Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd20/11/2018
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call the Members to order.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Hefin David.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement about Welsh Government plans for the funding of band B 21st Century Schools? OAQ52976
Yes. Band B of our twenty-first century schools and education programme will see a further £2.3 billion invested in our education estate from April of next year, and, subject to approval of business cases, all local authorities and colleges in Wales will benefit from those investments.
And it's the case that the Government has committed to use public-private funding through the mutual investment model of £500 million to partially fund the cost of the building of new schools. Last week, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance told me that individual school building schemes would not be of sufficient scale individually to qualify for funding, and instead schemes would be brought together in batches across Wales to be of sufficient scale to qualify. However, the Wales Audit Office produced a report in May 2017 in which they said that, to date, most councils had resisted procuring projects in batches, that protracted consultations on one or two controversial projects that involve merges or closures could potentially delay all the projects in a batch and that failure to collaborate would pose a significant risk to the revenue-funded element of the programme.
Having looked through previous discussions in this Chamber and in committee on the mutual investment model, I find the Government has provided inadequate information about how it's going to resolve these issues. With that in mind, would the First Minister, in the first instance, outline how the Government is addressing the batching problems, but, in the longer term, would he commit to a debate in Government time in order for all Members to scrutinise this funding model effectively?
The reason why we've chosen strategic partnering to deliver MIM education projects is that it allows for the capital value of individual projects to be much lower than they would be under single procurement. So, we encourage, of course, bundling to happen in order for the cost to go down, amongst other reasons. The successful strategic partner is granted the opportunity to deliver the aggregated pipeline of MIM education schemes—that's up to £500 million in value—and that represents an efficient and agile way to deliver single or small batched schemes at a local level with values as low as £15 million, because, without that, every individual local authority or further education institution would need to run a full procurement for each of its individual MIM projects, which is impractical and time consuming. We would encourage local authorities, of course, to take a bundling approach so that their own costs are brought down and, secondly, of course, to make sure that they are able to deliver projects that otherwise probably wouldn't be delivered because they are smaller in scale.
Twenty-first century schools, First Minister, as we've heard you many times say, is about improving the school estate across Wales. In my own electoral region, the Vale of Glamorgan Council are proposing to shut a small rural school that has a good role to it, has a bright future ahead of it—Llancarfan school. I appreciate you can't talk about the specific case, but surely it is not right to use twenty-first century school money to shut a viable school that has a bright future, and, indeed, the argument the Vale council have put forward doesn't even talk of closure; it merely talks of relocation. That is not what twenty-first century schools is about, is it?
Well, as he puts it, the objective of twenty-first century schools is not to close schools; the objective of twenty-first schools is to provide the appropriate premises for children and young people to learn in. I know, of course, that in many parts of Wales that has meant that new schools have been built and that existing schools have been closed for any number of reasons. He's right to say, of course, that I can't comment on a particular proposal that's before the Vale of Glamorgan council, but we're proud of the fact that twenty-first century schools has delivered new buildings and refurbished buildings for so many children and young people across Wales.
There is huge demand for the additional capital funding allocated for twenty-first century schools projects from the Welsh-medium sector, which is excellent news, of course, and demonstrates a desire to support the Government's ambition of a million Welsh speakers, but there isn’t sufficient funding to meet that demand by any stretch. Over £100 million-worth of applications for funding have been made for projects to increase Welsh-medium education across Wales. Will there be more investment for Welsh-medium schools or Welsh-medium education in this Assembly term?
Well, of course, we have made great investment in education and we’ve maintained the high level of education spend. For example, if you look at what we spend on education, you can see that the spending has increased over the years—1.8 per cent in 2017-18, and that’s more than any other country in the United Kingdom. But it’s true to say, of course, that there is more demand for Welsh-medium, which is to be welcomed. Of course, every local authority, through the plans that they have, should ensure that that demand is catered for, and we must also ensure that the teachers are in place so that the schools can grow and prosper. Of course, we will invest, of course, in Welsh-medium education and we’ll work with the LEAs to ensure that their plans are strong.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the implications for Wales of the withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU? OAQ52973
Well, there is a statement later on, of course, this afternoon, but I think it's right to say that while many aspects of the withdrawal agreement are needed, the political declaration on our future relationship needs to set out the intent of both sides to negotiate a long-term relationship that clearly reflects the position in 'Securing Wales' Future' before the Welsh Government would support any agreement.
I thank the First Minister for his answer. I wonder if he can provide his view and analysis on the Northern Ireland backstop in particular and its implications for Wales. As ever with the UK Government, the rhetoric and the reality do not appear to match even when we've got the detail of a 600-page withdrawal agreement. The UK Government is arguing that the Northern Ireland backstop will provide Northern Ireland with two open borders: one with the Republic and one with Britain. But if there is regulatory or non-regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Britain, surely that means that there'll be a hard border in the Irish sea. Is that the First Minister's understanding of the withdrawal agreement and the backstop in particular? And would he agree, therefore, that that would be bad news for Welsh ports and the Welsh economy generally? Or is he aware of any other proposal that the UK Government might have, such as unilaterally deciding not to check any goods that come from Northern Ireland, whether there's a backstop or not?
Well, there lies the issue. Of course, there are some checks now, particularly in terms of animals and food checks, but they've been there because the island of Ireland is one area as far as biosecurity is concerned. The concern I've always had, and it's not addressed in the withdrawal agreement, is that barriers would be put up, yes, through the middle of the Irish sea, but that affects Wales as well, because, clearly, what I don't want to see, as I've said many times in this Chamber, are any fresh barriers being put in place between Wales and the Republic of Ireland, particularly barriers that would lead to trade moving more easily through the Scottish ports into Northern Ireland. The withdrawal agreement is not clear as to how that would operate. The focus has been on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic but there is no focus on the maritime border between Wales—and England for that matter—and the Republic of Ireland, which is lacking in the agreement.
First Minister, while your Government has been playing politics frankly since June 2016—[Interruption.]—by grandstanding and attacking the Prime Minister, the truth is that Theresa May has been working very hard to negotiate a deal with the European Union, which delivers for Wales and which respects the outcome of the referendum—and I remind everybody—in which Wales voted to leave the EU. Now, I accept that the deal that was put forward by the Prime Minister last week is a compromise. I accept that it won't please everybody in this Chamber, but what it will do—. [Interruption.] What it will do is protect jobs, protect the interests of Welsh businesses, protect the environment and protect Welsh people's rights. Now, in spite of the support that has been shown for this deal from the CBI, from the Institute of Directors and from the various farming unions, including our own farming unions here in Wales, Jeremy Corbyn, of course, has ruled out supporting the deal, and he ruled it out without actually having read the detail of the deal. Have you read the deal, and will you assure us that you will do the right thing and support the deal that is in front of us, which is pragmatic and the only way to get an orderly exit from the EU?
Well, there is no point asking me; he needs to ask his own colleagues in London. It's not a question of this being a Labour versus Conservative debate. There are many, many of his colleagues in London who are dead against this deal. That's the reality of it. He needs to convince Jacob Rees-Mogg first, with respect, as he's a member of his party. David Jones—on his own doorstep, he can try and convince David Jones. The problem is this, isn't it: the withdrawal agreement does address some of the issues, but not in a way that is secure enough or permanent enough. There are some other issues that need to be resolved as well, particularly with regard to the backstop. The real problem is that I can't see any way that this is going to get through the Commons. That's the problem, and the Conservative Party needs to examine whether or not it has the votes to get the deal through the Commons. So, the problem is not so much the deal, even though I have issues with the deal, particularly in terms of how long it will last, but that we don't know whether this deal will get through the Commons, and therein lies the problem within the Conservative Party and the massive splits that are within it.
First Minister, as well as the withdrawal agreement, as you've regularly pointed out, there was also the political declaration on the future relationship that was published at the same time. Whilst we cannot change the withdrawal agreement, because we're unlikely to get any changes and amendments through the EU in that situation, this can actually still be changed, and the council aren't meeting until Sunday. Are you having discussions with the Prime Minister to ensure that the Welsh voice is actually going to be heard in any changes to this declaration? Because as you've pointed out many times before our committee, the Welsh voice hasn't been listened to very often in London. It's time now it should be listened to in this future declaration on future interests.
I can inform the Chamber that I'll be meeting with the Prime Minister tomorrow to discuss that and other issues.
Questions now from the party leaders, and on behalf of the leader of Plaid Cymru, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Thank you, Llywydd. First Minister, other nation states within the European Union will decide at a summit this weekend whether the draft agreement on exiting the European Union works for them. Do you think it works for Wales?
No, because I’ve always been in favour of remaining within the single market and within the customs union.
We are a very long way from what was proposed in the referendum two and a half years ago.
The agreement on offer is miles away, actually, from the promises made and voted on in June 2016. It probably doesn't please anybody at this point. I think we're agreed on that. Where we don't agree is how to protect Wales's interests in the event of the UK ceasing to be a member of the EU, however that happens. Now, the Supreme Court is busy considering whether a Scottish continuity Bill is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. If the court agrees that it is, the Scots will have a powerful legislative shield against the Westminster power grab. Yet, while you have raised concerns about the nature of UK withdrawal as is being proposed at the moment, at the same time you're proposing this afternoon that we repeal the Welsh continuity Bill—the only thing preventing the Tories from legislating in devolved areas without this Assembly's consent. Now, given that the Supreme Court will come to its decision on Scotland within a matter of weeks, why not delay withdrawing the Welsh continuity Bill until we understand the lay of the land at the Supreme Court?
Well, of course any ruling by the Supreme Court will have an effect on Wales. Let's say, for example, the Supreme Court were to say that the Scots have that power, then that would cover us as well. But if they say that there's no power to do it, the Scots have nothing, and we have an agreement. That's the issue here. We have an inter-governmental agreement that was reached by two parties. Part of that agreement was to withdraw the continuity Act. If we don't do that, we will have breached the agreement, and that means of course that we have shown bad faith as far as the UK Government is concerned and as far as we are concerned. It's also worth, of course, bearing in mind that that agreement was reached after many, many months of negotiation, and that agreement is something that cannot lightly be thrown away. Now, I know he takes the view that he doesn't like the agreement. I understand that; it's been made clear in the past in this Chamber. But we have an agreement as a Government to protect Wales, and we intend to make sure that that agreement is honoured, at least on our side.
Wales has too few levers as it is, and what happens in taking away the potential powers of the continuity Bill for Wales is that you weaken those powers that we do have. The legal argument is that Wales had a stronger case in the Supreme Court than Scotland did.
But, moving on, just over a week ago your party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, told the German newspaper Der Spiegel that Brexit cannot been stopped. Since then, we've been told that what he actually meant was that Labour on its own can't stop Brexit. Now, opposition parties on the 'remain' side of the argument have been very open to the notion of working in a cross-party manner to halt Brexit. Rather than prevaricating—and, to be honest, I'm done guessing what's going on in Jeremy Corbyn's mind—don't you think that the Labour Party now should be entering into urgent talks with us, the SNP and other parties at Westminster to co-ordinate efforts to secure a fresh vote with 'remain' on the ballot paper? I know you've been advocating going down the general election route instead, but surely you can see now that what we really need is a people's vote?
Let me explain where I think we are. First of all, I think there's been a complete failure of politics in Westminster. We know that, because we had a referendum in 2016 on an idea. People now can see what the outcome is, and I do think that there is every justification in saying to people, 'Now you know what the reality is, what do you now want to do?' That could be done either through a general election or a public vote. But what's clear is, that public vote would have to offer the option of whether to leave, on what basis to leave, or, indeed, whether to remain, on the basis of what we know now. I can't see, where politicians in Westminster have failed, or a Government in Westminster has failed, that there is anything wrong with going back to people and saying, 'The circumstances have now changed, what do you now want to do?' If they still want to leave, then, of course, they have the opportunity to say so. But I do think we need trust the people on this.
Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, how do you consider the early stages of the new rail franchise to be progressing?
With great difficulty, because there have been enormous problems, as we can see. I'm glad that Transport for Wales has issued the apologies that is has. It had been affected by storm Callum and it has inherited quite an elderly fleet. But we did say—we were honest at the start—it would take some time to replace the trains that we wanted and to get the kind of service that we want to provide to the people of Wales.
First Minister, only a number of months ago, your transport Secretary stated that the new rail franchise would be transformational. We are now just over one month since Transport for Wales—[Interruption.]—since Transport for Wales took over the Welsh rail franchise, and already—
I can't hear the leader of the opposition, and I don't think the First Minister can as well, so can you please be quiet and allow the leader of the opposition to be heard?
Diolch, Llywydd. We are now just over one month since Transport for Wales took over the Welsh rail franchise, and already we have a public full-newspaper-page-spread apology that you've referred to. Now, the apology states, and I quote:
'We know that you, our customers, deserve better from your rail services in Wales and the Borders, and this is not what you expected from your new operator.'
Unquote. And do you know why, First Minister, this is not what people expected? I'll tell you why. Because, yet again, it is your Government who is responsible for these services, and you are, once again, failing to deliver on your promises. You promised a high-quality, affordable and accessible train network in Wales, but the reality for passengers is that Transport for Wales's morning commuter train from Chepstow and Caldicot to Newport and Cardiff has been cancelled 16 times in the last 20 weekdays. Blaenau Ffestiniog, Betws y Coed and Llanrwst have had no trains all day on seven of the last 20 weekdays. And the 08:40 train from Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury was cancelled on four days last week. This is an absolute shambles by your Government. So, First Minister, instead of public relations-inspired apologies, what measurable action is Transport for Wales taking to address this appalling start to the franchise?
I have to say, this is weak ground for him. How does he justify the fact that Wales only gets 1 per cent of rail infrastructure investment? Nothing from him about that. How does he explain—? Yes, I know it's difficult, but it's true. How does he explain the fact that it was his own party that cancelled electrification west of Cardiff, despite the promise that was actually made? So, this is very weak ground for him.
But, we did say that we would transform the rail network in Wales. We didn't say we'd do it in a month. After 15 years of a franchise that was let before, after many, many years of underinvestment in the track, by a Conservative Government, we said that we would transform the network, but we were upfront and said it would take time to do it. Of course it would. Some of the problems on the trains are to do with the track, which we have no control over, and some of them are to do with the fact that 30 per cent of the rolling stock was impacted by storm Callum.
But I have to say to him, I don't think people will find it realistic when he says, after 15 years of rolling stock being used, that everything was going to change in a month. Really. We said that that wouldn't happen, but we have, of course, outlined a plan for the future and we will deliver a train Service for the people of Wales and keep our promises, unlike his party.
Since your Government has taken over this franchise, services have got worse, and that's just in a month, First Minister. Now, the previous franchise agreement made no allowance for growth in passenger numbers and no provisions for extra train capacity. Since that franchise was first let in 2003, passenger numbers have increased by around 75 per cent. This created chronic congestion, a lack of appropriate rolling stock and years of underinvestment in relation to rail services across Wales.
You were asked repeatedly to publish the tender specification against which the potential rail operators were to bid in order to win the current contract. You have repeatedly refused to make that document public. Transparency is, of course, a key component in ensuring that the Welsh public have faith in Transport for Wales going forward. First Minister, in light of these deteriorating services, will you now release that tender specification in full. in order to help restore the public's confidence in your Government's oversight of rail services in Wales, and so that we can fully assess your Government's role in this continuation of failing of Welsh commuters?
The document will be published. We always said it would be—suitably redacted, of course. But, I mean, really, four weeks into the franchise, he is critical—after 15 years of the franchise being run from Whitehall, after eight years of a Conservative Government when no extra money was put into rail investment in Wales, no extra money was put into infrastructure, no extra money was put into rolling stock, no money was allocated for electrification. We've seen the shambles in England with some of the franchises there. Chris Grayling has been hauled over the coals for it. There's no vision in England. There's no money being set to one side. Despite that fact that we have called for rail infrastructure to be devolved, with an appropriate Barnett consequential, which will be 6.2 per cent, the Tories have refused, because they're happy with a situation, it seems, where Wales gets 1 per cent of rail infrastructure investment. That is absolutely wrong given the fact that Scotland gets a far, far better deal. What we've offered the people of Wales is a vision for the future. We've said that by the end of next year, the pacer trains will go, there will be partial electrification, there will be new trains, they will all be air conditioned, and people will be able to experience a service that's far, far superior than the service the Tories tolerated for so long from 2010 onwards.
Leader of the UKIP group—Gareth Bennett.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, there is an ever-increasing list of building projects in Cardiff dealing, supposedly, with student accommodation. In the last three years, there have been 23 separate developments opened, approved or put under construction in Cardiff. If you stand on the junction of City Road and Newport Road in Cardiff, you can see eight separate developments, either under construction or newly opened. There are also now instances in both Newport and Cardiff of blocks of so-called student accommodation where the flats are being rented out commercially. The flats inside these blocks do not go to students because there isn't a big enough demand from students. Do you think that a suspicious pattern may be developing whereby universities and private developers are gaining planning permission for so-called student developments and then deliberately changing their use afterwards?
Of course, a change of use requires an application to the local authority. If he has any evidence at all to back up what he's saying, I'd be glad to hear it.
Well, it is, as you say, a matter for the relevant local authority in part, but I feel that this is an area where the Welsh Government should be concerned. I think you do have an important role to play in monitoring this. I have raised this issue with your housing Minister, who said she's keeping an eye on this, but she did point out that it may fall close to the remit of your planning Minister. So, there is a danger, in my view, that this could fall through the cracks. We do need to look at why there has been such an increase in this so-called student accommodation.
Currently, student accommodation is exempt from business rates. This is because the student flats are classed as domestic dwellings and therefore fall under the council tax regime rather than business rates. Business owners on Maindy Road in Cardiff recently found out that they will have to leave their business units to make way for a six-storey building comprising 143 student flats. There's a motor repair garage that has been at this site for 40 years. Not only will this change have a detrimental effect on the local community, but the taxpayer will lose thousands of pounds due to business rates not being paid by the owners of the student flats. Is this not a case, First Minister, of universities and developers exploiting loopholes in the planning rules simply to maximize their profits?
He seems to think that people who live in private flats pay business rates. They don't. They pay council tax, just as students do. There's no difference. So, I can't see what point he's trying to make there. If somebody purchases a flat in a block of flats that has just been built, they pay council tax, not business rates.
I thank you for your answer, but there has been a certain amount of concern about this, even within Cardiff council. Cardiff council's planning officer, Lawrence Dowdall, has recently stated that Cardiff may now have an oversupply of student accommodation. Planning committee member Wendy Congreve, who is a Lib Dem member, described one recent development as
'a cynical use of the planning process. It's nothing less than a commercial development through the back door and must be resisted.
'We developed too many of this type of accommodation, and surprise, surprise they are now being turned into commercial, lucrative developments.'
I think you do need to be concerned about this, because this possible flouting of the rules may affect your ambitions for affordable housing in Wales. Commercial developers, when they build new housing estates, have a legal obligation to provide an element of affordable housing. Developers building so-called student blocks are under no such obligation. So, you could have universities working with private developers to get their properties on the commercial market by the back door, while all the time avoiding the need to provide affordable housing. Do you think your Government should be having a word with the developers or monitoring this situation in any way?
Well, I think he should be careful here, because he's effectively accusing universities of being part of a scam, in effect, without any evidence. I come back to the point I made earlier on: he has made suggestions, and I've not seen any evidence from him to back up any of his suggestions, apart from what he says, but nothing to back it up. But I'm pretty sure our universities are not engaged in commercial property development when they have many, many thousands of students to house anyway. We should celebrate the fact that Cardiff and other universities across Wales have been so successful in attracting students from around the world, because they add to the research and learning capacity of those universities and, ultimately, add to our economy. Universities are huge drivers of the economy because they attract so many students, and I've not seen any evidence that suggests that universities are deliberately trying to build student accommodation with a view to then changing the use of that accommodation to make money through commercial property.
3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the support available to assist community hydro energy projects with their business rates? OAQ52935
In April, we introduced a grant scheme to provide hydropower project in Wales with grants towards their non-domestic rates bills. The scheme provides 100 per cent rates relief to community hydro projects and caps the increase in rates for other hydropower developments.
And Plaid Cymru was very pleased to ensure that business rates relief for community energy projects as part of the budget agreement for this financial year with the Government, but there is no assurance to date that the business rate relief will be available for the next financial year or for ensuing years. These projects clearly need long-term assurances so that they can plan for their future, and without that assurance, it’s difficult for them to plan and to collaborate with community groups and local charities, and, indeed, it’s difficult for new initiatives to be set up. So, will you commit to ensuring that these business rate relief schemes are available permanently for these hydroenergy schemes?
Well, it’s difficult to do that, of course. That is something for the next Government to consider and it depends on the amount of funding we receive from Westminster, but, of course, we understand how much of a help this has been for hydropower, and we will consider the situation when we know more about the financial position in the next financial year onwards.
First Minister, I think it's fair to say that we could be using the business rate regime far more imaginatively to target support, whether that be for hydroenergy projects, as Siân Gwenllian has alluded to, other renewable projects or, indeed, our high streets, and we know full well the problems that have afflicted some high street businesses in areas such as Monmouth in my constituency in the wake of revaluation.
You mentioned your successor; will you leave a note for your successor, whoever that might be—I think that's the way it's done in Labour circles—to look again at this whole area of business rates and ways that the tax could be reformed to actually help rather than hinder the economy over the longer term, not just the next budget or next two budgets?
I think in the Conservative Party it's a gangplank that's used mainly, isn't it, to deal with changes of leadership? Any note or notes that I leave will, of course, be electronic. We are, of course, moving towards being a paperless Government.
From our perspective, we will always try and use the non-domestic rates regime in innovative and imaginative ways. We've done it, of course, with the small business rate relief scheme, which helped so many businesses across Wales, and we will look to see what might be possible in the future, depending, of course, on what moneys are made available through the block grant.
4. Will the First Minister provide an update on action the Welsh Government is taking to protect jobs at the Schaeffler plant in Llanelli? OAQ52977
First of all, can I thank the Member for the work that he has done on behalf of those workers? We have held discussions with Schaeffler, and an offer of a two-tier approach to support the company has been accepted. A meeting will be held in early December to develop a taskforce with members of the Schaeffler management team, and the consultation period is still in operation, of course, until early January. What the support is aimed at doing, of course, is to help those who work there at the moment and to see what beneficial uses for employment the site could be put to in the future.
Thank you, First Minister. I warmly welcome that news. I met with the economy Secretary last week to urge the Government to engage with the plant, so I'm delighted that that has now happened. When I met with the UK managing director of Schaeffler, they made it clear that their decision to begin the process of closure had nothing to do with the workforce, which, they stressed, had been excellent. But, it's essential that they now properly engage with the consultation process. Would the Welsh Government make clear to them that if they decide they no longer want to continue the plant, we will not put up with them cutting and running? This town has provided nearly 50 years of building the profits of this business, and they owe an obligation to us to work with us constructively to see if we can keep manufacturing in that plant.
Yes, the conversation so far has been positive. I would expect that to continue in the future—there's no reason for them to change their minds. They've been working with us, as a Government, and the emphasis will be very strongly on finding a new use for the site, providing employment for all those who've worked there and others in future, and, of course, to provide support for those workers who will now, possibly, be looking elsewhere. But, as we have always done when situations like this have arisen, we will be there to support the workers involved.
Can I associate myself with what Lee Waters has said about the commitment that the workforce has shown over a period of very many years to that company, and how much they've contributed to their success? I hope that the discussions that you're having will have a positive outcome, but I have to say there's a faint sense here of shutting the stable door after the horse has already gone, and it may be that it's too late to change Schaeffler's mind—I hope that I'll be proved wrong in that, and I'm pleased to see the efforts that are going in.
But, in terms of other manufacturing businesses that may feel that their future is greatly jeopardised by the possibility of Brexit, what more can your Government do to engage with them proactively before they reach the point that Schaeffler has done and they've actually made the decision to leave? As has already been put to you again this afternoon, the most effective way, of course, to deal with these situations would be a people's vote and a decision for us to remain. But, in the meantime, and in the absence of that, what more can you do to engage proactively with particularly international companies in the hope that we can prevent them from getting to the position that Schaeffler has got to?
There are occasions when we get notice of potential closures and we're able to help those companies, and have done in the past—Tata being, I suppose, the most obvious example. But, there are occasions when we get no notice, and this was one such occasion. If we'd known that there were issues there, we could have obviously looked to help the company, but they'd already taken the decision.
As far as the way we operate goes and what we can do in the future, we have the EU transition fund, of course, of £50 million, which is there to help businesses to transition, helping them with training so that they are competitive when Britain leaves the EU. Of course, we continue to work on other ways, working with the business community, in which we can help them to overcome the incredible uncertainty that they're facing at the moment.
5. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support the manufacturing sector in Wales? OAQ52975
Since 2011, the Welsh Government has supported over 16,200 jobs in manufacturing. Through the economic action plan, we will support futureproofing business investment to help companies sustain, compete and grow.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. Clearly, the advanced materials and manufacturing sector discussed in the economic action plan is one of the areas where we're going in the future—very modern technologies. But, we still have many manufacturing sectors that are still relying on older technologies that need updating—Tata being an example of one of those plants. The Welsh Government committed millions of pounds of investment into the power plant. Can you give us an update as to where that money is? Can you also look at what other actions you might be able to take to help companies like Tata, which want to improve productivity and efficiency, but are having difficulties, perhaps, in sometimes getting that extra support?
Well, the investment in Tata is going well. Of course, Tata themselves have invested in blast furnace 5. We continue to talk to them about what kind of package would help and what would be lawful, of course, under state-aid rules. In fact, I had a meeting some 10 days ago with a representative of Tata as we look to take things forward. Tata are definitely keen, of course, to stay in Wales, and particularly in Port Talbot and the other plants around Wales, and we will continue to work with Tata, as we always have done, to secure Welsh jobs.
In June, the annual Barclays and SPTS Technologies' Voice of Welsh Manufacturing event was held in Newport. One of the topics of discussion was skills shortages and the shift from vocational qualifications to university degrees. First Minister, what is the Welsh Government doing to tackle the misperception that exists regarding the well-paid and rewarding roles that careers in engineering and manufacturing offer in Wales?
We are seeing the growth of apprenticeship schemes. I think in the 1990s the UK lost interest in apprenticeships, and concentrated overly on academic courses. We now see, of course, not just bigger companies but smaller companies offering apprenticeships. Jobs Growth Wales was an example of that to give people the training they needed to get a job and, of course, we have a commitment to create 100,000 apprenticeships for all ages across Wales. It's through creating those apprenticeships that we create the opportunities for people, and show them that there is a worthwhile alternative to the academic route and, of course, in ensuring that, making sure that people have the skills they need to be employable in the future.
First Minister, my region has lost far too many manufacturing jobs in recent decades, and while I welcome your Government's actions in securing new manufacturing investment, such as the Aston Martin deal, this doesn't replace the loss of manufacturing output in South Wales West. First Minister, how will your Government ensure my region benefits from such investment, particularly as the region has excelled in the automotive supply chain in the past?
Tata is one example, of course, and Ford is another one. We've work very, very closely with the companies through some very difficult times, at times, to make sure that Ford with its 1,700 jobs in Bridgend is still there and looking to the future. What we have done, I believe, is replace many jobs that were low paid, low skilled, with jobs that are higher paid and higher skilled. That's where we need to be. Competing with those who have low labour costs is not Wales's future. It was tried in the 1980s and 1990s, and unless you are willing to pursue lower and lower wages, then that is not something that is an option to you. That has meant an emphasis on skills. It's meant an emphasis on attracting high-quality investment and high-quality jobs, and that will continue to be the aim of the Government.
6. How does the Welsh Government ensure that patients in Wales have access to orthopaedic surgeons? OAQ52936
We expect health boards to have suitable resources in place, including staffing, to provide services to meet the needs of their local population.
On a number of occasions over the years of devolution, Welsh Government has produced pots of money to reduce waiting times if they've become excessive. In 2017-18, the median waiting time for knee surgery in Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board was 339 days, up 95 days on the previous year. Over 61 per cent of those currently waiting for trauma and orthopaedic operations are waiting over a year. How do you respond to my constituent, let's say Mr LB, who's been on a waiting list since 8 December 2016 for bilateral total knee replacements? The health board wrote to me this month, saying, 'We estimate we won't be able to offer him a date for surgery now until May 2019'—over 500 days. Mr LB says he has nothing but the greatest support from his GP and his consultant, but he's a virtual cripple at 63, in constant, excruciating pain.
It's very difficult, of course, to pass comment on an individual. I have no doubt that where somebody's waiting for an operation they are in pain, and they will be anxious to know when that operation will take place. They'll also be anxious to know what resources are being made available in order that the time waiting for an operation is expedited. What I can say is that the number of whole-time trauma and orthopaedic surgery consultants at BCU increased from 23 in 2009 to 29.2 in 2017. That's reflected in an increase across the whole of Wales. At the end of August this year, there was an 11 per cent reduction in the number of people waiting over 36 weeks for orthopaedic treatment in the BCU area, and that is reflected across the whole of Wales. So, additional resources have been made available to appoint more consultants and surgeons, and we are seeing that reflected in the reduction in the number of people waiting. And as far as Mr LB is concerned, I can give him the assurance that we will continue to look at how we can provide more resources and I hope that he gets his operation soon.
First Minister, we often hear in the winter period of orthopaedic operations and other planned surgery being cancelled because of winter pressures. How confident are you that the arrangements that have been put in place by the local health boards and by the Cabinet Secretary for health for this winter will avoid those levels of cancellation that we have seen in the past?
Well, there's always a level of cancellation that takes place beforehand in order to create the spare capacity for the winter period, given the winter pressures that we've seen over the last few years, although I would argue that certainly last year and the year before, those pressures were dealt with even though they were substantial and took up a lot of staff resources and time. Of course, health boards have to have in place their winter plans, which over the past few years have proven to be durable and I've no reason to suspect that that won't be the case this year.
7. How does the Welsh Government support White Ribbon Day in relation to eliminating violence against women? OAQ52947
Yes. I've just realised I'm not wearing one, so I apologise for that first of all. To promote the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and White Ribbon Day, we are holding a Facebook live webinar, Ending VAWDASV in Wales; funding four community communication activities; and encouraging more of our male staff to become White Ribbon ambassadors.
Thank you, First Minister. I'm attending the White Ribbon event today, sponsored by Joyce Watson, and will attend the Black Association of Women Step Out's Light a Candle event at Llandaff cathedral next week. As the First Minister is aware, for the past eight years BAWSO has led the Light a Candle multifaith event, bringing together more than 250 individuals to commemorate international White Ribbon Day.
But the horrific statistics still prevail. In Wales and England two women a week are killed by a current or former partner and 10,000 women a week experience sexual abuse. Will the First Minister join me in acknowledging the UN rapporteur Professor Philip Alston's report last week, in which he states that single household payments and delays of five to 12 weeks before universal credit is paid out gives more leverage to a controlling and violent partner? And will he join me today in encouraging the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, to halt universal credit and address this punitive policy that so adversely affects women facing violence and sexual abuse?
Yes. She will see that, as if by magic, I now have a white ribbon attached. But she raises a hugely important issue and can I commend her as well for all the work that she's done in raising awareness and in combating violence against women over the years? We of course condemn all forms of abuse and violence. We work with specialist violence against women services in Wales to raise awareness of violence against women. And, of course, we support third sector organisations to deliver direct service provision to support and protect victims. It also supports preventative work—hugely important and of course that formed part of the legislation we passed a few years ago. Much work has been done to raise the issue of domestic violence to make it more visible in the public mind, but there is still work to be done in order to prevent physical and mental abuse and, sadly, those deaths that she mentioned.
First Minister, there's always more that can be done and I recognise totally the commitment of the Welsh Government to this issue, and indeed the commitment of most of the parties in this Chamber to the fact that too many women, too many young girls, too many teenagers are being beaten up. I have two particular bugbears and I would like to know what you think you as a Government, and we as an Assembly, could do to try to alleviate this.
The first is the endlessly grim storylines of dramas, thrillers, soaps and films, where almost all of the victims are women, all young girls, all teenagers, who are constantly the ones being beaten up, being threatened, being violated, being raped and being killed in horrific ways. And it sends out a pernicious message that actually that's what happens to women, and it isn't acceptable.
And my other big bugbear is with the, at times, asinine judiciary system that says because a 17-year-old is wearing a pair of lacy knickers, 'Hey, it's okay to go and rape her.' These are terrible and until we stop this, this story of victimhood and fear will transmit all around our young girls.
And I have two teenage daughters and I resent them growing up in this culture that they have to take changes, they have to wear the dark clothes, they have to not be bright and sparkly in case some guy comes along and says, 'Oh, I'll 'ave a bit of that.' And, of course, it sends out the wrong message to our boys, because they're not bad, but there's a casualness, there's that, sort of, 'Hey, it's okay, everybody does it, let's do it.' So, the media, and I don't mean newspapers per se—I'm talking about the entertainment industry; what a great word, 'entertainment'—and the judiciary have got to get real, and they are a real part of the jigsaw puzzle to stop us having to constantly campaign to protect our women, our teenagers and our girls, and it's disgraceful.
I don't think I can add much to what the Member has said. She puts it so powerfully herself. When she mentioned the fact that women and young girls are particularly portrayed as victims, I started to rack my mind as to some of the programmes that I've seen recently, and she's right. I hadn't actually spotted it, so I'm grateful to her for raising that issue, and she's absolutely right that the promotion of victimhood encourages people to make people victims, and I think that is certainly a strong issue there and it's something that I think will need to be examined in the future.
Secondly, she's partially right, I think, to say that about the judiciary. I think that, in their defence, younger judges particularly are very well aware of the world around them and, of course, what is appropriate to say and what is not appropriate to say. I think that, certainly, when I was in practice, some of the older judges at that time perhaps were of a different era. But the judges that I know would be very, very much aware of the need to be sensitive and appropriate, and certainly they wouldn't, I'm sure, say anything like that in a summing up.
But I do wonder whether we've gone backwards. I do, because it seemed until quite recently that the issue of gender equality and the issue of respect were something that was a never-ending journey towards a more positive outcome. I'm not sure it is. I don't believe that Wales is a safe place for women to come forward with allegations, I have to say, and that is something that we all recognise as political parties, and we all recognise that steps have to be taken with regard to that. So, there's much work to be done. But that work, of course, is driven forward very strongly by the kind of representations that she has made and others in this Chamber have made, and the representation that she has made and those of my friend from the Vale of Glamorgan and others in this Chamber will always be strongly supported by me.
First Minister, there's no doubt in my mind that we've gone backwards on this agenda, and I fully support what's been said by Angela and by Jane Hutt, and I'd like to focus on what you can actually do about this. You could improve education on this front so that every child is absolutely clear what is and what isn't acceptable. You could do something about the welfare benefit system. The fact that this area isn't devolved is something that you could do something about, if you were prepared to take responsibility for welfare benefits. The best way to tackle violence against women would be to ensure that demand for support services is met. Shrinking budgets have meant that this isn't always happening. In 2016-17, the latest statistics available from Women's Aid show that 249 survivors of domestic abuse could not be accommodated by refuges in Wales because there was no space available in the service that was contacted when help was needed. Now, that same report found that there had been an overall loss of up to 5 per cent of funding for the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence specialist sector in this country.
Apart from launching yet another review, how do you intend to tackle this grim picture and become the feminist Government that you aspire to be?
Well, we have provided, of course, funding to local authorities and third sector organisations for the implementation of the 2015 Act. We fund the Live Fear Free helpline and of course £969,000 of capital funding grant to acquire, maintain or upgrade fixed assets, such as buildings and equipment. But I take the point that what we need to be doing is making sure—well, two things: first of all that there is consistent coverage across Wales of refuges, but also, and I was struck by this when I visited an organisation in Cardiff last week where I talked to women who had horrific stories of what they had been through—the point that they made to me was that you need a safe place to live but you also need help to get your confidence back and help needs to come from people who are familiar, not general counselling but counselling that is specific to that person. So, it's massively important that we take that on board in the future to provide that consistency as well, so that it's not simply a question of, 'Let's move someone to a safe place'—that's important—but 'How can we help that individual who has gone through the most horrific experience to help to rebuild themselves and their lives?' I saw an example of it in Cardiff, and that, I think, will be a challenge for the next Government: how can we make sure that that consistency is achieved?
I want to thank the National Federation of Women's Institutes, who, as an organisation, have really helped to take this message about standing up and calling on men to stand up to never commit, condone or remain silent about violence against women and girls. They reach the parts that others can't, their organisation reaches every aspect of people's lives where they live, and they have a huge part and huge influence in changing this agenda. But one of the things I think that we really need to focus on, and it was brought up this morning, is the gender stereotyping from an early age and the role that the Government can play, and is playing, in doing something about that. It isn't always the case that girls must be girls and boys must be boys. That feeds into actions, sometimes very negative actions, perpetrated on one by the other in later life.
So, I suppose my question to you, First Minister, is that, moving forward, we spread those messages—and I know we already are doing it—more forcefully and more evenly across Wales so that there isn't pressure put to bear on boys behaving in a particular way and girls behaving in a particular way.
Yes. This is reflected, of course, in the This is Me campaign. I don't think we should go, as the Member said, to a situation where boys and girls are expected to behave differently. There should be respect on both sides because that suggests that girls should behave in a specific way—and the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire alluded to this—in order not to put themselves in danger, which is a profoundly offensive position to be in. Why on earth should women be in that position where they feel that they're not able to dress in a particular way or not able to behave in a particular way, otherwise they've brought something on themselves. That clearly is not where we want to be, so it's absolutely right to say that we need to look—and the new curriculum, of course, will be looking at this—at how we promote healthy relationships in schools—that's important—and, of course, to make the point that respect is all around: that when people are out, when they're out at night, that the respect is there for every individual and that nobody should fear being judged or treated in a particular way because of the way they behave or dress.
8. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the roll-out of universal credit in the Cynon Valley? OAQ52939
Well, I'm extremely concerned about the fact that many of our most vulnerable people, in the Cynon Valley and elsewhere, are struggling to deal with the complexities of universal credit. The UK Government must urgently address these issues before they move existing benefit claimants to universal credit.
Thank you, First Minister. I share all of your concerns and also the concerns raised by my colleague Jane Hutt in relation to victims of domestic violence and the impact of universal credit upon them. But so many vulnerable groups are set to suffer as a result of this roll-out, and Citizens Advice have published new research showing that some single, working disabled people will be more than £300 a month worse off because of flaws in the design of UC. In addition, those without a carer and unable to work could be £180 a month worse off when they make a new claim.
With the recently departed work and pensions Secretary having acknowledged the damage that universal credit is causing, but also having made big promises on protecting the most vulnerable, will the Welsh Government make representations to her successor to ensure that these are not just more empty words from Tory Ministers in Westminster?
Well, we've repeatedly written to the UK Government, and will continue to do so, urging them to reconsider this damaging policy and to commit to targeting more support to help lift people out of poverty. We all see, of course, the flaws of universal credit, and the Member will be aware of the representations we have made.
Finally, David Melding.
First Minister, I agree with many Members here that more should've been done to learn from the roll-out process and to do that as quickly as possible. I welcome Amber Rudd's decision that that will now be speeded up, especially by listening to expert advice and experience of those who have now moved to the new system. But the new system is one that has been widely welcomed in making it simpler and ending the cliff edge between benefits and working, and that is the vision that I think we should all share—to have a benefits system that really does enable people to reach their full potential.
I think the problem lies not necessarily in the idea, but in the implementation. And we know that there are design flaws in universal credit—that was highlighted in a recent Citizen's Advice report on the impact of universal credit on single, disabled people. So, for example, the work allowance can only be accessed through the work capability allowance. This means that someone must be assessed as not fit for work to receive targeted in-work support. Well, that's one example of where the system breaks down. It's hugely important that people don't suffer because a system is not working as it should.
Thank you, First Minister.
The next item, therefore, is the business statement and announcement. I call on the leader of the house, Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are two changes to today's agenda. The First Minister will make a statement shortly on the draft agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, and as a result the oral statement on reforming dental services has been postponed until 11 December. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, just a couple of weeks ago, I met with Adrian Farey, one of my constituents who runs a long-term sustainable woodland project in the Elwy valley region of my constituency. It was visited by the Minister for Environment just last week, and I was very pleased that she enjoyed her visit there to learn more about the organisation that he runs. But this is precisely the sort of model, I think, that will help to make our rural communities sustainable, and help to encourage and promote the use of local and sustainable wood products in the future. I would be grateful if the Minister for Environment could bring forward a statement on the support that she might be able to offer to projects like Adrian Farey's and others across Wales in terms of promoting the use of local timber in local construction projects.
Can I also call, leader of the house, for a statement on the future of business rates for independent schools in Wales? There's been quite a bit of concern amongst independent schools across the country. There are 20 in Wales at the moment, with thousands of students in them. They add around £87 million to the Welsh economy and generate £22 million-worth of taxes here in Wales. You'll be aware that there have been some concerns about the prospects of business rates being charged on independent schools. Now, clearly, I understand that we will want to have a debate, perhaps, on these things, but I do think that it's incumbent upon the Welsh Government to give some clarity to the sector, given the significant numbers of people who are employed in it and the significant numbers of pupils who rely on the excellent education that is provided in independent schools across the country.
On the woodland project, the Minister has mentioned that she very much enjoyed her visit there, and I think is very happy to bring forward a general statement on woodland management in Wales and the contribution of our woodlands in particular to climate change and adaptation thereof.
In terms of business rates, we've had several roundabouts on the subject of business rates for independent schools and I think that's much more likely to come up in terms of a debate from the opposition parties than it is likely to be the subject of a business statement from the Government.
Leader of the house, can I ask for a Government statement on screening services, particularly as I've had representations recently concerning Bowel Screening Wales? It operates as a bespoke screening service, as you know, yet is sort of vaguely part of the NHS, but basically stand-alone as well. Bowel Screening Wales does excellent work, however if someone who has had a previous bowel problem, and a negative bowel screen as part of the bowel screening programme, then develops a new bowel symptom, this cannot be dealt with by Bowel Screening Wales, as they only do stand-alone screening at pre-determined intervals, despite the fact that it's a surveillance service. So, the situation at the moment is that if people then develop a new bowel symptom, despite being under surveillance by Bowel Screening Wales, they're directed back to their general practitioner, who then has the binary choice of urgent referral or routine referral that can take months. Surely, could there be a third way in such a situation of a fast-track referral if a new problem arises when a patient is already under Bowel Screening Wales surveillance? Thank you.
The Member raises a very important point, and, Llywydd, I'm very pleased to say that, on my sixtieth birthday, I received a bowel screening kit from NHS Wales. It was amongst the less expected presents that I received on my sixtieth birthday, but was possibly the most important one. I think it's very important that people take part in that screening; it's a very important thing that we should all do.
I'm not familiar with the issue that he raises. I suggest he writes to the Cabinet Secretary, and, if that raises an issue of more significance than that, I will arrange for a statement. Otherwise, I'll make sure that the reply is available to all AMs.
I wanted to raise two issues with the leader of the house. The first is the Which report, which came out last week, revealing the fact that two thirds of banks have now closed—over the last 30 years, two thirds of banks have closed—and this has left communities without access to a local bank, and leaving high streets empty. In Cardiff North, we've lost banks from Rhiwbina, Whitchurch, Birchgrove—nearly every community. And, in fact, one bank is still empty—in the centre of a shopping centre—that had closed years ago. I know we have debated in the past in this Chamber the issue of banks and bank closures, but perhaps—. Would it be possible for the Government to have another look at this issue and just see if any more can be done to help some of these communities?
And, secondly, I wondered if it might be possible to have a debate on Lyme disease. One of my constituents from Cardiff North is campaigning on this issue, and, in fact, we held a meeting in the Pierhead today about Lyme disease, wanting to raise the profile of the disease, the fact that it is little known and that there are many different complications from it. And there have been debates in the Scottish Parliament, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and will be in the European Parliament, but it does seem it is a little-known disease that causes a huge amount of misery for those people who are afflicted with it.
Two very important points indeed. In terms of the banks, it is something, as she's already acknowledged, that we've discussed frequently in the Assembly, and it is very disappointing that, despite affected communities and political representatives challenging the decisions—across the Chamber, actually; I think it's something we've all expressed concern about—the banks do continue to press ahead with their closure programme. And there's no doubt at all that many citizens, older citizens in particular, are not comfortable with online banking, and also small businesses in rural areas have a need for cash and there's a big problem about how long they travel and where they might get the cash from, and there's also a problem with the ATMs starting to close down as well, as people move to cashless systems.
Ideally, we would like to see businesses and individuals across Wales having access to the banking facilities they want, and, where possible, mitigate the loss of any branch and cashpoint facility in Wales closing. But, unfortunately, we have some limited powers in this regard. However, we have been in discussion on the role of the post office in addressing banking needs. We recognise there are issues around that, and we've been working with them to discuss them, around the capacity, privacy, disability access and so on at the post office, but that's very much an ongoing part of the discussion about whether they can substitute for some bank branch services. And the other thing is that we're investigating the possibility of establishing a community banking model for Wales. We're in early dialogue with a range of stakeholders, promoting the idea of a community mutual bank for Wales, and that would be able to offer support appropriate to the level of development around Wales. I'll keep the Member informed as the proposals for that develop.
In terms of Lyme disease, in Wales, as well as everywhere else in the UK, cases of laboratory-confirmed Lyme disease have been increasing in recent years. This is partly as a result of better reporting, increased testing and increased awareness by the public and healthcare professionals. The Member will be pleased to know that we've recently communicated a comprehensive guidance on Lyme disease to healthcare professionals across Wales, and the NHS has developed appropriate public awareness materials. And I'm very pleased to say that that's an ongoing programme of public awareness and medical awareness across the piece.
Leader of the house, may I ask for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs on WWF Cymru's claim that one in 15 wildlife species in Wales is at risk of disappearing altogether? They say that global threats to wildlife and habitats identified in the 'Living Planet Report 2018' are echoed in Wales. Species under threat include hen harriers and water voles. We have seen a comeback in red kite numbers in Wales, thanks to better protection and dedicated conservation programmes. So, may we have a statement from the Cabinet Secretary on what action she will take to halt wildlife decline and to protect the habitats of threatened species in our beautiful country?
This is very much a central plank of most of our land management systems and indeed most of the support in the rural development fund, around what we can do to increase biodiversity and wildlife habitats. It's a very important function to understand how bioservices, biosystems, can be monetised in that way so that people can be encouraged to do it. We have fallen behind in the UK in terms, for example, of tree planting, and we have very low amounts of tree planting in Wales. We are looking to see if there are systems in place that can increase the range of habitats and biodiversity available across Wales. It is something we're very concerned about. The Minister for Environment is shortly going to be consulting on a climate change adaptation plan, which will include looking at the loss of biodiversity and habitat change, and I encourage all Members to respond to the consultation on that plan as early as possible, making the points that Mohammad Asghar has pointed out to us.
Leader of the house, I've got three matters that I'd like to raise with you this afternoon. You'll be aware of the interim report of the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty. It was a very hard-hitting report pointing out that cuts and austerity are a political choice, that Wales faces the highest relative poverty in the UK, and that 25 per cent of jobs pay below the minimum wage. The report says, and I quote:
'In the absence of devolved power over social security benefits, the Welsh Government’s capacity to directly mitigate the reduction in benefits is limited...benefit changes are one of the structural causes behind the increase in poverty, rough sleeping, and homelessness in Wales.... Universal Credit may exacerbate the problem, particularly in light of the Welsh Government’s inability to introduce flexibilities in its administration, unlike its Scottish counterpart.'
This strongly says that you could help people if you were prepared to take over control and responsibility of the administration of benefits. So far, the Government has resisted that, despite the difficulties that we've heard about just this afternoon in this Chamber. So, can we have a debate in Government time on this UN report, with specific focus on the devolution of the administration of welfare?
I also wanted to flag up the homophobic attack on Gareth Thomas. Now, I am sure I speak for most of us, if not all of us, in this Chamber when I say, 'Diolch yn fawr iawn, Alfie' for taking a stand and for seeking an educative restorative response from those responsible. Restorative justice can be very effective, especially when we're talking about young people. So, I'd like to see a statement from Government outlining its approach to hate crimes in general, like the homophobic attack on Gareth Thomas, and also to tell us what it's doing to fund and support restorative justice opportunities.
The final matter I'd like to see in Government time is an apology. We've already heard this afternoon that rail services since this new franchise have got worse, and the company issued a full apology to its customers today. While your Government has responsibility for this, we had no such apology from the First Minister today. He still seems to be in denial. The most concerning line in the company's apology was in relation to extra buses that they are putting on, saying, 'This will continue for as long as is needed.' There are real health and safety issues now, and this simply cannot carry on. So, we need a statement from the Cabinet Secretary as a matter of urgency to say what extra action he can take to alleviate these problems. Customers are not prepared to take any more.
Thank you for raising those three issues. Just in terms of the homophobic hate crime, I also want to add my voice in acknowledging the courage and the dignity with which Gareth Thomas met the situation he found himself in and the courage in coming forward in highlighting and tackling the issue of homophobia and his experience. I thought his piece that I heard on the radio about the restorative justice process was deeply moving and very interesting indeed. We have actually just recently talked in this Chamber about the hate crime awareness that we do. We do continue to encourage victims of hate crime to report their experiences and build on the strong partnerships we've developed across the piece with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, Victim Support Cymru and other agencies to reduce that kind of hate crime, and to hold perpetrators to account, and to enable victims to receive support and redress.
This is a key conversation on White Ribbon Day, the event that my colleague Joyce Watson AM was sponsoring earlier, and the issues that Jane Hutt raised in her question to the First Minister are still germane in this piece. Hate crimes are hate crimes no matter how they arise or which section of the population is experiencing them, and we are looking to work with our partners and Victim Support and hate crime awareness to see what we can do with restorative justice, and my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for public services has been looking into this as well with a view to looking at what we can do in this regard. So, I'd be very happy to see if I can bring forward a statement to that effect. Actually, I think, given where we are in the cycle of Government, there's going to be a statement, I hope, on human rights towards the end of this Government's term, and I will make sure that I put that issue into that statement, because otherwise we'll be out of Government time. So, I'll make sure that that's included in that as part of that, because I do think the Member raises a very, very interesting point.
On the other two points, the UN rapporteur's report is harrowing reading, I think, and says a lot of things that a lot of us agree with around the benefits system and the difficulties of living in poverty. I think this Government has done a great deal in its programme for government and its 'Prosperity for All' policy platforms in order to do what we can, but the Member will know that I and the Government completely disagree with her take on the welfare benefits regime, and my own particular view is that the UK is better to be redistributive, and the idea that Wales can stand alone in terms of welfare benefits is not one that I would cherish or relish in any way.
In terms of rail services, the First Minister, in answer to Darren Millar, gave quite a good run-through of where we are on rail services, Llywydd, and I don't think it requires any more addition from me.
On that very last point, I was going to ask for a statement; I'm quite surprised at how dismissive the leader of the house has been on that. Many constituents, over the last week, certainly, have contacted me, and it has been evidenced here today with the leader of the opposition's comments and the Member from Plaid Cymru's comments and hard evidence of trains just not turning up. I think in 16 cases there were no trains on one particular line—north, south, mid or west Wales, you can find examples of that. When the franchise was launched, Ministers were all over the press, and rightly so, because it promises much, and, if delivered correctly, will see an improvement. But Members in this house are getting berated, time and time again, by their constituents about the level of service that has happened over the last month. It surely is incumbent on the Cabinet Secretary to come to this house before the Christmas recess and highlight what action is being taken to address, hopefully, shortcomings that are in the short term, not the medium to long term. And I would hope that the Cabinet Secretary would welcome that opportunity to put on record what pressure he is putting on Transport for Wales and their contractors to up their game. Otherwise, it will be a dereliction of duty on behalf of the Government. I do hope that the leader of the house will reflect on the answer she just gave and make time for a statement for the Cabinet Secretary to come here before the Christmas recess to address these failings within the transport system here in Wales.
I wasn't being dismissive. I said that I didn't have anything to add to the comprehensive answer that the First Minister gave; I don't see how that's dismissive. The Cabinet Secretary will be answering oral Assembly questions as part of the cycle over the next few weeks, and there will be ample opportunity for Members to question him on specifics, but I'm afraid I think the idea that after one month of running a franchise we should have solved all the problems and all the rest of it is just not credible. We've been in charge of the franchise for one month. The Cabinet Secretary, in announcing that, set out a programme of action to do with the rail franchise, which the First Minister reiterated during First Minister's questions. I'm merely saying that I don't have anything to add to that at the moment, and, if you want to ask specific questions of the Cabinet Secretary, you will of course be very free to do so.
I’d like to ask for an update on ongoing parking problems along the A5 in the Lake Ogwen area in my constituency. Over a year has passed since local representatives asked for action and a particular plan to find a swift resolution to the problem in this area. Six months have passed since the Minister received a feasibility study of the problems, but, again, there has been no progress made. In a written question from me, asking when that feasibility study on the parking problem would be published, the response I received was that the report was being translated. So, there are two issues arising that I’d like you to look into. Is it common practice to take six months to translate reports, and, secondly, what is happening in order to resolve the parking problems near lake Ogwen?
And, secondly, I’m afraid that, once again, I do have to ask about the timetable for the building of the Bontnewydd bypass. A session for prospective apprentices was cancelled recently, and there is no sign of any work on the site, and, naturally, therefore, people in my area are starting to become concerned about what is happening and they’re asking whether there is to be even more delay with the bypass.
On that second one, I'll ask the Cabinet Secretary to write directly to her and explain where we are in the timetable. I'm afraid I don't have that information with me, but I'll ask him to clarify.
On the first point, again, I didn't realise the timescale had slipped that much, and I'm more than happy to discuss with the Cabinet Secretary where we are on the timescale and let the Member know.
Could we have a statement on the M4 relief road? When you stood in for the First Minister on 23 October, leader of the house, you promised a binding vote in Government time and then said this was timetabled for the week commencing 4 December. We now have the business timetable through to Christmas and there's no sign of any motion on the M4. Did you misspeak?
Could you also perhaps give us the Government's perspective on the First Minister's interview on 15 November? Asked by BBC Wales whether he still intended to decide whether the road is built, the First Minister said,
'Yes, the plan is that I will take the decision'.
Is that the case, and, if so, isn't it just the planning permission that the First Minister would be determining, as opposed to whether the road would actually be funded and built? He then went on to say,
'The inspector's report has been received. It's more than 500 pages long, so it takes some time to digest and analyse',
as some of us know with the withdrawal agreement. But he then said,
'I've not seen the report yet, but I expect that the report will be ready for me to take a decision by the end of the month'.
Surely, if it's so long and complex, the First Minister should be given it as quickly as possible if he's genuinely going to take the decision himself rather than just rubber-stamp someone else's decision, and, while he's about it, could it be published so that we can all read it too?
Yes, in answer to this question, when I did stand in for the First Minister in First Minister's questions, I read out a very long and complex legal timescale and process that was attached to the point in time at which people can take various decisions, and so on. I'm more than happy to circulate that back to the Member. I made it very clear that there was a legal process in which we were, and that we were awaiting the various legal advices and summaries of evidence and so on, that the First Minister still hopes to be able to make that decision, and that the debate will then follow. I've also made it very clear in answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth, in answer to a business statement very recently, that we've space on the timetable for that to happen if it can, but that I could not be guaranteeing that it would. We will do it if we can. If it's not possible within the timescale, then, Llywydd, I will be very sure to make both Business Committee and this Chamber aware of where we are with it.
There was an event in the UK Parliament yesterday by the Cystic Fibrosis Trust to mark three years since they had been campaigning for the drug Orkambi to be put on the NHS. We had a cross-party meeting here last week with regard to this important issue as well. Now, 'A Healthier Wales', your strategy, says that we need to be having more personalised care, more precision medicines on the NHS, but Orkambi, which could affect 200 people in Wales, is still not on the NHS. Now, I understand that Vertex, the company that has the drug, are now in discussions with the NHS in relation to putting in a new application to NICE, but we don't have that on the record anywhere from Welsh Government. So, I was wondering whether we could have an updated statement from the Cabinet Secretary for health as to his negotiations with the company and with the Cystic Fibrosis Trust to try and make this drug realised on the Welsh NHS. If we did that, we could be leading on a UK level, because nowhere else does this drug exist in the UK, but, of course, the Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Norway—many other countries—already have the drug, which can look to the root cause of cystic fibrosis as opposed to only managing the symptoms. So, I would urge you for a statement on that.
The second statement I wanted to ask for was—. Alongside other Assembly Members in this room, we were at St Joseph's comprehensive school yesterday as part of the Youth Parliament debate, and one of the young students came up to me afterwards and said that she had been waiting on a waiting list for school counselling for over a year. By which point, she'd already sought private treatment because she couldn't wait on that list to get any treatment. Now, I know Lynne Neagle and others have been looking hard at mental health for young people, but it was very concerning to me to hear that from a young person when we have the school counselling processes in place in Wales. So, could we have an update on the situation here in Wales? Are there long waiting lists in schools across Wales? Is there something we need to get to grips with, because young people, of course, will be falling through the cracks if that is the case?
On Orkambi, the Cabinet Secretary for health went through the situation in response to his last lot of questions, where he outlined the process by which the company has to go through the process of getting accreditation via NICE. I'm not aware that anything has changed since he explained where we were with that. What I will do is discuss with him whether something has changed, and if something has changed, then I will make sure that Assembly Members are kept in the loop of that. But I'm not aware of that. If something has changed, I will make sure that there's an update. But he did go quite extensively through what the process needed to be for that to happen.
And, likewise, on the mental health issues, he went through the whole process of that. But again, I will discuss with him whether there's some substantial change or some evidence that's come to light. Perhaps the Member would like to share with me the story that she's just outlined, and I will undertake to discuss with him whether there's some issue there of general importance that we can come back on.
Leader of the house, I asked you last week, I think it was—it was certainly recently—about the availability of flu vaccine across Wales and whether we could have an update from the Cabinet Secretary for health on that availability. Since then, I've been inundated by more e-mails by people who've been unable to access the vaccine, one only yesterday from a patient of the Castle Gate practice in Monmouth, whose husband is 75 and was told that, because they are now prioritising for the over-75s, the vaccine wouldn't yet be available for him and to come back later when some arrives. I understand from Age Cymru that they've identified an issue that, early on in this process, some practices and community pharmacies underestimated the amount of vaccine they might need and so not enough was therefore in the system to be provided, and they're working on that. So, could you ask the Cabinet Secretary for health to look at all of this issue? Because, although I understand that there are going to be vaccines arriving, hopefully before the end of November, that hasn't been necessarily best communicated to patients, and many of them have been very concerned. So, hopefully this can be dealt with better in future.
Secondly, and finally, can I concur with the words of the leader of the opposition earlier and also the Member for South Wales Central, who sits behind me normally, with regard to the issue with Transport for Wales and some of those—whatever you might want to call them—teething problems, getting things back on track? There clearly has been an issue and it's important that, beyond the apology that they have given—and I respect the fact that they have been very quick off the mark to apologies to travellers—something there does need to be looked at.
My very own pregnant wife was affected by the problem recently, which you'll know from Facebook—I know many of you will be aware of that—where, I think, three successive trains didn't have sufficient carriages, so she wasn't able to get on. I was the one who got the flack for that, or got the earache later in the day, so it's in my interest for it to be looked at. So, if you could have discussions with the Cabinet Secretary about what could be done to try and alleviate some of these teething problems of the franchise, that would be very beneficial.
My sympathy with your wife. I also follow her on Facebook, so I did know about that. And, as I said, I haven't got much to add to anything else I said on rail.
On the flu vaccine, the Member raises a very pertinent point. I think it's worth, Llywydd, me just repeating what the Cabinet Secretary has told people. For winter 2018-19, a flu vaccine specifically designed for older people has been licensed in the UK. The advice from the UK's expert panel on immunisation—the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—is that this adjuvanted vaccine is expected to be more clinically effective in people aged 65 years or over compared with the other flu vaccines that are available, and that it is the only flu vaccine that is likely to be effective in people aged 75 and older. There is not a shortage of flu vaccines for over-65s. All orders submitted by GPs and pharmacists in Wales will be met. The delivery is phased due to demand. The manufacturer has confirmed that all orders will be delivered before the end of November. I
It's important that the flu vaccine offered to at-risk individuals provides the best available protection. With the high levels of flu we experienced last season resulting in increased GP consultation rates and outbreaks at care homes and in hospitals, it's sensible to act on the expert advice to do everything we can. So, we're looking to people to choose the most effective flu vaccine for them demographically. I appreciate what the Member is highlighting, which is that delay in receiving the flu vaccine may be worrying for older people, but flu does not tend to start to circulate until mid December, so there's plenty of time yet for the flu vaccine to arrive and for people to be protected. The chief medical officer has already written to health boards, GPs and pharmacies with advice about planning arrangements for offering the flu vaccination to older people this season, in light of the availability.
We are aware that a very small number of practices, as I think Nick Ramsay was highlighting, didn't order the adjuvanted vaccine, as recommended by the chief medical officer, or did not order enough for their eligible patients. In those cases, or where deliveries of vaccines have not yet been received, we've asked health boards, practices and community pharmacies to work together to ensure that individuals can access the adjuvanted vaccine as soon as possible, prioritising those over 75 and those over 65 with medical conditions. We are working with Public Health Wales and the NHS to ensure that that vaccine supply situation does not impact on any uptake. So, I think we are working very hard to do that. We are not yet at the point where all of the vaccines have been delivered, and I think that should be very reassuring to Nick Ramsay's constituents.
Thank you, leader of the house.
The next item, which is item 3, is postponed until 11 December.
We move therefore to item 4: a statement by the First Minister on the draft agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. I call on the First Minister, therefore—Carwyn Jones.
Diolch, Llywydd. It's symptomatic of the handling of the UK Government’s Brexit negotiations that I am providing an update to Assembly Members amidst the worst political crisis I have seen. As I will explain, it is a crisis that could have been avoided. It is a crisis rooted in a reluctance to be honest about the difficult trade-offs needed in the negotiations, and an unwillingness to build a broad consensus, including with the devolved administrations, about the approach to the unprecedented challenges of leaving the European Union. Now, of course, we have the hard-line Brexiteers in the Conservative Party who are actively working to bring about a 'no deal' outcome, seeking to deepen the political crisis still further with a leadership election.
Today, Llywydd, I want to set out the Welsh Government’s position on the agreement and outline the next steps that need to be taken, and taken urgently by the UK Government. It's important, of course, to make the distinction between the withdrawal agreement and the future economic relationship that will need to be set out in the political declaration. Many aspects of the withdrawal agreement are desperately needed. Securing the transition period is absolutely essential to avoid the cliff edge in just four months' time. The protection of citizens' rights will secure the status of the EU citizens who have made their lives here, contributing to our economy and our public services, and also those of UK nationals who have chosen to live and work or retire elsewhere in Europe. It's shameful that the UK Government has used the EU and UK citizens as a tactical pawn in what is a party political chess game.
We fully recognise the importance of securing the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland to make sure that Brexit does not put at risk the peace and prosperity that agreement has brought to the island of Ireland. As I have said ad nauseum in this Chamber on a number of occasions, the border issues on the island of Ireland are at the very heart of Brexit and they demonstrate the failings of the latest agreement and those of the Prime Minister. We understand why, given the dangerous nonchalance of some in the Conservative Party about the Good Friday agreement, the EU-27 needs a robust guarantee that there will be no return to a hard border. Elements of the backstop are at best problematic, but they would never need to be implemented if the UK Government embraced a solution that recognises the importance of the closest possible relationship between the UK as a whole and the EU, short of membership. If the UK Government had adopted the position we set out jointly with Plaid Cymru almost two years ago for a future economic relationship that included full and unfettered access to the single market and a customs union, there would be no need to ever invoke any backstop arrangements. But what we have instead from the UK Government is a totally inadequate political declaration.
The real failure of the current deal is the worrying lack of progress in and lack of clarity of the political declaration. What has the UK Government been doing for the last two years? We have no idea what the UK’s future relationship with our largest and most influential trading partner will look like. The reason for this is that the Prime Minister is continuing with her failed strategy of looking inwards, focusing on managing the internal turmoil of the Conservative Party and not focusing on the needs of the UK as a whole and on the interests of Wales and the other nations. The political crisis is all of the UK Government’s own making. It needn’t have been this way.
The Prime Minister has spent the last two years, unfortunately, encouraging the expectations of militant, ideologically driven hard Brexiteers in her own party, and small wonder they feel let down by what she has tabled. She now, belatedly, needs to face down those in her party who will never support a relationship with the EU-27. She needs to listen to the views of the business community, the trade unions and the devolved Governments, and she could then begin to negotiate the right deal with the EU-27.
In Brussels, the EU-27 have been clear that if the UK Government moves away from its misjudged red lines and embraces a closer economic relationship—one that we set out in ‘Securing Wales’ Future’—then a cleaner, more coherent and favourable deal can be achieved. And while we see the UK Government’s position moving ever closer to ours, by only doing so in the most reluctant way—kicking and screaming—the Prime Minister has lost all the negotiating advantage she could have achieved.
Rather than platitudes under subject headings, with next to nothing on key issues like future migration and participation in programmes such as Horizon or Erasmus+, the political declaration needs to be based on a firm, mutual commitment from the UK and the EU-27 to a future relationship grounded in long-term participation in a customs union and the single market across all sectors. This is on offer. Michel Barnier has repeatedly talked about his preferred model being Norway plus, but progressing this has not been possible with a UK Government intent on clinging on to their red lines.
So what needs to change, before we could even consider supporting this deal? Well, perhaps relatively little in the withdrawal agreement itself, apart from ensuring that the backstop is never needed. And if our proposal of a long-term customs union is accepted, any theoretical case for the backstop largely evaporates. But we do need a fundamental rewriting of the political declaration and a fundamental change of mindset to be honest about the fact that the UK Government has made a clear choice to prioritise our economic stability over the soundbite of taking back control of our laws, borders and money.
No-one voted in the referendum, surely, for the economic and social catastrophe of a 'no deal' departure. We need to see a political declaration that sets out the intent of both sides to negotiate a long-term relationship that clearly reflects the choices of ‘Securing Wales’ Future’, something that is no longer unrealistic given the position the UK Government has already moved to. That approach would render the backstop unnecessary and would provide certainty for our people and our businesses that there won’t be another cliff edge in December 2020. And, in practical terms, it would almost certainly command a large majority in the House of Commons.
Time is very short until the European Council, but the political declaration is clearly a work in progress. Following my demand for an urgent meeting, at yesterday’s meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance set out again our view on the right future relationship with the EU-27.
Llywydd, the final position of the Welsh Government will be determined in the light of whether or not the UK Government at this late stage sees sense.
Can I thank the First Minister for his statement this afternoon? Whilst I'm disappointed with the tone of today's statement, the First Minister does confirm that, to support this deal, relatively little in the draft withdrawal agreement needs to change. And so, Llywydd, my first question is: in that case, can the First Minister explain why on earth he and his Government are not supporting this withdrawal agreement?
Of course, as the Prime Minister has made absolutely clear, although this represents a significant breakthrough, it is not the final deal, and negotiations to produce a full political declaration are now taking place. Now, in today's statement, the First Minister has made it clear that he believes the UK Government's approach shows a lack of any meaningful engagement with the devolved administrations, but I have to say the First Minister has not extended any invitations to discuss the impact of the withdrawal agreement on Wales with me as party leader in this place. And, since I have been in this job, the Welsh Government has not extended any invitations to discuss Welsh Government legislation with me as leader, so it's a bit rich to talk about engagement if that engagement only ever seems to be one way. Therefore, does the First Minister agree with me that, rather than playing party politics, it would have been far better for Assembly leaders to have met and discussed the proposals and the impact these proposals will have on Wales and the operation of the Assembly? If the genuine view of the Welsh Government is to respect the 2016 referendum result and deliver a Brexit agreement that works for Welsh businesses and communities, then perhaps the communication channels have to be open both in Wales and in Westminster.
Llywydd, the tone of today's statement, and the First Minister's commentary on UK Conservative internal party relationships, is a bit rich when you look at the discipline of some Welsh Government Ministers, and does nothing remotely constructive to support Welsh industry. Indeed, it makes Wales look weak in leadership at a time when the country should be focusing on getting the best possible deal for its people.
The draft withdrawal agreement confirmed a time-limited implementation period that provides a bridge to the future relationship, allowing businesses to continue trading as now until the end of 2020—I hope that's something that the First Minister would welcome, and I'd be grateful for his comments on that implementation period.
The First Minister makes it clear in today's statement that the Prime Minister needs to listen to the views of the business community, but let me remind him that the CBI has made it clear that, and I quote:
'This deal is a compromise, including for business, but it offers that essential transitional period as a step back from the cliff-edge.'
Unquote. Indeed, he will also be aware of the views of the chief executive of Aston Martin, Andy Palmer, who has said that the draft Brexit deal was 'good enough'. Therefore, perhaps it's the First Minister who needs to listen to the views of the business community, who have made it clear that the Labour Party should work with business, not seek to control it. So, can he confirm what initial discussions he's had with business leaders in Wales, so that we can be sure their views will be accurately reflected when Welsh Government Ministers continue to discuss the impact of the draft withdrawal agreement with their Westminster counterparts in the coming weeks?
As the First Minister is aware, the Welsh agricultural industry is closely integrated with the European market, and I'm sure that he will have seen the comments issued by National Farmers Union Cymru, again cautiously welcoming the draft agreement as a step closer to delivering the free and frictionless trade that Welsh farmers want to see with the EU.
Of course, NFU Cymru has also made it abundantly clear, as well as the Farmers Union of Wales, that there are question marks over whether the draft agreement will secure parliamentary approval, and that Welsh farmers now look to their politicians to do what is best for the country. Therefore, in those circumstances, perhaps the First Minister could tell us what he is doing to ensure that Welsh Members of Parliament fully endorse the views of the farming industry in Wales so that all Welsh politicians will put the needs and sustainability of the industry at the top of their agenda.
Of course, there's still plenty of detail that's yet to be firmly meted out in the UK Government's draft withdrawal agreement. For example, one issue is around the lack of firm detail on the impact of this agreement on Britain's fishing industry, in which Wales plays a significant role. As I understand it, the British fishing industry continues to call for the UK to abandon the common fisheries policy and develop as an independent coastal state by the end of 2020, but there's some ambiguity surrounding access for EU vessels to British waters. Therefore, perhaps the First Minister could tell us what the Welsh Government's view is on this specific issue, and what representations he and his colleagues have made to ascertain what the draft withdrawal agreement will mean for Welsh fisheries.
In the past few weeks, the First Minister has made it clear that the last thing the Welsh Government wants to see is a hard border between Ireland and Wales, and I very much agree with him. He has said that there could be huge implications, particularly on the road structure leading to our ports. First Minister, the case for dualling the A40 in my constituency has been made since the 1950s, and I have continually asked Government Ministers in this Chamber about commitments to dualling this road. We've seen nothing since the creation of the Assembly to deliver genuine improvements to existing road networks.
The Assembly's External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee report into the implications of Brexit for Welsh ports last year confirmed that Wales had previously not taken full advantage of the funding associated with the trans-European network. Therefore, in light of the Welsh Government's new concerns for the road structures around Welsh ports, can you now tell us what plans you have to genuinely start tackling these long-standing issues?
This brings me to the wider point about preparing for Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, where it appears as though there are plenty of issues that the Welsh Government could be addressing within its own competencies, yet there seems to be little evidence of real action being taken.
Whilst it's easy to criticise the UK Government, Government Ministers in Wales could and should do more to start addressing some of the issues raised in Assembly committee reports surrounding the implications of Brexit on Wales, rather than just commentating on UK Government policies and announcements.
Therefore, Llywydd, in closing, can I thank the First Minister for his statement? We on this side of the Chamber look forward to scrutinising the detail of this draft agreement and its impact on Wales in the coming weeks, and we look forward to working, where we can, with both the UK Government and the Welsh Government to prepare the best possible deal for the people of Wales.
Can I thank the leader of the opposition for his comments? He asks what the issue is with regard to the withdrawal agreement. It's longevity, really. It seems to me that the agreement kicks the can down the road. Where will we be in December 2020? Will we be in exactly the same situation again? We've already had two years, and here we find ourselves in a situation where the agreement is not permanent. Our position is quite simple, and that is: we want to see full and unfettered access to the single market and to remain in the customs union, and anything that is short of that clearly is not something that we could agree to.
He is right to say that businesses and others have cautiously welcomed the deal, but that, I believe, is because they think the alternative is no deal at all, which nobody wants. So, I can imagine why people would want to support this deal for fear that there's nothing else on the table. I believe it is possible to look again at, certainly, the political declaration, and to be more certain about the way forward. That means making a commitment to the customs union and to the single market.
I have to say, I think the Prime Minister's painted herself in a corner on this. She needn't have run the general election last year on the basis of putting before the British people the vision of a hard-ish Brexit, which they didn't accept, and she has found it difficult to get out of the corner that she has found herself in. But I have to say, he makes reference to my tone. My tone is as of nothing compared to those of his own colleagues in London. His own colleagues in London have openly called for the Prime Minister to resign. They have been openly abusive, really, actually, in terms of the way they've described her. The reality is that I have been, I think, gentle compared to the tone that's been adopted by Conservative politicians, and this is the problem, isn't it?
Yes, there are those in my party that take a different view. There are some in my party in Westminster who are Brexiteers. There are not many of them, but they're there. The problem is that the divisions in the Conservative Party are so vast that it's very difficult to see how there can be any unity in that party around a vision for Brexit. He says 'playing politics'. The worry I have is: where does it end? There's no leadership because there can't be. We have a Prime Minister who's lost a lot of Ministers—Cabinet Ministers who've resigned. We have a number in her party who don't support her own policy. In those circumstances, he says that leadership in the Welsh Government is weak. Well, we can only point at London and say, 'Where is the leadership in London, given the circumstances that exist there?'
We have always been constant in what we've called for. We laid out our vision two years ago as to what we wanted. We do work with the UK Government; I will single out David Lidington as somebody who it's possible to work with and to discuss issues with. There is a relationship there. It's not consistent, because other UK Government departments see things in a slightly different light.
He mentions that there is a need for a bridge. That may be right, but a bridge to what? At the moment, we don't know where that bridge leads, and that is the problem. Two years ago, there was talk of constructing a bridge and, now, there's still talk of constructing a bridge. We don't know what the final destination actually is. Listening to the views of the business community, their view is quite simply this: they want certainty. And whilst this might provide a temporary level of certainty, it doesn't provide the certainty that they need, particularly with regard to their ability to access skilled labour.
As far as the agriculture industry is concerned, well, there are many issues there that need to be resolved. Market access is key; without market access, sheep farming, in particular, can't survive in Wales. The UK market simply isn't big enough to support the UK's own sheep meat industry, so it's not simply a question of supporting farmers; it's ensuring that they have access to their market as well.
The same is true of fishing. It's one thing to have sufficient access, as you would see it, to your own coastal waters, but when you're utterly dependent on exporting the fish, you have to ensure that you've got a market for those fish as well. It would be no good for the UK to be able to land more fish, even if that were possible, and I don't believe that's possible because of the low level of fish stocks. The reality is that most of those fish would have no market, so that has to be looked at as well.
He mentioned the issue of the hard border. Work is being carried out through a ports group as to how that would move forward. I have to say to him, it would be Pembroke Dock rather than Fishguard that would be the emphasis in terms of freight. Fishguard tends to take people, Pembroke Dock tends to take freight and Holyhead takes both.
He says that nothing's been done to improve the road. Well, the Robeston Wathen bypass is there and the Llanddowror bypass is there, of course, heading off towards Pembroke Dock in the other direction. So, there have been road improvements there as well, but that's not the issue. The issue is not what happens on those roads, it's what happens at the ports.
If we have a situation where the UK Government decides to take a heavy hand in terms of customs, that will lead to delays and that will mean the need for accommodation at those ports rather than further on down the roads. We don't know what that will look like. We don't know what level of checks will be implemented. We assume there'd be no passport control because the common travel area has been preserved, but will there be an element of customs checks, how will they be carried out, will they be random, will they be heavy? None of these questions have been answered, so it's very difficult to prepare our ports for a scenario that's not yet clear. But, as I said, there is a ports working group that has been set up with the UK Government to look at this.
In terms of preparing for withdrawal, we're already on track for doing that. I've said before that a 'no deal' Brexit is not something that can be prepared for. It can't be militated against. It can't be seen as one option amongst many. It's a disastrous outcome and we have, through the EU transition fund and through working with businesses and with our farmers, put in place what needs to be done in order to promote Wales in the future, to give Wales more markets in the future by expanding our overseas offices. But of course, ultimately, if we cannot get the trading relationship right with our closest, biggest market—which will always be our closest, biggest market—then we will not get it right with any other market.
I'm very grateful to the First Minister for the statement today. I think it was a useful and fair summary of where we currently are. What I was struggling to discern in it was a strategy as to how we go forward, how we avoid the political cataclysm that is opening up in front of us.
It is, of course, I think, the key salient fact of the draft withdrawal agreement—all 585 pages—that it doesn't mention Wales even as a footnote. Even the 1888 version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica did better than that. And it says something pretty central, doesn't it, about the attitude of the Westminster Government to Wales and the devolved administrations? The First Minister himself has rightly complained about the fact that the draft agreement wasn't even shared in advance with the Welsh Government. Indeed, perhaps the First Minister can say whether the same is going to be true of the redraft—the 20-page version of the political declaration that we're told is being worked on at the moment.
But in the light of that, surely the Welsh Government's decision to place its trust in the Westminster Government in handing over our powers to them is at best naive and at worst reckless. Can the First Minister explain—I understand the point that he made earlier at First Minister's questions in terms of wanting to keep to the inter-governmental agreement—but can he explain the timing, not just in the light of the case that is before the Supreme Court, but also the very simple fact that the UK Government may collapse in the next few weeks? Therefore, why not postpone this decision to see how things develop, as he said, at this time of the greatest political crisis probably in our lifetime?
Plaid Cymru has clearly said that we will not support the withdrawal agreement as it currently stands. It rips Wales out of the single market and the customs union. It actually ignores Wales completely and our particular interests, and it's silent, as the First Minister said, in terms of the parameters and the shape of the future economic relationship.
I'm glad to see that we're going to have a meaningful vote on the meaningful vote, to use the parliamentary jargon of the day. Can the First Minister confirm that we will also have the opportunity for a range of amendments that will reflect the range of views between parties and also within parties, in terms of possible solutions to the political crisis that he referred to? And in particular, can we have a commitment to allow those Members on his backbenches who take a view of unequivocal support for the people's vote as probably the best solution going forward—not just on his backbenches but also on his frontbenches, as we've heard during the course of the leadership campaign—so that we can have a free vote for those Members who wish to voice that position?
You mentioned that you asked for an urgent meeting of the JMC, which took place last night. Can you say, given that these are extraordinary times, whether you've sought a meeting of the plenary of the JMC before you leave office? We agree with you that there have been two years of prevarication, time is not on our side now to provide a workable solution going forward, whether that's single market membership, membership of the customs union, whether it's a people's vote. Do you agree that now is the time to extend article 50 in order to allow us that time to provide that sensible way forward?
Finally, I note his earlier remarks that, actually, there's been a complete failure of Westminster politics. I couldn't agree more. I was down in Westminster earlier today meeting with the First Minister of Scotland trying to provide some kind of sensible way forward, trying to find common ground among opposition parties in order that we actually can provide the kind of leadership that's been sadly lacking. Would he agree, though, that that vacuum of leadership that's certainly characterised the Conservative Government has also been at play within his own party at Westminster because of divisions within the Labour Party at the Westminster level on this issue as well? Surely we should take the opportunity, when it comes to a vote in this Parliament, to provide the kind of leadership that has been lacking and send an unequivocal message that we do want to see, at the very least, Wales retaining its membership of the single market but, better still, for us to have a people's vote to remain within the European Union.
I thank the leader of Plaid Cymru for his comments. He asks about the strategy going forward. There will be a debate in this place either next week or the beginning of the week after. Our understanding is that the vote in Westminster will take place in the final week of Westminster sitting, which is a week after, of course, the Assembly rises, so it'll be essential that there is a debate in this place so that the MPs can be aware of the views of AMs. I understand that discussions have taken place around holding it possibly Thursday next week or possibly another day. It would have to be, I think, a specific day allocated for such an important debate, rather than trying to shoehorn it into Government business between now and Christmas. So, I certainly accept that that needs to be done.
I can say to him that Cabinet agreed a motion yesterday. That motion needs to go, of course, to our group, as he can imagine. It tries to be as all-encompassing as possible. It includes, for example, the need to look at extending the article 50 period. I think that's inevitable if there is to be a look again at the political declaration particularly. It also, of course, makes reference to the need for the public to be involved and the need for there to be options on the table that do not exclude any option, and that will form part of the motion, and perhaps that's something that he can see when that motion is produced.
He is right to say that neither my colleague the First Minister of Scotland nor I have access to these documents at what I think is an appropriate time. I could understand a reluctance in Government to share documents with another Government for fear of what might happen to those documents. Well, I've said over and over again that if we receive documents in confidence, we'll keep them in confidence. If we breach that confidence, all that happens then is that we don't get those documents again. Besides, of course, a lot of documents could be shared with me on Privy Council terms, which would mean that those documents could be shared in confidence at that time.
He mentions the inter-governmental agreement. He takes a different view to me on this. My view is that we have an agreement. Part of that agreement was that the continuity Act would go. As I said, Westminster could simply repeal it anyway with one line, but what the continuity Act has delivered for us is an inter-governmental agreement, which has been signed up to by both Governments. There is no indication that the UK Government would want to move away from that. It may be that there's a new Government in Westminster in the next few weeks, or a new leader in Westminster in the next few weeks, and the same is true here, although I doubt very much that any of my successors would want to move away from that agreement. So, I think that, having sought and negotiated an agreement, it is essential that we keep good faith with that agreement and honour our obligations under it.
He mentions the JMC(P). I am meeting the Prime Minister tomorrow. We have made representations regarding JMC(P). The date that so far has come back is a date where I can guarantee I won't be there because it's after my time as First Minister. So, we are seeking to have a JMC plenary sooner than that. It is essential, and it would be hugely important.
In terms of, well, leadership in Westminster, we've all seen what's been happening in the last few days. It does nobody any good to find a situation where it's not possible, almost on an hourly basis, to know whether the Government will survive or not. In the business world, that's something that they certainly wouldn't welcome, which is why, of course, we've urged the UK Government—and we've worked with Plaid Cymru on this, with the White Paper—to adopt a pragmatic, sensible approach to Brexit that recognises the importance of the single market, and unfettered access to it; that recognises the importance of the customs union to Wales; and recognises the importance of providing certainty whilst delivering on the referendum result. So far, of course, we are far from that position.
I, too, welcome the First Minister's statement, and like the leader of Plaid Cymru, I think it is, by and large, a fair summary of where we are now. And I certainly agree entirely with the First Minister in his criticisms of Theresa May and her conduct of the Brexit negotiations. I wonder if he'd agree with me that the catastrophic outcome of two years of utter incompetence in these negotiations has produced the greatest national humiliation for Britain, certainly political humiliation, since Suez.
Theresa May does have a certain genius. Last year, she contrived to make Jeremy Corbyn look electable and to come within an ace of winning a general election that she need not have held. This year, she has contrived to produce a deal for leaving the EU that is even worse than staying in. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister's actually been intent upon sabotaging the whole Brexit process. I mean, it's absolutely irrational to me to do no preparation whatsoever for leaving the EU, during the last two years, on WTO terms, then to run negotiations so close to the wire, as we are now, which has limited everybody's options, including her own, and then to agree this transition deal—so-called transition deal—which seems to be worse than staying in, unless there's a subtext here that we're actually in Hotel California, where you can book out but never actually leave.
And I note that Monsieur Barnier this week has been talking about extending the transition deal, even to beyond the projected date for the next general election into 2022–23. And I certainly agree with the question that he poses in the statement: what on earth has she been doing for the last two years? I don't think she's been so much managing the internal turmoil inside the Conservative Party as actually causing it in the first place. This is a deal that has been designed by a remain Prime Minister, endorsed by a Cabinet of remainers, to ensure that Britain never actually leaves the EU. We won't even leave in name only because this deal commits us to regulatory alignment with the EU for an indefinite period to come. And after we leave the EU, of course, we won't even have a voice, let alone a vote, on the laws that are going to be made and which we'll be obliged to implement.
It can't be explained, in my view, by incompetence alone. This is treachery by an establishment determined to frustrate democracy, and we've seen it before: in Denmark, in France, in Ireland, in Holland, where referenda have been held, the people voted 'no', but they've been told, 'You've got to keep on voting until you vote the right way.' [Interruption.] So, we remain, as a result of this so-called deal, inside the EU, subject to its regulations and directives, as interpreted by the European Court of Justice, in which we won't even have our own judge, without representation in the Commission, without representation in the Council of Ministers.
And furthermore, whereas under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, we have the right to leave, under this deal the EU has a veto upon whether this deal is concluded or not, enforceable at the orders of the European Court of Justice. That's the opposite of taking back control, which was the Prime Minister's stated objective. At least at the moment we have 8 per cent of the votes in the Council of Ministers. After 29 March next year, we will have 0 per cent of the votes. And we are paying £39 billion of taxpayers' money for the privilege of giving up what little control we currently have. And, in the process, we are prevented from taking advantage of the greatest boon of leaving the EU, which is to enter into free trade deals with the United States, Australia, India, China, et cetera, until an indefinite period, and possibly permanently.
The EU has got everything that it wanted out of the Prime Minister, and more. We have a £90 billion a year trade deficit with them. They export £340 billion-worth of goods and services to us. Why on earth would the European Commission want to allow us to enter into free trade agreements with other countries to undercut their prices on cars, food, clothing, footwear, et cetera? Of course they don't want us to reduce taxes on fuel because that would make our industries more competitive with them. And the most shocking thing—I'll conclude on this—about this agreement is that, as regards Northern Ireland, in future, laws will be made for Northern Ireland in which Dublin has a voice and a vote, but Belfast and the UK do not. That is the very reverse of partition.
The leader of the Conservatives during his questions to the First Minister—[Interruption.]—I'll come to you in a second—talked about the need for engagement. Well, the Prime Minister has gone behind the backs of two Brexit Secretaries to make far-reaching concessions to Brussels, and twice tried to balance the Cabinet to agree with her plans in ruthlessly plotted manipulations at Chequers and No. 10. There was no engagement with the Cabinet by the Prime Minister, let alone with the Welsh Government. And a 558-page, densely worded document was produced for people to comment upon at five minutes' notice. The Conservative and Unionist Party is certainly no longer a unionist party. This is not a deal but a capitulation. I wonder if the First Minister would agree with that description.
It's rather strange, Llywydd, that I find myself standing up to almost defend the Prime Minister against attacks made on her rather than on me because it was all about what was happening in Westminster. I have to say that what is noticeable about Brexit is that those who smashed the window have run away and left those who didn't want the window smashed to put it back together again while claiming that they are doing it in the wrong way. I did notice that those people who said it will be the easiest trade deal ever and all that nonsense that we heard that hasn't come about—. And what is the narrative now? That the EU is being unreasonable. Well, the EU is looking after its own interests. And this idea that the EU needs us more than we need them, the EU doesn't see it that way at all, or not as the EU-27. Their view is, 'Well, we'd like to give the UK a good deal, but, actually, there's a whole world out there that we can talk to and we can trade with—big blocks that we can sell our goods to.'
Now, he asks fairly what's been done in the last two years. Well, when you have David Davis and Boris Johnson in place for so long, the question is answered. I'm not sure what David Davis did, if I'm honest with you, in terms of moving this forward. Boris Johnson seemed to think that any problem could be resolved by a quip of some kind. His greatest contribution to the job of Foreign Secretary was to jeopardise the release of a British national in Iran because of something that he said. So, she did not choose her personnel wisely when it came to her Brexit Secretary and her Foreign Secretary. And here we go again: 'This is treachery by an establishment.' No evidence at all to back that up, despite the fact that there are many leavers, of course. David Davis was a leaver, Dominic Raab was a leaver, and yet, despite the fact that he was the one who put this agreement before the Cabinet and then decided to leave, and David Davis, a leaver—he was the Brexit Secretary—are they part of the establishment that was so treacherous? And here we have the start of a narrative: 'All this would be fine if it wasn't for traitors in our own ranks.' The stab in the back theory. Now, where have we heard that one before? The British people have been stabbed in the back by people who sold them down the river. That's familiar ground from another country nearly 100 years ago. Perhaps we see now why Tommy Robinson will be so welcome in UKIP because of the historical parallels that seem to be playing out.
And when it comes to free trade agreements, I have to say to the Member: a free trade agreement with America is no substitute for having a good agreement with Europe. It's further away and it's a smaller market. India is further away. Australia is both a small market and even further away. None of these markets will make up for the European market. And I have to say to him: these countries, India particularly, will say, 'If you want a free trade agreement with us, we want our people to be able to move and to arrive in Britain without a visa.' They're not going to accept visa restrictions at all. They will want something close to freedom of movement for their own people, and then what's he going to say at that point? He's opposed to freedom of movement for European nationals. Does that mean he supports it for Australian nationals, for Indian nationals, for American nationals? That's something that UKIP have never addressed.
And then, of course, finally, he came up with a comment that belies, really, the sort of raging free-marketism of many in UKIP. He said that we would lose out on the opportunity for cheaper cars, cheaper food, cheaper clothing and cheaper footwear. What of the British workers that work in those sectors? What does it mean for our farmers if we allow in inferior—inferior—food products to undercut what they produce? What does it mean for our car workers if we allow in cars that are produced at a much lower cost that don't meet our current environmental standards? His view seems to be: let's cut the standards right down and let them in, undercut our own workers. Clothing, footwear—all these industries that are important to Britain. I do not believe that those who voted 'leave' voted 'leave' to jeopardise their own jobs. Many, many people said to me that one of the reasons why they were voting 'leave' was because they felt that their jobs were insecure and their lives were insecure. They will never vote for anything that looks like a laissez-faire, low-regulation economy. That's exactly what—I was going to say the leader of UKIP, but it's a rotating chair—the Member has said. That is not, I believe, what the British people voted for, it's not the vision that they voted for. I believe what they want is a sensible Brexit that protects their interests and the interests of Wales.
First Minister, we were given very, very clear assurances during the referendum campaign and subsequently that there would be no denial of workers' rights, no reduction of workers' rights, that those would be protected all the way along. But when one reads the agreement, or the draft agreement as it's set out, superficially it seems quite attractive, because it talks about non-regression. But, First Minister, you will know, as well as I do, that non-regression clauses have very little legal status, are effectively unenforceable, have been rejected as giving any real grounds of support to workers' rights in European law and indeed in British law. The actual clauses that are set out there are ones that really aren't worth the paper that they are written on. Now, that's the view that I've taken of this, and I've also consulted with some of the country's leading employment lawyers, and this is what they say: they say it is therefore abundantly clear that the commitments on non-regression of labour standards and compliance with international labour organisation, the European social charter obligations, will be ineffective and will not achieve what the Government set out in its White Paper; in particular it will be almost certainly be impossible for trade unions and workers to rely directly on these commitments anyway. It is even more abundantly clear that these commitments do not even begin to meet Labour's fourth test of: does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
Do you agree, First Minister, with that analysis? And in this Assembly, as well as the debate that takes place in Westminster, one of our fundamental commitments is that working people in Wales will not have their rights taken away from them, and that this draft agreement, as it stands, significantly undermines and removes protection from Welsh workers in terms of the rights that they've enjoyed up until now?
Well, yes I do. We know that there are many in the Conservative Party, and indeed we've heard it from UKIP today, who take the view that this is an opportunity to whittle away all those rights that have been hard-earned for so many years. They see it as a burden on business, whether it is a right to statutory leave, which 20 years ago didn't exist—there were workers in Wales who had no right to leave at all—whether it is statutory maternity pay, whether it is maternity leave or adoption leave. All these things are seen as unnecessary burdens by some on the economy, which they would like to do away with. But he will know, as I will know, that there are many, many people who, even though they voted 'leave', didn't vote for that vision. They wanted greater security, not some kind of buccaneering attitude that left them behind. So, yes, I am greatly concerned about where we will go in terms of social rights, in terms of workers' rights, but one thing that the Welsh Government will resist absolutely is any attempt to dilute those hard-won rights that workers in Wales and the rest of Britain have had for some years.
I'd like to thank the First Minister for his statement and also for your swift actions, First Minister, last week, in writing to the Prime Minister, jointly with Nicola Sturgeon, calling for a Joint Ministerial Committee as a matter of urgency. As far as the draft withdrawal agreement is concerned, I'm dismayed by the apparent disregard and low level of importance given in the political declaration with regard to future relationships with the EU. We've been focusing on this as a committee, taking evidence from the Welsh and UK Governments as well as partners in private, public and third sectors. Do you share this dismay? Will you be relaying these concerns on the political declaration to the Prime Minister when you meet with her tomorrow? As the Cabinet Secretary for Finance said yesterday after the JMC, which was called in order to respond to your letter, the focus should now be on Wales. Will you be asking her, as Mark Drakeford has, to claw a bit of time to think about the future of her country—a country that has four different Governments, each with their own responsibilities? And, First Minister, at a fair funding Brexit round-table meeting last week, where the socioeconomic context of the impact of Brexit was discussed, questions were asked about the impact of the draft withdrawal agreement in addressing the poverty and inequality caused by this Tory UK Government in its relentless pursuit of austerity. The question was also asked in terms of the draft withdrawal agreement about the protection of equalities and human rights. I support Mick Antoniw in this point and thank you for your response to his questions.
But, finally, in terms of securing Wales's future objectives, what will it mean for the Welsh Government, this draft agreement, already investing in our poorest citizens and communities, as we experience a disregard in terms of consultation on future prospects for funding, in terms of the shared prosperity fund, following the loss of our structural funds?
Can I thank my friend and Member for the Vale of Glamorgan for her comments? We were promised that we wouldn't lose out on a single penny of funding, and that's a promise we intend to hold the UK Government to.
I think one of the lost opportunities here was that the Prime Minister very much took the view before the general election that she was the one who would take this forward and did not see the need to engage the devolved administrations at that point. Now, I think it's probably fair to say that if the Conservative Party had won with a handsome majority of 90 to 100 seats, then I daresay that we wouldn't be in this position where they have to talk to us as they do today. But that's not, of course, what the outcome was. Of course, the lost opportunity was that if the Prime Minister had not painted herself into such a corner, a hard-ish Brexit corner, there might have been the opportunity to work with the UK Government on the kind of Brexit that we would have wanted. We maybe would have been in the position where we could have said, 'Okay, look, we need to leave the EU, people have voted for that, but let's have full and unfettered access to the single market—that's important to us. There is no better alternative to the customs union, so let's stay in the customs union.' Now, if that had been the attitude of the UK Government at the start, that would have been close to our position; we could have been in a position where we could have been supportive, but all that was lost. It's a hypothetical question.
And now, what the UK Government finds itself in is a position where nobody is happy. Remainers are not happy, leavers are not happy, we're not happy, the Scottish Government isn't happy, the DUP—well, they're rarely happy, but they're particularly unhappy at this point. And where does that leave us? The problem is that this wasn't handled as it should have been at the beginning, but this situation could have been avoided. I'm not saying that it would have been avoided, but it could have been avoided. But sadly, of course, it was that lack of consultation and engagement that led us to this position, and certainly I hope that in the future lessons are learned by UK Governments that in order to be more effective, they have to talk to us and, of course, have to make sure that we feel that we're not just listened to, but that what we suggest is actually taken up. Because it's happened, of course, with Brexit. They have moved onto our turf—not entirely, but certainly in part—but much of this could have been avoided two years ago if the lines of communication had been more open.
First of all, I also want to reiterate how shameful it is that Wales has not been consulted meaningfully on the withdrawal agreement. It's not good enough, as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance said yesterday, just to listen to what we say and then go away and we hear no more. The last of the Labour Party's six tests is: does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK? And it certainly does not. Does the First Minister believe, in fact, that the withdrawal agreement meets any of those six tests that the Labour Party has put forward?
The withdrawal agreement lays out how EU citizens and families and UK citizens will be protected after we leave the EU. Those are people who have chosen where they would live under the freedom of movement, which, up to now, has been our right, within the EU. Now that we're losing the right of freedom of movement, does he not agree that the uncertainty about who is going to be able to stay in this country and who will come here in the future is causing great uncertainty for businesses? I had a meeting yesterday with a company director from Cardiff North of a medical products manufacturing company who relies heavily on European staff. He was telling me, in fact, how much he felt for those staff at the moment, because they were so uncertain—they felt so uncertain about their future. And, of course, we have had some information laid down in this withdrawal document today, but we don't know what the future will hold. He is very uncertain about how his company, which is a very valued company in Cardiff North, will prosper in the future, with the future proposals for immigration and no freedom of movement, and, of course, we do know what the CBI's view is about the Government's plans for immigration.
So, doesn't he agree as well that some of the rhetoric that has been used around the immigration issue does not foster good relations—Theresa May's words were that her deal will stop EU nationals 'jumping the queue'—and how unnecessary it is to use that sort of expression? It's building up division again, and I think we had such a spike in hate crime when we had the referendum, and there are more hate crimes now being reported than have ever happened before, and I think it behoves us, all of us politicians, that we must be very careful with the words that we use in order that we, in this very, very difficult time, don't increase the feelings of insecurity that many of our citizens have as a result of this very divisive vote and the very divisive politics that we're experiencing at the moment. So, has the First Minister got any comments he could make about that particular issue?
Yes. It was certainly very much an issue in the aftermath of the referendum that we saw a spike in hate crime. One of the things that I did was to go and visit communities around Wales—a Polish community in Llanelli, of course, and I went to a meeting in Swansea—just to reassure people that the Welsh Government and the people of Wales are welcoming, and that it wasn't the case, as some people did believe, that they would somehow be thrown out of the country very soon, even to the extent that one person said to me that she feared the knock on the door. That's how bad it was as far as their perception of what might happen.
On the issue of citizens' rights, the withdrawal agreement does take us further and provides some kind of certainty compared to where we once were, but, of course, what businesses are saying to me is that, yes, they understand the point that there is a need to get skilled labour and professionals in the health service—we've all talked about that—but also there's a need for unskilled labour as well, people who are going to work in jobs that are not as highly paid, which are unattractive in a climate of full employment, such as the abattoirs. I keep on mentioning them; I'm not running a kind of vendetta against them, but they do find it difficult to recruit because the nature of the job is unpleasant for most people. Where will they get their people? If they can't get their people from the EU, that means they won't be able to function, and people who live locally won't be able to get a job there either, because the opportunities won't be there. So, these things have been missed by the UK Government.
And, of course, the tragedy of this is that people celebrate the ending of freedom of movement. What does it mean in practice? It means that UK citizens will not be able to travel and live freely in 26 other countries that they previously could—it's a wall. However, if you're Austrian or German or French, you can travel to 26 other countries, but not freely to the UK. So, actually, you can travel to all these countries around Europe without any restrictions. If you're Irish, you can travel to them all—UK and every other country in the European Union. So, what in fact has happened is that restrictions on freedom of movement have actually applied more strictly to our own people than to anyone else in Europe, because it's our own people who now won't be able to live and travel and work as they used to, whereas every other citizen in Europe will be able to do it, except they won't be able to come to the UK in the same way. So, actually, it's been a self-defeating action to limit the places where UK citizens can actually go and live long term, and work long term. Those strictures will not apply to other countries in Europe. So, it shows that what we've done here is not actually to create a situation where immigration is in some way better controlled in the UK; it's meant that UK citizens will now have controls put on them when they have to travel to other countries in Europe.
Thank you, First Minister.
The next item, therefore, is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education on international student mobility. I call on the Cabinet Secretary to make the statement. Kirsty Williams.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. Only 2 per cent of Welsh students at universities currently spend time abroad studying, volunteering or undertaking work experience as part of their studies. At a time when it’s never been more important for our students and graduates to be global citizens, for there to be stronger cultural and economic links between Wales and the world, and for even greater academic and employability outcomes for our students, we need to ensure that international opportunities are an aspiration for many more students.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I want to see the number of Welsh students who spend time abroad as part of their studies double by the end of this Government. As someone who benefited hugely from time studying abroad as an undergraduate, I know how such an experience broadens horizons, expands key skills and ensures connections that last a lifetime. Research from Universities UK points out that these gains are particularly significant for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, it is these students who too often miss out on, or don't even apply for, these transformational opportunities.
We have made a start on addressing this by targeting Generation UK—China student mobility funding towards widening participation. Today, I'm announcing a new international student mobility pilot, which will make a significant contribution to our ambitions to increase opportunities and raise aspirations. We have been developing the pilot in discussion with British Council Wales as part of our response to the Diamond review's recommendation on support for students who choose to study overseas. It will focus on Welsh-domiciled students at Welsh higher education institutions and it will run for three years from 2018-19. The pilot will offer a mix of opportunities for Welsh students at Welsh HE institutions, including study, volunteering and internship, ranging from two to three weeks to eight weeks. Our scoping study showed that it is these sorts of opportunities that will lead to the strongest take-up.
This will help to encourage participation from a wider group of students, hopefully including those with, for example, caring responsibilities or in employment, and will avoid duplication of any schemes already available. I believe strongly that Government should invest in these opportunities, but there is also a responsibility for universities to step up. On that note, I am pleased that many Welsh universities have signed up to Universities UK's Go International campaign to double the percentage of undergraduates who have an international placement as part of their university programme.
We are investing £1.3 million in this pilot over the next three years, and further details on those mobility opportunities will be published shortly. Of course, there are already good examples of work taking place within the sector with the support of Government, and I'd like to take the opportunity to mention these today also. We were recently able to support the Global Wales project with European transition fund investment worth £3.5 million. This funding will not only support the promotion of Wales as a study destination, but will also support outward mobility opportunities for Welsh students in Global Wales's priority markets, such as Vietnam and the United States. These opportunities, as part of our wider international education programme, are important for social mobility, employability skills and soft power links for Wales.
The Seren Network goes from strength to strength, and I was delighted earlier this year to secure a new partnership between Yale University and Seren. This new partnership resulted in 16 Seren students having the opportunity to participate in the Yale young global scholars summer programme. Let me tell you, Members, this was a life-changing experience for all that took part. This exciting partnership will continue and expand in 2019. These relationships with leading global universities have also offered us the opportunity to lever engagement in our wider education reforms, and I hope to make further announcements on this very soon.
As I mentioned earlier, our new investment provides additional and new opportunities. It will not duplicate existing schemes. We are clear in our view that the United Kingdom should continue to participate in Erasmus after Brexit. Wales benefits hugely from our participation in Erasmus+, allowing people to study and undertake work experience and volunteering in another EU country. In fact, the total funding awarded to Welsh projects amounts to some 6 per cent of the UK total Erasmus+ funding awarded since 2014, and that is above our population share. The call for the 2019 projects has just been announced by the British Council and I would encourage Welsh institutions to submit applications.
In conclusion, Deputy Presiding Officer, I am determined that many more of our students, from all backgrounds, benefit from the transformational experience of spending time studying, volunteering or undertaking work experience abroad. International experiences benefit individual students, strengthen overseas links for our universities, and promote bilateral exchanges for Wales with communities and countries across the world. Thank you.
I welcome the statement from the Cabinet Secretary. As someone relatively new to this portfolio, I was actually shocked myself to learn only 2 per cent of Welsh students currently spend time abroad studying and volunteering or carrying out work experience. It is heartening to hear your statement that you do intend to double that figure by the end of this Government. But of particular concern to me is how the opportunities do present themselves for those from disadvantaged backgrounds—our care leavers, disabled students. And I ask how the new international student mobility pilot that focuses on Welsh higher education—how will you be hoping this will extend, if at all, to the further education sector? Because, to me, it's important that children from both sectors are able to experience the opportunities that present. So, if not, why is this not the case? It is crucial that our under-represented groups do have the same opportunities to go on international— you know, courses away. And I just simply cannot see why that would not be the case. So, if the Cabinet Secretary could enlighten us further.
Can I thank Janet for that question? Could I make it absolutely clear that the reason why we are going for relatively short periods for the pilot is to allow for students that do perhaps have other responsibilities, who could not afford the time to take a year abroad, which is perhaps traditionally what many students would see as a period of international study?
These short placements, for two to three weeks up to eight weeks, will allow for, we believe, following research that has been undertaken on behalf of Welsh Government by OB3 Research and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods—. This gives us the optimum chance for the highest level of take-up. These particular grants are available for those studying in Welsh higher education institutions, as recommended by Diamond. But that's not to say that there aren't significant opportunities for international study in the FE sector. Of course, in many areas, FE colleges are delivering A-level programmes to our Seren students and are participating in the Seren programme. You've just heard me say about our new links with Yale University, and we are hoping to build upon those. And FE colleges have been particularly successful in drawing down Erasmus+ funding. Both our school sector and our FE colleges have excelled themselves. As I've said, we have had a greater than population share of the resources under Erasmus+ that has looked to fund a range of very exciting projects in FE that have allowed FE students studying at academic and vocational colleges to have periods of study abroad.
The challenge we have now, Janet—and perhaps you can help us with this—is convincing your colleagues in the Government in Westminster to allow us to continue to participate fully in the Erasmus+ programme. And, at the moment, it is far from clear, after 2020, that we will be able to do that. The Westminster Government is currently undertaking a value for money study. We have been more than happy to support that review with all the data from Wales, which I believe makes a very strong case for continued participation in the scheme. The universities of Wales and the colleges of Wales are very clear on their desire to continue to participate fully in Erasmus+, as is the students' union of Wales. It seems, though, that, at this moment, those voices have not been listened to.
And I would, once again, reiterate the experience of Switzerland, who left the Erasmus+ programme—decided they could do something better on their own. It ended up costing them more money for fewer opportunities. We should learn from that and not think that some UK-alone scheme would be a satisfactory replacement for ongoing continuation and participation in Erasmus+, which is, as I said, what this Government wants, what the students of Wales want, and what the universities and colleges of Wales want.
Apologies for my late arrival. Thank you for advance notice of this statement. Following Brexit, it needs to be ensured that international students continue to be welcomed to Wales and are aware that they are valued. It also needs to be ensured that students from Wales are encouraged to be outward looking and to seek opportunities to study abroad. Plaid Cymru believes that students from Wales should be able to study in the world's best universities and have the opportunity to live and to work abroad. Our 2016 manifesto pledged to provide first-time students financial support for Welsh-domiciled students enrolling as undergraduates in universities outside the UK as well as expanding our support for Erasmus+. as has been mentioned already today. to get more young people to see the world and to have enrichment from those experiences. It is therefore welcome to hear the Cabinet Secretary is launching an international student mobility pilot as part of the Welsh Government's response to the Diamond review's recommendations on support for students to study overseas.
You mentioned there is £1.3 million in the pilot and that further details are to follow. I'd just like to ask when those details would follow, considering that we would need to scrutinise how that investment is being put in place by the Welsh Government and whether that money would be enough or whether it could be used in different ways or whether other parties may have ideas as to where that money could be utilised.
Will the Cabinet Secretary give not just this Chamber but the international student community assurances that they will not only be welcomed in Wales but also valued? I understand that this scheme is about taking Welsh students out into other countries, but it does work both ways. If we attract international students to Wales, it will broaden the experiences of students here in this nation of ours, and it will allow for us to meet people we would never otherwise have met—in my case, my husband, so, I am very thankful that we had that opportunity here in Wales.
What representations has the Welsh Government made to the UK Government in securing continued Welsh involvement in international student exchange programmes post Brexit? Do you see a role for some form of continued Committee of the Regions in helping facilitate continued co-operation in this area, something that I and my colleague Mick Antoniw, who currently sit on the Committee of the Regions, are looking into?
How does the Welsh Government plan on mitigating the cost of losing EU students post Brexit? We are seeing a decline in applications, and as I said in this Chamber only recently, Wales is already way down the league table in terms of EU student numbers and applications. So, a further reduction is going to be very hard for the HE sector to absorb, when, almost certainly, we will see an even further decline in EU student numbers as a result of Brexit.
What plans does the Welsh Government have in place if we are unable to remain part of the Erasmus scheme? And do you share my concern that the increased anti-EU-national language being used by the Prime Minister as part of her hard line against EU freedom of movement and to sell her proposed EU deal risks putting continued co-operation on this front in jeopardy?
Finally, will the Cabinet Secretary consider a pilot scheme to provide support for students to study further afield for the whole of their degree programme, as recommenced by Diamond? I think that this would be something to look at in the round so that we can encourage young people to not only do part of their degree abroad but to do all of their degree abroad and to bring that wealth and talent back to Wales.
Thank you for the series of questions, Bethan. Let me be absolutely clear, Welsh universities and colleges are open for business, and not just to international students, who, as you say, bring a depth to our university towns in what they bring with them, but also, of course, faculty as well. International faculty is a key strength in our sector, and a significant number of our lecturing staff in HE institutions in particular are international lecturers. They are very welcome in our universities and help make our universities as strong as they are.
That is the message that myself, Universities Wales and Global Wales are taking to the world—the very strong offer that Wales has with regard to higher education and further education. One only has to look at the student satisfaction surveys that show that Welsh universities rank higher amongst students for their satisfaction at their experience than across the border in England or in Scotland. We have excellence in research and excellence in teaching, and we have a wide variety of institutions, either city based, like here in Cardiff, or on the coast, whether that be in Bangor or Aberystwyth—we have a real mix, so something for everybody. And I'm sure you'd agree with me that what international students and faculty can be assured of if they come to study or work in Wales is a very warm, warm welcome from our communities, who value their contribution very much indeed.
With regard to the ongoing challenge of recruiting international students, of course, this is not helped by the determination of the UK Government to include students as part of the immigration figures. Nobody sees international students as immigrants, only Theresa May and the Home Office. Poll after poll after poll show that the public do not view international students in this way, and international students come here, they study here, they learn their skills here and the vast, vast majority of them then take those skills back to their home country. So this idea that, somehow, they should be included in these figures is highly damaging—highly damaging—to the HE sector, not just here in Wales, but across the United Kingdom.
I have had meetings with Sam Gyimah and my Scottish counterparts in this regard to talk about international student recruitment as well as ongoing opportunities for British students to study abroad, particularly as part of the Erasmus+ programme. I am due to meet with them again shortly. I've invited them all here to Cardiff, and I'm very glad that they have taken the opportunity to agree to that invitation, where, once again, we will sit as a group of education Ministers to try and form a common understanding of the challenges that face us all and to try and put those messages across to the UK Government.
With regard to European student recruitment into Wales, it should not be unexpected that we have seen a drop in those students as our student support package has changed. It was an inevitable consequence of a very generous offer that EU students were able to avail themselves of under the previous regime; that financial incentive has now been removed, as we move through our Diamond packages. Actually, the year before, we outperformed the other UK nations in terms of international and EU student recruitment, so it should not be unexpected. But that does mean we have to redouble our efforts, alongside our partners in HEIs and FE colleges, to spread the message of the strong offer that we have here in Wales.
This is why I recently was with Global Wales in New York, alongside the vice-chancellor of Swansea University, hosting a Study in Wales event and, most recently, in Vietnam, where we were able to negotiate with the British Council a significant tranche of new Chevening scholarships—Wales universities having the most of them—to attract Vietnamese students to our country, and we will continue to support our university colleagues in their recruitment activities, where we can add value to them.
This is initially a pilot for short periods of study abroad. As I said, this is a result of research that has been done by WISERD on behalf of the Welsh Government, because we feel that this is where there is the largest demand. Demand for international placements has been growing steadily in Wales, but at 2 per cent, we lag behind England and Scotland in the number of Welsh undergraduates who avail themselves of these opportunities. This is an attempt to supplement what we're already doing to increase those opportunities, especially for those students, as I said, from particularly disadvantaged backgrounds who have been least likely to apply for previous opportunities or for study abroad in the round.
We will continue to keep under review, given the financial constraints that we're currently working under in the higher education sector, whether we would move to a situation where we would fund entire degrees in international universities. We are not in a position to undertake that at this moment, because we believe that there are other pressing needs on the higher education budget in Wales, and our priority for the Diamond dividend is to reinvest in expensive subjects and to increase resources going into the sector here at home.
What a good point the Cabinet Secretary makes about international students, and the action she's taken in this Chamber that contrasts so severely with the Conservative UK Government's cynical policy of discouraging international students coming to this country because they affect immigration figures. The Conservative benches in this Chamber should be ashamed of the Conservative Government and that policy.
So, this is a very good focus on opening Wales and opening the world to Welsh students. One thing I'm particularly interested in and would welcome is the focus on students, which you've just mentioned, from disadvantaged backgrounds. What I also ask is: it's not just students from disadvantaged backgrounds, but students—future students—who live in communities of multiple deprivation who may not be from disadvantaged backgrounds themselves. So, I'm talking about Valleys communities, particularly places like Senghenydd and Bargoed in my constituency. I went to school in Bargoed. When I was in school, I wouldn't have considered international study—it wouldn't have been on my mind. I didn't come from a disadvantaged background, but it just wasn't in the culture of the school.
So, if we're going to encourage students to travel abroad, I think we need to look at how primary school students and secondary school students are educated in the value of international study. People can say to them, 'Well, look, you can get abroad—you can travel abroad—and this will be great for you'. It wasn't until I was 25 and travelling abroad to China to teach that I realised the value of international study. I tell you something: I wouldn't have had the confidence to do it when I was 18.
You make a very good point, because often these are issues to do with aspiration and actually creating that spark within the individual to seek out these opportunities. The research shows us that people from a disadvantaged background are least likely to seek out these opportunities, so this is about raising aspiration.
As I said earlier in answer to Janet Finch-Saunders, some of the strongest projects that Wales has seen in the Erasmus+ programme are, actually, school-based projects, and that's really, really important—that Erasmus is not just seen as a university programme. It's actually available for schools and FE colleges, and schools are engaging in that very well at the moment.
But, as you know, one of the four purposes of our new curriculum is to create global citizens ready to play their part, here in their own communities but also in the world. So, hopefully, our new curriculum will, from the very earliest ages—from three years old—begin to teach children about their place in their community, but also the fact that they are a citizen of the world and there are opportunities for them out there.
One of the reasons why the opportunities are limited to two to three weeks to eight weeks is because those are seen as more desirable. It's a big leap, isn't it, to take a year living away from home and moving to a country for a year, but the ability, maybe, to go for two to three weeks or up to eight weeks is a much more manageable proposition and an accessible one and an attractive one. We believe, following the research that has been undertaken to inform this policy initiative, that that's where it makes the biggest difference.
We anticipate that between 400 and 500 students will be assisted by this pilot. It'll be operated by the British Council Wales, which already has systems in place for other opportunities. Hefin, if you had have met the very sparky 16 and 17-year-olds from schools across Wales who went to the Yale global scholars programme, you would've been in awe at their confidence, their aspiration and their ability to compete on a global stage with other young people and to hold their own. The confidence that that has given them to come back to Wales and to set their aspirations even higher for what they can achieve has been remarkable. If we can provide more of those opportunities for more of our students, I feel that at least part of my time in this job will have been very well spent.
Thank you for your statement. I think this is a very important issue, because there's a real danger that, as we have this threat of leaving the EU, we will become an inward-looking country when we are part of a global economy. We can't get away from that. This idea that we somehow can hack it on our own is pretty frightening.
Anyway, I want to pay tribute to Cardiff University in particular, who have been focusing a lot of effort into ensuring that, as far as possible, they encourage all young people who are studying there as undergraduates to build in some sort of international experience. That's absolutely as it should be, because they've already done the research that shows that studying abroad improves their employability, their confidence and their broader education. So, well done, Cardiff University, and I'm completely terrified at the fact that only 2 per cent of Welsh students overall go abroad.
But focusing back on the very important point you make about the significance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going abroad, I heard what you said to Hefin David and the importance of having these short-term international experiences. But I doubt if they're going to be in Vietnam or the United States, given the distance involved—are they? I think, surely, we need to be focusing on our biggest markets, which are in Europe. We're not going to be able to move our country to some other part of the world. I just wanted to ask what you're doing to ensure that disadvantaged students are taking up the opportunities of this new £1.3 million because, otherwise, we know they will be taken up by the less disadvantaged students who will always have families that would probably be able to make arrangements for them on their own.
Could you just explain why you have not considered extending this opportunity to FE students who are studying, just as importantly, the technical skills that are also going to make them employable and make an important contribution to our economy? Those are my two questions.
Thank you very much, Jenny. I'm very happy to join you in congratulating Cardiff University for the significant work that they have done in this particular field. We have been very careful in trying to design this scheme to complement what our universities are already doing, and it's certainly not to absolve them of any responsibility that they need and are taking in this regard.
As I said in my opening statement, perhaps this work is more important now than it ever has been as we approach Brexit. Wales has never been an insular country. Our outlook has always been global and international. Only last week, in her Welsh language speaking assessment, my daughter talked of the Welsh people who were there at the signing of the declaration of independence for the United States of America. We have sent our people out into the world, who have created and done amazing things. At this time more than ever, we need to increase Wales's soft power. We may not have responsibility for foreign affairs in this Chamber, but that does not absolve us of our responsibility to get Wales out into the world, and what better way, what better asset do we have to sell our nation than our young people? They are our best asset, and that's why I'm determined that more of them should have the opportunity.
Of course, we want students to continue to have opportunities in Europe; that's why we're fighting so hard for the Erasmus+ project. But I can assure you, Jenny, it's only six hours and you can be in Boston, and with the new flight from Cardiff to Doha, you can be in Vietnam in less than 12, so the idea that an eight-week programme isn't long enough for you to go to some of these places, I would argue, is not the case. We will be looking for the British Council, who will be administering this scheme, to help us collect data to make sure that a wide range of students are taking up these opportunities. As I've said throughout this, one of my guiding principles in this job is equality of opportunity and closing the attainment gap. That attainment gap isn't just about qualifications; it's about an opportunity attainment gap as well, and I hope this programme helps us to achieve that.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.