Y Cyfarfod Llawn
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
Before we begin, I wish to inform the Assembly that the National Health Service (Indemnities) (Wales) Bill was given Royal Assent today, and I do so in accordance with Standing Order 26.75.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, and the first question is from Angela Burns.
Diolch, Llywydd. Good afternoon, Minister.
1. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve public transport connectivity in west Wales? OAQ55126
Working with Transport for Wales and with local authorities, we are investing in improving rail, bus and community transport services, and in developing our proposals for the metro in the south-west region.
Minister, I am here to make an unashamed pitch, to ask Welsh Government to support the St Clears railway station application to Network Rail to open up a railway station again in St Clears. It was closed in 1964, and there has been a campaign that's been long running for the last decade to try to reopen it. St Clears is a burgeoning town. The absence of that railway station is an absolute gap in the west Wales network. There are lots and lots of modern houses, not just in St Clears, but the villages around, and you either have to go to Carmarthen or Whitland, neither of which, actually, are big enough to deal with some of the issues, like the parking, and so on; Whitland is an absolute nightmare, as you will be more than aware.
You, as I understand it, have the third phase of the consultation going out. There is a petition in place, and we think that Cardiff, with Ely Mill, has already got quite a lot of stations all around Cardiff. We understand that there is a strong pitch for Carno and for Deeside, but St Clears is already on a mainline route. It would be a very easy win, and it would really help with things like social inclusion, with making that town not just a far distance satellite, but part of the whole Carmarthen and Swansea network, and we really are counting on your support.
I can assure the Member that I am supportive of the application for St Clears station. It's one of four shortlisted across Wales for further assessment and potential nomination as a priority for UK Government investment. I think that it would assist in the UK Government showing that it is willing to invest more heavily in rail infrastructure in Wales, and, so, the project is being progressed under the south-west metro programme.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of recent road and railway closures in the Conwy Valley? OAQ55118
Llywydd, can I say that I sympathise greatly with those communities affected in Janet Finch-Saunders's constituency? Given the extent of the rainfall, disruption on the trunk road network in Conwy was, thankfully, kept to a minimum, with just two closures on the A470. However, Conwy Valley railway line does remain closed, with a replacement bus service operating between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Thank you, and your sympathy is very, very much appreciated. Recent flood devastation, of course, as you mentioned, has seen the railway seriously damaged, and it is really quite sad when you think that £7.5 million of investment has gone into it only recently. But this line is beleaguered by problems with even the mildest rain. So, when we get a flood situation, it's weeks and weeks before it gets to where people are not having to use bus replacements. But we have also seen too many times the A470 closed to the north of Llanrwst. Only as recently as Saturday, it was extremely difficult to get into Llanrwst at all. So, despite the Welsh Government investing in improvements between Penllwyn and Tan Lan and in Maenan, the road still closes. Traffic is forced off the trunk road onto the maze of the local authority-managed lanes in Maenan. And I know that for me to get to Llanrwst on Saturday, I went right over the top of Eglwysbach and Llanddoged. These roads simply cannot cope with any significant volume of traffic going in both directions.
What action will you take to help create a feasible route for individuals needing to travel up and down the east of the Conwy Valley, during what looks very likely now, going forward, to be repeat incidences of severe flooding?
Can I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for her question, and say that, whilst I am incredibly sympathetic to those communities who were disrupted as a result of the flooding, I'm also sincerely thankful for their patience? And I'd like to extend my thanks also to staff across the entire transport network who have worked so tirelessly since the flooding began to support the travelling public. I'd also like to put on record my thanks to the North Wales Fire and Rescue Service who have worked tirelessly to support people and to support those transport authorities as well.
Now, the A470 trunk road, as the Member has highlighted, was closed at two locations during the recent storms, including at Llanrwst. It was closed at approximately 0900 hours on Sunday, 9 February and reopened at approximately 0800 the following morning. Now, I think the Member is right that instances of flooding on the trunk road network are likely to become more frequent, given climate change, and that's why the Welsh Government is investing in a road resilience fund, specifically for investment in roads liable to flooding, and I would imagine that the A470 at those two locations would be a prime candidate for investment.
But can I also share the Member's sadness and remorse at what's happened on the Conwy line? I was there just last year visiting the works that were being undertaken by Network Rail. It was a huge endeavour and it is really tragic that, so soon after that work was completed, we've seen further damage caused by storms.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones.
Diolch, Llywydd. The Minister, yesterday, in his statement on transport, set out some very high-level aspirations. He talked about the metro as having a greater focus on connectivity, decarbonisation and integration, and I'm sure that these are aspirations that everybody in this Chamber would support.
However, Llywydd, I remain concerned about some gaps between aspiration and delivery, and if I can take the Minister, first of all, back to some conversations that we had yesterday, the Minister will recall the commitment that he made, with the agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government, that the feasibility study into the south-west metro would include the western valleys, including the Amman and the Gwendraeth. Now, in a written response to Dr Dai Lloyd on 20 September last year, the Minister replied that there had been a feasibility study, but that it did not, at that stage, include the western valleys. That was in the written reply. The Minister will recall that, three times yesterday by three different Plaid Cymru spokespeople, he was asked about whether or not that commitment had been met. He did not answer Dai Lloyd, he did not answer me and he did not answer Adam Price. So, I really want to ask the Minister today, has that feasibility study been completed? If it isn't completed, at what stage does he expect it to be completed? Does it or does it not—and let's be really specific—include the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys? And when will the Minister be able to share that feasibility study with Members, accepting, of course, that there may be some delays, because of issues relating to commercial confidentiality?
Well, I think, as I said yesterday, in response to questions, we have funded the four local authorities, being led in this instance by Swansea City and County Council, who've carried out the initial feasibility study into the metro system. The work now will be taken forward by Transport for Wales. That work will be more expansive and extensive and will consider all parts of the region and how that metro system could be enhanced or furthered, both in terms of its vision and in terms of how we can deliver it.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his answer. It still doesn't tell me when we will actually know whether it includes the Amman and Gwendraeth valleys, and I invite him to see if he wants to be able to give us a bit more of an idea about that now.
But if I can take him to another commitment that he's made as part of an agreement with our party, he will recall that, in the final budget deal with the Welsh Government, we agreed not to oppose the budget, and one of the conditions of that was £2 million to be allocated to improving electric vehicle charging points across Wales. Now, he will, I'm sure, be aware that, as of October 2019, figures place the majority of south Wales local authorities in the bottom 20 per cent of local authorities UK-wide. For example, one of the lowest ranking was Rhondda Cynon Taf, with just three public charging points for 100,000; Caerphilly, at that stage, only had four; and the Vale of Glamorgan, only five per 100,000 people.
This was a commitment to a substantial investment, and I wonder if the Minister can tell us today what has been done with that investment, and how does he account for the fact that we have such low figures in some of those communities that need it most? I think we would all share the Minister's aspirations to move more and more people on to public transport, but there will be many people who will continue to want or need to use private vehicles and we need to get them into electrical vehicles where we can.
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for the question regarding electrical charging points? I think the explanation is really rather simple: it's that there's been a market failure to date across much of the UK, including huge swathes of Wales. To address that, the Government—any Government—could do one of two things: (1) wait for the market to respond to increasing demand, and we have seen a significant increase in the number of charging points; or (2) invest.
Now, if a Government is going to invest, there are further options. One is to just plough the money into existing charging systems and use taxpayers' money to pay for the infrastructure that's required, or use the moneys to incentivise the market. That is precisely what we're doing with the £2 million that was agreed with Plaid Cymru, working alongside the Development Bank of Wales, and the providers of electric charging points, so that we don't just get £2 million-worth of infrastructure points, but that we get many millions more, and, in so doing, drive up the figure quite considerably in terms of how many charging points we have across Wales.
I can understand the Minister's aspirations to make the £2 million go further—that makes a certain amount of sense, but it begs the question about time and about when this is actually going to be delivered. The Minister is right, of course, to highlight the issues of market failure. It's likely that market failure will continue to take place, both in some of our poorer communities and potentially in some of our more isolated rural communities. It's been interesting, of course, to see that Gwynedd has been able to do better than some other local authorities in this regard. So, when does the Minister feel that he will be able to provide this Assembly with a breakdown of exactly how that £2 million has been, or will be, spent? And will he be able to show us where those new charging points have been put, because I would agree with him that we wouldn't want public investment to be put in place to replace private sector investment where the market could deliver?
Well, I can assure the Member that we have committed to developing an electric vehicle charging strategy for Wales. That is a strategy to be published this year. It's scoping out the context for further Welsh Government intervention above and beyond the £2 million in the provision of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. And I can also assure the Member that Transport for Wales's remit letter for the coming year will include commissioning them to support this exercise so that we can roll out, at the fastest possible pace, new improved fast-charging infrastructure for cars.
Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, under your watch, how many major transport schemes have cost substantially more and taken longer to complete than expected?
Well, I don't think anywhere near as many transport-related projects as the UK Government has been in charge of delivering, particularly on the railways. We only need to look at HS2 as an example of how inflating costs have spiralled out of control, or Crossrail, or any given number of road projects that are being delivered by Highways England.
I would say to the Member, though, that it is disappointing whenever a road project, or a rail project for that matter, is delivered beyond the time frame that was promised, or delivered over budget. However, there are certain circumstances where projects have been delivered, either under budget or on budget and within the time frame originally envisaged, including that major road project in the Member's own constituency, the Newtown bypass.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. Of course, my question was with regard to transport schemes here in Wales, and this is my job—to scrutinise your performance here in this Parliament. Can I ask, Minister, or make the point that the performance of Welsh Government in delivering major road infrastructure projects has not at all been glowing? And I appreciate that you accept the frustration when that occurs.
Last week, the auditor general's report into section 2 of the A465 highlighted disruption, delays and overspend of £100 million, compared to the initial estimate in 2014. It was scheduled for completion in 2018 and was then put back to 2019, and it's now scheduled to be completed in 2021. Are you confident that there will be no further delays and cost increases, because the auditor general, sadly, isn't convinced of that, in fact, he's concluded that the final cost remains uncertain?
Absolutely. The Member is absolutely right—HS2 is the prime example of projects that can inflate beyond control.
But, look, the Member is right: he's here to scrutinise me, and the dualling of section 2 of the A465 is an enormously important programme, and I'm obviously very disappointed by the further delay to this particular project. However, I can confirm, Llywydd, that the scheme budget remains as it was in my statement in April of last year. The budget remains the same: no further increase, despite the delay that was announced very recently. It's also worth reflecting on the fact that this particular project is now more than 85 per cent complete, with construction of more than 7.5 miles of retaining walls; something in the order of 1.3 million cu m of material has been excavated, and there has been the laying of 16,000 cu m of concrete; 30,000 trees have been planted and 15 bridges have been constructed. It's a huge endeavour. Whilst I do regret the increase in the overall budget since it was first programmed, and the delay in completing it, there is no doubt whatsoever that this complex but hugely ambitious scheme will be truly transformational for the Heads of the Valleys.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. I think it will be helpful as well for the residents to be able to listen to your own frustrations that the project hasn't been delivered on time. I want to go to a more positive footing here, but, of course, it's not the first and only project that has been mismanaged; I'll detail a couple and come to my final question. A year ago, you were delighted to mark the beginning of the construction phase of the A487 Caernarfon to Bontnewydd bypass scheme and told this Parliament that it would be completed in 2021. Currently, the project overview on the Welsh Government's website says completion date is 2022. And then the construction of the Llandeilo bypass, which was due to commence last year—last month you told the climate change and rural affairs committee that it wasn't included in this next budget, and work hasn't yet commenced.
So, I want to get to a more positive point here: when are lessons going to be learned from these past mistakes? When is it that this Parliament can be informed and people across Wales can be informed of a project that is going to be properly managed, so it's delivered on time and it's delivered in a cost-effective way, as the original estimates listed? What is it, through procurement practices and contractual practices, that needs to change to ensure that that can happen?
I can assure the Member that we already are delivering projects, road-based projects, to budget, and within the schedule that they are published, including, as I said earlier, the Newtown bypass. Two projects were highlighted in the Member's question: one concerns the A487 Caernarfon to Bontnewydd bypass, and the Member will be aware that during excavation of land in this project, important archaeological finds were made, and, of course, that leads to delays. In terms of Llandeilo bypass, the Member, I imagine, will be aware as well of concerns that have been expressed by Sustrans, which must, in my view, be fully addressed.
Of course, cost and time bias is built into projects of this scale. However, lessons are being learned, not just from projects here within Wales, but we also work as closely as we can do with Highways England, because this is not an uncommon problem. The discovery of archaeological finds is something that often you cannot predict—you simply cannot predict. In terms of excavation of earth and finding other remains such as unexploded bombs, or terrains that you could not see, and you could not assess before the work began, that need to be addressed, and that can add time and it can add cost, but we are working with Highways England and with others to learn lessons and to ensure that we bring in projects as close to the budget or, indeed, in the case of the Newtown bypass, at the budget that they were published.
Brexit Party spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. Could the Minister please provide an update on the foundational economy in Wales?
Yes, absolutely. It's an exciting piece of work that is being led by my colleague Lee Waters. We recently saw the challenge fund unveiled, with a very significant number of bids. As a result of the enthusiasm for that particular fund, we trebled the amount of resource available, and we've been able to fund a huge number of projects right across the length and breadth of Wales.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Gerald Holtham, giving the Hodge lecture, said he had no idea how the Welsh economy was going to develop over the next decade. He made the point that Wales should look more towards the foundational economy to simply protect living standards. But he maintained that even if the Welsh economy grows to enrich most of the people in Wales, places like Merthyr were never going to match Bridgend, Swansea, Chepstow—and he should, of course, have added Cardiff. Does the Minister think that this analysis is correct?
I'm sure that we could spend the entire afternoon debating this important area of concern. The economic action plan has the dual purpose of driving down inequality within regions and across regions, but also to improve productivity. Our focus on the foundational economy is new, and it has immense energy attached to it because we recognise that we have to ensure that we protect living standards and that we give opportunities to those communities that have felt very distant from areas that have benefited from economic growth in recent times. But, equally, we are committed to developing the highest quality jobs that we possibly can across all parts of Wales. That's what, for example, the Tech Valleys project is aiming to achieve. It's what our interventions across the Valleys taskforce are aiming to achieve. It's what our intervention in projects such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre is aiming to achieve. And if we look at the results of our strategic investments in recent years, we can stand proud. We've got unemployment rates at the lowest ever level—the lowest levels since records began. We see gross value added rising faster than most other parts of the UK, and household earnings as well have been increasing faster than the average in the UK. These are all signs that we have been investing cleverly, smartly and in the right areas.
3. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency's decision to close the driving test centre in Caernarfon? OAQ55113
Well, we were not informed of this decision by the UK Government. However, I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport asking for urgent clarification on their proposals, and my officials have contacted the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. The Welsh Government are ready to assist where possible, with those that will be affected by this news.
Thank you very much for that response, but we do need to go further than that. We need to ensure that this decision is overturned, because we can’t afford to lose this centre. I’m talking about a centre that is in the constituency of my colleague Siân Gwenllian, but, of course, it’s a centre that serves a vast area of north Wales. In August of last year, following concerns raised with me by Huw Williams from the heavy goods vehicles and buses training service—Huw Williams from Anglesey—I wrote to the DVSA, pointing out to them that they had a lack of capacity in Caernarfon as things stood. We need lorry drivers and we need bus drivers for our economy and our wider society.
What Huw Williams—and I know that this is true of other companies—had found is that they couldn’t get enough slots in the centre in Caernarfon in order to test those people who they were training. That tells me that we need to grow and strengthen the centre, so you can imagine my huge disappointment and the shock of Huw Williams in hearing, unofficially first of all, that the intention now is to close the test centre.
That was confirmed in due time. There was a suggestion that they would seek another site in Caernarfon, having closed the current site. Now, that’s not how things should be done. If the DVSA agree that there is a need for a centre in Caernarfon, then they must find a new site in Caernarfon or in that area now, not after the closure of the centre. Can we have an assurance from the Government that you will do everything you can to urge the Government to change this decision, because we can’t afford to lose that centre?
Can I thank Rhun for his question? Llywydd, I think that it would be helpful if I was to release the letter that I sent to the Secretary of State, because I think that it will show how serious we are in demanding that a Caernarfon site is secured. I appreciate the predicament that haulier trainers are in over this decision, and the impact that it might have on their business, especially those who have invested in good faith and in the belief that a test centre would be retained in the area.
Our understanding is that the Department for Transport is still exploring options for an alternative test centre in or around the Caernarfon area. We have said to the UK Government that we believe that it should be in Caernarfon, and it's also my understanding that the current Caernarfon test site is leased from Gwynedd county council. Our understanding is that they have yet to be formally notified of any date to vacate the site. As I say, we are determined to see the decision reversed and to see a permanent site in Caernarfon.
As you indicate, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency have been in negotiations for another location in Caernarfon, on the Cibyn industrial estate. Subsequent to that they said a move to Wrexham, 90 miles' drive from Caernarfon, is a contingency, and officials continue to look for alternative sites, as you indicate, in Caernarfon, after not finding what they describe as a suitable location, and that tests should still be booked from the current site until further notice. What assistance, if any, can the Welsh Government provide in not only understanding why the site on Cibyn industrial estate was deemed unsuitable, and whether that can be remedied, but also perhaps on identifying, or helping identify, alternative suitable sites in order to keep the centre in or near Caernarfon?
Our regional team in north Wales stand ready to assist DVSA in identifying an alternative site in Caernarfon. So, too, do Business Wales, and I've asked my officials to work with Gwynedd county council in assessing the reasons why DVSA have determined that it may not be a suitable site, the one that they currently have, and to ascertain exactly what it is that they would wish to have in a new alternative site in Caernarfon.
4. What discussions has the Minister had with the relevant authorities regarding increasing train capacity on the south Wales main line? OAQ55129
I continue to have discussions with Transport for Wales about current services on the south Wales main line and local lines that are served from it, and I'll also continue to discuss with Network Rail, who own the south Wales main line, about future investments.
Thank you. Of course, increasing services and expanding the network is something I know has been discussed yesterday in the statement on the south Wales regional metro plans, and also a meeting I had with Transport for Wales recently reflected that aim. I've spoken to a lot of people who talk to me about the capacity issues, and I know that you've mentioned Network Rail, but in particular, locally, many people have raised with me that they want to see more frequent stops in places like Pencoed, Baglan, Llandarcy and other similar stations. How are you able to facilitate this, and what decisions have been made regarding loops on the main line for strategic locations? And the second part of the question is: what have you been doing to discuss with Bridgend County Borough Council regarding Pencoed level crossing? We know that the level crossing is affecting the residents in the area, and has hindered progress over the years. It's going to be a barrier to expansion and has already created many traffic problems. So, on those two issues, can you please give me progress?
Yes, of course. An extendability framework is now being established for the south Wales metro. I'm looking at corridors that can be enhanced in the future. Of course, I don't really need to rehearse the figures—11 per cent of track, 11 per cent of stations, 20 per cent of level crossings in Wales on the Wales route, and yet we've only received about 2 per cent of investment from the UK Government. Clearly, if we are to improve speeds and reduce journey times, and improve the regularity of services across not just the south Wales lines and services, but also elsewhere in Wales, then we need to see further investment.
I have met very recently with the leader of Bridgend council to discuss Pencoed. I was accompanied by the local Member, and we have asked the council to bring forward proposals that we will be able to, in turn, promote to UK Government for investment. I think it's worth saying that the commitment that TfW has to increasing capacity is one part of the jigsaw. In order to increase and improve capacity we also need to see investment in rail lines, the track and the signalling, which then can enable increased capacity on the network at any given time.
The electrification of the Great Western main line has clearly been a major plus and will be a major plus for the Welsh, south Wales, economy.
As Bethan Jenkins—sorry, Bethan Sayed—said before, it works as a part of the metro jigsaw, and I'm going to qualify my question to you by saying I appreciate that you're not superman, and that you can't wave a magic wand and—[Interruption.] And you can't wave a magic wand—[Interruption.] No. And you can't wave a magic wand and make all these happen tomorrow, but, in terms of getting the more disparate, the rural, parts of the metro network going, such as Monmouth, which I've mentioned to you before, what can you do to make sure that those parts of the metro jigsaw are joined up as quickly as possible? I appreciate it can't be tomorrow, but people in my area are thinking that the metro's a great idea in practice, but when is it actually going to extend to a point where it's going to help them in their lives?
Well, we've asked—. As I said in yesterday's debate, we've asked Transport for Wales—we've remitted them in the next financial year—to look at each of the metro projects, including extendibility. That work is extensive, of course, but it is necessary for individuals in the more distant areas of each of the metro areas to appreciate that, in the future, investment will come their way and they will be better connected.
Could I just address my thanks to Network Rail, TfW? Representatives from the Secretary of State's office as well have been part of the meetings that have been organised alongside Pencoed Town Council, myself and Chris Elmore, the MP, in order to make the case and to actually get us to the stage where we have now completed the Welsh transport appraisal guidance first phase study into the level crossing, but also the enhancements that are needed on the Pencoed bridge road crossing as well. But will he accept that, in order to take this forward, not just with the WelTAG 2, but to make the case for the moneys—and I thank the Minister for the meeting he held recently with Huw David of Bridgend and ourselves—we will have to have all players at the table. It will have to be the local authority in terms of highways and urban structure around the railway if we move to closing the crossing, but there will also need to be major investment from the UK Department of Transport as well. And it's good to have had the Secretary of State as an observer in these meetings, but we're rapidly moving to the point where they'll have to look to put their hand in their pocket.
Could I also ask, please, that, in terms of doing this, the criticality of increasing frequency of service from all the way—? Maesteg, Sarn, Tondu, Pontyclun, Pencoed, Llanharan are all reliant on this. But could I ask him: is he going to continue to urge for progress as well on increased frequency on the Maesteg to Cheltenham line as well? Because that, equally—if we can unlock Pencoed, then that can happen as well.
I couldn't disagree with any of the points raised by the Member, and I'll assure him that I will champion those services and those infrastructure projects in and around his constituency with DfT, with Transport for Wales colleagues, and with my colleagues within Government. It's absolutely vital, as the Member said, that we have a united-team approach to these projects, and that is what we are seeking to deliver for the Maesteg area.
5. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to diversify the economy of South Wales West? OAQ55127
The Welsh Government's priorities are set out in the economic action plan. We are currently working with a wide range of partners in the region on the emerging regional economic framework, as well as supporting the Swansea bay city deal.
Thank you, Minister. Our past reliance on a handful of large employers has left the economy of South Wales West vulnerable. The closure of the Port Talbot steelworks would be devastating for the region, and we face huge challenges in diversifying. But we can also seize the opportunities, if we can think ahead. The biggest challenge we face as a nation is decarbonisation, which also offers us great opportunities. Electric arc furnaces can be used to recycle the tonnes of cars that will be scrapped as a result of electrification. New fuel sources must be found for heavy goods transportation, and there have been promising developments in ammonia fuel cells and conversion of carbon dioxide to methanol. But, in order to capitalise on the opportunities, we have to invest in research and development. Minister, will your Government commit to invest in alternative fuels R&D and work with higher education to ensure Wales leads the way? After all, Swansea was the birthplace of the hydrogen fuel cell. Thank you.
Can I thank Caroline Jones for her question? I can assure her that we already are investing heavily in R&D, that we're working with higher education institutions in the region. Swansea University have taken a lead in many respects in regard to industrial energy solutions, and we are absolutely determined to chase after every penny that is on offer through the UK Government's industrial energy transformation fund and the clean steel fund. They amount to something in the region of £500 million of investment over several years, but I'm afraid to say that that investment pales into almost insignificance next to the Netherlands' £5 billion annual investment that is being made in decarbonisation.
Decarbonisation offers an enormous opportunity for businesses in Wales, for research and development organisations, for higher education institutions, and I'm keen to make sure that, within south Wales, the industrial cluster that has been established is used as a pathway to draw down as much UK industrial strategy funding as possible, but also to access Welsh Government funding. Okay, our bags of money may be smaller than the UK Government's, but, nonetheless, we are able to make strategic investments that assist businesses in decarbonising, and I could identify a number in the Member's region, such as Keytree, where they were able to access £0.5 million and create 38 highly skilled jobs in a software hub within the region. Approximately 33 per cent of our calls to action money has gone to projects relating directly to decarbonisation programmes and, as a result of that, we have seen an employment rate in mid and south-west Wales that has increased by 7.1 per cent between 2011 and 2019. But our determination is to build on that by investing in those industries of tomorrow, and, clearly, decarbonisation is at the very heart of the industries of the future.
Minister, the Swansea bay city deal, of course, is founded on the commercialisation of innovation, not least in decarbonising energy sources west of my region, but I'm pleased with progress within my region. I've raised the prospects about the national steel innovation centre with you before, so I am pleased to hear that Neath Port Talbot's projects for that and tackling climate change have now been signed off by the joint board—any new jobs are going to be welcome, although there are more factors than just that. But I do remain nervous about delays within the system that we've seen from both Governments interrogating previous projects. Can you tell me what you've learned from those processes in testing the viability of projects brought before you already that help you speed up the process of deciding when money can be released?
I think it's fair to say that the key lesson that we've learned from recent history in regard to the deal and the projects contained within it is that Governments need to be more heavily involved in assisting the development of projects to ensure that they can reach the point of approval sooner. There are hugely ambitious projects contained within the deal. We wish to see the deal become a great success, but we have to be thorough in our interrogation of each and every project contained within it. That doesn't necessarily just need to be challenging in a critical way; as I say, I think we can assist more proactively in ensuring that those projects can reach conclusions—positive conclusions—sooner.
Further to Suzy Davies's question about the national steel innovation centre and the Swansea bay technology centre at the Baglan energy park, can I just push you further on that point about funding and can you outline exactly when the Welsh Government is likely to make a decision on this important funding bid? Furthermore, do you also recognise that current broadband provision at the Baglan energy park is less than optimal, with many businesses complaining about connectivity locally? Therefore, what action is the Welsh Government taking to remedy that situation, mindful of the potential development of this key city deal project at that very location?
Can I thank Dai Lloyd for his questions? The issue relating to broadband provision at Baglan I will ask my colleague Lee Waters to respond to in writing. If there are issues there, then clearly we need to address them.FootnoteLink
In terms of the other projects contained in the deal, we will approve them as soon as we are entirely satisfied that they deliver against their intentions and that the due diligence does indeed stack up.
What I was going to talk about is the university sector. We've got two outstanding universities in the Swansea bay city region and the ability to use them in order to grow major new industries and to build on some of those that are coming out of it. You have a choice, really, with economic policy, to prioritise low-wage areas to try and bring branch factories in, but actually developing within your own area, building up, the skills of your own people, who aren't going to be footloose and fancy-free, as Dawn Bowden has discovered with some of those companies that have come into her area, then you've got a chance of keeping them; they're going to grow in your area. What is the Welsh Government doing to work with universities to get more success out of some of these things coming out? I know 'technium' has a bad reputation, but that's because the Welsh Government used it to brand—they gave the name to every branch factory they opened in Wales. The idea of techniums, of spinning out of universities and developing skills and making their way into high-quality and high-value companies, is something that can work, has started to work in Swansea, but what more can be done?
I'm sure many lessons were learned from techniums, and we were able to apply several of those lessons in the development of the enterprise hubs, which are proving to be incredibly successful across Wales—six enterprise hubs that are boosting prospects for young entrepreneurs and leading to many, many new start-ups flourishing sooner than they would do if they were to survive in their own existence. Now, we've provided—. I think the Member is absolutely right that higher education has a critical role in ensuring our long-term prosperity. Further education skills offer incredibly important technical tools, and higher education offers the strategic tools in which to have the best possible fighting chance in a competitive world. And so we have been investing heavily in higher education institutions and research and development. For example, we provided £3 million to the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales just last year, and a further £5 million this year to develop degree-level apprenticeships, which will make a significant contribution, I believe, to the development of high-level skills that our economy needs.
Now, so far, work has gone ahead in relation to digital and engineering and also in advanced manufacturing, and I await the results of those pilot schemes with keen interest. It's worth saying as well, Llywydd, that European structural funds have helped universities play a really important role in helping to meet the higher level skills needs of Welsh industry over many, many years, with in excess of £70 million of EU funds having been utilised during the 2014 to 2020 period.
6. What plans does the Welsh Government have to stimulate the economy in North Wales? OAQ55128
Well, we're stimulating the north Wales economy in many ways. We continue to invest in people, places, business and infrastructure, as outlined in the economic action plan. My role as a Minister for north Wales also ensures the region has a strong voice in Government and in Cabinet.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Leaving the EU means that we can open new free ports that can actually offer the tax and duty benefits traditionally associated with such ports. Under the EU, state-aid rules prevented new free ports offering such benefits, effectively making them free in name only. The Westminster Government seems keen to establish a number of new free ports in the UK now that we've left the EU. Do you agree with me that a free port in north Wales could bring much-needed economic and employment regeneration to the area, and will you call on the UK Government to ensure that at least one of the new free ports is in north Wales?
Well, we remain open-minded about free ports, but let me just be absolutely clear, in answering the Member, what free ports, in our view, should not be. They should not be a means of lowering employment or health or environmental standards—absolutely not. Nor they should be used in a way that displaces activity away from existing ports and enterprise zones. Now, the Member is very well aware that Holyhead port, that Deeside industrial zone, that many, many centres of activity in north Wales, could be threatened by the establishment of a free port zone if it was not carried out in the correct manner. And so, whilst we remain open-minded, I would have to say to the Member that they should not be embraced as an idea without first of all approaching them very, very sceptically.
One issue that continues to be raised with me by businesses in Aberconwy is the skills shortage. This is a Wales-wide problem, with 92 per cent of senior business leaders reporting difficulties in hiring workers with the required skills. So, to stimulate skill growth, I have previously called for the creation of an institute of technology in north Wales. Despite the UK Government having already committed to setting up 12 institutes of technology across England, a Welsh Government spokesperson stated the following to the North Wales Weekly News: there is capacity within the existing further education estate to provide excellent learning in subjects such as engineering and digital close to people's homes in the north. So, therefore, given the apparent opposition to the creation of an institute, I would be grateful if you could explain where this referenced 'capacity' is and what action are you taking to build on that. Thank you.
Can I thank the Member for her question? This primarily relates to responsibilities in the hands of the education Minister, because it concerns further education institutions, of course. However, on the general point of skills, I'd say a number of things. One, that skills shortages will become more acute in certain areas as a result of our exit from the EU; that's certainly what businesses are telling me. Secondly, that Grŵp Llandrillo Menai do an incredible job as one of our most important providers of skills in Wales in meeting the needs of the local economy. And thirdly, specifically with regard to the idea of the creation of an institute of technology, I would welcome consideration of the creation of an institute of technology for north Wales. I believe that this is an issue that has already been discussed. If proposals are bought to Government, then we would seek to support the development of a business case.
Minister, metro mayors Steve Rotheram and Andy Burnham are looking into using their budgets to drive the growth of industry in their areas. We need the flexibility in north Wales to be part of this drive and bring projects like the Heathrow logistics hubs and a second Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre to Alyn and Deeside. Minister, when will the Welsh Government publish regional budgets that will give us the money, flexibility and power to secure such projects and to enable us to work collaboratively and directly with the north west of England? And finally, Minister, do you agree with me that devolving power and money to north Wales will start to address the north-south divide, so often felt by my constituents in Alyn and Deeside?
Can I thank Jack Sargeant for his questions and say that, whether real or perceived, the north-south divide is an issue that I'm determined to get to grips with? In terms of the relationship we have with the north west of England, can I put on record how impressed I've been by both metro mayor Steve Rotheram and metro mayor Andy Burnham in recent years? Their engagement with Welsh Government has been quite astonishing. The determination that they both have in improving prospects for their citizens is to be hugely admired, and I wish them the best of luck in this year's set of elections.
In terms of the investment that will be made through regional indicative budgets, I can assure the Member that I'll be making a statement on or around 10 March of this year concerning regional indicative budgets, and I think it's absolutely right that we have transparency of funding and investment. That will, in turn, help to address the real or perceived north-south divide.
In the meantime, I can also assure the Member that we are pressing ahead with £1 billion of transport investment in north Wales. We've already established the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, and we're now looking at establishing the Advanced Manufacturing Research Institute mark two in Deeside. We're pressing ahead with the Wrexham gateway project. We're going to be improving every single station in north Wales. And as a result of our endeavours in recent years, the unemployment rate in north Wales is at a record low, and lower than both the Welsh and UK average.
7. How does the Welsh Government intend to increase economic prosperity across Wales? OAQ55112
The Welsh Government is helping to increase economic prosperity across Wales through the economic action plan. In 2020, we'll deliver inclusive growth through a focus on regional economic development and we'll encourage a sense of national movement behind a fairer, more responsible economy, fit for future generations.
I wonder if I could ask the Minister what role he thinks the further education sector plays in developing the skills that can underpin our growth in economic prosperity for all, particularly in some of the more disadvantaged communities. We don't have an university in our immediate patch within Ogmore and Bridgend, but we have a fantastic FE college—it happens to be double excellent rated by Estyn, award winning, inclusive, and happens to be the Times Educational Supplement 2019 college of the year—in Bridgend. I recently went along to see the incredible work being done by four young women students in the Nemesis Inferno F1 model competition. They've won the UK heats of this—they've outcompeted every other team, not only in engineering, but also in enterprise, which is part of it as well—and they go on now to the European competitions. It's a combination of a collaboration between Pencoed Comprehensive, between the FE college in Bridgend, but also a range of partners and sponsors from industry as well. Isn't this a real exhibition of the contribution that FE and good sixth-form education, working with partners, makes to growing our economic productivity?
Can I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for his question? The FE institutions that we're fortunate to have in Wales are outstanding in terms of how they respond to employer needs and how they bring life chances to so many young people, and that includes Bridgend College. I've seen first hand how Bridgend College have increased their engagement and participation in skills competitions. Through engagement with the Inspiring Skills Excellence in Wales project, the college have been able to second to the project an individual, and that's been enormously important to learners. I think it's also worth saying that the college has traditionally had incredibly strong links with major employers, including Ford and Sony, but it's also been highly responsive to SMEs and micro-sized businesses as well.
Finally, question 8, Gareth Bennett.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of bus services in South Wales Central? OAQ55125
Yes, of course. Transport for Wales is assisting the Welsh Government in reviewing how bus services could be improved in the future to ensure that communities across Wales benefit from a modern, integrated public transport service.
Thank you. As the Minister will be well aware, the congestion charge for Cardiff is being consulted on; the council are pushing that forward as a proposal. I know that the Minister has been in consultation with them, which is good. Now, there is a major problem with the lack of public confidence in the public transport system in and around Cardiff, particularly since we haven't had a bus station in Cardiff for five years. Could you offer any reassurance that bus service provision in Cardiff itself, and into Cardiff, will improve?
As a result of a series of reforms and measures, I can offer that assurance, first and foremost. Although we've have had 10 years of austerity, we've been able to maintain the bus services support grant of £25 million since 2013. If austerity is truly coming to an end, then clearly there will be opportunities to increase the amount of funding allocated to support bus services across Wales, including in and around Cardiff.
Secondly, we're bringing forward to this Chamber proposals to legislate for the re-introduction of franchising to allow local authorities to run bus companies, to ensure that there is better open data and data gathering so that we can better integrate timetables for rail and for bus services. And we will be bringing forward enhanced quality partnerships to ensure that the experience that passengers have are improved and that the infrastructure in place to support bus services is enhanced as well. This is an incredibly exciting area of work. It's exciting because the work that this Welsh Labour Government is doing will address, finally, the failure of deregulation in the 1980s.
Thank you, Minister.
The next item, therefore, is questions to the Counsel General and Brexit Minister in relation to his responsibilities as Brexit Minister, and the first question is from Mike Hedges.
1. Will the Counsel General provide an update on any forthcoming legislative consent memorandum expected as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? OAQ55108
I'm pleased to confirm that the legislative consent memorandum for the UK Environment Bill has been laid today. This follows recent memoranda on four Bills relating to EU exit: the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, the Direct Payments Bill, the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill. We will keep under review the need for similar memoranda in relation to future Bills the UK Government may bring forward.
Can I thank the Counsel General for that response? I accept that leaving the European Union is the will of the British people and have accepted that since 2016. Whilst leaving the EU is the will of the people, I do not believe the people want to return to the south Wales rivers of the 1960s, with no fish, high pollution levels, and the colour of the water varying from red to black, with some of them able to actually catch fire. I want to stress the importance of protecting the environment and request an update on any discussions on the LCM regarding the environment.
The LCM in relation to that has been laid today. I share with the Member the importance that he attaches to environmental protection in Wales and we have benefited from that during the course of our membership of the European Union. We have been very clear that what we want to see is continued alignment with the beneficial EU regulations that we've seen the benefit of in Wales over many decades, and I hope that we can persuade the UK Government in due course to continue to align to those standards into the future.
2. What recent assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact on trade and customs arrangements in Wales following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? OAQ55116
During the transition period, the UK will remain in the customs union and single market, leaving tariffs and customs arrangements unchanged for that period. It's clear this will change significantly at the end of transition, with a real increase in non-tariff barriers, including requirements for customs documentation, and potentially tariffs also.
You'll be aware that I've raised on a number of occasions concerns by the RMT trade union about the impact of potential customs arrangements and changes, particularly with regard to the impact on shipping, the impact on competition within shipping, the impact on the collective agreements that are currently held by trade unions to protect terms and conditions of employment, and also the implications in respect of potentially undercutting of freight terms and conditions, the underpayment of minimum wage, as well as all the issues of external, broader non-payment of national minimum wage. I wonder what steps the Government is taking, and what discussions the Welsh Government is having to try and ensure that we preserve the recommendations of the Fair Work Commission and protect the rights and interests of workers within seafaring and within freight, and also in terms of the issues around the future status of the port of Milford Haven.
I thank the Member for that important question and his point illuminates one of the under-explored aspects of some of the impacts of non-tariff barriers in particular. I can assure him that we continue to take every opportunity to impress upon the UK Government in their negotiations the importance of maintaining as few barriers as possible to trade, including the kind of freight lines that he described in his question. That is part of a broader commitment, which I know very well that he shares, to ensure that labour standards are maintained into the future. Obviously, we wish to see the continuation of a level playing field in our future relationship with the European Union, now that we are outside the European Union. Part of that, and a crucial part of it, relates to labour standards and certainly we in Wales are committed to maintaining those.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, can you tell us what action the Welsh Government is taking to increase the number of EU citizens that are applying for EU settlement status under the scheme?
Certainly. That scheme is a scheme of the UK Government; it is not a scheme that we would have designed had we been in control of how it works, but we recognise that it is the scheme that is available. As a result, we've been taking a number of steps in order to support EU citizens living in Wales to apply to the scheme. We've, I think, committed around £2 million most recently in relation to funding advice services. Some of that is through organisations such as Citizens Advice; some of it is of a much more technical nature through an immigration law firm. We've funded local authorities to support their own communities locally; and we have a communications strategy, including a digital communications strategy, to increase the numbers applying. We take every opportunity, including myself, this week, with Home Office officials, to impress upon them the need to make sure that communications across the UK do everything possible to encourage the maximum number of applicants.
Thank you for that response. I know that you and I both want to see as many EU citizens as possible that have chosen to make Wales their home stay here in Wales. But I think what is concerning is that figures that have been released by the House of Commons Library show that, as of last month, just 71 per cent of EU citizens based here in Wales have actually applied to the EU settlement scheme, and that's compared to 93 per cent elsewhere in the UK. So, obviously, there's a significant difference in terms of people taking advantage of the scheme from Wales, and I want to better understand why that is the case. Have you done any analysis as a Government as to why people might be having more difficulty in accessing the scheme, or taking advantage of the scheme to a lesser degree here in Wales versus other parts of the UK?
The most recent Home Office figures actually show Wales as the second of the four nations of the UK in terms of numbers of applications. Obviously, we want to see 100 per cent of eligible citizens applying, and we would hope and expect that the UK Government would share that ambition as well. Part of the issue, we believe, is in relation to the UK-wide communication strategy, which has focused on cities, and, of course, there are more cities with bigger populations of EU citizens in England than there are in Wales, where the populations are more dispersed. We think that's one of the aspects to the situation. The other aspect is perhaps the number of Irish citizens within that overall envelope of EU citizens. Obviously, Irish citizens living in Wales don't need to apply to the scheme, and we think that may be part of the factor as well. But we are absolutely clear that although this is a reserved scheme, not a devolved scheme, we are putting Welsh Government budget into maximising the number of applicants.
We've worked successfully to persuade the UK Government, for example, to increase the number of digital centres in Wales, from one to, I think, seven at the moment, and for them to be spread across Wales. We've worked hard to make sure that that's happened and to increase the number of support centres generally. But I know that he will share my ambition to make sure that 100 per cent of applicants in Wales are able to apply and succeed in applying.
I note what you said regarding recent improvements in these figures, and, from the information that I have, it does suggest that, from December to January, we saw an 8 per cent increase in the number of people applying here in Wales for the scheme. But, notwithstanding that, the average across the UK is 93 per cent of citizens versus this 71 per cent here in those latest published figures. Now, I welcome some of the action that has been taken. You rightly refer to the fact that there has been a focus on communications in cities by the UK Government, and that that needs to be supplemented here because of the different nature of the population spread across Wales. But, obviously, I think it is a concern that we only have 71 per cent of people who have taken advantage of the scheme so far.
Can I ask what communications or discussions the Welsh Government might have had with local authorities about specifically boosting their role in reaching out to the diaspora communities within their respective areas, because, obviously, they have a key role, I think, given their interface with these communities on the ground? And given the limited resources of some local authorities, is there more that perhaps the Welsh Government might be able to do in order to assist them?
Well, the meeting I had earlier this week with a range of stakeholders around Wales and Home Office officials, included representation from the Welsh Local Government Association. Most recently, we've made funding available to each local authority to support their efforts in addition to the Wales-wide efforts that we are making, so that local authorities have the capacity to do it themselves within their local areas. One of the features of these figures is that it seems to be the case that there's a higher chance of getting settled status in Wales than a pre-settled status than in other parts of the UK. One of the great sources of concern for most EU citizens applying to this scheme is the very high number of pre-settled status grants in circumstances where we would expect to see settled status being granted. And it's difficult to overestimate, I think, the kind of anxiety that comes with that. For many people, engaging with this sort of migration policy bureaucracy is the first time they've ever had to do that. And, so, it is incumbent on the UK Government to make that as straightforward and as supportive, and to maximise the chance of those who are eligible getting their settled status and protecting their rights here.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Dai Lloyd.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Minister, plainly, continued international co-operation is needed for the frictionless trade of health products across UK-EU borders in the future, post Brexit. Now, around 45 million patient packs of medicines are supplied from the UK to the EU and European economic area countries every month, and, in return, over 37 million patient packs of medicines come from the EU to the UK every month. Yet, without any future regulatory alignment, as announced by the Conservative Government in Westminster, can I ask you: what could possibly go wrong?
He identifies a very live example, it seems to me, of some of the problems that we may well face unless the negotiations with the European Union conclude in the kind of agreement that minimises the barriers to international freight and to trade, which are so important in many aspects of our economic life, but, as his question also makes clear, the life of our citizens in a very direct way, in terms of public services. I can assure him that we take every opportunity—have taken every opportunity—to press the case on the UK Government, not only to seek to minimise tariffs and quotas in their negotiations, but also the kind of non-tariff barriers, which his question identifies as a significant problem.
Can I thank you for that answer? Moving on to another aligned issue, a substantial proportion of UK employment law, as we've already heard, originates from the EU, including the European working time directive. That is what stopped doctors from working 120 hours every week down to around 58 hours over the years. So, can I ask: what discussions are you having about protecting employment rights for workers in Wales post Brexit?
Well, the political declaration, as the Member may recall, was clear that both parties—both the United Kingdom Government, at that point, and the European Union—were committing to maintaining standards, in terms of workplace rights and so on, which were in place at the end of the transition period. That was a feature of the political declaration.
He will, I'm sure, share with me the concern at reading speculation requests and in speeches, in fact, given by the Prime Minister and others, about the potential upside, as they would describe it—and he and I would describe it as the downside—of weakening labour regulation as a consequence of leaving the European Union. Those sorts of ambitions and aims are not ones that we share in this Government and would not be widely shared across this Chamber. We believe that the kind of relationship that people in Wales will expect into the future is one that enables those labour standards to be maintained, both in Wales and the UK, and for there to be a commitment to do that so that we can take advantage of that level of alignment to support our economy into the future.
Thank you for that. Going on to another field, anyone who has attended the annual National Social Care Awards here in Cardiff will know that social care is a skilled profession. In fact, the examples on show every year in that awards ceremony show a very high level of skills. But obviously, social care is plagued by low pay and has fallen foul of the UK Government's points-based immigration system as a result. Now, Wales relies on the EU social care professionals, as it is, in an already overstretched system. So, what representations are you making about social care in Wales post Brexit?
Well, I thank the Member for highlighting that point. When I met with the chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, the social care sector was exactly one of the sectors that I identified to him as being at risk from the sorts of migration policies that were being floated by the UK Government at that point and that have been confirmed in the most recent announcement. We had hoped, as a Government, that the UK Government would be persuaded to bring forward a set of migration policies that would support the economy and public services across the UK. That has not been the case, and as a consequence of the salary threshold and the skills threshold, amongst other things, sectors such as the social care sector, but, indeed, others in food production, in logistics and in certain parts of the manufacturing sectors, will be concerned about their capacity to staff their services and businesses into the future.
And I want to make one point in relation to the remark at the start of the Member's question. He and I will both know, and many in the Chamber, if not, sadly, all, will not recognise the term 'low skilled' in the context of the care sector. Anybody who has had exposure to the kinds of support and skilled support that many of our people who are cared for receive will recognise that those are very skilled roles indeed.
3. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the EU’s negotiating position during the current trade deal talks? OAQ55133
The EU's draft negotiating mandate largely reflects the political declaration agreed between the UK and the EU in October last year. We, as a Government, set out our position on the political declaration in 'The Future UK/EU Relationship: Negotiating Priorities for Wales' in January of this year.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. It looks like the EU may try to insist that continued subservience to the European Court of Justice is a prerequisite of any trade deal. Do you think that UK courts, or Welsh courts, should our judiciary ever be devolved, should remain subservient to the European Court of Justice when the Brexit transition period ends?
Well, I don't understand the notion of 'subservience'. We have a UK Government at the moment that seems intent on questioning the role of the judiciary in British public life. I think that there are significant risks in fetishising this matter, which is what the UK Government is doing. It is absolutely an area where a more pragmatic approach should be taken. For example, there are many examples of EU-wide governance: the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control is one that might be in the minds of Members, given the circumstances we find ourselves in at the moment, where a degree of European-wide governance, and including, in some cases, the jurisdiction of the court, might be a sensible step to agree in order to protect larger interests.
I think just focusing on just one aspect, as the Member's question does, fails to grapple with the impact that that will have on a number of other areas, touching, for example, on the security of British citizens, which I'm sure all our constituents would take for granted.
I think it's important to understand that the UK Government appears willing to accept level-playing-field provisions of the type that were included in the Canada and South Korea treaties by the EU, and the broad non-regression and the international conventions referenced in those treaties. What the EU is saying, though, is that we should, indeed, be subservient to the EU on an ongoing basis by obeying their rules in these areas, whatever they are, without any democratic input and then have the ECJ determine how those roles are interpreted. Now, does the Welsh Government support the UK position or the EU?
The Member's gift for caricature remains undiminished. That is not the EU's position. What the political declaration said, which both the European Union and the UK Government have signed—have agreed—is that, at the end of the transition period, the standards that apply in both, including in the level-playing-field context, should continue to apply. It is not the case that you can draw a simple parallel with the Canadian free-trade agreement. The UK Government is seeking a zero-tariff, zero-quota agreement. The Canadian agreement is not that—it took seven years to negotiate. It represents a tenth of the trade that the UK does with the European Union, and it's 5,000 km away. There is simply no comparison in trade terms. And to expect the same provisions to be applicable in a deal with your nearest neighbour, with 10 per cent more trade, as you impose on a much less significant, in volume terms, trading partner on the other side of the world, I think, is just fanciful.
Counsel General, clearly, yesterday, the general council confirmed the EU's negotiating mandate—[Inaudible.] It is slightly harsher than the original draft, indicating clearly strong views on this level playing field. Tomorrow, we will see the UK Government's opening gambit, because we're yet to actually have that clearly defined. But what's important is actually the economy of Wales and how we ensure that the economy of Wales is not damaged by future EU-UK negotiations.
Now, in that sense, what discussions is the Welsh Government having with the EU side of things to ensure that its position—its economy and the issues important to Wales—are being reflected and discussed in Europe, as well as in the UK? Because very often, we know that in the UK—. And we know Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings—they just put their own view forward; they don't even put the view of other parts of their party forward. Will you ensure that the Welsh position is put forward in all sides and all avenues so that we can get a fair share of this?
Well, we continue to do that. The Minister for international relations was in Brussels recently, the First Minister will be there shortly. We take every opportunity of making sure that what is in the interests of the Welsh economy is understood by any of our interlocutors.
But what I will say to the Member, though, is that in this period of the negotiations ahead, the parties to that negotiation will be the European institutions and the British Government. There is no parallel set of negotiations or discussions that the Welsh Government can or should have in that context. Our expectation, our vision, of how this should work in practical terms is that the UK Government should agree for the devolved Governments to have a role in those negotiations in setting a UK-wide position in relation to those matters that are devolved.
As he will know, that is not a principle that the UK Government has yet agreed in a way that we think is acceptable. The capacity of the Welsh Government to reflect the interests of Wales, and to reflect the devolved competences of this institution and the Welsh Government, is something that must be recognised by the UK Government in order to protect the interests of Wales through that period.
4. What assistance is the Welsh Government offering local authorities to support the implementation of the UK Government's EU Settlement Scheme? OAQ55135
Most recently, we have provided an additional £224,000 funding to local authorities to put support in place for EU citizens applying to the EU settlement scheme. The funding is flexible, to enable local authorities to be able to provide tailored support to their local communities. This is part of a range of support we have made available to support EU citizens in Wales to apply.
Thank you. As you stated on 13 February, you have put in more than £220,000 to support councils across Wales, and that is to step up local outreach to tackle barriers to help those who still are not aware of the need to apply or who are struggling to apply. Minister, specifically, what will the funding to Caerphilly County Borough Council be, and how can the Welsh Government aid and support the authority in facilitating the European Union citizens living in communities throughout Islwyn applying to settle in the United Kingdom?
Additionally, Minister, with all European Union citizens and their families living in Wales having to apply now to the Home Office scheme by 30 June 2021, in order to protect their rights and to continue to live and work here, what can the Welsh Government do to ensure that, whilst councils are free to choose the best way to support residents, we ensure consistent best practice across Wales?
I thank the Member for that question. I'm afraid I don't have the precise number for Caerphilly council, but I will happily write to her in relation to that. Part of the objective in providing the funding is to allow a degree of flexibility in how this works on the ground, recognising that local, different communities in parts of Wales will have different needs. But we are also providing a Wales-wide bespoke training package for all public-facing local authority staff regarding the rights of EU citizens in Wales, and that includes their eligibility for public services. We are doing that through the EU citizens' rights project, which is designed to increase awareness and to assist authorities in recognising the support needs of individual EU citizens across Wales. That's intended to be a best practice-driven training package, and it will be available, as I say, to authorities right across Wales.
5. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government on future immigration policy post-Brexit? OAQ55131
6. What recent discussions has the Counsel General had with the UK Government regarding immigration policy following the UK's withdrawal from the EU? OAQ55111
Llywydd, I believe that you have given your consent to this question being grouped with question 6.
I was disappointed that the UK Government didn't share their proposals with us before they were announced to the media. Whilst immigration is not, of course, devolved, future migration policy is of profound importance and will have significant impacts on our economy and our communities. Reform must take into account the needs of Wales.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that immigration—net migration—has averaged 330,000 a year since 2014? Would he agree with me that we do not need to add to the UK population a city the size of Cardiff every single year from immigration alone in order to plug gaps in health and social care, to revert to his earlier answer? The Labour Party at its last conference in 2019 voted for a series of motions that effectively commits his party to open-door immigration, and the effective end of all immigration control. Does that explain, perhaps, Labour's dismal result in the recent general election? Because they're obviously completely out of touch with the views of most ordinary people on this subject, and the fact that Plaid Cymru shares this view shows that two thirds of the Members of this place are therefore out of touch with ordinary people in Wales. Is that not yet another reason why the reputation of this institution falls year in, year out?
I'm sure none of those are rhetorical questions, but just to be clear, I would expect the Member to support a migration policy that that stands up and reflects the interests of the people of Wales and the public services of Wales, and the economies and employers of Wales. That is not, I'm afraid, what the most recent proposals from the UK Government have done. They certainly don't reflect the needs of the workforce or of public services here in Wales, and whatever people may have voted for in the past, I do not think they were voting to make Welsh public services less resilient, and to make it harder for Welsh businesses to grow and employ people.
Diolch, Llywydd. Can I just check—do I need to read my question or—
No, you don't. You just ask a question.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. Minister, there's been real and understandable anger at the crude label of 'low skilled' that the UK Government has now levelled at people such as social workers, when we know that they're not low skilled, they are low paid, and you simply cannot put a value on the precious human qualities of compassion and care. How would he respond to Dr Moira Fraser-Pearce, the director of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, who has written saying
'The Government's plan for a points-based immigration system paints a concerning picture for a health and care system already under record pressure...The Government must create a separate migration route for social care as well as clarifying what specific measures will be put in place to protect the NHS workforce to ensure that people with cancer get the right support when they need it. Any immigration reform',
'that prevents social care workers from working in the UK could mean that some of the most vulnerable people, including those living with cancer, suffer the consequences'.
How would he respond to that, and what representations will he be making to the UK Government?
Well, I think he describes in a very vivid way some of the very real pressures and challenges and impacts that people in Wales will suffer, and I think his question is a retort to the question Neil Hamilton that raised earlier. I agree with him, as he will have heard me say to Dai Lloyd earlier, that people working in the care sector, particularly, perhaps, in the way that he has described today, do work of very great skill, and we have advocated a position in Wales for a migration policy that reflects the different skill sets and a different salary level in order for that to work in the interests of public services in Wales, but also the people of Wales, who need the kind of support that he's describing. It is the case that there are many thousands of people from the European Union working in our care sector either as providers of care or nurses in different settings. We want them to stay and continue providing those services, but we also don't want to put artificial barriers in the way of more people coming to take their place to fulfil what is a very real need.
7. What opportunities has the Welsh Government identified for Wales as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU? OAQ55122
The benefits of new opportunities will be outweighed by the downsides likely to result from the terms proposed by the UK Government for our relationship with the European Union. But the Welsh Government is committed to making use of opportunities in respect of supporting the rural economy, a new approach to regional development and our new international strategy, for example, in the best interests of Wales.
Last month's PwC chief executive survey found that European chief executives regard the UK as a key market for growth and investment, rated only behind the US, China and Germany internationally. On Brexit day, ITV Wales reported businesses that had spoken of the opportunities that could arise outside the EU, quoting companies in both the aerospace and agricultural sectors in Wales. Wales continues to have the lowest prosperity levels per head amongst the UK nations, and Brexit can provide an opportunity to help address this. However, growth in the Welsh food and beverage sector, for example, has excluded markets outside of the EU. What evidence have you got, therefore, to share with us of positive, practical action by the Welsh Government to increase the prosperity of Wales by taking us from a EU-dependant exporter to a global trading success, which includes the EU, but seeks growth globally with the new trading partners we all hope to have?
Well, I'd refer him to the international strategy and economic action plan as the Government's interventions in order to ensure the prosperity of Wales. I'm afraid he and I just disagree. I do not believe that membership of the European Union has been in any way an impediment to any of the opportunities that he describes in his question. There's no question that Welsh businesses are able to continue to export internationally as members of the European Union as well as in the period after membership. That is not the challenge. There is a myth that is grown up, I'm afraid, that membership of the European Union was in some way an impediment to that. That is not the case. But I do think that we need to be realistic and clear-sighted about this. Even on the UK Government's own figures, the contribution that the free trade strategy that they are pursuing with third countries—the contribution that that can make to the UK economy on current figures is absolutely marginal compared to maintaining the trading opportunities that we have with one of the largest trading blocks on the globe.
And finally, question 8, Joyce Watson.
8. Will the Counsel General provide an update on the latest discussions the Welsh Government has had with the UK Government on the UK's departure from the EU? OAQ55136
On 28 January the First Minister hosted the Joint Ministerial Committee for EU negotiations—the JMC(EN)—in Cardiff; only the second time it has taken place outside London. The meeting focused on the strategic choices that need to be made in setting out an opening negotiating position and the role of the devolved Governments in the negotiations.
There were—and it's been mentioned several times today—plans recently introduced by the UK Government on the introduction of the point-based immigration system from 2021. And, again, I'm going to repeat, the industry that will be most negatively affected—and the people—as a consequence of the changes is the social care sector. I don't think we can spend too much time here actually driving home this message, and Unison have warned that the plans by the UK Government will represent a disaster for the sector. They've said that companies and councils can't currently recruit enough staff from the UK, and they already have to rely on those care workers from elsewhere. So, suddenly ending this supply of labour will cause huge problems across the country. I notice that Neil Hamilton's already disappeared now, but he doesn't seem to think that that's the case. But this will be where people will need care, and there won't be sufficient people there to provide it, and others have said so here already today. So, Minister, what assessment have you, the Welsh Government, made of the impact that these changes can have on the social care sector here in Wales?
Well, I think that the potential impact is very significant. I think nurses in care settings—I think around 17 per cent are EU citizens working and living in Wales. And care providers more generally—I think the percentage figures are around 6 or 7 per cent, which is a high figure. The reasons she outlines in her question for her concern are exactly the same reasons that lay behind my concern, and which is why I and others in the Government have made these representations directly to the Migration Advisory Committee.
What we had hoped was that the version of the immigration policy that the UK Government brought forward would take into fuller regard the impact on our public services, both in Wales and across the UK incidentally. This isn't an issue that is unique to Wales—it's felt across the UK. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case. We have said that, in the absence of having a UK-wide system that reflects the needs of our public services and our economy in Wales, we will wish to look at the case for a spatial differentiation—for example, in relation to additional points for people who wish to work outside London and the south-east or wish to work in specific parts of the UK or, alternatively, a version of the shortage occupation list. She will know that the Migration Advisory Committee has already advocated that in principle for Wales, and so I think there's a case for exploring that.
Thank you, Minister.
The next item is the topical questions. The Minister for Health and Social Services is currently attending a COBRA meeting with the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Government on coronavirus, and I've therefore agreed for the second topical question on coronavirus to be taken as the last item of business before voting time today. Therefore, the next topical question is to be asked by Dawn Bowden.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the announcement by KASAI that it will close its Merthyr Tydfil plant in 2021? 397
Yes. Kasai has started a 90-day formal consultation period with the staff. This is clearly extremely disappointing news and my thoughts are with all those directly affected by this uncertainty. My officials visited the company earlier this week and we will continue to offer support as appropriate.
Thank you, Minister. Clearly, the announcement from Kasai about the statutory consultation process with its employees is disappointing, particularly on the back of job losses and closures that we have recently seen announced in Merthyr at Hoover and Triumph. This particular announcement reflects, I think, the ongoing pressure on the motor manufacturing sector at this time, especially given the links between this factory and the Honda plant in Swindon. I do, however, note that there will be a continuing need for production at the Merthyr plant in the months ahead in support of the Honda contract, but around 180 loyal and hard-working employees could be affected in Merthyr Tydfil. Along with Gerald Jones MP, I will be meeting with the workers in the near future for a discussion about the next steps. So, can you reassure me that, once the statutory procedures are complete, the Welsh Government, along with local partners, will do all they can to consider all the options for the workforce and for this site? Furthermore, what is the Welsh Government's most recent assessment about the health of the motor manufacturing sector in the south Wales Valleys and whether this means that we need to reassess the types of businesses and companies that we support to ensure longer term commitments to our Valleys communities?
Can I thank Dawn Bowden for her questions and assure her that, through not just Welsh Government, but our partners in the Wales automotive forum, we are assessing every opportunity for existing automotive businesses and for emerging businesses in the automotive and mobility sector? Last autumn, I hosted an automotive summit, which looked at opportunities for Wales. That was incredibly well attended and we'll build on it by hosting the manufacturing summit on 2 April in Venue Cymru. The automotive sector will be present and we will be examining the very latest opportunities and, indeed, threats to the sector in Wales and across the UK.
It's worth saying that, over the last five years, automotive companies in Wales, including those supporting the supply chain, have had help to the tune of £200 million in supporting their growth and in supporting the 12,000 jobs that are contained within the sector. It's also fair to say that there has been, until very recently, a renaissance in UK car production. For a variety of reasons, the sector right now is facing considerable difficulty and transformation. We're assisting in the transformation through focusing our resource on those automotive companies that clearly have the best prospects of succeeding in the transition to low- and zero-emissions vehicles. And we have an incredibly strong record in attracting investment, including from Ineos Automotive most recently. As part of the support that we were offering to Kasai we, through the Wales automotive forum, introduced the company to Ineos and to Aston Martin Lagonda and to others in the hope that alternative work may be secured in order to avoid closure. Unfortunately, the bridge between the closure of Honda and the work that would come from other manufacturers was so great as to necessitate the announcement that has been made recently. However, the company is not due to close, if it decides to proceed with closure, until July 2021. This gives a significant amount of time for us to assist, through our regional response teams, through Careers Wales and so forth, every single individual that might be affected. But it also gives us, during the consultation period, an opportunity to say to the company once again, 'Reconsider the announcement. Please, if there is any way possible, maintain your operations in Merthyr.'
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Minister, news that around 180 jobs will be lost due to the impending closure of the Kasai plant in Merthyr Tydfil is a devastating blow to the workers and their families. My thoughts go out to them at this difficult time. Kasai provides highly-skilled jobs, producing internal parts for Honda, Jaguar, Land Rover and Nissan. It is a real loss to Merthyr Tydfil, which was recently ranked at the bottom of a league table ranking economic competitiveness in the United Kingdom. So, can I ask, Minister, what assistance the Welsh Government will provide to these workers so they can seek new employment? And can you also confirm that prompt action will be taken to help those affected so that their skills and talents are not lost, but can be redirected to contribute to growing the economy of Merthyr Tydfil? And, finally, Minister, what measures will be taken to assist those workers who are able to relocate to find jobs outside Merthyr and outside Wales?
Can I thank Mohammad Asghar for his questions and say, first and foremost, it would be our hope that we'd be able to secure alternative employment for the workers affected within the Merthyr area? I don't see why people should have to move out of their community in order to maintain employment if they wish to remain where they live. And so we'll be doing all that we can to identify job opportunities within the Merthyr area. We will be deploying support services, including ReAct and Careers Wales advisers, at the earliest opportunity to carry out an audit of the skills in existence within the business and to match those skills to job opportunities within the area. There will be, for example, vouchers available for skills training if anybody requires upskilling in order to take on a new job opportunity.
I think it's worth recognising, though, Dirprwy Lywydd, that the people who work at the site are incredibly loyal and incredibly well skilled, and this was something that the First Minister stated to the company when he visited the business headquarters in Japan in September 2019, when he reiterated Welsh Government's commitment to fully support them. That support, still available, comes in the context of huge problems for the business because they were so reliant on Honda in Swindon. As I said in response to Dawn Bowden, we have exhausted many opportunities that we had hoped would provide alternative sources of work for Kasai, including Aston Martin Lagonda and Ineos Automotive, and other automotive companies in Wales and across the border as well. But we stand ready to continue in that search for alternative work to keep those loyal and skilled people within the workplace.
I'd like to express my heartfelt sympathy with all of the hard-working staff at Kasai who are going to face losing their jobs through no fault of their own after many years of dedicated service. I know this will be an extremely difficult time for them and their families. I'd like to offer my own office's support; in any way that we can help, we want to be able to. Now, as has been mentioned, we've known that this closure has been on the cards since Honda announced the closure of its Swindon plant a year ago this week, and media reports at that time had warned about the knock-on effect it would have on Kasai, and I raised the issue with the Brexit Minister in the Chamber in May last year.
Now, I've listened with interest to what you said, Minister, about what your ReAct programme will be offering to the workers who are going to be possibly having to find new employment, but could you tell us on this point, please, when you expect the Job Support Wales scheme to be up and running? I was dismayed to learn recently that this important employment programme had failed to get off the ground for a second time due to a challenge to the tendering process. Now, I'm afraid I do find it difficult to comprehend how, after 20 years of leading the Welsh Government, Labour is unable to complete a successful tendering process. So, I would appreciate some information about when we can expect this to move forward so that further support can be made available to help workers with skills training when that can become available.
Now, finally, I'd like to ask about your plans for future economic planning, Minister. We currently have people with valuable skills who are losing their jobs in the manufacturing industry and there is a dire need to build up a new green energy and transport economy. It seems obvious that these should be connected and that the Welsh Government should lead the way in building and incentivising industries such as electric vehicles and transport networks that would help with the green agenda but would also provide new, well-paid jobs for people who have valuable skills to contribute.
Now, I'm not saying by any means that the Government will be giving up on the Kasai workforce at all in their current jobs, but, alongside this, Minister, could you tell us whether you have any plans to strengthen our green manufacturing industry to futureproof the economy and provide new jobs for people who are currently being made redundant due to the closure of traditional car manufacturing plants and their suppliers?
Can I thank the Member for her questions and firstly invite her to welcome the success that the Welsh Government has had in attracting manufacturers that are at the forefront of utilising low- and zero-emissions propulsion systems within cars—for example, the success we enjoyed in attracting Aston Martin Lagonda to Wales? Aston Martin Lagonda have made Wales their home for electric vehicles; equally Ineos Automotive, who are looking at utilising hydrogen for future power systems within their vehicles. So, we are already investing very heavily in those industries that will become so significant globally in the years to come.
Now, in terms of the closure being on the cards when the announcement about Honda was made is concerned, there was a Honda taskforce established immediately after the announcement, because it was recognised that many businesses within the supply chain would be adversely affected. There are many businesses in Wales that rely on Honda for work, but Kasai was amongst those that relied the most heavily on that single manufacturer, and that's why the company is in the position that it is in today. However, we will go on searching for opportunities for the business during the 90-day consultation period in the hope that the decision—the announcement, rather—can be reversed and that the decision to remain open will be made. In the event that that does not happen, we will be deploying all of the support services that exist today and that will be formed as part of the Job Support Wales holistic support service—every employment service that currently exists will continue for those people affected at Kasai and for anybody else affected by unemployment in Wales.
Today, we have a record low unemployment rate of just 2.9 per cent, and that's because this Welsh Government is determined to ensure people stay in valuable work, and, when they do fall out of work, that we find them opportunities elsewhere to get back on to the employment ladder.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 4 on the agenda this afternoon is 90-second statements. First this afternoon is Darren Millar.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Towyn floods, and I can recall the event vividly, even though I was just 13 years old. I was sat in a classroom, waiting for the English teacher to arrive. I was amongst a small group of pupils that were fixated by the view towards Towyn through the window. We saw towering waves, 40 ft high, smashing into the sea wall, and it was an incredible spectacle. But what we didn't realise is that those waves were pounding a 400m hole in the sea defences and the tide was rushing in. Within 20 minutes, 400 homes were under water, and, an hour later, it was thousands. The water came two miles inland, and it affected communities five miles along the coast. Our home—a bungalow—was submerged. All our belongings were lost, and irreplaceable items like family photos and keepsakes from relatives were destroyed. Along with 6,000 other people, we were evacuated: the largest evacuation since the second world war. It was six months before we moved back into our home and finally got our lives together, and other families took even longer.
Today, Towyn and Kinmel Bay are still thriving seaside resorts. They always have been, and no doubt always will be, but our daily lives are regularly interrupted by flood alerts when bad weather and high tides are forecast, and, even now, 30 years on, our sea defences remain vulnerable and are in need of further investment. Storms Ciara and Dennis have reminded us all of the power of the water. Let them and the events of 30 years ago in Towyn be a wake-up call to us all to do what we can to work together to prevent the devastation that flooding can cause.
Some years ago, I met Carolyn, a truly inspirational woman who went on to tell me that she was a SWAN. Slightly taken aback, I asked her to explain that, and that was when I began to really understand the challenges faced by people who have rare diseases and undiagnosed conditions, also known as syndromes without a name, hence SWAN.
Building awareness of rare disease is important, because one in 20 people will live with a rare disease at some point in their life. Despite this, a substantial number of rare diseases are undiagnosed, and a substantial proportion are without cure or effective treatments to delay the progress of the condition.
This Saturday, 29 February, is a rare day, it is an anomaly, and Rare Disease Day has been held on the last day of February since 2007 with the specific aim of raising awareness about rare diseases and the impacts on patients' lives. We marked this day yesterday with a reception here in the Neuadd.
But I would like to take this opportunity today to pay tribute to those who work so hard in undertaking research into these diseases, and to the Welsh Government for the funding that they provide for this research: Dr Graham Shortland, who leads the rare disease implementation group, and Professor Keir Lewis, who heads Wales Orphan and Rare Lung Diseases—I've got their badge on today—are the lead physicians who are at the front line of this treatment and research into rare diseases, and are much loved and appreciated by the patients they deal with. We are very lucky to have them working for us in the Welsh NHS.
This Saturday—Rare Disease Day—please spend a moment and think about those with rare diseases and undiagnosed conditions. They need to know that they're not alone.
Last Saturday, several years of ambitious plans were realised as the Pantside woodland park and play area in Newbridge was officially opened to the public. The park boasts a playground for nought to six-year-olds, a junior play area, and a multi-use games area for such sports as football and basketball. It is a true testament to the proud community of Pantside, which has, through the Pantside Association of Residents and Tenants, worked for seven years to secure this valued asset for its community. With a lack of facilities for youngsters on the estate, the residents and tenants worked together to secure £0.25 million from the National Lottery fund to establish this park. At Saturday's opening, it was really delightful to see just so many children—and there were so many children—from my community enjoying these facilities. And as a Newbridge girl, born in Pantside, the opening had an added resonance for me.
So, I would like to place on the record my sincere thanks to all of those involved over these years to help bring this fantastic facility to Pantside: local Councillor Gary Johnston and Councillors Leeroy Jeremiah and Adrian Hussey, and the residents association of Gwyneth, Julie, Jean, Amy, Sue, and many others, who have driven this forward.
Playgrounds are truly vital assets for our communities that can help to give children from all backgrounds the chance to play, to learn and to make friends. I know that this scheme will be a huge boost to the community, but it's only just the beginning. The residents are now hoping to add a skateboard park, an outdoor auditorium, and outdoor classrooms to this former disused site, and I wish to congratulate wholly their collective efforts.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Rebecca Evans, and amendments 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the name of Siân Gwenllian. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 will be deselected.
Item 5 on the agenda is the Welsh Conservatives debate on roads, and I call on Russell George to move the motion.
Motion NDM7274 Darren Millar
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the importance of roads as vital economic arteries which promote prosperity.
2. Acknowledges the adverse economic and environmental impact of poor road connectivity and congestion.
3. Regrets that the First Minister has taken the unilateral decision not to proceed with the M4 relief road in spite of the support offered by the UK Government.
4. Calls upon the Welsh Government to:
a) work with the UK Government to deliver an M4 relief road as soon as possible;
b) develop proposals for a major upgrade of the A55 trunk road and the dualling of the A40 to Fishguard;
c) engage with the UK Government to progress the delivery of a Pant/Llanymynech bypass.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'd like to move the motion for our debate today, listed in the name of Darren Millar, and in doing so also say that we will, of course, not be supporting the Government's usual 'Delete all' amendment, but we will be supporting Plaid's amendments 2 and 7.
I'd like to think that all of us in this Chamber can agree that a fit-for-purpose road network is vital to support our country's longer-term social and economic development. Our road transport network is crucial, of course, for future productivity, to ensure that we are competitive. It supports productive labour markets and is the arteries of domestic and international trade. I think we can all agree on that.
But I'd suggest that now, more than ever before, the Welsh economy requires the support of an effective and reliable road network in order to support Wales's long-term economic growth and in order to minimise the environmental impact of poor road connectivity and congestion. The current state of the Welsh road network means that Wales is unable to capture and lever in the drivers of economic activity. Congestion on Wales's roads is directly preventing Wales from achieving a step change in its level of productivity, which in turn is depressing the growth of Wales's wages and output. I'm sure that we'd all want to claim that we don't want to see that.
We don't have a good and effective road network in Wales, and when it comes to schemes that are coming forward, they are so often not managed well. Members who were in this Chamber earlier today will have heard me question the Minister in regard to a number of road schemes that are behind schedule and over cost due to poor procurement and poor management of those road delivery schemes. We are in a position where our current road transport system is unable to cope with the current level of demand.
Will you take an intervention?
Thank you, Russell, for giving way. Russell, I've got the pleasure of being, with you, a member of the all-party group on active travel, and I know your commitment to sustainable travel as well. If he, like me, agrees with the sustainable transport hierarchy, a real hierarchy about who should be using our roads, and he talked about the importance of freight—I absolutely agree with him on freight—how should that apply to our road network and the decisions that we make?
Well, one doesn't have to not complement the other. I represent a constituency in mid Wales and, I have to say, it's very different to your constituency, with respect. You just can't—the public transport is not there. Unfortunately, to get to your nearest school, you're 10 miles away. You have to have an effective road infrastructure. But I don't disagree with you at all; I think they're compatible and both are important. We heard an earlier question today from Helen Mary Jones in regard to electric vehicle charging points and infrastructure as well, and we need to have road infrastructure for the expansion of electric vehicles also.
I will perhaps highlight some of the issues that I raised today in my questions to the Minister. The delays and the cost overruns associated with A465 Heads of the Valleys route, I'm afraid, perfectly highlight the Welsh Government's poor track record when in comes to the management and delivery of specific road improvement schemes. I mentioned a couple of others as well. Perhaps the Minister will have more time in this response to deal with perhaps how procurement and contractual agreements can change in order that we don't see these kinds of poorly managed schemes in the future.
One of the worst and most worrying examples, I think, of the Welsh Government's poor management of the road network in Wales is of course the level of ongoing congestion on the M4 motorway—a strategic road that has been blighted by huge levels of traffic congestion for many years, and the Welsh Government is yet still unable to provide an adequate solution to that problem. While the Welsh Government has been dithering and shelving any meaningful schemes, the volume of traffic on the M4 is increasing.
It is with huge disappointment, I think, that the First Minister—and I'm pleased that he is in here to listen to this debate this afternoon; I'm grateful for that—has made that decision not to proceed with the M4 relief road, in spite of the support offered by the UK Government and support from businesses across Wales and support from Members in this Chamber, including from the Government's benches as well, and of course as a result of the very expensive independent inquiry, which concluded that the M4 relief road should be built.
The Planning Inspectorate report found that the Welsh Government's assertion that it would be inconsistent with its declaration of a climate emergency is incorrect. The report found that
'the scheme would save about 4,324 tonnes of user carbon emitted on the Welsh road network each year, with increasing savings into the future'.
Furthermore, of course, the economic benefits of the M4 relief road are clear. With the economic benefits to building the M4 relief road outweighing the costs, the scheme would have been a good value-for-money scheme. Instead, the Welsh Government, of course, wasted that £144 million on the inquiry, only to reject its findings because it didn't suit the First Minister.
Will you give way?
I thank you, and I agree with some of the points that you made. There will be arguments continuing for and against road expansion, not just around the M4, but it'll be Briton Ferry next, because—. The question for us as supporters of sustainable transportation is: to what extent do we advocate shifting unnecessary journeys off the whole of that stretch? So, we allow the white van man and woman to transport the goods the final couple of miles. So, we allow those who have no other option. Because this isn't rural Wales that we are talking about anymore; this is urbanised Wales.
Sorry, I heard most of your points, but I couldn't hear some of your points because my own side were talking. [Laughter.]
He was heckling you. [Laughter.]
They weren't heckling me. [Laughter.]
I think some of your points that I heard were fair points; I don't disagree, Huw, at all. But I think that my response would be—. Well, I quote back the Minister for economy and transport himself, who said:
'over the 60-year appraisal period, there is more than £2 of benefit for each pound spent on the scheme, without touching on the wider economic benefits likely to flow from the scheme, such as a stronger perception of Wales as a place to invest, which cannot be captured.'
So, I'd counter-argue what you say with that, which is the view of the Minister. In fairness, I think he probably agrees with that view still today. Perhaps he can inform us at the conclusion.
On top of that, the UK Government has provided the Welsh Government with the levers that are needed to proceed with the project, as well as ensuring that the capital budget has grown by over 45 per cent over the current spending review period. The UK Government has also committed to continue working with the Welsh Government on how to strengthen the Welsh economy and provide greater connectivity as well. [Interruption.] I can hear the First Minister talking as well, but I would say to the First Minister today, who seems to be engaged in this debate today, I call on him to rethink his plans and deliver the M4 relief road as soon as possible, although I don't think that he's going to change his position as a result of today's debate, unfortunately.
Other major road schemes in Wales have failed to receive the improvements that they require to ensure that they are better able to meet the demands of Welsh road users: the A55 in north Wales is an example that has long suffered from underinvestment; there's the A40, which has also experienced a lack of effective upgrades over the last 20 years; and we're also calling for proposals to be developed for major upgrades to the A55 trunk road; and, of course, I have to mention—I can hear Paul Davies talking to my left—the A40 road to Fishguard, which Paul Davies so often mentions.
Of course, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Pant-Llanymynech bypass in my own constituency, as well as focusing attention on other north and south links to Wales. When it comes to the Pant-Llanymynech bypass, I can see that the Welsh Government has engaged positively with the UK Government on that in the past, so I hope for some positive contribution in that regard. But, we need to have—. Huw Irranca has commented on a number of occasions in this debate today; I don't disagree with what he has to say. I think it's both having effective road schemes as well as having effective public transport and active travel. They are combined together. They don't compete against each other.
We do need to have a road network that is suitable for making sure that Wales's economic prosperity grows. To remain a competitive Wales, we need to have an efficient road network structure in place. I look forward to Members' contributions to this debate, and commend our motion to this Parliament.
Thank you. I have selected seven amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 will be deselected. I call on the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales to move formally amendment 1, tabled in the name of Rebecca Evans.
Amendment 1—Rebecca Evans
Delete all and replace with:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the climate emergency and the cross-party consensus that exists to realising net zero emissions, including decarbonisation of the Welsh road and public transport network and achieving modal shift.
2. Acknowledges the interdependence of road and rail infrastructure and the importance of the Welsh Government’s £5bn rail service, bus re-regulation and record investment in active travel in delivering a low-carbon, multi-modal transport network which will play a part in alleviating traffic congestion on roads.
3. Regrets that road traffic congestion has been exacerbated by the UK Government’s £1bn underfunding of transport infrastructure in Wales and failure to electrify the mainlines in north and south Wales, leading to increased traffic on our trunk roads.
4. Further regrets that the UK Government’s decade of austerity has had a direct impact on the maintenance of the UK’s road network.
5. Calls upon the UK Government to:
a) make a similar commitment to the Welsh Government to fund a comprehensive package of borderland road and transport projects to improve strategic arterial routes into Wales including the Broughton Corridor around Chester; the A5 from Shrewsbury to Wales and at Pant/Llanymynech;
b) help alleviate congestion on the road network by pledging £1bn to electrify the mainline from Crewe to Holyhead, invest in the upgrading of the Wrexham to Liverpool Lime Street line and fully electrify the South Wales mainline.
6. Notes the decision and oral statement made by the First Minister on Tuesday 4 June 2019 regarding the M4 corridor around Newport project and the significant work being undertaken by the South East Wales Transport Commission to develop sustainable and effective solutions to congestion in Newport and the wider region.
7. Welcomes the Welsh Government’s commitment to reduce road traffic congestion, including an unprecedented £1bn package of improvements to road and transport infrastructure in North Wales, including major upgrades of the A55 and A483, active travel schemes and the North Wales Metro.
Amendment 1 moved.
Thank you. I call on Helen Mary Jones to move amendments 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, tabled in the name of Siân Gwenllian.
Amendment 2—Siân Gwenllian
Add as new point after point 2 and renumber accordingly:
Recognises the importance of investment in green public transport in tackling the climate emergency and in easing road congestion.
Amendment 3—Siân Gwenllian
Delete point 3 and replace with:
Affirms the principle that the Welsh Government should be accountable to the Welsh electorate and this Senedd for road and public transport infrastructure priorities in Wales.
Amendment 4—Siân Gwenllian
Add as new point after point 3 and renumber accordingly:
Rejects any attempt by the UK Government to determine the road and public transport infrastructure and spending priorities of this Senedd on its behalf.
Amendment 5—Siân Gwenllian
Add as new point after point 3 and renumber accordingly:
Regrets the failure of both the Conservative UK Government and Labour Welsh Government to deliver a Wales-wide package of infrastructure investment in the road and public transport network.
Amendment 6—Siân Gwenllian
In point 4, delete sub-point (a) and replace with:
'ensure the rapid development of a long-term vision for a green and sustainable integrated Welsh road and public transport network, which includes giving priority to addressing the congestion issues around Newport;'
Amendment 7—Siân Gwenllian
Add as new sub-point at end of point 4:
'improve transport links between north and south Wales.'
Amendments 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 moved.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm grateful, I must say at the beginning, to Russell George for agreeing to accept, I think he said, our amendment 2 and our amendment 7, because the motion as it stands slightly reads like something that one might have seen in the 1980s, which implies that we can solve all of our economic woes by building more roads. I'm sure, from what Russell George has said in his responses to Huw Irranca-Davies, that isn't what he meant. But I do have to point out, Dirprwy Lywydd, that that is what the motion says.
Nobody is denying for a moment that we will need to continue to invest in our road networks. I think the points that Russell George has made about the importance of that in rural communities, where it may very well be that some of those can never be effectively served by public transport networks—. And, on these benches, it's really important to us that those communities are supported and maintained, because, among other things, many of those communities are communities where Welsh is still a native language, where it's still spoken on a daily basis. And, so, we will need to continue to invest in our roads. Nobody on these benches is denying that.
But it's not the whole solution. And I think that has been acknowledged. And we do know—and I commend the couple of really good academic studies on this, thinking particularly about what's been said today about the proposed M4 relief road—that the truth is that, over time, you build a road and it fills up. I will quote two of the studies. There's 'Demystifying Induced Travel Demand' written by Roger Gorham for the German Finance Ministry, and 'The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities' by Duranton and Turner for the 'American Economic Review'. And what they show is that you can't, long term, alleviate these problems by just covering up more of the countryside with concrete.
Now, that isn't to say for a moment that something doesn't need to be done about the issues around Newport. I think everybody in this Chamber—. All of us have driven that road or travelled on that road probably at some point, and we all know what happens at the Brynglas tunnels. But we don't believe for a moment that covering a really important site of special scientific interest with more concrete is going to solve that problem, long term. It is true to say that 43 per cent of the journeys made on that section of the M4 in question are journeys of under 20 miles, and many of those are journeys that, with proper public transport solutions, people would not choose to make by car. Ten per cent of the traffic on that stretch is what leads to the congestion. So, if we could take half of that 43 per cent of people off that road—and I say 'people' advisedly, because they are people who are in empty vehicles, just them and one other person a lot of the time—we could deal with that congestion problem.
Now, the other issue, of course, with the M4 relief road is that it would take seven years to build. Even if we decided to do it, it would take seven years to build. And, in the meantime, Brynglas tunnel misery would continue to be a day-to-day reality.
Will you take an intervention?
I'll very happily take an intervention.
Thanks for giving way, Helen Mary. I hear what you're saying about taking more cars off the road, and, hopefully, that will help ease the congestion, and I hear also that you don't support the M4 black route across the Gwent levels. But, do you accept that there needs to be some kind of infrastructure improvement in terms of the road itself? That current road is a standard that's way out of date; it hasn't been fit for purpose for years. There needs to be some improvement, whatever that solution might be.
I absolutely accept what Nick Ramsay says about that—that part of the solution may very well be some additional road infrastructure, but it's not the whole story.
Now, I don't think it's fair to accuse the Welsh Government of having rushed into a decision about the M4 relief road. I think some of us thought we were quite possibly going to have retired by the time the decision was made. And the First Minister did take into account, and did, when he presented the decision, take into account that there were balanced factors. I think it's really important that the Welsh Government chose, in making that decision, to listen to our future generations commissioner. There is absolutely no point in the future generations and well-being Act, if, every time the person responsible for its delivery tells us something that we find inconvenient, we choose to ignore it.
Will you take an intervention?
Briefly I will, but I'm just conscious I've got some other points I need to make.
By the same token, is it not important that when we have an independent inspector's report and inquiry that the principle also applies there?
Well, I think that's a moot point, and it is a valid point, but it's about also the factors that those inspectorates are set up to look at. My own personal position—and I'm not speaking for my party—is that I think that some of those criteria need to be updated in the light of the future generations and well-being Act. So, I'm not disputing what the inspectorate found, but I may be partly disputing what the inspectorate was looking for.
I want to turn—. So, we don't accept the points about the need to build—[Inaudible.] But I want to turn quickly to our amendments, and the question of where these decisions should be made. Some of us have been arguing the ins and outs of devolution for a very, very long time, and one thing that is completely clear to me is that any political organisation, any individual who says that they respect devolution at the other end of the M4 corridor should not be saying to Welsh Government, 'You can have this investment providing you spend it exactly as we tell you to do.' If that's the case, we may as well all pack up and go home.
Will you take an intervention?
If the Presiding Officer will allow it.
Briefly. I'm allowing for the intervention.
It's just on that point about not wanting to instruct the Welsh Government how to spend money. I've heard you advocate on many occasions that we should direct local authorities how to spend theirs. So, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Surely, if there are nationally important projects, like the M4 relief road, and the UK Government wants to progress it—
Sorry, Darren, I'm going to have to cut across you now, because time is short. I think I've got your point. I simply disagree. I believe in the principle of subsidiarity—[Interruption.] Darren, I've taken your intervention, will you be kind enough to listen to my response? I believe in the principle of subsidiarity, which says that the decision should be made at the most local appropriate level, and there are times when it is appropriate for the Welsh Government to be directing local authorities and times when it is not. What is absolutely clear to me is that, in devolved matters, it is not appropriate for the UK Government to be directing and it is also not appropriate for the UK Government to be effectively blackmailing Welsh Government.
Now, by all means, extra investment. I love the talk that we get from Boris Johnson about levelling up. I'd love to see some levelling up, as would many of the single-parent families in my constituency love to see a bit of levelling up. But the principle is that these are issues—these are devolved matters. Now, it's perfectly proper, both for the Conservative Party here and the Conservative Party in Westminster to disagree with what the Welsh Government decides to do. But it is not—it is not—for Ministers who were not elected by the people of this country to be directing the elected Government of this country as to how it spends its resources in devolved areas.
I move our amendments, Dirprwy Lywydd.
I have great pleasure in speaking in this debate this afternoon. South Wales East is the gateway to Wales. The purpose of the gateway is to allow the passage of goods and services inwards and outwards. It follows, therefore, that good transport links are vital in increasing a growing and thriving economy. The M4 is Wales's strategic gateway to the rest of the United Kingdom and to Europe. It is the main artery that pumps the lifeblood of the Welsh economy, but this artery, too often, is clogged and congested. The fact is that we are serviced by a sub-standard dual carriageway that fails to meet modern motorway standards. Congestion on the M4 hits our major towns and cities hard. Our economy alone—. Cardiff loses out on £134 million a year; Swansea, £62 million; and Newport, £44 million a year.
In the last few years, this stretch of road has been forced to close over 100 times. One hundred thousand vehicles travel on the M4 around Newport every day. This increases when major events, such as concerts, rugby, football or cricket take place in Cardiff, Newport or Swansea. Constrained by the oldest motorway tunnels in the United Kingdom, this stretch of road causes increased vehicle emissions, poor air quality and accidents.
An M4 relief road was first proposed way back in 1991. The case for a relief road for the M4 around Newport is even stronger than ever before. The National Assembly's own planning inspector spent more than a year considering the case for a new M4 route south of Newport. He gives the proposal his overwhelming backing. In his report, he details the economic, environmental and health benefits of the project. He said that the M4 project would provide—and this is his quote—
'a healthy rate of return for the investment of public funds.'
For every pound invested, Wales would receive £1.50 in return, yet, his recommendation was rejected by the First Minister—a decision taken unilaterally. I hope he will answer one day what was the real reason to reject this great opportunity, which, day by day, is not only going to increase the cost of the motorway, but also there are other reasons, which I'm going to mention now. This rejection was met by dismay, anger and frustration by industry and business groups in Wales. Ninety businesses and organisations, including Admiral, Tata and SA Brain signed a joint statement calling on Welsh Government to deliver an M4 relief road. The CBI in Wales said,
'This is a dark day for the Welsh economy...Congestion and road pollution around Newport can only increase. Economic growth will be stifled, confidence in the region will weaken and the cost of an eventual relief road will rise.'
The Freight Transport Association also said,
'The M4 is a vital stretch of infrastructure with international economic importance, yet it is blighted by heavy congestion.'
It is the infrastructure and the opportunity to deliver this essential investment into south Wales that have been missed. This situation can only get worse, Presiding Officer. The Welsh Government accepts that there are severe operational problems on junctions around Newport, especially between junctions 23 and 28. The removal of the Severn bridge toll, although set to inject over £100 million of economic activities into Wales, has increased congestion enormously. Between 2011 and 2016, the traffic on the M4 rose by over 12 per cent. Projection by the Department for Transport shows that traffic alone on the M4 is set to increase by nearly 38 per cent over the next 30 years. Failure to act is simply not the option, Presiding Officer. The people of Wales have waited long enough for this problem to be addressed. While the Welsh Government dither and delay, the traffic increases and the situation worsens. We need action now. I call on the Welsh Government to deliver an M4 relief road as a matter of urgency. Thank you.
This would feel like groundhog day if it wasn't in the context of the cataclysmic storms and floods that we've had in the last few weeks, which makes it astonishing to me that we are debating whether or not to invest in more roads, when it's absolutely clear that the climate emergency requires us to find different solutions to the congestion problems that we have.
We know, from the Government's own evidence to the planning inquiry that the effect of investing £1.5 billion in 14 miles of road would be to increase the traffic on the M4 and simply to move it further along that road. This is not a good use of public money at all, and the First Minister took absolutely the right decision.
I find it astonishing that the Conservatives would argue that a solution to actually just move the congestion further down the road and to bring more people into Cardiff and Newport by car is a solution that we should be considering. It simply doesn't sit well with the Welsh Conservatives' call for a clean air Act, because the proposal in this motion would be to simply make the problem much worse.
Declaring a climate emergency has consequences, and I believe that the Conservatives need to start catching up with the need to do things differently rather than promoting more of the car-centric policies that have led us to the current deplorable and unsustainable despoiling of the world's resources. We simply can't go on like this. I would like to see the Welsh Conservatives concentrating on getting the UK Government to rectify the historic underfunding of our rail system, which is the reason why 43 per cent of the people using the M4 are simply commuting into work. It is really not a good use of a car to be driving it to work, parking it for eight hours and then driving out again. We must have a better public transport system. We absolutely can agree on that.
But we simply need to reflect on the fact, as the economy Minister said in an earlier question this afternoon, that Wales has 11 per cent of the stations and the signalling across England and Wales, but only 2 per cent of the funding. So, there's clearly plenty of money around when London-focused projects are being decided on. I remain to be convinced that HS2 will have any benefit for Wales, but I can see that it might, if it led to the electrification and extension of the hi-speed line to Holyhead. But—
Will you take an intervention? Thank you very much, Jenny. In terms of improving the rail infrastructure in Wales, what are your views about those areas that are outside the urban centres of south Wales and north Wales? Most of Wales doesn't have a rail system worth speaking of.
I agree with you. We constantly abolish roads and there are areas of Wales where we don't any longer have a railway line, and therefore we know that people who need to go to work from remote villages are going to need to use a car, at the very least to get to the bus transport that might take them to the town where they are going to work. So, I'm not saying that no roads should be maintained at all, but I'm just saying that the red rag to a bull for me is the continual focus in this motion on harking back to the decision that was made in June last year about not going ahead with hugely expensive and ineffective road improvement proposals. We really do need to upgrade our rail system, as well as improve the integrated transport system that we must have to have a modern economy, so that we quite quickly have the trains and the buses being co-ordinated, so that people can make whatever journey they need to make.
So, I just think we absolutely have to have the modal shift away from the car for things like commuting to work and school. I think we either need to argue that spending on the rail infrastructure needs to be devolved, or we need to do something about the raw deal that Wales is getting at the moment to get a better railway service for Wales. We aren't going to get anything, as far as I'm concerned, from spending £16 billion on HS2, and we aren't even going to get the electrification of the line to Swansea, unless there's something in the budget that we don't yet know about, nor even the upgrading of the four lines between Cardiff and Newport and beyond, two of which could be used as suburban rail services connecting up the population of Monmouthshire with Cardiff and Newport.
These are the sorts of investments that we urgently, urgently need, but I would agree with the need to really tackle the M4 congestion that we can all agree is unsustainable, and we need to inject some urgency into the liberation of the South East Wales Transport Commission to deliver sustainable and effective solutions to congestion in Newport and the wider region.
Can you wind up, please?
The commission has years of transport expertise amongst its members: how long do they need to come up with the solutions that they must surely have to hand? We don't need to be a transport expert to realise we're going to need to be ordering buses in the short term as an interim solution until we have the new metro, tram and train lines that will need time to be constructed.