law after the second world war. It's with great reluctance, Presiding Officer, that I must tell the Chamber and my own party that I will be voting against giving this Bill our legislative consent.
I'm afraid I have to fundamentally disagree with my friend David Melding, particularly in relation to the points that he's just made on international law, which I'll come to later in my speech.
The opponents of this legislative consent motion seem to me to ignore the fundamental reality of why we're debating this today—that the people of the United Kingdom and the people of Wales, four and a half years ago, voted to leave the European Union, and we had a general election last December in which the Conservative Party stood on the slogan of getting Brexit done and the Prime Minister was elected, or his party was elected, with a majority of 80 in the House of Commons. Both in the red wall in northern England and in Wales, Labour citadels that had returned Labour Members for decades fell to the Tories—five Conservative seats were lost in Wales.
The withdrawal agreement does not deliver Brexit. That was a product of a rather painful period for the Conservative Party under the short-lived leadership of Theresa May. It constitutes a supine surrender to the negotiator for the EU, Monsieur Barnier, by the worst Prime Minister that this country has seen since, at least, Ramsay MacDonald. But of course, Theresa May had no majority in the House of Commons. Now, we have a Government that has a large majority in the House of Commons, and so it is able to deliver the sort of Brexit that the people voted for four and a half years ago. Boris Johnson wants to get Brexit done and this Bill is an essential ingredient in achieving that. So, everything has changed.
But, of course, nothing has changed for the Labour Party; they are the latter-day Bourbons of modern Britain, because they've learned nothing and have forgotten nothing. As Darren Millar pointed out, not only did they oppose Brexit—fair enough; of course they're entitled to do that—but they also legislated to stop the United Kingdom leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, and then voted against the withdrawal agreement itself. They wanted a second referendum to reverse the first referendum before the first referendum result was delivered. They've done everything they possibly can in the last four years to undermine the British negotiating position. And the Counsel General, I'm afraid, is still at it. He's been Monsieur Barnier's enthusiastic little helper during the whole of this period—the faithful servant of the Brussels technocrats whose aim is to make Britain suffer for the impertinence of demanding the restoration of its national sovereignty. And of course, the other unstated objective is to keep all the others in the EU still in line in case they be tempted to follow the route that Britain has freely chosen to take.
The withdrawal agreement is, I believe, wholly contrary to the Good Friday agreement itself, and therefore there's an entire justification for retaining the clause that David Melding just informed us the Government is now happy perhaps to see taken out. Because under the withdrawal agreement, it said that Northern Ireland's status should change only with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland—under the Good Friday agreement, rather, the status of Northern Ireland can be changed only with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. The Act of Union 1801, which united us into the United Kingdom, in article 6, says that
'in all treaties...with any foreign power, his Majesty’s subjects of Ireland shall...be on the same footing as his Majesty’s subjects of Great Britain.'
And of course, the withdrawal agreement drives a coach and horses through that, because it creates a border right down the middle of the Irish sea and requires people in England and in Wales exporting to Northern Ireland to fill out export documentation, and vice versa from Northern Ireland in the other direction. Now, the Northern Ireland protocol in article 4 of the withdrawal agreement says that,
'Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom'.
All that the internal market Bill does is to ensure that this will continue after our transition out of the European Union. Now, the European Union wants to protect its single market, of course, but then, so do we in the United Kingdom. And protecting the single market of the United Kingdom is vastly more important to the people of Wales than the single market of the European Union ever was, or, indeed, could be.
Now, you can't repudiate part of a treaty in international law, but of course, you can repudiate, in certain circumstances, a treaty in its entirety. And if there's no deal, I hope that the United Kingdom Government will repudiate the withdrawal agreement in its entirety, including the financial arrangements that the withdrawal agreement contains, and the trade matters wrongly conceded to the European Union in the negotiations. Under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, if there's a fundamental change in circumstances compared with the time when the treaty was negotiated, then it is lawful for a state to repudiate its terms and—
You need to bring your comments to a close now, Neil Hamilton. You're out of time.
I'll do that, Llywydd. The withdrawal agreement was never meant to be permanent; it was meant to be transitional. If we do not pass this Bill today, then what we will do is effectively maintain the border down the middle of the Irish sea, fragment the United Kingdom, and that's the greatest danger of all.
The internal market Bill does one thing, and one thing only—it seeks to overturn the result of the referendum and ignore the will of the people. In 2011—and a few have alluded to it today—Welsh citizens were asked a direct question, and it was,
'Do you want the Assembly'—
as it was then—
'now to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers for?'
Nearly two thirds of the respondents said 'yes'. The result meant that this Assembly could make laws on all matters in those subject areas without needing the UK Parliament's agreement. The internal market Bill would reverse that decision and undermine the Welsh Government's and this Chamber's ability to make laws.
The news out of No. 10 yesterday suggests the Westminster Government could drop those clauses of the Bill that breach international law if a deal with the EU can be agreed. But as it stands, the internal market Bill makes a 'no deal' Brexit more likely. In Pembrokeshire, we've already been dealt a Brexit blow. The Danish shipping company DFDS has announced a new direct ferry from Ireland to France, bypassing our ports. That's a huge blow for the local economy and it's a worrying sign of where we are heading.
A 'no deal' Brexit would be a catastrophe and yet another broken Tory promise. There never was an oven-ready deal; it was simply a half-baked notion, just like the Conservative manifesto commitment to Welsh farmers that promised to, and I quote,
'Guarantee the current annual Common Agricultural Policy budget to farmers in every year of the next Parliament'.
Instead, they've robbed Welsh farmers of £95 million. Conservative Members tried to spin the fact and they tried to pull the wool over their constituents eyes, but the bottom line—and the Farmers Union of Wales's number crunching proves it—is that it's—[Interruption.]
Hold on, Joyce. I'm sorry to cut across you. Darren Millar, you don't have to comment on every single thing that everybody says in this debate. You've had your chance to speak. Please allow other people to contribute now. Joyce Watson.
Thank you, Llywydd. The bottom line—and the Farmers Union of Wales's number crunching proves it—is that it's a hatchet job on the rural economy, and that's a sign of what's to come.
The Finance Committee report warns that the internal market Bill opens the door to the UK Government reducing funding to Wales via the block grant. It gives powers to Westminster to decide what is best for Wales, and they don't have any mandate to do that—that mandate rests here. For three years, the UK Government has failed to publish its plans for replacing the EU structural investment funding with a UK shared prosperity fund. I'm beginning to think it's a ghost fund. I'm beginning to think it doesn't exist. Either they haven't done those sums, or they don't want to share those with the devolved administrations.
The internal market Bill is a direct risk to devolution, as many commentators have said today, and, therefore, the stability of the UK. It's against the settled will of the people of Wales. It's nothing short of a smash and grab, and at the same time, it's outside international law insofar as it currently stands.
I thank Joyce Watson for her speech; it referred back to the 2011 referendum and making laws in these 20 areas. Of course, that was subject to the overriding law of the European Union—she didn't object to that, but she objects to more limited constraints at a UK level. She also didn't remind us that on the ballot paper in that referendum it said, 'This Assembly cannot make laws on tax, irrespective of the result of this vote'. May I thank the Minister and the three Chairs of committees—and perhaps also if I can single out Dai Lloyd—for their speeches, which have reminded me and emphasised what a good Bill this is? How pleased I am to support it today. There are, I think, three core areas; the Minister mentioned five, but I'll limit myself to three.
Firstly, the UK Government is going to expressly be allowed to spend money in more areas in Wales; surely that is a good thing. Others object because it might limit, apparently, their policy control. The UK Government might perhaps fund free schools or academies and allow parents and their children more choice of education in Wales. Some Members refer to respecting manifesto commitments, but, of course, the UK Government's spending in respect of the M4 relief road could only actually deliver on a commitment that the Welsh Government made, but then broke. I think we should welcome the prospect of more spending from the UK Government, including from the shared prosperity fund.
Secondly, the area of market access and mutual recognition—excellent principles. I disagree with David Melding and his references to Tory objections to the EU single market and replicating them through this legislation. The reverse is the case. What we saw in the European Union was single market legislation that led to top-down harmonisation of rules across all 27 countries saying you can only sell something if it abides by a single central regulation. What the internal market Bill does is go back to a much better approach that the European Union had itself flown from the 1979 European Court of Justice judgment in Cassis de Dijon, basically that if something meets the regulations of the state in which it's made, then it can be sold in all member states—market access and that principle of mutual recognition. I think that's very welcome, and if it results in our being unable to legislate to ban people in Wales from buying things that people in England can buy, then that is something I would also welcome.
The third area of state aid and a measure of control over state aid by the UK Government, again, is something I welcome. We've generally had less state aid in the UK than is usual across the European Union. I'm not sure why it's a such a block for the European Union in these talks. I hear many people in this Chamber, particularly the Labour and Plaid speakers, complain of any UK oversight over what Welsh Government may do in terms of state aid, just as Joyce Watson did about legislation in those 20 areas, but they never objected to it when it came from the EU. To me, that just shows that many who come from those political traditions are, frankly, as anti-UK as they are pro-EU, and I think that was exemplified yesterday by the disgraceful comments from a Government Minister attacking the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Actually, it is this Welsh Government and the actions of this Senedd that threaten the United Kingdom, not this internal market Bill, and if, to a limited extent, it, for the first time, pushes some powers back to a UK level that might otherwise be devolved, that is something I welcome and I think the people of Wales will welcome.
I'll be voting for this LCM today. In some ways, though, if I lose that vote, then that in itself will be good, because we will then see the UK Government impose this Bill and we will, hopefully, be able to put the Sewel convention to bed.
Today, this Senedd will reject legislative consent for the internal market Bill, knowing in advance that the UK Government will not honour the Sewel convention. I understand the UK Government has made a last-minute offer to consult the devolved administrations before using delegated powers. They must think we're fools if we'll believe that one, as they've already made clear they'll ignore the withholding of consent on the very Bill they're now saying they'll adapt. The lack of respect the UK Government has towards this Senedd, and its pigheaded approach to democracy—that it only counts if they agree—has laid bare the reality of the union.
I'd like to thank the Minister for his strong statement and also for his work as Brexit Minister these past few years. His strategy to try to protect this Senedd through collaboration ultimately failed, but this was not because of a lack of his efforts. He tried his best out of a genuine desire to do what he believed was best for Wales, but was let down by a Westminster Government that had no interest in co-operation, one that was determined to dismantle devolution.
Three separate Senedd committees have recommended rejecting legislative consent. Concerns include the conflict of interest inherent in the UK Government setting UK subsidy rules when it's only responsible for English economic policy, and that the Bill would have a profound effect on the devolution settlement. The message is clear: the UK Government has responsibilities towards its four constituent nations, but its policy now is to advance English interests at the expense of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In terms of what the Bill strives to achieve, some of the most damaging powers include the mutual recognition and non-discrimination clauses that are designed to weaken the Senedd's power to legislate. Clause 46 will empower the Westminster Government to spend directly in Wales without the consent of this place, and it's clear that the reason for this measure is that they just don't like the way that the Welsh Government uses its powers. The democratic mandate for these powers lying with Wales is unanswerable. Welsh citizens have endorsed devolution 14 times in two referendums and through delivering pro-devolution majorities in 12 elections. No anti-devolution mandate exists. It's clear that when Boris Johnson says he is enacting the will of the people, he isn't talking about the will of the people of Wales.
I would like to take this opportunity to place my thanks on record as well to Dafydd Wigley for working cross party in the Lords to try to overturn the most damaging aspects of this Bill. One successful amendment he supported, in the name of Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, sought to remove the provisions enabling the UK Government to spend in devolved areas. Now, this was supported by Labour in the Lords, but I was shocked that Labour abstained on this amendment in the Commons on Monday. I'm sure the Minister will place on record his condemnation of his Labour colleagues in Westminster for undermining his stance and failing to support an amendment that reflects his Government's policy.
We've now had 10 years of Tory UK Governments that have consistently attacked the welfare of Welsh citizens, 10 years of destructive austerity, four years of constitutional chaos and a lifetime of broken promises. Alun Cairns told a Senedd committee that there was no agenda in terms of withdrawing powers or rolling back powers from the Welsh Government. Now, rules surrounding the use of parliamentary language prevent me from using the obvious term to describe this, but we all recognise what a clear disparity between promise and action entails. And I haven't even mentioned the broken promises surrounding the shared prosperity fund.
Llywydd, Welsh democracy is being unravelled. The Welsh Government strategy was to try to protect Welsh interests by working with the UK Government. That strategy failed, not because of a lack of effort, but because their unwilling partner has been a rogue Government that has a nihilistic desire for destruction.
Today, Llywydd, is a historic day, and not for the reasons it should be. Today should be the day that we stop the internal market Bill in its tracks through rejecting our consent. Instead, it will be the day that Westminster reasserts its dominance over Wales through force. The old ways have failed us. The only option left to protect our democracy and the interests of Welsh people is independence.
I call on the Counsel General to reply to the debate.
Diolch, Llywydd. Can I just say, firstly, I'm glad that Delyth Jewell reminded us of the cross-party effort, both in Parliament but also in this Chamber, to support the position that I articulated at the beginning of this debate—whether it's on the Government benches, Plaid Cymru benches and, in a speech, if I might say, of great sagacity by David Melding, it was good to hear a Conservative voice standing up for the principles of democracy in Wales.
Can I start by associating myself with the comments of Alun Davies and Mick Antoniw? We support the principle of an internal market on these benches; we think it is important for the efficient and effective functioning of the economy in the UK. But this Bill is not only unnecessary as a means of achieving that, it is positively damaging to the devolution settlement in Wales.
I want to reflect on David Rees's point, where he reminded us of the disparity between the nations that this Bill entrenches. Yes, economic disparity, and Llyr Gruffydd also mentioned this as well, but that, in a sense, is a fact of economic life. What this Bill creates is constitutional disparity. It prevents this Senedd from being able to touch this legislation in the future, even when it deals with devolved matters. Parliament isn't constrained in the same way in acting on behalf of England. Now, I know on the benches opposite that they are no fans of the level playing field between the UK and the European Union, but I would in all sincerity have hoped that they could at least support the principle that the playing field should not be levelled against their own nation, and they failed to do that in this debate today.
Mick Antoniw reminded us, Dai Lloyd and David Melding as well, that this Bill is being imposed. It is not legislation that has been co-developed with the devolved Governments.
I listened to Darren Millar's speech. It is some time since I heard a speech of such cynicism in this place. Almost everything that he said, every sentence, I felt the opposite was the reality. It was a speech for another debate. This debate is not about Brexit, it's about the future constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom. Darren Millar spoke about the democratic mandate. The democratic mandate that we should be upholding is that which the Welsh nation has expressed in two referenda to establish this Senedd and to expand its powers, as Joyce Watson and Dai Lloyd reminded us. Darren Millar perpetuated the myth that this Bill extends the powers of the Senedd. I have asked Government Ministers in Westminster to point me to the clause that does that, and I'm happy to yield the floor now if he can do that today.
No, there is no yielding of the floor in the current circumstances, sorry.
Well, I note that he failed to point me, in his speech, to that clause, Llywydd.
Dai Lloyd's contribution—I agree with his rejection of the Bill. I don't agree with his characterisation of the work of the Labour Party, but I do agree with his rejection of the Bill. This is a time for cross-party alliances. We have managed to work together with the SNP Government in Scotland, despite having very different constitutional preferences. We're in different places on the spectrum of reform, but let us today, at least, speak with one voice from this Chamber.
Dai gave us a reminder of the history, which we should all bear in mind. Caroline Jones and Neil Hamilton's speeches both reminded me that history is not the only thing that is destined to repeat itself, and they both shared with Darren Millar a fondness for the mythology that we've heard too often in this place.
I heard Mark Reckless in his contribution. Now, for those who want to abolish the Senedd, this Bill is constitutional catnip. The truth of it is that the principles behind this Bill strengthen the arm of people like Mark Reckless, and that's not about abolishing the Senedd; in his case, it's about abolishing Wales.
I'll end, if I may, with Alun Davies's comments, where I started. The charade that this Bill provides further capacity for the UK Government to fund in Wales is one of the most extraordinary things. The thing that prevents the UK Government from funding more infrastructure in Wales is not that they don't have the power to do it, they don't have the inclination to do it. I was reminded of Paul Davies's promise to the Welsh people, that a Conservative Government in Wales would defund what is not devolved. I had no difficulty in believing that. They've spent the last 10 years defunding what hasn't been devolved, whether it's rail, or energy, or digital, those have all been defunded and that's been a Conservative choice. So, let's not have financial assistance powers in the Bill; let's just have more financial assistance.
This Bill, Llywydd, is an outrageous assault on this national Parliament and the Welsh Government, and I ask Members to defend this Senedd's rights and democratic powers to reject the motion and to deny it consent.
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] There are objections, and I will defer voting under this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The next item is a motion to suspend Standing Orders to allow the next item of business to be debated. I call on the Counsel General to formally move.
Motion NDM7500 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:
Suspends Standing Orders 12.20(i), 12.22(i) and that part of Standing Order 11.16 that requires the weekly announcement under Standing Order 11.11 to constitute the timetable for business in Plenary for the following week, to allow NNDM7501 to be considered in Plenary on Tuesday, 8 December 2020.
Formally. The proposal is to suspend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Now, a procedural motion to allow the next item of business to be postponed. I call on the Counsel General to move that motion formally.
To propose that the Welsh Parliament, under Standing Order 12.32, postpones the debate on new Coronavirus restrictions until Wednesday, 9 December 2020.
The proposal is to agree the procedural motion. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the procedural motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Therefore, the debate on the new coronavirus restrictions will be rescheduled to the next meeting, which will take place later today, and will be included and scheduled as item 7, and will be subject to proposal to group the debate with a Conservative debate on coronavirus.
Item 9, the equality and human rights annual review is postponed.
And that brings this to voting time at last, and I will suspend proceedings so that we can prepare for this vote. The meeting is suspended.
Plenary was suspended at 13:27.
The Senedd reconvened at 13:30, with the Llywydd in the Chair.
That brings us to the vote on the legislative consent motion on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. And I call for a vote on the motion, tabled in the name of Jeremy Miles. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour 15, no abstentions, 36 against, and therefore the motion is not agreed.
Legislative Consent Motion on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill: For: 15, Against: 36, Abstain: 0
Motion has been rejected
We will now close this meeting, and reconvene for the rest of today's business. So, the meeting is now closed, and we will take a break.
The discussion of business from Tuesday, 8 December concluded.
Discussion of the business of the meeting of Wednesday, 9 December began at 13.40, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome, all, to the Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in a hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equitably. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting and these are noted on the agenda, and I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Siambr and those joining us virtually.
With that, we'll move to item 1, which is questions to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, and the first question is from Angela Burns.
1. What support is the Welsh Government making available for business development in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OQ56003
Good afternoon, Angela. Thanks for the question. Phase 3 of our Wales-only economic resilience fund included £100 million of business development grant support aimed specifically at helping businesses to adapt to a post-COVID life outside the European Union, and, of course, £20 million of this fund has been earmarked specifically for tourism and hospitality. And we have also made available a further £340 million through the latest phase of the economic resilience fund to support businesses affected by the new changes to COVID-19 regulations.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Everybody is always grateful for any funds that can be made available to businesses. But I specifically wanted to ask you about businesses that are not actually affected by COVID-19, and there are many businesses out there that actually trade in very different ways and who still need to grow, to develop, to buy new premises, to take on board new staff, to start training programmes, and I've been talking with two or three of them and they are finding it very difficult to actually get any traction.
Before COVID, of course, there was a clear route into Government, a clear way of being able to apply for grants, a clear way of being able to liaise with people as to what information was required. But, of course, with the focus on COVID, what I'm really asking you is: can you just give us an overview of what moneys are available for businesses that are not affected by the COVID pandemic? How can they get access to staff, who are obviously under immense pressure trying to solve that COVID business? Because if we are going to try and grow after this is all over, then we need to encourage those businesses that are strong now to become stronger still and to carry on their businesses as normal.
Well, can I thank Angela Burns for her supplementary question? I couldn't agree more that businesses that have not been affected by COVID should be given the support that they require, in order to bounce back with strength from the pandemic, and to grow in spite of what we have faced collectively as a nation. Business-as-usual support from Business Wales is available, including, importantly, the accelerated growth programme, business start-up advice and support, and so too is the business-as-usual support from the Development Bank of Wales. Within Government, we also operate the economy futures fund, which is designed to, if you like, turbo charge the industries of tomorrow—those with great growth potential—making sure that our funding is aligned to our calls to action, including investment in skills, research and development and, crucially important of course, decarbonisation. But I'd be happy to write to the Member with comprehensive detail of the support available to businesses that she's identified.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s strategy to invest in the economic development of towns in the Heads of the Valleys? OQ56004
Thank you. Our strategy is to lay a strong foundation for change across the region. I updated the Senedd yesterday on the progress we have made with the Valleys taskforce. In addition to that, the Tech Valleys programme has made commitments of over £22 million to help create 600 sustainable jobs, and our £90 million transforming towns programme has a strong Heads of the Valleys focus too.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I'm grateful to the Minister for that update, and I was grateful to him for his statement yesterday. The coronavirus has affected our communities and our lives in profoundly different ways and it's made us challenge many assumptions that we've accepted over many years. One of the most profound potential impacts and longer term impacts of the coronavirus has been a challenge to the notion and the concept that cities will continue to develop, and that city centres are the only places where business can properly be transacted. This means that, for the first time in many decades, we have an opportunity to create a renaissance for towns and villages and communities, and Wales, if it is anything, is a nation of small towns. I hope, Deputy Minister, that we will be able to create a strategy to underpin a renaissance for the towns in the Heads of the Valleys. When I think of my own constituency, my own home town of Tredegar, and of Ebbw Vale, Brynmawr, of Abertillery, Nantyglo and Blaina, we've all seen difficult, difficult times over many decades, and this is an opportunity that the Welsh Government really needs to grasp and promote and drive forward over the coming years.
Well, I agree with that. I think towns are facing a swirl of change. There's no doubt that digital disruption has had a huge impact, was already under way before the pandemic, and the pandemic has certainly accelerated that. But on the other hand, as Alun Davies rightly points out, there are opportunities from changes in attitudes and behaviours. It's one of the reasons why, when we set our target for 30 per cent of people working from home after the pandemic, we've identified alongside it an opportunity to place some of those workers within town centres into core working hubs. People will no longer have to travel to commute to work. Many will choose to do so, and it will be a mix of remote and flexible working, we hope, but there's certainly an opportunity for towns to have a different role, and I think that's what I would say here—that all people involved in the sense of place and the role of town centres have a responsibility to rethink what towns are for. We're certainly putting a significant amount of infrastructure investment in place. We've committed £6 million to Blaenau Gwent alone under the transforming towns fund, which will unleash a further £4 million. That's a £10-million pot to regenerate the towns just in Blaenau Gwent. We have adopted a town-centre-first principle in public sector investment decisions. Certainly, we know from the foundational economy projects that the public sector can have an anchor role within town centres to draw in other activity. But he's right—all of us need to think strategically about how to marshal these forces for the good of towns.
Last month, Wales saw the largest increase in unemployment in the UK due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. There's been a substantial increase in the number of people within the Valleys taskforce region claiming unemployment benefits—for example, the unemployment benefit claimant count increased between March and October 2020 by 68 per cent in Blaenau Gwent, 71 per cent in Torfaen, and 65 per cent in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. The retail vacancy rate in Wales has also increased from 15.9 per cent to 18 per cent in the third quarter of this year, the largest jump anywhere in the UK. Given that the best way to improve people's lives, not just in the Valleys but obviously in the whole of Wales, is through providing long-term, sustainable and skilled employment opportunities, what specific targeted support will you provide to Valleys towns, and what plans do you have to extend the number of enterprise zones in these areas?
The evidence on enterprise zones is mixed, and certainly the economy committee's report on them a few years ago reinforced that. We set out yesterday the activities, specifically in the Valleys taskforce area, on a whole range of interventions around placemaking, and we have set out considerable financial support for those businesses in distress because of the pandemic. We've also set out a recovery plan to make sure that, when we emerge from the pandemic, we have an emphasis on remaking our economy in a better way.
This is a really important matter raised by the Member. I have a question about priorities for funding in the area, because transforming town centres and providing better public transport is obviously key. I've been raising concerns with the Government about the cost of dualling an 11-mile stretch of road on the A465, which has increased from the original estimate of £428 million to £1.2 billion mainly because of the decision to use the mutual investment model. As I've said every time I've mentioned this, I welcome investment in our communities, but I do question whether spending £1.2 billion on 11 miles of concrete is justified when so many people in the area are living in poverty. The annual cost of repayment will be more than the annual budget of Communities First, the Welsh Government's flagship anti-poverty scheme, which it closed and never replaced. So, I'd ask the Minister what assessment was made by the Government, if any, of other means of improving that stretch of road that would have improved road safety without costing all that money?
I'm sure the Member is deliberately putting me in a difficult position, because she knows full well my view on investment in roads versus sustainable transport, and certainly in our Wales transport strategy we've set out that, in future, we want to shift our emphasis towards modal shift. In terms of this particular project, as she knows and as the First Minister has pointed out to her, the mutual investment model is a more sophisticated approach than she gives it credit, and the figure quoted involves the whole-of-life maintenance costs, which are significant. But she is right to say, in terms of addressing transport poverty for some of the most challenged communities in the country, we do need to make sure that we do more in future to help people who don't have a car, rather than reinforcing car dependency.
We now go to spokespeople's questions, and the first up this afternoon is Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.
Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, what is the Welsh Government's assessment of how the restrictions on the hospitality sector in regard to the Christmas period will affect the Welsh economy?
Can I thank Russell George for his first question and take this opportunity, with it being my last OAQ session of the year, to wish Russell and every Member in the Siambr the very best for a peaceful Christmas and new year? And with regard to hospitality, we fully recognise the incredibly difficult position that many, many businesses across Wales are in as a consequence of those rising numbers of coronavirus victims. But we have put in place an unprecedented support package, the most generous and comprehensive anywhere in the United Kingdom, with specifically £340 million of support for businesses in tourism, hospitality and leisure in the coming weeks.
Thank you for your answer, Minister, and for your good Christmas wishes to us all. From my perspective, Minister, businesses have bent over backwards to comply with anything that has been asked of them to make their businesses COVID-secure for their staff and for their customers. Some small businesses have spent thousands of pounds ahead of the Christmas period to do just that. And to put some context to this, the industry employs about 140,000 people with tens of thousands of additional people further in the supply chain. The reality, sadly, is that some small businesses will go to the wall if restrictions are not lifted on 17 December and if they are prevented from trading safely over the Christmas period. The worst situation, I think, for them is not knowing whether or not they can reopen. So, can you provide some clarity right now to businesses across Wales on what the current thinking is so that they can either plan to reopen and order the necessary stock, or plan to close for the whole of the Christmas period? And will you look at bringing forward that financial support that you mentioned, because January will simply be too late for some?
Can I thank Russell for his further questions? There were a number of elements to his contribution. First and foremost, with regard to the restrictions and the period that they will be in place for, I should say that every restriction that we've put in place helps to save human life, but we're acutely aware as well of the need to save livelihoods, which is why we're making available such significant sums of financial support. We're constantly monitoring infection rates. At the moment, in some parts of Wales, those numbers are incredibly high and we wish to bring those numbers down as fast as we possibly can, and that requires all of us as citizens to consider not just what we can do by the rule of the law, but what we should do to assist in reducing infection rates.
Now, in terms of the period during which financial support will be offered, of course, any business that received financial support during the firebreak period and operates within the hospitality sector will have those second payments coming through this month, and then the operating costs support that is applied through the economic resilience fund will be available in January, ensuring that, over the course of two months, businesses have access to vital financial support that can cover their operating costs and address the lack of turnover over the six or so weeks that these restrictions are in place.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. Any businesses in the hospitality sector would have already bought stock in the later part of November, in the early part of December in order to fulfil the needs of this period and between now up to Christmas. So, for many businesses, this is the time of year when cash flow is the tightest for them, and I'd simply say that to receive funding in January, or even into February, is simply too late. And if it's not too late, it's going to be too late for the supply chains that flow from those particular businesses, and that would be, certainly, my firm view.
The other point, Minister, that I'd make is that the one-size-fits-all approach that the Welsh Government is taking at the moment is, in my view, needlessly damaging businesses across Wales with relatively low infection rates and transmission rates. You pointed out in your last answer that you're monitoring—correctly, as well—where infection rates are particularly high, but that obviously means that there are some areas of Wales where the rates are particularly low. So, I would suggest we need targeted intervention that's backed by science and that reflects the different levels of risk in different parts of the country. So, can I ask my final question, Minister? Why does the Welsh Government continue to insist on a Wales-wide approach, impacting on livelihoods in parts of Wales that have some of the lowest rates of infection in the whole of the UK, and is this something that you will now reconsider ahead of the Christmas period that's now ahead of us?
Well, I can assure the Member that we are always considering alternative measures that could be implemented, but, of course, the national approach carries with it a very simply way of communicating to the public right across Wales. But, as I say, we are open to alternative means of addressing coronavirus infection rates if they differ significantly across the country. Now, we've attempted to feature within the fourth phase of the economic resilience fund the challenge that many businesses face in terms of loss of stock that has already been ordered, and we have also been able to feature within—[Interruption.] Deputy Presiding Officer, as I say, we also were able to feature within the fourth phase of the economic resilience fund the need to support the supply chain as well, and that's why those businesses within the supply chain of hospitality, such as cleaning services, will be able to apply for support.
Of course, just as Russell George rightly says, for many businesses in hospitality, this is the most important time of the year. This is the time of the year when the greatest level of turnover can be achieved. Equally, this is the time of 2020 when COVID is most threatening to human life and to health services. We face huge challenges across public sector services, and within the economy right now in late 2020, and that's why, in terms of the economy, we are making available £340 million—a huge sum of money—to help businesses survive through to 2021, by which time we hope that the array of vaccines will be able to be deployed in a way that enables the economy to return to something of normality during 2021.
Thank you. I turn to Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you very much. I'd like to expand, with the Minister, on some of the issues around hospitality and to begin by saying that we on these benches are clear, with Welsh Government, that public health and public safety is paramount. We do understand that and we share the Government's concerns about the rise of COVID. But I am struggling, Dirprwy Lywydd, to explain to hospitality businesses the exact nature of these restrictions and what the Welsh Government hopes that it will deliver. People are finding it difficult to understand why it's acceptable for people from four households to meet at lunch time, but you can't have people from four households meeting in a public house, even though they might be further away from each other physically than others, after 6 o'clock. I would put it to the Minister that this is particularly difficult for working people. The Minister will be aware, I'm sure, of lots of working men in his constituency who regularly go for the one pint at the end of a working day. I struggle to see how their behaviour is likely to be more dangerous than the behaviour of four people having lunch together. So, I wonder if the Minister, accepting that this is where we are now until 17 December—and, of course, some of the public health decisions are not his alone—would give some consideration to some flexibility in the proposals. Could he give consideration, for example, to allowing hospitality businesses after the seventeenth to sell small amounts of alcohol, to restrict to one or two drinks each? Would it be possible to consider, as he knows Plaid Cymru is proposing, allowing hospitality businesses to serve until 7 p.m. and stay open until 8 p.m.? These are small changes. I struggle to see—although I'm sure that the Minister will correct me if I'm wrong—how they would make a huge impact on worsening the spread—
Can you bring your comments to a close?
—and they would, of course, provide a lifeline to some businesses.
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her question and say at the outset that I have every sympathy for people who are suffering right now as a result of coronavirus, not just those who actually have coronavirus itself, but also people who feel, because of the restrictions, that their mental and emotional resilience has been weakened? The inability to socialise as we once were able to has led to many people feeling incredibly frustrated, and I have every sympathy for citizens in Wales right now as a result of our decision to impose incredibly valuable restrictions to save human life and to save the NHS.
Now, I can assure Helen Mary Jones that I and colleagues in Cabinet consider every possible amendment to the restrictions that can be imagined, but we take our advice first and foremost from health experts, and, as I said to Russell George, every restriction that is imposed helps to save human life, and that must be our priority right now—just as Helen Mary Jones rightly identified, public health is the No. 1 priority. But of course, as I said to Russell George a little earlier as well, we are backing up the necessary restrictions on business activities with the most comprehensive package of support for businesses anywhere in the United Kingdom.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his answer. I'm sure that none of us envies the Government the decisions that they have to make. I was pleased to hear the Minister, in his response to Russell George, refer to the supply chain businesses. And he will be aware, for example, of the challenges to Castell Howell, a supply business based in Crosshands, that depends, for 70 per cent of their business, on hospitality. Can he assure us that, as the Welsh Government reviews support going into the new year, those supply businesses will continue to be protected?
Can I suggest to the Minister that there is an anomaly in the current restrictions, whereby supermarkets and other shops can sell alcohol until 10.00 p.m., but hospitality businesses have to stop at 6.00 p.m.? I wonder if the Minister shares my concern that that may be risking encouraging people socialising at home, and will he give consideration as to whether retail trade might further be restricted?
As we go into the new year, and, hopefully, we begin to be able to see things lifting, the Minister will be aware, of course, that January and February are never particularly good times for hospitality, even if they were able to open up, and there will be a need for long-term support. Will the Minister commit to giving further thought to what longer term support might be available to businesses to help them recover, because, having lost Christmas, that's very serious? Could consideration be given to some mechanism, for example, to reduce the costs of licensing to businesses, which are considerable?
I think Helen Mary Jones's suggestion there has great merit and we will certainly consider that alongside other forms of support that could offer strategic benefits to businesses, as we look towards a recovery. I had hoped by now to be able to outline the Welsh Government's economic recovery and reconstruction vision. However, given that coronavirus is still with us in such a devastating form, I felt it necessary to keep my attention and focus on emergency support for businesses. But we are most definitely going to be looking at how we can ensure that the long-term thriving nature of businesses is secured through our economic recovery and reconstruction work.
I think Helen Mary Jones makes the important point that businesses—very significant employers in Wales—within the supply chain for hospitality have struggled, and we will go on engaging with those businesses in the coming weeks to ensure that any future support is tailored to meet their needs and the needs of their workers as well. And of course, human behaviour is vitally important—none more so than at this devastating time as we approach Christmas. And there are restrictions that are in place; there will be some relaxation over the Christmas period, but, as I've already said, it's absolutely vital that people ask what is it that they should and should not do in order to protect human life—in terms of behaviour, how can they ensure that their loved ones, their friends, are protected—and the best way to do that is to take personal responsibility and ensure that you are not putting yourself at risk of transmitting or acquiring coronavirus, nor your loved ones.
I think the Minister is right to delay publishing the reconstruction and the redevelopment plans and to concentrate, at the moment, on the crisis. But, as we move towards that phase, I wonder if the Minister agrees with me that the disappointing decision made public by Ineos yesterday demonstrates to us that we really need to refocus our support to business on local businesses to enable our small businesses to grow into middle-sized ones. We have seen too many occasions where we have made investments to try and attract outside businesses in and they have let us down. Of course, I'm sure he would agree with me that there may very well be a Brexit element to this decision.
So, can he assure me that, as he's re-examining his reconstruction plans, there will be a strong focus on local businesses and on growing those and making sure that they have the skills that they need? Can he give us some indication as to what plans there might now be for the site in Bridgend now that it's categorical that Ineos have walked away?
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her questions again and say that it was bitterly disappointing that Ineos decided to move to France with their Grenadier programme? This is, of course, an iconic vehicle for the United Kingdom, and it's a devastating blow, I think, to those fans of the original Defender, who were hoping that the Grenadier would be manufactured on these shores. A site became available, we understand, in France that suited Ineos's needs, and, of course, Brexit is an issue that cannot be ignored by many manufacturers. So, Ineos made the decision and, as I say, we were bitterly disappointed when we learnt of it.
But there is huge potential for that site in south Wales. We continue to work with the local authority and with the Ford taskforce experts, whom we engage with regularly, even though the taskforce itself has now ceased its operations. We are hopeful that we will be able to attract high-quality jobs to that particular site.
I must agree with Helen Mary Jones in her assertion that we must redouble our efforts in growing small firms and ensuring that they have the support necessary to become medium sized, and to ensure that their anchors are firmly placed within Wales. I can't go into too much detail today—I should not go into too much detail today—regarding the reconstruction and recovery mission that will be outlined, but I can tell Members that there will be five beacons contained within it, and at least one of those beacons will serve the purpose of supporting Welsh indigenous small firms, enabling them to become more secure and resilient and to grow to become medium sized and employ more Welsh people.
Thank you. We return to questions on the order paper. Question 3—Mandy Jones.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on the progress of the red route in Flintshire? OQ56006
Yes, of course. Environmental investigations along the route are currently taking place and we are progressing with the procurement of a designer who will develop the scheme in more detail. Dependent on the statutory processes, detailed design and construction could take place from 2024.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I've had hundreds—literally hundreds—of e-mails about the red route, and I wrote to you in the summer about this; I thank you for your reply. I know you addressed the issues raised by the North Wales Wildlife Trust in a letter in October. Constituents in north Wales are still voicing their concerns even today. What words of comfort can you give them to assure them that the scheme will be as considerate as possible of our wildlife and our ecosystems? Thank you.
Can I thank Mandy Jones for her question? I agree that there are concerns that we are seeking to address. We're seeking to address them by carrying out those detailed surveys, by engaging with stakeholder groups that have expressed concerns, and, of course, we're engaging with the communities in the area. I have already written to local Members of the Senedd and Members of Parliament and to councillors, and to those living within a 500m radius of the route, to ensure that they were updated on the latest work that is taking place.
This particular scheme is vitally important to the north Wales metro vision as well, ensuring that we can remove traffic from the key artery of the A494/A55 to enable us to construct dedicated bus routes, bus lanes and active travel routes as well, which at the moment simply cannot exist because the available space is not there to deliver them.
Minister, you're aware that I am a supporter of the red route, but I also welcome your engagement with those who have concerns over the red route—the environmental issues—and I think you are working well to address those. You've mentioned the importance of this project to the north Wales metro, but I wonder if you could outline what benefit it would have to the north-east Wales local economy.
Can I thank Jack Sargeant for his question and just add to the points that I was making in regard to Mandy Jones's question that the primary concern at the moment regarding the environmental impact concerns the impact that it could have on Leadbrook wood? Now, it would amount to less than 5 per cent of spatial impact, but, of course, we're working with stakeholder groups. As much as we can we're trying to engage with them to look at ways of further mitigating against the impact and, indeed, going beyond that and compensating with an increase in the amount of forest that exists in that particular area of Wales.
And with regard to the economy, I'm sure Jack Sargeant will be aware of the strong support for the scheme from the Deeside business professionals and from the north Wales business council and the North Wales Economic Ambition Board. The benefit-cost ratio of this is, I believe, in excess of two, which would make it be considered a high-value investment.
But, of course, this is not just about ensuring that we have a more resilient pathway into north Wales—this is, primarily, about delivering a metro for north-east Wales, and, in order to do so, we need to reduce the number of traffic on the existing corridor, the A55/A494. It's projected that this scheme will reduce traffic on that particular corridor by between 25 per cent and 35 per cent, enabling us to operate dedicated bus corridors, bus routes, bus rapid transport. It would also enable us to end the rat run, which I'm sure Jack Sargeant is very well aware of, in the Deeside area, and it would enable us to use the space that could be acquired to implement more active travel routes.
On a number times over recent years I've raised with you constituents' concerns regarding the proposed red route to the A55 at Northop, highlighting issues, including environmental impact on habitats, meadows and ancient woodland. You've also, as we've heard, received extensive representation regarding this in support of the open letter from North Wales Wildlife Trust, sent to you and the First Minister, asking you to drop the proposals, and heard the call by the Petitions Committee for the scheme to be halted until changes in traffic flow, due to changes in commuting patterns, are considered.
In October, you wrote that you see the investment in this scheme as an essential part of the wider work to improve the transport infrastructure across north Wales. What, therefore, community and stakeholder engagement are you now planning regarding this, delayed by COVID? And why have you dismissed other suggested alternative solutions to easing congestion on the A55, A494 and A548 Deeside corridor?
Can I thank Mark Isherwood for his questions regarding this particular scheme? I should just point out as well, Dirprwy Lywydd, that, of course, increasing the availability of road space in north Wales on the A55 was a key feature of the UK Conservative Party manifesto, so it should be recognised that Mark Isherwood's own party is supportive of measures that would see increased volumes of traffic in north Wales on that key artery, the express way. What we're trying to do with the red route is to take existing traffic away from a key artery and put it onto another artery, so that we can then create a sustainable public transport and active travel solution for the most urban populated area of north Wales.
Mark Isherwood is right to say that COVID-19 has had an impact in terms of community engagement. It had been our intention to hold public information events during the spring of this year. But, of course, that couldn't take place as a result of the pandemic, but we're continuously reviewing our community and stakeholder engagement activity to ensure that all interested parties are updated regularly and, of course, safely, as our work on this scheme gathers pace.
In terms of some of the alternative suggestions that have been raised, we've looked into every alternative suggestion that has been raised with us—some quite enormous alternative schemes, others smaller schemes designed to address pinchpoints. But this route was determined to be the most suitable for the challenge that we face in that particular area of Wales.
And in regard to traffic and transport surveys, they are regularly conducted. Further transport and traffic surveys will be undertaken, particularly with regard to assessing how coronavirus might have affected transport and traffic volumes in the long term. But it should be noted, equally, that on the A55, volumes increased back to pre-COVID levels in August of this year, demonstrating that the A55 is very different to the M4 in that it has a far higher volume of traffic associated with the visitor economy and also haulage, and, of course, traffic associated, particularly in north-east Wales, with manufacturing industries as well, which aren't, unfortunately, as well catered for with remote working hubs as clerical work can be. So, it is a unique project for a unique problem.
4. What discussions has the Minister had regarding the future of Trostre steelworks in Llanelli? OQ56005
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her question? We continue to work very closely with Tata Steel, with the UK Government and the unions on the future of the UK business. The First Minister and I spoke with Henrik Adam, the chief executive officer of Tata Steel, on 13 November. I've also had several meetings with UK Government Ministers since then, and, of course, with trade union representatives.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his answer. When we discuss the steel industry in Wales, we tend to focus on Port Talbot, and, obviously, that's vitally important. But can I ask the Minister to give the citizens of Llanelli and the workers at Trostre his personal assurance that when he is having these discussions—and I'm so glad to hear that he is—he will remember that it isn't just Port Talbot, and that decisions that are made about the future of Port Talbot may affect the possible future of what is very important work, though in much smaller numbers? To the Llanelli travel-to-work area and, of course, its supply chains, they're really important good-quality jobs.
Absolutely, I can give that assurance. Indeed, it is something that is regularly sought from my colleague and the local Member for Llanelli, Lee Waters. In recognition that the scale of the challenge that Tata faces is something that only the UK Government can assist with, he and Welsh Government, separately, are regularly putting pressure on UK Government to act in a responsible way. I understand that there are something in the region of 630 incredibly well-skilled people who are employed at the Trostre plant, and we are determined to ensure that they have a bright future, alongside those loyal employees at Tata's other sites across Wales.
We've discussed the intrinsic relationship between Trostre and Port Talbot many times in this Chamber, and it wasn't just Llanelli representatives who feared the loss of Trostre when the Thyssenkrupp merger was on the cards. We've also rehearsed those actions that could be taken by both Governments to make Welsh steel production more competitive. Whatever happens in these next few days, Minister, it seems unlikely that the UK Government will tie us in permanently to EU state-aid rules, so as well as looking for new markets for Welsh steel products, how much scope do you have, working with the UK Government, to tie in future direct Government aid supporting profitability for steel manufacturers with specific decarbonisation targets?
Can I thank Suzy Davies for her question? It's an incredibly interesting question; there is huge potential in this area. Of course, it's primarily something that the UK Government is leading on, but we are keen to ensure that we look at every opportunity to give the steel sector in Wales and, indeed, across the UK the best possible future. With regard to Trostre, of course, it produces steel products mainly for food packaging purposes, and we're investing very heavily in research and development facilities, particularly for the steel sector, in the area around Swansea and elsewhere concerning food packaging. I think it does have a very, very positive future. But the suggestions that the Member makes are very valid ones, and they are suggestions that we are working on with UK Government officials.
Minister, Helen Mary Jones rightly pointed out that Trostre and the Port Talbot works are linked very closely; they're both members of the Tata group. Trostre is a downstream client of Tata Port Talbot, and therefore the future of Port Talbot is clearly linked to the future of Trostre in that sense. You've indicated that you have had discussions with Ministers, but when we raised this at the announcement Tata made of the separation of the UK steel element from Tata Europe, the First Minister indicated he had asked for a meeting with the Prime Minister, or a telephone discussion. Are you aware whether that discussion has taken place with the Prime Minister, and have you had discussions with the business Secretary of State, Alok Sharma, to look at a future for steel? Decarbonisation is one agenda, but arc furnaces will result in Port Talbot losing large amounts of employees and jobs—not just direct employees, but also contractors.
Dai Rees makes the important point that any transition to alternative technologies must be undertaken over a period of time that allows as many skilled workers to be retained as possible. In direct response to the questions that he's raised, I have, of course, requested a meeting with the Secretary of State for BEIS; sadly that has not taken place yet. However, I have engaged very regularly with Nadhim Zahawi, who has been incredibly responsive to our calls. I would need to check, but as far as I'm aware, unfortunately, the Prime Minister has not responded to the First Minister's request for a discussion. But I will check on that and will ensure that Members are made aware of the outcome of the letter that the First Minister sent.
5. What impact will the recommendations of the report One Region, One Network, One Ticket by the South East Wales Transport Commissioner have on rail services in Islwyn? OQ56017
We warmly welcome the direction of travel in the report and we are considering the recommendations in detail. Improvements to the Ebbw Vale line need to be part of the package of improvements and enhancements to rail infrastructure right across the region.
The Welsh Labour Government has long been in the vanguard of transforming public transport in Islwyn. In 2008, the Welsh Labour Government reopened the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff passenger railway service that services the communities of Islwyn at Crosskeys, Newbridge. and Risca and Pontymister. It has proven to be one of the great transport success stories of devolution in Wales, so I am glad to see that Lord Burns recommends, as the Minister has already commented in this Chamber, for this line to now include an hourly service to serve my constituents and the city of Newport as well. You've rightly identified, Minister, that the type of trips filling up this road and causing congestion are ones that could readily be served by public transport, if it were competitive on cost, journey time and convenience. So, what actions can the Welsh Government take to further ensure that the cost of rail journeys is kept low, journey times are fast and that there is a regular, convenient service for my constituents in Islwyn?
Firstly, on the cost point, from January, TfW announced—January of this year—that tickets were being reduced by a percentage, which has been going against trend. Clearly, the real answer to affordable fares over time is to make sure we have a successful public transport system that is heavily used, and that we have ongoing investment in it. In terms of the Ebbw Vale line, as the Member will know, we have developed a plan through TfW for an additional hourly service to operate between Crosskeys and Newport from December next year, and we are pursuing UK funding to help us to extend that. We've submitted a bid to the UK Government's Restoring your Railway accelerated ideas fund to secure funding to progress the work on reopening the Abertillery spur, so we are now awaiting a decision on that particular application. Rail infrastructure remains a non-devolved subject, and as we've said before, we have not been getting our population share of railway infrastructure. There is a shortfall of some £5 billion that has been preventing us from pursuing the type of investments that Rhianon Passmore is rightly pushing us to do.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the funding of Transport for Wales now that it has taken control of the Wales and borders rail franchise? OQ56015
Yes, of course. We have provided, and will continue to provide, significant financial support to ensure that the services people depend on continue to operate, enabling sustainable access to jobs, education and services.
Does the Minister think it's right that the Welsh Government, through Transport for Wales, should own and operate Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester stations, and if so, how much money will the Welsh taxpayer invest in them over coming years?
Those stations are part of the Wales and borders network and the investment that's taken place in those stations is, of course, tied to the settlement that we receive from UK Government. Those stations are often used by Welsh commuters as well, recognising the porous nature of the border. I think it's absolutely vital to recognise, though, that with the franchise arrangements now coming into public ownership, we will be seeking value for money in terms of the services that are provided and the investment that takes place in those stations, but we're determined equally to ensure that people get the best experience they can possibly get when they travel by train on the Wales and borders franchise from end to end.
7. Will the Minister provide an update on strategic transport investment in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OQ56009
Yes, of course. We're investing in all modes to create an integrated transport system that contributes to our south-east Wales metro and that brings benefits to the Merthyr and Rhymney area and the wider region.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Unlike some others who've commented on the final phase of the dualling of the Heads of the Valleys road, I'm looking forward to the many benefits that will arise in my constituency, ranging from the employment from its construction to improved safety on a very dangerous stretch of road and subsequent improvement in infrastructure, making this part of the northern Valleys a more attractive proposition for investment and economic development. In addition, the metro rail and bus investments are also important ways of getting jobs and people from Cardiff and elsewhere to live and work in the Valleys. Clearly, as already highlighted, this transport infrastructure will be critical to the economy of the northern Valleys in particular, but I'm also very interested in further improvements to digital connectivity in my constituency and the wider Heads of the Valleys corridor. So, what action can the Welsh Government take to improve that digital connectivity as well as the very welcome transport investment?
Of course, digital connectivity is absolutely vital in the modern age, and we've always been of the opinion in the Welsh Government that fast broadband should be treated as a key utility and that there should be a proper universal service obligation in place. But, of course, as Dawn Bowden knows, telecommunications policy is not devolved to Wales. It still sits with the UK Government, but we have stepped in repeatedly. We're stepping in once again to roll out fibre to a further 39,000 premises across Wales. We are looking at what we can do with new and emerging technology, alternative technologies, to improve connectivity, including the use of small cell technology. And, of course, we will have heard recently from the UK Government its ambitious plans to provide full fibre broadband to every single home in the UK and to every single business in the UK. They've pledged £5 billion to be spent between now and 2033 on that particular scheme, and we are seeking assurances of sufficient funding for Wales. That sufficient funding should recognise the needs of homes, the topography of Wales and businesses of Wales, and the incredible challenges that we face with deployment here in Wales.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 2 on the agenda this afternoon is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition in respect of his European transition responsibilities. Question 1 this afternoon is from David Rowlands.
1. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the operation of the shared prosperity fund? OQ56010
6. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact of the UK shared prosperity fund on the devolution settlement? OQ55988
The UK Government’s announcement on the shared prosperity fund has broken every promise to the people of Wales, including that we would not be worse off outside the European Union. We will continue to challenge any attempt by the UK Government to bypass matters that are devolved to Wales.
Sorry, can I just ask—? Has the Government agreed to group this with question 6?
Forgive me, Dirprwy Lywydd. Yes, indeed. Forgive me.
Thank you. Sorry, David.
Thank you. I thank the Counsel General for his answer. As the Counsel General will know, I am an avid supporter of Brexit. However, I have always advocated that each and every competence returned to the UK Government that is a devolved competence should be passed to the devolved Governments in its entirety. This also stands for any monetary benefits accruing from leaving the EU. The shared prosperity fund is a manifestation of that financial gain. I therefore urge the Counsel General to emphasise to the UK Government the cross-party support you have for this to be implemented in such a way that the Welsh Government decides where that money is spent.
Well, I thank David Rowlands for that further question. If we were still in the European Union, from January, Wales would have had a full year's allocation of around £375 million, in addition to those payments already being made through the current programmes. As he knows, there will now instead be a £220 million UK-wide fund, and there are no details still on how this funding will be distributed. I'm pleased to be able to rely on his support in our continued advocacy of the will of the people of Wales that these funds are replaced in full, and that matters in relation to those funds are devolved to this Senedd and the Welsh Government.
I refer Members to my interest in the non-remunerated role in chairing the regional investment Wales steering group, but my question lies outwith the work of that group. I've received representations, Minister, from higher education sector representatives in Wales, with their concerns over the UK shared prosperity fund and the UK Government's proposals. And they note that the UK shared prosperity fund will start as a pilot programme, with a total of £200 million for the entire UK, whereas the Towns Fund for England, by contrast—England alone has been allocated £4 billion and established at pace. And they note the disparity between the Conservative Party pledge in the 2019 manifesto, saying that,
'The UK Shared Prosperity Fund will...tackling inequality and deprivation in each of our four nations.'
'at a minimum'—
these are the words—
'match the size of those funds in each nation.'
They do not understand the incongruity between the manifesto pledge and the details of the review. So, Minister, could you help us and our higher education institutions in Wales understand the clear incongruity between what was promised and what is now on offer?
Well, can I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for the work that he's undertaken, with a range of stakeholders right across Wales, chairing the group that he did, to help the Government devise the framework for regional investment, which was published mid-way through the last month? It was a work of great collaboration and creativity, and reflects the interests of a range of different stakeholders, in all sectors in Wales, including those that he mentions in his question. He will know as well as I know that what people and organisations and businesses and higher education institutions in Wales want is fair and transparent funding, rather than a political pork barrel. And that is why they've lent their support to the framework, I think, which he has helped us to devise.
Now, there are two aspects to this. One is the constitutional aspect—and we've discussed that previously today, and I know that he shares my view that it's outrageous, really, that the approach the UK Government has taken is to circumvent that. But there are very practical benefits to this as well, as I know that he knows. Part of the vision that we have as a Government is to enable these funds to be integrated with other funds that are available from different sources, to be delivered on the ground through the network of delivery that the Welsh Government and its partners in Wales already has, and to be built and devised on the basis of collaboration, joint working, consultation and co-design. None of those are features of what we understand to be the UK Government's approach in this way, and all of them are features of what the Welsh Government wishes to see in the future.
Counsel General, we've seen the Tory UK Government repeatedly talk about its levelling-up agenda, but there was scant evidence of that in the recent comprehensive spending review when it came to Wales. And now, as we approach the end of the transition period, the well-worn promise that we wouldn't be a penny worse off after Brexit is looking very thin, as the Chancellor gave further details of the UK shared prosperity fund. What assessment have you made of the shared prosperity fund, how it will live up to its promise as a fit and proper replacement for EU structural funds, particularly in areas such as mine?
I thank Vikki Howells for that question. I would like to be in a position to give her an assessment of the shared prosperity fund, but the scant detail that the Chancellor gave us in the spending review doesn't enable us to do that with any confidence. Now, she will know, as I do, that there are programmes and businesses and institutions, organisations in communities right across Wales who will have hoped that programmes would be in place for the beginning of the new year, in order to continue delivering the benefits to employability, growth, zero carbon transition, and all those other benefits that we've derived from funding to date. And they are not in that position because details have not been provided by the UK Government about programmes ahead, and we know already that next year's funding will be an absolute fraction of what otherwise would have been the expectation, and indeed, the promise to people in Wales. It's one of a long list of broken pledges of this Conservative Government in Westminster.
2. What discussions has the Counsel General had regarding the Port of Holyhead after the EU transition period comes to an end? OQ55989
I've discussed the impact of the end of the transition period on the port of Holyhead with a range of interlocutors, including the UK Government, and the Welsh Government will continue to do all it can to meet its obligations in the context of the very compressed timetable that has been forced upon us.
Thank you. Monday's Welsh Government written statement 'End of Transition and Traffic Contingency Plans—Holyhead' refers to work with partners across north Wales, which is good, but omits reference to its work with the UK Government, and with HM Revenue and Customs—HMRC—and to the key role being played by Anglesey's MP, Virginia Crosbie. A fortnight ago, the port's owner, Stena Line, said that the process will be, quote, 'smooth.' Both the UK Government and HMRC have stated they're working closely with the Welsh Government and the port on this. Last week, we learned that the Holyhead Roadking Truckstop has been secured as a new customs post, and yesterday, the UK and EU reached a deal on Northern Ireland border checks, ensuring unfettered access for goods coming from Northern Ireland to other parts of the UK, with a small number of precautionary checks on food and products of animal origin going into Northern Ireland.
So, what engagement has the Welsh Government actually had with the UK Government and HMRC regarding these key matters?
Well, I've reported to this Chamber on a number of occasions the work that we've been doing with both the UK Government and HMRC in relation to preparations for Holyhead. It starts from the proposition that any disruption is actually a consequence of political choices that the UK Government have made. Now, what we are engaged with, with them, and with others, is seeking to minimise the impact on the people of north Wales of choices that his Government in Westminster have forced upon them. That's the backdrop to this. And what we are doing is working co-operatively with the UK Government, HMRC, the council, and other partners, in order to mitigate that damage.
The UK Government, as you know, has so far led on the question of seeking a location for the checkpoint, as it were. The intention is that both customs and the border control post will be located near each other to minimise the inconvenience to freight in doing so. There are commercial negotiations ongoing in relation to a site, so I won't comment further in relation to that. But the truth of the matter is, and I say this just as a matter of fact, that these decisions ought to have been made back in March, April, and could have been made then, and instead they're being made against an immense pressure of time. And the people who will bear the burden of that are the hauliers, are the traders, are the people of north-west Wales, as we do everything we can to try and mitigate the impact, and we do it in a way that is collaborative and co-operative, despite our political differences.
As I say, so far, the UK Government has led on that as part of the UK-wide port programme. We sought engagement very early on, and it was late in the day in arising, but against that backdrop, we do all that we can within our powers to ensure that as much as possible of the damage and disruption is mitigated.
The list of concerns about the lack of the lack of preparations in Holyhead is frightening—lorries being stacked on the A55, the potential for great problems, particularly considering that the electronic system for exports from 1 January still hasn't been trialled as of yet; the lack of provision of infrastructure for borders in good time for imports from July of next year, which led to the UK Government taking the Roadking state, and I note that we've just heard that the Conservatives, including the MP for Anglesey, that they're celebrating the fact that 28 people there are losing their jobs just before Christmas. It was a new site that was needed in Holyhead. And there's the risk that any paperwork in taking good from Holyhead through Ireland to the north will be a risk for transport companies. Now, taking all of these things together, and the danger that there will be any problem in the flow of trade will cause the traders to not use the port of Holyhead, and the fact that that undermines jobs.
Now, at the eleventh hour, we need mitigation steps as a matter of urgency for the period directly ahead of us. So, what discussions are happening on that?
And, in the longer term, what negotiations will happen on securing investment in Holyhead, in order to make up for the mess and the damage that's being caused by our exit from the European Union, and specifically now the lack of preparation for that?
I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for his question. He is right to say that the uncertainty in the wake of this stems from the negotiations between the UK Government and the EU, and it's not something that we want to see, as a Government. We don't want to see any economic impact on the port. We want to see trade continuing at its current level, and increasing, of course. But it's right to say that changes in terms of the ways of trading from Northern Ireland and the route from Northern Ireland through the Republic—there is a risk that goods coming through that route will be dealt with in a disadvantageous way compared to the direct routes. We are looking at the things that have been agreed over recent days to understand for certain, when we have access to those details, what impact that will have on the trade routes.
But, in terms of the infrastructure, as he says, at the start of the new year, our responsibilities as a Government, won't start, more or less, until midway through the next year. So, in the first six-month period, the UK Government will be leading on the infrastructure on an interim basis. But could I just say, very clearly, that the delays that have happened in terms of choosing a site, we have to look at the Westminster Government's choices in terms of the start of January, and ours then, following that—the delay then in terms of making a decision for January means that there has been a delay in the process, and we are very concerned that it won't be possible to hit the deadline in July. We're doing our best, but there's certainly a risk in that.
We now turn to spokespeople's questions. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Dai Lloyd.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. In terms of the Welsh Government role in the Brexit deal, obviously there's much feverish activity—we've all seen on our television screens in the last few days, last supper tonight et cetera—can I just ask though, from the Minister's point of view, in these final few days and hours, Minister, could you outline what role you have had on behalf of Welsh Government in feeding in to the ongoing situation to stand up for Wales's interests, or have you been sidelined again?
Well, most recently, I attended a JMC(EN) for European negotiations, last Thursday, where I made the point in relation to our priorities as a Government on behalf of the people of Wales, and raised questions about levels of progress in relation to different aspects of negotiation. I made the point that, at this stage, the imperative for both parties, incidentally, was to demonstrate flexibility, but that, in particular, since it's the UK Government's obligation to look after the economic interests of the people of the UK, that they should put the priority on the jobs and livelihoods of people in Wales, rather than on an illusory concept of sovereignty.
Thank you for that, and if I just move on now to the shared prosperity fund, which has been touched on on occasions today. You'll be aware, of course, that you've recently announced a new framework for regional investment in Wales, which will be in place by the time EU funds begin to dissipate at the end of this year. Your recent statement regarding this, Minister, concluded that, and I quote:
'our delivery of this Framework is dependent on positive engagement with the UK Government that has so far been withheld. Wales must receive funding in full which needs to respect our devolution settlement.'
Considering, therefore, the level of input, or rather lack of input, that you've received, as part of the Brexit deal negotiation process over the years, what makes you think the situation here will end up any differently?
Well, I hope the Member won't have read any confidence into my statement, because the experience of trying to gain information about the thinking behind the shared prosperity fund has unfortunately been one where that hasn't been forthcoming. We have tried, as a Government, as I think his question implicitly acknowledges, to devise successor arrangements in collaboration with people in Wales, and, as a consequence of that, given how important they are, there is a broad base of support for the approach that we are promoting. I myself think that, when the UK Government is able to read and analyse the provisions and the proposals in that framework that they will struggle, quite honestly, to find in there proposals that they wouldn't wish to support because the focus of them is on encouraging productive businesses, supporting employment, and so on, and I know that is on their list of priorities as well. So I would say that the UK Government ought to engage with us about how we can, even at this late hour, make sure that the people in Wales have the promises they were made kept, both with regard to how the funds are spent, but also crucially what those funds are. As we stand here today, those promises have been broken, but it's not too late to relent on that and to put in place arrangements that meet the commitments made to people in Wales.
I'm grateful for that answer, Minister. Can I just turn finally to the internal market Bill that we've just discussed? Obviously, the Senedd voted to withhold its consent to this Bill earlier. Westminster is unlikely to listen. It has a track record of not listening to us as a Senedd when we vote down legislative consent. So, the question that arises then is: what next steps are the Welsh Government considering taking to protect devolution and protect Welsh democracy—[Inaudible.]—devolution settlement over the past few months? If not, would he now be open to doing so?
I didn't catch the entire question, but I think he was asking me about what steps we would take, and I've been very clear that we will take every step that is legally available to us to protect the powers of this Senedd. I think that we shouldn't assume—. Well, we shouldn't allow the impression to arise that proceeding in the teeth of the opposition of the devolved legislatures in the UK is an acceptable course of action for the UK Government. We do know that the Sewel convention needs, frankly, an overhaul in terms of how it operates, but at its heart is the principle that defying the decisions of the devolved Parliaments should be only ever done in absolute extremis. And these circumstances certainly do not meet that very high bar, and I describe it as a very high bar because I know that is what UK Government Ministers will describe it as as well.
Thank you. Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Will the Minister provide an update on discussions he's had with the UK Government as regards trade deals outside of the EU?
Yes, certainly. I'm attending this afternoon, at about 4 o'clock, the next meeting of the ministerial forum for trade, and I expect to discuss a wide range of issues with the relevant Minister at that forum.
I'm very pleased that you are participating in that forum, Minister. As you will know, the UK Government has already struck many trade deals beyond the EU around the world, ranging from countries like Peru and Japan to Israel and South Korea. In addition to that, there's engagement ongoing with a dozen other countries, including Mexico, Singapore and Turkey, and it's very clear that post-Brexit trade agreements are lining up to fulfil the expectations that people had when they voted back in 2016 for Brexit. And I'm very hopeful that we here in Wales can take advantage of those deals.
I know that the former Minister for international relations held regular discussions with the UK Government, and I'm very pleased to hear that you're also carrying on with that work. The former Minister holding the international trade portfolio recognised the engagement, the positive engagement, that had taken place on these trade deals. Can I ask you: what work are you doing pan-Government to ensure that Wales can seize the opportunities that these trade deals present, come 1 January?
Well, I thank the Member for that important question. He's right to say, I think about 22 agreements have been signed, there are about five in train, and there are about 12 that remain to be taken forward. What is the common feature of all of those is that they're continuity agreements. So, effectively, they're a very significant amount of work to maintain the current position. So, it is important work and it is essential work that we are able to maintain them, but it's a huge amount of effort to maintain those existing arrangements. And I know that he also wishes to see opportunities on top of those as well, which obviously we wish to see as well.
Our vision is to make sure that we represent in our discussions with UK Government Ministers the interests of Welsh exporters, so that we can make sure that those are taken into account in those negotiations. He'll have seen I think, perhaps, the assessment that I published yesterday in relation to the impact on the Welsh economy of the Japan deal, for example. So, he will have seen the evidence in there, I think, of the advocacy that we as a Government put in place. I know that my colleague the Minister for the economy is also investing further in international trade advisers, so that businesses and exporters in Wales can have access to the best advice to support them when they don't have that support in house. Of course, part of their role will be to assist our exporters who face new red tape as a consequence of the trading arrangements that the UK Government is introducing, and obviously, again, that is work that is running to stay still in that sense, but looking outside that, there will be support available from the Government to exporters wherever they wish to export.
I'm pleased you've acknowledged the positive work, as I say, and I'm very pleased also that you recognise the work that's been done not only to engage with those countries whereby we have trade arrangements through the continuity trade arrangements, but also those new nations that we will also be doing trade with on a free-trade basis post 1 January. I was wondering whether you could tell me a little bit more about the position of the Welsh Government in relation to future trade deals with Canada, New Zealand and Australia. I'd be very interested to hear in particular whether you've done any work to identify specific Welsh interests in relation to any trade deals that could be done, and any of the representations that you might have made to the UK Government on these. As you will know, there's been significant support across the UK for a CANZUK sort of trade deal amongst the public. Many business leaders have called for that sort of trade deal, and many politicians on a cross-party basis have also supported it. So, considering that that is a potential trade deal that we could see in the future, it would be good to see the Welsh Government taking a proactive approach now and making representations to the Welsh Government in relation to it. So, can you tell us what sort of discussions have been taken place between the Welsh Government and the UK Government in relation to the potential benefits of a CANZUK trade approach?
The UK Government leads on international trade negotiations, as I know he would accept, and I imagine would support. So, our task as a Government is to feed in the Welsh Government's perspective on behalf of the Welsh economy, and Welsh businesses, Welsh exporters, into those discussions. They're very much the sorts of things that will be on the agenda of the discussion today.
I think it's very important to see this in the global context. We will want to make sure that any international trade agreements of the sort that he describes will deliver the maximum benefit for exporters in Wales, but also for businesses and producers already in Wales. So, for example, there are difficult judgments that then arise in the context of doing trade negotiations with significant agricultural exporters, and Australia and New Zealand are both in that category. So, the judgments are often quite difficult to reach, but our priority as a Government is to maximise the opportunity for Wales, for the Welsh economy.
But I think I just want to put it in the context that even the UK Government would say that the economic impact of those trade negotiations for the UK is likely to be fractions of 1 per cent. That's not to say that they shouldn't be pursued, they absolutely should, but I don't think it would be right of us to encourage people to expect that those trade deals in themselves can make up for the absence of a good trading relationship with our largest trading bloc across the channel, because we are talking different orders of magnitude, as I know that he will accept.
3. Will the Counsel General provide an update on the impact of Brexit preparations on Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OQ56011
Leaving the transition period, even with a deal, will have profound implications for businesses and communities across Wales, including Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. We are doing all we can as a Government to prepare, and our end-of-transition action plan sets out the issues we face and the actions we are taking to support Wales. I would encourage everyone in Wales to visit the Preparing Wales website for advice on how to prepare for the end of transition.
Thank you for that response, Minister. And for some considerable time, we've all been awaiting the vitally important details of the Prime Minister's oven-ready deal, which of course, as we now all know, never really existed. And as has already been pointed out, we're still also waiting for details of how Wales will benefit specifically from the elusive shared prosperity fund.
In my constituency, like many others in Wales, I have major employers who trade with the European Union. They depend on supplies that are from and come through the European Union into Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney. Would you agree that as 2020 draws to a close, not only are we faced with a shambolic situation, but also a very uncertain future for many jobs in our communities, because the Prime Minister of the UK lied to the people of this country? And can you tell me what are the latest representations that the Welsh Government has made to bring pressure on the UK Government to help ensure that constituencies like mine are not left behind in this Brexit shambles?
I think Dawn Bowden's question cuts to the heart of the issue here. We face today a situation, less than a month before the end of transition, where none of us in this Chamber know the basis on which we will conduct our relationships with the European Union on 1 January. I know that in her constituency and right across Wales there are businesses and organisations crying out for that certainty, and fearful of the consequence, in particular, of leaving without any sort of trading relationship. The huge disruption and economic damage that that will bring; it's hard to overestimate the risks that we'll face. There will be employers in her constituency, in mine, and in others who know already that they'll face additional costs for customs declarations, customs paperwork and new red tape, but they're waiting to find out whether they will now have to pay tariffs, how their products will be treated, how component parts in the supply chains that she mentioned will be treated, and how standards will be treated in their international trade arrangements. Those are all fundamental to how businesses conduct themselves and, crucially, impose significant costs on how businesses and employers trade. I know, therefore, that she would be hopeful, as I am, that a trading relationship can be agreed, but also she will know, as I know, that at this point in time that trading relationship will not be of the quality that is required to put employers and exporters in Wales in the best possible position.
4. What steps has the Welsh Government taken to develop its relationship with the European Union and member states post Brexit? OQ55999
A positive relationship with the EU will remain an important priority for the Welsh Government whatever the outcome of the EU-UK negotiations, as our international strategy makes clear. We continue to foster that through engagement with EU institutions, member states, regions and networks, and in particular through our Brussels office.
UK membership of the European Union bestowed great benefits on Wales, including enabling our country to play a significant role on the European stage in the Council of Ministers, European Parliament, Committee of the Regions and associated groupings. Outside the EU, I believe we should ensure the closest possible relationship with the European Union, and that should include the regions, with many of whom we have long enjoyed strong relationships, and also Members of the Senedd, who can add to the work of Welsh Government Ministers in maintaining Wales's profile. I think we should carefully consider European organisations and groupings to which we may fruitfully contribute.
[Inaudible.]—with John Griffiths's supplementary question, we take every opportunity to maintain those relationships. In September, for example, the First Minister, the then Minister for international relations and I each met the EU ambassador to the UK. That's obviously a new appointment, but that EU ambassador came to Cardiff. We've also been successfully chairing the Vanguard Initiative throughout 2020, which is a significant inter-regional grouping that focuses on smart specialisation on a collaborative basis to boost innovative industries. And he will know—he mentioned in his question the role of parliamentarians in that, and the UK contact group for the Committee of the Regions has representatives from this Senedd: David Rees, and Russell George as the alternative. Those are all important ways of maintaining that network of contacts, both at a member state level, a parliamentary level, but also at a regional level. And he will know from the international strategy that engagement at a regional level with Brittany, the Basque Country and Flanders in particular is an essential part of our important network of communications across the European Union into the future.
5. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact that the UK Government's recent announcements on immigration plans will have on Wales? OQ55995
The UK Government pushing forward with its plans for a radically changed immigration system during this pandemic seems reckless, as was their decision to reject the Migration Advisory Committee’s recommendation for a Wales-only shortage occupation list, which would go some way to reduce the adverse impact of the UK Government's new immigration policies on Wales.
The Counsel General will know that, since the Labour Government in 2004 opened the floodgates to mass migration, we've been adding nearly a third of a million people to the UK population every single year. This has had a depressing effect upon wages, particularly for those in low-paid, unskilled jobs, and it's also exacerbating the very real housing shortage that we've got throughout the United Kingdom and, indeed, in Wales. Does he not accept that a fair and balanced immigration control system is now vitally necessary in the interests of those who are in the most vulnerable position in society? And does he also accept that the Welsh Labour Government's irresponsible rhetoric on Wales as a nation of sanctuary has been a direct incitement to illegal migration?
I don't accept any of that. So, I don't accept the language that the Member uses, which I think is inflammatory and designed to be inflammatory. I think we should have a fair and balanced immigration policy—it's the one we have until the UK Government replaces it.
Question 6 [OQ55988] was grouped, therefore question 7, Mark Reckless.
7. What discussions has the Counsel General had regarding the impact of the Brexit process on the pace of regulatory approvals for COVID-19 vaccines? OQ56016
It is extremely good news that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has been able to approve the supply of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. It has been able to do so using provisions under European law, which will apply until 1 January 2021.
Last week, the Financial Times carried on its front page an article emphasising the extent to which the European Medicines Agency, when it was based at Canary Wharf, leaned on our MHRA for assistance with much of its work. It has also faced very real challenges, at least from the FT evidence, since the relocation to Amsterdam because so many senior staff have not wanted to relocate from London. Would the Counsel General support and can he see any way perhaps that our regulators might be able to offer mutual aid and support to the EMA to support them in the regulatory requirements they need to fulfil for the European Union, hopefully, to speed up vaccines for them as well as for us?
The capacity of the MHRA to act swiftly, as it has done, has been within the framework of existing European Union regulation, as the Member will know. I think his question points in the direction of international collaboration in this space, and I think it's important to recognise the development of the vaccines have, in fact, been an incredibly international effort. In a sense, looking at a competitive environment between regulators I think isn't necessarily the helpful way of looking at it. The history of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine process has been one of great European collaboration and significant European investment, and that is a very positive thing. Generally speaking, the process of Brexit will be adverse to a number of our existing arrangements in relation to health mutual aid, as he describes it, whether that's around early warning systems as well as regulatory barriers. So, I regret those new obstacles that will be put in the place of mutual aid and collaboration into the future.
8. Has the Counsel General discussed post-Brexit arrangements for supporting the export of Welsh produce with ministerial colleagues? OQ55993
Indeed, I have. I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on the implications of post-EU transition international trade, and these include the meetings of the Cabinet sub-committee on European transition and trade.
Thank you for that answer, Counsel General. As 1 January and Brexit looms ever closer, it's clearly important that the UK develops as many trade deals as possible and that Wales is involved with those. As you'll be aware, the UK Government recently struck a trade deal with Japan, which includes important geographical protections that will hopefully benefit a range of Welsh businesses. I wonder if you could tell us if the Welsh Government has had any involvement in securing protections and putting the Welsh viewpoint forward on that with regard to that trade deal and also any other trade deals that might be in the offing. I'm sure you'll agree with me it's important that although it's the UK that is sovereign in these matters, it's important that the Welsh Government has a voice and we do our best to make sure that Wales is well placed to take part in the brave new world beyond 1 January.
I would just like to reassure him that in relation to the Japan trade deal in particular, which he mentioned in his question, we have had good involvement in relation to that. I published this week an assessment of the impact of the trade deal for the Welsh economy, generally speaking. Broadly speaking, it replicates the current arrangement, but there are some ways in which it extends opportunities, which is obviously very positive. I think the approach that we've taken in relation to that has been one of, obviously, proactive engagement, and we will continue to do that in relation to all other trade deals that the UK Government seeks to negotiate.
Thank you very much, Counsel General. We've exceeded all the questions on the order paper, so da iawn.
Item 3, then, is topical questions, of which none have been accepted this week.
Item 4 is the 90-second statements, and this week it's Vikki Howells.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Congratulations, Mr Church. Our school staff have given their all in what has been a very challenging year. For some, their extra special qualities have led to particular recognition for their work, and one such figure is David Church—the very aptly named teacher of religious education at Mountain Ash Comprehensive School. A teacher at the school for over 20 years, Mr Church is renowned for his caring attitude, his commitment to the community, and his compassionate social ethos. I met Mr Church when I was a judge at Mount comp's First Give final, and it was clear to see that Mr Church was one of those most special of teachers, who lived and breathed the job, who went above and beyond, whose students trusted, respected and were inspired by. Our paths have crossed many times, on each occasion with him giving 110 per cent to projects that empower his pupils to engage with their local community. Yet, he also broadens their horizons. With his help, pupils won scholarships to help build a school in India—a life-changing experience for all. It was a pleasure, then, to see Mr Church win the inaugural pupils' award for best teacher at the 2020 Professional Teaching Awards Cymru. The judging panel noted that Mr Church
'personifies the unique qualities of a great teacher',
and I couldn't agree more. Some people are born to teach, changing lives by their work, and are remembered for a lifetime. Mr Church is one of these.
Thank you. We'll now suspend proceedings to allow for a changeover in the Chamber. If you're leaving, please do so promptly, and the bell will be rung two minutes before the proceedings restart. Thank you.
Plenary was suspended at 15:07.
The Senedd reconvened at 15:15, with the Llywydd in the Chair.
We restart the meeting, therefore. The next item is the Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv) on support for babies and new parents during COVID-19. I call on Lynne Neagle to move the motion—Lynne Neagle.
Motion NDM7462 Lynne Neagle, Bethan Sayed, Leanne Wood
Supported by Alun Davies, Dai Lloyd, David Rees, Dawn Bowden, Helen Mary Jones, Huw Irranca-Davies, Jack Sargeant, Jayne Bryant, Jenny Rathbone, Joyce Watson, Neil McEvoy, Vikki Howells
To propose that the Senedd:
1. Recognises that the evidence is unequivocal that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from pregnancy to age two, lay the foundations for a happy and healthy life and that the support and wellbeing of babies during this time is strongly linked to better outcomes later in life, including educational achievement, progress at work and better physical and mental health.
2. Notes that since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown and social distancing measures, a growing body of research indicates parents are facing unprecedented pressures, heightened anxieties, and are at increased risk of developing mental health problems in the perinatal period.
3. Notes that the Babies in Lockdown 2020 survey showed that for 66 per cent of respondents from Wales, parental mental health was cited as a main concern during lockdown: only 26 per cent felt confident that they could find help for mental health if they needed it and 69 per cent of parents felt the changes brought on by COVID-19 were affecting their unborn baby, baby or young child.
4. Notes that the New Parents and COVID-19 2020 research found that over half of the 257 respondents who have given birth since lockdown felt that their birth experience was more difficult than expected due to the coronavirus restrictions, more than 60 per cent not receiving any form of post-natal check-up and almost a quarter wanting perinatal mental health support..
5. Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure services and support for families during pregnancy and the perinatal period are prioritised and that the midwifery, health visiting and perinatal mental health workforce is protected from redeployment during the pandemic.
6. Calls on the Welsh Government to proactively work with health boards to ensure women can be safely supported by their partners during hospital visits during pregnancy.
7. Calls on the Welsh Government to provide additional ring-fenced investment for perinatal mental health services and voluntary services to cope with the increase in demand because of COVID-19.
Thank you, Llywydd. I want to start by thanking my co-sponsors of today's debate, Leanne Wood and Bethan Sayed. I know Bethan's office has published some really valuable research into this area, but she also brings a vital personal perspective to this subject, having had a lockdown baby herself. I also want to recognise the support from Members across the Chamber and also the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for their excellent briefing for today's debate.
Babies in Wales, and their parents, need a voice now more than ever. In recent months, we've heard a huge amount about the difficulties facing different industries and the impact of COVID on our economy, and yet too little has been said about the most important and difficult job any of us will ever do, and that is being a good parent. In the last week, we have heard more about alcohol than we have about babies. Yes, this is tough for everyone, but let's get our priorities straight, because what today's debate will show is that life for the vast majority of new and expectant parents has become much, much tougher.
The growing research into perinatal care during the pandemic is stark and deeply worrying. The voices of new mothers in particular are sounding the alarm. We are hearing stories about anxiety, isolation and new barriers to proper care and support. Yes, the pandemic has created new and unprecedented challenges, but it has also shone a light on the cracks that already existed in society.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the way we fail to prioritise babies in our decision making. This is inexplicable, given that our very future depends on those we bring into the world today and tomorrow; inexplicable, given how much we know about the importance of the first 1,000 days of a child's life; inexplicable, given how much we know about the impact of parental mental health on the welfare of babies.
The Children, Young People and Education Committee undertook a major inquiry into perinatal mental health in 2017. We heard time and time again from witnesses about the importance of support for families during pregnancy and the perinatal period. As Dr Witcombe-Hayes from the NSPCC and the Maternal Mental Health Alliance told the committee, and I quote:
'We think that this best start in life is so important because we know that the first 1,000 days are crucial for child development. So, our early experiences affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all of our future learning, behaviour and health. Just as a weak foundation compromises the quality and strength of a house, adverse childhood experiences early in life and not meeting a child’s needs at this time can impair brain architecture, with negative effects lasting well into adulthood.'
We are the first generation of legislators who have this knowledge. There is huge potential for Governments to make a real difference here to tackle some of the biggest issues our society faces today and will face tomorrow and in 20 years' time, and yet we know that before the pandemic there were already significant gaps in specialist perinatal mental health services, despite extra investment from Welsh Government in recent years, with health boards failing to meet perinatal standards, an absence of mother and baby units for families needing specialist in-patient support, and significant gaps in specialised parent-infant relationship teams across Wales. Let us never forget that suicide is still the leading cause of maternal death in the first year of a baby's life.
So, this is the perinatal infrastructure we took into the pandemic, and now things are even tougher for many. Two thirds of Welsh respondents to the 'Babies in Lockdown' report say parental mental health was their main concern in lockdown, and yet only a quarter said they were confident they could find help if they needed it. According to the Born in Wales study, the majority of women reported a negative pregnancy experience, feeling isolated, alone, lonely, distant and not supported.
Parents are being denied a basic level of dignity. Mothers have been asked to e-mail their GP practice pictures of infected stitches. Those struggling with breastfeeding are forced to rely on Zoom calls for support. This pressure is inevitably having consequences.
One of the main sources of stress and anxiety for expectant mums was a concern about whether their partner could attend labour, so last week's announcement on easing visiting restrictions is certainly welcome. The flexibility for health boards to make decisions based on their circumstances certainly makes sense, but such an approach could also lead to inequalities for parents in different parts of Wales, and it would be helpful to know from the Minister how this will be monitored and what arrangements are in place for the sharing of best practice. It would also be helpful to provide clear guidance for parents of premature or sick babies, in line with the research and recommendations put forward by Bliss. Current restrictions have had a devastating impact on too many parents' ability to bond with their babies.
The evidence is clear—the pandemic, subsequent lockdowns and social distancing measures have had a disproportionate impact on those who are pregnant, giving birth, or at home with a baby or toddler. And yet again, the impact has been greatest on those who are already living the hardest lives—coronavirus entrenching disadvantage yet again. Those in more deprived areas consistently show higher levels of loneliness and they are less likely to have experienced an increase in community support.
I've seen the letter from the chief nursing officer to the children's commissioner, providing some assurances around the role of health visitors, but more needs to be done. Babies have largely been invisible as a consequence of the pandemic, and that should trouble all of us. Without informal contact with friends and family, drop-in groups, and a depletion of health visitor contacts, there's a real risk that no-one knows which families are struggling. Welsh Government must ensure that health visitors are able to make face-to-face visits in every instance that it is safe and possible to do so. So much is lost via telephone or even virtual appointments. We hear time and time again about the inability to identify someone who is struggling without that human contact.
To understand what has already been lost and how we need to respond, it is vital that the Government presents robust data about the number of visits that are taking place, how many are missed and how those check-ins are being conducted. In a recent answer in the House of Commons, a UK health Minister was unable to provide an assurance that health visitors would not be redeployed into vaccine-delivery work. I hope the Minister can today give Welsh parents that assurance that there will be no redeployment of health visitors in Wales. Far from removing resources away from perinatal care, we need urgent measures to better support expectant and new parents and their babies.
We now need to prioritise the needs of babies in decision making about COVID-19 response and recovery, ensure that key staff and health visiting services are protected from redeployment, give clear guidance on how face-to-face health visitor appointments can be carried out safely and effectively, and provide additional ring-fenced investment for perinatal mental health services and voluntary services to cope with the increase in demand as a result of COVID-19. The choices we make today about how we support parents and babies through the pandemic are choices we will live with for decades to come. A failure to properly support and resource perinatal health will cast a long shadow over Wales. Diolch yn fawr.
On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I would like to thank Lynne Neagle for bringing this important debate forward. We have received petition P-05-1035, 'Allow birthing partners to be present at scans, the start of labour, birth and after the birth'. This was submitted by Hannah Albrighton, having collected 7,326 signatures. The petition highlights that:
'Due to COVID-19 there has been restrictions on birthing partners being present for scans, labour and birth in many hospitals.'
And can I just say, before I go any further, how lovely it is to see our colleague Bethan Jenkins here? I've been keeping up to date with you—how your new little family is doing well—and it's fantastic to see you here today.
The text notes, and I quote:
'It seems unfair, and an insult to new families that they can stand 2m apart from complete strangers down the beach or even in a shop, but they cannot have their partner or birthing partner there to witness first time experiences such as scans, the baby's heart beat, labour and birth.'
The committee discussed the petition at its meeting on 3 November, giving consideration to correspondence from the Minister for Health and Social Services. All Members fully supported this petition and the need to resolve the situation for new parents and people during pregnancy. However, we note that the situation will be especially difficult where people's experiences of pregnancy or birth are not straightforward, as well as where extra support is needed following childbirth. Most members of the committee noted that we are being contacted by constituents who have been, very sadly, affected by these restrictions.
Now, whilst we do understand and express understanding for the difficult choices being made by our local health services, health boards and the Welsh Government, we do express our hope that decisions taken should and can be sensitive to individual circumstances and that the rules should now be relaxed as soon as this is possible. The Minister informed us in advance of that meeting that the relevant guidance was under review and was waiting approval at that time. I am aware that the updated guidance was published on 30 November, and I do welcome this. However, given the number of signatures gathered by the petition, we would have considered further, at our next committee discussions, whether to refer the petition to a debate. However, I am delighted that such a debate is now taking place today. We have notified the people who signed the petition about this debate and hope that it will now provide some of the answers that those supporting this petition have been looking for. Diolch.
COVID has presented challenges for everyone, and while all of us here would agree that everything must be done to keep parents, babies and staff safe, we must also do whatever we can to ensure the best possible outcomes for everyone involved. We must start by acknowledging that the experiences of young children, babies and their families this year have been some of the most adversely affected by the restrictions. Of course, although these restrictions have been necessary, we cannot ignore the damage that they've caused and continue to cause. At some point we may want to reflect whether the periods of lockdowns would have been necessary had Governments acted earlier to eliminate community transmission, had we established a test and trace system that worked properly, and had we imposed the kind of border controls and central quarantine facilities that have seen many countries throughout the world that have experienced fewer lockdowns and less harsh restrictions. We will be living with the consequences of this for decades, and, because of that, our recovery must start with a focus on babies and children—a focus that has been missing to date.
It was only last Monday that Government announced that they would provide financial support to the parents of children who have to isolate. Why was this issue not considered before? Is it not telling that, aside from education issues, this is the first debate in which children and babies have been placed in the centre? Becoming a parent is a challenge when there is no pandemic; the accounts of the additional pressures that exist now that I'm sure that all of us have heard cannot be ignored. We know, and we've already heard, how important those first 1,000 days of a child's life are. When parents are isolated, struggling alone, or even in couples, the risk of developing mental health problems increase. As one new mother put it to me, 'I've seen the health visitor twice. She is supportive, but I have to attend on my own and I forget a lot of what has been said.' Another says, 'We should allow babies under one some additional bubble support, which would've benefited my mental health. My baby only saw me and my husband from March to August.'
Dealing with routine matters on your own can be a strain, but it's even worse when things go wrong. Some of the most harrowing stories that I've heard have been from women who've had to process the worst imaginable news all alone, while their partner waits outside in the corridor or has to sit in the car. This issue deserves greater political attention; we are storing up long-term problems otherwise.
The maternity workforce deserves protecting and boosting. As one woman put it, 'The staff were very good, but you would think that, due to partners not being allowed to visit, they would have extra staff, but no'. So, we need additional resources to go into this, more funding for specialist mental health services, and to enable safe visiting. In general, we must see more support for those of our citizens who will live the longest with the fallout from COVID-19, as well as the parents who will help them get there.
I'd like to thank Members for bringing forward this important debate, and I'm delighted to take part. COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll on all of us, and, as this motion rightly highlights, it has placed terrible burdens on the shoulders of new parents to a child born during this pandemic. It's worth reiterating that from conception to age 2 is a critical phase, during which the foundations of a child's development are laid. If a child's body and brain develop well, then their life chances are improved. Exposure to stresses or adversity during this period can result in a child's development falling behind. Adverse childhood experiences can and do put children at greater risk of poor health outcomes. Childhood poverty, though not an ACE in itself, can place children at greater risk of experiencing one or more ACEs.
This pandemic has taken a terrible toll on the economy—one that will take decades to recover from. This has seen far too many people lose their jobs and facing the prospect of long-term unemployment. We've seen thousands of people chasing each minimum-wage job since the start of the pandemic, food banks have seen a dramatic rise in demand for their services since April, and people's livelihoods have been destroyed due to no fault of their own, but because of the virus. Those facing such situations talk about the impact it is having on their mental health. These impacts are greatly amplified for new and soon-to-be-new parents.
We rightly take pride in Wales in the support traditionally given to expecting parents. However, with the outbreak of COVID, all that appears to have gone out of the window. And while most health boards have kept up antenatal and postnatal services, they have been patchy and greatly diminished because of the exclusion of partners. According to the maternity services charity AIMS, maternity services are under huge stress with the COVID-19 pandemic. This is causing women to be given mixed messages about the services available, with different health authorities making different decisions, and many mothers have had support for their home births withdrawn.
The involvement of both parents is vital, particularly for the mental health of the mother. The pandemic has seen many expecting and new mothers left without a support network. Nine out of 10 mothers reported feeling more anxious as a result of COVID and lockdown measures. Postnatal depression has sky-rocketed since March, and, sadly, access to perinatal mental health services, like all mental health services, has diminished since the start of the first national lockdown in March. Access to these services is more important than ever, due to the reduction of traditional support networks. Many new mothers can't call on mum or grandma for help because of the ever-present fear of coronavirus.
It's therefore important—vitally important—that Welsh Government increases investment in perinatal mental health services immediately. I would ask that Ministers guarantee that partners will not be excluded from attending maternity services and the birth of their baby for the remainder of the pandemic. Unless we take action now, we risk damaging the life chances of an entire generation. Diolch yn fawr.
I would like to thank those who brought this very important debate forward, and I was more than happy to support it. I'm going to focus on one particular area in my contribution. We all know that the COVID pandemic has had a huge impact on parents and their babies, but those particularly who need specialist care in neonatal units post birth. Since the pandemic started, access for many parents has been restricted, often with only one parent being allowed in at a time—a few people have already mentioned that today.
We know that, in normal circumstances, usually both parents are allowed 24-hour access to the unit, so they can be fully involved in the delivery of their baby's care. There was a survey, which has also been alluded to, by Bliss, the leading UK charity for babies born premature or sick, and the findings are startling, really. Two thirds of parents felt access restrictions on the unit affected their ability to be with their baby as much as they wanted, and that rose to 74 per cent for parents whose babies spent more than four weeks in neonatal care. It's worth thinking about that. It's the first four weeks of a baby's life where one parent has to rely on the other parent to give any information, any news, and perhaps a few photos. That is quite clearly going to have an impact on the well-being of that parent who can't be present, and their mental well-being.
The other impact that that will have—and 70 per cent did say that it would affect their mental health and well-being—is on the bond with the baby. Not only is the bond with the baby disrupted at that time, but it also requires some considerable input, immediately and going forward, to prevent any difficulties or any long-term impact to either parent or baby in their future relationship. So, I would be really keen to know what discussions Welsh Government have had with health boards about how they can help and facilitate as much parental access as is possible. The British Association of Perinatal Medicine guidance states that, and this is a quote,
'it is essential that the mother and her partner are never considered to be visitors within the neonatal unit—they are partners in their baby's care and their presence should be encouraged and facilitated as much as possible'.
So, I sincerely ask of the Government that they will take that recommendation from the BAPM and do their utmost to secure it. Thank you.