Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd15/07/2020
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 10:01 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Good morning and welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are set out on your agenda. I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting. They're equally applicable to Members in the Siambr as those joining virtually.
This meeting will be held in a hybrid format with some Members in the Senedd Siambr and others joining by video-conference. Having consulted with the Business Committee, I have determined that in accordance with Standing Order 34.14A-D, Members will be able to vote from any location via electronic means. I also note that in accordance with Standing Order 34.15, the public have been excluded from attending this Plenary meeting is required to safeguard public health. The meeting will be broadcast live, and a Record of Proceedings will be published in the usual way.
The first item is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Hefin David.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the gradual reopening of the small business sector in Wales following the COVID-19 lockdown? OQ55478
Llywydd, I thank Hefin David for that question. The reopening of the whole business sector in Wales has been carried out in consultation with businesses, representative bodies and trade unions to ensure that our approach to reopening is safe, proportionate and fair to businesses, workers and to customers. I announced further lockdown-easing measures and a supporting timetable on Friday of last week.
As you can imagine, First Minister, Friday is a very busy day both on my Facebook page and by e-mail, where I've got questions about specific circumstances. I've had many questions, but I've picked two of the most frequently asked.
The first of those is regarding the ability for driving instructors to offer lessons: when will driving instructors be able to offer lessons, and by extension, when will test centres then be able to open? And the other most frequently asked question is children's play centres: when will children's play centres be able to open? And that includes such things as soft play.
Llywydd, I thank Hefin David for both of those questions. I'm very pleased to be able to say, Llywydd, that we have reached an agreement with the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency. I'm very grateful for their co-operation on this matter, and the discussions with them and the trade unions over the last week. As a result, I'm able to confirm today that we will introduce a phased restart in Wales, with driver and rider instructions commencing on 27 July, and tests—both theory tests and practical tests—phased in from 3 August onwards. And by doing it in that way, we can be confident that the reopening of driving lessons and testing in Wales will be done safely for everyone concerned, including those taking lessons and those conducting testing. The guidance will be provided in this instance, Llywydd, by the DVSA, and they will set it out together with a more detailed timetable on their website very shortly.
As for children's play centres, indoor children's play centres, Llywydd, there is no time as yet identified for them to reopen. They will be part of the discussions that we committed to during this three weeks with leisure centres and local authorities, and as soon as we are safely able to reopen those play centres indoors, then we will do so. Outdoor play areas, of course, are able to reopen from 20 July.
Bore da. First Minister, in reply to my questions last week, you said that I had not grasped the practicalities of reopening hospitality businesses, so I ask you: what do you say to Shibber Ahmed of the Blue Elephant restaurant in Llandudno, who documents that, 'This Welsh Labour Government is creating an unfriendly environment for the nation's hospitality businesses', as you continue to prevent his company from safely reopening indoor trade? What do you say to Laurie and Paul, two local north Wales hoteliers, who tell me that your actions risk turning our seaside resorts into ghost towns, as they have received an unprecedented number of cancellations following your own announcement last week? What do you say to Go North Wales, who've written to you and state, 'after 20 years of owning hotels successfully to a high standard, the Welsh Government have successfully broke us of cash, spirit and mind'?
First Minister, with projected turnover expected to be at 25 per cent of pre-lockdown levels, and the current uncertainties threatening up to 22 per cent of jobs in this sector, is it not you that has failed to grasp the reality and situation that is facing our hospitality businesses? And when are you going to provide some guidance or just some information, so that our hoteliers and our restaurants can actually get back to work? Diolch.
Llywydd, well, the answer to those questions is that I think people are better advised to focus on those things they can do, rather than complaining about the things that they can't, because there is ample scope for all those businesses to now reopen in Wales, to reopen out of doors as from Monday of this week, and provided a success is made of that and coronavirus is still under control, to reopen indoors from 3 August.
The reports I have had from our hospitality and our tourism sector is that they have had a very good start indeed to the reopening of the season, with hundreds and hundreds of bookings being made in Wales. Those in the sector who are progressive and positive look at the things that they are now able to do and make a success of those, rather than writing letters complaining about the things that they're unable to do. In that way, they will be able to make a success of their businesses and of the sector.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for professional sport? OQ55449
I thank Mike Hedges for that, Llywydd. Our economic resilience fund has been open for applications from professional sports organisations, and over £0.75 million pounds has been provided to the sector as a result.
First Minister, thank you for your response. I want to stress the importance of professional sport. Since March, professional sport in Wales has either not been playing or been played without spectators. Professional sports clubs like the Ospreys and Swansea City football club are major employers in Swansea, as well as their importance as ambassadors for the area and the provision of entertainment. There is an urgent need for financial support for professional sport until spectators are allowed to return, unless we're facing the horrendous prospect of having no professional sport below international level. What further financial support is the Welsh Government proposing to give to professional sport in Wales until spectators can return?
Well, Llywydd, as I said, we have already provided significant financial support to a number of professional sports organisations in Wales—over £0.75 million in total. I'm pleased to say that some of those beneficiaries are directly in the Member's own area. And we have announced an £8.5 million sports resilience fund, and £4.5 million of that is for national governing bodies, and that will be of assistance to the sector as well.
But I want to agree with what Mike Hedges said about the importance of professional sport, both as significant employers in parts of Wales, but also the part that watching and enjoying professional sport plays in the lives of so many of our fellow citizens. When we will be in a position to return to spectators in large numbers at those events, I think it's too early, I'm afraid, to be able to say that.
In the meantime, while professional sport played behind closed doors clearly doesn't have the atmosphere and the attraction that it would otherwise, it can, however, be done successfully. As someone who spent most of the weekend listening to the test match, it was as gripping as a spectator remotely as it would have been had the ground been full.
First Minister, one way of supporting professional sport in Wales would be to relax the social distancing rules and allow Welsh stadiums to reopen. The chief executive of the English Rugby Football Union makes the point that reducing social distancing measures to 1m, which is the World Health Organization's recommendation and guidance, results in a capacity of 40,000 people in an 80,000 seater stadium, compared to fewer than 10,000 if 2m is adhered to. Given that the Welsh Rugby Union is facing forecast losses of some £107 million due to coronavirus, what discussions have you had with the WRU about introducing measures like relaxing social distancing measures to 1m to enable Wales to play its home matches in Welsh grounds?
Well, Llywydd, we've had a series of discussions with the WRU, and I've been involved directly in some of those myself. We are providing significant assistance already to the Welsh Rugby Union and are in discussions with them about further assistance that we may be able to provide.
The thought of 40,000 people coming together in a mass event is certainly not consistent with the approach to tackling coronavirus that we have had here in Wales. The risk that that would pose to the health of those people attending, and to those people who'd have to be employed in order to allow that to happen, is simply not within the realms of what a sensible approach to dealing with this global pandemic would suggest.
Questions now from the party leaders. First of all today, the leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, last week, a study published by Oxford's Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science found that face coverings are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 for the wearer and those around them, and this adds, of course, to a growing body of evidence that supports the same conclusion. The study further noted that after the World Health Organization announced the pandemic in mid March, some 70 countries immediately recommended the universal use of masks. To date, more than 120 nations now require mask wearing—that's more than 60 per cent of the world. They're mandatory in Scotland, as we know, in shops, and the same will be true in England from 24 July—a rather inexplicable delay, in my view.
Your careful approach, in terms of the easing of restrictions, has served well in many ways, but you now, I think, risk treading the line between being too cautious and being too slow on this issue. Why is Wales lagging behind when so many other countries have acted so decisively?
I just reject the language of lagging behind. We are doing the things that are right for Wales. That does not mean following anybody else just because they have done something that we have decided not to do.
Llywydd, if you would allow me, I just want to take a minute more than I normally would to explain the Welsh Government's position on this issue, given that it is a matter of public interest. First of all, it's important to think of the context here. Regulations require that any restriction on the liberty of Welsh citizens has to be proportionate to the public health risk that is faced.
What is the state of the virus here in Wales? Well, it is at its lowest ebb since the onset of the crisis. The positivity rate in the 7,000 tests a day that were carried out in Wales over the weekend was 0.25 per cent—one quarter of 1 per cent—or 20 tests out of 7,000 returning as being positive. By contrast, the positivity rate in Blackburn, where lockdown measures are being reintroduced, is 7 per cent—30 times the rate in Wales. Large parts of Wales didn't have a single positive case over the whole of last weekend—14 of the 22 local authorities, from memory, without a single reported positive case. The proportionality test: is it proportionate to require every Welsh citizen going into a shop to wear a face covering, when the virus is in such a low state of circulation here in Wales?
Then, the issue of shops. Well, shops are different in Wales because our regulations are different. Quite unlike across our border, we have had the 2m social distancing rule in regulations, and it remains the default position here in Wales: a legal obligation on businesses to take all reasonable measures to ensure a 2m distance. And, since Monday, there are now new legal obligations on shops to take a further set of mitigating measures where a 2m distance cannot be sustained, and letters have gone to all the major supermarkets yesterday ensuring that they are aware of the law in Wales and their obligation to adhere to it.
And then, finally, Llywydd, is it unambiguously and clearly advantageous that access to shops should be denied to those not wearing face coverings? Our chief medical officer's advice has not changed: they have a marginal utility but they also have identifiable downsides. Some people behave more riskily because they are wearing a face covering. Some people can't wear face coverings: people with lung conditions, people with asthmatic conditions. Some people are disadvantaged when others wear face coverings: the visually impaired, people relying on lip reading. And, once it's compulsory, it will have to be enforced. So, Llywydd, we keep it all under review. I've asked for further advice, for example, on suggestions that supermarkets in tourist destinations have been crowded over this last weekend as populations in those areas increase. Mandatory use of face coverings as part of a local lockdown, should that become necessary, would certainly be part of a potential repertoire here in Wales. And if the prevalence of coronavirus in Wales were to rise, our advice would be revisited. In the meantime, the position in Wales is that anybody going into a shop who wishes to wear a face mask is absolutely entitled to do so. Our advice is that, if it's crowded, you should wear one. But, should we made it mandatory in all the conditions I've described? Should we trespass on people's liberty to that extent? We haven't reached that point in Wales.
The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation recently projected the difference between universal use of face masks in the UK between now and November would be 20,000 additional deaths. On a proportionate basis, we would be talking about around a 1,000 deaths potentially in Wales. As part of the review that he's referred to, would he specifically ask the technical advisory cell and the chief medical officer to look at that study and whether it does have an evidential force that would suggest that we need to change the policy and we need to change it fast?
Can I ask the First Minister—? In relation to the care sector, we've heard from Care Forum Wales their expression of disappointment that they've not been given any assurances on whether weekly testing for staff will continue. Are you able today, First Minister, to allay the sector's concerns and announce your care home testing strategy going forward?
On Mr Price's first point, I've seen that study, and I'm very happy to ask the technical advisory group to look at it. At first reading, it does seem very implausible. We have managed in Wales to go from a position where we were reporting many tens of deaths every day to a position where there was no death at all reported in three or four days over the weekend, and during that period face coverings were never compulsory at all. So, how it is plausibly argued that we would have 1,000 extra deaths prevented simply by wearing face coverings—? At first reading, I found that very difficult to understand and to see the force of that argument, particularly when face coverings are nowhere near as much of a protection to you as sustaining a 2m social distance and doing the other things that have a greater impact on people's chances of contracting the virus. But, our technical advisory group is there to review evidence and I'm very happy that it should review that evidence as well.
This afternoon, Llywydd, my colleague Vaughan Gething will be answering a question, I understand, on care homes. He'll be able to explain the results of the analysis that we've been carrying out of the four weeks of weekly testing of care home staff—testing that revealed a prevalence of coronavirus amongst care home staff at 0.1 per cent, one person in every thousand. So, he will set out his conclusions as to what that means for testing in the care home sector in the weeks to come this afternoon, and what he will have to say will be the result of engagement directly with Care Forum Wales.
I think the point in that study and, indeed, of other scientists who have vigorously supported the use of face masks, is, as you change the level of restrictions and you therefore lead to more people being in more contact, having a face covering is an additional measure that can then change the number of cases and, indeed, the number of deaths.
Can I just stay with the care sector? If the COVID crisis has taught us anything it's the value of that sector. Care workers have been at the forefront of the battle against the virus, as we know. Their tireless efforts have been hampered at times by the often disjointed dynamic between our health and care sectors and the fact that they're not fairly rewarded for their work. Isn't this the time, First Minister, as we begin to think about a post-COVID Wales, for a national integrated health and care service free at the point of need that will synchronise our most vital public services and give care workers the pay rise and the pay structure that they deserve by moving them onto NHS pay scales? Nothing is stopping this from happening, from political will. Do you share it?
Well, Llywydd, I understand the point that Adam Price made about the study. It's why I said in my original answer that I'd ask for further advice on suggestions that supermarkets had become particularly crowded in some parts of Wales. Because, if that were to be the case, then, the case for the wearing of face coverings is strengthened in those contexts. So, I understand the point that he made there.
Llywydd, we have had a major programme within the Welsh Government of paying for care, drawing on the work of Professor Gerry Holtham and the proposals that he has made. And, sharing many of the points that Adam Price has made this morning about the value of the sector and the need to make sure that the people who work in it are properly regarded and rewarded, we will use that work to take policy forward in Wales. And we do very much need to see, Llywydd, a policy conclusion from the UK Government—the Dilnot review now nearly a decade old and still nothing to show for it—because anything we do in Wales will inevitably be affected by changes in the benefit system, which Dilnot proposed, and would have an impact on Welsh citizens as well. So, a Wales-alone solution will not work, because the intersections with decisions made in non-devolved areas will be material, and we will want to make sure that our actions take full account of changes that are made across the border and we need to know what those changes are going to be.
The leader of the Conservatives, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, from 6 July, households in Wales have been permitted to join together to form an extended support bubble to enable families to reunite, meaning that people can form one extended household and meet indoors. That move was welcomed by many across Wales who, after months of being unable to see their loved ones, were finally able to spend some time with their families and with their friends. Given the pace at which so many changes are now being made, which now result in more and more people interacting with each other in outdoor and indoor spaces, perhaps it's time to consider the creation of further support bubbles, therefore. First Minister, can you tell us what scientific evidence is the Welsh Government using to underpin its policy on social bubbles? And can you also tell us what consideration the Welsh Government has given to further relaxing restrictions on this specific matter?
Llywydd, I believe that the evidence that we are drawing on was set out in a technical advisory group paper that we published. I'll check whether it is published and, if it's not, I'm very happy to share the paper with the leader of the opposition. It's a detailed paper. It draws very much on experience in New Zealand as the basis for the proposals that we are following here in Wales.
We will keep that policy under review during the current three-week cycle, which we're already well into the first week of. We'll use the additional headroom we had during this three weeks to attend to the urgent calls from the tourism industry and from hospitality to reopen those businesses in Wales, and once we've taken those decisions, then the amount of headroom you have got left to do more in the space of extended households, or households coming together in the open air or indoors, is inevitably limited. Provided we are in a position, at the end of this three-week cycle, that coronavirus in Wales is still under control, to the extent that I've already described this morning, there will be new possibilities, and using some of that headroom for further relaxation of the restrictions on family and friends meeting will definitely be part of that consideration.
First Minister, thanks to the people of Wales, significant progress has been made in limiting the spread of the virus in communities across Wales, which, of course, has allowed freedoms to have been relaxed in other areas. For example, a further set of coronavirus restrictions that have also been lifted in Wales, as you've just said, is in relation to self-contained accommodation, such as holiday cottages and caravans, reopening.
Wales's hospitality businesses across the country have also started reopening this week in outdoor areas, and many are looking at ways in which they can continue to comply with Government guidance when they reopen their internal spaces on 3 August. Therefore, given the immediate need to support hospitality businesses here in Wales, can you tell us what specific package of support the Welsh Government will provide in the short term? And will you also be bringing forward a specific strategy for the hospitality sector for both the medium and long terms to protect its sustainability and protect vital jobs? And what domestic tourism strategy is the Welsh Government developing so that we can maximise the amount of visitor spend and help support our tourism and hospitality businesses at this time?
Well, Llywydd, tens of millions of pounds of support has already been provided both to the tourism sector and, separately and additionally, to the hospitality sector here in Wales. That's in addition to all the help that the sector has received from the UK Government through the furlough scheme, which has been very important indeed in both of those industries. And many, many further applications have been made to phase 2 of the economic resilience fund, which closed on Friday of last week, again from those sectors. So, the sectors have had very significant support from the UK Government and from the Welsh Government in recognition of the enormous impact the coronavirus has had on them.
Our immediate strategy has focused very much on getting the sectors reopened and getting them reopened safely, and that remains our focus over the next few weeks, because success needs to be made of these first steps in order that we can build on them further and continue to reopen the sector. And the resources of the Welsh Government, the staffing resources, our ability to engage directly with the sector has been very much focused on that strategy, getting these industries up and working again. Once we manage to do that successfully, then, of course, we will continue to work both with tourism and hospitality, together with them, to shape a future through the rest of this year that builds on whatever success we can achieve and allows them to go on earning a living in the way that they do, providing employment in the way that they do, and contributing into the Welsh economy in a very significant way.
First Minister, the gradual reopening of the hospitality sector in Wales provides further opportunities for people to socially interact with members from outside their households. I recently met with local hospitality businesses to discuss the ongoing impact of COVID-19 and the Welsh Government's regulations, and the message was clear: this year, most hospitality businesses are simply focusing on survival. Therefore, as restrictions continue to ease, it'll be crucial that we maximise the amount of spend locally in Wales, and I sincerely hope that the Welsh Government is refocusing its procurement practices to help our businesses recover. Wales's small and medium businesses need support now more than ever, and the Welsh Government must use any and all levers at its disposal to support businesses and champion local products and services. Therefore, First Minister, what new action is the Welsh Government taking in terms of its procurement practices to support Welsh businesses and help them recover? Could you also tell us what campaigning the Welsh Government is doing to encourage people to spend locally and support Welsh businesses to help rejuvenate local communities across the country? And, given the measures introduced by other countries across the world to support businesses, what consideration has the Welsh Government given to bringing forward financial incentives, such as business rate relief, to support Welsh businesses to recover from this pandemic?
Well, Llywydd, business rate relief is practically universal in these sectors at 100 per cent for the rest of this financial year, so there's nothing further we can do there, because they're not paying any business rates at all.
In terms of local spend and procurement, then the outstanding area in which we have been able to achieve new ground in this context is in personal protective equipment, where many Welsh businesses have answered the call that we made to help us to secure the necessary supplies of PPE for our health and social care sector—250 million items now issued, Llywydd, a million items being issued every day, 91 million items to social care alone. We wouldn't have been able to do that if we hadn't used our procurement in order to encourage Welsh businesses to convert what they were previously doing into the production of face masks, fluid-resistant gowns and other things that are now being supplied not just to Wales, but to other parts of the United Kingdom as well. I think that is a very good example of how, in a crisis, people can act really quickly, incredibly positively. We've been so grateful for what businesses in Wales have done in this area, and we want to do more of that, of course.
In terms of local spend, then the fact that our 'stay local' message in Wales wasn't lifted until just about a week or so ago means that people have indeed been spending locally in Wales during this pandemic, because that's where their lives have been led. I know that that, by itself, has managed to sustain a number of businesses who, without that local support, would not have been able to survive. I agree with what Paul Davies said: many businesses are indeed in survival mode at the moment. And our aim is to help them to survive so that when the better days come, they will be there to continue their previous success. But that survival has only been possible, in many contexts, because people have stayed local, because they have spent local and they've supported those local businesses.
Leader of the Brexit Party, Mark Reckless.
First Minister, you've overseen a significantly higher COVID-19 infection rate in Wales than in the rest of the United Kingdom, as well as a worse economic situation. Despite this, you've found time to lambast the UK Government over its Brexit responsibilities, twice using the crisis to demand they extend the transition period, as you've once again tried to block Brexit. Now, we see your Minister for COVID economic recovery turn his focus to attacking the UK Government over the Gender Recognition Act 2004. He attacks it for failing formally to responding to a Gender Recognition Act consultation, and, we're told, for
'repeatedly delaying publication of the review.'
Is it possible that the UK Government has had other priorities?
Llywydd, I'll try and pick something out of the question, if I can. Brexit certainly hasn't gone away, and Brexit is going to happen. All we are focused on is trying to help it to happen in a way that does not add a further layer of economic distress on companies in Wales who are already struggling, as Paul Davies said, to deal with the consequences of a global pandemic. That's all we're asking: simply that a disaster that nobody could have prevented is not made even worse by a disaster that is eminently preventable by the simple and straightforward course of action of asking for a short extension to the transition period to take account of the fact that, as the Member just said, people have been very busy doing other things. If that applies to the Gender Recognition Act, then surely it applies even more to a sensible approach to Brexit.
As far as the Gender Recognition Act review is concerned, all we're asking the UK Government to do is to do what they've said they would do. Nothing else. They have carried out the review, they have promised to publish it, they have not done so. All we're asking is that they do what they said they would.
In many areas, First Minister, you've understandably made commitments as a Government that it has not been possible to carry through or that have had to be delayed because of the COVID crisis. I merely suggest that you allow and accept that similar pressures affect the UK Government. Wales voted for Brexit. You put forward your proposals on the area at the general election, and there's now a Conservative Government of a majority of 80. Surely you should accept that democratic decision.
We have certain areas that are devolved to Wales, and certain areas that are reserved. But again and again we see the Welsh Government failing to respect that settlement, failing to respect reserved powers. On gender recognition, I believe there are some difficult and challenging issues around balancing rights, but surely the way to deal with it for a reserved issue is to work within the framework set by UK Government, not declare a unilateral declaration of independence—instead, focus on the devolved powers you have, and making them work properly.
My concern with this, as so many others, is you lambast the UK Government over its exercise of reserved powers, yet complain when anyone criticises you in any way about what you do in a devolved context. You're always demanding more and more devolved powers, yet substantial numbers of people in Wales voted against devolution. Last time, those who supported it did so on the basis of an assurance on the ballot paper that
'the Assembly cannot make laws on…tax…whatever the result of this vote.'
Yet you, in cahoots with the Conservatives, broke that promise, and income tax powers were devolved without the promised further referendum. Isn't that why devolution in Wales is not settled, along with your refusal to respect reserved powers, and the fact that however much is devolved, it is never enough for politicians here?
Llywydd, as I recall—and I may be wrong, because it's not always easy to keep up—the Member was a Conservative MP at the time that the Conservative Party broke what it had promised people in Wales about a referendum. He was a Conservative MP, he voted for the promise that was broken, and then he comes here to complain about it. There isn't a shred of credibility in what the Member has to say. Llywydd, I believe in assertive devolution, and that's the policy that this Government will pursue.
Question 3, Carwyn Jones. Question 3, Carwyn Jones.
I thought I heard 'Caroline Jones'. Forgive me, Llywydd.
3. Will the First Minister outline what financial support is available from the Welsh Government to businesses in Wales? OQ55469
I thank Carwyn Jones for that question. Llywydd, our £1.7 billion business support package, which is equivalent to 2.6 per cent of our gross value added, complements other UK schemes and means that companies in Wales have access to the most generous offer of help anywhere in the United Kingdom during the coronavirus crisis.
Thank you, First Minister. Many businesses have contacted my constituency office to express their gratitude at the support that they've received from the Welsh Government and from the UK Government. There are still, however, some businesses who are concerned that they may not be able to access the support that they need, mainly microbusinesses. Would the First Minister then give an assurance that the support mechanisms will be kept under constant review to make sure that as much support as possible is available to as many businesses as possible?
Llywydd, I thank Carwyn Jones for that supplementary question. As I've said previously in the Assembly, in the Senedd, we have tried to use our funds to complement the help that has been available through the UK Government schemes, and microbusinesses are one of those areas that we have focused on as a result. My colleague Ken Skates launched phase 2 of the economic resilience fund, Llywydd, as I mentioned—£100 million further to assist Welsh businesses. I know that my colleague Carwyn Jones will be interested to know that when the fund closed for applications on Friday of last week, the micro fund had received 5,524 applications, and if you totalled those applications up, that would have resulted in £54.2 million being applied for from the micro fund. The sole trader fund received 453 applications in the sum of £4.4 million, and I was very pleased myself to be able to launch the start-up business fund as part of phase 2 of the economic resilience fund, a £5 million fund. It could help up to 2,000 businesses to the tune of £2,500 each. All of those are aimed exactly at the sorts of businesses that Carwyn Jones has mentioned this morning, Llywydd, and I think are examples of the way in which we have tried to use our money to fill those gaps and to focus on those businesses that have slipped through the net of the large schemes that the UK Government has put in place, and use our money to the best effect.
First Minister, what would be devastating economically would be the need for either a second lockdown or a localised lockdown, and one of the key measures that you've put in place is test and tracing. Your figures for returning the results from test and tracing are getting worse. The figures for 24-hour delivery are under a 50 per cent response rate, and for 48 hours only 66 per cent of tests are returned to the people who've put themselves up for a test. How are you going to improve these figures to get closer to the 90 per cent that most experts believe provides an effective testing structure that would protect us economically, and also our health?
Llywydd, I agree with Andrew R.T. Davies that avoiding a second wave of coronavirus later this year is very important indeed to the health of businesses, as well to the health of the population, and it's why we have taken the approach we have here in Wales. And we are seeing in other parts of the world just how easily it is possible to move from a position of relative security to one where lockdown measures do have to be reimposed. So, I agree with his point there.
Our 'Test Trace Protect' system does need to return more tests more quickly, and we are working with the system for that to happen. We would have had better results at the end of last week if it hadn't been for the fact that one of the lighthouse labs, that we are now using in greater numbers, faced a series of difficulties last week that meant that their ability to return tests in 24 hours was compromised by the challenges that they faced. We are arranging for an enhanced courier service to make sure that tests are taken from the testing site to the laboratory more quickly and more regularly during the day. We are exploring with our Welsh laboratories ways in which they can turn those tests around more quickly.
In the meantime, the TTP system as a whole is, I'm pleased to say, working very well; 82 per cent of positive cases identified between 28 June and 4 July were successfully contacted, and 87 per cent of over 1,150 close contacts have been successfully followed up. And those figures compare very favourably with levels of successful follow-up that are being achieved elsewhere.
A number of rural businesses over the years have been receiving business support through the rural development programme, for example, and we saw a recent report from Audit Wales that had highlighted maladministration by the Welsh Government on certain aspects of that—£53 million-worth had been distributed in a way that didn't have measures in place to secure value for money. We received confirmation in the rural development committee last week that there would be disallowance, and that there were negotiations now between the European Commission and the Welsh Government to recoup some, if not all, of those funds.
Would you now accept that it's time for us to have a full review of the way the RDP in Wales had been administered, and has been used, so that we can be confident that we have had the value for money that we should have had for this investment, particularly given that your Government now intends to use the RDP model, and the way that's implemented, as the basis for the plans that you're bringing forward for supporting agriculture and sustainable land management for the future? It's important that we learn lessons.
Of course, I agree that it's important that we do learn lessons. We are doing that, and also the RDP has people to look into what we are doing on the European and local level. It's important to be clear about what the audit office said.
What they said was that the processes didn't guarantee that value for money had been achieved, and we've improved those processes since. What they didn't say was that the schemes that were funded weren't value for money, because they never looked at the schemes at all, they simply looked at the process by which the schemes were funded. Quite a number of the schemes that they looked at have gone on to be award-winning schemes here in Wales, and beyond Wales as well. So, the report never said at all that the schemes themselves did not deliver value for money, they simply said that the process by which they were funded didn't give you a guarantee that the money had been spent in that way, and that's something we do need to attend to. Our focus, Llywydd, as well as learning lessons, is on trying to make sure that we have equivalent funding in the future to go on making those investments in the rural economy that the RDP has allowed us to make. And we're nowhere near having those guarantees from the UK Government, and it's not long now before that funding begins to run out.
4. What assessment has the First Minister made of the importance of local radio stations in Wales? OQ55455
I thank Dr Lloyd for that. The Welsh Government recognises the importance of local radio stations in ensuring that the people of Wales have access to vital local news and information, which has been crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic.
First Minister, this week saw the final ever Sunday Hotline, presented by Kev Johns on Swansea Sound. The hotline had run for decades and was well valued by local residents, providing a unique opportunity for people to raise local issues of concern and to question local politicians. Sadly, the station will leave the airwaves in September, as part of a rebranding exercise. Now, there are more than enough UK-wide or regional networks, all reporting the same news, with the same presenters. What we are lacking is truly local radio that reflects local people's lives. Do you therefore agree that one way of reversing this loss is to devolve broadcasting to this Parliament and to develop our own local commercial radio station footprint here in Wales?
I agree with the points that the Member has made about the importance of local broadcasting. I appeared on the Kev Johns programme myself once, in the company of my colleague Mike Hedges, and a very good experience it was—a very skilful broadcaster, with a real rapport with his local audience, and very well able to convey the things that were of most concern to them.
My understanding, Llywydd, is that, though Swansea Sound will no longer operate in its name, the purchaser of the Wireless Group's local radio stations has not asked Ofcom for any change in the remit of that station. It will therefore be required, when it does reopen, to fulfil the original format, and that includes commitments relating to Welsh language programming and local news and information. And we will certainly be expecting Ofcom to ensure that those commitments are delivered in the way that the new station will operate, both for the benefit of Swansea residents and for those who surround that area.
The wider debate, Llywydd, is one we've had many times here on the floor of the Senedd and in Senedd committees. Our immediate focus is on making sure, as I say, that the obligations on the new owner to deliver a local service that successfully reflects the unique language, culture and concerns of the communities that the station serves—that those commitments are delivered upon. And we will be focusing on that, as I say, directly in communication with Ofcom itself.
First Minister, we've seen the great benefit of regional, local and indeed community radio during this crisis, bringing great comfort to many people as they have had to spend so much time at home, with local news and features. And I just wonder if you can do more to use procurement, help with training grants, and also public health messages, and putting as many as possible through these routes. The Welsh Government in the way it acts economically can help these vital networks.
Llywydd, I agree with all of those points. We've used our advertising budget during the coronavirus crisis directly to place advertising with local radio, including Swansea Sound. We've done our best to offer as much access to those local outlets as possible so that they can use their platforms to make sure that people have the information that they need. And in the daily press conferences that we have been holding, Llywydd, we've had 12 local broadcasters regularly taking place—again, including Swansea Sound. And I, myself, have given interviews to 20 different local radio and local newspapers over the last three months, again just to make sure that they have direct access to the Welsh Government so we can support them in the work that they do.
We've repurposed our independent community journalism fund and seven publications in Wales have shared in £76,500 of funding to support them in the financial challenges they face, and we have helped two stations to have access to Ofcom's £400,000 community radio fund. Ofcom intend to launch, quite soon, the second iteration of that fund, and the Welsh Government will work with community radio stations in Wales to make sure that they have the best chance of securing funding from that source as well.
So, I agree with David Melding about the importance of the things that we can do to help, and I hope that I've been able to demonstrate that, in all the different things we're able to do, we have very much had local print and broadcasting outlets at the forefront of our thinking during the pandemic.
5. What actions is the Welsh Government taking to support the manufacturing sector in Wales? OQ55476
Llywydd, the Welsh Government's manufacturing manifesto was due to be published on 2 April. While formal consultation has not been possible because of the coronavirus crisis, the themes of the manifesto—skills, infrastructure, research and leadership, for example—continue to shape our support for the sector.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. I look forward to the publication of the manifesto because it is critical. Welsh manufacturing has been the bedrock of much of our economy over the years, and actually over the centuries, and it's important. We need to keep that going. We have seen losses in Airbus, GE. Manufacturing has been hit by COVID very severely.
Now, the UK Government seems to have failed to actually consider manufacturing, and is not giving the support it should be giving. But this Welsh Government needs to give that support to ensure that it continues to thrive throughout the years ahead of us. Can you give me guarantees that the Welsh Government will continue to support manufacturing, particularly in areas that have faced difficulties, and I'll include steel in that area, as well as the aviation sector, so that we can continue to have the highly skilled, well-paid jobs in Wales that they've always supported?
Well, Llywydd, I'm very happy indeed to provide that assurance to David Rees. He's right, 10.7 per cent of Welsh employment takes place in the manufacturing sector, compared to 7.9 per cent of the UK employment in that sector. So, it's obviously of much greater importance to us here in Wales, and particularly to communities of the sort that David Rees so regularly speaks up for here on the floor of the Senedd.
I want to recognise where the UK Government has stepped in to help. On 2 July the emergency loan to Celsa, in the steel industry, was a very important decision and has helped to safeguard 800 jobs here in south Wales. But that is the example of what more is needed. We absolutely have to have sectoral employment protection schemes for steel, for automotive and for aerospace. Those are fundamental industries here in Wales. They face existential crises as a result of coronavirus, and each one of them needs a bespoke package of help from the UK Government in order to make sure that they are here the other side of this crisis, because the UK economy needs a steel industry, the UK economy needs a successful aerospace industry, and only the UK Government has that firepower, as my colleague Ken Skates has put it, to step in and provide help of the sort that is needed.
The Welsh Government will continue to do the things that we do—investing in skills, investing in research, helping with local investments that we can put in place, as we have with Tata in Port Talbot—but the nature of the crisis is such that it is a UK response that is needed and, sadly, we didn't hear anything of it in the summer statement of Wednesday last week.
First Minister, yesterday's NatWest business activity index reported a contraction in business activity in the manufacturing sector as a result of ongoing lockdown measures. In their report, they state that many businesses have reported that the ongoing lockdown measures have stymied growth opportunities. They also report a drop in new orders, which was higher than the UK average, and a downturn in new business. They also go on to say that this weak client demand has affected the manufacturing sector from hiring employees, and this rate of contraction in employment has also outpaced, sadly, the UK average. What assessment has the Welsh Government done on how the slower rate of reopening the economy has impacted livelihoods and in particular the Welsh manufacturing sector?
Well, Llywydd, I don't think you need to do a great deal of analysis to understand that it is not the pace of Welsh economy lockdown lifting that has had the effect on Airbus or on Tata. It's nonsensical to suggest it. Those are global industries and it is global trading conditions that have led to the decisions that those industries are making.
The pace of the lockdown in Wales has had no impact upon that whatsoever, and really it just doesn't stand up to any form of serious—[Interruption.] No, the report doesn't suggest that—it's just a Tory gloss here, trying to rescue some point that they think they can make, rather than anything serious at all. The crisis facing those industries—. Don't wave it at me. Just because you've got it doesn't mean to say that you've understood it, does it? And, clearly, you haven't understood it, because if you read what Airbus had to say, if you read what Tata have to say—they are not saying that the global crisis that they face has been derived from the pace at which the lockdown in Wales has been lifted. It would be absurd. It's an absurd proposition. The Member should know better than to make it here.
6. Will the First Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for the Armed Forces Covenant? OQ55444
I thank Darren Millar for that question, Llywydd. The Welsh Government's support for the covenant was set out in the first annual report, published in May of last year. It set out actions in housing, health, education and employment. Further progress will be outlined in this year's annual report, to be laid before the Senedd in September.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. Over the past few months we've seen our armed forces join the fight against the coronavirus here in Wales, doing some exceptional work in terms of helping with testing facilities, ensuring that there's adequate PPE delivered to key workers on the front line, and, of course, disinfecting ambulances in order to improve turnaround times. And I think it's important that we acknowledge that important role that the armed forces has played in the crisis.
One of the things that Wales has done extremely well, I think, is to take forward the agenda of honouring the armed forces covenant here in Wales, and one of the key parts of the commitment that the Welsh Government has made, of course, has been the delivery and support for armed forces liaison officers across the country. As you're aware, the funding for those posts comes to an end in March of next year, but I, and many others in this Chamber, on a cross-party basis, would like to see that support extended and those posts become permanent. Are you able to provide an update on the funding for those posts today?
Llywydd, I thank Darren Millar for that further question, and I absolutely want to endorse what he has said about the exceptional work that we have seen in Wales from our liaison with the armed forces in the coronavirus crisis. It's been a remarkable part of the story of the last three months, the way in which we have been able to draw on the assistance of armed forces personnel. I got used at one point to seeing a lot of people in fatigues in Cathays Park in a way we've never seen before, and that help is now gradually being withdrawn as the systems that the military have helped us to put in place in Wales are there and are sustainable into the future. So, I'm very pleased indeed to endorse what Darren Millar said there.
Llywydd, I wrote to the Member on 16 June, promising him an update on future funding for the armed forces liaison officers before the end of this term. And I'm very glad indeed, therefore, to be able to confirm this morning that the Minister Hannah Blythyn has made the decision to invest a further £275,000 for each of the next two years, from April of 2021, and that is to sustain the very valuable work that armed forces liaison officers have carried out. I know that this was an idea very strongly supported by my colleague Alun Davies, when these posts were created, and I know as well that Darren Millar has been a very strong supporter of the individuals in these posts. The individual armed forces liaison officer for north Wales, Llywydd, for example, has trained over 500 front-line staff since coming into post, and that has helped to raise awareness of the covenant, where this question started. I'm very glad, therefore, this afternoon—this morning; I'm so used to being here in the afternoon, Llywydd—this morning, very pleased to confirm that those posts will remain funded by the Welsh Government beyond April of next year.
7. What assessment has been made of how restrictions in the health service, put in place to contain the pandemic, have impacted those needing the NHS for non-COVID-19 related reasons? OQ55477
Llywydd, exceptional measures have been needed to respond to the public health crisis we have faced in Wales. However, as the demand for coronavirus services reduces, non-COVID-19 services are resuming in all parts of the NHS.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. The restrictions placed on maternity services have been particularly difficult for new and expectant parents. Expectant mothers are being told that they must attend anomaly scans on their own and that, even in the case of bad news, their partner can't be with them. Instead, they may be given written information they can go home with. Birthing partners are only allowed in once the mother has gone into established labour, and then they have to leave shortly after the baby's born. They're not allowed then to visit again. Even picking up their partner and new baby involves waiting outside, and, even if the baby needs to go into special care, only one parent is allowed in at a time to visit their newborn.
This particularly cruel restriction is in direct contravention of the advice issued during the pandemic by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who say:
'At such a stressful time, it is important for both parents to be able to be present together, at least for part of the day'.
First Minister, similar restrictions are being lifted elsewhere in the UK. Scotland did so on Monday and their continuation here is causing anxiety to many parents to be. Can you tell worried, expectant parents across Wales when these restrictions will be lifted so they can, hopefully, share the joys of bringing a new life into the world, but also be with each other if they have to go through any heartbreaking experiences? And, on the off chance that they have been relaxed, why has no-one told the concerned expectant mothers?
Llywydd, I'm sorry, I just missed the very end of the question, but the points that were made in introducing the question are very real and important. All of us here will have heard from parents looking forward to the birth of a child and the additional pressure and indeed distress that they face because of the way that services have been provided during the crisis. But the answer as to why these restrictions have been in place is because of the particular vulnerability of people who are giving birth and the vulnerability of the new-born child; they've not been put in place for any reason other than to protect people's health. I can't give the Member, I'm afraid, a date in the way that she asks, because it won't be my decision; it will be the decision of clinicians, because it is the people who are in charge of the health of the mother and the baby who make the decisions here in Wales. And, when they are ready and they believe it is safe to do so, then of course they will want to lift some of those restrictions, because nobody wants to see them continue any longer than they need to.
Finally, question 8, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
8. Will the First Minister make a statement on support for town and community councils during the pandemic? OQ55474
May I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth? We are engaging with the sector to understand the pressures arising from COVID-19 to tackle problems as quickly as possible. A range of support has been provided through emergency regulations to enable councils to operate safely, effectively and lawfully, while retaining the principles of openness and accountability.
Thank you for that response. Holyhead Town Council has done its best over the years to improve facilities for the people of the town and the area, and one initiative that's been very successful is the reopening of the Empire cinema. Like so many businesses, the Empire lost its income entirely because of the pandemic. The council made a bid for funding from the economic resilience fund, but that was rejected, because the cinema was run by the council and wasn't a business entity in and of itself. This has created a major problem for the council. Cinemas will be allowed to open again in a few weeks' time, but I would like you to consider one thing: there will be a limitation on their ability to make money because they can't sell food and drink on the way in. That's one issue that I'd be grateful if you were to look at. But, more generally, I would like you to look at the rules that mean that a town council such as this has failed to access financial support, because I don't think it's fair that a town council like this one should be penalised for having tried to create an enterprise for its own people.
Llywydd, Holyhead Town Council is not being penalised at all. They can access funding from Government, because they could apply for funding from the £78 million that we have given to the sector because the councils are losing income, and that fund is available not just for the main local authorities, but also for a local council such as Holyhead Town Council. So, the best advice for the council is to submit an application or a bid for that money. We are aware of the situation that Holyhead is facing, because they've raised more than half the income they distribute by raising income—well, less than half—by raising the precept, so it's in a totally different situation to the vast majority of local councils, but that fund is available to them, and the best advice for them is to prepare a plan or a bid and submit that bid to see whether we can support them in that manner.
I thank the First Minister.
The next item is the business statement and announcement. I call on the Trefnydd to make that statement. Rebecca Evans.
Diolch, Llywydd. There's one change to today's agenda: the motions on the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 6) Regulations and No. 7 regulations have been withdrawn, and draft business for the next three sitting weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which is available amongst the papers that have been made available electronically to Members.
I think it's a great shame, Trefnydd, that those particular regulations have been withdrawn without the opportunity for a debate on the action that has been taken on the coronavirus restrictions over the past six weeks in terms of the items that were contained in those restrictions, and I very much hope that the Welsh Government will reflect on providing an opportunity for Members of the Senedd to consider these matters perhaps in a different way through take-note debates in the future, prior to actual votes on regulations.
Can I call for two statements today, please, from the Welsh Government—the first in relation to tourism, in order to get some clarity on the reopening of permanent fairgrounds in Wales? I appreciate that the Welsh Government has taken the decision that, at the moment, funfairs must remain closed in Wales, but there are theme parks in Wales, which are allowed to open at the moment, and it does appear to be quite an inconsistency, when you consider that they're very similar sorts of operations in terms of making those facilities safe for people to visit. Businesses in my own constituency have lost quite a considerable amount of trade this last weekend, and I think it's imperative that we do whatever we can to make sure that they don't lose that business for future weekends. So, if we could have a statement on that, I'd be very grateful.
And, secondly, can I also call for a statement in relation to the future of local resilience forums in Wales? The National Association of Funeral Directors have called for a permanent presence on local resilience forums in order that they can be part of the planning process for future pandemics and other matters, so I think that should be considered and wonder whether we could have a statement on the matter. Thank you.
Thank you to Darren Millar for raising those issues and, of course, we had the opportunity to discuss the first issue that he raised, in terms of when we debate our regulations, at some length in the Business Committee earlier this week, and I know that there'll be some further discussions between the Llywydd and the Government on that particular issue looking ahead.
In terms of tourism, I'll certainly seek that clarity that you're requiring in terms of the permanent fairgrounds and ensure that we find the best way to update Members on that, because I think the point that you make is important. As we start opening up more and more of our economy, then clearly there will be individual cases and individual types of business who want more detail on what it means for them, so I'll pursue that on your behalf.
On the issue of local resilience fora, I know that the Minister with responsibility for local government will be, obviously, listening to this, and will be taking into consideration the future of those fora as we move forward out of the crisis phrase and into the stabilisation and recovery phases.
Many community-based carers have worked right throughout the COVID crisis, and we know that staff and residents in care homes are being tested on a regular basis, whether they have symptoms or not. Carers who go into people's homes in the community are only tested if they're showing symptoms, which is a problem when we know that people can infect others when they don't show symptoms, and a single carer in the community can therefore infect potentially hundreds of people without even knowing that they're carrying COVID. So, can we have a statement on testing policy? Improved test and trace, we've been told, is key if we're to reduce the risk of a second wave; specifically, I'd like a statement that addresses this point about testing asymptomatic workers who come into close contact with the most vulnerable. We've got the spare testing capacity, and we have one chance to prevent a second wave—let's not waste that chance.
Thank you for raising this issue, and I do know that the Minister for health has been working on the next iteration of the testing strategy, and that there will be an announcement and publication along those lines very shortly. And, obviously, he will have heard what you've said in terms of community-based carers and how we ensure that tests are available for all of those people who would require them and benefit from them.
I think, business Minister, we've all been very grateful to Ministers who have taken the time to make a series of public statements on what their response has been to the developing coronavirus crisis, and I think the communications of Welsh Government have been absolutely first class. The way that Ministers have enabled scrutiny to take place, both within the public arena and here, has been absolutely beyond comparison, particularly with the chaos on the other end of the M4. However, there are certain statements that should be made to this place first, and the need for parliamentary scrutiny is different to the need for public scrutiny. And particularly where statements are made that will involve changes to the law and changes to rates of taxation, they should be made to this place before they're made in the public environment, to enable that scrutiny to take place. So, I would seek the support of the Presiding Officer as well in these matters, protecting the rights of this Parliament, and of the Government in ensuring that statements are made to this place, and that the inevitable and correct public scrutiny that Ministers face can do so as well, but I don't believe it should happen instead of parliamentary scrutiny, and so I hope the Government will respond positively to that.
At the same, we also know that we are meeting twice over the summer months in order to take some decisions with regard to legislation; I strongly support the recall of this place to do that work. But I'm also aware, and I saw a story in the Financial Times on the weekend, that the United Kingdom Government is railroading legislation that could severely constrain the powers of this place and our right to exercise those powers. I hope that the Welsh Government and the Presiding Office will look favourably at any Member who seeks to raise these matters when we meet during August in order to deal with coronavirus regulations, because I do believe the threats from the United Kingdom Government to the powers that the Welsh people have sought to rest in this place are not something that we should wait to address. The right of this place to articulate its view should be given an opportunity during the summer months, if that is necessary.
I thank Alun Davies certainly for his opening remarks, in terms of the way in which the Welsh Government has embraced scrutiny and has been as open and transparent as possible throughout the crisis.
I take on board his criticism regarding the recent statement on land transaction tax. The only thing I will say is that the pace of decision making has been extraordinary, and the number of decisions that are taken on a daily basis is extraordinary. Of course, we only have very limited time in the Chamber, but I take on board the criticism that he's made, and I do share his concerns about the threat to devolution and to the powers of the Senedd in terms of the way in which the UK Government has sought to move forward through this crisis, but then also in terms of as we approach our exit, or as we approach the end of the year with the potential crashing out and a 'no deal' Brexit. So, there are, clearly, large areas of concern that we share there.
Business manager, I would like to understand why the Government haven't tabled a statement today from the health Minister, who will be making, as I understand it, through the Government press conference, an announcement on the new testing regime that the Government are bringing forward. I did raise it with the First Minister, but it should be on the floor of the Chamber that the health Minister is making this statement and not from the comfort of the lectern in Cathays Park. It's just not good enough that such statements are being made from Cathays Park at 12:30, when I am currently advised on the internet that he will be talking about the testing regime, and we, as Members, are sitting here in the bay listening to other matters. This is a key part of making sure that there isn't a second spike or a second outbreak through the Government's programme, and to date the testing regime has failed miserably, as the figures I put to the First Minister show. Can you enlighten me as to why the health Minister is not making a statement to the Senedd, as opposed to the press conference in Cathays Park?
Secondly, can I seek clarity from you or someone within Government as to the guidance about marriages? In August, you will be able to get married in a registry office or a church, but, regrettably, you will not be able to get married at another venue that, traditionally, has been licensed for a wedding ceremony. I do believe that this is an anomaly, and I'd be grateful if the Government could look at this, because in my own South Wales Central area I have businesses that have converted properties to become marriage venues, yet they won't be able to undertake the ceremony at the facilities in which they've invested considerable sums of money. So, could I seek clarity as to why it is only registry offices and churches that will be able to perform weddings, as opposed to other venues that, traditionally, have been licensed to undertake such a ceremony?
On Andrew R.T. Davies's first point, I would just refer him to the answer that I have just given to Alun Davies, who raised a similar concern. But, in terms of the marriage ceremonies, I can reassure you that the Welsh Government is looking closely at the issue of how we can open up those other venues that are not registry offices or places of worship. As soon as we are able to say more on that, I can assure you that we will.
May I ask for a statement on funding for the arts? There are huge concerns that have been raised about the £59 million that was announced and broadly reported last week. It appears now that this sum of money is not available, and there's nothing near that sum available for the arts sector in Wales after all. We need clarity. First of all, how much money will be available for the sector? Secondly, how will any new funding be distributed across the arts? It's extremely disappointing that we don't have that clarity, and I would appreciate an early statement from the Government, please.
Yes, a great deal of work is going on in this particular area, and I know that my colleague the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language yesterday met with the Arts Council of Wales, which has been putting together a proposal, which would come forward, then, to Welsh Government with a view to drawing down some funding from the COVID reserve that we've established. I haven't yet seen that proposal, but, again, as soon as we do have a proposal we will seek to make an early decision in order to provide a statement with the clarity on the decisions that have been made.
Minister, I would associate myself with the remarks made by Alun Davies earlier. Last week, we saw £470 million of health board debts written off announced in a press conference and, as an Assembly Member representing a health board that has always operated in the black in one of the poorest parts of Wales, I would have liked the opportunity to scrutinise that.
However, my main reason for speaking today is to ask for a statement on the ongoing impact of lockdown on those living with dementia. Last week, the cross-party group heard from people living with dementia about the immense and heartbreaking impact that lockdown has had on their lives. It was sobering, it was hard hitting and it was very upsetting. I'd like to ask for a statement, as I've highlighted previously with the First Minister the high numbers of people dying from dementia not from COVID during lockdown. There are also continued concerns about lack of access to memory clinic assessments going forward, and it is crucial that that work is addressed as a matter of urgency. So, I'd like to call for that written statement, a detailed statement, as a matter of urgency. Thank you.
Okay, thank you. And again, I note the opening remarks that you made, and obviously I'll be having some further discussions with colleagues about this particular issue. But in terms of your request for a statement on dementia, I think the health Minister will have heard that particular request, and I'm sure that he'll be keen to share what the Welsh Government has been doing to support people with dementia through what's been an incredibly difficult time, and potentially especially more so for people who are living with dementia and their families. So, I will liaise with the health Minister on that particular issue.
I would like to endorse the request for the statement with regard to the testing of our social care workers and domiciliary care providers providing care in the community, in other words in their own homes. Last month, after several weeks of the care home testing debacle here in Wales, I asked the health Minister as to what steps they were taking to test those going into vulnerable people's homes. He agreed with my concerns and actually acknowledged that the WLGA have raised issues also. I've heard nothing since. So, I would like to endorse Leanne Wood's comments: can we have a detailed statement? I want to be advised of how many of those delivering care to our most vulnerable in their own homes have actually yet received a COVID-19 test. Thank you.
Again, I just would refer you to the answer that I gave to Leanne Wood in relation to the new testing strategy. But also, I will be sure after this session today to have that conversation with the health Minister with regard to the concerns that both you and Leanne Wood have raised regarding people who are working in the social care sector but are doing it within people's homes, so providing domiciliary care and other forms of support within the community.
I'd like a statement on the testing of the nuclear mud from Hinkley Point nuclear power station, or the lack of it, really. We heard last week that an expert panel had been set up without a process of public application. I'm really concerned that some key experts in nuclear physics—scientists—have been left out of that group, which is a concern. But the very simple statement I want is, simply, if scientists are saying that the mud is contaminated with plutonium—they say they're convinced it's contaminated—why on earth isn't the Government insisting on the mud being tested for plutonium? It beggars belief. A very simple statement.
Could I ask you to write to the Minister with that concern and with your suggestions of people who might have something useful to contribute to this debate?
I would like a statement about the new street layouts being introduced across Wales to support social distancing and rightly revitalising our town centres and helping us to socialise once again. But many of those layouts will present challenges to people with sight loss and they should, in my opinion, be equality impact assessed to ensure that they don't exclude the most vulnerable of people. The Royal National Institute of Blind People has proposed a coronavirus code of courtesy, and that, indeed, would help us all to develop mutual respect, to share spaces safely in what will now become the new normal. They and other charities are calling for the Welsh Government to raise public awareness of the challenge that social distancing will pose for disabled people.
I want to also, at the same time, thank all those people in local authority areas who've worked so hard to reorganise the streets in, very often, their own time, and the charities that have been involved in giving that advice. But what's imperative here is that the Government gives a clear statement about the respect agenda for all.
I thank Joyce Watson for raising that and I agree completely with everything that she has said. The RNIB work, for example, is really important in terms of ensuring that, when we consider how we refocus the public realm, we do so in a way that is inclusive and doesn't cause unnecessary and additional trouble for people who are disabled, whether it be through visual impairment or other ways in which people become disabled, by the society that is around them. I think it really reminds us, doesn't it, of the importance of the social model of disability and the importance of adapting our society to ensure that everybody can play their part and do so in an inclusive way.
I know that the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip has taken a particular interest in this in terms of the advice that she is receiving and seeking from the equality sector, which can help ensure that, when we do adapt to the new normal, it's a new normal that is inclusive.
I thank the Trefnydd.
The next item is questions to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, and the first question is from Delyth Jewell.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s plans for future improvements to the M4 around the Brynglas Tunnels area? OQ55468
Yes, of course. We've accepted the first round of recommendations from the South East Wales Transport Commission and we're now undertaking the relevant statutory procedures to implement them. We also look forward to receiving further recommendations from the commission this year.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I'm sure that the residents of Newport will be pleased to see further progress in this area, and a proposal that will alleviate the congestion in the area while at the same time respecting the Senedd's commitment to reducing our carbon output.
Now, Minister, last week, Boris Johnson said that his UK Government intends to allow a bypass to be built over the Gwent levels. The decision about the bypass is a devolved matter and the Welsh Government, as you will know, took the decision last year that it would not be built on cost and environment grounds, following years of debate in this Senedd Chamber. It's perfectly clear to me that the UK Government would not be able to change this decision without introducing legislation in Westminster, overturning the relevant sections of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Could you tell me, Minister, what is the Welsh Government's analysis of the Prime Minister's threat? Do you think that he is serious about dismantling devolution, or is it your view that he was simply speaking off the cuff, displaying his famed ignorance one again? And can you give me an assurance that, were the UK Government to attempt to do this, the Welsh Government would be ready and willing to take the UK Government to the Supreme Court to prevent them from overturning Welsh democracy through diktat?
Well, I can assure the Member of the latter and I feel that it was nothing more than a political stunt. If the Prime Minister really does have £2 billion to spend on Welsh infrastructure, then he's welcome to do so and to do so swiftly; spending that money on rail infrastructure in the south, in mid Wales and in north Wales, making sure that we see electrified main lines, making sure that we see enhanced rail services to places like Ebbw Vale and Maesteg, and making sure that we see an improvement on the Wrexham to Bidston line. If he has £2 billion to spend in Wales, he can send it here to Cardiff Bay and we will spend it across the whole of Wales.
Transport Minister, can you hear me?
Carry on. We can hear you.
Okay, good. Thank you. Sorry, Llywydd. Transport Minister, I agreed with Paul Davies earlier that Welsh businesses of all sizes, now more than ever post lockdown, need all the support that they can get from this Welsh Government. I strongly believe that decent transport infrastructure is key to revive an economy. Therefore, to revive our economy in south Wales, do you not agree that unclogging the main artery into south Wales and delivering on an M4 relief road would provide the much needed lifeblood to our Welsh businesses and tourism that it so desperately needs?
Our British Prime Minister did recognise the real need for the relief road. Your Welsh Labour MP for Newport West recognises the need for it. It was in your own Labour manifesto to deliver it. Our UK Prime Minister's even offered financial assistance to you to build it as it's been that necessary for our economy. Yes, it's a devolved decision, but isn't it time that maybe, just maybe, you actually deliver on your very own manifesto commitment that will encourage businesses to invest here, this side of the border, and would finally open up south Wales for business?
Well, can I thank Laura Anne Jones for her question and welcome her to the Senedd? It's a pleasure to see her and to accept her first question regarding transport. I can assure the Member that we are awaiting the cheque from the Prime Minister—that £2 billion. When we receive it, we will spend it on transport infrastructure, making good the historic underinvestment, in particular on rail infrastructure, which is the direct responsibility of the Prime Minister, and I would invite the Prime Minister to, in a very humble way, accept that historic underfunding of rail infrastructure.
Now, in terms of the M4, I don't think a single Member in this Chamber would disagree with what you said about the need to ensure that congestion is addressed, and that's why we are taking forward the initial recommendations of the commission. I'd like to place on record, Llywydd, my thanks to Lord Burns for leading this important piece of work. Work is beginning, in the autumn, on the average speed control mechanisms along the M4 between junctions 24 and 28. Work has already begun on the recommendation that concerns additional lane guidance, and we have already recruited the additional traffic officers. Their new vehicles will be delivered in August.
While many people across Wales and Westminster have their view on the Brynglas tunnels, it's my constituents who live with the pollution and congestion. Local traffic is not the main cause of this, but it's the people of Newport who are the ones who bear the brunt. Can the Minister ensure that when the south-east Wales transport commission produces its much-anticipated final report later this year, the Welsh Government will act on the findings to resolve this long-standing issue once and for all?
Can I thank Jayne Bryant for her question? First of all, in terms of air quality, it's a fact that air pollution is the largest environmental threat to public health in Newport and, indeed, beyond, and we'll be publishing our clean air plan for Wales very soon. The south-east Wales transport commission will be publishing their next report tomorrow, and I'm looking forward to reading that report, and we're also eagerly awaiting the final report later this year. I can assure the Member that we look forward to acting on appropriate recommendations that are contained within that report to alleviate congestion in and around Newport.
2. What support is the Welsh Government offering to apprentices and those taking part in work-based learning whose placements have been affected by COVID-19? OQ55451
Well, can I thank Suzy Davies for her question and say that apprenticeship providers have been supported throughout the March to July period on the basis of average payments? Providers have developed, I'm pleased to say, online learning modules to ensure apprentices are able to continue to progress through their learning. We've also worked with learning providers and stakeholders to develop a published COVID-19 resilience plan for the post-16 sector.
Thank you for that answer. I notice you didn't mention new apprentices particularly, because they are going to be necessary to help the economy of Wales recover. But, as you say, we need to keep in mind our existing apprentices. I don't know what the position is in Wales at the moment. Are we looking at half our construction apprentices being furloughed, for example, as they are in England? How is the Welsh Government ensuring that existing apprentices are able to complete their apprenticeships rather than face redundancy? Perhaps some detail on that would be great. And how are they helping employers retain that talent on completion? Specifically, what are you doing to make sure that apprenticeships aren't going to be more inflexible than they currently are?
Well, we're doing all we can to ensure that apprentices continue through their frameworks, even in these incredibly difficult times, and, if I can use one example, I'd point to Airbus, where we've been able to ensure that the apprenticeship scheme continues as planned, although, of course, start dates have been staggered due to reduced class sizes. But, we're also looking at a funding package to extend the training of year 3.
Now, in terms of redundant apprentices, providers should use their best endeavours to ensure that they find alternative employment for apprentices who are made redundant. We'll be monitoring, as you can imagine, and analysing data regarding apprenticeship redundancies, and we will consider any interventions and support that are required. The Member will be aware that I announced an additional £40 million from the economic resilience fund to help support people in terms of training, employability, and, of course, we'll be looking to that fund to support redundant apprentices in finding new opportunities to complete their training. I can assure the Member that we remain on target to create 100,000 all-age, high-quality apprenticeships during this Assembly term, and that is a pledge that we are proud to be able to commit to.
Minister, can I thank you personally for your involvement and this Welsh Labour Government's involvement, because you've both been big supporters of the apprenticeship scheme? I know from experience how valued they are. You're right—it is now more important than ever before that we continue to support companies within north-east Wales to continue to provide apprenticeships and further training opportunities to keep as many skills in our region as possible. What financial support can you offer to make this happen?
Can I thank Jack Sargeant for his question and restate my commitment to the apprenticeship programme? I'm pleased to say that we have one of the highest success rates anywhere in Europe concerning our apprenticeship provision in terms of apprentices going on to secure sustainable employment. That demonstrates the value of our system. We have not watered down or devalued the apprenticeship programme in Wales. Now, obviously, there will be many pressures on budgets as restrictions are lifted due to the Welsh Government's action in combating COVID-19, but we'll focus our apprenticeship investment in those areas of the economy that will best support the recovery. Officials are currently considering further measures to aid recovery and to support apprentices.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.
Diolch, Llywydd. My concern, Minister, is that Wales is unfortunately heading for a deeper recession. I certainly think we need to have trust in our businesses when it comes to implementing safe social distancing and reopening their premises to get the economy moving again. I wonder if you could let me know what assessment has been produced in regard to the slower approach of reopening the economy that the Welsh Government has overseen.
I'd like to thank the Member for his question, and if I can just say, first of all, that our more cautious approach in Wales has led to, as the First Minister has recently said, a positivity rate of just 0.25 per cent for all of those tests that are currently taking place. Compare that to Blackburn, where the rate is 7 per cent, 28 times higher. I'd ask any business in Wales, 'Would you prefer to be operating right now here or in Blackburn?' Our cautious approach is designed to prevent dangerous, damaging spikes and a second wave. That's why we've been cautious, that's why we have ensured that the long-term interests of the economy and businesses—the 260,000 businesses within Wales—are at the heart of our decision-making process.
I thank you for your answer, Minister. Of course, this is not only about protecting public health, but it's also about protecting people's lives and livelihoods as well. In my inbox, you will find it's currently bursting with people telling me how regrettable it is that UK hasn't moved with the same approach across the UK, and this has caused, sadly, some unnecessary confusion that has put Welsh businesses at a disadvantage. Last week, the First Minister announced that indoor tourist attractions can open, but there doesn't seem to be much clarity on what can open and what needs to stay shut. So, I would be grateful if you could provide some clarity on that area today. In my view, there's absolutely no reason why a business shouldn't be able to reopen immediately, providing they do so with social distancing regulations and hygiene guidance in place.
It's also taken the Welsh Government over a week to make any announcement in regard to supporting the housing market by removing the burden of land transaction tax, but the announcement is nowhere near as generous as the UK Government has outlined for properties across the border. Minister, can you and the Finance Minister commit today to looking seriously at the tax levers that you have responsibility for, and lower or abolish any tax that stifles aspiration and, in doing that, give the economy a boost that it needs with immediate effect?
Can I thank Russell George for those questions? First of all, as to the tax level before we decided to increase the threshold, the threshold was the highest in any part of the UK, benefiting thousands of people who were purchasing properties who would not receive the same sort of support across the border in England or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The decision that was announced by the business Minister and finance Minister yesterday will enable us to build thousands of additional social houses, enabling people who are currently homeless to have a roof over their head, and it's absolutely right that we do all we can as we build back better to create a more equal economy and a more equal society. We make no apologies for the decisions we are taking to empower and enable people to strive to be as good as they possibly can be in terms of their employment prospects.
Now, I can say to the Member that, contained within the wales.gov pages on coronavirus regulations is a comprehensive frequently asked questions section, and that provides all of the detail that might be necessary to businesses that are contacting, I know, not just Russell George, but many other Members, asking for answers in regard to those regulations. I would point every Member to those frequently asked questions pages.
We plan and then announce policy in Wales. We don't announce what we intend to do and then try to plan afterwards. We do not wish to play policy swingball in Wales, creating uncertainty, as has been created in England. When we make an announcement, we wish to stick to it.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. I wonder if you could commit to a date when the remainder of the economy can reopen. My question would be why stick so rigidly to the three-week reviews. If it's right to make a change now, then do it now. When announcements are made, I would appreciate it if clarity could be attached to those announcements. For example, I mentioned indoor tourist attractions. Andrew R.T. Davies in his comment today on the business statement mentioned wedding venues, an issue also raised with me. There doesn't seem to be that clear guidance available. I appreciate, Minister, you've pointed us to the frequently asked questions document on the Welsh Government's website. I often use that, and that's appreciated and that's helpful, but it doesn't always give—often it doesn't give—the clarity that businesses need. Ultimately, I would like announcements to be made with clear guidance attached to them so that my inbox isn't full, and social media isn't full, of those questions that follow. I appreciate you may say you've spoken to the industry, Minister, in putting guidance forward, but not all businesses are members of associations and trade bodies. So, announcements do need to be made with guidance attached and also communicated well to those particular sectors.
Can I thank the Member and assure him that there are dozens of guidance documents now available on the Government website? They are available for different types of workplaces. They are available for employers as well as for citizens, particularly for passengers on public transport. We've attempted to make the guidance as clear and as comprehensive as possible, and it is fully accessible to anybody wishing to seek guidance, whether they operate a business or whether they are accessing one.
The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, you will be aware that there are hospitality businesses who at present do not have access to outdoor spaces to operate, and you'll also be aware of the steps that are being taken by local authorities to open up our public spaces to enable more businesses to trade outside, predominantly hospitality businesses. It is, of course, possible to do that in the short term by using exemptions to regulations that local authorities can use themselves, but the Minister will be aware that there is a very complex pattern of regulations, planning and highways issues that local authorities need to take into account if they wish to open those public spaces for businesses to trade longer term. Taking into account the points made earlier about the need to do that in a way that enables disabled citizens to be able to move about freely, will the Minister work with colleagues to consider using Welsh Government's emergency legislative powers to suspend some of that pattern of regulation, and to make it easier for local authorities, if they wish to do so, to permit hospitality and other businesses to trade outdoors longer term?
Yes, I'll commit to doing just that. We wish to ensure that local authorities can make timely decisions and make appropriate changes to the public realm to enable businesses to operate in a viable way, even during these incredibly difficult times. And I can assure the Member that we hope to be able to enable businesses within the hospitality sector to open indoors from 3 August, provided we still have coronavirus under full control.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his answer. I think that he would agree with me that those outdoor spaces will continue to be useful to businesses, though; because of social distancing, they will be able to serve fewer customers indoors and that has an effect on their profit.
If I may turn now to the matter of those businesses that have not yet been able to receive support either from the Welsh Government or the UK Government, taking into account the point the Minister has made in the past that it may not be possible to help everyone. He will be aware that the start-up bursary fund has been very well received and subscribed to. The Minister in the past has made reference to the possibility of a hardship fund for those businesses—relatively small numbers, hopefully—that simply haven't been able to be helped elsewhere. But there seems to be some confusion now about whether he still intends to do that.
So, can I ask the Minister today whether the possibility of a hardship fund is still under consideration for that relatively small number of businesses who haven't yet been able to secure help? I'm sure that he would agree with me that while those businesses may not be hugely significant in terms of the economy overall, they are very significant to the business owners and the people who work in them, and the communities in which they operate.
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones and say that we are certainly open to considering a hardship fund? It will be dependent on our assessment of the economic resilience fund, the latest phase of that particular intervention, but also it will be dependent on the UK Government's response to the UK Treasury select committee's recommendations, which concern the gaps that have been exposed through UK Government support. And we'll also be assessing the self-employment support scheme, because it does appear that many of those individuals that are being pointed to Welsh Government for advice are actually eligible for the self-employment support scheme.
Data just published today at 9.30 a.m. shows that 16 per cent of people who are eligible for the self-employment support scheme in Wales have not yet made an application. That amounts to tens of thousands of self-employed people who, I fear, perhaps are not aware that they are eligible for that important support scheme and instead are looking, first and foremost, to Welsh Government. But we have always been clear that the economic resilience fund is designed to complement, not duplicate, UK Government interventions. So, I would urge anybody who is self-employed to look first and foremost at the self-employment support scheme, and to apply as soon as possible, because we estimate that there could be around 30,000 people who are yet to benefit from that scheme.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his answer, and I trust that Business Wales is providing that advice to self-employed people who contact them. I know efforts are being made to make the contact with businesses as simple as possible, but it can still be daunting. The Minister in his answer refers to the role of the UK Government in supporting business to deal with this crisis, and I think although there are faults with the schemes, we've all been grateful for those. But does the Minister share my frustration with the situation as it stands that the Welsh Government has to depend so much on the UK Government to respond appropriately to the needs of our businesses and our communities? Does the Minister ever look at the kind of fiscal autonomy that is enjoyed by some independent nations that would enable him and his ministerial colleagues to borrow and spend in ways that best suit our communities, rather than having to depend on a larger neighbour at the other end of the M4, who does not always fully understand the impact of their actions on our communities, and may not always share the priorities of this Welsh Government, this Parliament and this nation?
Well, I'd agree with the Member entirely, and the finance Minister has spoken on numerous occasions now about how we would be able to potentially do more if we had additional powers over borrowing and greater scope to intervene. I think what coronavirus has demonstrated is that the Welsh Government, even with its limited financial resources, has been able to make a huge difference to businesses. We estimate that something in the order of 34 per cent of businesses in Wales have sought support from Welsh Government or UK Government. The comparison with England speaks volumes; the figure across the border is just 14 per cent. That demonstrates the role that this Welsh Government has had in successfully hibernating businesses during the worst of coronavirus, and saving tens upon tens of thousands of jobs.
The Brexit Party spokesperson is not present, and therefore I'll move on to question 3—Mark Isherwood.
3. How is the Welsh Government supporting businesses in North Wales to reopen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic? OQ55446
We're doing everything possible to support businesses as they gradually reopen. We're providing comprehensive advice, guidance and support through our Business Wales service and the Welsh Government website. We've also supported almost 2,000 north Wales businesses through the first round of our economic resilience fund, totalling more than £33 million.
Wedding businesspeople tell me time is very quickly running out for wedding venues and the wedding industry as a whole. In a survey of Welsh wedding venues, 86 per cent said that clarity and a roadmap or timetable was of utmost importance to the survival of their business. Virtually every other sector has been given permission to open up, and large indoor wedding celebrations are allowed throughout most of Europe, and now even Northern Ireland. They said that without an announcement very quickly the situation for many venues will be irrecoverable. They said, 'I find the apparent lack of interest in the wedding industry in Wales absolutely extraordinary' and they said, 'We just don't have the time left to talk endlessly with no result.' There are so many jobs and businesses on the line, and yet with the correct management and messaging, they could all so easily be saved. How do you respond to them?
I'd say to the Member that we are acutely aware of the difficulties facing wedding venues, and I'd refer the Member to comments made by the finance Minister, the business Minister, just earlier. But I would also say to the Member that, as a direct result of having a Welsh Government, and having a Wales-only economic resilience fund, tens of millions of pounds—approximately £55 million, to be accurate—has been applied for by businesses in north Wales. In terms of hospitality businesses, more than £5.5 million has been awarded to hundreds of businesses in north Wales that simply would not have been able to get that support if they existed in England. We are going above and beyond what the UK Government is doing in England.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the safety of staff on public transport? OQ55465
[Inaudible.]—to scale up public transport, Llywydd, the safety and well-being of all staff and passengers remains our priority. On 8 July, we updated our guidance for operators, helping them to understand how to provide safer workplaces and services for workers and passengers.
Thank you, Minister. I was very pleased to hear the announcement from the First Minister on Monday that face coverings will become compulsory on public transport from the end of July. I hope that we will extend that to shop workers as soon as possible, personally. It was a very welcome announcement, it was something I'd asked for, it was something trade unions like Unite the Union had campaigned hard for. But of course we recognise too that it is not a silver bullet on its own, and that it is vital that measures like hand washing et cetera go along with the wearing of those face coverings. What steps will the Government take to ensure that there is a really clear understanding of the public in relation to not just wearing face coverings but the importance of taking other steps to protect themselves and other Welsh citizens? Thank you.
Well, thank you for that. I acknowledge that Lynne Neagle has been calling for this move for some time, but as the First Minister has set out in some detail earlier, these are difficult judgments and nuanced judgments with a balance of risks. We've been liaising closely with the trade unions, with the operators and with equality groups to work through the detail of this and how to make it operational, because as buses become more heavily used, it's going to be impossible to keep the 2m guidance being observed on buses. So, we're then looking to put in place a series of mitigation measures, including engineering changes, hand washing, sanitiser availability and so on, as well as face coverings. The face coverings alone, as Lynne Neagle acknowledges, is not a silver bullet, as she puts it. So, we've been working hard with the operators to make sure that awareness is raised about the package of things that need to be done to keep people as safe as we can.
Minister, we've known for a long time that the risks associated with air travel are lower, because of the air filtering systems that planes are fitted with, and it looks now as though that sort of technology might be more widely available for other transport. Own Buses in Warrington is thought to be the first bus company in the world to install air cleaning devices across its entire fleet in order to protect its drivers from the risk of airborne transmission of COVID-19. Eighty-six AirBubbl air cleaning devices have been fitted, which filter more than 95 per cent of airborne viruses and contaminated particulates out of the air. It strikes me, Minister, that this is the sort of innovation that would help with dealing with the current pandemic, but is also a good innovation, moving forward, for its own sake anyway. So, is this the sort of technology that perhaps the Welsh Government could look at encouraging buses and perhaps other forms of public transport to adopt moving forward, to make sure that, yes, staff and drivers are protected, but also that it's as clean an environment as possible for the passengers on public transport?
Well, certainly we're interested in innovations and we'll be keen to look in detail at this example, and there are more low-tech innovations closer to home that have been developed. Edwards Coaches, for example, have been experimenting with plastic shields on their buses to try and get more passengers safely on them. And we're looking at all of these. As ever, the economics of the bus industry is challenging for these kinds of investments and we've been struggling with the operators to find a way to allow them to ramp up services with existing vehicles, given how fragile their business model is, how dependent they are on public subsidy, and how to balance the extra investment needed to put these measures in with their ability to trade as businesses.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the development of a Swansea Bay and western valleys metro? OQ55452
The Deputy Minister to respond.
Yes, indeed. We have been funding Swansea Council, Llywydd, to develop, with the region, a package of proposals to develop a south Wales metro. We have funded that to the tune of some £2 million in the last few years, and we're now looking to accelerate that by involving Transport for Wales to take forward the next stage.
Minister, development of a metro in Swansea bay and the western Valleys is vital in terms of reducing travel times and congestion in and around Swansea, and in terms of generating economic development in our Valleys communities. However, despite funding for a feasibility study being agreed in 2017, we have received very little in the way of Welsh Government updates on this scheme. Can you outline when you expect the feasibility study to be made public, and when you expect to make a decision on the scheme? And do you agree that it is important that light rail options in areas such as the Swansea and Amman valleys should form part of that feasibility work?
Well, I share the Member's interest in getting this proposal accelerated. I've had a long interest in developing a Swansea bay metro and I am frustrated at the progress to date. It's one the reasons why we've asked Transport for Wales, as part of the remit letter, to take a role in developing these proposals forward. There has, as I say, been work going on within the region by the local authorities themselves, and they have developed an initial package of measures, including new long-distance and local metro rail services along the currently under-utilised Swansea district line, which would offer reduced journey times from west Wales to Swansea and Cardiff and across the border.
The new metro service would, via new rail infrastructure and a number of new stations and strategic park-and-ride sites, connect Swansea, Neath and Llanelli together better. We're also, as part of it, looking at enhancing the expanding bus services in the Swansea bay region. And I agree with Dai Lloyd that that also needs to include light rail. Clearly, the Swansea bay context is different from the central Valleys metro context, where there already is far greater rail coverage and infrastructure. And to make a metro meaningful as a turn-up-and-go service in the south-west would need to go beyond looking at heavy rail, and a mixture of light rail, bus rapid transport, active travel and bus prioritisation measures.
The impetus for the Swansea bay metro came from repeated calls in this Chamber for a transport system underpinning the city deal, and I'm pleased now that Transport for Wales is working with Welsh Government and local authorities to develop plans, particularly for that faster service to the west and south Wales.
I've made the case before that a parkway would certainly support that later aim as well as improve the opportunities for active travel and the type of rail that Dai Lloyd was talking about. I accept that this is a devolved matter, but finance from the UK Government is on the table for a parkway, so wouldn't it be sensible for Transport for Wales and the other partners to include the UK Government in—[Inaudible.]—because they are partners in the city deal, after all, rather than, perhaps, just present them with a bill at the end or claim lack of investment?
Well, I think, seeing a parkway at Felindre as an active travel measure is a bit of a stretch, Llywydd, but, certainly, as part of a broader network, it would have a benefit, and we've said that all along. What we don't want is to create a piece of infrastructure that is not linked in to a broader network. And certainly, Alun Cairns, when he was Welsh Secretary, was very keen in playing political games, in trying to present this as an attractive option, but, of course, without any of the thinking about how the services should be run. It's one thing providing funding for infrastructure, but unless you've got trains to run on it, it's pretty meaningless, and unless it links into Swansea city centre rather than bypassing the city centre and the other onward journeys, it would also make very little sense.
Now, I agree with Suzy Davies—as part of moving the conversation in the region from a city deal back to a city region, so it takes a more coherent approach rather than simply administrating a grant-funding pot, then transport does need to form of that vision. And I met, along with David T.C. Davies, the main representatives of the city deal last week.
The way the city deal has been set up by the UK Government is different from the way that the Cardiff city deal has been set up. It's about administrating a series of projects rather than taking a broader, pooled approach, which the Cardiff one has a greater flexibility for. So, we'd certainly be interested in a conversation about changing that if there was an appetite to do it. But, again, I emphasise, let's not overly focus on the city deal—that's a grant-funding mechanism—let's focus on the city region. Let's not just focus on Felindre as a park-and-ride, let's focus on a coherent, integrated network that links up all the pieces, rather than a nice little press release for one constituency the Conservative are hoping to target.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for alleviating road and rail congestion in Pencoed? OQ55440
Yes, of course. We've previously awarded Bridgend council £300,000 in local transport grants to appraise options in Pencoed. This scheme would contribute greatly towards alleviating road and rail congestion in Pencoed and in the surrounding areas.
I thank the Minister for that response and for the continuing Welsh Government support and interest within this project. He'll be pleased to know that the meetings, chaired by myself and Chris Elmore MP, which bring together Network Rail, TfW, Bridgend County Borough Council, Welsh Government interest, but also the local town council, who have been a major champion of this, and along with an observer from the Secretary of State's office as well—. The secret of this is bringing all those parties together to unlock the split that currently goes right through the centre of Pencoed as a town and stymies both social and economic development.
So, in raising this question, I'm seeking the continued support of Welsh Government, who've helped to drive this forward with the feasibility study. And at the last meeting, the Minister will be pleased to know that we saw the second phase of that initial study completed, and it's pointing us in the right direction, but we will never get this done unless we also have Department for Transport and UK Government funded into it as well. So, will he also add his shoulder to that in his discussions with the Secretary of State for Wales and UK Ministers?
Well, most certainly I will, and I'd like to thank Huw again for the question about this important project, which could make a huge difference in terms of connectivity and speedy transportation between communities in and around his constituency. We're continuing to engage, as I know the Member is aware, with Network Rail on taking forward this scheme. We've encouraged Network Rail to include the project on the list of proposals for funding under the Network Rail DfT light scheme. We've allocated funding, I'm pleased to be able to say, totalling more than £5 million in this financial year for the metro plus schemes, and I understand that Bridgend council will be progressing work through this funding opportunity. But as the Member has stated, rail infrastructure outside of the core Valleys lines is not devolved and still remains the responsibility of UK Government. So, it's absolutely vital that the UK Government invests in this area as it attempts to level up. Removing the level crossing at Pencoed would make a very significant difference indeed.
7. In light of COVID-19, will the Minister make a statement on the impact of social-distancing guidelines on businesses in South Wales Central? OQ55442
Well, whilst we recognise that the coronavirus pandemic is both a public health and an economic emergency, public health comes first. The worst thing that could happen to the economy is a second spike, which is why any rational approach has to be cautious. We'll consult with businesses and with trade unions to ensure that our approach is proportionate and fair to businesses and to workers.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. I appreciate public health needs to always come first and people's well-being safeguarded, but many businesses have come to me pointing out other countries' experiences and the World Health Organization's advice that 1m is an acceptable social distance. Here in Wales, we have 2m. What discussions within Government have now being undertaken to see where the line should be drawn, because businesses that are reopening are investing heavily in a 2m rule and obviously would have to reinvest if that was to change in the immediate future?
And that's precisely what happened across the border, and we would not wish to see businesses waste valuable resources on installing physical barriers, guides and signs that are not necessarily going to be in place for a significant period of time. The regulations are, of course, continuously under review in Wales, but it is absolutely clear that 2m of social distancing provides for better protection that 1m, and so, wherever possible, 2m must be adhered to.
Now, of course, we've already made the statement concerning public transport and I'd say that our cautious approach has been supported by funding to enable businesses to get through the worst of coronavirus, including the economic resilience fund, valued at £0.5 billion. If that had been a UK-wide scheme operated by the UK Government, it would have to have been a £10 billion fund to operate in the same way as the ERF.
8. What measures are being taken to support public transport in Wales during the coronavirus pandemic? OQ55448
We've put in place significant packages of financial support for bus and rail operators, as well as funding local authorities to introduce measures to improve safety and conditions for sustainable and active modes.
Deputy Minister, as I understand it, since the ending of the bus hardship fund, the bus emergency scheme is giving a revenue source to bus operators who obviously are dealing with vastly reduced passenger numbers at the moment, both because of the safety requirements, but also the lack of demand for bus services at the moment. But they are vital services for the long-term health of the economy and also for more active forms of travel and less congestion. So, what is the longer term plan to sustain our bus networks?
I think David Melding rightly identifies the difficulty we face here. The amount of public funding going into bus operators has not reduced. What obviously has reduced, as passengers have stayed away from public transport, is the so-called farebox element of their business model, and that model has come under an immense strain in the face of the coronavirus. Now, we have worked very closely with them and provided significant investment and support in order to keep a core range of services going for key workers, and now we're in the difficult stage where we want to ramp up services, but the social distancing rules restrict the amount of people able to be carried, and obviously there is also suppressed demand because people—and we're seeing this around the world—are more reluctant to use public transport.
We have, as you know, announced flexibility on the number of passengers buses are now allowed to carry, with face masks being recommended and required in order to facilitate that, and we are developing, on a staged basis, our bus emergency scheme with the operators, and we're working with them in exchange for a range of conditions to make sure that we get good value for the money we're putting in and we're able to get some control over the services that are offered and have guarantees around fares and routes. And we look to work with them to flex services, as we see what additional funding we can release.
9. What assessment has the Minister made of the implications for the economy in the south Wales valleys of the UK Chancellor's summer economic update? OQ55458
Whilst the Chancellor's statement included some welcome announcements, it simply does not go far enough to measure up to the scale of the challenges we face. More extensive and far-reaching action is needed to tackle this crisis head on and to build back better.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I think, sadly, history will not look favourably upon the UK Chancellor's recent announcement. I think what our young people were looking for was much-needed investment in their future, and what they ended up with was a half-price pizza. So, would you therefore agree that in places like Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, it's our Welsh Government plans for investment in key infrastructure, like the Heads of the Valleys road and the metro, as well as investing in the skills of our young people and regenerating homes, businesses and town centres, that are the key levers in restoring hope and opportunities to our Valleys communities?
Can I thank Dawn Bowden for her supplementary question, and say that, first and foremost, regarding some of the statements, the consequentials that the Welsh Government will receive do not amount to £500 million, as announced by the Chancellor, but instead to £12.5 million in consequentials? Now, I do welcome the UK Government's decision to reduce value added tax on the hospitality sector. However, the UK Government still needs to put in place sectoral employment protection schemes for important sectors that will have to remain either closed for a longer period of time or that will suffer a significant loss of revenue because of social distancing. Hospitality and tourism clearly is one of those vital sectors that require support, and I'd have to say, in agreement with the Member, that the 'eat out to help out' scheme certainly falls short of the ambitious response that is needed for this particular sector.
In terms of help for young people and other vulnerable groups, we're developing a comprehensive package of support that will allow people to upskill and to find new employment. We're all ready to throw £40 million at that particular programme. And as the Member has highlighted, the Heads of the Valleys scheme is absolutely vital to the long-term prosperity of the region, and I'm pleased to say that I've recently announced a preferred bidder for section 5 and section 6 of the A465, and I expect the project to deliver around £400 million of direct spend in Wales, so a gross value added boost of around £675 million, and I expect to see £170 million of spending with the local supply chain.
In terms of the touted new deal for Britain, I'm afraid that it represents just 0.25 per cent of GDP. The real deal new deal amounted to 5 per cent of GDP—25 times greater. And whilst the new deal led to the creation of national parks, huge housing programmes, railroads, I'm afraid the new deal announced by the Prime Minister will only see a bridge improved in Sandwell.
I thank the Minister.
The next item is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition in respect of his European Transition Minister responsibilities. And the first question is from Mandy Jones.
Presiding Officer, I've been trying to raise a point of order for the last 15 minutes.
Diolch, Llywydd. What—
I've called the question; Mandy Jones to ask the question.
Fine. I've got a point of order to raise, Llywydd. I've been waiting for 15 minutes.
Well, you'll have to stay waiting. I've called the question. Mandy Jones to ask the question to the Counsel General. Mandy Jones.
Diolch, Llywydd. What discussions—
I'd like to raise a point—
1. What discussions has the Counsel General had with members of the UK Government regarding Brexit since his title was changed on 4 March 2020? OQ55462
I take every opportunity to stand up for Wales, despite the lack of meaningful engagement from the UK Government. I have attended several meetings with the Paymaster General and a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) on 21 May, and a further committee meeting is scheduled for tomorrow.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I do find it a matter of regret that all Governments in the UK don't seem to be able to work together in these tumultuous times to ensure parity of treatment of all UK citizens wherever they live, and it is depressing that, despite various forums for discussion and debate, despite reports of committees of the Senedd and a real will for a devo-respectful relationship that is inclusive and collaborative, I've read some of your recent articles and I don't find them either constructive or collaborative. Will you take some responsibility for the lack of mutual respect and a workable relationship, and, while I do appreciate it takes two, what more can you, the Welsh Government, and the Senedd do to change this? Thank you.
Well, I'm not sure what articles the Member is referring to, but I would say that I have consistently tried to engage constructively with the UK Government in relation to each of our engagements in relation to the departure from the European Union and the proposed planned departure from the transition period. It has been the top priority of this Government to make sure that, notwithstanding obvious political differences between the Government here and the Government in London, the task of making sure that Wales's interests are well represented and well taken into account in the decisions taken by the UK Government on behalf of the UK has been the guiding principle throughout. We have sought as a Government consistently, not simply to complain, but to make a constructive case for alternatives at every point. Even in circumstances where the prospects of that being well received and affecting the course of direction in Westminster are limited, we have felt it appropriate and the right thing to do on behalf of the people of Wales to make a reasoned, evidence-based case at every point, and to take every possible opportunity to engage with the UK Government. And it is a matter of frustration because, when engagement does work well, it is very productive. We as a Government wish to see more of that.
Minister, on many occasions before the committee, you've identified the challenges you've faced in actually trying to get the UK Government to come forward with ideas and decisions and to actually work collaboratively with the Welsh Government. Do you therefore join me in regretting the UK Government's approach to this as far as the EU-UK negotiation is concerned, and that there should be more engagement with the Welsh Government, so that collaboration actually works, and not imposition?
Yes, I agree with that. The principle ought to be one of collaboration, and it ought to be one that proceeds on the basis of a parity of esteem and parity of participation across all four Governments in the UK. There may be a hierarchy of Parliament under the constitutional theory of the UK, but there actually isn't a hierarchy of Governments, and Governments should be treated as equals in those discussions.
In relation to the negotiations that he refers to specifically, he will know from our discussions in committee that we are very disappointed about the lack of genuine involvement in that, even in so far as they relate to matters that are devolved. But, again, in that context, we, as a Government, have taken every opportunity, and I've written I think 10 or 11 letters to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in recent weeks, making very clear what our position is in relation to those negotiations. But, actually, those should be the topic of discussions at the JMC(EN), which, if it lived up to its terms of reference, would enable that kind of shared participation to take place—it hasn't yet done that.
2. How is the Welsh Government planning to support the recovery of Welsh towns following the effects of Covid-19? OQ55467
We will have a values-led reconstruction guided by principles of social justice, fair work and environmental sustainability. Towns across Wales will continue to benefit from interventions, building on a range of transforming towns programmes that follow the £90 million further package of support announced in January.
Thank you for that response. One does accept, in the circumstances that we face, that it's inevitable that jobs will be lost. But what we are seeing now, and what I've noticed recently, is that we are seeing companies choosing to close sites in rural or coastal towns—the more peripheral communities—and to centralise jobs where there are headquarters, or where they have a greater presence or footprint. In my region alone, Mail Solutions in Llangollen has announced that they are closing the site there and moving the jobs to Telford. We also have Northwood Hygiene Products in Penygroes, near Caernarfon, which is also relocating posts.
Now, the impact of those job losses on those more peripheral communities is relatively worse, in terms of the impact that it has on those communities. So, I want to ask specifically how your strategy and how your approach to economic recovery in the post-COVID period is going to take particular account of that. What are you doing to encourage and to give reassurance to companies that are moving out of those areas to try and actually keep them there?
I won't repeat what we've already heard in the Chamber today from the First Minister and the Minister for the economy talking about the interventions that we have proposed and offered to date in the context of a swift response to COVID. But the question that the Member poses is also relevant to the long term, as it highlights. I will refer him to the statement from the Deputy Minister Hannah Blythyn, talking about further investments in towns that are in parts of his region, and the Valleys taskforce in south Wales, which is looking at reprofiling some of the investments there to be able to support towns in that part of Wales too.
Work is ongoing, and has been ongoing, to ensure that we have specific responses to the challenges in town centres across Wales—that is, pressure on the retail sector, shops, and small businesses—and there have been a number of interventions focusing on that, in addition to providing advice on how towns can look at their public areas to support businesses to be able to operate in the post-COVID period. That advice has already been announced.
As a report by the Centre for Towns has highlighted, many Welsh coastal towns are facing down both short- and long-term effects from COVID-19. Leaving the EU provides an opportunity to boost our struggling coastal towns—for example, the Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP, Chancellor, is preparing to introduce sweeping tax cuts and an overhaul of planning laws in up to 10 new free ports within a year of the UK becoming fully independent from the EU.
It has been indicated that the UK Government will open the bidding for towns, cities and regions to become free ports in the autumn budget later this year. What steps is the Welsh Government taking in conjunction with the UK Government to help promote coastal towns in north Wales as, indeed, very serious contenders to become free ports after we have left the EU?
Well, I think the benefits of free ports are not as the Member, in her question, provides. The unalloyed advocacy of free ports I think needs to be questioned. However, the Government will look at any opportunity to support coastal communities right across Wales, whether they are port towns or not, and actually some of the funding available from the transforming towns funding will be available to coastal towns.
I do recognise the challenge that the Centre for Towns outlined in relation to the impact, in particular on some of our coastal communities, of COVID. I fear I don't quite have her optimism that Brexit provides the opportunity to resolve those questions. I think there are plenty of risks ahead for towns as a consequence of that, unless the UK Government does what it has said it will do all along, which is make sure that we have an economic settlement leaving the transition period that supports the economy. Actually, its current approach to negotiations doesn't suggest that will be possible, but we hope that it may change its approach in order to support exactly the kind of towns that Janet Finch-Saunders in her question refers to.
Minister, business improvement districts are supporting businesses in our town centres at 16 different locations across Wales, including in Aberdare in my own constituency, where a BID was established early this year. I note the statement made by the Welsh Government on 6 May that it will support BIDs in Wales with their running costs for up to three months. In Aberdare, I know this funding has, for example, helped the BID to provide social-distancing floor stickers and COVID-safe checklist posters free of charge to all businesses within the town centre. Moving forward, in what way do you think that BIDs can help our town centres to bounce back, to build better, and to boost the local and foundational economies in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic?