Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd12/06/2019
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Economy and Transport, and the first question is from Alun Davies.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on transport links to key services in Blaenau Gwent? OAQ54016
Yes, of course. Transport links are vital to our economy, and we are committed to ensuring a modern and integrated transport system with improved links to key services across the whole of Wales, including, of course, Blaenau Gwent.
I'm grateful to the Minister for that answer. The Minister will be aware of the record-breaking investment we are seeing in the health service for Blaenau Gwent and the whole of south-east Wales. He will be aware of the £350 million investment in the new Grange University Hospital serving Blaenau Gwent and other parts of south-east Wales. He'll also be aware that, as we deliver these world-class services, we need to ensure that people have strong, robust and reliable transport services to enable them to access the new hospital and the services that it delivers. Can he reassure me and people in Blaenau Gwent this afternoon that the Welsh Government is working collectively—himself as the transport Minister, working with the health Minister, and others—to ensure that, when this new hospital is opened, we will be able to access those services, that there will be the transport links in place, and that we will be able to enjoy the benefits of world-class healthcare, brought to us by this Welsh Labour Government?
Alun Davies makes an incredibly important point—that social infrastructure and transport infrastructure, and the services provided by the NHS, education, and services provided through transport providers, are integrated and planned together. And I am aware of the concern that the local Member has outlined this afternoon. I am already in discussions with the health Minister concerning public transport links to the Grange hospital. And I would also urge the local authority to ensure that it uses the bus services support grant, in addition to its own revenue support grant, wisely, to assist people in getting to and from non-emergency appointments. I'm also pleased to be able to say that we'll be testing innovative forms of integrated responsive bus travel in the Valleys, and the trial will very much focus on non-emergency patient transport.
Minister, I just heard your reply to Alun Davies's question, and it is very encouraging. One of the biggest concerns raised by the people living in the Valleys' communities of my region is the provision or frequency of bus services in their areas. Flexible and accessible community transport services can play an important role in helping people to reach key services, especially when their needs are not met by public transport. Minister, what plan does the Welsh Government have to increase transport support for community transport services, through the bus services support grant to local authorities? Thank you.
Well, Mohammad Asghar raises an incredibly important point about the value of community transport, particularly in rural areas. And we're very clear with local authorities, when we issue the bus services support grant, that a degree of that grant should be retained and utilised to support community transport. Mohammad Asghar will also be aware of the package of reforms that we've been consulting on, and the proposals for legislation, and, alongside this, the various trials that are to commence across Wales looking at demand-responsive transport. And it's my view that demand-responsive transport, working in tandem with community transport services, could offer solutions across the length and breadth of Wales that, to date, have not been deployed. But it will require those radical reforms that are outlined in the White Paper.
Cabinet Minister, is it not true that one cannot speak about transport links to Blaenau Gwent without discussing the rail link of the Ebbw Vale line into Newport? I know that the Member for Blaenau Gwent has dismissed this as unimportant for his constituents, but I see it as a vital part of the overall connectivity of the region. Could the Cabinet Minister, therefore, update us on any progress being made with regard to this link? After all, the people of Blaenau Gwent and the surrounding area have been waiting close to 10 years to see this put in place.
Can I thank the Member for the question and say that I am acutely aware of the tension that exists across various communities insofar as rail links are concerned on the Ebbw line? And that's why we are committed to taking forward plans to introduce four trains per hour as soon as we possibly can do on the Ebbw Vale line. And it's something that I've been working very closely with the local Member, Alun Davies, on for some time. But I can tell the Member today that we are committed to introduce an hourly service between Ebbw Vale town and Newport from 2021. I'm also pleased to say that brand-new trains will be introduced on the services through Blaenau Gwent during 2022, and this will provide, obviously, increased capacity and level boarding. Those brand-new trains, Llywydd, will provide a massive increase in capacity for passengers, with a total capacity of 425. That compares to today's 292.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to improve train services in west Wales? OAQ53980
Yes, of course. As well as commitments made through the new rail franchise and the development of integrated transport interchanges, we are working with the Secretary of State for Wales to push for additional services to west Wales and investment from UK Government in the rail infrastructure that will, in turn, lead to additional capacity, faster journey times, and, of course, new stations.
Minister, I've raised the issue of Milford Haven train station in my constituency on several occasions with successive Welsh Governments over the years. Now, this train station is being used by an ever-increasing number of cruise ship visitors and tourists each year, and although improvements have been promised in recent years, it's currently deteriorating and in a very poor state of repair. Given its strategic importance to Pembrokeshire and, indeed, to west Wales, what plans does the Government have to help to improve Milford Haven train station in the future?
Paul Davies makes the valuable point that train stations often form the gateway of many communities, particularly tourist destinations, and therefore must be appealing in the way that they are presented and must have modern services contained within them. Of course, investment in rail infrastructure is a responsibility of UK Government, but as a result of the negotiations that took place during the procurement exercise for the new Wales and borders franchise, we were able to agree to a £200 million investment in stations across the network. That £200 million over the next 15 years compares very favourably to the £600,000 that was spent in total by the previous franchise holder in the last 15 years, and that £200 million will go a long way to reintroducing business opportunities into many stations that have rooms that are locked up and closed off. It will enhance the visitor economy through making train stations more appealing, more desirable places in which to invest, and we're also looking, where and whenever possible, alongside Visit Wales, to utilise train stations to promote rural economies and the visitor economy of Wales, and I can assure the Member that the stations that are contained within his area will benefit from investment, and that Milford Haven station will, of course, be a beneficiary of the £200 million that will be invested in stations.
Minister, last month I raised with you the issue of frequency of services stopping at request stops like Kidwelly station. I wonder if you've had an opportunity yet to raise some of those questions with the provider. There's also an issue about, where request stops are available, how easy it is for passengers to make that request and how aware passengers are of how to do that. So, can I press you again to have further conversations with Transport for Wales? I'm sure their intentions here are good, but we won't persuade people to use those public transport services unless we make it as easy as possible for them to do so, and the representations that I'm receiving from constituents along that line, particularly where you have got the request stop issue, is that it isn't always easy, that you don't always get the guard coming through quickly enough to be able to make that request, or you may not even know that that's how you can make the request. So, is there something further that we can do with Transport for Wales to make that easier?
I'd like to thank Helen Mary Jones for the question, and I'd agree with her that we should be working very closely with Transport for Wales to ensure that all passengers are aware of how to request stops. In addition, we will liaise with community rail partnerships—we're investing more money in those partnerships in this rail franchise period—and we'll also work with station adoption groups as well to ensure that all relevant authorities and passenger groups are aware of how to go about ensuring that they can stop at requested stations
Minister, the Tories actually promised to deliver electrification to Swansea, which would definitely have improved services further west than Swansea. Now, we all know they reneged on that promise and as such, services west of Cardiff will not have UK Government support for any infrastructure work and modernisation. Now, that gives the wider impression that anything west of Cardiff is also not open for business and not interested in investors from the UK Government. When the new Prime Minister is elected, whoever that may be, will you therefore make a commitment to actually seek to get them to do another u-turn and actually honour their commitment so that we can see electrification to Swansea, which then improves the links to the west, but also perhaps we ask them to make sure that they also follow Welsh Labour's calls that Wales is open for business to all investors?
I thank David Rees for his question and I agree with his points. Obviously Wales has been short-changed for some time now and I'll continue to press for fair funding from UK Government, and I'd ask for the support of all Assembly Members in this regard.
I don't think we need to wait until there is a new Prime Minister to demand that we have responsibilities and funding for rail infrastructure devolved, because Keith Williams is carrying out a root-and-branch review of Britain's railways right now and that provides an opportunity to reform the railway system and services across the UK and create a fully integrated public transport network that Wales needs. Our expectation is for the Williams review to set out a very clear pathway for further devolution for Wales, and, as I say, I'd be very grateful for the support of Assembly Members in our call for that.
Questions now from party spokespeople. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Bethan Sayed.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. Given that Wales is currently facing potentially turbulent economic times, as we discussed only yesterday, with the potential closure of Ford, we believe here that we should do as much as possible to diversify the Welsh economy—for example, developing infrastructure so that, as a country, we can offer our businesses the ability to take advantage of emerging global markets. Can the Minister outline what the Welsh Government is doing to diversify the Welsh economy under his leadership?
Yes, of course. This is an incredibly important matter to consider as we approach EU exit date. It's absolutely essential that we look at whether we need to turn the dial on the actions contained within the Welsh Government's economic action plan, specifically with regard to decarbonisation and futureproofing businesses. In many respects, Wales has a diverse economy compared to the UK, where manufacturing is at a very, very low level indeed and where there is a very heavy reliance on the service sector, particularly in certain geographical parts of the UK. It's my belief that, given the investment we've made over many years since devolution, the economy is in a strong position.
We will go on ensuring that we grow small and micro-sized firms so that we encourage the growth of medium-sized firms, and that, wherever possible, we encourage businesses to embrace modern technology and modern ways of working. But our actions in the economic action plan were specifically designed to deal with the challenges of the automation industry 4.0 and Brexit. They are there; we are dealing with them. We are delivering on those actions and, as a consequence, we do now have an unemployment rate that is at, or around, record low levels.
Thank you very much for that answer, and I recognise the work on decarbonisation, but I wanted to focus on digital, and I think that Wales is unprepared for, potentially, the next industrial revolution. We led the last one, but we are still lagging behind in this regard. Just to give you an example, there are large sections of society that even struggle to get 3G coverage as opposed to coverage in any other shape or form. And, of course, these are many rural areas, but agri-tech is stopped in its tracks by virtue of the fact that they don't even have that basic coverage.
So, we already have a lot of this infrastructure in Wales. The investment packages exist through the city deals, and the UK Government's £200 million rural fibre fund. So, we think that Transport for Wales, believe it or not, can act as an enabler for the creation of interconnected, international 5G fibre and space technologies infrastructure for Wales, and the cost of a national digital infrastructure could be in the region of £110 million, with the potential for half of this being covered by the UK Government's rural fibre fund.
So, this isn't just about the digital infrastructure in and of itself; it's about positioning Wales at the forefront of new industries. So, what steps are you taking in relation to digital infrastructure to facilitate the development of new industries, which, at the moment, are lagging purely because that isn't in existence?
When we were developing the economic action plan, we looked at how best we could drive innovation across Wales in order to drive up productivity rates. And we found that, in similar-sized countries with an economy similar to Wales, it's the diffusion of innovation rather than the development of new innovation that will enable an economy to advance. Therefore, we designed specifically the calls to action around the need for businesses to embrace digitisation. And it's through the prism of the calls to action that businesses now draw down funding. In addition to this, there is, of course, a digital exploitation endeavour that is being led by my deputy, Lee Waters, and I think the Member makes a really valuable point about the potential role of Transport for Wales as well. We've already tasked Transport for Wales to look at how it can encourage the market, the private sector, to deploy electric charging points across Wales, utilising the public asset of railway stations. And I think, moving forward, as we transfer more functions to Transport for Wales, we'll be able to look at them working in even more innovative spaces.
I think I should point out as well, though, that in terms of digital infrastructure and the exploitation of it, the north Wales growth deal—I know the Member mentioned growth deals and city deals as a vehicle for this purpose—has as its priority intervention a major digital programme, and I think that should be welcomed.
Yes, thank you, and we are welcoming of that. I think the next steps are going to be vital, and there's no doubt about that. For us, I think, in Wales, and its partners, we will be able to deliver sectoral opportunities in health, autonomous vehicles, as you've mentioned, with electric vehicles, but not only that but hydrogen, as was mentioned yesterday, big data, artificial intelligence, manufacturing and aerospace. I think they're all part of the reason why the digital landscape needs to be enhanced upon.
According to the UK Government's research, the impact of 5G is estimated at £198 billion per annum by 2030, with a 10-year gross domestic product impact of £173 billion between 2020 and 2030. So, we must have an ambition to take a portion of that, and it's been suggested that Wales aims for a 10 per cent share of this, which would mean an uplift in GDP of £17.3 billion from 2020 to 2030. Will the Minister commit to working on a cross-party basis to pool together resources so that we can come up with new ideas in all of the areas that I mentioned earlier in my question, so that we can achieve these aims for Wales together? Because I think what's important is that we jump upon the opportunity to enhance upon the wealth of our nation with the skills that they have, but putting the infrastructure in place to allow them to do that.
I'd like to welcome Bethan Jenkins's offer and say, yes, that is something that I'd like to proceed with. We certainly have no monopoly on good ideas, and I think it's important that we do recognise that Members across this Chamber have innovative ideas, energy and determination to influence Government policy for the better. So, I would like to take forward that offer. And I'd also say, as the Member has highlighted, that digital transcends all of those traditional sectors; it's part and parcel of all of the traditional sectors that we were prioritising until we developed the digital action plan, and we took digital and we made that a key enabler that crosses over all of the work that we do in terms of supporting business growth.
Conservatives spokesperson, Russell George.
Diolch, Presiding Officer. Minister, can I ask how confident you are that this new commission that you have established to look at the M4 relief road will come to a conclusion in the space of just six months, after, of course, spending £140 million on the project over the last six years? Given that the public inquiry has already looked at 28 different alternatives, what is there new to consider and how confident are you that this new commission's recommendations won't simply be put in the bin by the First Minister if it doesn't conform with his view?
Can I thank Russell George for his questions? I have every confidence in the commission looking at this important subject matter, and developing not just the proposals that are put forward potentially into a combination, a package, of interventions, but also in looking at potential new innovations and interventions that were not considered back in 2010 to 2014, when the black route emerged as the favoured option. There were, of course, more than 20 alternatives recommended to the planning inspector, but, in addition to that, the Welsh Government had considered 200 or so solutions back in 2010 to 2014. We're in the process of providing technical briefings to the chair of the commission. We're also in the process of identifying and appointing additional commission members. They'll have support from Welsh Government in scrutinising all of the traffic modelling, all of the data that exists, and I do have confidence in them reporting back in six months with strong recommendations that this Government will be able to take forward.
I recognise that the figure attached to the development cost of the proposed black route is significant, but it does represent something in the order of just 6 per cent of the overall project cost that was estimated, and that, as I've said in this Chamber, compares very favourably to other projects. You only need to look at development costs of projects such as HS2 to appreciate that you cannot deliver a major infrastructure project in the western world without incurring significant development costs.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. In many ways, it demonstrates how much time and resource the Government has spent on looking at alternative routes already, which is the basis, really, of my question.
Turning to the public inquiry itself, obviously, Members and I have had time to digest the public inquiry report. In his statement, the First Minister said that he would not have gone ahead with the Government's own proposals, even if he felt they were affordable, on the grounds of impact on the environment. So, if I can just explore that for a moment: the Welsh Government's own evidence, provided by Natural Resources Wales and advocated by your own Welsh Government barristers said that the scheme would be carbon neutral over time and compatible with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The inspector agreed with your, the Welsh Government's, own opinion and said it was sound and also agreed that the proposed extensive mitigation for the impact on the Gwent levels, developed alongside NRW, could certainly be considered as taking reasonable steps to comply with the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Now, the point I would make here, Minister, is that if you now disagree with your own Welsh Government proposals, do you believe that the legislation contained within the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 and the well-being of future generations Act is sufficient? And how does this decision throw into doubt other transport schemes in Wales, such as the Deeside corridor scheme and, of course, other areas where there needs to be much improvement, along the A40, the A55 and the A470? Does this decision by the First Minister represent a fundamental change to Welsh Government transport policy on environmental grounds?
No. The First Minister was very clear in stressing that this project is absolutely unique in terms of the scale and in terms of the impact on the site of special scientific interest and that, therefore, it had to be considered in its own right. The First Minister was also very clear when he said that he disagreed with the inspector in terms of where the bar should be laid on environmental consequences of infrastructure, and it's his belief in terms of mitigation that you cannot mitigate the loss of, for example, an SSSI and attempt to then develop a similar environment elsewhere, and that there is a big difference between mitigation and compensation. Since we presented I think a very compelling case, of course, there's been a declaration of climate emergency, a greater understanding and appreciation that we need to act now, that we need to be more responsive and responsible and, therefore, the bar has been raised. Whilst I don't think that the legislation that the Member has pointed to requires amending, I do think it necessitates a very careful consideration within Government of how we take forward, not just transport infrastructure but all infrastructure—social infrastructure, for example, hospitals, schools—to guarantee that the development of buildings, roads and rail systems do not have an adverse impact on the environment, if it's at all possible to avoid it.
The Member, I think, rightly identifies a number of schemes that many might fear will be lost as a consequence of this being seen as having set a precedent. That is not the case. All of those programmes will go ahead. Indeed, we are proceeding with consultations on improvements to the A483 this month, work on the Flintshire corridor, the A494/A55, will be proceeding this summer with further modelling and Welsh transport appraisal guidance work and further consultations and meetings with local stakeholders. Other road projects across the length and breadth of Wales are still in the pipeline to be delivered. This does not shift our position on those.
Well, you mentioned that the bar has been raised and you mentioned the climate emergency that the Welsh Government has declared in the meantime. That does, of course, bring me back to my question again about the need for changes in legislation. I appreciate the answer that you have given, but it's difficult to understand how a change in those circumstances cannot affect future schemes, and I appreciate the answers you've given.
Now, section 6 of the report of the public inquiry notes that the M4 is the most strategically important road in Wales and is the primary route in and out of the country for the movement of goods, and that capacity constraints are currently imposing costs on economic activity. Now, the inspector also agreed with the Welsh Government's own economic appraisal of the scheme, showing that it would provide good value for money, which shows a cost benefit ratio of 2:1. Now, the economic impact of not proceeding has also been estimated as being £134 million a year to Cardiff and £44 million a year to Newport. Incidentally, the same cost as the public inquiry. Now, given, of course, the uncertainty by recent announcements at Tata Steel and Ford, amongst others, do you not agree with the inspector that the economic impact of further delays for a relief road will strangle the Welsh economy? And, finally, if the First Minister was the decision maker, as he says he was, not you, nor this Assembly, what input did you have into that final decision?
The decision was just for the First Minister, and as the promoter of the scheme I could take no part in that. As the First Minister has said, the issue of affordability of major infrastructure projects was discussed at Cabinet, and that helped to inform the First Minister's decision, but insofar as that decision actually being taken, that was something specifically and solely for the First Minister.
I think Russell George makes a very valuable point that doing nothing would have a major impact—a pretty devastating impact on the south Wales economy, and that's why we have to ensure that the recommendations that the commission comes forward with are implemented at speed with sufficient resource, and, in turn, that's why we said that we will utilise part of the money that would have been attributed to the M4 relief road, that original envelope, for, first and foremost, interventions in and around Newport, in order to reduce congestion to an acceptable level.
Brexit Party spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. Can I return to the theme of rail transport, Minister? Since the announcement of the new rail franchise, there has been a great deal of discussion about the announcements to the schedules and stock of the core Valleys lines, and, indeed, you've just given us some very welcome news about the proposed announcements to the Ebbw Vale line. But could the Minister give us some indication of any such announcements to the rail services serving Pontypool and Cwmbran?
I think it might be beneficial if I was to update all Members on all services across Wales and the acquisition of additional rolling stock in the delivery of new rolling stock, rather than specifying certain services and certain lines, but I'd very gladly do that.
I thank you, Minister, for that, but, obviously, it is of concern to us in south-east Wales. This is a prime railway line that leads into Cardiff, as you know, and into Newport. So, can you give us some idea about the proposed announcements to the rolling stock on that line? After all, the metro gives South Wales East very little in the way of structural commitment. So, let's lump that into the structural commitment with regard to South Wales East. Could you give us some—?
Well, I can assure the Member that all trains on the network, including those in the metro area, will be replaced, and that there are new trains, many of which will be built in Wales, that will be up to today's modern standards in terms of disabled access. We're also determined, where possible, to increase capacity on railway lines right now, and that's why we've been able to introduce additional rolling stock onto the core Valleys lines in recent months. We're also looking at how we can improve capacity elsewhere across Wales. So, I can assure the Member that we are doing everything we can to identify where rolling stock can be introduced, albeit on a temporary basis, to alleviate congestion whilst those brand-new trains are being constructed.
3. Will the Minister confirm whether the Welsh Government is on target to deliver its commitments in relation to transport infrastructure during this Assembly term? OAQ53994
Yes. Last month, I published our updated national transport finance plan, and that sets out our priorities over the next two years. As these projects are dependent on funding being available and, where necessary, obtaining statutory consents, the planned programme of improvements will be kept under constant review.
Thank you, Minister, for that. We now know, obviously, that one of the commitments that was in your manifesto, the M4 relief road, will not proceed, which is to much regret, I have to say, and real anger over the weekend. I appreciate your deputy is from a sedentary position heckling; if he wants to take the question, I'll happily direct the question to him. But it'd be better if you actually listened, Deputy Minister; you might learn something. You might learn something about keeping commitments.
Carry on with the question and no heckling from Ministers, Deputy Minister.
It is unfortunate that manifesto commitment was broken, but what you have done, Minister, is obviously commit that there will be improvements put in place to make some short-term gains. A lot of people have been anxious why these short-term gains weren't achieved in the shorter period of time when the inquiry was meeting, for example, or when the Government was deliberating over this matter, when a considerable amount of time was lost, I would suggest.
What assurance can you give to people who are disappointed that this decision hasn't been taken in a positive way that these short-term gains will actually alleviate the congestion around Newport, which, as we know, is the entry and exit point for two thirds of the goods in and out of Wales that are so important to our economy?
It's not unusual for commitments made by parties and governments to change over time, and often they are changed as a consequence of an evaluation of value for money for those interventions that are promised. The electrification—I don't want to be political, but I must say that the question about the electrification of the south Wales line and the cancellation of that programme was put down to the value for money for that particular project, and the argument made by the Department for Transport that, actually, new technology could offer the same improvements and the same time savings as overhead electrification. So, it's not unusual for manifesto pledges to change over time as new technology and as fuller consideration of value for money is made.
In terms of the M4 around Newport, our proposal was the black route—that was what we were pursuing and promoting. However, now that the decision has been made not to proceed with that particular solution, we are examining all short-term measures that are available to alleviate congestion. I'm pleased that we are able to introduce additional patrol services and breakdown recovery services. These will not come without cost; these are expensive services, but they are tried and tested. They were deployed first on the A55 as part of the A55 resilience programme, and they are proven to work. That's why I was able to say last week, when the decision was made by the First Minister, that we would be able to deploy that particular solution with immediate effect.
In terms of transport infrastructure, one issue that's important in my constituency at the moment is that the Welsh Government should be doing as much as it can to extend the rail system. Can you give me an assurance that you will support me in my bid to Network Rail to invest in putting in place the railway bridge in Glanhwfa Road, Llangefni after it was struck by a lorry last year?
Yes, of course. Any network improvements, any improvements to rail infrastructure that can be made in Wales will have this Welsh Government's support, and I'd support the Member's endeavours in this regard. It does concern me how little investment has been made in the Wales route network and in our stations and in the services that have operated in Wales. But this is something that we're determined to see resolved; that's why we've made a very powerful submission to the Williams review and why I hope that Keith Williams will be making the case for devolution of responsibility for infrastructure, and for fair funding over it, so that we directly can intervene in those sorts of problems that the Member for Ynys Môn has identified today.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of bus services across South Wales West? OAQ54018
Yes. Can I thank the Member for his question? Transport for Wales is reviewing how bus services could be delivered in the future to ensure that urban and rural communities across Wales benefit from a modern, integrated public transport service. This work will support proposals being taken as a result of the 'Improving public transport' White Paper that has recently been consulted on.
I thank the Minister for his answer, and obviously it is important that we get that White Paper going as fast as we can so that we can get some further action on our bus services across south-west Wales, because it is buses mainly that deliver most of the public transport in that area, rather than trains.
Last Friday, I met with Andrew Sherrington, the managing director of First Cymru, and following that meeting members across the region had a letter from him identifying the fact that, no matter what happened on the sale of First Cymru, he would be looking to ensure that services are maintained and continue to a high standard. But, there are still problems. He confirmed that where there are buses that are not commercially viable, they will be at risk, because clearly it is a commercial system without public support.
Two examples of those are obviously in the Afan valley—I've raised this with you many times—where buses in the Afan valley are every other hour in Glyncorrwg and in Blaengwynfi, which means that if you have a 9.30 a.m. appointment in the hospital, you have to catch the 7.30 a.m. bus in the morning from Glyncorrwg to be able to attend that, and who knows what time you'll get back home? It is important, therefore, that those bus services in the Afan valley and other Valleys areas in South Wales West are actually supported to ensure that people who don't have cars, who do rely upon public transport, are able to use them on a more frequent basis than they currently can. One every two hours is not sufficient for people to actually carry on their daily lives. They can't get to work efficiently, on time, they can't get home on time and they can't go to appointments on time. Will you therefore look at working with the sector to ensure that buses, when there are non-viable commercial routes, are supported through public funding to ensure that people who need those services can actually access them?
The Member makes a number of important points. In many parts of Wales, it's not just that people can't get to where they wish to go on time, they can't get to places at all by bus service operations because they don't exist, or people can't afford them. I've said in this Chamber before that there's one part of Wales, the north-east, the Mersey Dee Alliance area—and this data was presented by Growth Track 360—where I think it's astonishing that 20 per cent of people can't get to job interviews in that area because they don't have access to appropriate and affordable bus services. That has to be addressed, and it will be addressed through reforms and through legislation. The system is broken. It's not fit for purpose.
Dai Rees points to the very significant role that bus services play in society. They carry 100 million passengers a year—that's more than three times as many passengers as our rail network carries. So, they're hugely important in terms of ensuring that people can get to and from work and to and from services, but also, importantly, in terms of ensuring that people remain social and connected to other human beings. In our attempt to address social isolation, the role of public transport will be incredibly important.
With specific regard to First Cymru, they have assured us that it will be business as usual for its bus network, but we will be keeping a very close eye on the implications for bus services of First Group's proposals for reorganising its business, including any potential sale of its bus arm.
Llywydd, we're already allocating annually £25 million to local authorities as part of the bus services support grant. And I really must stress that this money should not be used to supplement local authorities' revenue support grant spending on non-commercially viable services; it should be used in addition to. It's absolutely vital that local authorities take careful consideration of the impact that the removal of their own subsidies would have on vulnerable people.
I can say today, Llywydd—I'm very pleased to be able to tell Members—that I've allocated £2.5 million to undertake network reviews in specific areas of Wales, and this work will identify potential improvements in services alongside the investment infrastructure that is required for new interchanges, new bus stops and so forth. Llywydd, we're going to use this funding to plan for future investment, and Transport for Wales has been commissioned to lead on this work and will look to target areas in south-west Wales. I can assure Members that I'll be making a statement before summer recess that will provide more detail about this work, as well as four pilot schemes that are going to be taking place across Wales.
Thank you for those remarks just then, I thought they were very useful, and I'm also looking forward to the White Paper. In the meantime though, in 2016 you announced a five-point plan to support bus routes, offering all bus companies in Wales assistance through Business Wales and Finance Wales, and, at the same time, you called upon—as you've done again today—local authorities to make every effort to protect the funding for bus services.
You may be aware that Bridgend county borough councillors have recently called in a decision by their cabinet to stop subsidising public transport, full stop. Bearing in mind you've got additional moneys, they must have had some of that, and you were expecting it to be used additionally to their own bus subsidies, it doesn't sound like even that's getting to the bus companies in this case. I wonder if you could tell me whether you know whether bus operators in the Bridgend area knew about the offer of Business Wales and Finance Wales help and whether, in fact, the local authority knew about that as well, because they could have encouraged operators to take up that offer, thereby avoiding what is a very, very harsh cabinet decision.
I can assure the Member that we've held a series of bus summits and local authorities from across Wales have been invited and encouraged to attend those summits. We've been working with partners such as Business Wales and the Development Bank of Wales to ensure that bus operators have the support necessary to see them through what is a very difficult transition period, as we move to a new, more sustainable base for operating bus services. I won't dictate to local authorities how they should use their RSG, particularly given that austerity is continuing, but I would make that case again for local authorities to be very careful when they consider what services to remove as a consequence of difficult budget decisions. Bus services for many people in this country are absolutely vital.
5. Will the Minister provide an update on support provided following the announcement to close the Rehau factory in Amlwch? OAQ53996
We are continuing to provide full support. Four all-day staff sessions have been held, the most recent being on 3 June. Feedback from the company and from staff has been very positive. They are being proactive in engaging across all options, including staff with professions considering setting up their own businesses.
Thank you very much. May I say thanks for the letter from the Minister on 5 June in reply to an e-mail from me on 9 May regarding support for the economy of north Anglesey? There is a reference there to the taskforce that has been established following the announcement from Rehau. Yesterday, in the context of the announcement about the Ford factory, we heard the Minister say that he would want to go further than the taskforce model because of the size of the threat there in Bridgend, and I agree with that, certainly. I would argue that the Rehau announcement on top of the negative announcements recently regarding the economy of northern Anglesey is also especially serious, considering the population and the rural element and so forth. So, I would welcome a promise to look at going further than the taskforce model in the case of north Anglesey as well, and to look at special investments in developing the economy there.
I would like to respond to a comment by the Minister on that, but also, on the specific question of what will happen to the Rehau site, I'd like to hear a word of support for the idea that the site would be left as a legacy to the local economy in order to ensure that what was an important economic hub can continue in the future.
Can I address that point first and say that we are continuing to discuss with Rehau what future plans there may be for the site? It is an incredibly important site, and if it cannot be used for other employers or manufacturers as a key location, then we wish to ensure that it is used for alternative use and that we get agreement from the company to use it in a way that serves the interests of not just the people who have been employed there, but also the wider community.
With regard to the place-based intervention in Bridgend, I took this decision to expand on the normal working practice when decisions of this nature are taken because of the huge financial contribution that Ford makes to the surrounding community—a £3.3 billion contribution per decade. The scale of that investment, of that amount of resource being lost, means that many businesses—many, many businesses—will have their futures hanging in the balance, and therefore a place-based approach is absolutely vital, alongside the other taskforce operations. I would happily speak with the Isle of Anglesey council about introducing a specific place-based focus in the work of the taskforce. I think it is absolutely essential—and I've said this to the local authority serving Bridgend, that it's absolutely essential that the local authority comes forward with proposals for both stimulating the local economy, the community economy, and also for ensuring that it is stabilised through the difficult period of jobs being lost. It can't just be left to Welsh Government. We have to work in collaboration and in partnership across all Governments if we are to get the best outcomes for the people we all serve.
When I questioned you at the end of January, after Rehau's initial announcement that they may be closing the site in Amlwch, you replied that you were looking at diversifying to other products within the group that could be diverted temporarily or permanently to the site, or indeed third parties. You also said that this would require a degree of investment, which was what Welsh Government was specifically working on with the company at that point. When the chief executive of Rehau announced the closure on 23 April, it said: 'Careful consideration at board level' had been given to
'proposed alternatives put forward by employees',
but they would be not sufficient to secure the long-term future of the facility. Putting all that together—the reference to your talking to third parties, your then declaration that you were considering investment, and the proposals by employees themselves—what consideration is being given to bringing all those factors together as this moves forward?
I do regret that the company chose not to diversify, because I'd restate the position that we took earlier in the year, that we were ready and willing and enthusiastic about supporting the business. The decision has now been made, and we are keen, through the taskforce, through the regional economic development unit, led by the chief regional officer, Gwenllian Roberts, to examine all alternative options for employment of the people who are going to be affected and alternative uses for the site. We're working—. I should say we are working very well with the company in identifying alternative opportunities. Trying to find alternative major employers in a semi-rural area is very difficult, and therefore it requires additional attention to be given to the potential of supporting workers in starting up their own businesses, and that's why Business Wales are playing an integral part in the support that's given to them.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the economic importance of small businesses in Wales’s rural communities? OAQ54021
Yes, of course. A thriving rural economy is fundamental to help sustain viable communities and to provide quality employment opportunities. Our current programmes are delivering wide-ranging support to encourage economic development and prosperity, including through Business Wales, ICT and transport improvements, as well as the support provided through the rural development plan.
Thank you, Minister. One such business is the Welsh Hawking Centre within my region—an attraction that's been on Barry's Five Mile Lane for the last 40 years. It's been recently reported that the business may be in danger of closing, after visitor numbers have halved in the last year. According to Jamie Munro, who runs the centre, this has largely been caused by the works ongoing on the A4226, which have resulted in a reduction in the footfall dramatically. I think anyone who knows the area will realise how impacted the business has been—that part of the road in particular, and the partial closure of it that has been required so that the improvements can be made. It's a niche business. It's been very, very successful in the past—extremely popular. It provides excellent educational facilities as well, and is an attraction we can be proud of. I just wonder, when these major works go ahead, whether there's a better way for the Welsh Government and the local council to work through the impact it may have for a short period on businesses. But these businesses don't necessarily have the resilience to take a bad year or two, especially in terms of visitor attractions.
I thank David Melding for his question. I'll ensure that we deploy officials from the regional unit to the business to assist in any way we can. I think that we need to, first of all, appreciate whether the halving of visitor numbers can be attributed solely to just one factor and, if so, even though it may be at a late stage, how we may be able to alleviate the impacts that roadworks are having. Of course, we issue notices. We engage directly through our transport department wherever and whenever possible with businesses. I think that this particular example is relatively unique in terms of the halving of visitors or, if you like, customers. So, I think it's going to be essential that my officials work speedily with the company to address the challenge that they face.
Minister, small businesses in rural communities in north Wales play an important role in the economic development in the region. A regular issue brought to me from small and medium-sized businesses is the movement of online payments and transactions—that the internet connection isn't sufficient. Can you reassure my constituents that Welsh Government will prioritise the internet and broadband in any economic development plans for north Wales?
Yes, I can. I mentioned earlier, in response to Bethan's questions, that the north Wales growth deal has a digital project at the heart of the vision for developing a stronger and more resilient economy in the north. I'm confident that, through the course of the challenge sessions that are to come, we will be able to ensure that that particular programme does reach all businesses across Wales and addresses the challenges that the Member has just identified.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's plans to relieve traffic congestion around Newport? OAQ53993
Yes, of course. I published a written statement on 5 June outlining our next steps for the M4 corridor around Newport.
You also published a manifesto that said:
'We will deliver a relief road for the M4'.
Is it not the case that this commission and any proposals that it comes out with, which may relieve congestion at the margin, will be a very small impact compared to what was promised in your manifesto?
There's an irony here in that I was the person who wrote the manifesto that proposed the black route and, of course, Mark Reckless was a member of a political party that was responsible for writing a manifesto pledge opposing the black route. Look, I stand by the proposal that we made. However, I do recognise that times have changed since the black route was conceived. It's only responsible for Governments to accept—when times change, when new challenges are presented, to respond accordingly and to act in a nimble way, and that's precisely what we've done.
But I can assure all Members that we recognise that this challenge has to be addressed; 'do nothing' is simply not an option. The question for us is whether we are able to respond, packaging some of the alternatives in a way that will reduce or eliminate congestion—but also, at the same time, do so with less cost to the public purse. I believe that we can achieve a reduction in congestion on the M4 through Newport in a way that offers value for money and minimises cost to the public purse. Now, the commission's work has already begun. I have had an incredibly constructive discussion with Lord Burns about the work that's been undertaken to date by the Welsh Government, and how he and his commission will take it forward.
And, finally, question 8—Llyr Gruffydd.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on public spending on the rail network in Wales? OAQ54010
Yes, of course. The UK Government is responsible for funding rail infrastructure in Wales, as we are all aware, and it is an unfortunate fact that we must rely on it to provide an equitable investment programme. We continue to press the case for devolution so that we can develop a Welsh network, catering for the journeys that people need to make.
Well, thank you for your answer. I was quite struck by the letter that you shared with Assembly Members—the letter that you sent to David Lidington on 22 May—where you highlight under-investment in Welsh rail infrastructure. You say in the letter that there is a history of sustained and chronic under-investment in the Welsh network when compared with England, based on an approach that prioritises UK Government objectives, using a system that systematically favours investment in London and the south-east of England. So, that's highlighting once again, isn't it, how poorly Wales is being treated by the UK Government. We are clearly not getting our fair share. Indeed, Plaid Cymru has always said that the UK is an unequal union of nations. Having read your letter, I presume that you now agree with Plaid Cymru.
The problem is that—and we're addressing it here in Wales, and I hope that the UK Government will follow suit—. The problem is that, through the Treasury Green Book, decisions are often made in a way that benefits those areas of the UK that are already intensely urbanised and where there is already a high concentration of people who are high earners. And, of course, south-east London is the obvious case in point. What we're doing in Wales, and it forms part of the economic action plan, is developing a regional approach to rebalance the Welsh economy. And, just as I've set up the regional economic development units and appointed the chief regional officers, before recess, I will be presenting an oral statement to the Chamber concerning the publication of regional indicative budgets to ensure that, when we talk about fair funding, we don't just talk about fair funding for Wales, we talk about fair funding for the constituent parts of Wales. And I think that's something that Members across this Chamber recognise is absolutely essential if we are to drive prosperity across all communities, rather than just have it concentrated in the most urban areas.
Thank you to the Minister.
The next questions, therefore, to the Counsel General and Brexit Minister in respect of his Brexit Minister responsibilities. And the first question is from David Rees.
1. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact that Brexit will have on the structure of the Joint Ministerial Committee? OAQ54019
We said in 'Brexit and Devolution' that the JMC structures are not adequate for the new challenges we face as we leave the EU. We published 'Brexit and Devolution' two years ago, and our view remains unchanged.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. What you've just then highlighted has been echoed around this Chamber by Members and by various committees of this Assembly. Clearly, the JMC is not working. It is very much dependent upon individuals within Westminster as to how they see it, and whether they want to see it work or not. There is no formal structure. There is no stature underpinning it.
There was a JMC review, which was initiated by Westminster, but that's going over 12 months ago now, and we're still waiting for that outcome. Surely, it's time for us, with other nations in the UK, to actually start saying to UK Government, 'This structure must change. It must be underpinned by statute. We need to have a structure which treats each nation equally, each Government equally, within these discussions' and therefore it's underpinned to ensure that no one individual may decide whether it's a good thing or a bad thing.
Well, I think the Member hits the nail on the head with his supplementary question, and I share his disappointment. It's now coming up to 15 months, actually, since the review of inter-governmental relations was commissioned. And the truth is that it's certainly not in the interest of Wales, but it's actually not in the interest of any part of the UK for the JMC structures to continue trying to bear the weight that is now placed upon them by Brexit in particular. I should say that the truth is that the First Minister has required more progress to happen than has happened. So, we are very disappointed with the level of—lack of progress, rather. The truth is there are—the constitutional ambitions, if I can put it like that, of the different Governments involved are different. There is no political leadership in Northern Ireland at the moment, and there has been the effort put into 'no deal' preparations. Official-level working has been good, but it's absolutely the case that not sufficient progress has been made. I would say that we've seen very little progress. I'm hoping to meet David Lidington later this week, and I'll be making the point to him that I'm concerned that there is no real commitment on the part of the United Kingdom Government to progress this.
He mentioned the principle of parity of participation in his question, which is absolutely fundamental to this. We've also talked about a mechanism for resolving disputes that introduces an independent element, so that, as his question implies, it isn't simply a matter for one part of the UK to determine the outcome.
On the question of statutory underpinning, I think that could be usefully explored. I'm not sure myself that it is the panacea—what we need is robust structures. If it's also underpinned by statute, then that would be an advantage, but I think the key thing is to have in place structures that, frankly, work. I will also say that the format of the JMC, which is able, ultimately, to resolve this is the one between First Ministers and the Prime Minister. So, obviously, in light of the fact that the Conservative leadership is contested at the moment, that clearly is going to delay the point at which that format of the JMC is going to be able to meet to address this. But the next format of the JMC, on which I represent the Government, is intending to look at this point, at our instigation.
It is crucially important, I think, that the JMC structure is strengthened for the future, and I also feel that we should reform the committee, and place it on a statutory level, to ensure that the Welsh voice is clearly heard in any future discussions. I think that, in response to the Member for Aberavon, you said that you don't favour placing the JMC on a statutory level. Could you explain why that's the case? Because I do believe that that's the way forward.
I thank the Member for the question, and for the opportunity to respond to that specific point. It's not a matter of not favouring that—that would certainly be an advantage. What I'm saying is that that isn't a panacea for having a system that truly supports our work here in Wales and across the UK.
2. Will the Counsel General provide an update on Brexit discussions with the UK Government? OAQ54000
I continue to have regular discussions with the UK Government on a number of Brexit-related issues. I met the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union most recently in Cardiff on 16 May, and a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations is scheduled for the end of this month.
Counsel General, thank you for that answer. There is a growing fear that the national health service is going to become the sacrificial lamb on the altar of a 'no deal' Brexit. When Donald Trump said that the NHS would be a service that would be part of a UK-US trade deal, when Theresa May stood next to him and refused to deny that, when the US have refused to change their negotiating objectives, which include all services as part of a deal, where we have a situation where international trade deals that could override and implement measures in devolved areas without the consent of this place, when the health Minister wrote a year or so ago to Theresa May asking for assurances and guarantees about the protection of the NHS, which she refused to give, and in a situation where we have a potential new Tory First Minister in support of privatisation of the national health service and a supine trade deal with the US, what steps is the Welsh Government taking to protect the national health service from a 'no deal' Brexit?
I thank the Member for that question. I too also saw the press conference to which he refers in his question, and it made the blood run cold to hear the NHS being talked about as an asset for commercial sale in that way. I will be absolutely clear: the Welsh NHS is a public service and, under the Welsh Government, will remain so. The Minister for international relations, Eluned Morgan, has made absolutely clear to her counterpart, Liam Fox, the international trade Secretary, that the devolution settlement must be respected in relation to trade deals, and that would include trade deals of the sort the Member is referring to. And it must respect the fact that the Welsh Government is determined to make sure the NHS is preserved as a public service here in Wales. There is absolutely no prospect of us allowing the Welsh NHS to be part of any negotiation. But I think the Member is right to highlight this issue, which I think shines a light on the consequences of the kind of trade policy that the UK Government might seek to pursue in a 'no deal' Brexit scenario.
In relation to the NHS more generally, we are of course working with the NHS in Wales in relation to robustness and resilience to face the challenges that would be faced in the context of any kind of Brexit, but particularly a 'no deal' Brexit. Some of that is around medicine supply, medical devices—as the Member will know—and around workforce planning, which, as we discussed in the Chamber yesterday in our migration debate, could seriously come under pressure in the context of the UK Government's new migration policies.
The most recent Brexit discussion with the UK Government has of course been around the First Minister's use, or non-use, of a Foreign Office car in Brussels today. However, on the NHS issue, it is not commercially traded. Surely, when something is a public service, it is not something that is part of a trade deal in the way that is suggested. Of course, if you have public procurement, you will want to procure cheaply and effectively and get good value, and if you enter into a contract with an overseas provider, it is quite reasonable that that contract should be respected and that should be insured either through the British courts or through investor dispute resolution. Is that not all that we're talking about here?
I have absolutely no confidence in the commitment of the Brexit Party to the NHS. The leader of the party has been absolutely categorical that he does not believe in a publicly funded NHS and believes in an insurance system. So, the Member will have to forgive me if I take that with a pinch of salt. [Interruption.]
I'm grateful to you, Presiding Officer. Minister, you, like me, will have seen the rather astonishing press reports this morning that the First Minister has not been provided with diplomatic support during his visit in Brussels. Now, like yourself and myself—we've both enjoyed the support of the diplomatic service of the United Kingdom, and I remember negotiating and discussing with David Lidington and William Hague and others how that can be strengthened. Whilst Ministers here are not Ministers of the United Kingdom Government, they are United Kingdom Ministers, and in Brussels, we are part of the United Kingdom ministerial team, and we have agreements with the United Kingdom Government that we do enjoy the support of the United Kingdom Representation to the European Union and of the foreign office. I would place on record my gratitude to UKRep and to civil servants in the foreign office for the excellent support that I received, both within the European Union and elsewhere, whilst travelling as a representative of the Welsh Government. Will you then take up this issue with David Lidington when you meet him later this week, and say to him that we expect all our Ministers to be treated with the respect that the electoral mandate gives them, and that we are here to represent the Government here and the people of Wales, and we are not expected to ask permission from any member of the UK Government as to how we do that?
I thank the Member for his question. As he indicates in it, our relationship with the UK Representation to the EU is very good, so we were particularly puzzled and disappointed, if I can put it like that, by the unprecedented decision that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office appear to have taken. I should say, as context, that we have been provided as a Welsh Government with high-quality support by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on every previous occasion when Ministers have visited Brussels, as he himself in the question indicates. I can confirm that the FCO informed the Government that they'd only provide support while the First Minister was in Brussels today, including access to the car pool service, if we gave assurances that the First Minister would not undermine UK Government policy. We made it clear that the First Minister and Welsh Ministers take seriously, in their capacity as Ministers of the United Kingdom, their duties to the United Kingdom when abroad on official business, but that is not out of deference to the UK Government and it certainly isn't in consideration of getting access to car services. So, we refused to give any assurance that would fetter or inhibit the entitlement of the First Minister to speak up for Wales's national interest. Ultimately, as it happened, car facilities were then offered, but the First Minister is travelling using public transport throughout his visit to Brussels today.
Questions now from party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's strategy for its discussions with the European Commission today?
At the moment, we are anticipating the change of Commission personnel in future. The First Minister is today in Brussels planning to meet with a number of our partners there, including Michel Barnier.
Thank you for that answer. I have to say I do find it astonishing that Welsh Labour Ministers seem to be more interested in chauffeur-driven cars than they do in the real issue of the day. I am sure that the Welsh Government would not want to allow its resources to be used to support activities that undermine its policy objectives either, and I think Ministers frankly should grow up and listen up to the people of Wales who voted to leave the EU in 2016. You didn't refer in your answer then to the negotiating strategy that the First Minister may or may not be employing in Brussels today. But will you tell us whether he will be reiterating the will of the people of Wales, who voted to leave the EU in 2016, and if not, why not?
I think that's a curious question from the Member. I had finished my answer to the previous question by saying that the First Minister was using public transport in Brussels today, which seems to me to indicate a complete lack of interest in the use of Government cars. So, I think he should reflect on the fact that the First Minister is in Brussels dealing with matters of substance rather than matters of presentation and headlines as his question suggests. The First Minister will be describing what is in the best interests of Wales and the position of the Welsh Government on behalf of the people of Wales in his discussions in Europe, as he does at every other opportunity.
Isn't the reality, Minister, that you're still playing politics with Brexit? There was a clear manifesto commitment from the Labour Party in 2017 to deliver Brexit and it's quite clear now to the people of Wales that Labour cannot be trusted to deliver on that particular manifesto commitment. Now, you've already done a u-turn in terms of your position on a second referendum, and you've said that there needs to be an option to remain on a ballot paper in a future referendum. But the reality is, of course, that the one thing that the people of Wales didn't vote for is any kind or version of 'remain'. You keep going on about kinds or versions of 'leave', but one thing that the people of Wales did not endorse—and absolutely did not endorse—was any kind of remaining in the European Union. How can you justify ignoring the outcome of the 2016 referendum, which rejected 'remain' on the ballot paper, and what guarantees can you give to the people of Wales that if there is a second referendum—and I very much hope that there will not be—that you won't ignore that one either?
There are very few things, If I may say, that I admire about the Conservative Party, but his ability to chastise me for playing politics with a straight face, having asked the two questions he's just asked, is really quite admirable in its own way.
On the question of a referendum, I do not recall at any point hearing anybody advocate for a 'no deal' Brexit in 2016. Quite the opposite—everybody was telling us how straightforward it would be, how people would be falling over to reach terms with us. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has completely failed to live up to those promises made.
We are now facing a situation where there is absolutely no mandate for a 'no deal' Brexit, which seems to be where the Conservative Party is careering us towards with the stampede of support like panicked bisons from the Conservative benches in Parliament towards Boris Johnson, who could joyfully be taking us towards a 'no deal' Brexit. In that situation, there is only one way that we can prevent the damage that that would cause to Wales and that is by putting the question back to the people, which is fundamentally a democratic principle.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, Donald Trump has said that he'd want the NHS to be on the table in any future UK-US trade deal negotiations. He later rowed back on this, but the fact that his ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson, has also said the same thing indicates clearly what US priorities will be if and when trade negotiations begin.
The Welsh Government's international relations Minister has said that there is no prospect whatsoever of the Welsh NHS being sold off in this way and the health Minister said that the Welsh NHS would not be up for sale. And you've spoken today already in answer to Mick Antoniw about workforce planning and the need to work with the NHS.
While I applaud your passion in favour of keeping NHS services publicly run and free at the point of need, can you explain to me exactly—and I would press you on this—what steps Welsh Government could take to prevent the Welsh NHS from being sold off if the Westminster Government were to trade it away during negotiations with the US?
We have mechanisms in place to ensure that decisions on devolved areas remain our responsibility through the inter-governmental agreement. In relation to discussions relating to the trade negotiations, there are official-level discussions under way in order to give Wales a level of protection in advance of those discussions.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. You speak about mechanisms and discussions without much detail there, but I think that's probably because the fact of the matter is there will be very little Welsh Government could do to protect the NHS if the Westminster Government decided to sell it off.
Plaid Cymru would obviously support you if, as the international relations Minister said on Monday, you would wish to take the Westminster Government to court on this. But the fact of the matter is that international trade is a reserved matter and powers over public procurement that could have been used to protect some aspects of our health services were given away as part of the inter-governmental agreement that you've referred to.
I'm sure you've been following the Conservative leadership contest with the same mix of horror and disbelief as I have. We've had candidates admitting to crimes that usually lead to jail sentences, candidates wanting to roll back human rights, and, most frightening of all, the candidate considered to be the favourite in the race, Boris Johnson, indicating clearly his intention to plough ahead on a disastrous path towards a 'no deal' Brexit.
Minister, were the next UK Prime Minister to decide to leave the EU without a deal and were they able to find a way to bypass Parliament, through prorogation perhaps, what steps could Welsh Government take to fully mitigate the disastrous consequences for Wales? These may be hypotheticals, but they are worryingly conceivable.
The Member persists in this view that powers were given away in the inter-governmental agreement. I'll invite her, when she asks me her next question, to specify one of those powers, because I've heard none specified in this Chamber, despite the persistence with that line of argument. In fact, each successive report that comes out from the UK Government indicates that it does not intend to use the section 12 powers, which would freeze the competence of this Assembly. I'd invite her perhaps to specify any of the powers she thinks have been given away as a consequence of that inter-governmental agreement.
She is right, of course, that international relations are a matter reserved to the UK Parliament, but she will also know that recently the Supreme Court, in the case in relation to the Scottish continuity Bill, was absolutely clear that domestic implementation of those agreements is a matter that is devolved and it's devolved to this place. I give the assurance that we will not implement a mechanism that enables the NHS to be put up for sale. But she's right to say that that indicates the state of mind and the intentions of certainly the American President. The failure of Theresa May as Prime Minister to challenge that, I thought, was extraordinary, in the press conference that David Rees referred to earlier.
She invites me to tell her that I feel it's possible to fully mitigate the consequences on Wales of a 'no deal' Brexit. I will be crystal clear with her—I do not believe it is possible to fully mitigate, with any level of preparation, either in the short term or the long term, the disastrous consequences for Wales of a 'no deal' Brexit.
Thank you, Minister, and thank you for turning the scrutiny back on me there, but, as we have made clear in debates in the past in this Chamber, public procurement powers were given away as part of the inter-governmental agreement, and I'd welcome further discussion with you on that.
But, coming back to the question, now we know, and as you've just recognised, there's very little that we could do to mitigate the disastrous impact of a 'no deal' Brexit, to mitigate that on Wales, and we would be powerless, essentially, to defend ourselves. The disrespect shown to Wales by Westminster over the past few years is actually beyond belief. They've taken powers from us, they've refused to let Welsh Ministers see draft plans for replacement schemes for European funding. You told us yesterday, Minister, that they refused to listen to your concerns over plans for immigration, and also that we've had very little input—well, no input at all—into plans for the shared prosperity fund.
The probable future Prime Minister intends to wipe over £400 million from the Welsh budget by giving a tax cut to the very richest in society. And today, as we've already heard, they've refused to allow the First Minister of Wales access to a ministerial car for his visit to Brussels because he refused to agree to sell Welsh interests down the river—an absolutely outrageous break of protocol, unprecedented, as you said, and a disgraceful act of disrespect towards our country.
Minister, this can't go on. We've got to stand up for ourselves and the interests of the people we're duty bound to represent. Will you therefore agree to consider establishing a Welsh constitutional convention to carefully consider the constitutional options available for Wales, including independence? A constitutional convention is something the former First Minister Carwyn Jones called for at a UK level, but it didn't happen, despite tireless efforts over many years on his part. So, we must now do it for ourselves.
We need to know what options are available to us in Wales as the UK constitutional crisis deepens and we need leverage to protect ourselves against a hostile Westminster Government. Our NHS is in danger, our economy stands on the brink of a 'no deal' catastrophe. We must defend our citizens. Will you therefore consider adopting this course of action?
We take every opportunity to stand up for the interests of the people of Wales in any engagement we have with any part of the UK, including most directly the UK Government. We will all, as Ministers, continue to do that. We take every possible opportunity to describe and to fight for the interests of the people of Wales. On the last supplementary, in relation to the question of preparations, I should say that the fact that I don't believe it is possible to fully mitigate the consequences of a 'no deal' Brexit does not mean that, as a responsible Government, we should not and do not take measured and proportionate preparations in order to anticipate the worst impact, and seek to do what we can to deal with them. We are, as I know that she's aware, taking a significant suite of steps across all portfolios in order to do that. Indeed, in the last few weeks, we've taken stock of what further steps we might be able to take with the prospect of a deferred exit date into the autumn. It remains important for us to do that, not withstanding our view that the damage ultimately can't be fully mitigated, to say the least.
She makes the point about independence. Of course, we know that our colleagues in the Scottish Government advocate for that position there. The difference there is they stood on a manifesto arguing the case for independence and won, and therefore have claimed the entitlement to bring forward that legislation. That isn't the case here in Wales.
3. What discussions has the Counsel General held regarding the role of Welsh ports after Brexit? OAQ54001
Welsh ports are a critical international gateway and source of high-quality jobs. This could easily be preserved if we remain in the single market and the customs union. Facing the risk of a catastrophic 'no deal', we are working closely with local partners to mitigate the damage to our ports.
Thank you very much for that. As you know, there are a fair few ports in my region, and one of the opportunities for Wales if we leave the EU could be the development of free ports, as they would allow for goods to be imported to parts of Wales, stored or manufactured into finished products, and then exported, all without taxes and tariffs. Of course, we have free ports in the UK already. Last year, the economy Minister said he'd asked Haven Waterway enterprise zone to look at creating a free port. However, in February this year you told Adam Price that it's difficult to see how free ports or free zones could exist within a customs union. Now, your Government's now confirmed that it will campaign to stay within the EU. So, does that mean that the development of free ports in Wales is off the table?
We recognise the potential benefits of free ports generally, but there are practical challenges, which is what I was referring to in my earlier response, I think, which is around loss of tax revenue, displacement, sustainability, and so on. Decisions on free ports and customs arrangements more generally, obviously, are in the hands of the UK Government. From our point of view, the economic interest of our ports and of our economy at large is best protected by remaining part of a customs union, and if that comes at the cost of being able to develop particular free port discussions, then I think that is a price worth paying in the overall picture in terms of the overall impact on our economy.
Quite simply, the port of Holyhead in my constituency is one of the major ports between the UK and the EU. Would the Minister agree with me that a Brexit of any kind is bound to pose significant challenges to the port but that leaving without a deal would certainly lead to the loss of trade through that port?
I thank the Member for the question. I was in Holyhead recently, discussing this question with the people in the port there. They have plans, of course, for all sorts of Brexit scenarios. As a Government, we have been preparing, as the Member will know, back-up plans, contingency plans, regarding the impact on transport of any form of exit, and specifically of leaving without a deal. We cannot rely on infrastructure schemes in Dublin and Rosslare in terms of timing that to ensure that transport will be able to move easily post Brexit, if we leave the EU. So, it's important that we have contingency plans for that, but the core of the Member's question is whether any kind of Brexit is better, and the answer, of course, is 'no'.
Counsel General, news yesterday highlighted that the EU Commission is in fact working on a plan to use IT solutions to help goods cross the Irish border after Brexit. Similar plans have been put into place by the French Government in Calais. Indeed, as far as back as 2016, the EU Parliament itself compiled a report that showed how a smart border can be used between the EU and the UK. What assessments has the Welsh Government done on IT solutions, and could you publish any such preparation, if we have any?
Our view is that the sort of IT solutions that the Member is describing in her question are essentially long-term solutions to this. Of course, we know that there are IT activities under way to seek to ameliorate some of the consequences of a Brexit of any sort. Those are matters that are obviously, as she will be aware, driven principally by HMRC, which is reserved to the UK Government. But the prospect that that is a solution to the level of disruption that could easily be caused by a Brexit of any sort, and in particular a 'no deal 'Brexit, I think is something of a fantasy.
4. Will the Counsel General make a statement on EU structural funds support for apprenticeships and skills training in Wales? OAQ54014
The current EU structural funds programmes are investing £206 million to support a total of 159,000 apprenticeships across Wales between 2015 and 2023. This is part of the overall investment of £861 million that the EU programmes are making in skills and in employability in Wales.
During yesterday's debate on the shared prosperity fund, Nick Ramsay said that there are unanswered questions about the future of the shared prosperity fund, which led me once again to question why on earth he's a Tory. He surely too nice and intelligent for that kind of activity. [Laughter.] I think the future—[Interruption.] Well, let me get to the question. The future of the structural funds has a huge impact for skills and development and training in my constituency. In Caerphilly town, ACT Training have benefited from European social fund support, which delivers Government apprenticeship, traineeship and Jobs Growth Wales programmes. In Ystrad Mynach, Educ8 benefited from the same and, of course, Coleg y Cymoedd have built into their work ESF-funded programmes too. So, would you agree with me—and perhaps with Nick Ramsay—that the shared prosperity fund needs to be clearly directed towards these programmes and that the UK Government needs to make a commitment on that fund and that that direction needs to be put towards particularly those kinds of educational programmes too?
Well, I thank the Member for his supplementary question, which I think illustrates, doesn't it, in a very real way, in his constituency, the beneficial impact that EU programmes have had in the lives of individual constituents and that, sometimes, the debates we have around EU programmes are at a level of generality, and he's brought that down to the connection with individual communities and constituencies. I absolutely would echo the sentiment in his question that it is absolutely vital for the UK Government now to provide those concrete assurances, which will enable us to continue to make use of those funds here in Wales, to make use of them differently perhaps—align them better with our priorities here—and to deliver on the ground the sorts of advantages those funds have delivered over many, many years. It's incumbent now on the UK Government to put us in Wales in that position. Those decisions should be taken by the Welsh Government, as they have been, and the funds should be made available to the fullest extent that they are currently available. We are, as the Assembly in passing its motion yesterday made clear, very concerned that the UK Government is dealing with an issue of such vital importance to Wales in a way that is apparently so disrespectful of the devolution boundary. I know that he will join me in calling on the UK Government to reflect on that and under, perhaps, a new Prime Minister to change course, to make real the commitments that we will have not a penny less and not a power taken away.
The Minister will know that the youth opportunity index consistently shows that young people growing up in deprived areas have the least access to opportunities. The index ranks each local authority in Wales by levels of educational attainment and employment outcomes for young people, including a range of measures from GCSE performance to participation in higher education and apprenticeships. We also know that one of the best economic levers that Government has is to improve the level of skills training and availability of things like apprenticeships. This has been the consistent policy of the UK and the Welsh Government, in fairness. In any new structure, whatever we call it, the UK prosperity fund or whatever, it's going to be important that parts of the United Kingdom that need particular assistance receive that above and beyond their current block grant. Now, that would properly emulate what currently happens in the EU, where certain areas get vast levels of assistance, and that's basically transferred from the wealthier parts of the European Union. That's what we want, and we can only have that if it's constructed on a UK basis, and, of course, it's got to be informed by the priorities at the level of subsidiarity where this operates, and it would be for the Welsh Government held accountable to this place that would be the key level in Wales. But it is a partnership, and we need to start to reach out and offer solutions to our colleagues in Westminster as well about how we want to see this constructed. It shouldn't be a zero-sum game, where one side wins out over the other.
The Member started referring to the benefits that young people have received as a consequence of some of this support, and he's absolutely right to do that. A number of the EU-funded programmes have specifically been targeted on getting young people into employment, improving their skills, and so it's hardly a surprise, is it, that younger people can see more clearly, perhaps, some of the benefits of continued participation in EU programmes than, perhaps, other parts of society?
He talks about providing solutions to the question of how the shared prosperity fund can be designed. I wish there had been an opportunity to do that. The truth of the matter is, when I spoke with the Secretary of State for Wales, I specifically offered the support of the Welsh Government in designing a consultation that would work for Wales and would reflect the principles that we feel are echoed in all parts of Welsh society, economy and public services, and that has not been taken up. It is absolutely essential that we here, as the Welsh Government, are able to design a system that best supports the young people that he refers to in his question across Wales, particularly in disadvantaged communities. And until we get the realisation of those commitments by the UK Government, we're not going to be in a position to do that.
5. What discussions has the Counsel General held on the question to be asked in the event of a second referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union? OAQ54003
I have pressed the UK Government Ministers to prepare for a second referendum in meetings with both the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. I have not so far discussed with them or other stakeholders what the question or questions might be.
Can I thank the Counsel General for that reply? In the course of the last three years, he's moved from a position of saying that he respected the result of the referendum now to giving a full-throated clarion call to reversing it. Can I suggest to him, therefore, the sort of question he would like to see on the ballot paper is, 'Do you want to remain in the EU or do you want to stay in the EU?', and that this would be fully consistent with the views of Mr Juncker, expressed in 2015, that there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties, and what he said at the time of the French referendum on the Lisbon treaty that, 'If it's a "yes", on we go, if it's a "no", we continue'—the EU is fundamentally an anti-democratic body that has no interest in the views of the people, and it's a disgrace that the Labour Party, which likes to thinks of itself as the party of the people, is going along with the Euro elite when the majority of its own members voted against it?
Well, I do regret that the Member chooses to take such a facile approach to such an important question. It's absolutely the case that there's no mandate for the sort of 'no deal' Brexit that he advocates, and that is now what we are careering headlong towards. In that situation, as I said to Darren Millar earlier, it is fundamentally irresponsible not to put the question back to the people. He will well know that the position that I have advocated here on behalf of the Government was an attempt to see if we could find a form of Brexit reflecting the principles agreed with Plaid Cymru in 'Securing Wales' Future'. Because of the intransigence of the Conservative Party in Parliament, that has been impossible, and it's clear the country's divided on the question of how we resolve this matter, and in those circumstances, a referendum is the means of resolving that question.
6. Will the Counsel General outline what additional 'no deal' preparatory measures the Welsh Government is undertaking in relation to health and social services prior to 31 October 2019? OAQ53998
Yes. Significant work has been undertaken across health and social care to prepare for a 'no deal' Brexit. A review of the sector’s preparedness has recently been undertaken, which provided considerable assurance about preparations. Work will continue to ensure preparatory measures are as robust as possible.
Thank you. According to the 'Managing Brexit/EU withdrawal in health and social care in Wales' document produced by the NHS Confederation for all health and social care professionals in Wales, health boards and trusts have been working to ensure robust plans are in place to manage any public health scenario. It is noted, however, that existing systems have been tested and have led to the finding that they are robust enough to withstand 'no deal'-related disturbances. This is positive news, of course. However, I would be grateful if you could provide an update on your workings with the pharmaceutical sector and UK Government so to help ensure that there is not a medicine shortage should we leave without a deal in October.
I thank the Member for that question. I recently met with Public Health Wales to discuss, in particular, the impact of Brexit. The review that we have been undertaking proposed a small number of actions that we're taking forward, including clinical input into decision making around some of the steps that would flow from a Brexit scenario, improving the robustness of some of the procurement that we have in relation to stock that is usually purchased by health boards, other than that which is held centrally by NHS Wales's shared services, and also maintaining, or improving, the awareness of various stakeholders in the health sector of the processes that we've already put in place to manage circumstances where certain supplies might come under pressure.
She will know that we have purchased warehouse capacity in south Wales to maintain stocks of medical supplies, which continues, and we work with the UK Government to maintain the arrangements currently in place in relation to the buffer for medical supplies. Our advice to people in Wales and to health boards and to practitioners is that they should not be stockpiling and they should not be seeking or issuing longer prescriptions than otherwise would be the case.
Finally, question 7—Siân Gwenllian.
7. Will the Counsel General provide an update on the Welsh Government's policy regarding a people's vote? OAQ54020
Thank you for that question. Most recently, I provided an update in my response to the Plaid Cymru debate last week. By supporting the motion on a confirmatory European Union referendum, we made our policy position clear.
On this side, of course, we welcome this new position from your Government, but as well as words, what we need now is action. Will your Government, therefore, work with my party in order to put pressure on the Welsh Government to hold a people's vote and to work with us to plan on how to do so? When I did ask this before the European elections, I had quite a lukewarm response, if I'm right. I hope you can be more positive today.
I recall that in my response last time I said that I was very happy to collaborate on this issue, and that's still the case. I would be happy to have discussions as to how best we can do that. From our perspective as a party, I'll be travelling to London later this week to discuss this question with the Labour Party in Westminster, to bring pressure to bear on them as to how they can take specific steps to bring this question of a referendum before Parliament in Westminster.
Thank you, Counsel General. Point of order—David Rees.
Diolch, Llywydd. I ask this point of order because whilst the Brexit Minister was answering a question to her party leader, the Brexit Party Member for north Wales shouted from a sedentary position, quite clearly, because I'm on the opposite side of the Chamber, and I could hear it, 'You liar'. Now, that is unacceptable behaviour or language for any Member in this Chamber. Whilst there may be differences of opinions, calling someone a liar is something completely different and unacceptable in this behaviour. I therefore ask you to consider this position and ask for a withdrawal of that statement and an apology to the Member.
Thank you for the point of order and for giving me advance notice of it, and allowing me to reflect on the accusation that was made by a Brexit Party Member today, but also, last week, a similar accusation using the same term by a Plaid Cymru Member against a Brexit Party Member. In general, too many of you are too keen to be disrespectful to other Members in this place, and I don't want to be spending all my time policing the use of language by Members in this place. I want to listen to the quality of your debate. But, obviously, an accusation of 'liar' is not acceptable by one Member to another Member and will need to stop. Given last week's incident and this week's incident, I'm now going to consider this a 1-1 draw. And I am going to say that it's the end of the game, and accusations of 'liar' and disrespectful language is not going to be tolerated further. I want you all to reflect on that in all your contributions, both from a sedentary position and when you're on your feet. And I thank David Rees for giving me the opportunity to make that clear from today.
We will now move on to the topical questions—[Interruption.] I need no support from one of the Members at the back, and he knows who he is. The topical questions—and the first topical question is by Mick Antoniw.
3. Will the Deputy Minister make a statement in response to the announcement that a number of citizens in Wales are likely to lose their entitlement to a free television licence? 321
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Thank you for that question. The financial settlement for 2015 was agreed between the UK Government and the BBC, and that included bringing an end to the funding for the concession for those over 75 years of age, without any consultation or any scrutiny by the UK Parliament or this Parliament or the devolved administrations. The decision will impact on the most vulnerable and isolated people in our society.
I thank you for that answer, Minister. For many older people, free tv licences are absolutely vital. Tv often offers companionship and an escape from loneliness, it provides entertainment and access to information, and for many, it is their window on the world. Now, the UK Government knows this, which is why they have passed the buck to the BBC to do their dirty work for them. Would the Minister agree that this is a shameful, a mean and a despicable way to treat our senior citizens—the generation that has given so much service to our country? And does he join me in calling on all the Tory party leadership candidates to pledge to provide the BBC with the funding needed so that all of those over the age of 75 years can continue to receive this benefit?
I must say that I do agree with the Member's comments, and that the pressure that has been placed on the BBC and the position that the BBC has been placed in is entirely unacceptable. Indeed, I would go further and say that it is disrespectful of the stable relationship and the established relationship that has existed in the UK between public broadcasters such as the BBC and Governments of all hues.
Broadcasting is not devolved, and the BBC operates independently of Government. It's not the role of the Welsh Government, therefore, to tell the BBC to continue to reform or to scrap the concession, but I do think that it's crucial that we do tell the UK Government that we do not believe that the way that they have operated is just in any way whatsoever. And I would agree particularly that it's important for people, wherever they live in the UK, to be able, in terms of their democratic rights, to receive information on issues of the day and local news, and this is particularly important, of course, for us here in Wales.
Minister, I think your colleague Lord Hall, who is the chairman of the BBC—I would be grateful if you let him know what the people of Wales, especially the over-75s—. I know it's a totally different legal entity, the BBC, but the people in my region over the age of 75—they're living singly, some with medical conditions, no relations living with them, and they're living in the areas that certainly need help, and this was a minor help—[Interruption.] Can you listen, please? This is a little help to them while they're of the age after 75, which is an age when people need it. Some are war veterans; some of those served, worked and helped this nation tremendously, not within the United Kingdom—all over the world. So, we need to help them out. Some have a medical condition. So, Minister—[Interruption.] No, no. Minister—I am talking to the Minister because he's got to speak to his colleague Lord Hall, who is the chairman of the BBC. Please let this gentleman know what the—[Interruption.]
Actually, this was given as an incentive by the Conservative Party. Why don't you understand? It was not given by Labour; this facility was given by the Tory Party. [Interruption.] Listen.
So, I would like, Minister, to speak—[Interruption.] Let me speak, please. Presiding Officer, there is something very strange in this Chamber. I would like to give a message that we are all as one on this position, at this stage we are all together, and we're not talking—. I'm not saying a different thing to what the BBC has said. I am trying to work it out. We would like to help the people over the age of 75 to have the same facility carry on forever. Thank you.
I thought I had explained the situation clearly at the outset. Neither I nor anyone else here has the locus to express a view on what the BBC should do, but what has happened here, as I tried to explain, is that the financial settlement was agreed between the Conservative Government of the UK and the BBC. That wasn't a decision that provided an opportunity for any of us in this place or in any House of the UK Parliament to express a view on.
Therefore, my emphasis would be to say this: we should prepare carefully a robust case to support the reform of the licence and try and bring the licence back to its actual value as it was when the BBC received adequate funding for the services it provided, because the impossible situation that the BBC has found itself in and been placed in, as you will know from the statements made by the BBC at the time, and I refer to the note received from BBC Cymru Wales on 10 June, namely, that the BBC had been placed in a position where they were threatening to cut back on a range of services—BBC Two, BBC Four, BBC News, the BBC's channel in Scotland, Radio 5 Live and 5 Live Sports Extra, which are the two radio stations that I enjoy most, and many other radio stations. Now, that is an impossible situation where the BBC isn't sufficiently funded to provide the range of services that is currently available. But it was a decision taken by the UK Government, and the BBC, I assume, had to agree because they couldn't receive any additional funding.
Further to what's already been said, the decision taken by the UK Government to transfer the burden for providing free licences for people over 75 was entirely cynical. The upshot of this was to place the responsibility on the BBC to implement a commitment made by the Tories in their own manifesto. The BBC was then in the very difficult position of having to choose to cut back on the free licences or to cut services and jobs.
I sympathise entirely with everyone who opposed the decision, particularly those people who will be affected by the unreasonable actions of the Conservative Government. My concern is that pensioners who are not wealthy will find themselves shouldering an additional burden that is entirely unfair. The reason for this is that those who receive pension credits will continue to receive free licences, but only 60 per cent of those qualified for pension credit actually claim it at the moment. This will mean that 40 per cent of those who would qualify for pension credit but don't receive it will face having to pay £154 per annum to receive an entirely necessary service in order to keep isolation and loneliness away from the door.
I ask the Minister what steps he and his Government could take, perhaps in collaboration with the BBC, in order to increase the percentage of people who claim pension credit. I accept that this is non-devolved, but are there any steps that you could take in terms of a campaign to raise awareness of the rights of older people, for example, as the BBC has mentioned that they might do in order to prevent pensioners from being hit by an unfair financial burden? Will you put pressure on the Westminster Government to make a u-turn and provide this subsidy themselves once again?
I agree with the spirit behind those comments and I welcome them, but talking plainly here, I don't think that my job as one of the Ministers of Wales is to lobby Westminster. My job is to show their hypocrisy, and to say that their behaviour is completely unacceptable and unjust to older people in Wales and in the rest of the United Kingdom. The way that they have accepted and used—[Interruption.] Excuse me. I don't think that you may—[Interruption.] Thank you.
Therefore, I'm of the opinion that the way that they have used the benefits system, namely credits in general, as a way of restoring some sort of means test—something that we've criticised in this place in the past—as a way of proving that older people deserve being able to receive a broadcasting service without having to pay for a licence fee in addition, and then, in doing so, they have undermined the freedom that was available for general broadcasting and have emphasised that there's some sort of new relationship being established between the benefits system and deserving a broadcasting service. I think that that also is an issue that we need to reveal and oppose clearly.
Would the Minister agree with me that this decision is a complete breach of faith by the BBC? On its own website on 6 July 2015, referring to a deal the BBC had made with the Government in the run-up to the renewal of the BBC charter in 2017, it said that the BBC would,
'cover the cost of providing free television licences for over-75s',
in return for the licence fee rising in line with inflation, which it has done. Therefore, it's the BBC's decision that here is to be criticised.
Would he also agree with me that funding an organisation like the BBC by means of a poll tax on owners of television sets is an absurd way of going about things in the twenty-first century? It might have been allright at the time the BBC was founded, when it was the only channel, or indeed up to the 1950s when it was one of only two. But now that there is such a multiplicity of forms of entertainment that are available, it is a ridiculous way for people to fund an organisation that they may not have any interest in watching. I, for one, have no interest in contributing towards Gary Lineker's £1.8 million-a-year pay packet from the BBC for talking balls rather than kicking them.
I'm not sure if I'm to take those questions as a serious contribution on this issue, because I thought I'd made it entirely clear at the very outset that this was a discussion between the BBC at a corporate level, the board of the BBC centrally, and the UK Government, and therefore that we, and certainly I, as Minister with an overview of broadcasting, didn't have any opportunity to express a view on this issue. That's why we have made entirely apparent, in the comments that we have made on the consultation, our opposition to what has been put forward.
Therefore, I have to emphasise that, as far as I am concerned, what we are calling for is that we encourage the UK Government and the BBC to seek to introduce a seamless mechanism as soon as possible, rather than an option of a means test being implemented, as is happening at the moment.
Thank you very much, Deputy Minister. The next topical question this afternoon is a question by Andrew R.T. Davies, to be answered by the Minister for Economy and Transport. Andrew R.T. Davies.
2. In light of a report by the Welsh Affairs Committee stating air passenger duty should be fully devolved to Wales, will the Minister outline the Welsh Government's plans for abolishing or reducing the rate if the power is transferred to Wales? 322
Yes, of course. Our intention would be to use APD to secure optimal growth for both the airport and for Wales, working with the other levers available to us. Ultimately, this means giving serious consideration to reducing APD rates. Any proposed changes to APD would be impact assessed and, of course, subject to full consultation with businesses and, importantly, the public.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I am a little concerned by your pronouncements over the last couple of days where you said that APD, if transferred, could go up, in light of the former First Minister's comments, in particular on long haul, where he said,
'yes we start from the position of looking to get rid of it, certainly not to increase it.'
You, yourself, are on record as saying that if APD was transferred and lowered, potentially an extra 0.5 million passengers could use Cardiff Airport. I'm unaware of a consumer tax that, if it's raised, actually incentivises people to use it. So, can you clarify your comments, and in particular some of the remarks of the finance Secretary, that, given some of the pronouncements that have been made by the Welsh Government over the last couple of weeks, actually instead of decreasing APD if it was to be transferred, you as a Government might well be looking to increase it to meet your environmental goals?
No, I don't believe that I have suggested that it could be increased. I think I said that any consideration of varying APD would have to be set against the environmental impact, and we'd have to vary APD in line also with our obligations and requirements under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. We've always been clear in saying that we would use APD to make Cardiff Airport and Wales more competitive.
Now, I believe—based on emerging technology and the way that the aerospace industry is going and the new fuel systems that are being adopted by aircraft carriers—that we would be able to increase passenger numbers utilising APD and potentially reducing it or abolishing it in a way that would have a net carbon benefit for the environment. I think that that would have to be tested, of course, against a thorough environmental impact assessment, but in no way have I said that I would be raising—or that the Government would be raising—APD. Quite the opposite. Our position is still that our preference would be for the removal or reduction of APD.
It can be a bit frustrating sitting on these benches. I very much welcome the report from the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. We're pleased that the argument and that opinions from politicians and other political parties are catching up with us, whether it’s on the devolution of policing, or the pop tax, or now air passenger duty. It can be frustrating waiting for others to come on board with our ideas, but we are there.
I was looking back at a vote in 2014, when Jonathan Edwards was talking in a debate on the Finance Bill. All Conservative Members of Parliament voted against the devolution of air passenger duty. None of the Labour Members turned up for that one. But, we are where we are today. My question, quite simply, to the Minister is how will he now use this report as an additional lever in order to try to get the UK Government to change its mind.
Well, I think that, first and foremost, the UK Government need to respond speedily to this report. As the Chair of the committee himself said, he doesn't always favour the devolution of powers, but he recognises how important this could be in helping Cardiff Airport and Wales become far more competitive. There are, of course, two questions. On whether to devolve it, in all fairness to politicians on all sides, I think that many politicians have had a consistent, long-held view about whether to devolve it. Some have opposed it. Some have been in favour of it. But, I think that all Members have held their positions for quite some time and, in all generality, Dirprwy Lywydd, Members have been consistent in their approach.
The second question is what to do with it. We've always been clear that we wish to use it as an additional tool to make Cardiff Airport more competitive, to drive up passenger numbers, to reduce the number of car journeys that are undertaken—in our view, unnecessarily—from the catchment area of Cardiff Airport to airports such as Gatwick, such as Bristol. And, if you can take cars and other vehicles, and particularly freight, off the motorway network, you are in turn reducing carbon emissions. And, as I said in answer to Andrew R.T. Davies, technological changes are occurring at great pace within the aerospace industry. We are at the forefront of supporting Airbus in capturing the wing of tomorrow, in developing new composite materials, because energy efficiency, fuel efficiency, is the name of the game, in terms of how to become competitive in the aerospace sector. And, of course, just recently, Virgin Atlantic operated a flight from Orlando to Gatwick using, incredibly, waste carbon dioxide from a steelworks. That demonstrates how the sector, how aircraft transport, is becoming far more responsive to environmental concerns.
Is the Minister suggesting the devolution of APD as an alternative to the M4 relief road? I'm not sure it would be on the same scale in terms of impact on congestion. I wonder, though, could he clarify, because he's used this word 'varying APD', and I think Andrew R.T. Davies has, entirely understandably, considered that might reflect a change of policy from the previous First Minister saying 'reducing', since varying may mean either increasing or reducing. The Minister has also said that he wants to consider this decision in light of environmental impact assessments, and I've heard some people—at least from a sedentary position on the Plaid side—suggesting that APD might need to go up in order to reduce the climate change impact.
Can I also just ask for clarity on the legal situation here? You said just now that the well-being of future generations Act requires these environmental impact assessments. If so, why wasn't this realised or at least spoken about previously? And why didn't he take the opportunity of the 2017 York—sorry, the York Aviation report was 2014, but the Northpoint study in 2017 that his Government commissioned, that looked into quite a lot of these issues around where traffic was going to go? Why didn't that also consider the environmental impact? You also mentioned just now that it could lead to an increase of up to 500,000 passengers from Cardiff Airport. The York Aviation report said it might reduce Bristol by a million, and even his own Northpoint report said it might reduce Bristol by 600,000. So, why that discrepancy?
Well, I think, first of all, the Northpoint Aviation report, which was peer-reviewed, Dirprwy Llywydd, presented evidence that showed there'd be reduced carbon impacts as a result of shorter road journeys to Cardiff Airport if APD was devolved and the rates were subsequently reduced. And that's why we've always held the position that our preference would be to reduce or abolish APD. That position has not changed. But it is only right and proper and responsible to ensure that a decision on whether to vary downward, in this case, APD, is acceptable for businesses and the people through a consultation, and is in line not just with—and I think the Member may be conflating two pieces of legislation—not just with the well-being of future generations Act, but also, crucially, with the environment Act as well.
But, as I've said, it's my view, based on the evidence that's been presented, that reducing or abolishing APD, and therefore attracting more passengers to Cardiff Airport away from more distant airports, would lead to carbon reduction on the whole.
Thank you. The third topical question this afternoon, again to be answered by the Minister for Economy and Transport. Jayne Bryant.
1. Will the Minister make a statement in response to the announcement that Quinn Radiators has gone into administration? 324
This is clearly deeply disappointing news for its workforce. Our thoughts are with those dedicated and loyal employees and their families at this incredibly difficult time. Once appointed, we will seek to work with the administrator to do all that we can do to minimise the impact on the local community and the wider economy.
Thank you, Minister. Minister, this has been devastating news, which came out of the blue. It's a blow for Newport, the surrounding area, but especially for the workers and their families. Two hundred and eighty workers turned up for work on Monday morning to find out that they had lost their jobs. They describe being told that they'd lost their jobs as 'gutting', 'shocked' and 'a slap in the face'. They had no warning. Worryingly, as the local Member, who had visited Quinn's on a number of occasions, I was not informed of any difficulties. Similarly, Unite the union was given no prior notice. The facility at Newport was the most advanced of its kind in Europe. The radiators designed and made in Newport boasted the lowest environmental impact of any radiators on the market. Quinn Radiators were the only major manufacturer to produce all their radiators in the UK, and they also sourced their steel from Port Talbot.
I'm grateful for the Minister's quick intervention in setting up today's special meeting with Careers Wales, the Department for Work and Pensions, Citizens Advice bureaux, and potential employers. I visited this morning, and it was clear to see the very human stories behind these job losses. This is a dedicated, hard-working workforce; they're loyal and skilled, and they will be an asset to any company. And this is evident to me by the local employers who have contacted me, informing me of vacancies.
Minister, I hope you can offer your reassurances that ongoing support will be offered in the coming days and weeks, and that Welsh Government will do all it can to make sure these workers get the backing that they deserve.
Can I thank Jayne Bryant for her topical question, and also thank her for her speedy response to this issue when it emerged? Immediate contact was established, and I know that Jayne Bryant has been incredibly supportive of those people who have been affected by this decision. And I would echo her comments about the way individuals at the company were informed: it was quite appalling that they turned up at the gate to be met by men in grey suits—as it's been described—to be told that their jobs were gone. That is no way to treat a workforce, a dedicated workforce. We will, I can assure the Member, give all the support possible to affected workers. I'm pleased to say that the taskforce that's been established will meet tomorrow. It will have representatives of a number of organisations able to offer advice and assistance to those affected. It will include, of course, officials from Welsh Government, it will include individual professionals from Jobcentre Plus, from Careers Wales, from Newport council, and also from the Citizens Advice bureaux. This is going to be a difficult period for those affected by the announcement, but we will support those people and their families and their community all we can.
Minister, the announcement of 280 job losses at Quinn Radiators has come as a severe blow to this highly skilled, hard-working, and loyal workforce in Newport. It is also concerning to hear that the company received £3 million in loan support from the Welsh Government as recently as 2016. Can we have your assurance, Minister, that you will give every assistance in finding a buyer for this company, or to provide training opportunities for the workforce to find other employment? And what action do you intend to take to secure the return of the money lent in this case to this company? Thank you.
Can I thank Mohammad Asghar for his questions, and begin by saying we make no apology for supporting a dynamic business, an innovative business? And, when my predecessor announced the support of Welsh Government for this company, she rightly identified that this was one of the most advanced companies in that particular business sector, as Jayne Bryant has today repeated. And the fact is that cheaper imports, of a lower quality, not so advanced—in the way that Jayne Bryant has outlined—have led to the company's demise. That is deeply regrettable, because the products were of the highest quality. Yes, the business was secured for Wales through a loan, and we have already recovered approximately £0.5 million of that loan. Of course, every effort will be made to recoup it, and officials will be working closely with the administrator. And we've already met as well with the Development Bank of Wales to discuss how to minimise the potential shortfall. But it's as a result of our investment in businesses in Wales that we have a record number of business births, a record number of businesses in existence, and record low unemployment and economic inactivity. This is desperately, desperately bad news for those workers affected. But it's as a result of the Welsh Government's dynamic means of working that I can say, with confidence, that we will be able to find those people alternative work in the area.
I was deeply saddened to hear the news on Monday that 280 workers in my region faced redundancy as a consequence of Quinn Radiators going into administration. As has been said, they were loyal, hard-working people, who gave the company years of exemplary service. My heart goes out to all of them and their families. I'd like to know, Minister, whether you were aware of the difficulties the company was facing. As has been said, one of the most horrible aspects of what has happened to them was how late in the day they found out. There was one interview with a man on the BBC who had taken out a £6,000 debt that morning. If workers such as he had been more informed, they could have taken that into account when planning for the future.
I'm aware, again, as has been said, that an event was held this morning to offer support to the former workers. Could you please tell us how well attended that was and what plans are in place to make contact with those who were not able to attend?
I'd also like to know how you'll ensure that everyone is made fully aware of the support that is available through the ReAct scheme, for example. Will you be offering support for them in terms of gaining access to lost pay and making claims for redundancy payouts? Could you also commit to investing the money that you will hopefully recover from the loan provided to the company in job creation in the area and upskiling workers who will need to find alternative employment?
And finally, Minister, I'd like to reiterate the call made by Adam Price and Bethan Sayed for an audit to be held of current major employers in Wales so that Welsh Government can take a preventative attitude towards job sustainability by having a clear idea of where problems are likely to develop so that they can act decisively in order to protect jobs rather than reacting when they're lost.
Well, can I thank the Member for her questions? I share her anger at what has happened, but I can assure the Member that we've actually been carrying out a risk register process for quite some time. Obviously, we are not in a position—. And we would not wish to publish an audit or risk register of employers in Wales, because, of course, any companies that are identified as being in a vulnerable or fragile position, if that was to be made public, their position would only worsen and in all probability lead to collapse. So, where we have the ability to draw down intelligence, and that intelligence is based on a partnership of information being shared with us, we are able to assess whether a business is in trouble and then we are able to make proactive advances to that business.
In the case of Quinn Radiators, we became aware of difficulties late last week. We were unable to share that information due to the fact that administrators had to be appointed and the workforce had to be informed as well. But the fact of the matter is, as Jayne Bryant said, she was never informed of any difficulties; Unite the union were never informed of any difficulties. As far as I'm aware, the local authority was never informed of difficulties, nor was the workforce. This came out of the blue for the workforce and for all stakeholders and partners in government at all levels. And, again, I would reiterate what I said about how shameful it was that people were informed of the decision at the gates as they turned up to begin a day's work.
I don't have the details of attendance at the event that the Member refers to, which took place today. However, I can assure the Member that the taskforce will be meeting tomorrow. The taskforce will have direct access to all those affected by the decision. The assistance that will be offered will include the tried and tested React programme, and I've also insisted that financial advisers should be on hand to be able to assist individuals who have made recent investments along the lines of the individual that the Member has identified today. As I said, this is going to be an incredibly difficult period for those affected, but we will offer all of the support that is available to them.
It is always extremely regrettable when we see a large employer go into administration and we are all aware of the distress and uncertainty this brings to the employees and their families. I'm sure that the sympathy of this whole Chamber goes out to those families at this very distressing time. But, as has been said, what was so distressing about this closure is the way it was carried out. For employees to turn up at the factory to be told that their factory was to be closed is quite unacceptable behaviour, and particularly as this company was in receipt of Welsh Government funds. I was going to say that they should have, at least out of courtesy, informed you, but you say that they did, but at a very, very late stage. Can we have your assurance that there will be full financial scrutiny of this company and the way they operated over the last few months so that we can be assured that it was run in a proper manner?
Yes, I can assure the Member of that and, as with other Members, I share David Rowlands's anger at the behaviour that was demonstrated earlier this week by individuals who I'm sure must feel quite ashamed of themselves. But can I just say, Dirprwy Lywydd, that the vast majority of businesses and employers in Wales are responsible employers, are compassionate employers, work with Welsh Government, with local authorities, with other Government agencies? The behaviour and actions that were taken by just a small number of people at Quinn Radiators do not reflect on the Welsh economy as a whole. We have, as a Welsh Government, an incredibly strong partnership with the private sector and with all our social partners, and as we roll out and intensify our actions through the economic action plan, we will develop stronger ways of working that lead to a fair work nation. We will work with businesses and with business representative groups to ensure that we support companies in future proofing themselves and that we support workers in ensuring that they have dignity in work and that they go to work looking forward to a day's work.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 4 on the agenda this afternoon is the 90-second statements. The first up this week is Jayne Bryant.
Last night I had the pleasure of hosting an event in the Senedd to mark Carers Week and to highlight the incredibly vital and often underappreciated work of carers. According to most recent estimates by Carers Wales, there are up to 400,000 in Wales, providing 96 per cent of care in our country.
As a society, we will always rely on unpaid carers, usually family members or loved ones. Carers Week is an opportunity to say 'thank you'—a time to recognise all the unpaid carers across every part of Wales who carry out their roles with dedication and humility. They are an often silent workforce whose contribution to our society is regularly overlooked. Unpaid carers hold families together, ensure people can remain at home, easing the strain on our health service and social services. They underpin our NHS and social care system, and there is no doubt that we could not do without them.
Responsibility lies with us to help carers care. The impact the role can have on both physical and mental health can be debilitating and long lasting. Nobody should be in a position where they’re sacrificing their own health just so they can look after a loved one. More must be done to support them. If their health fails, it often puts the cared for in a crisis situation. Unpaid carers deserve respite, they deserve recognition—not that they’re seeking it—and they deserve our unwavering support.
I want to highlight the work of the Calon Lân Society in Swansea. The sixteenth of March 2020 is the hundredth anniversary of Daniel James, who was was better known as Gwyrosydd, the writer of one of, if not the favourite Welsh hymn, 'Calon Lân'. Daniel James came from Treboeth in Swansea. His father died when he was young. He became a puddler at Morriston ironworks, and then worked at Landore tinplate works.
The recently formed Calon Lân Society are intending to hold a number of events and projects culminating in the publication of the complete poetical works of Daniel James and their translations into English. Also, on the centenary of his death on 16 March, it is intended to have a mass singing of 'Calon Lân' in iconic locations in Wales and worldwide, hopefully including the Senedd.
Other projects include a memorial stone in the grounds of the King's Head public house where he wrote a number of hymns and poems, commemorative stained glass windows in the six local schools to Treboeth, poems and pints, which I'm sure best exemplifies him, and concerts to be held at Ysgol Gyfun Bryntawe and at capel Caersalem.
I thank the Calon Lân Society for what they are doing to commemorate the life of a working-class Welsh poet and hymnwriter from Treboeth in Swansea.
Last week, those in the Muslim community of Wales and the wider world took part in Ramadan and the festival Eid that followed it. Many in our communities and politicians here went to visit mosques and shared in that experience. And this will go a long way, I believe, in developing mutual understanding and respect of one another. Learning about different faiths and cultures can empower us and allow us to become better people.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and it is a period of time for fasting, prayer, reflection and community. It is one of the five pillars of Islam. I took part in fasting for the first time this year with my husband and his family, who are over from India. It's a very individual experience, often allowing people to feel purified, and individuals may be given spiritual rewards for embracing it. It makes people assess their lives and how they live them, and it also is a sociable thing, with communities breaking their fast together, to eat together, to share experiences together. Eid, as many of you will know here today, is the festival of breaking that particular fast. It's the start of the lunar month and varies dependent on when the new moon is sighted by various religious authorities, and that's why you won't be able to put the date in stone in your calendars.
Again, people are required to give money to the poor or the needy before they partake in an Eid prayer. And that makes them think about other people as opposed to always thinking about themselves in this individualistic society that we live in—that's often a very good thing—it makes them care for others, and it is a time of celebration. Ultimately, it's vital that we learn about other faiths and cultures and respect one another and other people's faiths and cultures. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
The next item on the agenda is motions to elect Members to committees, and in accordance with Standing Orders 12.24 and 12.40, I propose that the motions to elect those Members to those committees are grouped for debate and for voting. I call on a member of the Business Committee to move, formally, the motions—Caroline Jones.
Motion NDM7072 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects Mark Reckless (Brexit Party) as a member of the Finance Committee.
Motion NDM7073 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects Mandy Jones (Brexit Party) as a member of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee.
Motion NDM7074 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects Caroline Jones (Brexit Party) as a member of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee.
Motion NDM7075 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:
a) David Rowlands (Brexit Party) as a member of the Standards of Conduct Committee; and
b) Caroline Jones (Brexit Party) as an alternate member of the Standards of Conduct Committee.
Formally. Thank you. No debate? [Objection.] I haven't got that far. It's all right. The proposal is to agree the motion, but I heard an 'object' there, so I defer voting under this item until voting time, where it will require a two-thirds majority of Members voting to vote in favour to be passed.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Item 5 on the agenda this afternoon is a debate on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee report, 'Physical Activity of Children and Young People', and I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Dai Lloyd.
Motion NDM7061 Dai Lloyd
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee on the physical activity of children and young people, which was laid in the Table Office on 7 March 2019.
Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I am pleased to take part in this very important debate today on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee’s report on physical activity of children and young people.
In Wales we are facing a national crisis in terms of our children and young people’s health. A higher proportion of children in Wales are overweight or obese, and report unhealthy lifestyle behaviours, compared to other UK nations. We know that active children are more likely to become active adults. Yet evidence from the University of Southampton notes that levels of physical activity and sedentariness among children in Wales are some of the poorest globally.
As part of this inquiry, we took a wide range of evidence. In addition to the usual formal evidence gathering carried out in committee meetings, we visited Bassaleg School to hear the views of pupils and teachers; held focus group discussions with stakeholders; and conducted a webchat with young people between the ages of 11 and 21 about their levels of activity and the barriers they face or have faced in becoming active. I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this work.
We have made 20 recommendations in this report, which, if implemented, would be a big step forward in driving the change and improvements that are needed to reverse this worrying trend. Our report covers a wide range of issues, across a number of ministerial portfolios, and I will try to cover as many of these as possible in the time available to me.
We heard compelling evidence that fundamental motor skills need to be taught at an early age. There is a misconception that all the skills will develop naturally in childhood, and that is just not the case. We heard evidence that, like many other academic skills, fundamental motor skills need developmentally appropriate instruction and opportunities to practice skills in enriched learning environments. Children who are delayed in fundamental motor skills are less likely to be physically active both now and in the future.
We heard about successful kinaesthetic instruction for pre-schoolers—SKIP—an evidence based programme of professional development that has been used to train teachers, teaching assistants and parents about the importance of early movement for child development. Dr Nalda Wainwright, director of the Welsh Institute for Physical Literacy, told us, and I quote,
'we train the teachers to understand how children move through those stages. They do it in literacy and numeracy, but nobody's taught them that in a physical context. There's been such a misconception in the world of academia around motor development—suggesting children learn that by themselves through play. But that's like chucking a bag of lett