Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd06/11/2019
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 I have received notification under Standing Order 12.58 that the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, Lee Waters, will answer questions on behalf of the Minister this afternoon. Therefore, the first question is from David Rees.
1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to protect the jobs of Welsh steelworkers? OAQ54632
Thank you. The Welsh Government continues to take a cross-Government approach to support the steel industry and protect the jobs of Welsh steelworkers. We have, over the last three years, provided significant investment to support the industry in key areas, including skills development, environmental improvements, and research and development.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Unlike the UK Government, which has failed to do anything on behalf of steel, and, I understand, even cancelled the latest steel council meeting, which was crucial because there's not one been held for 18 months, and they still haven't got one going—. They've also failed to actually produce an industrial strategy for the steel sector, and they've not even looked at tackling the issues of the equal playing field, particularly in energy costs, that we will need to have when we face a competitive global market in the steel sector.
I know that the Welsh Government, as you quite rightly pointed out, has been very active in supporting this industry and has been at the forefront, particularly for Welsh steelmakers, to ensure that steel stays at the heart of the Welsh industrial strategy. Can you answer as to whether the conditionality that the Welsh Government has put on some of that financial support to the works at Port Talbot, particularly in relation to the £30 million that was allocated to the Port Talbot works for the power plants, has been met, because the release of that money will allow the next stage of the power plant to progress, including, therefore, better use of waste gas, improvements in environmental standards, and more efficient and effective production, and lower cost because they're producing their own electricity rather than having to buy it off the grid at high costs that the UK Government are not addressing?
Thank you. I think David Rees has very well summarised there the state of play with the UK Government's absence of leadership on steel and the cancellation of the steel council meeting. We continue to be in close contact with Tata, as we have done for many years. As you noted, in the 2016 steel crisis, we provided £10 million skills funding towards an offer of £12 million towards the development of the workforce of Tata Steel. We've also offered some £666,000 for research and development into new product development.
In terms of the power plant, we have offered £8 million investment to date, but with the exception of the skills funding, Tata is unable to draw down the funding against these offers until we've agreed the conditions of funding. And, following the announcement in May that the proposed joint venture with Thyssenkrupp would not be going ahead, Tata Steel is now working on a new transformation plan for the company. And in light of these changes, we continue our engagement with the company, including discussions on potential support for the power plant.
As you are aware, Tata Steel in Shotton is a dynamic business and major exporter, but dependent upon the supply chain for sustainable British steel, and on feedstock from the heavy end in south Wales. On Monday, I received an e-mail, as did other Members representing the area, from Heathrow Airport, announcing that they're one of the 18 shortlisted Heathrow logistic hub sites, inviting them to formally enter the tender process for the Heathrow expansion. In response, your colleague the Minister for the Economy and Transport said he looked forward to continuing Welsh Government's work with the site promoters and the Heathrow team in this selection process. What will the Welsh Government therefore be doing in that context to support Tata, as well as the port in Cardiff—the other shortlisted Welsh bidder—to maximise the opportunities presented by this?
Well, it's excellent news that they've got through to the next round, and we've supported them all along the way, so we'll continue to offer that support to them. This is an investment that we welcome. If there is going to be this large infrastructure scheme in London, it's only fair that the benefits spread across the UK.
Minister, the Orb steelworks in Newport should continue in operation, and, with the right level of support from Tata Steel, UK Government and Welsh Government, it would be enabled to produce electrical steels for electric car production in the future. There's a very strong local campaign to keep the Orb works in production, and, indeed, it's been a feature of economic life in Newport since the end of the nineteenth century. Could you reiterate the Welsh Government's support for that, and would you welcome a campaign launched today by the South Wales Argus, which has launched a petition in support of retaining that Orb steelworks plant?
Well, I can be very clear to John Griffiths that the Welsh Government does not want the Orb steelworks to close. We've been in discussion with Tata and with Community Union to see what can be done. Tata has continued to state the case that the plant is making substantial losses and there is oversupply in the world market, and they don't feel that there is a viable future. Now, Community Union have commissioned consultants themselves—Sindex—to explore alternatives to closure for Orb, and have created an outline proposal, which indicates that, with Welsh Government funding and a range of other changes by the company, a viable future is possible. We've received a summary of that proposal, and we'll need to understand the detail of it and Tata Steel's response to the recommendations. The First Minister will be meeting Community Union to discuss the proposal, and we'll be making sure that we properly understand what role we can play to give this a viable future.
2. Will the Minister provide an update on measures to improve the A4042 trunk road at Llanellen? OAQ54622
Well, there are no immediate plans to improve the A4042 trunk road at Llanellen. The Welsh Government, however, does routinely monitor the performance of the trunk road network.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. You will no doubt be aware—or certainly your colleague Ken Skates is aware—of ongoing issues with flooding on the A4042 at Llanellen, particularly at this time of year. The road was closed again during the recent bad weather, causing traffic chaos for commuters. I'm particularly concerned that this route is going to be even more critical when accident and emergency, and other services, transfer from Nevill Hall to the new Grange University Hospital in Cwmbran, when also people from Brecon and Radnorshire and the south of Powys will be dependent on the new hospital as well, as this really could become a matter of life and death with increased journey times. I wonder if you could update us, or set in chain circumstances to update us, on improvements to this stretch of road, whether that be improved drainage, raising the road, or possibly, and probably best in the medium term, or longer term at least, a bypass for the village of Llanellen.
Well, as Nick Ramsay knows, this has been a problem for some 20 years or so and there is no simple solution to it. We are acutely aware of the problem and have spent some time investigating potential solutions. He will know that the existing bridge is a grade II listed structure, that it is next to a flood plain, and there is no simple engineering solution that would respect its existing characteristics or do the job within the existing footprint. We are doing what we can, working with local landowners, to maintain the land, to drain the ditches, and the delays when the road is closed are now becoming significantly lessened. There have been occasions when the road has been closed for a week, and I believe the most recent closure was for an hour. So, we are doing a lot to try and mitigate; we can't simply solve it. We are, of course, investing in rail, and the Chepstow service, which currently only gets two trains an hour, will increase capacity from mid December to four trains an hour. So, that's another intervention we're making to help with the situation. But if there's an easy and simple solution the Member has in mind we haven't considered, we'd certainly be willing to look at it.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. One of the last things that Alun Cairns did as Secretary of State for Wales—or the Secretary of State for the west of England, as he had become to be known by many—was to establish the western gateway. Where is the western gateway a gateway to, and for whom?
Well can I first say that, obviously, Alun Cairns has resigned in the last couple of hours, and I think that was the right thing to do in the circumstances? Clearly, our Government and his Government have had significant differences over a number of issues. But I should say that both Ken Skates and myself have had cordial and professional relationships with Alun Cairns, and, especially on the city deals, we've worked well together, and we certainly wouldn't have wished his time as a Minister to come to an end in this way.
On the question directly posed, it's most unfortunate that the Severnside collaboration has been called 'west Britain' in some of its social media activity. Certainly, that's not designed to get it off to a good start. We are keen, obviously, to look at a forum that can collaborate across the border, just as we do in north Wales with the Mersey Dee Alliance. However, we are sceptical about the intentions behind the setting up of this alliance and giving it, certainly, any institutional character because we fear the UK Government are using this as a Trojan horse to undermine the Welsh Government through whatever comes of the shared prosperity fund. We look forward to seeing if anything comes of the shared prosperity fund. But we are approaching it, I think, with scepticism. The chair that's been appointed, Katherine Bennett, is a very good person and we certainly wouldn't wish to undermine her in any way. This is not a joint appointment, but we certainly would like a conversation with her about how she feels this alliance goes forward, with our concerns in mind.
Well, Welsh Government, of course, is hailed as a partner in the western gateway project. Within minutes of the launching of the project, the chair that you mentioned referred to 'the powerhouse of the west of Britain'. How do you think that rebranding of Wales as the west of Britain or a part of the west of Britain helps with the work that needs to be done to build a genuine Welsh economy that can then work in genuine partnership with our friends to the east?
Well, I happened to speak to Katherine Bennett on the morning that tweet went out and she made clear to me that those were not her words. I suspect the hyperactive office of the aforementioned previous Secretary of State may have had a hand in that, but, I think, putting that to one side, there remains an economic geography there that we want to explore and exploit, but we are a devolved Government, we have a boundary to respect, and we certainly are not going to be naive about the political agendas at play in Westminster around this, but we do want what's best for the people of that part of Wales and our closest neighbours.
'We remain sceptical', I don't think is good enough when it comes to some of the messaging that I have certainly heard and read around the western gateway project. What we want to see is a Welsh Government that genuinely builds a Welsh economy, and I fear that Welsh Government has been taken for a ride by the Wales Office under Alun Cairns. The Welsh Government has been far too keen, I think, to hang on to the coat-tails of Alun Cairns as Secretary of State for Wales. We know that Welsh Government agreed on the nod to the renaming of the second Severn crossing as the Prince of Wales Bridge, which we know went down like a lead balloon with people in Wales. We know that Welsh Government did have an opportunity to have its say on that issue and decided, for whatever reason, not to, and I fear that when it comes to the western gateway, as well as projects across the border between the north-east of Wales and the north-west of England, that Welsh Government isn't taking its role seriously enough in creating a genuinely strong Welsh economy.
I am a big supporter of cross-border working. Cross-border working works to the mutual benefit of neighbouring countries and regions globally. That is no different for us in Wales. But will the Minister see that as long as we have an impression of a Welsh Government that is going with a begging bowl to those partnership meetings, that doesn't seem to want to be there as a genuine partner, Wales will be undersold by this Welsh Government?
Well, I think that's a little overexcited. I think I would struggle with—[Interruption.]
I'd like you to get a bit more excited about making use of the Welsh economy. Get excited about—
And I think I would struggle—. I would struggle—[Interruption.] With respect, you've asked your question. Your question is finished. I'm trying to answer it, if you will allow me to.
Well, no, there was a snide remark. That's what I heard first.
Well, with respect—
Allow the Minister to carry on with answering your question.
Rhun ap Iorwerth is offended I made a snide remark. He's accused us of having a begging-bowl attitude, so that's pretty snide, I would say, in respect, to that.
And in terms of Alun Cairns' coat-tails, I'd struggle to reach them, with respect. So, there's no subservient attitude here and I think it doesn't help a calm discussion about how we can advance the economic interests of south Wales to dress it up in such hysterical language.
As I've made clear, the term of 'west Britain' was certainly not ours and it wasn't, indeed, even the chair's, and I certainly would not—and I was clear in my earlier answer—endorse that. As I've said, we're not naive about the political agendas here at play. This was not a joint appointment. This is not something we are jointly setting up. The UK Government have taken this initiative. We'll watch it with interest. If it is a forum for sharing information, we'd be happy to be part of it. If it's any more than that, we will not.
Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.
Diolch, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, has the timetable for the South East Wales Transport Commission slipped?
Not to my knowledge.
Thank you. That's good to hear. In June of this year, Deputy Minister, your boss, the Minister, said to this Chamber that transport is an area where the Welsh Government has ambitious plans for the future. He said he expected an interim report for the South East Wales Transport Commission within six months. The Minister also said, and I'm quoting here:
'I've been very keen and clear in saying to the chair and to the public that if the commission is able to bring forward viable suggestions that can be delivered'
in the short term, within the next six-month period, to ease congestion on the M4, they should be done so without delay.
Since these statements back in June, can I ask a couple of questions? Can I ask why it has taken until October to establish the membership of the commission? And can I also ask: can you confirm that, by the end of this year, we will have the interim report, or will it just be an update? And can I ask, what appears to be kicking into the long grass—can you tell me if this interim report has been kicked into the long grass, or do you still anticipate the report to be delivered by the end of this year?
Both the First Minister and the economy Minister made it very clear to the chair of the commission that we expect to have early recommendations by Christmas, and that remains our expectation.
There has been some time taken to assemble a very high calibre panel of people. They've published their terms of reference and their way of working. I'm very encouraged that they are not going to be constrained, in the way that previous studies have, to simply look at road options, but will look at the full array of interventions, including behaviour change, to tackle the congestion and the car dependency in that part of Wales, and not simply the traditional approaches that have dominated this debate for many years.
So, I fully expect an exciting range of proposals, with some initial thoughts by the end of this year.
Thank you, Minister. You'll also be aware that the volume of traffic on the M4 is increasing day by day. We've had a new poll, which shows that almost twice as many people in Wales now believe that the M4 relief road should be built, contradicting the view of the First Minister and the Welsh Government. But can you confirm whether or not the option of building the M4 relief road is, or isn't, within the scope of the South East Wales Transport Commission's terms of reference? And, if so, and they recommend to you to go ahead and build it, will you do that or will you reject the findings of this independent commission?
No. Having gone through a public inquiry that looked at the black route, there'd be absolutely no point in setting up another inquiry to go and re-examine the exact same option. So, that is not an option that the commission is looking at. They're looking at alternatives, which we believe can be delivered quicker and cheaper to better effect than the road that was previously examined.
Russell George mentions a poll that was published yesterday, which—. Well, I'd say two things about that: first of all, the First Minister made his decision not because it was popular but because it was the right thing to do, because the inspector's report did not take proper recognition of the climate emergency nor the collapse in biodiversity. That was a principled decision the Government took, not one chasing popular headlines. And the poll, really, isn't worth a great deal, when you think about the way it was framed. Had the question been framed to say to people, 'Would you be willing for your hospital and your school to be cancelled for a project that's more than doubled in budget?', it might have produced a different result.
Brexit Party spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, the proposal to make Newport the focus for economic growth has been welcomed by all in South Wales East, and we congratulate the Welsh Government on its announcement. However, I understand there has been criticism of this move by Cardiff city council, who argue that this would take jobs and investment out of Wales and undermine Cardiff's role as the economic driver of the Welsh economy.
Does the Minister not agree with me that their argument goes against the regional development plan and the setting up of strategic development plans that actually encompass the Cardiff capital region?
Well, those are probably comments best directed to the leader of Cardiff council. The national development framework is out to consultation, and we look forward to considering all representations as part of that.
Well, I thank the Deputy Minister for that brief answer, but, Deputy Minister, the draft national framework encompasses local development plans, strategic development plans, developments of national significance, which all sit alongside 'Planning Policy Wales', and all supposedly based on a regional structure. Given this desire to move to regional centres of governance, could the Welsh Government give consideration to having just five regional centres of governance, perhaps based on the Welsh Assembly electoral regions, rather than the somewhat haphazard mix of local authorities-based economic regions that now exist or are proposed? These larger regions would have larger budgets, which would better facilitate strategic planning, particularly for infrastructure projects, thus underpinning the Government's strategic development plan for Wales.
If I've understood the Member's point correctly, the regions that exist are based, certainly in the south-east, on the Cardiff capital region, which is a city region that's now been in development for some years and has the buy-in of the local authorities. You can certainly make arguments about where the line should be drawn between the mid Wales region and the Swansea bay city region, but you can always have these judgments about which bit should be in which and so on. We are willing to keep an open mind. If there's support within the local authorities for recalibrating those, we'd look at it, of course. But we have a small capacity at play here between the local authorities and the Welsh Government, and we need to pick an optimum number where we can get some gravity together to be able to marshal our resources properly to great effect, and the more we chop them around, the more difficult it becomes to get the results we're looking for.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on digital connectivity infrastructure for the south Wales valleys? OAQ54618
Yes. The south Wales Valleys have seen significant investment in digital connectivity infrastructure, with the Superfast Cymru scheme investing over £66.9 million to provide fast fibre broadband access to over 244,600 premises.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. I know, of course, this is a largely non-devolved area of work, but I do recognise that, over the last few years, because of the failure of the UK Government to provide sufficient investment where the commercial market won't provide this vital service for our communities and business, the Welsh Government has stepped into this space and invested in high-quality broadband infrastructure, improving digital connectivity through the Superfast Cymru programme, as you've already highlighted—something I know that has a very positive impact in my constituency. So, can I ask the Deputy Minister: what work are you doing with Welsh Government colleagues to press the UK Government to follow your lead and to provide funding for high-quality digital infrastructure that can further support areas like Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney to improve their productivity and their competitiveness as an area for investment?
Thank you for that question. Dawn Bowden is absolutely right that this is a non-devolved area, but, because of market failure and the inactivity of the UK Government, the Welsh Government has been forced to step in here to divert significant resources from devolved services to address this clear failing by the UK Government to act. We have achieved significant results: a 95 per cent coverage of premises in Wales of superfast broadband. Now, we genuinely believe that fast internet access is now an essential modern service. The UK Government has a universal service obligation for postal services, so, if you post a letter to a farm track, isolated, it still—even though it may not be profitable, there's an obligation on the Royal Mail to deliver that letter. We think there should be a similar universal service obligation on telecommunications providers to provide modern, fast broadband.
The UK Government's come up with what it calls a universal service obligation, which is that in name only, I'm afraid. It's a right to request up to 10 Mbps, where the cost of building is no more than £3,400, from March 2020. So, this will still leave large parts of rural Wales without a functioning broadband service. So, that clearly is not worth the paper it is written on. We are looking to see what we can do, and we have a statement and debate coming up shortly on what more the Welsh Government can do to reach the areas that we've yet to reach.
There is some progress in terms of other technologies, notably 4G and 5G, which are able also to deliver internet services. I met with the telecommunications companies recently, who I'm very pleased to say have come up with their own plan to achieve a step change in provision of 4G coverage in Wales by 2025, to increase coverage from 58 per cent to 86 per cent, without intervention by Ofcom. That, I must say, is very welcome, and we are working with them to see what we can do to help maximise that beyond 86 per cent if possible. We are worried that this will only be achieved by 2025, which still leaves a very long gap.
We are also working as part of bidding for 5G trials in rural areas. Simon Gibson is leading a task and finish group for the Welsh Government looking at 5G and, as part of that, has put in a bid to the DCMS 5G trials for test beds, and that is about to be considered by them, which would see a focus particularly on Blaenau Gwent, the Heads of the Valleys and Monmouthshire, which was the result of the £250,000 piece of work that the Government has supported. So, I think that there are things that we are doing, despite the fact that this is non-devolved. But, really, we need the UK Government to step up to the plate here PDQ.
Minister, last month, the Federation of Small Businesses produced a report on how broadband and mobile connectivity hinders small businesses in south-east Wales. With regard to Wales, they point out that mobile phones are increasingly becoming a key element of connectivity for small business owners. In areas where superfast broadband is not available, there are disproportionately high numbers of small firms that say that they use their mobile phones for internet banking and to interact with customers and suppliers at the same time. Minister, what action will you take to extend broadband coverage to areas that are currently hard to reach, such as parts of the south-east Wales Valleys? Thank you.
Well, with respect to Mohammad Asghar, I have just answered that question. I would say to him that the UK Government—regardless of party, the UK Government has the lead role to play here. And, since his party has been in Government, we are falling woefully behind. We've stepped in where we shouldn't to provide this service. It is now time that the Government acts.
4. How is the Welsh Government supporting economic development in North Wales? OAQ54626
In the last year, the Development Bank of Wales has supported 109 businesses in north Wales, with a total of £40 million of investment in the region since 2016. Business Wales has helped more than 6,000 businesses and entrepreneurs generate £30 million of investment, £16 million in exports and nearly 3,000 new jobs.
On 28 October, the Minister for Economy and Transport issued a written statement on the north Wales metro. Within that, much of the content was actually taken from the North Wales Economic Ambition Board's growth vision and growth bid documents—from integrated travel zones to the Wrexham to Bidston route to road and rail infrastructure. Heads of terms on the growth deal were due for agreement by the end of February, then deferred to July, then to October or November, and, once agreed, we understand that it will take four to six months to finalise the business case ahead of any spades in the ground.
However, yesterday, our local paper reported that representatives of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board joined the Welsh and UK Governments to sign the heads of terms and agree on the seven programmes that will form the deal from 2020 onwards, and the chair of the board said:
'Our next steps will be to begin implementing the priority projects and leverage funding from the private sector in key areas',
expected to reach a total investment of £1 billion. Why has the Welsh Government not shared this fantastic progress with us after all these months of delay, when it has been raised time and time again here? And how will the Welsh Government ensure that we will now be briefed on those priority programmes as they go forward, when they're likely to begin, and how they will be delivered?
I'm not entirely sure what to make of that question, really. The delay in the signing of the North Wales Economic Ambition Board was a result of delays by the UK Government. He then seemed to criticise us for adopting policies that the north Wales ambition board had advocated in its plan. He normally criticises us for not collaborating sufficiently with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, so I'm not entirely sure of the point he was trying to get at there.
We now have a way forward with the ambition board, and it's for them to work as a region. The whole point of these city regions is that leadership needs to come locally. It's for the local authorities working together to come up with a plan to satisfy the Welsh Government and the UK Government that they have robust plans in place that can be delivered on time and on budget, and then we will release the funds. It's not all the time to come complaining to the Welsh Government that they expect us to take the lead. This is the whole point of regional economic development: it's led by the region, and we work closely with them to do that. We co-produce that with them through our new regional economic approach, and the chief regional officer for north Wales is intimately involved with the board to do what we can. But this is a partnership and both partners have to act.
5. Will the Minister provide an update on trunk road preparedness in advance of potential adverse weather conditions? OAQ54613
Yes. Winter preparedness is vital for our transport networks. We are in regular contact with local authorities to monitor salt stock levels, ensuring that we can maintain the safety and reliability of the network. We also work closely with rail and bus companies so that the public transport system is prepared.
Thank you for your answer, Deputy Minister. Certainly in my constituency over recent weeks there's been a number of flooding issues where we've seen a number of road closures. And what constituents come to me about is the fact that they can't get information about where roads are closed, whether it be trunk roads or local-authority-responsibility roads. Now, I know the Minister has previously mentioned when he's come to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee that communication is something that he would like to see improved for planned roadworks. I appreciate that flooding is not planned, but it would be useful, would you not agree, to have a one-stop shop where Traffic Wales can list all road closures, whether they are planned or in the event of flooding incidents? And I would hope that you would agree it's not beyond the wit of man—
—or woman, Joyce, to have the facility to allow local authorities to pass on information to Traffic Wales's website, so that we've got that one-stop shop for any kind of road disruption.
Yes, I'd agree with that, and that is supposed to be happening. The Twitter feeds, certainly of the trunk road agencies that I follow, are regularly updating on both planned and unplanned road closures. So, if the Member has some particular examples of where that's failing to happen, I'd be happy to look into it further.
Deputy Minister, as the winter comes, the hours of darkness get longer and, therefore, we need to be looking at driving in the hours of darkness, and we would, obviously, rely upon street lighting, where it is available, to be operationally effective, particularly along the trunk roads. Now, in Port Talbot the streetlighting and the overhead section has been taken away for several months. The stumps still stand there and in the darkness and the night you can't see the stumps because it's that dark. When will the Welsh Government actually be putting the lights back in place so that elevated section of the M4, which should be lit, is lit? It should be safer for drivers, particularly in an area that is criticised very much for the traffic congestion.
Well, certainly, the columns were cut down in April after one of them collapsed. The other structures were found to have failures that made them a safety risk. They were, therefore, removed. A report was then commissioned to look at what options were available to us, and found that in the 20 years since the lights have been in place the standards have changed and, in fact, by modern standards, it wouldn't have been built like that in the first place, and the view of the experts was that the section of road was overlit. They're now looking at what the options are, of how alternatives can be put in place and how we can bear cognisance to the decarbonisation agenda. So, we would possibly have lighting options using less energy. So, that is currently taking place. It will take some three months for the lighting columns to be ordered, so it's unlikely to happen this financial year. We are considering options in the meantime, particularly floodlighting, but that would need generators. But we are hoping to have some recommendations we can act on in the coming months.
6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve transport links in South Wales West? OAQ54625
Thank you. The Welsh Government is working with local authorities to develop a comprehensive programme of enhancements across all modes to improve transport links across the region that will support our communities and deliver sustainable growth.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. While somewhat justifiably a lot of the attention has been given to congestion on the M4 around Newport and the impact that it is having on the economy of the entire M4 corridor, my region is also suffering from congestion on the motorway. Junction 48 has seen nearly a 50 per cent increase in traffic in recent years, and junction 47 sees nearly 80,000 vehicles per day. Unfortunately, for many, there is no reliable alternative. The main bus operator in Swansea has just been fined because its services are so poor and unreliable. Patients travelling to Singleton and Morriston hospitals found the bus late more often than not, and the service was often cancelled altogether. And as for the train, many of my constituents complain of overcrowding and delays, and the cost per mile is higher than their car. Minister, when can my constituents expect a cheaper, more reliable public transport service?
Well, certainly in relation to junction 48 of the M4 at Hendy, I am able to announce that we will be making investments in the next few months. Improving the traffic flow and easing congestion there is part of the economic stimulus that we've announced in response to Brexit. We are making more than £3 million available to put in lights and active travel improvements at Hendy, which should make a difference this financial year, which I'm very pleased about.
In terms of the broader point, we are working with the Department for Transport on increasing rail capacity from Swansea to London. I must say, we've been very frustrated by the progress that's been made. This was announced, you will remember, when the electrification of the main line was cancelled, and in the two years since then we've had virtually no communication from the Department for Transport to help us progress this. They've not shared documents with us, and they've not progressed this in the way that they promised us they would when they cancelled the electrification of the main line.
I must say also that I'm disappointed that we couldn't act in this place on a more cross-party basis to take this forward. When Carl Sargeant was transport Minister and a coalition was put together to make the case for electrification on the main line, that was done on the basis of all parties in this Chamber working together and making representations to Westminster, and Carl led a very successful campaign. Since the Conservatives unilaterally cancelled that deal and have not delivered on what they said they would as a result of that, we've heard silence from the Conservative benches, who have not been working with us to lobby the Department for Transport to put that right.
What about the M4?
So, I would hope that—. We're talking about rail, Darren, and this is the deal that the UK Government, the promise your Government made—
What about roads?
Darren Millar is asking, 'What about roads?' Well, one subject at a time. Let's pay attention to rail, which is a deal that your Government made with all of us in this Chamber, not just our party, to deliver electrification of the main line, and you cancelled the deal.
You promised improvements.
You cancelled the deal, and you then said, in exchange for that—
Since Transport for Wales took over the rail service, have you seen the state of it?
If you pay attention, you'll understand my reasoning.
You don't need to listen to Darren Millar when he's sat down.
Well, when his microphone is on, Presiding Officer, it's very difficult not to.
His microphone is not on.
It's now gone off, I'm pleased to say.
You didn't stick to your deal. You haven't worked with us to get the replacement that you said you would put in place. So, it's time for you to examine your conscience and work with us on a cross-party basis again to deliver better improvements across the south Wales corridor.
Then, finally, to answer Caroline Jones's point, the south Wales Swansea bay metro, which we are working on along with the local authorities in the area, we have put some funding in that and we'll be putting more in to speed up the progress.
We also have increased capacity on the railway line. We've got new services and new fares being announced next month. We've got a 40 per cent increase in Sunday services across the network about to go live, as well as Sunday service on the Maesteg line for the first time. So, we are making progress, but we could make a damn sight more if the UK Government did its share of the work as well.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on transport infrastructure in north Wales? OAQ54636
Well, I'm looking forward to this. [Laughter.] The Welsh Government will invest in all modes to deliver the modern, high-quality transport system that's fundamental to achieving our sustainability, in all senses of the word.
One area of investment that you are responsible for but haven't taken very seriously is the need for investment in the A55 trunk road in my constituency. You will be aware of the significant disruption that often takes place on the A55, particularly when there is road maintenance taking place or, indeed, when there are accidents on that road because of the lack of a hard shoulder along significant parts of it. The failure to address the congestion on the A55 is having a devastating impact on our visitor experience, it's causing ambulances not to be able to get to patients on time or to get them to hospitals when they need to, and, of course, it's causing untold damage to the economy in terms of people not being able to get to or from work or, indeed, places of education or employment.
I give you the example of the recent roadworks in Llanddulas, which caused tailbacks that amounted to over an hour of extra travel time through the A55 in my constituency, and caused untold havoc on roads, including the B5381, the B5383, which I'm sure you're very familiar with, and the A547, all of which are local roads that cost a significant amount to repair once the heavy traffic from the A55, for which they're not designed, has to travel along them in order to avoid the chaos that your Government causes because of the lack of investment. So, can you tell us when will we see a proper upgrade of the A55 throughout north Wales, not just in Labour-held constituencies?
So, just let me get this straight, is he complaining that we're not investing, or is he complaining that we are investing and then complaining about the roadworks that that investment causes? I'm not entirely clear of the tenor of his complaint. He can't have it all ways. When we are upgrading and investing, it involves disruption, and that is unfortunately a fact that we can't get away from.
We are investing in a range of initiatives at junctions 15 and 16 of the A55, where we have junction improvements and developments, and the A55 Abergwyngregyn to Tai'r Meibion improvement scheme, which is currently seeing investment. [Interruption.] It's a corridor, Darren Millar; you need investments right along the corridor. In the Flintshire corridor, the Dee river bridge improvement and in the Menai crossing, we are investing. In fact, we're investing £60 million a year of capital funding for local authorities to invest in a highways refurbishment scheme.
But tackling congestion isn't just about road improvements, it's about a multimodal approach to give people alternatives to roads, and we are investing significantly in the railway. And I'm sure he will join me in welcoming an announcement that I can make—[Interruption.] Absolutely, there is something for Clwyd West. Pay attention. I look forward to the press release from you welcoming the fact that I can today announce a £1.6 million investment in Old Colwyn promenade for the upgrade to improve active travel facilities and raised coastal defences. [Interruption.] He says, 'About time'; there's no pleasing some people, is there? So, we are investing in Clwyd West and we're investing in active travel to encourage modal shift, so I'm sure you'll welcome that.
8. Will the Minister provide an update on Transport for Wales's plans to increase passenger capacity for rail users in Islwyn? OAQ54629
The Minister, Ken Skates, set out his vision for rail in Wales in his statement on 24 September. As part of our ambitious plans for the south Wales metro, Transport for Wales will deliver additional services, with improved rolling stock and stations in Islwyn.
Diolch, Deputy Minister. Thank you for that answer. The Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line reopened by the Welsh Labour Government has been one of the most visible success stories of devolution. In the 11 years since the line has been reopened, passengers have flocked to use the hourly service. As the Member for Islwyn, I will continue to eulogise around the previously unavailable benefits that this has offered the Islwyn communities of Risca, Newbridge and Crosskeys. However, forward movement is the point, as will be the extension to Newport.
Transport for Wales announced in October of this year plans to introduce far greater capacity for up to 6,500 more commuters a week from December this year across the network, and the additional news that Islwyn passengers on the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line will have the benefit of fit-for-purpose modern class 170 trains with real space on board, passenger information systems, accessible toilets, air conditioning, Wi-Fi and power sockets. So, Deputy Minister, what can I tell the people of Islwyn about when they will see this improved capacity for carriage trains on their line, and what is the timescale for the first class 170 train to run on that line?
Well, I think Rhianon Passmore has stolen my thunder. [Laughter.] She's included the announcement in the question, and she's quite right to say it. We should be proud of the real improvements we're making to the communities she represents so ably in the Chamber. From 16 December this year, as part of the December timetable change, there will be class 170 trains between Cardiff and Ebbw Vale and between Cheltenham and Maesteg, with the benefit of modern class 170 trains, with more space, onboard passenger information systems, accessible toilets, air conditioning, Wi-Fi and power sockets, which will provide space for up to 6,500 more commuters every week, a real tangible benefit, as a result of the rail leadership the Welsh Government are providing. And by December 2022, there'll be even more increases in capacity, with an extra 180 seats on the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line in morning peak, and that is something we should celebrate, and it is as a direct result of the action this Labour Government is taking to improve the facilities for people in Islwyn.
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the economy of the Swansea bay area? OAQ54620
Yes. Between 2011 and 2017, gross value added per head in the Swansea bay area increased by 14.3 per cent, and in 2018, there were 18,025 active enterprises in the Swansea bay area.
One of the highlights of it is the SA1 development that is in my constituency, which is a mixed development including houses and flats, hotels, restaurants and major employers that includes Admiral, University of Wales Trinity Saint David and companies with substantial growth potential, such as the Wales Centre for Advanced Batch Manufacture. Much of that has been done due to investment by the private sector and the Welsh Government. How much has been invested in the area, and how much more is there expected to be?
The Welsh Government has invested £59 million in the SA1 development, and on top of that, Swansea University has secured £100 million of European Union funds to support major new facilities and research and development programmes in the development. On top of that, working with the Swansea bay city region and the UK Government, we are investing further in Swansea city centre through the city deal. We would like to make further interventions through the movement of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency into Swansea city centre, which we think would have a tangible impact on the whole of Swansea—Swansea East and West. Unfortunately, we've had no luck engaging the UK Government on that, but I would certainly welcome a campaign of regional Members to try and work with us to try and get that, because I think that could make a significant impact on the fabric of Swansea.
I think the other question, to respond to the broader point that Mike Hedges is making, is how we spread the development of SA1 beyond that into his constituency, which has some of the most economically challenged wards in the country. There, our regional approach and our commitment to the foundational economy I think has much potential.
Finally, Suzy Davies.
No. 9, yes?
Yes, no. 9.
Okay. Thank you very much for that. Sorry.
You mentioned the Swansea bay city deal, Deputy Minister, and, of course, we're waiting for the first £18 million of that to come through. I understand the delay is down to Welsh Government not telling the city deal lead, Rob Stewart, a Labour colleague of yours, the terms and conditions of the £18 million that they've been waiting for. He's complained that it's taken 16 weeks, which is far too long. Can you tell us what the reason for the delay is, please?
The way that the city deal project has been set up by the UK Government and the Treasury has been extremely challenging and complicated for local authorities that are not kitted out to take projects through a five-case business model approach. Two independent reports done into the city deal pointed out that the capacity did not exist locally and, as a result, great frustration was building up on the part of local authorities who had the ideas and they had the plans to take these projects forward, but simply could not meet the tests of the business cases demanded by the Treasury, which we then had to discharge as part of the heads of terms of the city deal. So, it's been a very frustrating process all round. Those independent reports suggested a series of reforms to blast that out of the way, and the region is making progress in delivering those. Part of meeting the concerns laid out in that report was the implementation of terms and conditions to make sure the money would be well spent, and we've been working through with the region the detailed implementation of those terms and conditions. I believe we are very close to the point of being able to sign them off.
Thank you to the Deputy Minister.
The next item, therefore, is questions to the Counsel General in respect of his Brexit Minister responsibilities. The first question [OAQ54630] has been withdrawn, therefore question 2—Mike Hedges.
2. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact of Brexit on drinking water purification? OAQ54619
Primary responsibility for providing clean, safe drinking water lies with the water companies. The water companies, working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, water regulators and the devolved Governments, carried out robust and detailed mitigation planning to prevent impacts on the supply of safe and clean water once the UK leaves the European Union.
One of the most important things in life is clean drinking water, as many people in some third-world countries discover daily, unfortunately. What Brexit has taught us, however, is how hollowed-out our economy has become and how dependent on imports for basic necessities we as a country have become. While it's not life changing to only be able to buy seasonal vegetables, lack of clean water is life changing and possibly life ending. What is the Welsh Government doing to ensure the continuity of supply of chemicals needed for water purification, and what support are they giving to the water company covering most of Wales and the other water company covering the rest of Wales in order to ensure that the water we get out of our taps is clean and of the standard we expect and we are having now?
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I thank the Member for that supplementary question. This is a very important question, of course. Wales has some of the highest quality drinking water in Europe, with our compliance against the relevant standards standing at 99.95 per cent. So, it's an important issue for us and we will always want to continue to align to those standards, wherever Brexit takes us. He will be aware, of course, that security of the water supply in the UK has been part of the Operation Yellowhammer planning process, and the water industries' representative body, Water UK, and the water companies, including those operating in Wales, have been working collectively to ensure they have a granular understanding of the supply chain. They've taken specific measures in relation to stockpiling critical chemicals used to treat water, as well as establishing mutual aid arrangements with other water companies. In a worst-case scenario—but we think it's very unlikely this would be necessary—the statutes give Welsh Ministers power to issue directions to our water companies to mitigate any effects that might arise.
3. What discussions has the Counsel General had with industry in north Wales following the announcement of a Brexit extension until 31 January 2020? OAQ54631
My ministerial colleagues and I have engaged widely with businesses on Brexit issues as part of our engagement with stakeholders across Wales. Most recently, the Minister for Economy and Transport led a round-table meeting on small and medium-sized enterprise access to finance on 24 October in Wrexham.
Diolch yn fawr, Minister, for that answer. Alyn and Deeside is home to some of Wales's most high-tech and advanced industry and the dedicated and skilled workforce that are within that area. For these employers and those employees, planning is key. Can the Minister detail further the contact he and his officials, and any other ministerial colleagues, have had with the major employers within the area and the associated trade unions, like Unite the Union, to ensure that they can continue to plan? Can he also spell out what other support is there available to them? And, finally, how confident is he that the UK Government, the Tory UK Government, are listening to these groups and these employers for the sake of their families and are sharing the relevant information with them?
I thank the Member for that question. Since his time in the Chamber, he has always sought to understand the impact of Brexit on his constituency and on employers there, so I appreciate his continuing concern in relation to that.
The Welsh Government continues to engage with businesses in a variety of different ways, either face-to-face direct engagement, round-table sessions, which both the Minister for the Economy and Transport and I and others have led on, communications via Business Wales and the business support networks, as well as a range of media channels. He'll know that the Government is providing ongoing business support through the economy futures fund and the work of the Development Bank of Wales, and the Minister for Economy and Transport most recently announced a further £6 million for the Brexit resilience fund, announced at the end of last week, which consists of a blend of grant and loan funding that companies can apply for. And in addition to that, we continue to do everything we can to publicise and promote the information that we have on the Paratoi Cymru/Preparing Wales website, which includes the Brexit portal, which has had, I think, 39,000 users to date.
In September, the CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn said:
'So many businesses here in Wales are full of optimism and enthusiasm. They want to be talking about—and acting on—Welsh strengths. To signal that Wales is open for business. But desperately want to put an end to uncertainty.'
Quoting businesses in north Wales at the start of October, the Daily Post said:
'Uncertainty fuels uncertainty. We need an end to all Brexit uncertainty.'
In mid October, the chair of Ocado and the former Marks and Spencer boss, Stuart Rose, said he now supports the new UK Government deal, saying he was involved in the original 'remain' campaign, but he's also a realist, and he said he hoped he's a pragmatist and a respecter of the democratic process.
And, finally, the chief economist and strategist at city investment firm Schroders said passing the new deal could unlock stronger growth in the economy:
'if the deal passes through Parliament on Saturday',
which it didn't,
'we should see stronger growth in the UK economy as the cloud of Brexit uncertainty lifts.'
What action are you taking to listen to industry and business, whose key concern is that lack of certainty, and to avoid, therefore, dragging this out for months more as parties seek to renegotiate, re-referendum or what have you. The future growth of the Welsh economy and the well-being of employment and people in Wales depends on that certainty, articulated so effectively by business. Uncertainty needs to end.
Well, I welcome and appreciate the Member's concern for the interests of business. If only that was shared by his parliamentary party in Westminster who have ridden roughshod over the concerns of business since the beginning of the Brexit debate.
I, too, heard the remarks of Carolyn Fairbairn, and I think I also heard her say that business investment was 26 per cent under trend as a consequence of Brexit. And also, business growth was several percentage points beneath what would we expect it to be.
He's right, in fact, to identify the question of uncertainty. We hear every day in Wales the impact that Brexit is already having on businesses and employers and livelihoods right across the country. But the alternative universe that he's positing is one where this deal is good for business, and it just is not. And the notion that this deal draws this matter to a certain close is complete fiction. This is a bad deal and it gives us the certainty of a bad deal for businesses right across Wales. We are looking at substantial additional costs for small businesses that export that they can barely afford to pay. Maybe he'll confirm to me if the UK Government is planning on compensating them for that. But otherwise, these are significant burdens that businesses in Wales can ill afford to have to take on.
Uncertainty needs to end, yes, but for very many businesses, the very threat of Brexit needs to end. Let me read to you from an e-mail I've received from a constituent who runs a small consultancy from Anglesey, with the majority of the business's money coming from the European Union:
'The damage that Brexit so far has done to our business is significant',
'mainly due to the ill feeling that other countries feel towards the UK. We have been excluded from several projects because of risk or other such excuses. This is a real pity for what was a growing business providing income, tax and jobs in the area. Now we're stagnant and waiting for all this to pass so that we can resume growth.'
And he was asking for my reassurance that I'd campaign for 'remain'. I can certainly give him a categorical assurance on that front. But what countless companies like that can see is that the delays of a few months here or there aren't really what's relevant—it's that threat of what they lose from not being within the European Union, and there is no deal, they see, that is as good as the one that they have now.
I will, if I may, echo the points the Member has just made. I mean, his experience and the issues that his constituents have raised with him strike a very clear chord with what we hear from businesses all the time. It was only last week, I think, or the week before, that I had an e-mail from a leading figure of the business community saying the notion that the Boris Johnson deal is the solution to business uncertainty is complete fiction. And I think, and I share with the Member his conviction, that the best way of getting the certainty that businesses in Wales have been able to flourish under, as a consequence of our membership of the European Union, is for us to have a referendum where we can campaign to remain and win that argument.
We now turn to spokespeople's questions, and first this afternoon is the Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Minister, will you outline the Welsh Government's position on Brexit?
The Welsh Government's position on Brexit is that any version of Brexit is a worse deal for Wales than remaining part of the European Union and that the only way that people in the UK can get their voice heard in this debate is to vote Labour at the next election and have a referendum, where we in Wales will campaign to remain.
I'm pleased to hear at least a consistent message coming from your mouth this time, because, of course, we've had all sorts of flip-flopping from the Welsh Government in recent months. Now, you've attempted there to articulate the UK Labour Party's position on Brexit, but the reality is that the UK Labour Party doesn't have a position on Brexit. What you've got is a position on holding a second referendum, because your leadership, the leadership of the UK Labour Party, doesn't have the bottle to actually say which way it will campaign in that referendum. Now, my party is very clear. We've got a policy to get Brexit done. Other parties, to be fair to them, are also very clear that they want to remain. But the UK Labour Party is doing the hokey cokey on this matter, with one foot in and one foot out on whether to leave or remain.
Now, Minister, I'm sure that you would agree with me that it's vital that the public know what the position of any future UK Government is on Brexit. So, do you agree with me that it's time for your colleagues in the UK Labour Party to come clean with the public, to set out a clear position on Brexit, and to give voters across Wales the opportunity to have their say on 12 December, knowing exactly what you stand for?
I think this exchange is rather poignant really, and I think his interest in the politics of Westminster is particularly poignant. He mentions flip-flops—I should commiserate with him; he obviously knows first-hand the impact of the flip-flopping of his constituency colleague David Jones, and so I just commiserate with him about that. I'm sure that he has flip-flops and broken promises very much uppermost in his mind in these questions.
I'm sorry, I didn't actually hear you set out the position of your party. But, look, here's the situation: the idea of a second referendum that your party is positing is absolutely absurd. Why would anybody expect the Labour Party to respect the result or outcome of a second referendum if you haven't respected the first? The truth is, and it's an inconvenient truth for you, I know, but Wales voted to leave the EU in the referendum on Brexit, including 57 per cent of your own constituents. Yet, in spite of this, you and many others in this Chamber have done everything you can to block the instruction that we have received from the people of Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. So, you've got no respect for democracy, you've got no respect for those who voted to leave, and absolutely no intention of delivering what the people of Wales voted for.
So, I ask you this: how can anybody trust the Labour Party to deliver on the result of a second referendum if they haven't been bothered to support the outcome of the first?
And this from a party that campaigned in Westminster against the Assembly after the result of the referendum. I think it's quite extraordinary your position on this argument, Darren. Let me put it very simply for you—[Interruption.] I'm happy to answer the question; perhaps you can let me to do that. The policy of the Labour Party is one of respect to the electors of the United Kingdom, to whom promises were made, and promises have been broken, and they were largely broken by people who are running the Government of his party in Westminster. It is absolutely clear to us the only way of drawing a line under this—these three years of broken promises on the part of his party—is to give the British people an opportunity to have their say, and to have their say on the deal that Boris Johnson has brought back, which we are confident will be exposed as being a much worse outcome than remaining a member of the European Union.
The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Delyth Jewell.
Thank you. Minister, I would like to ask you about the Labour Party’s plans for negotiating a new Brexit deal. Now, I’m aware that you’ve been in Brussels recently meeting with representatives of the European Union. Can you tell me whether you had any discussions with them about your party’s plan to negotiate a new deal based on creating a new customs union? And did you ask them whether they would be willing to allow another extension to article 50 in order to provide time to negotiate this deal and to then call a referendum?
Thank you for the question. The question of the Welsh Government’s position on Brexit was at the top of the agenda and we made it clear that our Government here was in favour of remaining a member of the European Union. Of course, the people we were meeting were expecting me to say that. We didn’t discuss, of course, in detail the question of what sort of agreement we would negotiate. But, on other visits and other occasions in the past, we have presented to them the ‘Securing Wales’ Future’ document, which was agreed jointly with Plaid Cymru, and so they have a clear picture of the kind of Brexit that, if we had to leave, we think would cause the least damage here in Wales.
Thank you. I would like to ask as a result of that whether the Welsh Government will carry out an economic impact assessment of a new deal negotiated by Jeremy Corbyn on the economy and ports of Wales. Of course, there’s not much detail about the nature of this available at the moment, but I assume that, as a Labour Minister in a Labour Government, you know your party’s intentions in terms of the deal that you want to negotiate. You will be aware that Michael Gove told me that the current UK Government hasn’t conducted an impact assessment for Welsh ports, which is hugely concerning given the importance of the port of Holyhead particularly. Can you confirm, therefore, that it’s your Government’s intention to conduct detailed impact assessments of the Jeremy Corbyn deal on the Welsh economy and Welsh ports before any referendum, if your party is in government after the election?
I’m not talking on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn, or any other member of the benches in Westminster, but I can speak on behalf of the Welsh Government on this question. The process that we have been involved in from the very beginning has been one based on evidence and facts and information from the real world, rather than slogans and hopes. And I’m pleased that we’ve managed to publish, with Plaid Cymru, a document that includes that evidence. The Member will know that, since then, we have published a number of other papers that show all sorts of impacts—economic and otherwise—of the Welsh Government's policy position on Brexit.
Finally, Minister, I want to turn to the news that Alun Cairns has finally resigned as Secretary of State for Wales, following revelations he helped to cover up for an ally who deliberately sabotaged a rape trial. I'm sure you'll agree with me that Alun Cairns's actions were disgraceful, indefensible and indicative of a deep rot at the heart of the Conservative Party in Wales. It's quite apparent that Alun Cairns, and other senior members of the Conservative Party in Wales, were aware of what Ross England had done before they selected and endorsed him as their candidate. And I'd be interested to know whether you agree with me that an inquiry needs to take place to ascertain who knew what and when—
These are questions to the Counsel General about Brexit.
—and that everyone in a position of power implicated in that scandal should resign. In terms—
Sorry. No, your mike is off. Sorry, Delyth, your mike is off. These are questions about Brexit; it is not about anything that may have been said over the Twitter for that. It's about Brexit. You started off okay, but I think you've strayed off, so if you can relate it to a Brexit question, that would be fine.
Okay. In terms of your duties as Brexit Minister, I'd like to ask you how Alun Cairns's resignation will affect your Government's workings with the UK Government? Do you expect them to appoint a replacement as Secretary of State for Wales ahead of the election, in terms of the duties that he had on the JMC(EN)? And does this leave inter-governmental workings, in terms of Brexit preparations, at any kind of impasse?
In the context of Brexit questions, I won't be drawn on the broader point, but I think the First Minister has made our position clear in relation to matters surrounding the former Secretary of State for Wales. In relation to questions of relevance to Brexit, in my experience, the place where we have made most progress in discussions with the UK Government is where we have been able to deal with them directly. Even then, it has been a significant challenge in many, many ways. But it is evidently the case that those direct contacts are the best way of protecting Wales's interests into the future.
4. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the impact that a further delay to a Brexit deal being passed will have on Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OAQ54642
The flextension to 31 January means a disastrous 'no deal' Brexit has been avoided or at least postponed. Economically, it means the maintenance of the status quo. It also provides the opportunity to reject Boris Johnson’s hard Brexit deal and put the decision back to the people.
I had a feeling you'd probably say something along those lines, Counsel General, so I'm glad I'm not disappointed. Of course, I think, ultimately we all hear what we want to hear, and I'd like to tell you what farmers in my constituency are saying to me, because they need and want certainty surrounding Brexit, and I know from the many conversations that I've had, they want a deal done. One way or another, they want a deal done so they have certainty, so that they can plan for the future. Yet, last month, in Westminster, the Labour Party voted against approving the Conservative Government's new deal, which they had struck with agreement with the EU, which seemed to be supported by quite a wide variety of different organisations, different sectors of industry, farmers, and so on. And the policy of the Welsh Government seems to be to have a second referendum. What guarantee can you give my farmers in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire that if you did go and have that second referendum, you would actually bother to implement the result?
I thank the Member for acknowledging the consistency of my approach at the start of her question. I have farmers discussing their concerns with me as well, and the concerns they ask me are about what certainty do they have of replacement funding from the UK Government for the support they get at the moment. What funding can we secure for regional investment in Wales from the UK Government to replace the support we are able to provide them at the moment? Unfortunately, the position, I have to say to them, is that, despite the sunny slogans of Boris Johnson, in terms of the hard reality, I cannot give them the assurance that they want. The reason for that is that the UK Government has been completely neglectful of the agricultural sector as a significant part of our economy, despite the headline-grabbing statements that we sometimes see. So, that is the reality and that is what farmers are saying to me, and I'm surprised that farmers in her constituency aren't also saying to her that they are concerned the UK Government isn't living up to its responsibilities.
Minister, the constituents of Angela Burns clearly highlighted the concerns over a possible delay, but what are your considerations for those same constituents if this deal goes through and we have 11 months to negotiate a free trade agreement, which is unlikely? Everybody other than Michael Gove seems to think that's impossible, and he's adamant that they will not seek an extension to any transition period, which means there'll be a 'no deal' exit on 31 December next year. What are the implications for those constituents if that happens?
Well, I think the Member makes a very important point there. Although 31 January gives some confidence in relation to an imminent 'no deal', the point he makes is at the heart of the weakness in the deal that Boris Johnson has brought back from the European Union, which is that there is no certainty that we are not simply looking at a deferred 'no deal' exit. And we know what damage that will cause to the farming sector, to various sectors of our economy and our communities at large. I share with him his scepticism that the kind of free trade agreement—unless it's extremely minimalist—that he describes in the political declaration can be achieved within that period, even on his own terms. Again, if we just look at the UK Government's own figures here, even if those trade agreements are possible to put in place, the advantage that brings to the UK economy is absolutely dwarfed by the damage that that sort of relationship with the European Union would pose to our economy into the future.
5. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Minister for Education about the continuing participation of students from Wales in the Erasmus+ programme following Brexit? OAQ54639
In addition to regular discussions on this and related issues at Cabinet sub-committee, I've met with the Minister for Education separately on a number of occasions to discuss the potential impacts of Brexit on the Erasmus+ programme.
Thank you, Counsel General. As you will know, Welsh learners have really benefited from Erasmus+, with over €40 billion being brought into Wales between 2014 and 2018 to support over 7,000 participants in 245 projects. I know the EU Commission has suggested that, for the cycle starting in 2021, the scheme will become global in scope, but, as with so much else, the uncertainty caused by Brexit means that there are question marks around future Welsh and UK participation. What discussions have you had around the continued participation of Welsh learners, for whom the experience can be life changing, and, in particular, around enabling vocational learners to access these opportunities?
This is a really important point, so I thank you for raising this. It was on 16 October that I met—courtesy of Colegau Cymru, who I thank for arranging this—a group of vocational learners from across south Wales who had benefitted from participating in Erasmus+ placements, and I heard at first hand about the benefits of that programme, which they described in their own lives and in their own workplaces. It was about building confidence, about personal development, about learning different perspectives on the world and the world of work, building relationships with people in other countries, and also taking back to their own workplaces new ideas and fresh ways of looking at things. All of them were clear that this was not the sort of thing that they would otherwise have been able to take advantage of in their own lives.
She talks about the future scoping of the replacement Erasmus scheme, and it strikes exactly the kind of priorities that we would wish to see: supporting disadvantaged learners into Erasmus, part-time learners, and a more global scope in many other ways. Those are exactly the kinds of things that I'm sure we would all want to see our young people in Wales being able to participate in fully.
I know that the Minister for Education has been advocating for this position with the UK Government from the outset, and I believe that, more recently, we've had some confidence, if we can't participate in the Erasmus replacement scheme into the future, which remains our priority, that the UK Government has a UK-wide scheme in mind. But the fundamental point, coming back to the point that I made earlier, is that the Treasury has to commit funding in order for that to happen, and, without that funding, it will not be able to be a reality.
6. What discussions has the Counsel General had with counterparts in the UK Government regarding tracking cross-border crime following Brexit? OAQ54637
I myself last discussed matters relating to the future security partnership at the February meeting of the ministerial forum. Nowhere else in the world has the level of close multilateral co-operation in relation to law enforcement and judicial matters that exists between EU member states, and that co-operation must continue even if the UK leaves the European Union.
Thank you, Counsel General, for that answer. Following the horrendous deaths of 39 Vietnamese migrants in Essex last month, a number of senior MPs and experts have cautioned that the UK faces a real risk of being excluded from Europol and its agencies, including the anti-trafficking unit and the European Migrant Smuggling Centre, post Brexit. They went on to say that, even with a deal, the UK would have downgraded access to those organisations.
The UK's right to access and share information on a whole host of security issues like human trafficking and international crime could be severely hampered at a time when international co-operation is needed the most. Being excluded from an organisation that has an unrivalled ability to track crimes across Europe and beyond is of grave concern. So, Minister, what discussions have you had with the Westminster Government—or will you have when it returns—about how they intend to maintain access to all those agencies that I've just mentioned, especially now, when we're in such turbulent times internationally?
Well, I'll reassure the Member that it's exactly that kind of close engagement and involvement into the future with the various Europe-wide law enforcement bodies and agencies—. It's exactly that kind of relationship that I was advocating in that ministerial forum and I and other Ministers have continued to press for in the interim period. As she says, whether it is Europol or Schengen, the SIS II system, whether it is about sharing passenger name records or criminal records, there is a multiplicity of EU-wide law enforcement and security arrangements from which we benefit at the moment, and from which exclusion will have a real impact on us and on our security.
Now, of course, the ambition that the UK Government has is to negotiate the best available relationships with those organisations after Brexit. But the reality is that there are several obstacles in the path of those negotiations delivering the same level of engagement and involvement that we currently have, not least amongst them the question of the UK's data adequacy. All of this is shared data, and, as we know in this Chamber, if we become a third country, we'll have to restart a process of qualifying to access data of any sort. It's a major stumbling block. As a non-Schengen third country our access to a number of these arrangements will, even at best, be depleted.
And there's a third dimension here as well, which is that many of them require a level playing field in terms of human rights protection, and losing the benefit and the shelter of the EU charter and fundamental rights may itself pose an obstacle to getting the kind of arrangements we would want to see in place in those negotiations.
7. What measures is the Counsel General taking ahead of Brexit to safeguard the Welsh economy? OAQ54635
Whilst we believe the best way to safeguard the Welsh economy is to remain in the European Union, the Welsh Government is doing everything in our power to safeguard the Welsh economy. This includes using measures such as our Brexit resilience fund, where we announced an additional £6 million funding for this week.
Counsel General, a lot of the economic activity in Wales consists of the work of small and medium-sized enterprises, and I believe they're crucial to our economy. They face a lot of cash-flow and confidence pressures in the light of Brexit and what Brexit may bring. I believe a crucial support for them is the Development Bank of Wales, so, could you offer some reassurance today that that development bank is best placed to offer that support, crucial support, to our SMEs before and post Brexit?
Yes. I thank the Member for that supplementary. The role that the Development Bank of Wales can play, in particular in engaging with the small and medium-sized business community, is going to be absolutely essential in a post-Brexit world, if that is what comes to pass. Obviously, the Minister for Economy and Transport has significant dealings with the bank. I myself have met with the chair and the chief executive to discuss their arrangements around preparedness and the redeployment of staff if we were to come to that situation.
He says that cash flow and confidence are likely to be two issues that hamper businesses generally, and I agree with that. The Minister for Economy and Transport announced £100 million of capital for the Wales flexible investment fund, which is managed by the Development Bank of Wales, and earlier this year announced more than £120 million further funding for various funds that are manged by the development bank, and the whole point of those is to make funding available in a way that is flexible and appropriate for the particular needs that businesses may have in a post-Brexit world.
We've been clear as a Welsh Government, and we've been clear in pressing the UK Government of this view, that, if we come to that situation, it's incumbent on us to do all that we can to support businesses that can be viable into the medium term, if you like, to get over what will be, inevitably, a very turbulent time. We have not persuaded the UK Government of that view, but that remains very firmly our view.
Of course, we hope for a situation where we have a referendum and a campaign to remain that succeeds, where this risk to those businesses is eliminated. But we have to prepare for a situation in which that doesn't come to pass.
And, finally, question 8—Lynne Neagle.
8. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact of the latest withdrawal agreement on workers' rights in Wales? OAQ54615
Well, the withdrawal agreement fails to provide any guarantees that the UK Government is committed to retaining alignment with existing EU rights and protections for workers in Wales.
Thank you for that very clear answer, Minister. It is absolutely clear that the latest withdrawal agreement represents a further weakening of the UK Government's commitment to workers' rights. Frances O'Grady, secretary of the Trades Union Congress, has said:
'This deal would be a disaster for working people. It would hammer the economy, cost jobs and sell workers’ rights down the river.'
Do you agree with Sir Keir Starmer, the UK shadow Brexit Secretary, that there would be a real danger if this deal goes through that there would be a serious weakening of workers' rights and that it would be very likely that the UK would follow other models, such as the United States', which have considerably weaker protections for workers than we currently enjoy here in this country?
Well, I think the Member hits the nail on the head. That is exactly, I think, the risk that comes out of this agreement. In fact, I'd go further than to say that it's a risk; I think the nature of the agreement discloses the kind of destination in which the current UK Government wants to take the UK. It's one of deregulation, where the UK has given up on workplace protection and social and environmental rights of the kind that we in Wales both take for granted and would wish of course to continue to align with.
As her question implies, this deal is even worse than Theresa May's deal, which at least committed the Government to maintaining the current level of EU workers' rights and gave Parliament some mechanism into the future around that. The kind of vision that is outlined in this agreement is fundamentally at odds with the priorities of the Welsh Government here in Wales, as set out in the work of the Fair Work Commission recently, which ensures that we as a Government will continue to take every step that we can to make sure that workers in Wales are not disadvantaged if and when we leave the European Union.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 3 on the agenda this afternoon is a debate under Standing Order 25.15 on the Government of Wales Act 2006 (Amendment) Order 2019—section 109 Order relating to the electoral registration officers. I call on the Counsel General and the Brexit Minister to move the motion—Jeremy Miles.
Motion NDM7176 Jeremy Miles
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 25.15 approves the draft version of The Government of Wales Act 2006 (Amendment) Order 2019.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the motion to approve this Order in Council under section 109 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. This Order makes some progress in addressing issues of competence that have arisen as a result of the Wales Act 2017. When the Order is made, it will ensure that the Assembly can effectively and comprehensively legislate in relation to electoral law relating to devolved Welsh elections. This was of course the original intention of Parliament when the Wales Act 2017 was developed.
It's also necessary to allow for coherent regulations to be made in relation to canvass reform in time for the 2020 annual canvass, and to ensure that the lines of executive competence between the UK Government and Welsh Ministers are clear. Electoral law is contained in a wide array of primary and secondary legislation, and the role of electoral registration officers is essential to electoral registration and thus to electoral reform. Without the ability to confer functions on an electoral registration officer in new legislation, the electoral functions of the Welsh Ministers are significantly restricted.
It became apparent through the canvass reform project that the particular mechanism by which electoral functions, and specifically those that affect electoral registration officers, have been transferred means that no one person, the Welsh Ministers nor the Secretary of State, would have a fully coherent set of powers in relation to devolved elections. Once this Order is made, we will be able to progress the canvass reform agenda, which will streamline the registration process in Wales and will make it easier for the electorate to engage with.
The Order will also enable us to make the necessary changes to the role of electoral registration officer in relation to devolved elections in primary legislation without needing to seek the consent of the UK Government each time. This includes changes we will be proposing in our forthcoming local government and elections (Wales) Bill. This will support the electoral reform agenda in Wales and it will enable the modernisation of electoral practices, and ultimately it will support voters in engaging with democracy.
The UK Government has recognised the challenges that have been created by the way in which functions have been transferred, together with the operation of the provisions of Schedule 7B to the Government of Wales Act, so they were content to bring forward the Order as a matter of urgency and have ensured its progress through Parliament as speedily as possible. I therefore ask the Assembly to approve it.
Thank you. Can I call Carwyn Jones to speak on behalf of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee? Carwyn.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. The Business Committee referred the Government of Wales Act 2006 (Amendment) Order 2019 to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee in accordance with Standing Order 25.7(i). We took evidence from the Counsel General on the proposed Order at our meeting on 16 September 2019, and we laid our report before the Assembly on 30 September of this year. Since then, we note that the Order was approved by the House of Commons and the House of Lords on 28 October of this year. Dirprwy Lywydd, during our evidence session, the Counsel General explained the purpose and objective for the proposed Order, as well as the relationship between the Order, the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill and the Welsh Government's forthcoming local government Bill. We've noted the background and purpose for the proposed Order and, Dirprwy Lywydd, we are content.
Thank you. I call on the Counsel General and Brexit Minister to reply.
I thank Carwyn Jones for his remarks and for the work of CLAC in relation to this Order. If the Assembly approves the Order, it will be considered next by the Privy Council at its next meeting. I expect the date for that meeting to be confirmed following the UK general election. And, in closing, can I put on record my thanks to officials in both the Welsh Government and the UK Government for enabling this legislation to be brought forward rapidly?
Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
We now move to topical questions, and the first this afternoon, to be answered by the Minister for Health and Social Services, is from Jack Sargeant.
1. What consideration has the Welsh Government made of NHS England’s decision to approve the use of Orkambi and Symkevi? 359
Thank you for the question. The use of Orkambi a Symkevi in NHS England is approved only through a commercial access agreement. My officials have met with, and await a formal offer from, Vertex. Given the confidential nature of our discussions, there is, of course, a limit to the comment that I can make.
Thank you for that, Minister. As you are aware, I have constituents who are now travelling across the border to Liverpool and Manchester for treatment. They will be in the same building as England patients who can access this medicine. Minister, can you assure me that negotiations in the conversations you are having with Vertex are ongoing and are positive so that my constituents and the people of Wales can access these medicines as soon as possible? And, finally, Minister, have you also given any consideration to introducing an interim patient access scheme, as was the case in NHS Scotland, while the agreement was being reached on access to these two very important medicines?
The Member will be aware of the letter published by Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England on this matter, sent to the House of Commons's Health and Social Care Select Committee. That set out that Northern Ireland and Wales have stood alongside England in the negotiation of the agreement that has been reached. My expectation is that those terms will be honoured. I made public comment yesterday that I would sign up today to exactly the same pro-rata terms for Wales, and I wish to be able to do so. That is my commitment. There should not be a delay for any family in Wales. I look forward to a properly constructive and honest response from Vertex that allows that to take place.
Minister, I know that you share with me concerns that, every day that passes, we have patients in Wales who aren't able to access these extremely important drugs. Now, on 25 October, you said that you and your officials were meeting with representatives from Vertex the following week to discuss details of these terms and how they might be applied. I do understand you've got company confidentiality issues here, but are you able to give us any form of update on that?
May I also ask what lessons have been learned from the length of time that it's taken to make progress on this issue, and how could things be done differently in future to ensure that we're not left behind the curve when it comes to reaching agreements on making life-saving drugs available for Welsh patients?
And finally, in terms of learning lessons, I understand that in early 2018, the company had been in discussions with NHS Wales on a portfolio proposal for all their current and future cystic fibrosis medicines. However, and I'm directly quoting, these discussions were halted in March/April, due to what we understood at the time to be a staffing issue at NHS Wales all-Wales medicines procurement. Minister, can you shed any light on that and provide assurances that such hold-ups will not happen again?
On your final point, that simply isn't true. It's simply not true. Vertex understand very well the well-established appraisal mechanisms we have right across the United Kingdom for new medicines: the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence appraisal system that we sign up to, the particular appraisal systems also available in Scotland, and here in Wales through the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group. What they have done, in reaching an agreement with England, which is in the text of Simon Stevens's letter, is they've agreed to provide real-time patient data on a basis where they've agreed a price for access to be made available for every patient for whom the treatment and the condition are indicated, and they will then submit their whole portfolio, with that real-time data, to NICE for appraisal. Now that makes sense, and that was not the proposal that was ever provided here in Wales.
I am clear that we are not responsible in Wales for holding up access to these medicines. The issue is that Vertex need to do what they've committed to do, which is in Simon Stevens's letter. And that is the start and the end of the matter. No family in Wales should be put into a less advantageous position than a family across our border because of an inability to meet the terms of the deal that has been agreed. I look forward to a positive and constructive response from the pharmaceutical company.
Thank you. The second topical question this afternoon is from Angela Burns.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the recent loss of 2,763 patients from the waiting list in Cwm Taf Morgannwg Health Board? 360
These patients were always reported on an internal list within the health board, and their waiting times were monitored. They are now being reported on the correct referral-to-treatment or diagnostic list. Robust mechanisms are now in place to ensure the health board reports all patients correctly.
I am very pleased to hear you use the word 'now' with great emphasis twice, because I am very concerned about this news. It's yet another failing by the management of Cwm Taf, and I truly feel sorry for the hard-working front-line staff of this health board who, week after week, see the name of the health board being tainted through no fault of their own. I'm also concerned about the confidence that patients living in this health board area have in receiving the care that they so desperately need.
Now, we are aware of the ongoing full-scale review that's been taken into maternity services, and we debated that last month and I think there are some very positive movements there, but you will know from the report that it's been cited on a number of different occasions that there are cultural systemic issues that run throughout the whole of the board's operation. I'll quote directly from the report:
'it is unrealistic to expect that longstanding issues related to culture, attitudes and behaviours can be addressed within a few months.'
So, with this background in mind, I simply ask the following three questions. Will you consider ordering or do you believe that we need to have a more comprehensive review that looks at all the services that Cwm Taf offers, and not just maternity services, if there are these systemic issues at play, and this waiting list issue could be an example of yet another? What confidence, Minister, do you have that other similar losses of data are not being replicated in other health boards? I appreciate that it was on an internal list that you didn't have eyes on, and neither did anybody else. Bearing in mind that this has occurred in one, is it occurring elsewhere? And finally, could you please explain to us what methodology is in place within your department to ensure that the data you receive from all our health boards across Wales is accurate, because good data collection is absolutely essential to help you, the Government, to plan the future delivery of healthcare? In order to be able to plan that, we need that data to be right, we need it to be the truth, the absolute truth and nothing but the truth.
I'll deal with your final two points first, because in terms of whether other data issues exist, there is regular scrutiny of reported statistics by our official statistics department within the Government, and they are absolutely scrupulous in the work that they do. And where there are any caveats to data that is received, they're published as part of the statistics report. I'm sure that you and colleagues who do scrutinise those reports when they're provided will note that those caveats are occasionally provided. It's also part of the reason, because we want official statistics for the public to be able to rely upon, that we've not been able to make progress in a number of other areas, because we want to be clear that the data is reliable. I'm under pressure in a number of other areas to make official statistics available, and I've held the line about saying they'll be available when we are certain that we're measuring the same things in the same way across the country, and that is exactly what I expect here.
Actually, what happened here was that the health board themselves asked the NHS delivery unit to validate their waiting lists. That review resulted in these people being properly added to the list. So, the health board themselves said, 'We think we may have a problem, get an external body through the Welsh Government to come in and do so.' And more than that, the delivery unit's report is available on the health board's website, so the level of transparency is there now. They've recognised that this was an issue and it's been dealt with. I don't believe there is a need for a further comprehensive review into the organisation. As you know, the status of the whole organisation has been raised to targeted intervention. If there are any further steps that are required, I will report back openly and transparently, together with advice that I'll receive from the NHS Wales chief executive, the Wales Audit Office and, of course, Healthcare Inspectorate Wales.
This might seem like a trivial issue about a data entry error, but behind it lies consistent poor performance of even basic administrative functions. Without proper and accurate data on waiting times, we can't judge whether or not things are getting better or worse. We can't pinpoint the areas that need investment and the areas where patient safety may be at risk because of lengthening waiting times, yet poor quality of data throughout the NHS is an issue highlighted time and time again by committee report after committee report. So, how confident are you that the decisions that you make, when the data that you have shows itself to be consistently unreliable, are the right decisions?
I don't accept the premise of the Member's question that the data is consistently unreliable. We're open and we're honest about the accuracy that we have in our official statistics. Those official statistics do, of course, help to inform the choices that we make and the scrutiny we have on our services. I think a blanket attack that says, 'You can't rely on data provided by the NHS' is misplaced and it's not the way that I intend to run the health service.
Minister, while I accept that the investigation found no evidence of clinical harm and there was no indication that Cwm Taf had been deliberately trying to manipulate the figures, this does raise serious questions about the management of waiting lists, both in Cwm Taf and across all health boards. I'm sure all of us here can list examples of patients being removed from waiting lists because they didn't respond to a letter they may never have received. Minister, will you launch a wider investigation in waiting list management across all local health boards, and will you look at how technology can be used to improve the management of hospital appointments?
As I said before to Angela Burns, I don't think a comprehensive review of Cwm Taf is needed, nor indeed into waiting list management. We are, though, always looking for how to make better use of technology to help manage appointments and waiting lists within the service. Part of what I'm keen to do is to make sure that best practice across health boards is adopted and rather more uniform across our service, so people know when they have appointments and attend those appointments to make sure that we're not running a service that builds in a level of inefficiency. So, I'm always on the look-out for how we improve the service, but I'm not looking to have an unnecessary and wasteful investigation across the national health service here in Wales.
Thank you very much. The third topical question this afternoon is to be answered by the Trefnydd, and it's Leanne Wood.
3. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government on the implications for Wales following the resignation of the Secretary of State for Wales? 361
We have had no such discussions.
I've been disgusted by the events of the last week involving Ross England. His attempt to obstruct the justice system should have prompted widespread condemnation and immediate disciplinary action by the leadership of the Welsh Tories. Instead, it was followed by the promotion of Ross England as a candidate in a target Assembly seat. We should not forget that at the heart of this story is a woman who will have to live with what was done to her for the rest of her life. There is no way that she should have had to endure a second trial.
The episode has cost the Tory Secretary of State for Wales his Cabinet job. If he did know about this incident, as is suggested by the emergence of an e-mail from a special advisor, then he must withdraw as a candidate in this upcoming election. Anyone who minimises or condones the collapse of a rape trial is not fit for public office. If it is proven that other senior Tory figures in the party in Wales and England knew of this sordid affair but did nothing, then they must also seriously consider their positions.
Do you agree with me that Alun Cairns is unfit for public office and that any inquiry should include who else within the Tory party knew of Ross England's collapsed rape trial? And will you also be making representations to the UK Government when a new Secretary of State for Wales is announced to insist that someone with a knowledge of what our country needs is appointed? While this anachronistic post exists, we can ill afford another voice for the UK Government in Wales as opposed to what is required: a strong voice for Wales within the UK Government.
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I completely share Leanne Wood's disgust at what happened with the case and the way in which it had been handled by the Conservative Party, and Leanne, of course, reminds us very, very importantly that behind all this is a woman's life who has been impacted by what's happened and, obviously, having to go through the current situation would be extremely distressing, so I think that in all of these discussions, we have to have the woman at heart, the victim at heart.
I will say that I agree with Jeremy Corbyn's comments on this issue, and he said, whilst Alun Cairns can legally stand,
'does he have a moral right to stand as a candidate?'
He goes on to say:
'If he’s stepping down as a minister because of his involvement then I would have thought the very least the Conservative party can do is not put him up as a candidate in the next election.'
And, of course, Leanne's right again to say that we do need a Secretary of State who understands Wales, and I very much look forward to a new Secretary of State after the general election who has Wales's interests at heart, rather than the interests of the Conservative Party at heart. And it's clearly not a good thing that we're in a situation now where the only Minister left in the Wales Office is the former MP for Torbay who, I think it's fair to say, would probably have limited knowledge of the issues affecting us here in Wales.
As I've made clear in my comments earlier today, I believe that the Secretary of State for Wales was right to resign from his role, given the circumstances. And I've also made it absolutely clear today that I think this case has been shocking and disturbing, and my heart goes out to this individual.
Now, as the Minister is aware, given today's resignation, an investigation under the UK Government's ministerial code will now take place, and that investigation will now take its course, and I very much agree. And it's important that we maintain the highest possible standards as politicians in all our parliamentary institutions, including here.
Therefore, can the Minister tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure that its own ministerial code is as effective as possible so that the public can be confident in all our parliamentary institutions, and in all our Executive's institutions, to make sure that that code is as robust as possible?
I thank Paul Davies for his comments, and I'm familiar with the statement that he issued earlier today, although I do feel it was perhaps a week late in coming. But I will say that the Welsh Government is constantly reviewing the ministerial code, and when additions need to be made to it, then they are done. So, Ministers are regularly issued with copies of the ministerial code, which we have to completely absorb and ensure that we, at all times, are observing what's set out in the ministerial code.
One of the impacts that Alun Cairns departure as Secretary of State could have is sending out a clear and substantive message to women who are considering coming forward to report rape that their trauma through a court appearance may be used to vilify them and that the case could collapse, which is exactly what happened in this case.
At a time when we all know that there is already an extremely very low rate of successful rape trials in the UK and in Wales, I think the damage that this very high-profile case can do to further diminish any prospect of women wanting to put themselves through this is extremely high. I would call on Alun Cairns to do the right thing in this case, because he stood by somebody, and it seems in the full knowledge of what that individual did, and making that woman go through a second trial. If one trial isn't enough, two trials is just beyond belief.
And there's a real danger here—and I urge everyone to be really careful in what they're doing—in identifying this victim, because that is my fear in all of this now, that somehow that could happen. We must make absolutely certain that that doesn't happen. So, doing the right thing in terms of giving up a job that he may or may not have had in a few weeks' time doesn't exactly satisfy me, and I'm sure it won't satisfy all those other women. If he was going to do the right thing, Alun Cairns, for his role in this, he ought to give up his position, because he doesn't, in my opinion, qualify to represent anybody any more in public office. Can you imagine how he's going to handle cases that might come to him about injustice in the future? Can you imagine that any woman in the Vale of Glamorgan, which he represents, would want to go anywhere near him or his party at this time? So, if the Tories—and I believe what Paul Davies said and I accept it absolutely—but if the Tories want to really say that they care, and I'm talking about the Tories in the UK and their head office, about this, then he has to go. That is the only route forward, because, unfortunately, what he's doing is damaging all his colleagues as well.
I thank Joyce Watson for those comments, and what she says really echoes the words of Christina Rees, of course, who has said that
'Alun Cairns stepping down as secretary of state is far from the end of the matter, and is a shoddy halfway house that will fool nobody.'
And she goes on to say that
'He has still not explained his behaviour and still not addressed the grave issues raised by the leaked emails yesterday.'
'should do the right thing—apologise, and step down as a candidate.'
But I think the most important point that Joyce Watson has raised today is the importance of ensuring that women still have the confidence to come forward and to report things that have happened to them, to ensure that there is support available for those women, and also to ensure that the women involved can always have the confidence that their anonymity will be preserved at all times.
Finally, Alun Davies.
I'm grateful to you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I associate myself with remarks made by Leanne Wood and by Joyce Watson in this session of questions? The whole matter, which has been the subject of public debate over the last week, has laid bare some very, very serious issues in terms of not just the behaviour of an individual, but of the role of the Secretary of State. I hope that we and the Welsh Government will be able to pursue matters, not only to protect the place of the victim in this, but also to ensure that, wherever we have the influence to do this—I'm pleased to see the Counsel General's in his place this afternoon—we protect the court system in Wales, to ensure that women do feel able to come forward in these cases.
But this also raises significant issues about the role of the Secretary of State, and I think, for some years, many of us have felt that the role of the Secretary of State is an anachronism in this current United Kingdom. Many of us have felt, and, particularly, I speak from my experience in Government, that there is no purpose to the office of the Wales Office or the office of the Secretary of State any further.
Finance Minister, you may not be aware, but a recent hearing by the external affairs committee spent an hour and a half debating relations between the Governments of the United Kingdom with Michael Gove, just before recess, and in that hour and a half, neither Michael Gove nor any member of that committee mentioned the Wales Office. I think that speaks volumes about how the Wales Office is actually recognised in today's United Kingdom. It is time for us to put in place inter-governmental machinery that ensures that all the Governments of the United Kingdom are able to work together for the benefit of all of us in the United Kingdom, and I hope that if anything comes out of this sorry business, that will at least be one thing that does come out of this, and I hope the Welsh Government can pursue that.
Thank you to Alun Davies for raising that particular issue, and, of course, the First Minister recently set out his vision, if you like, for inter-governmental relationships amongst the constituent nations of the UK. I think it is really important that that system of relationships is underpinned by the machinery that will best suit our ambitions for the way in which we will relate to other parts of the UK.
Thank you very much, Trefnydd.
Item 6 on the agenda is the 90-second statements. The first this afternoon is from Vikki Howells.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. This is a 90-second statement about an ordinary teddy bear—an ordinary teddy bear thrown away, brought to life by a spotty man and given special powers by mother nature. Yes, this is a 90-second statement about SuperTed. SuperTed, the very first commission from S4C, first appeared on Welsh tv on 1 November 1982, so this month marks his thirty-seventh anniversary. An English language cartoon featuring the anthropomorphic action hero was broadcast the following year, which, from 4 October 1984, aired to the whole of the UK.
This terrific teddy was charged with taking the S4C logo worldwide. Indeed, the series was sold to over 70 countries. He was the first outside production ever bought by the Walt Disney Company, his heroics distributed on video and broadcast to the then brand-new Disney Channel.
SuperTed was the true Welsh tv star of the 1980s. The brave bear was the creation of Welsh writer and animator Mike Young. Famously, the charismatic character was created by Mike to help his son overcome his fear of darkness. Over 100 SuperTed books were published, which sold over 200,000 copies in the UK alone. He starred in educational programming. Who remembers Super Safe with SuperTed, the road-safety animation set in Cardiff? SuperTed appeared on stage, on children's vitamins, and he was even the first shirt sponsor for Cardiff City Football Club. What a legacy. Pen-blwydd hapus.
I have to beat that. [Laughter.] Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. How do you beat that?
This week marks another anniversary—the seventieth anniversary of my home town, the designation of Cwmbran as a new town, the first and only mark one new town to be built in Wales under the New Towns Act 1946.
Growing up in the 1980s in the Llanyrafon area of the town, on the western edge of the Monmouth constituency, I was very aware that the place I called home was somehow different and became fascinated by the vision of a brighter future that had inspired the postwar urban planners. That vision had itself grown out the ideas of Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the Victorian garden city movement and author of To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform. It espoused new communities, benefiting from clean air, open space and good-quality housing, all in short supply in postwar Britain.
In Cwmbran, it also included the innovation of a fully pedestrianised town centre, with free parking, which would eventually, upon the winding up of Cwmbran Development Corporation, become the first privately owned town centre in the UK. Originally envisaged as a community of 35,000 people, Cwmbran has actually grown to nearer 50,000 people. As a result of this expansion, there are now many more people who have made the new town their home.
It has been 70 years since the then Minister of Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin, said to the chair of the committee of the Cabinet, Herbert Morrison:
'I think we can build a very good new town here'.
Many would say that history has proved him right. Happy birthday, Cwmbran.
Item 7 on our agenda is a motion to vary the order of consideration for amendments at Stage 3 of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill. Can I call on a Member of the Business Committee to move the motion? Darren.
Motion NDM7175 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 26.36:
Agrees to dispose of sections and Schedules to the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill at Stage 3 in the following order:
a) sections 2 to 9,
b) Schedule 1,
c) sections 10 to 28,
d) Schedule 2,
e) section 29,
f) Schedule 3,
g) sections 30 to 41,
h) section 1,
i) Long title.
Thank you very much. I have no speakers. Therefore, the proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Item 8 on our agenda this afternoon is a debate on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee Report: 'Hepatitis C: Progress towards achieving elimination in Wales'. And I call on Helen Mary Jones to move the motion on behalf of the committee. Helen Mary.
Motion NDM7174 Dai Lloyd
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee: Hepatitis C: Progress towards achieving elimination in Wales, which was laid in the Table Office on 27 June 2019.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. Thank you very much indeed, Deputy Presiding Officer. I stand here, of course, in place of our much-beloved colleague, Dr Dai Lloyd, who is currently not very well. I certainly can't hope to imitate his inimitable style. I'm sure that all Members in this Chamber will join me in wishing Dai a swift and speedy recovery, and all I can do is attempt to fill his shoes on behalf of the committee, knowing, of course, that this is completely beyond me.
I'm very pleased to take part in this debate today, on behalf of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, on our report on the progress towards achieving the elimination of hepatitis C in Wales. This is the third of a series of short, focused spotlight inquiries that have been undertaken by the committee, and we're all very grateful to all of those who gave evidence and, as always, to the excellent team that supports our committee's work.
The committee agreed to undertake this one-day inquiry to investigate the work currently being undertaken to eliminate hepatitis C in Wales by the target date of 2030. The World Health Organization estimates that 71 million people in the world have chronic hepatitis C infections, and of the 21,000 who live in the UK, 12,000 to 14,000 live in Wales. That's a great number of our fellow citizens affected by this condition.
We know, of course, that hepatitis C affects disadvantaged and marginalised communities, including homeless people and migrant communities particularly, with almost half of the people who attend hospital with this virus coming from the poorest fifth of society.
Key things emerged in our inquiry. We know, of course, that Wales is signed up to the World Health Organization's global health sector strategy, which aims to eliminate hepatitis C by 2030. One of the tragedies, of course, of the large number of people living with this condition is that it is now completely curable. Whilst this is welcome—the signing up is welcome—a number of witnesses to our inquiry expressed concerns about whether we will meet those targets. The committee heard that not all local health boards are meeting the targets, and that both diagnosis and treatment rates will have to increase significantly in Wales if we are to achieve the 2030 target. We heard anecdotal evidence of local health board finance directors discouraging hepatology teams from exceeding the treatment targets because of financial concerns. This approach will only result in greater financial cost in the long run, and is not compatible with Wales achieving the elimination target. It is vital that caps are not placed on local treatment targets by health boards. National treatment targets should be seen as a basic minimum floor, which health boards should be aiming to exceed.
The message from witnesses is clear—that knowledge and awareness of hepatitis C amongst the public remains low, reflected in roughly 50 per cent of patients being undiagnosed. A UK-wide poll commissioned by the Hepatitis C Trust highlighted that, of the 80 per cent who were aware of hepatitis C, less than 40 per cent knew that it affects the liver, and less than 30 per cent knew that the virus is now curable.
The committee heard that outdated information is still prevalent amongst at-risk groups, and, as such, some patients are fearful about coming forward to access healthcare, because of the difficult nature of the previous treatments. Increasing public awareness and knowledge of the virus through the development of a Government-backed awareness campaign, targeted to specialist at-risk groups, may help to reduce the effects on those who are affected by the virus. Public Health Wales told the committee that, since the Welsh Government introduced a formal policy of opt-out testing for blood-borne viruses for all those on admission to prison in 2016, the uptake of testing has increased from 8 per cent to 34 per cent. This is encouraging, and it has been a big improvement, and, in time, hopefully, Public Health Wales will reach the target of 100 per cent. However, witnesses highlighted a lack of resources for testing in prisons, and stated that, in order to make prisons HCV-free, additional resourcing and staffing is required. Recruitment and retention were also issues that were highlighted by witnesses, with some stating that lack of staff was preventing prisoners from being tested promptly.
Knowledge and awareness amongst some health professionals is an ongoing issue that must be addressed. The committee heard that patients reported less positive experiences with health professionals, such as GP and non-specialist nurses, with many saying that they had not, in fact, been offered tests. Others stated that they'd encountered low levels of knowledge of the virus from health professionals, often being given inaccurate or outdated information and advice. The Hepatitis C Trust recognises that initiatives that have been introduced to provide educational support to healthcare professionals are valuable, but says that more needs to be done. Witnesses called for protected learning time for such health professionals, and for more awareness raising. We heard that such training does not need to be time-consuming and much of it can be delivered online.
The message from witnesses was that Wales has an excellent opportunity to become the first country in the UK to eliminate this disease. However, without urgent additional action to address the uncertainty relating to the strategy and funding post 2021, the fear is that the opportunity may be lost.
So, these were our four recommendations—that the Welsh Government should produce a comprehensive, national elimination strategy for hepatitis C, with clear and ambitious targets and workforce planning built in, and provide substantial funding until the elimination is achieved. This must be done as a matter of urgency, given that the current plan ends this year, and funding for dedicated posts is only available until 2021.
Our second recommendation is that the strategy must include a targeted awareness-raising campaign to reach out to at-risk communities, and to provide additional education and training for health professionals. The Welsh Government, for our third recommendation, must write to local health board finance directors and chief executives to emphasise that the national targets for treatment for hepatitis C must be considered as a minimum and be exceeded where possible. And the Welsh Government, for our fourth recommendation, should provide additional investment to improve hepatitis testing in prisons.
We are somewhat disappointed that the Welsh Government has only chosen to fully accept one of these recommendations. We're grateful that the other recommendations have been accepted in principle. But, in fact, the Government has only agreed to write to the finance directors and the chief executives, and their response says that there are other ways to address the issues that our report raises. I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say today, but I would urge him to look once again at our recommendations, which are strongly evidence based, and the need for a strong central lead on this is vital.
In many ways, the hepatitis C story in Wales is incredibly optimistic. We have a disease before us, or a condition before us, that is almost entirely curable, and we are within striking distance—if we apply ourselves—to being able to wipe this out.