Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

03/03/2021

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 by video-conference at 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held by 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 set out on your agenda. And I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting.

13:30
1. Questions to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, and the first question is from Paul Davies.

Business Support

1. How is the Welsh Government ensuring that businesses in Pembrokeshire are able to access business support during the pandemic? OQ56341

Llywydd, can I first of all say that local authorities are doing a fantastic job in helping the Welsh Government deliver the non-domestic-rates-related grants as quickly as possible? And the restrictions business fund has so far seen almost 4,000 businesses in Pembrokeshire receive over £13 million. In addition, Business Wales has dealt with over 50,000 queries and received more than 8 million website hits since the start of the pandemic.

Thank you, Minister, for that response. Now, the Welsh Government has made it clear that local authorities have some discretion in relation to providing businesses affected by COVID-19 with financial support. However, I have received representations from businesses in my constituency who have been unable to access support, while I'm told that other similar businesses in other parts of Wales have received the financial support that they need. I'm sure you can appreciate how frustrating this is for businesses in Pembrokeshire who see businesses in other parts of Wales receiving much-needed support. I'm sure you'll agree with me that it's essential that there is consistency across Wales and that funds being provided by the Welsh Government are not subject to a postcode lottery. Therefore, can you tell us, Minister, what the Welsh Government is doing to iron out these inconsistencies and ensure that businesses are able to access the financial support that they need to stay afloat, wherever they are based in Wales?

Well, can I thank Paul Davies for his question and say that, first of all, Welsh Government officials have engaged recently with the Welsh Local Government Association and directly with councils across the length and breadth of Wales regarding discretionary grants? The issue that Paul Davies raises has focused most sharply on self-catering businesses, and there is criteria that is set in place that is suggested for local authorities, and it's quite clear. Obviously, we would wish to see all businesses eligible through that criteria receive the funding that would enable them to see their way through the pandemic. But if any business feels that they have been unfairly treated, if they are dissatisfied with the way that their local authority has interpreted the criteria, then they should consider taking the matter up with the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. But, in Welsh Government, we remain absolutely resolute in our pledge to ensure that any good business in 2019 will be a good business in 2021, and that's why we're spending more than £2 billion in supporting businesses through this pandemic.

Flooding

2. Will the Minister make a statement on the effect of recent flooding on the trunk road network? OQ56342

Yes, of course. We're aware of the disruption, obviously, the flooding has caused for road users, and we're working closely with local authorities and other partners to find long-term solutions for some of the areas most prone to flooding.

Diolch, Minister, for that answer. As you drive along the M4, as I have done over recent times, the electric signs often display the notice that the A4042 at Llanellen is closed. I've raised this part of the trunk road network with you on many occasions before. I know that, in previous answers, you've said that there has been a degree, I think, of remedial work—or negotiations with the landowner about remedial work—to try and mitigate these problems. It does, however, remain to be an issue, and I am concerned about the effect of communications to the new Grange University Hospital at Llanfrechfa. So, I wonder if you could update us on any discussions that you or your officials have had with the landowner, any further remedial works that are under way or that are in the pipeline, and just what reassurances can you give to my constituents that the problems of this section—an important section—of the trunk road network will be resolved over the medium term so that people can have confidence that the communications to the new hospital are sound?

Llywydd, can I thank Nick Ramsay for his question and offer an update and information regarding the A4042 at Llanellen? We carried out drainage work, as the Member is aware, back in May 2020, to enhance the existing drainage. This has helped with quicker recovery and reopening time for the A4042 in the event of a flooding of the carriageway. And as Nick Ramsay rightly said, in recent years, the adjacent land has also been subject to drainage improvements, which has helped in reducing the frequency and magnitude of flooding for this stretch of road. Now, I can say that recent improvements to land drainage at this location are currently being assessed for their effectiveness in dealing with recent flooding events, and I can assure Members that once this information is available, and it hopefully will be within the next few weeks, officials will then determine whether further mitigation works are required. 

13:35
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones. 

Diolch, Llywydd. I'd like to begin my set of questions, since this is the final set of questions that I will be asking the Minister, by once again thanking him for the constructive way in which he's engaged with me and with other opposition parties through the time of the crisis. It's certainly been greatly appreciated by me, and I feel that it has helped us to engage constructively and to help support business as best we can at this very difficult time. 

If I can begin with some points with regard to current business support, the Minister mentioned in his response to Paul Davies the local government discretionary fund. He'll be aware that it has been put to me by some colleagues in local government that there are some concerns from their finance department about fully exercising discretion in case this raises issues further down the line through the audit process. I wonder if the Minister can update us on any further conversations that he's had with local government to assure them that they will not be negatively impacted by the audit process if they do fully exercise discretion to reach as many businesses as possible. 

If I can now turn to the new fund for hospitality businesses that will be opening next week, I obviously welcome the targeted support for those businesses most badly affected, but I am concerned that it appears that this fund is only available to those businesses employing 10 employees or more. I wonder if the Minister can tell us today whether that is 10 full-time equivalents or 10 individuals, because he'll be very aware that many people who work in hospitality work in part-time roles. And can he explain what the plans are for smaller businesses, because many hospitality businesses do not employ, certainly, 10 full-time equivalents?

And, finally, is there any risk that some of the money currently available for business support will be lost if it's not spent by the end of the financial year, and is the Minister confident that his department has the capacity to get those funds out to ensure that businesses are helped in a timely way, but also to ensure that no funding intended for Welsh businesses is lost?

Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her questions? And, first of all, I very much welcome the very kind words that she began her line of questions with today. I've been very fortunate, I believe, during my time in this role, to have had incredibly constructive opposition spokespeople, including Helen Mary Jones. I'm really grateful for the constructive way in which opposition spokespeople, and, indeed, Members across the Chamber, have been able to work with me and with my officials over the past five years, and we've tried to reach out, just as I know that other Ministers have tried to reach out, to get the best possible ideas from across the Chamber, because we have no monopoly on good ideas, and sometimes the finest results come when we work together. So, I'd like to thank everybody, including Helen Mary Jones, for such a constructive relationship during my time in this post.

And if I can just answer the last question first, and that regards the speed at which money needs to get to businesses to avoid any unspent investment. Speed has been a key determining factor in the way that we've developed support systems, and local authorities, along with Welsh Government and Business Wales, have done a remarkable job in ensuring that money is in the accounts of businesses as soon as possible. So, it gives us confidence to say that we will be spending the money that has been allocated to business support, which of course amounts to approximately £400 million more than we've received in business-related consequentials, demonstrating just how seriously we've taken the economic harms of the pandemic. 

I'd also very much welcome the opportunity that Helen Mary Jones has given me to clarify the £30 million of additional support for businesses that is aligned to full-time equivalents. But, of course, it shouldn't be seen in isolation, because should restrictions be extended in the March 12 review, then the £150 million that's been made available will see all businesses in the hospitality, tourism and leisure, and non-essential sectors, receive up to an additional payment of £5,000 regardless of the number of employees they have. So, there will be protection and support for businesses of all sizes. 

And then, finally, we're supporting local government across Wales in exercising the discretion that they need in order to support businesses. So, I would give assurance to local authorities that they should be able to apply the criteria and use their discretion in every circumstance to ensure that businesses are supported through this terrible episode. 

13:40

I'm grateful to the Minister for his answers. Of course, sadly and, I suppose, inevitably, we are beginning to hear of jobs being lost to Wales. The Minister will have heard what my colleague Rhun ap Iorwerth said yesterday about the 27 jobs at Joloda Hydraroll Ltd that may be transferred out of Gaerwen and Ynys Môn. He will also be aware of the 99 manufacturing jobs at risk at the AIM Altitude aircraft cabin interiors manufacturer in Llanelli. These are obviously just examples. Can the Minister provide us today with reassurances that, while dealing with the COVID emergency response, his department still has the capacity to respond to these kinds of situations? The number of the job losses that I've mentioned today may not seem huge, but in the communities impacted they are really significant, and there are supply line issues as well.

And, looking forward, does the Minister believe that his department will be able to develop the capacity to take an intelligence-led approach in identifying, as we come out of the COVID crisis, those companies in Wales where we are at the risk of redundancies so that the next Welsh Government will be able to step in at an earlier stage and perhaps intervene to support those businesses, and to encourage them to keep work here in Wales, before they reach the crisis point, where people often feel that, although there is a consultation, decisions have already been made? 

Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her questions again, and say that I would agree entirely that a small or medium-sized employer in a very small community is a hugely significant employer? So, in working to make sure that we support business of all sizes across Wales, the resilience and reconstruction mission, which was unveiled just last week, highlights how we're going to be investing through the Development Bank of Wales a further £270 million in the medium- and long-term growth of businesses, primarily small and medium-sized enterprises, in Wales.

And I can assure all Members that we have the capacity within Government to deal with the immediate necessity to respond to business closures and businesses in crisis, not just individually, but because we are now working so collaboratively with our regional partners as well. And Members will be aware, for example, that we have regional response teams looking at employment prospects and business crises across Wales, and they're doing an incredible job in the most challenging of times. And we also utilise the Development Bank of Wales's intelligence unit, which is proving to be incredibly helpful in highlighting challenges that certain sectors and individual businesses are facing, so that we can apply that early intervention as soon as possible.

I'm grateful again to the Minister for his answers. Looking a little bit further forward now, we, in my party, strongly support the emphasis in the mission document on decarbonisation and, indeed, we'd like to see the Minister go further. It's going to be crucial as we rebuild our economy. But he will be aware that there are real fears that, through that process of decarbonising industry, there will be losers as well as winners. For example, he will know about the concerns of workers in the steel industry. Now, this change must come, but I am sure that the Minister would agree with me that the transition—the decarbonisation transition—must be just and socially progressive.

I wonder if he can provide an update today on any further discussions he's been able to have with the UK Government about the future of steel in Wales and how investment can be made to enable our steel industry to decarbonise. And would he support the creation in the next Senedd of a just transition committee to scrutinise the next Welsh Government to ensure that there are no unintended consequences, particularly for the most those economically vulnerable in our communities, of the actions that the next Welsh Government must take to decarbonise our economy?   

Well, I think that final suggestion is most certainly worth considering. It will be a decision for the next administration, but I think it's an excellent idea, because it recognises that we have to ensure that we have a green and just and fair recovery, and, therefore, scrutinising the Government on that basis would make sense.

I'm pleased to be able to inform Members today that a UK steel council has been scheduled for later this week. I spoke with the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy earlier this week regarding steel and the need to make sure that UK Government supports UK steel businesses in a safe transition to a low-carbon economy, and the emphasis is on 'safe'—we don't want to see a haemorrhaging of jobs within the steel industry. We want to make sure that change, which is necessary, as Helen Mary Jones has said, is conducted safely in regard to employment security, and that we ensure as many people with those high skills that are currently employed in the steel industries of Wales are retained in the future and, if necessary, upskilled or reskilled.  

13:45

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, can I also say that it's been five years of bringing forward questions to you during spokespersons' questions and can I thank you, in the same way that Helen Mary did, in terms of the constructive way that we've worked together, especially during the pandemic? I think that's what the public would expect us to do and I thank you for that. 

With that, Minister, I'm going to use my last set of questions to do what I have been doing in terms of scrutinising your decisions and the Government's. This morning, you announced a huge sum of taxpayers' money to be provided to Cardiff Airport to the tune of £130 million. Now, from my perspective, the aviation sector has been hugely hit by the pandemic, and governments across the world need to support the industry—I have no doubt about that. But from my perspective, we've seen thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money already invested by your Government and much of that has been written off to Cardiff Airport and that was before the pandemic even hit.

So, I think the question that small businesses will have across Wales is: have you got the balance correct in terms of support for them versus the huge sums of money that have been put into the airport and have been written off in that vein as well? I ask the question in the spirit of this—I asked you a written question last week: when is the fourth phase of the economic relief fund expected to open? And I had an answer back at the end of last week that said that the Welsh Government is currently exploring further options for supporting businesses. Well, businesses will need to know when that next round of the economic resilience fund is coming forward. That's the information that they will need to know.

And finally, if I can ask you in terms of this first question, I've got your 2016 manifesto in front of me: what commitments that sit in your portfolio area have not been achieved during this five-year term?

Can I thank Russell George for his questions? I can't quite believe that it's five years that I've been scrutinised by Russell, as the Conservative spokesperson. Time truly has flown by, but his scrutiny has been consistently tough but fair and constructive. So, I'd like to thank him for the role that he has played in ensuring that Welsh Government is held to account for the decisions that it has made and me, as the Minister for economy and transport.

Russell George and other Members will be aware of the devastating impact globally that the pandemic has had on the aviation industry. Just recently, Heathrow Airport reported a £2 billion loss. We've seen the UK Government make available £100 million to some English regional airports. We've seen the Scottish Government make available £17 million to Scottish airports and Northern Ireland, likewise, are making available £10 million to its airports. So, it demonstrates how all governments are intervening. The difference, of course, is that the Welsh Government—the Welsh people—own Cardiff international airport. It is a national asset for the people of Wales. 

In answering the question of whether or not the balance of support is appropriate, I'd just like to remind Members that Cardiff international airport supports more than 5,000 jobs indirectly and supports 2,400 aviation jobs. That amounts to about 4.4 per cent of employment within south-east Wales. It is a huge, huge economic asset and without the Welsh Government support, it would, in my view, have fallen over. And so, it's right and proper that as an enabler for growth for small and medium-sized enterprises, we support the airport. And the airport does have excellent prospects for the future, once we are beyond this pandemic.

If we just go back to the period prior to the pandemic, the growth at the airport was quite astonishing. Passenger growth had increased by over 50 per cent during the period in which Welsh Government Ministers were in ownership of, or the Welsh people were in ownership of the airport. And I believe that, with the ambitious plans that were set out under the master plan, and in particular with the ambitious plans concerning carbon reduction, the airport will be an exemplary airport in the United Kingdom and further afield in terms of low-carbon air travel.

And finally, responding to the last question that Russell George asked me, the obvious answer is the M4 relief road was not proceeded—. We did not proceed with the M4 relief road for reasons that the First Minister, I and others have regularly reminded Members, which is that circumstances have changed quite dramatically in recent years. There was a declaration of a climate emergency, which we across the Chamber are responsible for acknowledging and responding to, and of course we were able to set up the Burns commission to produce an alternative set of recommendations and work, primarily focused on rail infrastructure improvements, to ensure that people have an opportunity to travel other than by private motor vehicle.

13:50

Thank you for your answers. Minister, in terms of that last question I asked you, you addressed the issue in terms of the M4 relief road. That was a commitment in the 2016 Labour manifesto, which, of course, you were the author of. But I've got this manifesto in front of me now and I can see it says,

'We will deliver fast broadband to every property in Wales'.

Your Deputy Minister continually reminds us when it suits him that this is not a matter for the Welsh Government, yet it sits here in the Welsh Government's manifesto. It talks about the metro schemes in north and south Wales. We talk about the M4 relief road not going ahead, but there's also a commitment there for the A55 improvements and the A40 improvements as well, which we haven't seen also. And it also talks about 4G masts and it also talks about integrated ticketing. There's just so much in the manifesto that sits under your portfolio area that has not been achieved, and I understand that some things change. You changed you position on the M4 relief road; I don't agree with that, but that's a decision that you as a Government have made. My question is: how can the people of Wales and the small businesses trust your approach now going forward, during the pandemic and into your next manifesto as you develop that ahead of the elections coming up in May, when so much hasn't been achieved in terms of your 2016 manifesto?

Well, can I first of all say that it's only fair that I get an opportunity to highlight some of the great successes of the Welsh Government in the last five years in regard to transport and infrastructure and the economy? Prior to the pandemic, we had the highest rate of employment on record. We had the highest number of businesses in existence in Wales since devolution, and before devolution, it has to be said. Economic inactivity, quite phenomenally, was fast approaching UK average, and our GVA, our productivity, was improving faster than the UK average as well.

During the course of the pandemic, our focus has been on jobs and jobs and more jobs, and, as a result of that focus, we now have an unemployment rate in Wales that is lower than the UK average. There is still a long journey to be tread, but we have an unemployment rate that is below the UK average, and that is precisely because we've got a devolved Government that is focusing on employment. The difference between the UK average and the Welsh rate of unemployment demonstrates the value of our £2 billion investment in businesses, and that, in turn, through securing more than 140,000 jobs, represents 10 per cent of the Welsh workforce. It's a staggering success.

We've also established the Development Bank of Wales, which was promised in the manifesto and I think is now recognised as one of the most important assets we have in Wales. We also established Transport for Wales. We've nationalised the railways. We are steadily progressing metro programmes, but the metro programmes were never intended to be delivered in a single term; these are long-term objectives. Rome wasn't built in a day and the metros of Wales won't be built within a single administration term. But we are beginning the process of delivering them, both in north Wales and south Wales, and steadily as well in south-west Wales. 

In terms of fast broadband, it's absolutely right to point out that this is a reserved matter, but we have been intervening with investment above and beyond what we receive from UK Government, and there have been significant improvements. And there continue to be significant improvements for our trunk road network, including on the A55. Many Members in north Wales will recognise the investment that's taken place there, with more to follow. But our focus in terms of transport, as highlighted by the Welsh transport strategy, will shift towards promoting active travel and public transport, making sure that as we invest in transport-related infrastructure, we do so in a way that grows a fair and more equal economy.

Thank you, Minister. You've skilfully shifted the answer there away from the questions that I asked, pointing towards some of the areas that were not delivered in the 2016 manifesto.

In terms of the UK Government's announcements today and over the last couple of days, we've seen huge sums of money announced by the Chancellor that will be able to support the economic growth here in Wales from Holyhead to Port Talbot, and we've seen announcements made in terms of business support. So, I'm hoping that you'll be able to confirm that that business rates holiday will now apply in Wales, and that that's what you will implement also. We've also seen huge sums of money in terms of £12 billion from the UK infrastructure bank, which will, of course, benefit Wales as well. So, huge sums of support that the UK Government Chancellor has announced.

In terms of getting the Welsh economy firing on all cylinders, I go back to my earlier points about being constructive here and parties working together, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report suggested that we should have an arm's-length body so that decisions are made not by Welsh Government Ministers, but by promoting Wales around the world by a third-party organisation, such as the Welsh Development Agency. You've previously been open to that suggestion before; that's something I firmly believe is the right approach, because I just think that we need to be doing everything we can to get our economy firing on all cylinders. I wonder whether you would also agree that this is an important area to move forward as we move the Welsh economy forward. We've got these billions of pounds that the UK Government has provided for the UK, including Wales, and one way to do that is through the arm's-length body that's been talked about in the OECD report.

13:55

Can I thank Russell George for his final set of questions and say that we have been hugely ambitious during this current administration term? We established the Development Bank of Wales—the first major regional development bank in the United Kingdom—and that's been a huge success. So, we do not fear establishing new bodies to drive prosperity. I do welcome the OECD's work in scrutinising the Welsh economy and structures for investment and economic development.

We're going to be working with the OECD in the months to come with a view to responding in detail to the recommendations. I'm open to ideas and I have been open to ideas during the past five years, but we have to ensure that the development of any new agencies or bodies does not duplicate what is currently being delivered and will be delivered into the future. We must consider, I think, therefore, the role of the corporate joint committees that are being established, which bring together local authorities on a regional basis. They are a very, very significant development and I would not wish to see their success impaired or put in harm's way by the accelerated development of a half-baked idea concerning regional development agencies. And that's why it's absolutely essential that we carefully consider what the OECD have recommended, and consider whether, in light of the creation of CJCs, such agencies would be required and if so, whether they would be desirable. And we have to do that in social partnership with local authorities, with business, with the unions and with key stakeholders.

Cardiff Airport

3. What measures are in place to support Cardiff Airport when the lockdown restrictions end? OQ56353

Officials are continuing to work with Cardiff International Airport Limited and their executive board to evaluate the impact of coronavirus on the airport, including, of course, future actions in relation to recovery options, and we intend to say more about that in the weeks and months to come. I am in no doubt, as I said to Russell George, that the airport has a very, very bright future.

Thank you for the reply, Minister. You know that Wizz Air, for reasons that really need no description, are delaying the operation of their new services from Cardiff Airport. These will be very significant new scheduled services when they do begin, and I just want to have a reassurance that whoever forms the Welsh Government after the forthcoming election will ensure that these routes, principally Spain, Portugal and Greece, will be identified for priority if we need, for instance, to be establishing safety corridors to link countries that have COVID under control. Obviously, the assessment of whether those countries do have COVID under control will then have to be made, but I do not want to see lots of delays because of the bureaucracy. It's quite clear that some countries are likely to be open to us, as aviation partners, sooner than others.

14:00

I'd agree with David Melding that we wish to ensure that Cardiff international airport has the best prospects available to it to take advantage of any improved circumstances with regard to flight. David Melding rightly highlighted the success that Cardiff international airport has enjoyed recently in attracting Wizz Air, and they'll be operating from May 2021; they'll be operating nine routes to various holiday destinations. There is huge pent-up demand for international leisure travel—holiday travel. We want to make sure that Cardiff international airport benefits from that and that its carriers also benefit from it, including KLM, Vueling, Ryanair and others.

We're working with the airport to attract more airlines and we're working with the UK Government in terms of aviation policy. It's absolutely vital that the UK Government responds to us in a fair way when we ask for certain tools to be devolved, including air passenger duty, that we are fully part of any considerations regarding support packages that may be available for the aviation sector, and that we are fully part of any decisions regarding restrictions that could be eased to enable international travel. 

Minister, can I welcome the support the Welsh Government has given to the airport, protecting the many hundreds of jobs that are dependent on that airport, directly or indirectly, in the Pontypridd and Taff-Ely area? Do you agree with me that the airport is important in respect of the aviation sector and the aviation sector jobs that we have in the broader south Wales area, but particularly in places like Nantgarw and the Pontypridd and Taff-Ely area? Could you, perhaps, enlarge a little bit on what might be the future plans for the airport, particularly with the idea of incorporating it as part of our public integrated transport system to make it more accessible and as effective as possible an element in achieving economic growth in the post-COVID era?

Can I thank Mick Antoniw for his question? I very much welcome his support for the airport. He's right; there are hundreds of jobs in his constituency and surrounding constituencies that directly rely on the airport, and many more that indirectly rely on the existence of the airport. I've already given the figure: 5,200 jobs in total are supported by the airport, with 2,400 aviation-related jobs. One can only imagine how many of those jobs and those key employers within south-east Wales in the aerospace and aviation industries directly rely on the very existence of Cardiff international airport. That's why I make no apology for ensuring that it survives this short-term challenge and that it has the best possible prospects for long-term success.

In terms of future prospects, obviously the airport wishes to be an exemplar in terms of low-carbon air travel. In September 2019, the airport launched an environmental flight path—a journey to becoming carbon neutral. It's hugely ambitious, and we very much welcomed it. The airport has its master plan in place and is delivering against the master plan. Contained within that is a desire to see better, more integrated public transport serving one of our hugely important national assets. We'll be working with the airport and with our local government stakeholders to ensure that public transport, in an integrated way, can meet the needs of the airport and the travelling public.

Can I add my thanks to those of Helen Mary Jones and Russell George in thanking the Minister for involving me in his deliberations throughout the last five years, both as a spokesperson and after? Can I say that I have the highest respect for your abilities and commitment to your duties as a Minister? As the Minister will know, I have been a keen supporter of the Welsh Government's intervention strategy with regard to Cardiff Airport. Prior to COVID, that strategy was paying dividends, with passenger figures rising considerably and new airlines being attracted to the airport. I would, therefore, urge you to continue supporting the airport, not just after lockdown but into the future. A vibrant, growing international airport is crucial for promoting Wales to the rest of the world, and it is, of course, a vital facility for Welsh travellers and businesses. We cannot ignore the cascading down of moneys invested in the airport in terms of growing related businesses and industries. I'm convinced it will repay the Government's investment as soon as world travel returns to normal.

14:05

Can I thank David Rowlands for his question and for his comments, and also for his kind words regarding the time that he's spent both as opposition spokesperson and as an MS who has scrutinised me very fairly? Very challenging at times, but very fairly. It's been a pleasure to have held this brief with such constructive opposition spokespeople and with a Siambr of dedicated MSs who care so passionately about the economy and transport in Wales. I can assure David Rowlands that this administration has considered Cardiff Airport an incredibly important national asset. I am hopeful that the next administration—if it's Labour led, then it certainly will be a key concern of ours in the years to come. David Rowlands is right; the airport has huge potential to support jobs across the region and beyond. It has huge potential as a flag carrier for the Welsh economy in demonstrating just how ambitious we are. The gross value added footprint of the airport is quite staggering, demonstrating that it has enormous potential to generate great prosperity for Wales. That's why, again, I make no apology for making sure that the airport survives.

Hospitality Businesses

4. How is the Welsh Government helping hospitality businesses in north Wales during the pandemic? OQ56345

Our latest restrictions business fund has seen over 22,000 grants paid to north Wales businesses, totalling over £69.5 million. Our hospitality, leisure and tourism sector-specific fund has also provided, to date, £12.7 million to almost 1,500 businesses. Last week, of course, I announced a further £30 million for that fund.

Each time the Welsh Government has announced financial support to help hospitality businesses survive the pandemic, it has excluded bed-and-breakfast businesses not eligible for small business rate relief because of rules that they have to comply with. They've been excluded from small business grants, unlike their counterparts in England and Scotland, and from each round of the economic resilience fund. On each occasion, I've been contacted by desperate small bed-and-breakfast businesses unable to understand why you have denied support to this vital part of local tourism economies. On each occasion, I've raised this with the Welsh Government, including yourself, to zero effect. How will you therefore respond to the subsequent e-mails received this year from struggling bed-and-breakfast businesses in north Wales stating, 'Looks like, once again, businesses like ours are missing out on the latest Government funding', 'ERF criteria once again disqualifies us' and 'What are we supposed to do for funding now? Can you please contact Welsh Government to find out why businesses like ours are not able to receive grant help despite being required to close down?'?

I thank Mark Isherwood for his question and just remind Members again that we're investing more than £2 billion in businesses in Wales. That's £400 million more than we've received in business-related consequentials, and it demonstrates that we are maintaining the most generous and comprehensive packages of support for businesses anywhere in the United Kingdom. But, of course, that package of support is in addition to the UK Government schemes—the self-employment income support scheme and the job retention scheme—which should be applicable to many of those businesses that have approach Mark Isherwood. They should be drawing down funding via that route.

Our role is ensuring that we add value and ensure that operating costs are met for businesses. For those that Mark Isherwood has identified, there is, of course, the discretionary grant fund that's available to local authorities to use in supporting local businesses, and there's also the discretionary assistance fund, which has been increased very substantially during this pandemic, recognising that many individuals are suffering as a result of a loss of income or a loss of employment. That's precisely the sort of fund I'd encourage Mark Isherwood to point those businesses towards.

Minister, we've spoken previously in this Chamber about how the hospitality industry is probably one of the most COVID secure. Figures show that people are more likely to contract COVID in a hospital than a pub or a restaurant. Minister, there was a victory for common sense this week when the UK Government lost a case brought by the Manchester hospitality industry in terms of the restrictions put on the industry. How will that judgment affect your approach to the reopening of hospitality in Wales? Thank you.

14:10

Can I thank Mandy Jones for her question and say that we do have a process in place, a 21-day review process, that enables us to determine how we can safely reopen the economy? We're keen to make sure that hospitality, tourism and leisure can reopen as soon as possible, but they must do so in the safest way possible as well. No matter how small, pretty much every sector has, unfortunately, a contributing factor in transmission rates. Therefore, whilst, yes, they are operating in very much a COVID-safe way, there is still the risk that hospitality, tourism and leisure-related businesses, at this time, if they were to reopen prematurely, could contribute to a significant increase in the number of possible admissions, which in turn would put hospitals under enormous pressure. We're keen to make sure that businesses are able to open in a safe way as soon as they possibly can, and we have that regular routine of 21-day reviews to ensure that we can open up society and the economy in the safest possible way.

Business Recovery

5. How is the Welsh Government supporting business recovery in north Wales? OQ56348

Well, further to my answer to Mark Isherwood, in north Wales, we've also provided over 2,500 businesses with £44.1 million of support under phases 1 and 2 of the economic resilience fund, safeguarding more than 20,000 jobs in north Wales. In north Wales, we've also provided £1.1 million to 472 start-up businesses.

Thank you, Minister. Can I say thank you, diolch, for your responses whenever I've raised scrutiny and challenging questions with you, and also for your fair approach? Whenever I've raised any issues with you regarding transport or other issues within Aberconwy, you've always been very fair.

The latest round of the economic resilience fund will see £30 million targeted at hospitality businesses with 10 or more employees. As our colleague Helen Mary said, it's 10 or more employees—and Mark Isherwood raised it also—what about those who have five or six employees? How did you draw the line? Also, can you explain the difference between businesses employing nine and 10 people, especially the confusion that's arisen?

I've had a few tourism forums, Minister, and there's some confusion about the additional £150 million that's going to be made available through non-domestic rates grants. You've confirmed to date that this will only be extended if restrictions are extended on 12 March, and that's causing some great uncertainty with those businesses. They really do need to know now whether there's any likelihood of them opening up over Easter, or is it going to be April or is it going to be May. Because these businesses really need to plan. There's been mention of us moving to alert level 3 after 12 March, and level 3, of course, is a confirmed case rate of more than 150 cases per 100,000 people. But the latest rolling seven-day average is 57 cases per 100,000. This is putting huge expectation on these business owners now. So, I'd be really grateful if you could make a clear statement on that.

And my final point: there's been a lot of anti-visitor rhetoric, I'm afraid, and in our tourism industry, 80 per cent of their industry, tourism business, comes from over the border in England, hence why they want to see a levelling up of reopening levels. What steps can you take, Minister, working with Visit Wales, to ensure that those messages are completely eradicated, and that when we are reopen for business, we are very welcoming and we say a large 'croeso' to anybody coming from over the border here to north Wales and Aberconwy to enjoy their holidays?

Can I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for her very kind words and say that I've hugely enjoyed working with her? She may be a Member of the opposition to my party, but, equally, she's been very constructive and fair in the way that she's both scrutinised me and sought answers to questions.

Obviously, the next 21-day review is taking place next week, so businesses within tourism, hospitality and leisure sectors will learn about whether they'll be able to reopen in time for Easter. But, as I said on the previous question, what's essential is that any business that's reopening does so in a safe way. And should that £150 million need to be utilised to support businesses, then it will be beyond next week. It will give a guarantee to businesses of all sizes that they'll have support from Welsh Government with grants of up to £5,000 available for them. And that gives me assurance that, regardless of the outcome of the review next week, there will be an income, either through the form of a grant from Welsh Government, or through generating custom over the following weeks.

I would also agree with Janet Finch-Saunders that there should be no anti-visitor rhetoric. The message from Visit Wales throughout this pandemic has been, 'Visit Wales later'. We're keen to ensure that when it's safe for people to visit Wales again, then we will be throwing open our arms to maximise opportunities for businesses within Wales. But, of course, communities that rely on the visitor economy for employment have suffered incredibly badly during this pandemic, and that's why we've been so keen—and Dafydd Elis-Thomas as the excellent tourism Minister has been so keen to ensure that we've given the most generous package of support to tourism and the hospitality and leisure businesses anywhere in the United Kingdom.

And if I could just flag up a comparison between England and Wales: if you look at the maximum grant available to all businesses in England with a rateable value of less than £15,000, then it's £6,000; if you look at the equivalent in Wales for tourism and hospitality, it will be around £10,000. And that excludes, actually, the unique £180 million and £30 million additional funds that have been made available for hospitality, leisure and tourism businesses. So, in total, in Wales, we've undertaken two rounds of the restrictions fund since December, alongside two hospitality, leisure and tourism sector-specific funds, and, of course, prior to that, there was the business development fund—all of these funds available and utilised by great businesses in the tourism sector.

14:15

There's a lot of love being shared in this question session today; long may it continue—a lot of kindness. Jack Sargeant, the next question is yours.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd, and I'll join the praises from Members of the opposition to your approach to the economy, Minister, and to your commitment towards north Wales in particular, and I commend you for that. Now, we do need to build back stronger and greener, and be ambitious in our plans for recovery to create jobs in Deeside. This year, Shotton Steel turns 125, and I want it to be growing and employing people for the next 125 years. Now, this has to be a major employer for our future generations. I want to see Shotton Steel become the first carbon-neutral plant in the UK, and I want it to produce the steel for the green products of the future. So, Minister, will you continue your conversations with Tata Shotton about their logistics hub to supply green modular buildings of the future, and to support them in making the plants carbon neutral? 

Well, can I thank Jack Sargeant for his questions, and for his kind remarks as well? Yes, Members are being very kind today. It's making me wonder whether there's a conspiracy, whether all Members know something about my fate on 6 May with these kind words and tributes to be made, but it has been an absolute pleasure to work with Members over the past five years during my time in this role, and, of course, that's involved a focus on north Wales as the Minister for north Wales.

There are few companies that are as good as Tata in Shotton in terms of employment prospects and development of the workforce, and we're absolutely determined to secure a sustainable long-term future for the steel industry in Wales, including Tata Steel in Shotton, and we're working to make sure that we work with those businesses in developing plans that will meet the aspirations of our zero-carbon targets. And our new manufacturing plan, which was launched just last week, identifies some of the steps that are needed to decarbonise industry. I'm pleased that we're already participating in the £315 million industrial energy transformation fund, which provides capital investment in energy efficiency and decarbonisation projects. Tata has been invited to take part—I'm pleased to say—in a study evaluating the future skills needs of foundation industries, with a specific focus on decarbonisation, and this is being co-ordinated by Innovate UK as part of the UK's £150 million transforming foundation industries initiative. So, Tata are demonstrating a clear determination to make sure that they can undergo a safe transition.

And in terms of other opportunities for Shotton Steel, obviously, I was disappointed to learn that the Heathrow logistics hub work is not going ahead as intended. I know that Tata Steel were looking forward to working on that. However, we fully support Tata Steel's ambitions of developing its own logistics hub at Shotton, and my officials are working very closely with the company to explore the options for opening up the third access road, which will be so important in the development of a hub. 

14:20
The Economic Recovery of Cardiff City Centre

6. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to support the economic recovery of Cardiff city centre in light of the pandemic? OQ56358

As part of our Transforming Towns approach, the Welsh Government and our partners in local government have adopted the 'town centre first' principle that is so important the length and breadth of Wales. Cardiff Council has received over £3.5 million in Transforming Towns funding to date. Possible interventions include digital-based, green infrastructure, residential and commercial property and active travel investments.

Thank you for that, and I'd also like to add my loving remarks about your excellent targeted use of limited resources to supplement what is available from the UK Government to support businesses like taxi drivers and freelancers like musicians, which has really been appreciated.

But turning back to the challenges facing Cardiff city centre, obviously, we have lots of unique selling points, like the millennium stadium, like the range of fantastic performance venues with, in close proximity, the shops, the restaurants and the cafés, which is why people like to come to the city centre. BT Openreach has reassured me that we do have fibre-based superfast broadband that covers most of the city centre, so we can think about remote working hubs. But the challenges we face include the fact that Debenhams and Howells have been taken over by companies that are not interested in trading on the high street, and we need to repurpose these buildings to maintain that vibrant and tight-knit city centre. Yet, we're still being bombarded by developers' high-rise building proposals that could just exacerbate a potential oversupply of offices and shops. So, I've been talking to FOR Cardiff, who lead the business improvement district and to constituents about how we can rebuild that vibrancy to be greener, fairer and sustainable. What support can the Welsh Government offer to ensure that whatever capital is available is used to meet our sustainable development objectives to build back fairer?

Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for her question today, and also for the many campaigns that she has led during this term, and in particular during this pandemic? The way that she has supported and championed taxi drivers and freelancers, particularly freelancers in the creative industries who do so much for Cardiff—it's my view that some of the most creative cities on this planet are the most attractive places in which to live, and so the creative industries have a huge role in terms of placemaking and in improving the atmosphere, aesthetics and attractiveness of our places.

In regard to the question that Jenny Rathbone asked, obviously, the Welsh Government, through the Transforming Towns initiative that Hannah Blythyn is leading on, has a role in supporting the transformation and transition of town and city centres to places that are more attractive, that are more conducive to leisure activities and social activities, not just reliant on retail, but complementary to retail. There's also a really important role that local government plays in this regard, as well. Cardiff city council has been quite incredible in the way that it has worked with the Welsh Government and with partner local authorities across the region in promoting that sense of well-being within our urban communities. So, we're keen, and we'll go on being keen to work with local authorities in ensuring they've got the right infrastructure in place to promote economic development in a sustainable way, including digital infrastructure, and that they are developing their urban spaces in a way that promotes a green recovery. That includes more greening of our environment, it includes improved land-use planning, integrated with transport infrastructure planning, and this is the sort of development that we wish to see across Wales.

Newport City Centre

7. What economic support has the Welsh Government given to Newport city centre during the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ56372

14:25

I'm pleased to say that Newport City Council has been allocated around £7 million in grant and loan funding in support of its Transforming Towns programme. These projects include £1.2 million towards a £2.9 million project to improve the city centre's Market Arcade. 

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Over the last few months, we have heard of big high street brands going into administration across the UK, and the restrictions, social distancing and working from home have had a huge impact on our city centres. The pandemic has already hit our struggling city centres hard, and it will permanently change how we see them. We have to think differently about how we support and develop them to attract footfall. I've been pleased to see the exciting plans in Newport of a knowledge quarter, involving Coleg Gwent coming into the city centre, a brand-new leisure centre and the redevelopment of the market, as you've mentioned. We'll need to ensure our city centres are safe places where people can work, live and shop, a place where people will want to spend time. How are the Welsh Government planning to continue to help and support our city centres as we recover, and what further support can Welsh Government provide to our retail, hospitality and leisure businesses on the high street, including those independent businesses, so that they can thrive and be at the heart of our recovery plan for our city centres?

I thank Jayne Bryant for her question today and for being so consistent and so passionate in promoting Newport. I think there is great excitement in and around Newport about the city's prospects in the years to come, and we're working to make sure that we work in partnership with the local authority in delivering on some of those hugely ambitious schemes that Jayne has identified. In addition, I can inform Members that Welsh Government is currently developing a potential retail strategy that will address the swift transition towards digital retail and also the immediate impact of coronavirus on our high streets. We'll be working with the Welsh Retail Consortium in developing that strategy, and we'll also be working alongside trade union colleagues in social partnership to ensure that as many people as possible can be retained within the sector, even if it means upskilling or reskilling in order to take on new opportunities. 

We've also published the economic resilience and reconstruction mission, and within that mission, there are five beacons. One of those beacons really does address concerns that Jayne Bryant has identified today, the future of the high street. It's that foundation of our economy that needs to be strengthened, and that will be a key beacon in enhancing prospects for town and city centres in the years to come. 

The 'town centre first' approach, which has been so strongly embraced by local authorities, businesses and by business improvement districts across Wales will continue, and additional investment has been announced for the Transforming Towns initiative. And then there are also the business development grants that formed part of a previous round of the economic resilience fund and which are proving so important in ensuring that businesses within the retail sector and within hospitality and tourism are able to look to medium and long-term opportunities, not just deal with the here and now. And in the meantime, in the here and now, we've announced, of course, an additional £30 million for that sector-specific fund, which will prove so important to businesses in retail, in hospitality, in leisure and tourism, within Newport and, indeed, across Wales. 

The Economic Development of Town Centres

8. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to support the economic development of town centres in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OQ56361

Three million pounds of funding has been made available to towns throughout Wales following a study by the Centre For Towns. Merthyr Tydfil has been awarded £834,549 to provide a grant scheme for businesses, which will support with enhancements both internally and externally to aid business trading in response to the pandemic.

Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. I was very pleased that, last week, when the Minister Ken Skates announced the reconstruction mission for Wales, this enshrined the principle of town centres first. Now, my particular concern is to ensure a better connected digital future that will sit alongside developments like the new bus station, metro services, road improvements on the Heads of the Valleys road, and so on. So, can you please confirm that, as part of this change, we will help to deliver a digital high street, ensuring that commercial, leisure and hospitality facilities can provide the best digital offer in order to underpin the versatility and flexibility of uses that towns in our Valleys will need in the years ahead?

Yes, I completely agree. I think digital is a really important part of how we've regenerated town centres and how we create a data-based policy approach. So, there's already been support for the town and enabling towns. For example, Rhymney town centre has had a £30,000 grant to enable Caerphilly, to enable them, to introduce free Wi-Fi provision in the town centre. We're doing this now across the country. And critically, as well as providing free Wi-Fi, we're providing infrastructure for the 'internet of things' connectivity, the so-called LoRaWAN network, which has been trialled very successfully in Cardigan and across north-west Wales, where we can see footfall data—when people come, when they shop, how long they stay for—which gives, then, information for traders to think about their opening hours. So, for example, the data is showing that people are often staying in town centres later in the evening than shops are open for, so that information can then be used by business improvement districts and others to tailor the offer they make. So we're quite keen that, as well as the physical infrastructure, we'll also enable them to understand the data, interpret the data, and act on the data. So, we'll be announcing soon an important package to roll that out further.

In addition, for Merthyr council, we have provided, through the Valleys taskforce, £200,000 funding for a town-centre masterplan, which will be important to plot the centre of the town's role in the years to come. And I'd also add, beyond the town centre, I'm very keen that we support the Crucible project that's being developed in Cyfarthfa park, which is already a gateway hub for the Valleys regional park. I think that has got huge potential to bring people into Merthyr from across the country, creating a world-class visitor attraction. And I'm very pleased that we've been able to put important seed funding in to get that off the ground.

14:30
2. Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition (in respect of his European Transition responsibilities)

The next item is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition in respect of his European transition responsibilities. And the first question is from Dawn Bowden again.

The EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement

1. What is the Welsh Government's latest assessment of the impact of the EU-UK trade and co-operation agreement on the south Wales Valleys? OQ56362

I recently published an analysis of the implications of the trade and co-operation agreement. The new relationship with the European Union negotiated by the United Kingdom Government disadvantages our businesses, limits the rights of our citizens to live and work abroad, and may make it more difficult to recruit workers for our essential services, and threatens investment in our communities.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. So, would you therefore agree that Boris Johnson's boast about his Brexit deal involving no tariffs, quotas or non-tariff barriers is now at odds with the experience of small manufacturing businesses in the Valleys, and what used to be as simple as trading with, say, Bristol or Birmingham is now more complicated than trading with Japan or Canada? Minister, I've today launched a survey of local firms in my constituency to gather more detailed evidence. And while it may still be too early to know the final outcome, would you agree that the new trading arrangements are currently acting as a drag on the economy of our south Wales Valleys?

Llywydd, may I say, I saw online earlier today the launch by Dawn Bowden of this survey? And I think it's an example of exactly the kind of engagement with businesses in constituencies that I think is essential as a result of leaving the transition period. So, I commend that initiative very strongly. And I agree with Dawn Bowden that the conditions for our businesses have changed radically at the end of December, and it'll continue to have, I'm afraid, a significant negative impact, acting, in the way that Dawn Bowden was saying, as a drag on some of our economies, including in the south Wales Valleys. Whilst the agreement does claim to provide zero-tariff and zero-quota arrangements, this is of course subject to products being able to meet other non-tariff barriers around rules of origin and to account for VAT, in a way that we are already seeing is causing significant challenges for many of our exporters. Many products can now no longer be exported at all to the EU, including in certain areas of food production. So, I do absolutely think that what we will find—and I fear what she will find from her survey—is that there will be very real-world implications for the economy and for businesses, and, crucially, for people's jobs and livelihoods.

The Shared Prosperity Fund

2. Will the Counsel General provide an update on the UK Government's shared prosperity fund? OQ56363

8. What representations has the Welsh Government made to the UK Government concerning the operation of the shared prosperity fund? OQ56370

14:35

Llywydd, I understand you've given permission for questions 2 and 8 to be grouped. 

The UK Government are still not providing any detail about the shared prosperity fund, four years after first mooting it. But what is clear is that it intends to bypass devolution, but also to ignore the hard work of stakeholders right across Wales in creating our framework for regional investment.

I'm grateful to the Counsel General for that response. I understand from Twitter that the Secretary of State has announced today that there will be something like £4.8 billion of funding available, but he doesn't say whether that's for Wales; he implies it's for Wales, but doesn't say whether it is for Wales or the UK, and he doesn't give a timescale for that expenditure.

People in Blaenau Gwent, Minister, are really, really worried that we're going to lose access to this funding. We were promised, given a real promise by the UK Conservative Government, that Brexit would not mean any loss of funding—no loss in investment, no loss in investment in infrastructure, in people, in communities. European funding has been a godsend to communities like Blaenau Gwent, where it's helped support work, when the steelworks closed in Ebbw Vale, to create a renaissance, if you like, on that site; investment in the 465 dualling project; the investment in apprenticeships; the investment in people and education right throughout the borough. 

Minister, I'm concerned that we're going to lose access to this. I'm concerned that we will see projects cherry-picked to meet the ambitions of the Conservative Party rather than the needs of Wales. What is the Welsh Government going to do to stand up for Wales rather than allow the Tories to get away with cheerleading for London?

Well, the Member is right. The UK Government seems to be taking a deliberate approach to undermine the kind of planned, strategic, co-developed approach to regional development that we have favoured here in Wales in favour, effectively, of political discretion. And we've seen the impact of that in the towns fund in England, which has been severely criticised for a range of shortcomings by the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament, whether it's about lack of transparency or political bias or the lack of capacity for delivery. All of these challenges fall at the door of the UK Government in terms of its approach to the shared prosperity fund, and, I dare say, what it has called the levelling up fund as well, in due course. 

The proposals, in the way that the Member's question implies, have not been developed with Welsh stakeholders, not reflecting the interests of Welsh businesses and Welsh communities, either on a Wales-wide basis or a regional basis. They lack transparency. They lack the capability of being integrated with other sources of funding, and I hope very much that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the UK Government department responsible for the terrible experience of managing the towns fund, will not replicate the arrangements in relation to these funds. 

At the end of the day, the reason we call for these to be dealt with in accordance with the devolution settlement isn't simply a constitutional argument; it is because it leads to better outcomes, fairer to Wales, and better reflecting the priorities of Welsh businesses, Welsh communities and Welsh people. 

Thank you for that response. There is growing concern about the attitude being shown by the Tory UK Government Minister on the issue of the £4.8 billion to drive regeneration across the UK that will be administered by Whitehall. Minister, will the Welsh Labour Government continue to forcefully stand up for Welsh devolution, the importance of the democratic body that is Senedd Cymru, Welsh Parliament, and that we as directly elected politicians in Wales must have oversight of how moneys earmarked for Wales are spent to benefit the Welsh populace? The global pandemic has vividly demonstrated the dangerous consequences of endemic poverty that exists across the UK—endemic poverty that is the result of savage, ideological Conservative Party policies since Thatcherism devastated communities across Wales after 1979. Minister, what are the dangers you perceive for Wales in the path that the UK Tory Government is taking for Wales?

14:40

May I thank Rhianon Passmore for that question? She will recall, of course, as I do, that, when the spending review happened in November, a Barnett consequential was promised to Wales in relation to the levelling-up fund, so that it could be administered in the way that she describes, in accordance with the democratic accountability of the Welsh Government to this Senedd. That is not what has happened, and, in the way that she suggests, this is entirely in defiance of the constitutional arrangements of the devolution settlement, but this has a practical consequence in the lives of people in Wales. 

The Welsh Government has worked very collaboratively with the third sector, private sector, businesses, universities, local government and others right across Wales to develop an approach that works for Wales, and that, we think, is the better way forward, not a centralised discretionary fund. The sorts of priorities that people right across Wales have demonstrated they wish to see are support for competitive business, addressing economic inequalities, addressing the transition to a zero-carbon economy, and healthier, fairer and more sustainable communities. That is the kind of programme, devolved to the regions in Wales, that we think is in the best interests of Wales, and we call on the UK Government to respect that co-working across Wales and make sure funds are available through that framework. 

[Inaudible.]—Treasury funding for the UK shared prosperity fund initially announced was only for pilot programmes, and it was made clear from the outset that ramped up funding would follow. As the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales said in the House of Commons last month: 

'We have already made it very clear and demonstrated that the amount of money that is going to be spent in Wales when the SPF comes in will be identical to or higher than the amount of money that was spent in Wales that came from the European Union.'

He also stated in the Commons, on the record, that the UK Government

'will continue to engage with the Welsh Government as we develop the fund's investment framework for publication.'

What stage, therefore, has its engagement actually now reached? And given the news that the shared prosperity fund will also work directly with Welsh councils, which are understood to have welcomed this, what engagement are you having with them about this?

I thank the Member for giving me another opportunity to describe the shortcomings of the fund, but he describes a continuation of engagement as though there had been material engagement. The whole point of this process is that there has been none. And when you ask—. When the Member asks me what we will do with Welsh local government, we will continue the collaborative partnership working that has led to the design of the framework, which has not been characterised in the approach of the UK Government. And I am bound to say to him that he seems remarkably relaxed about Wales losing an entire year's worth of funding from the shared prosperity fund, and if he thinks that is an acceptable outcome to this process, I fundamentally disagree with him, and his assurance and his reliance on unspecific blandishments about future courses of action I do not think reflect the interests of people in Wales. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Counsel General, I'm sure you'd agree with me that we do need to turbo charge post-Brexit economic growth in Wales. I'm aware that the UK Government is working collaboratively with devolved administrations to establish at least one free port in each nation of the UK. Here, in north Wales, of course, we are fortunate to have Virginia Crosbie, Welsh Conservative MP for Ynys Môn, heading up the Anglesey Freeport Bidding Consortium, alongside M-SParc, Bangor University, Stena Line, Anglesey County Council and the North Wales Economic Ambition Board. As the only bid in Wales to include an university, the free port could attract major new employers, bringing permanent employment to boost the supply chain across the whole region. It is clear, from your 'End of Transition Action Plan 2020', however, that the Welsh Government has been working with ports and the relevant local authorities to consider the needs of individual ports. So, would you put on record that you fully support Holyhead as the lead candidate to be a free port in Wales as a means of posting the port post Brexit? 

Well, I'm grateful to Janet Finch-Saunders for identifying the needs of ports, and the economies near to ports, as being in need of particular support as a consequence of leaving the European Union. That is certainly the case, and our approach as a Government very much is the one that she described in her question, which is to work with ports, port authorities, hauliers and businesses and the Governments, of course, to advance their interests. I wonder whether she would agree with me that if the UK Government is seeking to support the development of a free port in Wales, in providing funding for that, that ought not to be based on a Barnett consequential, which would deliver around 5 per cent of the overall cost, but on the basis of a much more significant investment of around 10 per cent, which is about one port out of the UK Government's aim of 10 across the UK. So, I would welcome her confirmation to me that she regards a Barnett consequential approach as inadequate to take forward the kind of proposal that she supports.

14:45

Counsel General, thank you, but I have to disagree with you at this point because I was actually quite happy to read today that £8 million will be coming forward to Wales to help with our free-port initiative. Now, Ynys Môn would be the ideal place because it has one of the lowest GVAs in Wales—£1,050 compared with £11,769 for Cardiff. And too often here, as a north Wales elected Member, I am fed up with people worried about the north-south divide.

Now, staying with ports, you may recall that you stated the following in your end of transition action plan:

'We are working to ensure we minimise any possible disruption to the transport network, the ports and local communities in Wales.'

Now, we're both aware of the challenges facing our shellfish sector and the £23 million the UK Government has already made available to back our seafood exporters. But we believe that you could be doing more to minimise this disruption. Some Welsh fishers are spending £15,000 on a refrigerated van to transport live scallops all the way to Plymouth. The Welsh Government could stop all of that by taking one decisive step: introduce financial incentives to develop purification plants here in north Wales. So, will you look to work with Welsh fishers who are looking for that support and work with the UK Government to support the shellfish sector post Brexit by quickly developing purification plants near our Welsh ports?

Well, I'm pleased that she stayed on the theme of ports. I didn't quite get from her rationale why she thought it would be appropriate that Welsh ports ought to be funded at a lower rate than ports in other parts of the UK, so I will ask her, please, if she could help me with that when she asks her next question. I do think it's an important part of standing up for the Welsh ports.

On the question of the shellfish exports, as she will know from our previous exchanges in relation to this, the Welsh Government has always stood up for the interests of fishers and has advocated, therefore, a very different approach than the one that, unfortunately, the UK Government chose to take in its negotiations. And I'm afraid the challenges that face the sector in Wales, which are very significant, are ones that are directly referable to the choices made by the UK Government in those negotiations. And I don't think it serves anyone really to seek to obfuscate that reality. What we will do as a Government is to continue our support for the sector in any way that we can, but the responsibility for changing the landscape here in a way that can genuinely support the shellfish and fisheries sector at large lies at the door of the UK Government. We will continue to be co-operative and work in a collegiate way with them in the interest of all sectors in Wales that have been damaged by the kind of negotiation that the UK Government has pursued, but, ultimately, some of these things lie simply in the hands of the UK Government and they need to act in response.

Llywydd, I'm sorry, but I have to dismiss the Counsel General again. Eight million pounds coming to Wales to help us with our free ports is a good news story, and, you know, it does get tiring to keep hearing the whining and the moaning and the constant groaning about when money is available to come here to Wales. Why don't you ever say 'thank you' to the UK Government?

Now, the development of purification plants in Wales really would be a good news story. In fact, I would hope that the UK Government would co-operate with you, as I'm sure my proposal would fit well with the aim of modernising the fishing industry. So, whilst I would be pleased to hear a commitment from you to work for once with the UK Government on this, you seem to have an allergy to UK Government investment in Wales. Last Thursday, you joined with the Minister for finance to complain that the UK Government intends to directly allocate funding for regional and local development in Wales via a levelling-up fund. You accuse UK Government of, and I quote,

'going out of its way to take money away from Wales'.

Money will be going directly to schemes here in Wales, so please stop these fake news stories. Stop trying to create a needless constitutional battle just because you cannot tolerate a UK Conservative Government that is building on its strong record of delivering for Wales, including protecting nearly 400,000 jobs, supporting more than 100,000 self-employed people and over 50,000 businesses since the start of the pandemic. Why don't you show some of that kindness shown earlier with other Ministers and actually say for once, 'Thank you, diolch, UK Government'? Diolch, Llywydd. 

14:50

I'm not sure I recognise the worldview of the Member, where Welsh people should be grateful for having investment made out of their own taxes in Wales, but it is, I suppose, a worldview. My preferred approach is to make sure that two things happen. Firstly, in relation to areas that are not devolved, that the UK Government stops short-changing Wales, so whether that's in terms of energy infrastructure or digital infrastructure or rail infrastructure, it would be good if the UK Government actually invested on a comparable basis in Wales. In relation to matters that are devolved, I'm afraid, as I mentioned earlier, these sums of money are small sums of money, and they are not being deployed in a way that reflects the interests of Wales. I'm not making a constitutional point, as it happens; I'm making a point about effective investment in the Welsh economy, and that is the work that we've been doing as a Welsh Government with Welsh businesses, and I'm afraid none of the work that the UK Government has done has benefited from that. I welcome investment in Wales. I would welcome considerably more investment from the UK Government in Wales, deployed on reserved areas more effectively by them and on devolved areas by the Welsh Government.

Diolch, Llywydd. Can I say what a delight it is always to follow Janet Finch-Saunders in spokespersons' questions? I was going to start with levelling-up as well, Minister, and perhaps a different view. Last July, I asked you what you were doing to fight back at the UK Government's power-grabbing UK internal market Bill, you'll recall. In December, I asked what you were doing to ensure Wales's interests were represented in the Brexit negotiations. You will recall that as well. Just last month, I asked what you doing to ensure Wales did not not lose out as part of the UK shared prosperity fund proposals, and we've heard some more about that today. Another week gone and here we are again discussing the latest attempt by the Tories in Westminster to undermine Welsh democracy. So, the levelling-up fund was announced, as you know, by Westminster last year, a fund said to be open to all areas in England. Under previous plans, Wales would get our share of the £800 million through the Barnett formula and we would spend it according to our priorities here. The Westminster Treasury has now announced they will be deciding how that same £800 million is spent in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and there is no ring-fence for Welsh funding. I'm just putting that on the record, Minister, to help you out here. Does the Minister agree with me, rather than levelling up, these latest proposals are instead spreading resources thinner, taking our money away from where it's most needed, and that, for Wales, levelling up means losing out?

I do agree with Dai Lloyd that, in terms of both the quantum of the funding and the fact that it's not ring-fenced to Wales, the notion this is a levelling-up fund is an inaccurate description. There is a better way of doing this. There are substantial funds that are available, clearly, but there is a way of doing it that does in fact reflect the needs of businesses and communities in Wales and, as I said earlier in answer to earlier questions, reflect the approach that we have sought to take as a Government of working with stakeholders right across Wales to develop a framework for investment into the future, rather than have something that is discretionary in that sense.

I would say to him I think the way he started his question was right, if I may say, to acknowledge that this is a Conservative Government in Westminster that is pursuing this approach. I think it is possible to make this work on a UK-wide basis with political will in a way that much better reflects the needs of Wales, and that is the vision that we as a Welsh Labour Party and a Welsh Labour-led Government have for regional funding into the future. 

14:55

Thank you for that, Minister, and, obviously, your statement in response, when it came out last week, as well as what you've said today, your response to this latest debacle, is rightly strongly worded and full of condemnation of the Conservative Government in Westminster. However, yet again, it's a bit short on practical steps on how the Welsh Government is now going to protect Wales's interests, because we're in a bit of a war zone here in terms of losing money and losing powers, and this is not the first example, as I intimated at the start of the first question. So, can I ask you, Minister, what practical steps are you taking to ensure that Wales isn't undermined and short-changed once again with this levelling-up fund?

As I mentioned earlier, we have articulated a very different vision for how regional funding should work in Wales, and that is the case that we continue to make. We think that is a much more rational way of supporting the Welsh economy on a Wales-wide level but also the regions of Wales, and to devolve decision making in a very productive and more effective way. He will know, given the list of items he read out at the start of his first question, that we have taken every step that we can to stand up for Wales as a Government, including bringing legal proceedings in relation to the Act. While this item itself isn't capable of being challenged, the Act is currently under judicial review, or we're seeking judicial review in the courts. So, he will know that we take, as a Government, every step open to us to defend the rights of the Senedd and the rights of the people of Wales. I look forward to a day when we have a Government in Westminster that is genuinely interested in making sure that all parts of the UK flourish within a reformed union, and the sooner we have that with the election of a Labour Government in Westminster, the better for all of us.

Just turning for my last question to Brexit and ports, we've heard a bit, but a slightly different slant. Obviously, Holyhead was, until December, and that's only two months ago, the second busiest roll-on, roll-off port in the United Kingdom after Dover. About 450,000 trucks rumbled through each year on their way to Dublin, with cargos of meat, agricultural produce, second-hand cars and items destined for the shelves of Irish supermarkets, all flowing through Holyhead. The UK's departure from the EU has changed all that, plainly. In just seven weeks, freight volumes have plunged by 50 per cent. The port's owner, Stena Line, is warning that the slump could be permanent, and we are seeing new sea routes. Obviously, the Minister will have studied the maps, like myself. We've got Dublin, Rosslare and Cork on one side, and new sea routes opening to Roscoff, Cherbourg and Dunkirk on the other, avoiding Wales altogether. So, can I ask, does the Minister further agree with me that this shows that the problems popping up at Holyhead and other Welsh ports show that Brexit is having a real detrimental effect on the Welsh economy and are not simply just teething problems that are just transient?

I absolutely agree that these are not to be dismissed as teething problems. They are issues to be taken seriously, and we are doing that as a Government because of the reasons the Member outlines in his question. We are very clear that the land bridge between Ireland and mainland Europe is strategically very important for us, and we are doing everything that we can to bring resolution to this. As the Member will know, in terms of what is reserved and devolved in this space, the particular issues that are causing the challenges are in fact reserved. But we have worked, and continue to work, with the UK Government, with the Irish Government and others to try to find resolution to that, working as well more broadly with the range of relevant stakeholders to develop a plan of concrete action to try and resolve some of that. I do want to be very clear that we regard this as being an important area for resolution, and the key message that we get from stakeholders is that it does, in fact, cost in some cases quite considerably more to travel on the direct routes between Ireland and Europe. So, there's an important opportunity for us there, it seems to us, to find a resolution to this so that we can restore the land bridge as the primary transit route in the way that we would all wish to see.

15:00
International Businesses

3. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the potential to attract international businesses to Wales now the UK has left the EU? OQ56357

The trade and co-operation agreement has addressed some of the uncertainty that has deterred investment since the referendum in 2016. But Wales and the UK no longer offer barrier-free access to a single market of 450 million people, and that may well dampen, to some extent, inward investment from overseas.

Thank you for that answer, Counsel General, but I'm not really surprised since you're a remainer. Since a deal with the EU has been implemented, you've said that there are problems with international trade because the UK Government has put sovereignty before well-being. The image of Wales you wanted to leave people with was of a country that would be difficult to do business in and with, and which couldn't even look after its own people's health because we're not in the EU. Yet here we are, the UK leading the world in vaccinating against COVID, second only to Israel, and with more than 1,000 EU businesses opening offices in the UK for the first time ever. Whilst you cherry-pick news to suggest that Amsterdam will somehow replace London as Europe's finance capital by only talking about share trading, actual businesspeople like the head of Barclays, Jes Staley, are saying that Brexit will be of benefit to the UK because of our ability to attract global capital. Even the remain-loving The i newspaper agrees with him.

Surely, you're aware that constantly claiming that we got a bad deal just because it's not the Brexit-in-name-only deal you wanted, and talking down Wales's future and potential because you wanted to stay in the EU is only going to put people off investing here. Wouldn't you agree that the best start to attracting international businesses to Wales, especially in light of the news that 1,000 finance firms are poised to open UK offices, often for the first time, is to change tack and start concentrating on the many benefits and opportunities that Brexit has brought us, and how that will benefit companies that invest here, rather than continuing to fight a referendum that's long been decided?

So, what efforts is the Welsh Government making to attract some of these 1,000 businesses to open offices in Wales, and how effective will that be when the UK Government keeps talking up the future of the rest of the UK, while your Government keeps talking it down in respect of Wales?

I'll try and relate my response to some of the evidence, which I think is probably a helpful way of looking at this. The reality is that there was a significant downturn in inward investment following the 2016 referendum. I'm pleased to say that through the good efforts of an awful lot of people, last year saw an increase from that reduced level, so that is positive and we absolutely welcome that. But it's a positive from having a drop down as a consequence of that uncertainty, which as a Government we certainly don't welcome and neither did business at large in Wales.

Throughout the pandemic, in particular, we've undertaken a very significant engagement programme, both with our current inward investors to ensure that they have the support that they need, but also to identify other opportunities, in a way that has been very productive. The international strategy very clearly identifies the sectors where we feel we can make a real attractive offer, if you like, for inward investment—for compound semiconductors, cyber security, in the renewable space, in the fintech space that she talked about, and in terms of life sciences—and we've developed, I would suggest, a very sophisticated and comprehensive suite of propositions in those areas, and our engagement with clusters, stakeholders and various market channels in those sectors has borne fruit. I welcome that and want to see that continue. 

But I think it is also important for the Member to acknowledge that the consequence of the negotiation that the UK Government have undertaken and their approach to negotiations is to be regretted, because if they had taken a more constructive approach, the story would be even better.

15:05

The WDA brought in a number of basic assembly plants—often described as 'screwdriver plants'—from all over the world. Many came, and they've mostly gone. Does the Minister agree that we need inward investment that will bring high-quality and high-tech employment that will last, no matter where it comes from, and that the last thing we want is a number of post office box investments, where they pay to have a PO box in Wales without employing anybody?

Can I thank Mike Hedges for that very important question? I think he identifies a very significant issue and sets the right direction of travel in his question. Through the international strategy that I mentioned just a moment ago, we've been very clear that what we are seeking is value-added investment, if you like, into the Welsh economy, in the way that the Minister for the economy was talking about in his questions earlier. We will continue the work of proactively promoting the part of the economy that can help us deliver that. And in addition to some of the sectors that I already mentioned in my response to Michelle Brown, whether it's marine energy or the medical technology space, there are a number of areas where we can draw investment, and we continue to want to do that, but, in the way that his question implies, to ensure that that investment is value added, and therefore can deliver long-term, sustainable, productive economic activity in Wales and decent jobs.

The Rights of Musicians in relation to the EU

5. What is the Welsh Government doing to protect the rights of musicians to work and travel across the European Union and beyond? OQ56359

The issues faced by musicians and performers are not to be dismissed as teething problems; they are the consequence of the trade and co-operation agreement negotiated by the UK Government. We are working closely with the Arts Council of Wales, Wales Arts International, Creative Wales and other stakeholder groups to fully understand and respond to the impacts.

Thank you. I'm very proud of Cardiff, which became the first—and possibly only—music city in the UK, because it is central to our economy as well as our culture. Because musicians are all freelancers, if they don't earn any money, they don't eat, so on top of the pandemic, leaving the EU has caused new barriers for musicians to travel. Now, happily, I understand that the Musicians Union has negotiated some discounts on the carnets they now have to have to take their equipment abroad to share their talents elsewhere, but that obviously won't benefit musicians who want to come and perform in Cardiff. The danger is that we'll just cease to be a place where performers want to come to, and they'll simply go elsewhere in Europe and skip the UK and Cardiff altogether. What can the Welsh Government do to prevent this mess of the UK's making becoming a major issue for musicians?

Well, Llywydd, I thank Jenny Rathbone for that supplementary question and acknowledge all the work that she does to support the music sector and live music sector in particular, which is so important, obviously, in her constituency, but to Wales at large. We absolutely as a Government recognise the importance of musicians and the broader creative industries to Wales, and the combined effects of leaving the European Union and COVID have been incredibly difficult challenges for the sector.

We are doing what we can with stakeholders to try and respond to this, but crucially also making representations to the UK Government, in whose hands some of these levers lie, to ensure that they are fully aware, through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in particular, of the impact of these new arrangements in Wales. Where we have the ability to do this, we are taking our own steps, so working with others through the Arts Info Point UK pilot initiative to try and support the arts sectors in relation to questions around mobility and some of the practical challenges that are arising as a consequence. But, as she says, we want to make sure that artists both can travel from Wales to other parts of Europe, but also that we can continue to attract the talent that she talks about in her question, in a way that is really important for maintaining that vibrant, stimulating and creative economy that we all enjoy and we all benefit from in many, many ways.

15:10
Studying Abroad

6. What discussions has the Counsel General had regarding the ability of Welsh people to study abroad following the UK's withdrawal from the EU? OQ56360

I've had a number of discussions with colleagues and stakeholders from across the education sector. They've made clear their concerns regarding the UK Government's decision not to participate in Erasmus+ and the shortcomings of the Turing Scheme as a replacement, and the damage that this will do to the ability of Welsh people to study overseas.

Thank you. I thought we were going to have less doom and gloom, but here we go. I'm actually quite happy with the UK Government's budget today and I just thought that we could've shared some of that happiness.

Now, as I hope you'll agree, the announcement of the new £110 million Turing Scheme was excellent news. The pioneering project will support students from across the UK and from all backgrounds to take advantage of the benefits of studying and working abroad from September 2021. In fact, so committed is the UK Government to help level up opportunities for people across the country that the scheme is going to be looking to target students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The UK Government has moved us from being EU focused to having a proactive global education agenda.

As the chief executive of the Association of Colleges has put it,

'The Turing scheme opens the world’s door to work and study placements for college students.'

Now, in your end-of-transition action plan, you note that the Welsh Government would

'continue to press the UK Government for continued participation in Erasmus+ from 2021-22 onwards'.

Will you now revise this position and support our students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Wales in using the Turing Scheme to reach out to the world? And will you just now start to look, Counsel General, at being more progressive? Thank you.

Well, I absolutely share the ambition of anybody who wants to see students from Wales being able to take full advantage of the sorts of international opportunities that were available to them under Erasmus and would be even more widely available under its replacement scheme. I think it's a very important part of our culture and a very important part of our international stance, if I may say. But I think the reality is that the Turing Scheme is significantly underfunded in comparison with Erasmus, and the reality is that it will, in fact, reduce opportunities.

It isn't, as the Member is increasingly fond of referring to, doom and gloom; it is, in fact, the reality that the Turing Scheme will not provide the same opportunities for people in further education or in schools, and it ignores the youth sector almost completely. The Erasmus+ replacement was a very significant enhancement in terms of its outreach to more disadvantaged participants, and that will not be replicated, I'm afraid, in the new arrangements. I don't think it serves anybody to simply pretend that these kinds of inadequate replacements are some sort of glorious alternative; they simply aren't. Now, the Turing Scheme is what it is, but it certainly isn't the kind of scheme that the Member described in her question, as offering the kinds of opportunities that Welsh students have been accustomed to.

My apologies to Vikki Howells, I skipped over question 4. I'll ask Rhun ap Iorwerth to ask his question 7 and then I'll go back to question 4 after the next question. Apologies for that. 

Question 7, Rhun ap Iorwerth.

The Port of Holyhead

7. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the impact of leaving the European Union on ferry traffic through the Port of Holyhead? OQ56354

Losing traffic through the Holyhead to Dublin route to ports in Northern Ireland and to longer but more direct routes from Ireland to the continent of Europe is a cause of concern. This is a result of the trade and co-operation agreement, and we are pressing the UK and Irish Governments to try and minimise the problems faced by hauliers.

Thank you. The fall in traffic through the port is a cause of great concern for me. As one article on thejournal.ie said a few of days ago:

'When faced with a choice between a business taking a chance on a faster route that could end up being delayed for hours, or a slower route that will be guaranteed to arrive on time, businesses have—so far—been choosing certainty.'

Business, of course, likes certainty. The same article mentions the additional costs that exist now that impact on businesses and their customers. One company from Beaumaris told me that the cost of importing £1,500 worth of goods would be £200 higher now than it would have been previously. What is the Welsh Government doing in negotiations with the UK and Irish Governments to try to influence—because it's all the Welsh Government can do—the level of bureaucracy and the costs related to imports and, crucially, exports across the Irish sea, and to encourage better flow of trade, which would benefit Holyhead, of course?

15:15

We have been working jointly with stakeholders to develop a five-point plan that is focused on taking specific steps to address some of the problems that hauliers have been describing to us. We hope to be in a position to publish that plan jointly before the end of the month, so I hope that progress will be made as a result of that. As your question describes, many of the specific steps are reserved to the UK Government, but we can try to—and we have succeeded—influence that. Where we do have responsibilities of our own here that aren't, perhaps, directly related to this challenge—with regard to the location of checking centres for the future, for example—then we as a Government are certain that we want to do that in a way that won't increase uncertainty and increase the disadvantage to those people using the port of Holyhead. Therefore, we want to locate those as close to the port as possible in order to make that journey easier for those hauliers, and I hope to say more about that over the next few days.

Short-term Work Placements

4. What discussions has the Counsel General had about short-term work placements for learners from other parts of Europe coming to Wales post-Brexit? OQ56350

In addition to regular discussions on immigration and Erasmus+ matters at Cabinet sub-committee, I have recently written to the Minister for immigration specifically highlighting the impact of the new rules on vocational learners from the EU undertaking work placements in the UK as part of the Erasmus+ programme.

Thank you, Minister. I've been in contact with ColegauCymru, who are concerned that the planned costs and timescales involved for vocational learners from the EU who wish to undertake short unpaid work experience in the UK will make such placements prohibitive. If they are in place for EU learners who wish to come to the UK, they could also be in place for Welsh learners wishing to take up placements in Europe. Counsel General, I'd welcome your reflections on this situation and on any discussions you have had to make sure that this is not the case and that these types of placements can continue. 

I thank Vikki Howells for raising this really important question. We share a desire to make sure that these work placements can happen in a way that is very streamlined and supports their delivery. ColegauCymru are correct that the nature of the trade and co-operation agreement means that education and training providers are dealing, obviously, with new visa and immigration arrangements and the cost implications of that as well, as she suggests. That applies to exchanges undertaken either this year or next year using Erasmus+ funding, where they were approved before leaving the transition period. Our view, as a Government, is that in order to support the UK remaining an attractive option and a welcoming place for EU learners, and to maintain that reciprocity, if you like, across the European Union that several Members have spoken about today as well, it's really essential that the UK Government addresses what is a clear restriction, if you like, on the mobility of learners.

There hasn't been any ministerial engagement with the devolved Governments since July 2019. We felt as a Government that, having had opportunities prior to that to meet as four Governments to discuss these issues, that was a productive way of working, even though it's an area that is reserved. We haven't seen any progress—I think I wrote at the end of last year—in relation to this matter. I've written again now to Kevin Foster, who's the Minister for immigration, to highlight some of the issues that the Member has raised today, but also to try and reinstate that pattern of four-Government working, so that we can help influence some of these things in a way that stops the issues arising that the Member has raised today.

15:20
3. Topical Questions
4. 90-second Statements

We move, therefore, to the 90-second statements, and the first statement today is from Mike Hedges.

Diolch, Llywydd. I'm going to talk about John Hughes. During the past year in Swansea we have been celebrating 'Calon Lân' with words by Daniel James, better known by his bardic name of Gwyrosydd. While not underestimating the importance of the words of the hymn, we must not forget the importance of the tune. When listening to Radio Wales in early February, I heard someone in America trying to remember a hymn from their childhood. They could not remember the words, but they could remember the tune, and that was instantly recognisable on being hummed as 'Calon Lân'. The tune was created by John Hughes, who was a Welsh composer who is best known for 'Calon Lân', but that's not the only thing he did. He wrote a number of other hymn tunes for cymanfa ganus in the Swansea area. He wrote the tune for 'Calon Lân' because he was asked to by Gwyrosydd, who knew how good a composer of tunes he was. He was from Pembrokeshire originally, and the house where he was born bears a plaque. There is also a memorial plaque in Treboeth. He worked his entire career in the Dyffryn steelworks in Morriston, starting off as an office boy, and ending up as a marketing manager. He travelled internationally with the company and taught himself six languages besides his native Welsh. He is buried at Caersalem chapel in Treboeth, and he has a granddaughter who still lives in Ynystawe. Although his name is not instantly recognisable, his tune is.

I was expecting to hear some humming of the tune there, Mike Hedges. You can keep that for another day, maybe. 

Next, Bethan Sayed.

I was tempted, but I won't today.

This week we mark Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2021. I've campaigned on this issue for many years, and since I was first elected in 2007 this is an issue I've prioritised. During this time we have made many strides forward, particularly on awareness and broadening the understanding of all issues relating to mental health. Too often we see conditions that require a specialist knowledge misunderstood, with people saying that it's a diet gone wrong, or a lifestyle choice. This has been the case when it comes to eating disorders, and entirely the case for binge eating, which is the theme of this year's eating disorders awareness week.

As this will probably be the last Eating Disorders Awareness Week that I spend as an elected Member, over the past 14 years we have led on this agenda and set in stone that this is an area that we have to prioritise and that we have to make sure is advocated for when I leave the Senedd and when that cross-party group continues. It has been a privilege to work with Beat and the cross-party group, with survivors and with professionals, in making sure we raise this issue at the top of the political agenda. I sincerely hope that the changes the Welsh Government have implemented will be put forward in the next Senedd term and that additional funding is found for this most important service.

Binge eating disorder is the most common, but often the least understood. It is especially difficult for people to find treatment, and helpline advisers at the charity Beat consistently hear that people with binge eating disorder experience significant shame and fear in reaching out for support. People with binge eating disorders regularly feel out of control about how they eat, and they feel distressed afterwards. It's a serious mental health illness and it can affect anyone of any age, gender, ethnicity or background. To finish, I'd like to ask the next Welsh Government to fully implement the recommendations made in the 2018 eating disorders service review, including recommendation 12 concerning the identification, referral and treatment of people with binge eating disorders, as soon as possible.

5. Motion to Annul The Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021

The next item is the motion to annul the Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021, and I call on Llyr Gruffydd to move the motion. Llyr Gruffydd.

Motion NDM7576 Llyr Gruffydd

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.2:

Agrees that The Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021, laid before the Senedd on 27 January 2021, be annulled.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. I'd like to start, maybe, by just shattering a few myths. Plaid Cymru is not in favour of accepting the status quo on water quality. We support action and stronger regulations on pollution. So, anyone who wants to characterise this debate in a way that suggests otherwise is intentionally misleading people. We absolutely support the need to tackle water pollution, and we're committed to introducing regulations to do that. The issue here, though, of course, is that these particular regulations put forward by the Government are not the right answer. 

15:25

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

These regulations are disproportionate. Natural Resources Wales's advice—of course, the experts' advice—to Welsh Government was to designate 8 per cent of Wales as a nitrate vulnerable zone. The Government has ignored that and gone for 100 per cent coverage. Why is that problematic? Well, it's because you're clobbering everyone, the whole of the industry, with the requirement for farms in all parts of Wales, even those who haven't transgressed, in catchments that maybe haven't experienced pollution incidents, to pay tens of thousands of pounds of money, that they don't have, actually, on infrastructure that, for some, isn't necessary when you look at the evidence.

There will be unintended environmental consequences as well, of course. Using calendar dates rather than weather conditions to dictate when slurry can be spread is an absurd proposition. The Minister herself expressed concern at this approach just a few months ago when I quizzed her on it. And others, such as the prominent environmentalist Tony Juniper, who chairs Natural England—he has said that it just doesn't make sense. It's an irrational proposition that will cause huge spikes in nitrates at particular times of the year, which could then, of course, introduce new pollution issues in areas where there are no problems currently.

According to the Government's own estimates, the upfront capital costs to the farming industry to comply with these regulations will be within a range of £109 million to £360 million. That £360 million is £30 million more than Wales's total average annual common agricultural policy budget over the last six years. Even the Welsh Government's lowest estimate places the cost for Welsh farms at 42 per cent of the total income from Welsh farming in 2019. Many farms are already operating on the breadline, and this is going to just push them over the edge. Losing these farms means, of course, losing some of our food-producing capacity, meaning increased levels of food imports, bringing with it a further environmental cost. One milk processor says that its analysis shows that possibly a third of their dairy farms will cease production. Losing those small and medium-sized family farms will mean a growth in the number of large farming units, leading to more industrial-scale dairy farming. How many times have Members in this Senedd spoken out against that?

It isn't just farmers, of course, who'll struggle to find the capital investment needed to meet these regulations; there are 1,000 council farms in Wales, and local authorities will have to find up to £36 million to pay for the necessary new infrastructure. It was only yesterday that the Government's budget had to find more money for the local authority hardship fund. Are councils really going to be able to find tens of millions of pounds of additional money, when the Government is already having to bail them out to pay for core services? So, we know what's going to happen; more council farms are going to be sold off, further reducing the opportunity for young people and new entrants to start farming.

Designating all of Wales as an NVZ isn't a silver bullet. An NRW monitoring report has shown that only two of 11 designated NVZ sites had seen an improvement in pollution levels. And evidence from other countries is mixed, to say the least. Northern Ireland has been 100 per cent NVZ for a decade, and still, even today, their water quality is worse than ours. So, the question we really should be asking ourselves here is why is the Welsh Government adopting regulations here that aren't actually delivering elsewhere, especially when we know that there are other approaches that are having a positive impact. One such scheme is the blue flag scheme. The Minister knew about it a number of years ago but is now, very belatedly, taking an interest. That programme has been running for five years. It has succeeded in reducing, on average, the nitrates leaving the farms of those involved in the scheme by over 1 tonne per farm, and that far outweighs the NVZ modelling of achieving a 10 per cent reduction of nitrates. Why is the Welsh Government settling for a cut-and-paste approach here with NVZs, instead of building on a made-in-Wales answer, tailored to our own circumstances?

We know that NFU Cymru's lawyers have written to the Welsh Government yesterday, setting out their concerns about the lawfulness of the decision to introduce these regulations. I don't expect the Minister, obviously, to comment on that for legal reasons, but I do believe that it introduces another reason for the Welsh Government to take a step back and revisit its proposals. In the interest of achieving greater consensus and more effective legislation on this important matter, I believe that these regulations should either, for now, be withdrawn by the Government or annulled by the Senedd. If this happens, then I pledge the time and commitment of my party to work with the Government on introducing a more sophisticated and targeted set of regulations before the end of the year. We all want to tackle water pollution. We all want to get to grips with an issue that needs addressing once and for all, and we need to regulate in order to do that. But this particular set of regulations before us today, for the reasons I've outlined, is not the best way to achieve that, and I would urge Members to support my motion. Diolch.

15:30

Thank you. I call Mick Antoniw, as Chair of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee. Mick Antoniw.

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. We considered these regulations at our meeting on 22 February 2021, and in doing so we noted that the motion being debated today had already been tabled. Our report contained only one merits point, which I will briefly outline for Members.

Regulation 30 of the regulations enables the Natural Resources Body for Wales to serve a notice requiring a person to carry out works or take precautions or other steps, as specified in the notice. Appeals against regulation 30 notices can be made to the Welsh Ministers. Where such an appeal is made, regulation 31(6) provides that the period for compliance is subject to any direction made by the Welsh Ministers, and such a direction can include an extension to that period.

We consider this to be important because, where the Welsh Ministers determine that works, precautions or other steps are required, there appear to be circumstances where appellants are obligated to undertake such action on the same day as the result of their appeal is known. This may mean that appellants are unable to comply in time with the determination. If our assessment is correct, then the power for the Welsh Ministers to extend the period for compliance is important to reduce the risk of this occurring.

We asked the Welsh Government to respond to our assessment. The Government has confirmed that, when deciding whether or not to exercise their discretion-making power, the Welsh Ministers will be subject to their public law duty to act reasonably. The Government’s response to our report also states that the mechanism provides appellants with a sufficient safeguard from having to undertake works or take action within an inadequate time frame once the result of their appeal is known. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

I thank my colleague, Llyr Gruffydd, for bringing forward this motion to annul the Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations 2021. And this, of course, follows on the Welsh Conservative debate from last week, where, it's fair to say, the vote was very close indeed. Now, Minister, I've asked you, we've debated, we've discussed, both in the Chamber and in committee. We've asked you to do exactly what Llyr Gruffydd has said—either to annul, or certainly come to some other conclusions, and please do not penalise our farmers in this way.

Now, as you stated to me in the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee last month, what you have to understand is many, many farmers don't pollute. So, how then do you think that those many, many farmers now feel, knowing that you are: one, punishing them with regulations that are not proportionate; two, offering as little as 3.6 per cent of the funding needed to cover the upfront capital costs; three, pushing them towards a situation in which they could be guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction, or on conviction, on indictment to a fine? Why have you chosen not to respond to recommendations by the Wales Land Management Forum sub-group on agricultural pollution, including 4.4, which specifically calls for exploring the most effective means to deliver nutrient management, planning at scale and pace, and 4.11, which calls for a review into funding?

Implementing the 30-year-old European Union nitrates directive, despite Brexit, is unnecessary and totally out of order. Evidence from Natural Resources Wales shows that the area of land should be 8 per cent, not 100 per cent. The WLMF sub-group promised to work on identifying existing products that may assist with pollution reduction, such as weed wipers, precision feed management, scrubbers, smart rinsing systems, absorption systems, slurry separators in field troughs, riparian fencing, and reed beds—all reasonable measures that could be taken instead. You could be backing the blue flag farmer-led partnership approach, and responding to the draft water framework and water standard, shared with you in March 2020.

According to the explanatory memorandum, there is potential for a negative impact on mental well-being for our farmers. They are facing desperation for the long-term viability of their businesses, their family homes, and our food supply. Mental health concerns in the sector are rocketing, so why are you introducing the regulations despite the mental health warning in your own explanatory memorandum? Glanbia Cheese has highlighted serious concerns about the impact of the regulations on the security of milk supply in Wales. NFU Cymru's lawyers have written setting out their concerns about the lawfulness of this decision. We should all today, Members, be voting for annulment, as the regulations are set to damage our Welsh farms and the well-being of communities. I cannot be the only Senedd Member to have received hundreds and hundreds of desperate e-mails from our farming community. I would ask on this occasion to listen to them, all of your constituents, listen to them. Minister, I say to you, as I said last week: it takes a big person to say, 'Do you know what? I got this wrong.' Indeed, you have got it wrong—

15:35

Okay. You have got it wrong. Reverse this decision today. Diolch. 

I and my group shall be supporting the Plaid motion. In my five years as a Member of the Senedd, I have never had so many e-mails on any subject. Not only were the correspondents against these measures, they were desperate to have them annulled, because they literally feared for their livelihoods should they become law. 

Much of my contribution to this debate will duplicate the facts, figures and arguments I put forward in last week's Conservative debate, but I make no apologies for that because all of them withstand being reiterated. Again, the whole of the Welsh farming industry, unions, organisations, and farmers themselves, believe these regulations, implementing a blanket set of slurry regulations for the whole of the Welsh farming industry, are totally disproportionate, both in cost and implementation, to the problem. This is especially true given that the voluntary code now in place has seen a 24 per cent reduction in pollution incidences over the last few years. These proposals are scant reward for the huge effort put in by the entire farming industry. One pollution incident may be one too many, but attempting to halt the pollution by harming the farming industry as a whole is not the solution. It is a simple fact that many farmers will go out of existence because they will be unable to afford the cost of implementation.

This is particularly true for our already struggling upland farms. I am in receipt of a letter from Dylan Jones, milk procurement officer for Glanbia Cheese, the biggest mozzarella cheese producer in Europe, based at Llangefni. They use 300 million litres of milk a year, almost all from Welsh farmers. He states that he feels that these regulations will put many of his suppliers out of business, meaning they will have to source their milk elsewhere. The figure set aside—£22 million for the whole of Wales—is totally inadequate for the scale of investment needed, given the Government's own figures put upfront, full capital costs at £360 million. The farming industry is in the middle of a huge upheaval, with Brexit and the disruption caused by COVID. How does the Government expect farmers to cope with this massive extra expense?

Cost benefits over the next 20 years are estimated at £300 million, against an investment of £800 million. How can this be justified when only 113 of 953 catchment areas are failing? Surely, a far more cost-effective way would be to target these areas. Should these draconian measures go forward, we shall see many of our already impoverished farmers fail. The Minister says she's engaged with the farming industry, but the industry says almost all of their input has been ignored. I repeat again: British farmers are the most hard-working, innovative farmers in Europe, whose husbandry standards are second to none. Brexit creates a huge opportunity for our farmers to fill the gap in the food chain. I am sure they will, as always, rise to the challenge. It means we will be eating better produced and more wholesome foods. The Welsh Government should be doing everything to help the industry, not creating obstacles to their survival. I urge the Labour Members to show personal moral courage, not a slavish adherence to Government policy, and vote in support of this motion. It is bad legislation. You should back the farming industry, and not indulge in party politics. The stakes for the farming industry are far too high. And, in particular, I urge Kirsty Williams and Dafydd Elis-Thomas to vote against these draconian proposals. Thank you. 

I'm not going to engage in any party politics on this, but what I am going to do is express some of the thought that I've given this matter, and some of the views that have been expressed to me by constituents as well. But, first of all, I want to thank the National Farmers Union and the Farmers' Union of Wales for meeting with me last week. We had an hour-long meeting, and we've been in dialogue last year about this issue, and it's undoubtedly the case that there is very real concern in the farming community about these regulations, particularly with regard to the need to keep a nutrient management plan, the limitations on spreading, which will require storage facilities that some farms are concerned—particularly small farms who cannot absorb the cost—about the facilities that they will need in order to store slurry. Now, I've raised this, as a result of those conversations with Welsh Government, and I've had a response, which I'd like the Minister to elaborate on in her answer to this debate. 

First of all, she said—sorry, the Welsh Government response said—that the requirements in the regulations are basic and do not require soil testing, which you have to do in Scotland, and are compatible with nutrient management software routinely used by the industry. Standard values for nutrient content of manures are provided and there are step-by-step tools available. Much more sophisticated forms of nutrient management may be something that the sustainable farming scheme can provide. There's no need to employ consultants, particularly on small farms, because the Farming Connect Advisory Service can provide expert independent and bespoke advice, for which there is also, through Farming Connect, funding available. 

And the other issue I raised was regarding the spread of the slurry, in which they said that storage in a small farm is not necessary in all circumstances, as you can treat it as manure, which is still permitted to be spread under the new regulations. Those periods do not apply to farmyard manure, which can be stored in field heap, subject to certain conditions to minimise pollution risk. If they're producing larger volumes of slurry, then, this would be a significant pollution risk and would not be compliant with current regulations. 

Now, that's the response I've had with regard to concerns I've raised with the Welsh Government. I'd like the Minister to be able to tell us that, should the concerns that have been raised by the previous speakers come to fruition, there will be flexibility within the plan to address that, and provide support for those farmers who may be unduly affected in ways that the Welsh Government hasn't considered in their answer to me. 

So, it's been something I've considered very, very carefully, and I need to come back to my constituency. There's an industrial size dairy farm in Gelligaer, in my constituency. It's an enormous farm, and there have been reports—. You've probably seen in WalesOnline a report that said Gelligaer is the village that stinks all-year round. Now, I know this is related to river pollution, but, nonetheless, odour is a huge issue with regard to spreading. I've had meetings with residents and NRW. NRW said to me that—. When I've gone to them before, they've said, 'We simply haven't got the powers to deal with this. There's a strong and offensive odour in Gelligaer, and we haven't got the powers to deal with this.' When I spoke to NRW last week, they said that this will give them the powers to deal with it; this will give them the powers. In fact, what they said is they would go further, and have a phosphate plan included in it too. The Government isn't going that far. 

People in Gelligaer, Penybryn, Nelson and Ystrad Mynach have suffered too long with issues related to that farm in Gelligaer, and it is the regulations that are at fault, not the farm, and we need stronger regulations in those circumstances. So, in those circumstances, I would be calling for an NVZ for my area, for that community. People of Gelligaer, Ystrad Mynach, Nelson and Penybryn want more farming regulations, not less. They want more regulating of activity, not less, because what they are seeing at the moment is not enough powers to deal with the concerns that they've got— 

15:40

—about activities in their community. So, with that in mind, it's been a difficult decision to take, but in the circumstances in my community, that I have seen at first hand, I have to support these regulations.

May I thank all the very many correspondents, many farmers, that I have heard from on this subject? I find perhaps the most shocking aspect of this is the number of times that the Minister promised, on the record and in this place, that she would not be bringing forward these sorts of NVZ proposals until the COVID pandemic had finished. Yet, here she is doing it. Surely that is just a breach of promise, unless there's something I have misunderstood here, but I just think that is a shocking betrayal of what had been promised. 

I'm also quite struck by how she's treated NRW. We've spent vast amounts on this organisation, which is supposedly arm's length and giving her advice, and it's done this big report, lots of work behind it, and says, 'We should increase the area of Wales covered from 2.5 per cent to around 8 per cent.' Yet, here she is going to 100 per cent. What's the point of having this body, given the way she's treated it? 

Now, I want to cite one correspondent in particular, who farms to the west of Hay-on-Wye, for 45 years as a dairy farmer, a former Dairy Farmer of the Year and Grassland Farmer of the Year. And one point he makes to me is that, on his farm, he's managed to reduce the use of chemical fertiliser by 20 per cent over the past 10 years by more timely application of slurry. And he also emphasises the increased costs of a five-month storage period and the extra burden of record keeping, which he pleads for us not to underestimate. Perhaps it's easy for us in Government or politics—extra forms to fill in perhaps aren't that big a job, but for those who have different businesses and aren't that way inclined or have the desire to do that it really is a very significant burden, and I think we need to understand that.

The main reason I want to quote this particular correspondent is that he has a son who farms in Somerset, and there are two catchments there. One is an NVZ and one isn't, and it depends on the level of pollution what's required. And the one that is has an upper tributary that was taken out of the NVZ when there were improvements. Why can't we have have a system like that, that's sensitive to local needs, rather than a one-size-fits-all policy across Wales, just to be different from England and contrary to the promises that were made? We see, across our border, that I think 58 per cent of areas get this type of treatment, but they also have the possibility of applying to increase the amount of slurry that can be spread from 170 kg to 240 kg or 250 kg per hectare, depending on the area and depending on whether that's appropriate given the environment at the time. Surely, we'd be much better off with that sensitivity to local needs, rather than this blunderbuss policy that is across the whole of Wales.

We heard last week from Jenny Rathbone, saying that you can't regulate a butcher's shop differently on one side to another. How on earth is that a comparison that says therefore you cannot regulate anything except the whole of Wales as one unit? And also I felt from her remarks, and some others that we've had from the Labour side, that the real objective of this is to push cattle off the land, and it's about climate change and reducing emissions and Labour not understanding and not supporting our farmers. I think it is wrong to bring this NVZ in across the whole of Wales. We should have a more proportionate approach, like that the UK Government takes, and I think we should vote for this motion to annul and that's what my party, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party, will be doing.

15:45

Thank you. Can I now call the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffths?

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Achieving a greener Wales will rely on the commitment and expertise of our farmers. They have a unique role in producing high-quality food at the same time as protecting habitat, safeguarding our irreplaceable soils, capturing carbon and cleaning our air and water for the benefit of human health and, of course, the health of our planet. The need we see for these agricultural pollution regulations reflects our commitment to fairness. It is a matter of fairness for future generations, so that they will not be denied access to their natural heritage, which we are entrusted to protect. It is a matter of fairness to those farmers who already go above and beyond the requirements of regulation, earning the sector its reputation for the highest environmental standards. This reputation has never been more important than it is now, to meet the expectations both of our international trading partners and consumers in the UK.

This reputation and our natural heritage is under threat from agricultural pollution. I disagree with Janet Finch-Saunders stating that the regulations are punishing farmers. I will tell her who's being punished: farmers who already undertake good practice in nutrient management, preventing pollution from their own farms, and who have to watch as others do the bare minimum, with the cost of any damage being passed on to others—the costs of water treatment added to customer bills, the cost to the reputation of the sector, and the price we're all paying in the loss of fish, insects, sensitive habitats and the character of our countryside. This has been a blight on the reputation of Welsh farming for many years.

Since I came into post, I have sought to create the opportunity for the agricultural industry and others to come forward and address the issue without further regulation. Unfortunately, there has been no consistent downward trend in agricultural pollution. Since 2001, there have been almost 3,000 substantiated acute agricultural-related pollution incidents across Wales, continuing at an average rate of more than three each week in the last three years. In 2020, when fewer reported incidents were investigated due to the COVID pandemic, numbers were still higher than in 2015, 2016 and 2017. There were more recorded incidents in 2018 than any other year in the last 20 years. Even with the current media attention since I announced these regulations on 27 January, NRW has received 49 pollution reports related to agriculture, of which 20, as of 1 March, have been substantiated. These are the substantiated incidents where NRW has been able to confirm an incident reported to them. However, acute pollution incidents are only the most visible example of agricultural pollution. Diffuse pollution occurs over time and is damaging water quality, contributing to air pollution and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Misinformation about the regulations has been a cause of unnecessary stress to farmers, many of whom, far from being forced out of business as the opposition have claimed, will be in a good position to meet the new regulatory standards and stand to gain from improved nutrient management on their farms. Farmers who are unsure about how they can achieve compliance may seek support and advice through Welsh Government's Farming Connect advisory service, including how to access the financial support available. The regulations are targeted on activities that produce a risk of pollution, wherever they take place.

The opposition say, rather than a baseline standard, we should take one approach for phosphorus pollution in the nine river SACs, a different approach for those water bodies failing water framework directive standards, another for nitrate thresholds, yet another for catchments affected by acute pollution incidents and so on—a prospectus for confusion and delay. Such an approach would do nothing for air pollution or emissions reduction; they are not practical or meaningful alternatives. Setting a baseline standard means the expectations can be clear, making it easier for farmers to be confident they are compliant, and easier for advisory services and the regulator to support farmers to achieve compliance. Where activities are low risk, such as in relation to sheep farming, the requirements are minimal. The requirements will be introduced over time, with the first step requiring farmers to follow good practice in when and where to spread slurry, as many already do.

In last week's Tory debate, I sought a consensus with other parties that, given the climate and nature emergencies, we could all recognise that the first step, as set out in the advice of the Committee on Climate Change, would be to make current good practice into the baseline standard across Wales. Neither Plaid Cymru nor the Tories could bring themselves to accept the need for action, simply showing how completely out of step they are with the public's expectations. They would rather ignore the scientific advice and allow Wales to become the last refuge of agricultural pollution. I'm grateful to those farmers who support the actions we are taking to make a difference, and to other stakeholders, such as the Wildlife Trust and angling groups, who have so clearly articulated what can be achieved and why it is so important.

The agricultural pollution regulations are one step, but a very important one, in the journey towards cleaner rivers, cleaner air, and the achievement in Wales of the most nature- and climate-friendly farming in the world. After today, there will still be much more to do to deliver our ambitions to achieve a net-zero, nature-positive economy in which the benefits of our rich natural heritage are shared fairly. I hope all Senedd Members will today demonstrate their commitment to those ambitions in the decision they take. Vote against the annulment motion, vote against lowering environmental standards in Wales, vote against delaying our response to the climate and nature emergencies, and vote against agricultural pollution in Wales. Diolch.

15:50

Thank you for that. I have no Members who wish to make an intervention, therefore I call on Llyr Gruffydd to reply to the debate. Llyr.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I started this debate by encouraging Members to acknowledge the fact that this motion was no call on us not to take action, and certainly I am not looking to not introduce regulations and to ignore the problem. Unfortunately, the Minister's comments in response to the debate show me that she hasn't listened to a word I've said, and that's disappointing. I thought better of her, to be honest. And to make such accusations about me, I take that as a very grave insult, and I am saddened she felt the need to do that. I don't know how many times I have to say that I am serious about taking action on this problem. The challenge for me, of course, is that what we have here today, in my view, isn't going to deliver the outcomes that we want to see.

Now, the Minister said that she'd made an offer to the industry to bring solutions forward. Well, she may recall that the industry did present her with two reports, including recommendations on the way forward—one in April 2018 and one in March of last year. They are still awaiting the Minister's response to those proposals. So, let her not say that she's given the sector an opportunity to respond. She has not, and that is misleading, because she has ignored what has been proposed to her.

Now, I would support these regulations if I believed that they were going to work, but there are so many questions about unintended consequences in environmental terms, the detrimental impact that they will have on the future of farms, the likelihood that it will lead to the loss of some of our family farms and the broader impact that that will have on the rural economy and communities in rural Wales. Portraying this argument as a choice between regulating or not regulating doesn't fairly describe the choice that we have before us today. What supporting this annulment motion would do would be to ensure that the Government takes a step back to look at alternative options that will bring better outcomes for the environment and less destruction to the economy and rural communities. I am willing to play my part in that. The question is: are you?

15:55

Thank you for that. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I see objections, therefore we will vote on this item in voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

6. Debate on the Health, Social Care and Sport report: Inquiry into the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak, and its management, on health and social care in Wales: Report 2—Impact on mental health and wellbeing

The next item on our agenda is the debate on the Health, Social Care and Sport report 'Inquiry into the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak, and its management, on health and social care in Wales: Report 2—Impact on mental health and wellbeing'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion. Dai Lloyd.

Motion NDM7610 Dai Lloyd

To propose that the Senedd:

Notes the report of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee: Inquiry into the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak, and its management, on health and social care in Wales: Report 2 – Impact on mental health and wellbeing, which was laid in the Table Office on 17 December 2020.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. This is our second report on the impact of COVID-19 on health and social care in Wales. It focused specifically on mental health and well-being. In addition to detailed recommendations, we reached one overarching conclusion, namely that it's more important now than ever that the Welsh Government makes the necessary improvements identified in our report of 2018 on suicide prevention and in the Children, Young People and Education Committee's report, namely 'Mind over matter'.

COVID-19 has brought many challenges in terms of its physical effects, but also in its impact on people's mental and emotional well-being. Being cut off from your family, your friends and other support networks for long periods of time has had a profound effect. We know that more than half of adults and three quarters of young people feel that their mental health has worsened during the lockdown period. We are also extremely concerned about the well-being of care home residents, particularly those living with dementia. Significant harms are being caused by prolonged separation, with continued restrictions on care home visits. We understand the anxieties faced by care home managers, of course, but the risk of harm from coronavirus must be balanced against the risk to residents' health and well-being by prolonged separation from their loved ones.

The pandemic has also had a profound effect on the wider determinants of mental health and well-being, including economic, societal, environmental and educational factors. It has exposed and magnified the inequalities in society. It will be a long time before the full extent of the impact of the pandemic on the nation’s emotional and mental health is fully understood. However, it was clear that mental health services were under significant pressure prior to COVID-19, and demand for these services will only increase.

People's needs will differ. The pandemic has exacerbated known risk factors for self-harm and suicide, such as loneliness, isolation, lack of belonging and lack of meaningful occupation. Some people with ongoing mental health conditions may have been unable to access their routine services for some time, and they will be in greater need now than ever before. Some people will have experienced bereavement during the pandemic or as a result of it. Losing a loved one is never easy, but to go through this at a time when you can’t be with them at the end of their life and don’t have access to friends and family for support will no doubt affect people’s ability to come to terms with their loss.

Other people who have never experienced mental health problems before may be affected by the population-level trauma that has occurred. Feelings of anxiety, sadness and loss, these are natural responses to a frightening situation and it's important not to over-medicalise them. However, appropriate support must be in place for everyone that needs it. This must cover the range of mental health needs, from low level, early intervention through to more specialist services and crisis care. It should also include quality and accessible bereavement services.

The right services and support must also be in place for health, social care and other front-line staff, who have experienced increased workloads, staff shortages, workplace trauma and the loss of friends, colleagues and service users. Without support themselves, they risk becoming unwell due to stress or other mental health difficulties as a result of being physically and emotionally drained.

Now, as a committee, we've repeatedly called for the need for parity between mental and physical health. Before the pandemic we were concerned that insufficient progress was being made in this regard, and we fear that COVID-19 will only set it back further. If parity is to be achieved, then mental health must be a key consideration in the Welsh Government’s decision-making process and recovery planning. This will require a public health approach to mental health that promotes well-being, prevention and early intervention, and which spans Government departments and all sectors of society. We need to see improved joint working and a clear, shared understanding across Government and public services about the importance of public mental health, and a funding model that supports this.

We thank the Minister for her response to our report as a committee. We welcome the fact that all our recommendations were accepted, either in full or in principle. However, as is often the case with Welsh Government responses, the narrative tells us what the Welsh Government is already doing, rather than addressing our specific recommendations. In response to our call for a written update on the implementation of our recommendations and those of the children’s committee, the response says, and I quote:

'the Committee will understand that the implementation of the breadth of recommendations is a significant programme of work and needs to be balanced with the implementation of our responses to other related Committee reports and the commitments set out in the Together for Mental Health Delivery Plan. It should be recognised that the programme of work to deliver the improvements runs beyond this term.'

That's the end of the quote.

When it comes, the written update must address our specific recommendations. It must also provide detailed timescales so that we can get a clear sense of what’s been achieved and what else needs doing and by when. We would urge in particular for the work of the task and finish group on suicide prevention data surveillance to be developed as an urgent priority.

We recognise that these are difficult times and that implementing some of our recommendations is no small task, but we can’t afford not to do this. It's been clear for some time what we need to do to improve mental health and well-being in Wales. We really must now make changes to avoid further unnecessary suffering and preventable deaths. Thank you very much.

16:00

Can I start by commending the committee? I'm not a member of it, but I really think this is an excellent report, as was the previous one, and I also commend the committee members for the way they've sought to work across the sectors and have a very integrated approach, and I think that's clearly shown in the first recommendation, which makes a very powerful reference to the children's committee report, 'Mind over matter'. I'm not a member of the children's committee either, but in my view, the 'Mind over matter' report, of all the outstanding reports completed by committees in the fifth Senedd, I think that report has been the most influential and I think you are quite right to refer to it.

I think the short- and long-term impact of the pandemic on mental health will be very, very considerable, and I thank the committee for focusing on such issues as bereavement care. I think we now have a lot of children who did not see their grandparents in their last days, who would have found it very difficult even to process the event of those losses, and that will be with them for many years, and will affect them as they go into adulthood and in their attitudes to matters of life and its passing and death. I think it will take a lot of careful work to ensure that people are able to access the level of support they'll want, and this really does bring us on to a public health approach; I think that's entirely appropriate.

I also think it was right for the committee to emphasise the need for well-being support for front-line staff, particularly NHS staff, and I know many colleagues in the Senedd would have had their briefing updates from the various health boards. And when we were having—or certainly in my region, we were really pushing the health board to outline what it was doing to support staff, and I'm grateful for the work they've done, but I think this will be ongoing as COVID is with us for much of the coming decade, probably, and as we manage it, perhaps we can realistically hope for it to be less severe, but it's still going to be a factor and a real threat.

I think there are some wider things in terms of the public health approach as well, like other social factors, the importance of exercise, the availability or the access to open space that many communities lack; these have been really detrimental things for people's well-being and mental health. In our urban design and our regeneration work, we must ensure that these sorts of gaps are filled. Suicide prevention, I think, is the right approach in terms of emphasising that we can really prevent a lot of the suicides that take place. The victims of suicide really do deserve this type of approach, and until we do that, we will, I'm afraid, suffer a level of suicide that is a reflection on wider services, but also on that public health approach not being as full as we need it to be.

Can I just finish by thanking the Welsh Government for accepting all the recommendations? But I did rather agree with some of Dai Lloyd's comments at the end, in terms of what is the depth of the commitment, and I do point to recommendation 12, where the committee recommends the Welsh Government's budget for 2021-22, just published, demonstrates a strong commitment to improving public mental health in Wales. I'm pleased the Government accepted that recommendation, but then, under financial implications, the Welsh Government says, 'none additional'. With that comment, I conclude my remarks.

16:05

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, for the opportunity to make a brief contribution in this debate, and it is difficult, I think, to do justice to such a wide-ranging report in this debate. There were a few issues I wanted to pick up on; the first was the very clear link made in the report for the continued need to see action on both 'Everybody's Business', the health committee's suicide prevention report, and the Children, Young People and Education Committee's 'Mind over matter' report. I wanted to place on record again my thanks to Dr Dai Lloyd for the strong partnership that has been established between the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee and my committee. It is absolutely crucial that we do not take our foot off the pedal for a second on delivering on both those reports. They are both landmark reports. They are both reports that had widespread consultation, not just with people with lived experience, but expert stakeholders, and I believe both reports have a huge amount of buy-in. So, I would urge every possible action to continue to prioritise both those reports.

I wanted to focus on two specific recommendations, really, which are recommendation 6 and recommendation 7. These deal with the fact that the committee was really concerned that there was a disconnect between the assurances the committee was given about mental health services continuing during the pandemic and what we heard on the ground. We were being consistently told by Ministers and by the head of the NHS in Wales that mental health services were designated as essential services. But what we heard from stakeholders on the ground was that people had indeed had difficulty getting access to those mental health services that they need, so I entirely concur with the committee's findings that Welsh Government really needs to delve into this and to check that the methods being used to check that people are getting services are actually representative of people's lived experience on the ground. I pay tribute to organisations like Mind Cymru, who are doing lots of work in gathering lived experience, but I think it is also essential that Welsh Government listens to people with lived experience about what their experience has been in the pandemic.

As we have said then in recommendation 7, we have called for mental health services to be prioritised. It has been a consistent aim of both committees for there to be parity between mental and physical health. Yet what we saw in the pandemic, which is somewhat understandable in a physical health emergency, was an immediate change to mental health services, because everything moved online, and online does not work for everyone. Phone calls do not work for everyone, and I think it's crucial moving forward that we ensure that our mental health services are resilient enough to deliver that parity in the kind of crisis that we are facing.

I wanted to just say something about crisis care, because the Welsh Government's response refers to the urgent access review, which is a very interesting document, 'Beyond the call', and I'd encourage Members to take a look at it. It describes the 900-odd calls a day that are made to the police, accident and emergency, and other emergency services for people in need of mental health support. But what I would urge from the Government is urgent action on the other part of that jigsaw, because if people are calling the police and going to A&E in those kinds of numbers, then we have failed miserably in providing the services that we need for people earlier on. We cannot rely on—

16:10

—those emergency services to pick up the pieces, so I'd like it if the Minister could say something in her response about when she expects the other part of that review, the NHS crisis and care services work, to be completed and implemented. Diolch yn fawr. 

I'm very pleased to have been able to play a role in this hugely important inquiry. The pandemic has caused wider damage than simply the direct physical damage caused by COVID-19 itself, and I think we can expect the impact of the pandemic on mental health to last possibly longer than the impact on physical health. We heard as part of this inquiry about the direct impact of the pandemic and the restrictions on people's mental health, of the loss of loved ones without being able to be with them in those crucial hours, those feelings of loneliness and isolation, and people not having a meaningful role during these times.

But also there’s been an impact on people’s access to mental health services, sometimes because of restrictions and additional pressures on the health service, and at other times because people were not sure where to turn during the pandemic—they weren’t comfortable, perhaps, talking to people on these new digital platforms about things that may be causing them anxiety. There was even uncertainty at the outset as to which services were to be provided. We had that shocking incident in north Wales when almost 1,700 people were told that they were to be taken off waiting lists for mental health care. Yes, an admission was made that that was a mistake, but it tells you something that somebody somewhere thought for just one second that it might be acceptable to tell people who were on waiting lists for mental health care that they would have to be taken off those waiting lists.

We did discuss during this inquiry the fact that we don’t need to overmedicalise things on all occasions, that we need to take account of our natural, emotional responses—bereavement, sadness, anxiety about the current situation, and so on and so forth—and we need to think of other ways of looking at the well-being of people. I’ve been pushing the Government to do everything possible to allow outdoor exercise and to ensure that people can get out in the outdoors. These are soft approaches, but equally important.

If we look at the impact on certain groups, I’m very grateful to Bethan Sayed for the work that she has done in emphasising the need to think about the well-being of new parents. That is very important. But I will conclude by just mentioning two of the groups that we looked at specifically. One is the front-line workforce. We need to keep those in the front of our minds, and the evidence that we heard very clearly that many will be feeling impacts similar to PTSD even for years to come because of this. I would like to hear the Minister’s comments on the steps that will be taken to ensure that sort of support in the long term for health and care workers who have been through so much and have been so selfless throughout this period.

The second is the impact on older people and what steps the Welsh Government will take to support them—yes, those in care homes, and those who will have loved ones in care homes. The loneliness that has been felt by so many is something that is going to require support for years to come. Yes, this has been a mental health crisis as well as a physical health crisis, and it’s always important that we bear that in mind.

16:15

I now call on the Minister for Mental Health, Well-being and the Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan. 

Member
Eluned Morgan MS 16:18:26
Minister for Mental Health, Well-being and Welsh Language

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. First of all, may I thank the Chair and the committee for taking time to consider this very important issue? I welcome the report and its findings. I support and accept or accept in principle all of the committee's recommendations. There's a great deal contained within the report, and I don't think I'll have time to go through everything this afternoon, but I do want to take this opportunity not only to thank you, but also to thank all of the staff across the health and social care sector who have been working so exceptionally hard to treat and to care for not only those who have been suffering from COVID-19, but also those who care for other patients that had emergency needs and others in the health sector who were caring for the most vulnerable people in our communities. 

The past 11 months have been unrelenting, and the pandemic has clearly had a significant impact on our communities, our patients and our staff, and I fully recognise the physical and emotional demands that have arisen as a result of this. So, we understand the huge impact that there has been on the nation's mental health, but it's clear that we don't yet have a full picture of what the long-term impacts that could arise from the pandemic in the area of mental health. I fully understand that the mental health impacts emerging from the pandemic must be central to our response to recovery plans, and it's also clear that some have suffered much more than others in this scenario and we have to be sensitive to that too.

Since the onset of the pandemic, we've put arrangements in place to understand the changes in mental health demands in order to develop our planning in this area, and these arrangements include regular reviews of the available evidence, including population surveys, weekly meetings with health boards and regular meetings with the third sector. But I do acknowledge and accept the point that was made by Lynne Neagle about the potential disconnect that we have seen, and it's something I've been really concerned about—hearing one thing from people from the third sector, hearing something else in terms of the figures that you get in a kind of cold document.

It's really important for me that I get a better sense of what it's looking like on the ground. I've made a real effort to listen to the third sector, to listen to young people. I listened to a group of young people this week from Platfform. You'll be aware that I'm getting regular updates on the situation in relation to CAMHS—weekly updates on that—and it's obviously something that is a standing item on our agenda on the task and finish group. So, I'm trying to get a better sense of where we're at. It is important, I think, if people can keep giving me examples of where it's not working; I think it's really important that I get to hear about that so we can really address the systems issue if that's where things are falling down.

Of course, responding to mental health needs requires a multi-agency and a multifaceted approach, and it's not something that the NHS can do or should do