Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

29/09/2020

Cynnwys

Contents

Statement by the Llywydd
1. Questions to the First Minister
Statement by the Llywydd
2. Business Statement and Announcement
3., 4., 5. & 6. The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No 10) (Rhondda Cynon Taf) Regulations 2020, The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 8) (Caerphilly) Regulations 2020, The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 11) (Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport etc.) Regulations 2020 and The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Functions of Local Authorities etc.) (Wales) Regulations 2020
7. Statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales: The Economic Resilience Fund—Phase 3
8. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government: Town Centres: Securing their future
9. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on Maternity Services and Governance Improvements at Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board
10. Legislative Consent Motion on the Fisheries Bill
11. Legislative Consent Motion on the Agriculture Bill
12. The Representation of the People (Electoral Register Publication Date) (Wales) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020
13. The Land Transaction Tax (Temporary Variation of Rates and Bands for Residential Property Transactions) (Wales) Regulations 2020
14. The Curriculum Requirements (Amendment of paragraph 7(6) of Schedule 17 to the Coronavirus Act 2020) (Wales) Regulations 2020
15. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Update on Local Coronavirus Restrictions
16. Debate: The National Development Framework
17. Voting Time

In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.

The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:31 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in a hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Siambr, and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equitably. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitute 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 noted on your agenda. And I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Siambr as to those joining virtually.

1. Questions to the First Minister

Questions to the First Minister is our first agenda item, and the first question is from Michelle Brown.

Building Back Greener

1. What plans does Welsh Government have to build back greener after the COVID-19 pandemic? OQ55625

Llywydd, I thank the Member for that question. Across the Welsh Government, we prepare for a green reconstruction post COVID. The actions we are taking will generate a more sustainable and resilient future economy, tackle the climate emergency, and address the decline in biodiversity.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. Your friends at the Trades Union Congress have said this green recovery must be good for the environment, and the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales says that we have a once-in-a-lifetime—

Michelle, can I just stop you there? I think we might have missed the start of your supplementary question. If you can start again.

Okay. Thank you for your answer, First Minister. Your friends at the Trades Union Congress have said that any recovery must benefit the environment and the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales says we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to come up with visionary ideas and transformative investment to address health, the economy, and the ongoing climate and nature crises, for the sake of Wales's long-term future. She says we need a new definition of prosperity based on well-being and a fairer, greener way of living. So, what's one of your imaginative ideas? Build yet another road—the red route—a road that won't preserve nature and the environment, as the TUC, the future generations commissioner and the Welsh people want, but will destroy it. You scrapped the M4 relief road because it would damage the environment in south Wales. So, it's a shame for the people of north Wales that you don't care as much about us, but instead care more about lorry drivers who want to cross into and out of Ireland. Initially, you said it was chosen because it was the cheapest option, but the cost estimate has already risen by £20 million. We need every penny we have to be spent on recovery projects. When will the Government stop the rhetoric and put the money towards projects that will help our recovery, and do so in a way that does not destroy forever ancient woodlands and farmland?

Well, Llywydd, I have with me here, as Members can see, the stakeholder briefing that was distributed to Members and others about the plans for development of the Flintshire corridor scheme. In case the Member hasn't had an opportunity to see that document, let me just assure her that it makes it clear that the stage we are at with the red route is a preliminary design process, which will look at all the environmental and engineering issues raised during consultation in more detail. The preferred route will be developed further as a result of that consideration, including environmental, traffic and economic appraisals, and, as the stakeholder briefing makes clear, all of that will be designed to minimise the impact of the improvements—the very necessary improvements—on local residents, the landscape, air quality and biodiversity. So, I don't dismiss for a moment the concerns that the Member has raised. They're right and proper ones, but the process that we are embarked upon is designed exactly to explore with local people and with local stakeholders the issues the Member raises and to resolve them in a way that takes account of those important matters. 

13:35

First Minister, obviously if we are to build back and build back greener, it's important that businesses can survive the various stages of either regional or local lockdowns, or indeed national lockdowns. What confidence can you give businesses that they will be there at the end of this coronavirus outbreak, and in particular that, once we do suppress it now—the second time of asking—there's not going to be a third lockdown later in the winter, a fourth lockdown, which will have a massive impact on business and business confidence, as well as on liquidity of those businesses to be there to build back better, build back greener?  

Llywydd, the Member makes two points there. He will welcome, I know, the announcement by my colleague Ken Skates of £60 million to help businesses specifically affected by the local health protection restrictions, and my colleague will be making a statement on the floor of the Senedd later this afternoon and will be able to explain more of the detail of that then. 

The second point that Andrew R.T. Davies makes is about events further into the year. And there, what I want to say is this: that will depend, crucially, on the extent to which Welsh citizens continue to observe all the measures that will make a difference to further spikes in coronavirus in the future. So, the Government will do all the things that we can do. The health service, local authorities, public health organisations, the police—all those organisations that are working so hard to try and protect people and keep Wales safe—will play their part. But, in the end, coronavirus spreads when people meet together in circumstances that they shouldn't, when they travel unnecessarily, when they come into contact with others in ways that could be avoided, and the chances we have of avoiding further spikes and further local restrictions depends crucially on every one of us playing our part. 

Regional Investment

2. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Prime Minister regarding the UK Government's proposals for regional investment in Wales? OQ55600

Well, Llywydd, no discussions have been offered by the Prime Minister on this matter. We discuss our plans with other UK Government Ministers, but progress remains slow, despite only three months remaining until EU funding enters its final phase. 

Well, First Minister, I'm disappointed to find that no discussions have gone on at that very top level of Government, but I don't put it at your door whatsoever. In Wales, with our established reserved-powers model of devolution and the spending priorities flowing from clear, legally constituted policy framework underpinned by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, we can argue in the Senedd over the social and economic and environmental priorities, our success and failures, in an open and accountable and democratic way, and we do. But, I have a worry, First Minister. In England, prior to the last general election, we now know that nine out of 10 of the top beneficiaries of increased education spend were Conservative marginal seats in affluent areas. And the National Audit Office has revealed that some of the most deprived parts of England were left out of a £3.6 billion scheme to regenerate town centres. Sixty-one of those towns were chosen by Ministers led by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick. All but one were Tory-held seats or targets. 

So, First Minister, do you share my worries that, in the absence of clarity on the UK shared prosperity fund, the absence of engagement by the Prime Minister and the absence of a UK policy framework, there is a clear and present danger that Mr Johnson may be persuaded by those with—[Inaudible.]—and lack of understanding of devolution to view replacement EU funds as an opportunity for party political gerrymandering in Wales? 

Well, Llywydd, I think Huw Irranca-Davies makes a very important point, and he does so with all the authority of someone who has chaired our regional investment steering group, who chairs the European structural funds monitoring committee and chairs our European advisory group. So, the things that he says to the Senedd come with all the authority and the information that he has been able to draw together in those very important jobs.

Now, the plans for future investment in Wales that he has drawn up with those colleagues, a made-in-Wales arrangement reflecting international best practice, meeting the specific needs of different sectors and parts of Wales with greater delegation of decision making to regions, that is an approach that has been endorsed not simply by the Senedd, but by the all-party parliamentary group chaired by our colleague Stephen Kinnock at Westminster, the Welsh Local Government Association, Universities Wales, the Financial Standards Authority, the Confederation of British Industry, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and independent think tanks like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The danger is now that, in pursuit of narrow sectional party political advantage, the UK Government is engineering a position where they will take decisions away from the democratically elected Senedd and put them in the hands of an unelected—as far as Wales is concerned—Secretary of State for Wales, and I'm afraid all the warnings that Huw Irranca-Davies has made this afternoon are very likely to turn out to be true unless we can stop those plans in their tracks, and we will be working as hard as we can to achieve exactly that. 

13:40

First Minister, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report into the future of regional development and public investment in Wales found that the labour market links between the communities of mid Wales and south-west Wales weren't particularly very strong. That recommendation is of no surprise to me. The report proceeded to recommend that it would be beneficial to separate mid Wales from south-west Wales to create four distinct economic regions, as opposed to the current three. I wonder what considerations you and the Welsh Government have given to this particular recommendation and the other recommendations for regional investment within the OECD report. 

Llywydd, I thank Russell George for that question. He draws attention to the very important OECD report that we commissioned, as part of, as I said earlier, our determination that regional economic development policy in Wales should be informed by international best practice. The report is being considered by the groups chaired by Huw Irranca-Davies, and that will inform our thinking in the Welsh Government and we will respond in full to the OECD's recommendations. But the point I make more generally, Llywydd, is this: that the report gives us in this Senedd—Members here—the opportunity to bring all their experience and local knowledge to bear on the way that these decisions are made in Wales. The idea that these decisions should be taken away from us and made by a person sitting behind a desk in Whitehall, who will know very, very little about mid Wales, south-west Wales or any other parts that need to benefit from our funding in future, I think poses a real danger to us and would mean that, in future, the sorts of questions that Russell George has very properly raised here this afternoon would no longer be part of our considerations or our decision making.

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Paul Davies. 

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, there's now been a series of important policy statements issued by Welsh Government Ministers to the media instead of this Chamber. Of course, it's vital that Members are given the opportunity to respond to Welsh Government announcements on behalf of the people of Wales. Last week, you chose to make an announcement to the media that affected hundreds of thousands of people right across south Wales. You failed to answer questions on the timings of your statement, and this week you've decided not to even turn up in person. First Minister, that disregard for Welsh democracy is unacceptable, and will you now guarantee that any future decisions will firstly be made in this Chamber so that, in the spirit of openness and transparency, elected Members will have the opportunity to appropriately scrutinise the Welsh Government? 

Llywydd, you said in introducing this afternoon's session that every Member of the Senedd is equally able to participate, whether that is remotely or in person, so I will leave you to deal with the remarks that the leader of the opposition made about where people choose to take part in these proceedings.

I say to people in Wales all the time that they should avoid unnecessary journeys, and I believe that I'm equally able to answer questions in the way that we are doing now as I would be if I were in the Chamber. It is entirely wrong for the Government to ask people in Wales to take action in one direction and then not to behave in the same way ourselves. I think the Member is quite wrong to suggest that somehow, because I'm answering questions in the way that I am, that that is not satisfactory. But that's a point for you, Llywydd, I believe, rather than for me.

As to the other point, it's plainly nonsensical. I answer questions on the floor of this Assembly, I make statements on the floor of this Assembly absolutely regularly. I did so all the way through the recess, when his Government at Westminster wasn't available to answer a single question from any elected representative, and there's nothing at all that this Government has to apologise for or answer for in being available and answerable to the Senedd of Wales.
 

13:45

Well, Llywydd, I'm not going to take any lectures off the First Minister. I put it to you, First Minister, that you can turn up to your Government offices in Cathays Park, but you can't turn up to the heart of Welsh democracy, which is also your place of work. And when it comes to making statements outside this Chamber, I'm afraid you've got a track record as a Government. More than 2 million people across Wales are now living under your Government's restrictions; the very least that you can do is offer their elected representatives a chance to question you on your decision making, and that's why firstly making statements to this Chamber is so important.

Now, there are some very real concerns about the impact of local lockdowns on people who are living alone, and it's vital that the Welsh Government looks at the restrictions with a view to finding some way of allowing single-person households to mix with another person. There has been little recognition of the serious impact that this could have on people's mental health, particularly given that so many single-person households have already had to shield for most of this year. And I know you've said that you're concerned about those elderly people living on their own who, at the moment, are not able to mix with anybody else indoors. Therefore, can you tell us what you’re doing about it, because you’re aware of the Scottish model that allows a single person to form an extended household with one other? Knowing how desperately isolated some people across Wales must be feeling, can you tell us why the Welsh Government hasn't already changed the regulations in relation to single-person households, as I'm sure you'd agree, we have to offer these people hope?

Well, Llywydd, I believe I'm at the heart of Welsh democracy now, and I'm answering the Member's questions, so I continue to fail to see what he thinks he has to complain about.

As for people who live in single-person households, I think that is an important issue. I've been discussing it with leaders of local authorities who are under local restrictions. I've been taking an interest in the Scottish model of doing so. It is being considered as part of the 21-day review that we carry out here in Wales. So, in Wales, we have stuck throughout to the pattern of reviewing our regulations every three weeks. That consideration for single-adult households is part of the current three-week review, which was discussed by Cabinet colleagues this morning. I'm hopeful that we will be able to complete the necessary regulations and the advice that we need to take from the chief medical officer and others in order to complete our consideration of it within the three-week review that culminates this week.

First Minister, as more and more people across Wales are now living under stricter restrictions, it's absolutely essential that the Welsh Government's testing programme is as effective as possible, and that capacity is being used. Last weekend, you told us that, currently in Wales, we’re operating around 2,000 to 3,000 tests a day from Welsh capacity, which is even significantly under the 9,000 tests a day target the Welsh Government initially promised. And yet, a week earlier, you said that an additional 28,000 tests per week could be processed, with further capacity available to manage outbreaks across Wales.

First Minister, it's absolutely vital that the system is capable of responding to spikes in testing that arise from outbreaks, and yet you've made it clear that for Wales to reach its full capacity, it would be difficult on a day-to-day basis. Given that you've invested a further £32 million to speed up turnaround times for coronavirus test results, can you tell us what fundamental changes have been delivered to our laboratory services to increase their capacity and resilience, and what urgent steps are you taking to ensure that all labs in Wales are open and working? And more generally, how confident are you that Wales has a testing system that is capable of supporting our people over the winter months?

13:50

Llywydd, I think if the Member wants to quote me he should try to do so accurately. I said at the weekend that the testing numbers this week would be over 5,000 and that it would rise to 8,000 within the Welsh system very shortly. The real struggle we face in the Welsh system at the moment are the problems faced by the lighthouse labs for which his party are responsible. Now, we've had an assurance from those lighthouse labs that they will be able to increase the service they provide to Wales from the 9,400 tests we currently have to 14,000 by the start of October and 19,000 by the start of November. I hope very much that that will turn out to be true and that the lighthouse labs will be able to return to the level of service that they were providing to Wales some four weeks ago. But if you want to know where the struggle in Wales has been over recent weeks, it has been in the pressure that the lighthouse labs system has come under and the difficulties that his Government at Westminster have experienced in coping with those pressures and putting that system back on track again.

Diolch, Llywydd. Many of us will have been surprised and somewhat alarmed at the scenes from the top of Snowdon over the weekend, with long queues of people attempting to reach the summit with complete disregard, it would appear, for social distancing guidelines, but it raises a wider issue of course. Many of these will have been visitors and there's nothing set out in the guidelines at the moment that stops someone from a COVID hotspot elsewhere in the UK travelling to areas of Wales currently with low community transmission. Why is it the case, First Minister, that you can't travel from Aberafan to Abergavenny, but you can travel from Manchester to Mynytho?

Well, Llywydd, can I begin by agreeing with Adam Price that those were alarming pictures? Let me make a number of points in reply, however. To begin with, it's really important and we've had lots of anxiety over the summer in holiday destinations about people travelling from elsewhere in the United Kingdom and the risk that that might pose to the spread of the virus in those areas. Actually, the evidence has turned out to be much more positive than that and we don't have examples where the virus has got out of control in those holiday areas because it's been imported from elsewhere. So, I think it's very important to be guided by the evidence and the evidence is that that hasn't caused difficulties, and I think that that is a tribute to two things: it is because people have heard our message about, 'Visit Wales safely', and it's a tribute to the efforts that have been made in those communities to welcome people from elsewhere, which is so important to the local economy, while doing it in a way that does not cause a risk to public health.

However, I think the Member makes an important point. In Wales, when we get a hotspot area, we ask people not to travel outside that area other than for certain narrowly specified purposes, and going on holiday is not one of them. I wrote to the Prime Minister yesterday urging him to do the same in England. I don't think it is right for us to institute a set of border controls trying to prevent people from elsewhere visiting Wales: I think that would lead us into all sorts of anomalous and difficult territory. But I do think that as we act to prevent people who live in hotspots in Wales from travelling to England and taking the risk of the virus with them, so the Prime Minister in his capacity as the Prime Minister of England in this case ought to do the same to prevent people from English hotspots from travelling elsewhere in England to Wales or other parts of the United Kingdom because of the risk that that undoubtedly poses. I wrote to him yesterday asking him to do that, urging him to call a COBRA meeting for this week, as the First Minister of Scotland did at the weekend, and I look forward to a reply.

First Minister, the summer has been an extremely anxious time for young people, as you know. As a consequence of the A-level debacle, many were left not knowing if they were going to university at all, let alone which one. Having arrived on campus last week, the worry now will be whether they will be allowed to return home for Christmas. Students like Meg, a first-year law student from Brecon, studying at Bath, need clarity. She says the message from the Government is clearly confusing and could definitely be communicated better, particularly for students who've moved to a different country with different regulations. So, can you answer these specific questions? To what extent is education exempt from rules allowing students to form new households? Can students studying and living in a restricted area in Wales but who live elsewhere return home? Can students studying and living in areas where no restrictions apply travel home, even if home is within an area of local restrictions? And finally, can students studying in one locally restricted area travel to another locally restricted area if this means getting home?

13:55

Llywydd, the rules governing young people in Wales are the same rules as govern everybody else. I am not prepared to single out young people for adverse treatment in the way that is sometimes being suggested. I agree with what Adam Price said in opening that second set of questions, that young people have had a very difficult time during coronavirus, and the Welsh Government with the sector in Wales is working very hard to make sure that even in these most difficult sets of circumstances, young people's welfare goes on being properly safeguarded, that their access to a high-quality education is preserved throughout this term, and that they are not treated any differently to any other Welsh citizen. And the answers to Adam Price's questions are that the rules that would apply to any person in Wales would apply to a young person who is studying as well, and all of that is available to people who need to have answers to those questions, both on the Welsh Government website, but also in the specific advice from different higher education institutions working hard to communicate to people who have arrived to study at them.

On 4 September, First Minister, SAGE warned that there was a significant risk that higher education could amplify local and national transmission of COVID-19. The risk, they said, required national oversight, and once again, they identified testing as critically important. On 15 July, you said, 'Today we can carry out 15,000 tests a day.' On Sunday, you said, '15,000 is not a sustainable day-to-day target.' So as universities have been opening their doors, the testing system is failing, and if the problem is the lighthouse lab network, why did you buy into it and place your trust in it in the way that you did? Now, the advice from SAGE at the beginning of this month was that a co-ordinated outbreak response strategy should urgently be put in place between Government, HE institutions and local public health teams, but it seems currently, First Minister, there is no clear plan to support students, no clear plan to support the higher education sector. Christmas is only 12 weeks away; when can we expect that plan?

Llywydd, that plan exists, and the Member is quite wrong to just spray around accusations that it doesn't exist when it very plainly does, and so very many people are working so hard to make sure that students in Wales are well looked after. He is quite wrong to say that the testing system is failing in Wales. We have over 100,000 students in Wales and about 100 of them have been tested as having a positive case of coronavirus. Of our TTP system, 93 per cent of close contacts continue to be contacted, 94 per cent of positive cases reached—85 per cent of those within 24 hours, 92 per cent within 48 hours. The system in Wales—and indeed the system in Scotland—is standing up to the testing time that we are going through. It's very much unlike what is happening elsewhere.

As far as the lighthouse labs are concerned, I was urged many times on the floor of the Senedd to make sure that Wales took full advantage of the capacity that it would provide to us. It was right that we should do that, and as I said, until a number of weeks ago, the system was serving Wales very well. We want to see that system restored. We want to see it back providing the volume of tests and the timeliness of tests that we know Wales needs. I urge UK Ministers to make sure that they do everything they can to put us in that position, and then we will be very glad indeed, again, to be part of that system, which is providing thousands of tests to Welsh people and is part of the infrastructure that we will all be relying upon as we go further into the autumn and winter. 

14:00

First Minister, when you put Cardiff into local lockdown, and through the force of law required people to work from home if reasonably practicable, did you consider the potential impact of that on our proceedings in the Senedd? Now, if you're correct when you say Members are equally able to participate, whether remotely or in person, doesn't that imply that it is reasonably practicable for Members to work from home? And if Members take a different view, given that is law, may they be receiving a knock on the door from South Wales Police? You said earlier that, 'My colleague will be making a statement on the floor of the Chamber later today'. Can I infer from that that some Ministers will be coming in person to the Chamber, even if you will not yourself? And you haven't said whether you're speaking from a well-appointed hut at the rear of your garden, or whether you're speaking from your office in Cathays Park. If you are speaking from your office, then presumably you've determined it's not reasonably practicable to work from home, so why don't you come to the Chamber? And, overall, when you say people must work from home by law if reasonable practicable, would you ask people to do as you say, or to follow the examples set by our Presiding Officer and the leader of the opposition?

Well, Llywydd, I can assure the Member that when the decision is taken to impose local restrictions in any part of Wales, then all aspects of that decision are carefully considered. It is for individual Members to make a judgment about how they stay within the law. It is reasonably practicable for me to work from my office in Cathays Park, because in order to be able to answer Members' questions, I need the support of staff in the Welsh Government, who help me to make sure that I am as well equipped as I can be to provide answers that Members have a right to expect. So, it is reasonably practicable for me to work from here because I live in Cardiff and need to cross no boundaries to get here. Other Members are bound by the regulations, just as every member of Welsh society in areas where local restrictions are in place, and I think people have an obligation to make sure that they are carefully considering the legal position they are in. I'm on the floor of the Senedd, Llywydd. As you made clear, virtual or physical participation is identical. I'm on the floor of the Senedd now answering questions. My colleague Ken Skates will answer questions remotely, and he will be on the floor as well. 

First Minister, you say you're working from your office because it's reasonably practicable to do so, but isn't the law that you must work from home if it is reasonably practicable to do so? And given it's equally possible to participate remotely and physically, would not that be the case? Yet you choose not to come to the Chamber, just as you chose last week to make announcements not in the Chamber, but via the media. You say all these decisions and announcements and regulations that you keep on passing with great variety and regularity around coronavirus are carefully considered, on which note, could I ask whether your policy of making everyone leave pubs and restaurants at the same time is working to help us build herd immunity?

Could I also ask what is happening in terms of our democracy and proposals chaired by an official in your Government to consider postponing the election and extending the term of this Welsh Parliament beyond five years? Wouldn't that be extraordinary given the democratic norms that we have? In the United States, we see the first debate between the presidential contenders tonight. I note that Donald Trump wanted to delay the elections there, but that has been given very short shrift. Is it not the case that we need to vote next May, as required by law, and it would be quite wrong to extend our term further or to delay those elections? As one constituent of mine said today—and I wonder if you could answer this—if we can queue for the supermarket, surely we can queue to vote. 

14:05

Llywydd, the regulations in place in Wales do not require people all to leave the pub at the same time; indeed, it was a very deliberate decision not to do so. In England, everybody must be on the pavement at 10 o'clock at night, whether they are halfway through a meal or have just begun to drink. They must be outside at 10 p.m. and as you have seen in other places, that is clearly causing difficulties of public order and of public health. We decided to take exactly the opposite case here in Wales. People have time after 10 o'clock to complete what they are eating and drinking, and to leave in an orderly way, spread out over that period. Exactly the opposite case obtains in Wales to the one suggested in the question.

Llywydd, let me say that I am very committed to having an election in May of next year. That is absolutely the right thing; that is what I think should happen. It is not right that this Senedd should be extended beyond its current term. I feel very strongly that the Senedd needs a democratic refresh. The opportunity for people in Wales to decide whom they wish to represent them in future should be in their hands, and it should be in their hands in May of next year.

The only point I'd put to the Member is this: none of us knows what the state of coronavirus will be at that time. Just as I want there to be an election, I want there to be an election where every Welsh citizen feels confident about being able to participate, and is not put off from participation by fears that they may have about the risks that they would run to their health if coronavirus were once again to be at a very, very difficult pitch.

So, May is a very long way away, and none of us is in a position to be able to look into that crystal ball. I share the Member's determination that we should vote in May of next year, but I simply put that one point to him: that we want an election in which every Welsh citizen feels that they can go to the polling station and is not put off from doing so because the state of public health at the time might be very off-putting to them. It's just foolish not to be willing to contemplate that and to think about how we would cope with it were we to be faced by it.  

Visitor Experiences

3. What discussions is the Welsh Government having with relevant partners about visitor experiences in Wales in 2021? OQ55621

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. The tourism sector and the future recovery of the visitor experience in Wales are discussed at regular meetings of the tourism taskforce, attended by the Minister and Deputy Minister with tourism responsibilities.

We have welcomed far more visitors than usual to tourist areas in my constituency this year. They have brought a boost of a second summer to the local economy, but the experience for the visitor and the local population hasn't always been pleasant—parking problems; travel problems; long queues, and not just on the top of Snowdon; there are also litter problems. These all have a negative impact on the visitor experience and, of course, create huge frustration for the local population. Would you agree that we must find ways of controlling too much tourism and that the Government has a prominent role in bringing all of the relevant partners together in order to forward plan for a successful season next year?

I thank Siân Gwenllian for her supplementary questions. I agree with her on the things that we are trying to keep together. The tourism industry is extremely important to north Wales, and the solution to the problems is dependent on bringing people together around the table to think about how we can give extremely good experiences to people who come to us, that are part of the local economy, and at the same time protect the things that people come to Wales to see and enjoy.

And may I just add there, Llywydd—? I had the privilege of taking part in a ceremony on Sunday evening to note the latest milestone in ensuring world heritage site status to the slate industry in north-west Wales, and welcoming Frau Friederike Hansell and others from UNESCO who were visiting the area. That shows that people throughout the world want to come to see what we have here to offer in Wales, but the important thing to do is to do it in a way that safeguards and protects the things they want to see, and to draw in the local people, and the people in the businesses, around the table with the local authorities and Welsh Government to plan together for the future.

14:10

Good afternoon, First Minister. Please forgive me if I cut across anything you've already said; unfortunately, the translation wasn't working on my computer. Many of the visitor experiences in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire are provided by microtourism businesses, whether they are eco tree lodges in the forests of Carmarthenshire or small campsites and businesses along the Pembrokeshire Coast national park. Because they are very distinct and have a particular attraction to certain groups of people, they of course have been quite badly hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I did listen very carefully to your reply to Adam Price earlier about whether or not people should make a journey to see us, but I want to just read you something from Microtourism Wales, who say, 'Our members are now dealing with confused guests looking to cancel or change their holidays because they do not understand the local lockdown policies'. And yesterday, the economy Minister, during the Welsh Government press conference said, and I quote, 'It is vital that people consider carefully whether their journeys are required'.

Microtourism businesses in my patch are already financially under the water because of the earlier lockdown. Are you able to give them any other guidance as to what they should say when someone phones them up from either England or a different part of Wales and says, 'I'm going to cancel my two weeks in your treehouse in Carmarthenshire because I don't think I'm allowed to travel', or, even worse, they ask them whether they should travel or not, which puts the onus of making that decision on the operator?

Well, Llywydd, I have tremendous sympathy for the businesses Angela Burns has highlighted. I was able myself to spend a short while in the holiday period in her constituency and could see just how hard people who earn a living through visitors were working to try and make up for the losses that they had sustained earlier in the year. So, the reoccurrence of coronavirus across the United Kingdom is inevitably very challenging for them. We do our best to communicate as clearly as we can through the different networks that we have, through the group that I mentioned in my answer to Siân Gwenllian that meets every week with the Welsh Government, to make sure that, through the regional tourist arrangements, we're conveying those messages.

Today, Ken Skates will make a statement on the floor of the Senedd, which will include a £20 million ring-fenced budget for hospitality and tourism, over and above the £27 million that the sector has been able to draw down from the first two iterations of the economic recovery fund. So, I hope that that will be of some help to the businesses that Angela Burns has highlighted. We were working hard with the sector to try to extend the season so that people would have been able to go on working for longer, and the difficulties that we are experiencing as the virus takes hold once again are a blow, both to those plans and to the hard-working people who have done so much to try to recoup something from the season for the businesses that they have worked so hard to build up.

14:15
COVID-19 Restrictions in Newport

4. Will the First Minister provide an update on COVID-19 restrictions in Newport? OQ55599

I thank John Griffiths, Llywydd. Following a sharp increase in cases, local restrictions were introduced in Newport on 22 September. It is too early to make a definitive assessment, but the number of cases is starting to stabilise thanks to the efforts of local people. We monitor the situation daily and formally review local restrictions every week.

First Minister, it is important for people to know that complying with restrictions to drive down cases will result in timely easing of those restrictions when it is safe to do so. So, I hear what you say about some indications that matters are moving in the right direction, but is there anything more you can say about compliance and the effectiveness of the local measures and what that might mean for the timing of the lifting of those measures? And where people in local restriction areas had pre-booked holidays that are affected, will you do all that you can to ensure that the travel industry acts responsibly and provides full and unconditional refunds?

Llywydd, I thank John Griffiths for those points. I'm happy to confirm that the daily figures that I see and am advised on by our public health colleagues have continued to show a small but sustained fall in the number of cases in the Newport county borough council area. I spoke with the chief constable of Gwent Police twice last week and was encouraged by what she had to say about the level of compliance that is being seen in those local authorities subject to local restrictions, and she repeated a point made to me earlier about Caerphilly—that people in Newport want to do the right thing; they're not looking to find ways around the rules, they want to act within the spirit of the rules because they have understood that the more we do, the faster we will get on top of that local spike and the sooner we will be able to lift those restrictions. And I'm hugely grateful, both to the citizens of Newport, but also to local authority officers and the police service, for everything they are doing to help people to do the right thing.

We'll be reviewing restrictions on Thursday of this week and I will be discussing with my officials how we might begin, step by step, to lift those local restrictions. I cannot promise at all that we will be able to begin on that journey on this Thursday, but I want to make sure we are planning for the route out of those local restrictions with local people and with local agencies so we can communicate that clearly to people who live in those localities. 

As to the second important point that John Griffiths raised about holiday arrangements, he will know that the Minister for Health and Social Services wrote earlier to the travel industry; he wrote again on 23 September. I am pleased that we have received a reply from the Association of British Insurers confirming that their members are committed to supporting their customers in the circumstances that John Griffiths set out and that they are expecting to pay out £275 million in cancellation claims. What we need to see are those general sentiments, encouraging sentiments, delivered on the ground in the lives of people who have found their holidays disrupted.

Businesses in Bridgend

5. What support has the Welsh Government provided to businesses in Bridgend during the coronavirus pandemic? OQ55613

Can I thank Carwyn Jones, Llywydd? Four hundred and seventy-four Bridgend micro and small and medium-sized enterprises have been awarded funding through the Wales-only economic resilience fund, totalling £88.1 million, with at least 2,500 jobs safeguarded up until the present time. We will continue to support businesses throughout Wales to stay viable through the pandemic and to respond to the inevitable challenges of Brexit.

14:20

I thank the First Minister for that answer. Businesses in Bridgend and across Wales, First Minister, will be very pleased to hear the announcement this week, from the Minister for Economy and Transport, of an extra £60 million-worth of funding for businesses across Wales as they continue to face the challenges of coronavirus. In terms of businesses in Bridgend and across Wales, how might they go about accessing that funding and accessing help, and what sort of sums might they be reasonably expected to receive as a result of those applications?

Well, Llywydd, I thank Carwyn Jones for those supplementary questions. There's £140 million altogether in this third phase of the economic resilience fund. The eligibility checker for this latest phase will open on 5 October, and, of course, I hope that any business who, having seen the detail, think that may be eligible for help will make their way to that eligibility checker to make applications as soon as they are able to do so. Microbusinesses will be able to apply for up to £10,000; SMEs will be able to apply for up to £150,000; and large businesses will be able to apply for up to £200,000. Now, of course, there are conditions and rules that apply around all of that, but that gives, I hope, an indication of the sort of scale of help that will be available.

Llywydd, just to give another sense of how the scheme has been working: I answered questions here in the Senedd earlier in the summer about the £5 million fund that we launched at that time to provide help for particularly small businesses, sole traders and so on, and over £4 million of that £5 million has already been awarded. So, I think that that demonstrates that we have a system in place that is not only responsive to the needs of Welsh businesses, but is able to respond, as quickly as we are able to, to get the money from us and into their hands so that they can go on being successful businesses into the future. 

Financial Support for Businesses

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on Welsh Government financial support for businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic? OQ55591

I thank the Member for that, Llywydd. Our £1.7 billion business support package is the most generous offer of help anywhere in the United Kingdom. As I've said a number of times this afternoon, the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales will provide further details of phase 3 of the economic resilience fund in an oral statement later this afternoon.

Thank you, First Minister. I welcome what you've done already and look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say this afternoon. But I've been contacted by the owner of a small haulage firm working in the construction sector who needed financial support as building sites and quarries were closing due to the pandemic. He applied for the first phase of funding from the economic resilience fund shortly after it became available, only to find it'd been withdrawn because of the demand. He then contacted Business Wales, who advised him to seek funding through the self-employed scheme, which he did and received a small payment. When he applied for more funding from the ERF, he was refused because he had claimed from HMRC. My constituent said if he'd known this advice would make him ineligible for further ERF funding, he wouldn't have applied. First Minister, are you aware of more cases like this, and do you agree with me that it's simply not right that this firm is now under threat due to advice received from Business Wales?

Llywydd, I'm not, I'm afraid, familiar with the details of the specific firm to which the Member refers, but I'm very willing to pursue the points that she has made. If she would like to provide me with details of the firm and the concerns that lie behind the question that she's raised on their behalf this afternoon, I will certainly make sure that they are pursued. And I thank the Member for what she said in opening about welcoming the help that we are able to provide to businesses in Wales more generally.

Bovine TB

7. What plans does the Welsh Government have to tackle bovine TB in Wales? OQ55612

14:25

Llywydd, the Welsh Government continues to implement our TB eradication programme, addressing all sources of infection in a cattle herd. New herd incidence last year was the lowest for 15 years, with a 16 per cent decline in incidents in the 12 months to June 2020.

Thank you, First Minister. Now, in the 12 months to June 2020, 10,823 cattle were slaughtered due to bovine TB. Now, yes, I agree that is a 12 per cent decrease on the previous 12 months, however I was shocked to hear in the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee the Minister describe this as 'the latest statistics are good.' Well, they are not good if you speak to the farmers across Wales. In fact, they are scandalous, especially as there has been a 56 per cent increase in new herd incidence in the low-risk areas of Wales during the last three years. Whilst 33,512 cattle have been slaughtered, only 16 licences have been issued to capture, mark and eradicate badgers to prevent the spread of this horrendous disease. First Minister, do you consider the latest statistics as being good and what more are you doing to minimise the spread of bovine TB amongst our wildlife? Diolch.

Well, Llywydd, I think we have to encourage people in the sector who work so hard when we see a 24-consecutive-month decrease in new herd incidence, when we see that number being the lowest for 15 years, and in the first quarter of this year, the lowest in any quarter since figures began to be collected. So, it's important we encourage those people in the sector who are doing everything they can, including farmers, of course, to deal with this dreadful disease by demonstrating that the actions they are taking are having a positive impact, and that is exactly what the Minister was trying to do.

TB is a dreadful disease in cattle, and its impact on those farms who've had to see whole herds slaughtered is devastating, on people who've invested so much in those herds over so many years. The only way of tackling it is by tackling it on every front, through accurate testing, through high biosecurity standards, through individual herd action plans and investing in the science as we do at the TB centre of excellence at Aberystwyth. Those are actions that every part of the sector has to take some responsibility for implementing.

The Member said in her supplementary question to me that it was scandalous—the number of new cases that we are seeing in low-TB areas. But she will know that 82 per cent of new cases in those low areas are traced to cattle that are bought and brought into those areas, bringing TB with them. That's why high biosecurity standards, accurate testing and the other measures that I have mentioned all have their part to play, and in that way, we will succeed together in eliminating this dreadful disease from Wales.

Road Safety

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on road safety in north Wales? OQ55598

Llywydd, I thank Darren Millar for that. Road safety remains a key concern for the Welsh Government. The Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales has overseen a review of safety issues on trunk roads, and at the other end of the spectrum, the Deputy Minister in that department is taking forward initiatives such as the roll-out of 20 mph speed limits, which, by themselves, will have an impact on road safety in north Wales and in other parts of Wales too.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. One of the consequences of the increase in people working from home is that we've seen a significant reduction in traffic on many of our roads, and, unfortunately, because there's less traffic, that has often led to an increase in speeding, and that is absolutely true on the A494 trunk road between Ruthin and Mold, much of which is in my constituency. We've had a number of serious accidents, unfortunately, some in which individuals have lost their lives, in the Llanbedr area, and also in the Llanberis area there's been a significant increase in speeding.

Can I urge you, First Minister, to work with the Minister responsible for transport to look at what additional measures might be taken on this particular stretch of road, including whether it may be viable to introduce average speed cameras, which seem to have been so effective in killing speed, rather than people, on dangerous roads elsewhere in the country?

14:30

Llywydd, can I thank Darren Millar for those very important follow-up questions? Fatalities in north Wales in September have been very distressing, and I know that he's been directly concerned with some of them. I wanted to thank him for the letter that he sent in to the Minister at the end of August, and I know he's received a reply from Ken Skates specifically regarding road safety on the A494, measures that the Welsh Government has already taken and which need to be monitored now for their effectiveness, but to give him an assurance, as the letter did, that, if those measures are not effective, then other measures will be considered of the sort that he has set out, so that we can do everything we can together to make sure that lives, and young lives, are not lost on roads in north Wales.

Statement by the Llywydd

And before we move on, just to say that I've been asked for a point of order at this point by Members, but I'll address the issue in this way. Firstly, all Members—Ministers and other Members—are fully participating equally in this Senedd, whether they do so virtually or here physically in the Chamber. And, secondly, to reassure Members here present this afternoon that you do so in line with regulations and guidance. Now, for the rest of this lengthy afternoon and evening of work that we have in front of us, let's focus on the content of what we have to say rather than where we may be saying it from.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item is the business statement. I call on the Trefnydd to make the business statement. And I'll also draw attention to the fact that this is scheduled by the Government for 15 minutes, but I have very many speakers, of all parties, wishing to contribute to this afternoon, so I put you on warning that you may not be able to be called, due to the 15-minute allocation of time for this item.

The Trefnydd to make the statement. Rebecca Evans.

Diolch, Llywydd. There are several changes to today's agenda. The debate on the four Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 will take place immediately after this business statement and announcement. The debate on the Fisheries Bill legislative consent motion has been postponed until next week. And finally, the statement on maternity services and governance improvements at Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board has been postponed until 13 October in order to accommodate a statement to update the Senedd on the local coronavirus restrictions. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Perhaps I could ask for, Trefnydd, a short statement perhaps from the economy Minister regarding the Ford closure, which, sadly, happened—and we were all waiting for it—last week, just to update us on the final findings of the taskforce there that was set up in order to assist the people working there to find jobs. When we're talking about £100,000 being put aside for this, it seems like pretty small potatoes compared to what we've heard of today. So, that would be very, very welcome.

I think I would also ask for a statement from the environment Minister, an update on her views on discrete support for zoos. I appreciate that we'll be hearing more about the economic resilience fund later on, but the specific demands of visitor attractions that are responsible for animal welfare need specific and close attention, because, obviously, whether an attraction is open or closed doesn't matter, they need the same staff and the same number of people—the same money, sorry—to support levels of animal welfare there.

And then, finally, could we have a letter or a statement, from the environment Minister again, regarding the management of the Kenfig nature reserve in my region? It's a globally important site. No-one has really been in charge of it since the local authority chose not to renew its lease last December, and, while Natural Resources Wales has had some activity there, the discussions between them and the site owners have broken down. Considering that this is an area of such—well, actually—global importance, not just national importance, I would hope that the Minister, with her overarching responsibilities for the environment, would have something important to say on this. Thank you. 

14:35

Thank you very much to Suzy Davies for raising those three important issues, and I will ask the Minister for economy and transport to write to colleagues with an update on the situation following the sad closure of Ford in Bridgend. I know that the taskforce has worked tirelessly to bring all of the partners together to intensify the efforts to support those who have been affected and to attract new investment and to generate local employment opportunities. And, of course, there's the legacy fund now, which is available for the community to access as well, but I think it would be helpful for the Minister to pull together all of those aspects of the work in order to provide interested colleagues with an update on that, so I'll ensure that that happens. 

With regard to the support for zoos, as Suzy says, there is the opportunity, later on today, to potentially seek to raise that with the Minister for economy and transport. But, again, perhaps I would invite Suzy to write to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs with her specific concern about animal welfare as a result of the coronavirus. 

And, again, on the issue of the Kenfig nature reserve, I will ask the Minister to write to you with an update to respond to the concerns that you've just raised. 

Many people have been left high and dry by their insurance companies after many places in the south were put into lockdown and people were unable to go on holidays. Now, some policies may have had small print preventing a payout due to COVID-19, but I know this isn't the case with all refusals. In one instance, one company told a customer that advice from the Welsh Government is irrelevant and they only accept advice not to travel from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Now, I hope your Government will agree with me that Welsh-imposed restrictions shouldn't be considered any less than Westminster-imposed ones. Will the Government, therefore, make a clear statement on the legal status of these restrictions in Wales and how they should impact on insurance policies? I know that representations have been made to the Association of British Insurers, but it wasn't clear from the First Minister's answer whether a legal statement, which I've asked for, has been made, and they don't appear to have made any guarantees with regard to refunds for all, and they absolutely should. It would be useful for us to have a statement to hear what else the Government can do to ensure that those people who are refused their holiday refunds get them. 

Leanne Wood's right: it's absolutely so disappointing for people who have had their holidays cancelled as a result of the coronavirus and the regulations and restrictions that have had to be put in place. As the First Minister said, we have been taking this up directly with the insurance industry and we had a relatively positive response, I think, back from the industry body. But, as the First Minister and I think Leanne Wood has, also, said, those warm words now need to be translated into action and into payouts for the affected policyholders. But if there is a further update on that, I'll be sure to share that with Leanne. 

Can I ask for two oral Government statements—the first one on the provision of free school meals? We've had a number of written statements on the provision, of expanding it, and I'm very pleased with those, but could we have a full statement on exactly where we are? It's well known that my view is that free school meals should go through every holiday and, when children are not in school, they should still get free school meals, because they still have to eat when they're not in school. So, could we have a statement on that, and, second, and this is fairly apt at this time of the year, a statement on the use of fireworks throughout the year, especially this time of the year, and what the Welsh Government or local authorities can do to limit the use of fireworks? Because I can tell you, in Swansea East, not a month goes by without a firework display going off somewhere. 

Mike Hedges is absolutely right on that second point. I think I also see those firework displays across Swansea on a regular basis as well. We do recognise that the cancellation of so many organised events this year does risk an increase in the use of fireworks in people's gardens. We know that the powers to make those regulations lie under the Fireworks Act 2003, and that rests with UK Government Ministers, which is why we're seeking to work really closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in Westminster, which is responsible for fireworks regulations. We're urging a really strong UK Government response to the recommendations that have been made by the recent House of Commons Petitions Committee report on fireworks, and officials in Welsh Government are also currently working with BEIS on public messaging for the upcoming bonfire season, and also with Global Action Plan to raise awareness of the air-quality impacts of bonfires and fireworks on Clean Air Day as well.

On the first issue, I know Mike Hedges absolutely recognises the vital role that free school meals play in terms of ensuring that children get that healthy meal and don't go hungry during unprecedented times, and particularly so over the course of the summer holidays. Since then, we've made available a further £1.28 million to help local authorities meet the additional costs of free school meals during the first two weeks of the autumn term, when some of the schools are adapting and having that more flexible approach to learning. Again, since then we've agreed funding of at least £420,000 so that those who are in receipt of free school meals will also continue to receive that provision if they aren't able to attend school for any reason, such as having to self-isolate and so on. So, we're trying to make sure that we think of all the different scenarios that children might be affected by. 

14:40

Can I firstly concur with the comments made by Mike Hedges regarding the need for greater regulation of fireworks? Two issues if I may, Llywydd: firstly, Trefnydd, I've been contacted by a number of constituents who are very concerned about the limited number of train carriages being used to get young people to and from Hereford Sixth Form College from Abergavenny station. Despite each child having paid for their season ticket in advance, I'm told that Transport for Wales have laid on buses that are totally inadequate, with no social distancing in operation whatsoever. I wonder if we could have a statement from the Minister for transport outlining any discussions he might have had with Transport for Wales and an explanation as to why young people do seem to be treated differently from adults in this regard. 

Secondly and finally, Llywydd, the Musicians' Union have been very active on Twitter recently, and they've been raising some very extremely concerning statistics regarding the plight of musicians through the pandemic. Thirty-six per cent of musicians have no work at all; 87 per cent will be earning less than £20,000 per year. I know that Stephen Crabb has raised this issue in Parliament. Given that the arts are largely devolved to Wales, I wonder if we could have a statement from the Welsh Government as to what support is being given to the arts during this difficult time, particularly music. We know the importance that music has not just for musicians, but for all of us in terms of our mental health. I'm sure we want to listen to music, particularly at the moment, through the pandemic, and I think you'd agree with me that music deserves better. 

I thank Nick Ramsay for raising those issues. I will, if he doesn't mind, invite him to write to the Minister for economy and transport on that first issue, which relates to the number of train carriages to carry young people from Abergavenny station. I think that would be the quickest way to progress that particular query. 

And then I absolutely recognise the impact that the coronavirus has had on those people who are working within the music industry, both in terms of organisations and choirs and so on, but also freelancers who earn their living through the music industry as well. That's why we're continuing to work alongside our music stakeholder group to understand the concerns and the impact of the coronavirus, and have also announced funding through the £53 million cultural recovery fund. So, I would advise organisations and individuals to explore whether some financial support might be available to them through that particular fund.

Today, I rode on an e-scooter, which is permitted to go on the roads under new regulations, and I wondered if we could have a statement on how we can extend that as another mode of transport to complement the reduction in public transport and, obviously, the necessary reduction in the use of private vehicles.

I'd also like a second statement from Lesley Griffiths, as the Minister responsible for food, as to what assessment the Welsh Government has made of the impact of a possible 'no deal' on the threat to food supplies that we currently import from Europe. And I wondered if that could be made to the Senedd.

14:45

I thank Jenny Rathbone for raising both of those issues. I've also had the pleasure of trying out an e-scooter and it was a fantastically fun way to get around. I know that this is something that is being explored in various parts of Welsh Government. I understand that some of the issues that are proving more tricky lie around the licensing and regulation in relation to e-scooters, because those items sit with the UK Government. But I know it's something that the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport has been taking an interest in, and I will ask him to provide you with an update on his thinking in that regard.

And then, again, I will make sure that the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs is aware of your request for that statement on the specific issue of the impact of a potential 'no deal' Brexit on food supplies for us here in Wales. 

Trefnydd, I'd like to ask for a statement from the Chief Whip in her role as Minister with responsibility for equalities, to update the Senedd about the position of the asylum seekers arriving in Penally. I understand that there were further disturbances, albeit, thank goodness, of a minor nature, yesterday. The Government will be aware of a very strongly worded letter that was written by the local health board, the county council, supported by local representatives and faith and civic society leaders in those communities, a copy of which has been received, raising grave concerns about the decision from the Home Office, about the ability particularly to provide the appropriate support, appropriate religious support, for example, and support through the medium of the appropriate languages, and also raising some specific concerns about the conditions of the buildings in which these men are going to be housed. Obviously, we know that the Home Office has not been helpful so far in this regard, but I would submit, Trefnydd, that if the Home Office remains obdurate, it becomes our responsibility as the citizens of Wales to ensure that those men being settled at Penally are supported and protected. So, I'd be grateful for a statement from the Chief Whip as to how the Welsh Government can work with the health board, the local authority and other local agencies to try and ensure that if those young men cannot be resettled in more appropriate centres, they are given the support that they need. 

I'm very happy to speak to the Minister with responsibility for equalities on this point. I think, if I recall correctly, there's a question on this issue to the Minister for Health and Social Services tomorrow, so that might be an early opportunity to explore some of those issues further. But, as I say, I'll ensure that I do have that conversation with the Deputy Minister with responsibility for equalities.  

I'm looking for a statement on building safety, Minister. An EWS1 is a certificate checking the safety of the outside walls of a building—cladding, for example. Now, a resident of Marseille House in Century Wharf, Cardiff, has provided me with evidence that the EWS1 certificate for the building was signed off by an employee of the Mansion Group, with their headquarters in Cheadle, Cheshire, and the person who supposedly signed off this safety certificate has stated in writing that they did not carry out the inspection, they did not sign the form, they had no connection to Specialist Facade Inspections Ltd, based in Newbridge, and the signature on the letter is not the signature of the senior acquisitions surveyor. Now, in this, Specialist Facade Inspections Ltd say they are the victim as well, but the bottom line is that we have a safety certificate and I don't know who it's been signed by. And this really is a pressing matter now. So, I'd like a statement as to when the housing Minister will get a grip on matters, set up a taskforce and sort this out. Diolch.  

Well the situation that Neil McEvoy describes is clearly serious, so I would invite him to send that level of detail to the Minister for housing with regard to the concerns about the documents, how they have been processed and the tests that were undertaken in order to inform the signing of those documents. Clearly, that's not something that we can deal with in the business statement this afternoon. The Minister did provide a response to a debate on building safety just a couple of weeks ago, but I know that she's keen to progress this issue. So, if you do send that detailed information, I'm sure that she'll be able to advise on what might be the best course of action for the residents concerned. 

14:50

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I'd like to have a statement on prisons in Wales, to outline that prisoners do have a right to speak and use the Welsh language without facing either discrimination or abuse within the prison estate. That's a matter that has been brought up recently. But also, on prisoners leaving the secure estate, it's always an issue when homelessness is a major issue facing people, particularly during the winter months, but in the middle of a pandemic all those issues are much, much worse. We've seen a report recently from the Wales Governance Centre that outlined the extent of the crisis facing people leaving the secure estate in Wales, and it would be useful, I think, if we all had an update on the devolution of the prison service to ensure that we are able to provide joined-up services in a way that the Thomas commission recommended. 

I would also like to have an opportunity to debate the report that was reported on the BBC this morning about the next elections for the Senedd in May. This is a matter for us as Members to determine. I do not believe that our election should be determined by deals behind closed doors or by small groups of individuals. It is a matter upon which we should all be able to vote on, debate and discuss openly. I believe—and I agree with the First Minister—that there must be an election in May and that the relevant authorities, be they Government or the Senedd Commission, must put in place the resources and the legal basis upon which that election may be conducted if circumstances remain very difficult, whether that's an all-postal ballot or another means of ensuring that the ballot is secure. But the ballot must take place, there must be an election in May, and we must have the opportunity to vote on that and to ensure that the people of Wales are not deprived of their democracy. 

Thank you to Alun Davies for raising both of those issues. I'll ensure that the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip is aware of that concern for a debate on prisons in Wales, but I know that the Minister for Housing and Local Government will also be keen to write to you with an update on the work that's been going on during the coronavirus epidemic to ensure that nobody is leaving prison onto the street, and what onward support we can offer to people once they have been put into suitable housing during this crisis, but to ensure then that they retain a roof over their heads as we start to move into the reconstruction phase.

I also completely agree that there must be an election in May, and we're absolutely planning and working on that basis. I haven't yet seen a copy of the report that has been referred to in the press, but it is, as the First Minister set out earlier, absolutely the basis on which we are planning—that there will be and must be an election in May. 

I thank the Trefnydd.

In accordance with Standing Order 12.24, unless a Member objects, the four motions under items 3, 4, 5 and 6, on the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Wales) 2020, will be grouped for debate but with votes taken separately. Does any Member object to the grouping for debate? I see no objection to that.

3., 4., 5. & 6. The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No 10) (Rhondda Cynon Taf) Regulations 2020, The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 8) (Caerphilly) Regulations 2020, The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 11) (Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport etc.) Regulations 2020 and The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Functions of Local Authorities etc.) (Wales) Regulations 2020

And therefore I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to move the motions—Vaughan Gething. 

Motion NDM7396 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 10) (Rhondda Cynon Taf) Regulations 2020 laid in the Table Office on 17 September 2020.

Motion NDM7383 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 8) (Caerphilly) Regulations 2020 laid in the Table Office on 8 September 2020.

Motion NDM7399 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 11) (Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport etc.) Regulations 2020 laid in the Table Office on 22 September 2020.

Motion NDM7395 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:

1. Approves The Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Functions of Local Authorities etc.) (Wales) Regulations 2020 laid in the Table Office on 18 September 2020.
 

 

Motions moved.

Thank you, Llywydd. I formally move the four sets of motions containing regulations before us today, and ask Members to support them. These regulations were again introduced under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 through our emergency procedures to support our ongoing approach to tackling coronavirus. Members will know that the Welsh Government takes a careful and evidence-based approach to our strategy for dealing with coronavirus, including through the formal requirement to review the need for any of these requirements and regulations, and their proportionality, every 21 days.

The regulations we’re debating today were introduced over a period from 7 September to 17 September. They demonstrate the swift but necessary actions the Welsh Government has had to take to respond to the recent rise in the number of cases in certain parts of Wales. To ensure that we're equipped to do so, we’ve increased the powers of local authorities and implemented local restrictions in Caerphilly, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport. Those are the sets of regulations before us. Sadly, as I say, we’ve seen a sharp rise in the number of positive infection rates. Members will also be aware that we have now introduced further local restrictions across Llanelli, Cardiff and Swansea, which came into force at 6 p.m. on 26 September in relation Llanelli, and at 6 p.m. on 27 September in Cardiff and Swansea. Amendments to the principal regulations that apply to Cardiff, Swansea and Llanelli will be debated in the Senedd on 6 October. As we’ve set out in our coronavirus control plan, we have an approach of monitoring cases, and attempt to control localised outbreaks. The restrictions are based on the principles of caution, proportionality and subsidiarity. These measures are kept under constant review. I'll address each of the regulations being considered today in turn.

As a consequence of data demonstrating a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in Caerphilly, to control the spread of the virus and protect public health across that local authority area, the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) (Amendment) (No. 8) (Caerphilly) Regulations 2020 were laid on 8 September. I'll refer to each of the subsequent regulations by the number of their amendment to the main regulations. These regulations prohibit households within the area from being part of an extended household or bubble with other households. Where a household from another area has formed an extended household with a household within the area, the household within that area is no longer treated as forming part of that extended household bubble. It prohibits residents of the area from leaving or to remain away from the area without a reasonable excuse. It requires residents of the area to return to work from home unless it is not reasonably practical for them to do so. And it prohibits people from outside of the area entering that area without a reasonable excuse. It requires people present in the area to wear a face covering when in an open premises, subject to the exemptions and exceptions, and it requires the restrictions and requirements introduced by the No. 8 amendment regulations to be reviewed on or before 24 September, and, if they are subsequently re-introduced, at least once every seven days thereafter. Finally, all premises selling alcohol in the local authority area have had additional restrictions applied, so they have to stop all sales of alcohol at 10 p.m. This was originally intended to be 11 p.m., however, based on advice to aid the prevention of the spread of the virus, an all-Wales restriction of 10 p.m. on the sale of alcohol has since been implemented for all licensed outlets.

On 17 September, the No. 10 amendment regulations were introduced to impose the same restrictions as I've described in Rhondda Cynon Taf as were introduced in the borough of Caerphilly. The evidence from recent weeks is clear: where we have seen increases in transmission rates, these have primarily resulted from people not observing social distancing and ignoring the previous restrictions. There has been a steep rise in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases within RCT. On 22 September, the No. 11 amendment regulations introduced the same restrictions in Blaenau Gwent, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport local authority areas for the same reasons.

Finally, the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Functions of Local Authorities etc.) (Wales) Regulations 2020 provide local authorities with powers to intervene as outbreaks occur so they can take action to close off land or individual local premises and stop local events. These came into force on 14 September. Broadly equivalent powers have been given to local authorities in England and Scotland by regulations made by the UK and Scottish Governments respectively. Under these regulations, a local authority may issue a premises direction, an event direction or a public place direction. These powers provide a means for local authorities to take effective preventative action where circumstances require it. Our current intention is that the principal regulations will expire at the end of the day on 8 January 2021. That is six months from when they were made and introduced. The regulations are therefore intended to expire on the same day.

Llywydd, as we all know, we all have a part to play in keeping Wales safe. These regulations are necessary to our continued efforts to tackle this pandemic and I ask the Senedd to support them.

15:00

Minister, thank you for your statement this afternoon. I do regret that it's not on the floor of the Senedd here, but I fully respect that whether you're virtual or in the Senedd it is a part of the proceedings of this institution. But I am concerned greatly by some of the assertions—in fact, an assertion from you today to me on Twitter—that by your actions you are keeping Wales safe, and I am not by attending these parliamentary proceedings. I'd like to seek clarification from you whether the regulations you have put before us today or the regulations that will come next week that cover Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, if you do attend a parliamentary sitting you would be breaking those regulations, because you've insinuated that in a tweet to me. So, can you point me where in these regulations I will be breaking those regulations by attending this Parliament, or indeed, Members of Parliament, such as Kevin Brennan, attending Westminster today, yet his parliamentary colleague from this institution is over in Cathays Park? I think that's an important question that you must answer if you're putting that assertion out there that parliamentarians are breaking the restrictions and not keeping Wales safe. We are all signed up to making sure that Wales is safe and we want to see the end of this virus. That is why today the Welsh Conservatives for the first time in tabling regulations will abstain on these regulations for the way that you're dealing with these matters in such a cavalier way.

I'd also like to seek clarification from you as well: do these regulations start the lockdown process on a more regional footing rather than a localised footing? Is it the case that there is now a lockdown time for pubs and social venues to shut, which is 10:20 rather than 10 o'clock? Because I notice in press comments that you put out last week that, actually, you would expect all social events to close by 10:20 rather than 10 o'clock. Is that included in the regulations or is that merely just your aspiration?

Again, I would ask to seek clarification as to which political leaders, political elected representatives are briefed on these regulations before they are made public, because again, on social media over the weekend, I did notice that some elected Members from other institutions were indicating that they'd spoken to the health Minister prior to these regulations coming out and being publicly available. That is unacceptable. Surely there is equality amongst elected Members, and Members, if they are briefed, should be briefed on an equal basis. I'd be grateful to understand how you go about briefing Members of an elected institution that isn't unanimously included in those briefings if they represent that particular area and play an important role in deciphering that information out to the communities they represent.

We are again turning to a part of our parliamentary business that is truly significant—perhaps the most important part of our proceedings at this time. It relates to this Senedd discussing, and as I would expect, approving regulations that place very severe restrictions on the freedoms of individuals and communities. In terms of the regulations under items 3, 4 and 5, which extend COVID restrictions to more counties, we will be supporting these, but—and I do make this point once again—we do believe that these restrictions should be as localised as possible and that we should operate on a hyperlocal level wherever possible.

I would also encourage very careful consideration of different elements of the restrictions. We are looking at them in their entirety, of course, and we support the general principles, but we do need to look in great detail at various elements of the restrictions. We may need to tighten further what happens when pubs and restaurants close at 10 o'clock and the need to disperse people without them going to each other's homes and so on and so forth, but on the other hand, we do need to give very careful consideration to the impact on the well-being and mental health of people and to consider, for example, steps to allow more contact for people who are likely to suffer from loneliness and isolation. It's important to bear in mind that these restrictions have a great impact on people within our communities.

It's also important to note that we are dealing with a means of legislating that is less than satisfactory. I emphasise the need to bring these regulations before us as soon as possible, and although there has been less delay in terms of the implementation of the regulations and their debate than there was last week, we are still talking about regulations that came into force as early as 7 September, and we need to tighten that timetable.

And with agenda item 6, although it's technical in nature, correcting a previous error, I do note that the legislation committee have written to the Welsh Government to request clarity on why these regulations needed to come into force before they were laid before this Senedd, and there are very clear requirements on the process that should be followed in the Statutory Instruments Act 1946. I note here my thanks to that committee for their work.

And finally, whilst what we have here in amendments 10, 8 and 11 are new restrictions that require residents in the affected areas to play their part in trying to eradicate the virus, let's bear in mind that the Government has to play its part too, particularly when it comes to testing. Get the testing sorted; ensure that tests are available when people need them; that results are returned swiftly, so that we can start the tracing process, and then, hopefully, we will not need so many of these regulations.

15:05

I have twice forgotten to call the Chair of the legislation committee, so on the third time of asking, I call on the Chair of the legislation committee, Mick Antoniw.

Thank you, Llywydd. I had noted, and was waiting in anticipation. This is a report of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee in respect of the four sets of regulations, so it's a composite report. Members will know that the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No. 2) (Wales) Regulations 2020 are the principal regulations on coronavirus in Wales, and the Senedd approved those regulations on 5 August 2020. We reported on the No. 8 amending regulations on 21 September, and yesterday we reported on the No. 10 and No. 11 amending regulations, together with the regulations related to local authority functions. We acknowledge that whilst we are debating these regulations today, the Welsh Government has also made further amending regulations, which, as I said last week, demonstrates the fast-moving nature of the Government's action on these matters.

The No. 8, No. 10 and No. 11 regulations all concern restrictions placed on specific communities. The No. 8 amending regulations came into force on 8 September and, as the Members will know, they introduce restrictions in respect of Caerphilly county borough as a local health protection area. Briefly, the restrictions cover extended households, prohibitions on movement away from and into the area, and requiring residents to work from home unless it is not reasonably practical for them to do so. Subsequently, the No. 10 amending regulations apply similar restrictions to Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council from 17 September, with an additional restriction requiring that all premises licensed to sell alcohol must not open before 6 a.m. and must close at or before 11 p.m. each day. And then from 22 September, the No. 11 amending regulations applied those same restrictions to the local authorities of Blaenau Gwent, Bridgend, Merthyr Tydfil and Newport, and the No. 11 regulations also applied the restrictions on opening hours of licensed premises to Caerphilly county borough.

Now, in our reports, we drew attention to the lack of public consultations or regulatory impact assessments carried out in relation to the amending regulations, and also considered the Welsh Government's assessment of the extent to which any interference with human rights is justified and proportionate in pursuit of the legitimate aim of protecting public health. I therefore draw Members' attention to our reports on the amending regulations.

In our meeting yesterday, we also discussed the meaning of what constitutes 'a reasonable excuse' for the purpose of the regulations. This is an issue that many constituents who want to do the right thing have raised with us all. We believe that the Welsh Government should publish more detailed guidance on this matter and we will be writing to the Minister specifically on this point.

I now return to the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (Functions of Local Authorities etc.) (Wales) Regulations 2020. These are regulations that came into force on 18 September. They provide local authorities across Wales with powers by issuing directions to relevant people to close individual premises or impose specific restrictions or requirements on them. They prohibit certain events, or types of event, from taking place, or impose restrictions or requirements on them, and also can restrict access to or close public outdoor events.

Our report makes four merits points, and I wish to highlight three of them briefly. Regulation 9 requires a local authority to have regard to any guidance issued by the Welsh Ministers about the regulations. Our third reporting point notes that the guidance in relation to these regulations does not appear to be published on the Welsh Government website, or at least it is not easily identifiable. We think that making the guidance available or more easily accessible would be a helpful aid for local authorities and members of the public wishing to understand the impact of these regulations. The regulations also require a local authority to take reasonable steps to give prior notice of a premises direction, event direction or public place direction. Our fourth reporting point identifies the difference in treatment between the types of notice in relation to matters set out in regulations 11 and 12, however, it is not clear why this distinction is necessary.

And then, finally, as we are aware, the Welsh Government has now written to the Llywydd, as required by the Statutory Instruments Act 1946, explaining why it was necessary for the regulations to come into force before they were laid before the Senedd. I'd welcome the observations of the health Minister on these points that I've raised on the local authority functions regulations. Thank you, Llywydd.

15:10

I thank the Minister for his statement. I share Andrew R.T.'s disappointment that he's decided to make it from his office in Cathays Park; he's gone rather further from home to get there than he would to come to the Senedd. I do, though, appreciate we're slightly less delayed doing these regulations than some of the others that we've done before. It's our intention to vote against these regulations for the same reasons I gave last week. The Minister and Members will probably be pleased to hear that I'm not planning to repeat those reasons. May I, though, welcome Andrew R.T. Davies stating that the Conservatives will at least abstain on this set? He says it's the first time they've abstained—I think actually they did abstain on at least one set before. There were a lot of complaints from them about the cruel rule of 5 miles, even though I think they voted for the stay local law under which it was promulgated, but I think another set did attract their abstention at the time, so it's good to see they're now looking at these with a somewhat more critical eye than previously.

Could I ask the Minister—? As you know, Minister, I consider these regulations to be disproportionate and counter-productive, and I'd question how evidence based they are. I wonder, though, could I focus particularly on the three councils that have come in most recently? You set out some principles just now for the regulations we are looking at, and we're talking, at least in the case of Caerphilly, of a rapid increase in coronavirus regulations to justify the regs. The three latest councils that have come in though, it seems almost like you're filling in the gaps within the region. If you look at those councils individually, I just wonder if it can be justified on an individual basis. It strikes me they're even less justified than the other regulations. Take, for example, Torfaen, where one constituent has pointed out to me, at least on the basis of data that's publicly available to them as of yesterday, that we were seeing infections of no more than around seven a day in Torfaen, and generally it seemed you had been looking at a threshold of at least 20 per 100,000 before you considered restrictions, and that's the assessment you were putting on abroad as well. Why have you imposed such stringent regulations and lockdown requirements in Torfaen when the incidence of coronavirus seemed to be significantly below that?

The Minister's, once again, taking a sledge hammer to crack a nut, in my view. Is it not inevitable when you relax restrictions that the risk of increasing infection is bound to occur? And, obviously, as we move towards winter, there's a higher risk anyway of any respiratory infection being contracted by individuals. It's overwhelmingly the case that where deaths from COVID are concerned they occur amongst older people. Forty per cent of the deaths are people over 85; 30 per cent in the age group of 75 to 84; and a further 15 per cent in my age group, 65 to 74; whereas the overwhelming bulk of the infections takes place in younger people, and they're not anything like as at risk. In fact, it's calculated that somebody over the age of 85 is 1,000 times more likely to die of COVID than somebody who's under 65.

So, these regulations are not proportionate, in my opinion, as the Minister says. What he has done—I wonder whether he'd agree with this—in fact is to turn south Wales in particular into a kind of series of gulags that constrain people within the boundaries of the local authority in which they live. They're not likely to be effective unless they're continued indefinitely, and we will carry on having lockdown after lockdown after lockdown if we don't accept the inevitable: that until a vaccine is effective and widely distributed, the risk of infection must continue.

15:15

I'll be voting against the local lockdowns today. I don't think it is right to stop Welsh people from moving around our own country when the border, the ports and the airports are open, and open without testing as well. So, why should people from across the border with much higher rates of infection be allowed into Wales to travel freely, whilst Welsh people here, in some circumstances, cannot even travel to the next town? I'm not going to vote to lock down my own city and country but leave it open to everybody else to come here as they like.

We've already had talk of mandatory vaccines, curfews and even use of the army, and I'm not sure what science says that we need to close entertainment establishments at 10 p.m. Where is the science behind that? Why are DJs not allowed to play? We should be treating people like adults, because some businesses have tried really, really hard and have spent a lot of money on precautions. I, myself, went to Mocka Lounge in Cardiff and was extremely impressed by the precautions taken—very well organised. I know there are other places like that as well.

In these regulations there are so many contradictions. We have segregation in school, yet on the bus everybody mixes. There's little education about masks, in terms of how often you should change your masks. I see people walking around in visors, thinking that they're protecting themselves from breathing things in and protecting others from what they breathe out, but visors don't do that. Where are the bins for masks to be deposited and got rid of safely? Where are they? You see masks all over the floor. 

The approach is chaotic and reactionary. I said in this Senedd in March that you cannot fight a pandemic without testing. The World Health Organization has told us from the very beginning, 'Test, test, test'; otherwise, it's like trying to put out a fire blindfolded. What we should be doing is thinking about processes and thinking about how we can protect the elderly and the vulnerable from picking up this virus. How do we shield people?

In essence, what we really must do is test. How many of us have been ill these last few months and don't know whether we've had coronavirus because the antibody test has not been available? How many of us have some kind of immunity to the virus but we don't know it? We're not going to get any further forward until we identify and isolate this virus. In the meantime, these lockdowns—there'll be another one and another one and another one. It will be unending, so I will not support the proposals today, and this is the first time.

15:20

The Minister for health to reply to the debate—Vaughan Gething.

Thank you, Llywydd. I thank the Members for their contribution to the debate. I'll try to deal with each one in turn briefly. Starting with Andrew R.T. Davies, I obviously regret the approach that he and his group are taking. From what they say, they're abstaining not because they disagree with the measures or that the measures that are being put in place are somehow not appropriate, but it's a question about process rather than outcome in terms of how we keep people in Wales safe.

I can absolutely say, hand on heart, to any and every person in Wales that there is nothing cavalier in our approach. It takes a huge amount of time, energy and effort from Ministers, our officials and colleagues in local authorities, who also have incredibly difficult choices to make right across the political spectrum. We've worked very hard with them, with the police and, indeed, with our health service in coming up with and trying to understand the pattern of infection that is taking place. Rather than searching for conflict, I think that elected representatives should be searching for an answer to how we try to suppress the virus and to protect Wales from harm. 

It's also worth confirming, of course, that we're taking an approach to making these regulations that takes account of our processes here in Wales. The main affirmative procedure requires these regulations to have the support of the Senedd or they fall. Of course, in England, the equivalent regulations are introduced by ministerial decrees without Parliament needing to vote on them. I think our process is absolutely democratically more superior and provides deliberate and regular scrutiny, as it is meant to do. 

The First Minister confirmed the issues about travel and the travel restrictions. I am required to be here because it's not reasonably practical for me to do all of my job without a range of other officials here as well. On other days, I will be undertaking work from home, when it's reasonably practical for me to do so. In terms of briefing Members, if there's been an oversight in the Member not being contacted, then that is definitely something for us to look at. That is not a deliberate attempt. We make, again, great efforts to speak to elected representatives across the political spectrum when we are having to make these choices as well. And on the point about closing time for the hospitality trade, it is in the regulations; it's 10 o'clock for ending of the sale of alcohol, and 10.20 p.m. in the evening when those premises must close. 

I take on board Rhun ap Iorwerth's points about looking for a local area within a council area where possible. That's exactly what we have done within Carmarthenshire, because Llanelli is a distinct area. If Llanelli was not part of Carmarthenshire we would not be contemplating taking action in Carmarthenshire looking at the rest of the rates that exist. We consider this every time we take forward the potential to introduce these regulations—whether it is possible to take an approach that is less than the whole local authority. On each occasion up to that point we found it wasn't really possible in line with the evidence of the spread of the virus across that local authority area. 

These are local restrictions for the county, they're not regional ones. So, it doesn't mean you can travel anywhere you like across the wider south Wales area where the restrictions are in place. It's within the individual local authority in which you live—again, on the point about a reasonable excuse that I'll come to later for travel. We do have a regular conversations with local authorities about what we are doing and why, and that'll continue to be the case. It's a deliberately pluralistic approach that we take. We don't simply decide to impose these measures and then inform local authorities of our decisions afterwards. The Member will know, I'm sure, from his own contacts, that that's been a very deliberate and careful approach that we've taken. 

On the point about testing that the Member made, we are now undertaking 10,000 to 11,000 tests a day across Wales. Now, 3,000 to 4,000 of those tests are Public Health Wales lab tests and we expect more of those to be introduced over the coming days as we both increase not just the number and access to places for testing to take place, but the volume of testing available as well. The Member will see, as we roll out not just more of those tests but the consistent lanes in drive-through centres I've previously announced, that also we're going to have a generation of walk-in centres, then we're also looking to have Public Health Wales tests available at those as well, to make sure we can not just plug the gaps being created by the lighthouse lab programme challenges at present, but we'll have extra capacity in any event within the field. We're also using our mobile testing resources as infection rates climb in different parts of Wales. 

In terms of Mick Antoniw's points, on the point about reasonable excuse to travel, I think we've done all that we can in terms of trying to set out the guidance that is available about what is and isn't a reasonable excuse for travel. The challenge is that, if we provide even more extensive and detailed guidance, we'll end up with a thicket of rules, and it's a challenge for us. We will consider the points made in the reports from the legislation and justice committee, but we do need to think about when we get to a point when it's still practical for people to understand—and some of this does rely on the judgment of individual members of the public about what really is a reasonable excuse, to think about how they comply with the regulations rather than looking for a way to avoid them. And on your point about the local authority regulations and the guidance, we'll look at the guidance to see if that's there; I take on board your point and I'll check to see what is publicly available and where it is. I also take on board the point about the clerical error in the laying of the regulations—that was a one-off, and we have written to the Llywydd, I believe, to confirm that that is the case. We'll make sure that the committee are aware of that in the formal response to your report.

Turning to Mark Reckless, he is being consistent—I don't agree with him and he doesn't agree with me, but he's consistent in the position he's taken throughout the course of these regulations. In terms of the rising tide, to give you the example of Torfaen that he particularly focused upon, seven days ago, the rate per 100,000 in Torfaen was 22.3, today it's 47.9; you can see a significant increase in levels of the virus. And because we understand that the headline rates are likely to be an underestimation of the real position—and that's partly because of the lag in lighthouse lab testing—we can plot from that the level of people who may not be coming forward for testing. 

The other point I think it's important to remember to look at is the positivity rates—the numbers of people in every 100 who are testing positive—and again, the rate in Torfaen has increased over the last seven and 14 days. It really does, I think, justify—and it's supported by all local stakeholders—the measures that have been taken. Admittedly, we'll debate and the Senedd will be asked to vote on those regulations for the Vale of Glamorgan, Torfaen and Neath Port Talbot in the future.

I think Neil Hamilton is, again, being consistent with his deliberately offensive reference in saying that south Wales had been turned into a gulag. I think people who have families who have suffered in actual gulags will find that deeply unpleasant and in no way an appropriate reference to make in the democratic choices that we are making here today, and in the threat that we face in a public health pandemic.

In terms of Neil McEvoy's comments, the challenge is broadly driven by indoor contact in hospitality venues, but in particular within the home. I think there was an attempt to say that we should not lock down areas and we should not introduce local restrictions within Wales, because others are not taking different action in other parts of the UK. I think doing nothing because others are not acting is to surrender our ability to make choices in Wales to protect and keep Wales safe. And I don't think that that's an appropriate course of action at all. I think there was also a misunderstanding of the point and the purpose of testing. I think that it may be worth his while reading the specific advice that we had from our technical advisory group. I think that may help with some of the comments he made. He then also said that it was important to isolate the virus, whilst demanding that we had no travel restrictions in place at all. I think that's entirely a real misunderstanding of what we are trying to achieve and the point and purpose of these regulations. So, a rather disappointing and misplaced contribution.

The regulations that have been debated today reflect the careful consideration of how we balance individual freedom with managing the continuing threat of coronavirus and it weighs very heavily on the minds of Ministers who are making these choices that we are making really significant choices about people's individual freedoms, whilst, of course, trying to do the right thing to keep Wales safe. Our approach has been guided as always be the advice of the chief medical officer and his department, our scientific advisers, the technical advisory group and the study they do of evidence from within Wales, across the UK and beyond. 

As I said, I believe that we're taking specific and proportionate action in response to the rising tide of coronavirus cases within specific local authority areas. But, to finish, each one of us has a continuing responsibility to make choices and to follow the measures to keep us, our families, our loved ones and our communities safe. That means to keep a distance from each other when we're out and about, to wash our hands often and to work from home wherever possible. We need to wear a face covering in indoor public places, we need to stay at home if we've got symptoms and while we're waiting for a test result, and we need to follow any local restrictions that are in place. I ask Members of the Senedd to support these regulations and do our part, as elected Members, to help keep Wales safe.

15:25

Thank you, Minister. The proposal is to agree the motion under item 3. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Thank you. Therefore, the vote is deferred until voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

The proposal is to agree the motion under item 4. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I will again defer voting under item 4 until voting time.

Voting deferred until voting time.

15:30

The proposal is to agree the motion under item 5. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I will therefore defer voting.

Voting deferred until voting time.

The proposal is to agree the motion under item 6. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Yes. I will therefore defer voting on item 6 until voting time too.

Voting deferred until voting time.

That brings us now to a break. We will break for a brief period to allow changeovers in the Siambr. So, please suspend the broadcast.

Plenary was suspended at 15:30.

The Senedd reconvened at 15:36, with David Melding in the Chair.

15:35
7. Statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales: The Economic Resilience Fund—Phase 3

Item 7 is a statement by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales: the economic resilience fund—phase 3. And I call the Minister, Ken Skates. 

Diolch yn fawr iawn. As we have said before, the economic picture is stark and unstable, and its future path is intrinsically linked to that of the pandemic and, indeed, the end of the EU transition period. As the picture of the economic position emerges, this intricate balance between public health and the economy has been brought into even sharper focus over recent days, with the announcement of further national and local restrictions to control the spread of the virus as we enter the autumn and winter period. Given this fluid and rapidly evolving context, and as we look to find the balance between rescue and recovery, it's clear that there is a strong rationale for continued support for businesses, for people and for communities in Wales to help improve their short to medium-term prospects.

The UK Government's coronavirus job retention scheme, which will end next month, has been essential in protecting Welsh jobs, and it's delivered support at an unprecedented scale that can only be provided by the UK Government. We've consistently urged the UK Government to put in place new arrangements in parallel with the coronavirus job retention scheme being wound down. In particular, we've pressed for increased support for those sectors hit hardest, for greater efforts towards job creation as well as job security and more investment in training and skills, all of which would assist the economy to recover more rapidly. 

Support should be offered to help workers who are being made redundant now, and those who will be made redundant in the weeks ahead, as current employment subsidy schemes disappear. More needs to be done to help people find new jobs and incentivise employers to hire workers. So we welcome the Chancellor's decision to extend the value added tax reduction for the hospitality and tourism sector until March 2021, to extend repayment deadlines for businesses that have deferred VAT and to provide more flexible terms for businesses that have taken out Government-backed loans. However, overall, the measures announced, unfortunately, are unlikely to be sufficient to prevent a large rise in unemployment in the months ahead. More needs to be done, and we will continue to press the UK Government to take bolder steps to assuring our economic recovery and supporting future prosperity for businesses and for people across the UK.

To date, our economic resilience fund has already supported 13,000 businesses, helping to secure more than 100,000 jobs for our citizens. Our £1.7 billion business support package, equivalent to 2.6 per cent of our gross value added, aims to complement and supplement other UK Government schemes, and means that companies in Wales have access to the most generous offer of help anywhere in the United Kingdom.

Now, following the principles of providing enhanced support, yesterday I announced that the Welsh Government is making an additional £140 million available to businesses to help them deal with the economic challenges of COVID-19 and the UK's impending exit from the EU. The funding from the third phase of the ERF will see wider support being provided to secure jobs and help businesses develop, as well as additional help for firms affected by local restrictions. This new phase of the ERF will see £80 million being made available to help businesses develop and secure the employment of their workforces, through business development grants, but they will require firms to commit some of their own resources in return. Some £20 million of this budget will be allocated to supporting tourism and hospitality businesses that I know are facing particular constraints and challenges as we enter the winter months. The scheme will also reward those businesses that create new job opportunities for under 25-year-olds. Meanwhile, an additional £60 million will be allocated to support in areas that are subject to local restrictions. 

Finally, I am considering how to use the Development Bank of Wales to consolidate and secure long-term patient capital to small and medium-sized enterprises in Wales as we navigate through the coming months. The business development grants will be open to businesses of all sizes. Microbusinesses, those that are employing between one and nine people, will be able to apply for up to £10,000, on the condition that they match this with their own investment of at least 10 per cent. SMEs, those businesses that employ between 10 and 249 people, will be able to apply for up to £150,000. Now, small businesses will be required to match this with their own funds of at least 10 per cent, and medium-sized businesses with at least 20 per cent of their own funding. Large businesses, those that employ over 250 people, will be able to apply for up to £250,000, on the condition that they match this with their own investment of at least 50 per cent. There will be an element of discretion in the fund to enable higher levels of support for microbusinesses and SMEs in the tourism and hospitality industries.

The eligibility checker, for companies to find out if they can access funding from the third phase of the ERF, will be live next week. Companies that received grant funding through phase 1 and/or 2 of the ERF, or non-domestic rate-linked grants, could also be eligible for further support through the third phase of the ERF. A further £60 million, as I've said, will be provided to support companies that are forced to close or are materially impacted by the current local restrictions.

The nature of local restrictions may vary according to differing circumstances, and may create a financial pressure for the Welsh Government if it is not mitigated in full by any UK Government response. I can say, in designing this next phase of support, we carefully analysed the economic data and incorporated learning from other areas of the UK that have been subjected to local restrictions, including, importantly, Leicester and Aberdeen. We are conscious that introducing local restrictions will impact on local economies, on businesses and employees alike, and we are working with our local partners to explore ways in which businesses may need to be supported during this time to meet their needs and those of workers and communities.

Business Wales remains the first port of call for advice for businesses, and our existing range of financial support options for businesses still remains in place. COVID-19 is an issue affecting the whole of the UK. The UK Government has a continued role to play in shaping and providing local economic support. I'm in active dialogue with UK Government Ministers on this.

We are going through a time like no other. Coronavirus and the increasing risk of the UK reaching the end of the European Union transition period without a deal have placed incredible challenge on our businesses. This announcement, though, provides the reassurance that our businesses need at a time they need it most, that further support will be available. It also leaves us with the flexibility to respond to circumstances, as they may arise, which will be important over the coming tumultuous months. As a Welsh Government, we continue to do all that we can to back our businesses, our communities and our workers.

15:45

Can I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon and for, also, the additional support that he has announced to support businesses here in Wales? I do appreciate, Minister, as well, in your statement, your welcoming of the various schemes that the Chancellor has announced to support businesses across the United Kingdom. I'm sure that you will also agree with me, Minister, that measures such as the job support scheme will give employers the breathing space that they need to protect employees' jobs whilst navigating what is likely to be, as you have said, Minister, a very difficult winter. A subject to further protect businesses by extending loan deadlines and deferring VAT for tourism and hospitality sectors I think will also provide welcome benefit to many businesses here in Wales.

Turning to your statement, Minister, it's been my view that the funding that was provided by the UK Government to the Welsh Government should be allocated directly to businesses sooner rather than later to prevent businesses falling through the gap. I do appreciate that the Welsh Government has sought to mitigate some of the gaps and tailor certain policies with policies that have been brought forward by the UK Government. As of last month, I think I'm right to say—you will correct me if I'm wrong on this, but—only half of the £500 million from the economic resilience fund had actually been distributed. So, it would be useful to have a breakdown of that £500 million allocation: what was spent on phase 1 and phase 2, what was left over from phase 2, and how much, if anything, you expect to be left over at the end of phase 3.

I also welcome the news that £60 million will be specifically for areas where lockdowns have been reimposed, because I think businesses, specially smaller businesses and SMEs, need clarity on how to access the funds. I think it's crucial that those funds get to those businesses as soon as possible. If the funding is there, then it should certainly be distributed as quickly as possible, and perhaps you could tell us more about how these particular funds will be getting to the right businesses in a timely manner.

The Treasury announced that businesses in England that are required to shut because of local lockdowns will be able to claim £1,500 per property every three weeks. Now, I do appreciate that businesses are not required to close as part of local lockdown measures here, but that may be necessary, and also, effectively, some businesses are shut down by the restrictions in place. So, have you given any consideration to the introduction of a similar scheme here in Wales? I can see that wasn't mentioned in First Minister's questions and it wasn't mentioned in the statement, but I'm hoping that you might be able to give us some more information in that area.

We do need some targeted economic support for communities and different business sectors that are most adversely affected by the pandemic, and I appreciate you've ring-fenced funding for the tourism and hospitality sector, but I do wonder if you've considered specific support for other specific sectors.

I was a bit concerned—I've had some correspondence in regards to businesses being concerned that they have to, effectively, be unionised before receiving some funding. So, it would be helpful if you could perhaps allay some concerns of businesses in that regard, because, clearly, being part of a union is not always suitable for some businesses, employers or employees, and that would, obviously, disenfranchise quite a number of businesses across Wales.

Finally, I wonder what consideration has been brought forward for a more comprehensive spending review of priorities, perhaps looking at other areas within your portfolio that are perhaps less essential during this particular period in order to redirect funds appropriately during the pandemic, and I wonder what spending considerations you've given over the recent months in that regard. Thank you, acting Presiding Officer.

15:50

Can I thank Russell George for his questions and very constructive and positive response to the statement today? Can I put on record my thanks to Russell George and all opposition spokespeople for the regular opportunity to discuss the economic crisis that we face? I find their contributions, their ideas and their critique very welcome indeed. There were a number of important questions that Russell George posed, but can I just say that he was absolutely right in identifying the Welsh Government's role as being a supportive role in terms of the work that we do with the UK Government in trying to save jobs? We are all in the business of trying to rescue businesses and save jobs right now. We are working closely together. I have very regular calls with UK Government Ministers, and I have to say that, on occasions, the UK Government has responded to the Welsh Government's critique and to the Welsh Government's calls for changes to systems, and they've done so in a positive way. I can identify one specific case where that's happened, and this is important in regard to the jobs support scheme. With regard to the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, we called for a number of changes to be made and those changes were made, and, as a consequence of that, more Welsh businesses were able to secure support through that particular scheme. 

I welcome the jobs support scheme, very much so. It's absolutely vital that we avoided a cliff edge at the end of October. However, in our immediate assessment of the jobs support scheme, it has become apparent that a number of sectors and a significant number of businesses may not be able to draw down the support required in order to avoid job losses—that the intervention rate may not be significant enough. Therefore, whilst I welcome the jobs support scheme, I'd also urge UK Government Ministers to keep an open mind, to be very vigilant as to whether the scheme is operating as intended, and, if not, to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that as many businesses and as many workers as possible benefit. As I say, that happened with CBILS, and I hope that it will happen, if necessary, with the jobs support scheme. 

We always intended to deploy the economic resilience fund in phases. We simply couldn't have spent the £500 million in a single phase and expected businesses to weather a storm that could, and is likely to, last beyond the autumn of this year. It was always our intention, therefore, to retain funding for further rounds of support for business. I believe that is the right thing to do. We've allocated to date £480 million of the £500 million of the economic resilience fund. That, of course, is in addition to the £768 million that has been invested in businesses across Wales through the rates-related grant scheme. That means that we have £20 million in reserve, and that is important for a potential further round of local restrictions-linked support in the winter. I recognise that there's great urgency required in terms of how we deploy our funding, and Business Wales, as I said in my statement, will be going live with their eligibility checker next week. By the end of October, applications will have been made by businesses and I think, as we've shown in previous rounds of support, we'll be getting money out of the door into business accounts in no time at all once those applications have been processed. 

I can confirm as well that we're operating pretty much the same scheme as has been utilised in parts of England in terms of the grants that are being made available. And I should just say that no business is—as Russell George rightly said, no business is forced to close by the regulations, but it may well be that business owners feel that there is no option but to close, because of a loss of footfall and custom, and therefore there is the likelihood of a serious loss of income, of turnover, and therefore, in turn, it's vitally important that we step in and support those businesses on a rolling basis.

We've modelled how many businesses we can support with the £60 million of the local lockdown fund. We believe that, based on the current scenario across Wales, the current landscape, we'd be able to provide two rounds of funding to businesses through local lockdown interventions. That's a very significant period of support, because each period would likely last three weeks, and therefore this takes us through to the new year, when I say—. And I've already said, we've got £20 million in our reserve to deploy potentially a further round. That £20 million could also be utilised for not so much sector-specific support, but any particular sub-regional activity that needs to take place, if there is a significant loss of jobs in a particular area. And we're working with local stakeholders, with local government leaders, to ensure that, where there is a particular challenge, we're able to deploy funds in that area, working closely together with local authority officials. 

But there are other sectors that require urgent support—aerospace is perhaps the most obvious one. We've regularly called for a sector deal for aerospace, in light of the challenges that businesses are facing because of coronavirus. A taskforce has been established, led by Tom Williams, a superb expert in aerospace and aviation, and it's absolutely vital that we as a Welsh Government and the other devolved administrations play a full role in any activity concerning the response to the challenges that aerospace and aviation businesses face. 

Can I just also touch on another important point that was raised? It's not true that union recognition is an absolute requirement of funding, because it's not always viable for union recognition in every instance, but what we have said is that, as a consequence of receiving economic resilience funds, it's absolutely vital that a business has signed up to the principles of the economic contract and then develops a firm economic contract. And, as part of the process of developing that firm economic contract, we have invited trade unions to engage with businesses that have benefited from the public purse. And I think that's absolutely right as we strive to build back better, as we strive to ensure that the recovery is just and fair. We make no apologies for doing all we can to support not just businesses but employees as well.  

15:55

I'm grateful to the Minister for his statement today and for the positive engagement that he and Russell George have already referred to, across parties, during this crisis. And I'm very grateful that, in some of the announcements that the Minister has made today, he clearly has actively engaged with those discussions and has taken that on board, and particularly referencing here that I know that we've raised with him the potential impact of local lockdowns, and it's really pleasing to see the investment that he intends to make. 

Can I begin by asking for a little bit more detail on the likely eligibility for local lockdown resources? It may very well be, as the Minister said in response to Russell George, that businesses aren't required to close, and some of them may not close, but the impact on their trading may be really severe. They may feel that it's better to keep going on, particularly if it's only, let's say, a three-week lockdown, but their profits may absolutely fall through the floor. So, is the Minister anticipating that businesses will have to actually close before they can apply for support, or will there be some potential flexibility there? And can he tell us a little bit more about how those local lockdown grants are likely to be delivered? The Minister, obviously quite rightly, says that Business Wales will be the first port of call for the bulk of the economic resilience fund, but I'd submit that there may be a case for local government to be involved there. 

The Minister welcomes the job support scheme and, of course, everybody is glad to see the UK Government taking action, but, as the Minister has said, there are some businesses for whom that is not going to be helpful, that putting people potentially onto part-time work won't work.

I very much welcome the Minister's announcement of £20 million for tourism and hospitality businesses, but he also refers to businesses needing to use their own resources. Now, because of the impact that tourism and hospitality businesses faced earlier in the summer when they couldn't open at all, and, when they have opened in a responsible way, the business levels have dropped, and also, I'm sad to say, still some very bad practice by insurance companies of those businesses, some of those businesses, I would put it to the Minister, may very well not have resources that they can invest, and this would also be true for cultural businesses, like venues where gigs are held. So, I wonder if he can provide us with some reassurance that that will be taken into account and that, for those businesses that, for good reasons, don't have resources of their own to put in and may have exhausted their capacity to borrow, there will be some support available for them.

I wonder if he can tell us whether or not microbusinesses and sole traders are likely to benefit from this round. And I'd also like to ask whether the Minister is confident that Business Wales has got the capacity to deal with this new round of very welcome funding. We do need, as the Minister said himself, to get it out of the door. 

Finally, I'm very pleased to hear the Minister say that he's in active dialogue with the UK Government. I wonder if that dialogue—and it might not be his portfolio, but across Government—includes ongoing discussions about increasing the borrowing powers of Welsh Government, because it seems to me that in the longer term—a good partnership with the UK Government is, of course, desirable—but longer term, Welsh Ministers may wish to make substantial investments that their current borrowing powers won't allow. The Minister mentions the specific sector of aerospace, and I wonder if his dialogues with the UK Government—I'm sure they do—relate to support for the steel industry, because that is beyond the current capacity of Welsh Government financially. 

And finally, in those ongoing discussions with UK Government, can I ask the Minister once again if he will consider raising the case of those who have not been helped, particularly the people who were not helped by the furlough scheme? Some of them, of course, have successfully moved on, they're in other jobs, but some of them had to use all their savings. I've dealt with young people who've lost deposits for houses and people who've been partly self-employed who've had to spend their tax savings. So, can I ask him if he will agree with me that the campaign, ExcludedUK, does still have a case to make, and to ask the Chancellor whether there is any support that could be given to those who were not helped? I would, of course, ask if that could be done at a Welsh level, but I do understand what the Minister has said in the past about the capacity of the Welsh budget and needing to target support at keeping jobs going. But I think it is important for those many thousands of Welsh citizens who find themselves in that position at least that we acknowledge in this place that, by us, they are not forgotten.

16:00

Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her questions and her contribution, and can I say that Helen Mary Jones has had a hand in ensuring that the Welsh Government responds correctly and adequately to business needs? The regular conversations that we've had have helped to shape all three phases of the economic resilience fund, and I'm incredibly grateful for not just the support but the constructive criticism that has been offered.

I'm going to try to respond to all of the important queries that have been raised in the order that they were raised by Helen Mary Jones. First of all, with regard to eligibility, some businesses will not require co-investment. The £20 million fund for tourism and hospitality businesses allowed for discretion and therefore an 100 per cent intervention rate. It won't be necessary for all those businesses, therefore, who are applying for this support to co-invest. And I very much agree with Helen Mary Jones that a huge number of businesses in the tourism and hospitality sectors simply do not have any more financial resource to invest, and they've also in many instances exhausted all borrowing as well. Therefore, a 100 per cent intervention level will be required for many, many businesses. 

In terms of eligibility and the question of whether businesses will be required to close, the answer is 'no'. Businesses will not be required to close in order to secure funding. They'll have to be able to prove that they've been materially affected over the course of local restrictions being imposed, and that will amount to a drop in turnover of at least 40 per cent. We're working incredibly closely with local government friends and colleagues in terms of administering this third phase of support. I have to put on record my thanks to local government colleagues for the tirelessness of their endeavours in making sure that the first two phases of the ERF and the rates related grants were administered swiftly, and that support in terms of signposting businesses towards Business Wales was done correctly as well.

I have to say that alongside the support that we announced yesterday, my friend and colleague Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas also announced a £7 million fund for freelancers in the creative industries. This is proving to be a lifeline for many, many talented creative people, and I was delighted to see Dafydd Elis-Thomas make that announcement. 

And in response to the question about where additional flexibility is required by the Welsh Government, the Minister for finance has regularly spoken of the need for Welsh Government to be able to operate with a greater degree of flexibility, to be able to borrow more, and so forth, and that position remains the case. 

Steel is hugely important to the Welsh economy, and likewise automotive and aerospace businesses that are facing particular pressure and which require support beyond what the Welsh Government is able to afford. And in our regular discussions with UK Government counterparts, I impress upon Ministers the need to bring forward bold action to support these hugely important manufacturing sectors.

We'll also go on pressing the UK Government to be responsive and responsible in terms of supporting those who continue to fall through the gaps, who have yet to receive support that is absolutely required in order to ensure that their enterprises can survive this pandemic. I have to say that those discussions are not always fruitful, but equally, in many instances, as I outlined in my answers to Russell George, there have been positive responses on a number of occasions from counterparts, particularly within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Wales Office.

16:05

Thank you, Minister, for your statement, and can I endorse Helen Mary's comments with regard to our ability to have discourse with you, which allows us some input and gives us greater insight into your thinking behind the Welsh Government interventions?

There is no doubt that these interventions will be welcome news for those many businesses who are struggling, not just to stay open throughout COVID, but to survive in the long term. My party acknowledges here that your support over and above that given by the UK Government has been invaluable, and I have had many businesspeople confirm this to me. In fact, I even had one tell me he was thinking of voting Labour for the first time. Of course, I had to talk him out of that one. [Laughter.]

However, figures speak for themselves: phase 1 is said to have saved 56,000 jobs, followed by a further 18,000 in phase 2. I think you may have better figures than that, actually, Minister. However, Minister, do you not agree these are simply short-term measures, a fact which can be seen if we look at the funds available to qualifying microbusinesses—that is £10,000 if they put up 10 per cent themselves? Ten per cent, I feel, is a reasonable figure to ask of those businesses, by the way. But £10,000, even for microbusinesses, will only sustain them for a short period. What they desperately need to do is to carry on trading at the levels prior to COVID.

It is crucial, therefore, Minister, that Government lockdowns are only initiated when absolutely necessary. I'm sure you will agree, Minister, that pressure on all business operations is mounting daily, and we know the consequences will last for a long period of time. So, again, Minister, I thank you for these latest interventions, but if we continue with these lockdowns, I fear a large proportion of the business community will be lost forever.

Well, can I thank David Rowlands for the way that he has endorsed our actions to date? I really am very grateful for the comments that he's made today. And, yes, our actions have led to a very significant number of jobs being secured: more than 106,000 to date through the first two phases of the economic resilience fund and, of course, 16,000 jobs have been secured through the support that was brought forward by the development bank.

Members will be aware of the current rate of unemployment in Wales: 3.1 per cent. That's a full 1 per cent less than the UK average. Now, we know unemployment is going to rise, it’s going to rise sharply, but that 1 per cent difference between the Welsh average and the UK average amounts, in real terms, to about 15,000 people—15,000 people who may well have been unemployed at this point in time had it not been for the added value that we've brought through the first two phases of the economic resilience fund. And as I said just yesterday, to put that into perspective, that's the entire working population of Brynmawr and Ebbw Vale, or of Mold and Buckley. It's a huge intervention and I'm proud of the jobs that we have therefore saved, and I'm proud of the businesses that we have kept alive during this incredibly difficult period. But all of that hard work and investment could have counted for nothing had the job retention scheme ended with a cliff edge at the end of October, and that's why the job support scheme's so very important, and why our third phase of the economic resilience fund has to complement the job support scheme.

Now, business development grants—that £80 million of support that I've outlined—are about building resilience and adapting to the economy of tomorrow, but we also recognise that in order to reach the economy of tomorrow, many businesses required bridges, bridges through the autumn and the winter, and that's why we're rolling out that £60 million of support for those businesses that are going to be faced in the coming weeks and months by local restrictions. As I said in my answers to Helen Mary Jones, we are not requiring any businesses to close in order to draw down that funding, just to demonstrate that they are materially affected, and the amount of support that's being offered is, I think, sufficient for businesses to be able to survive those difficult periods of restrictions.

Business development grants and the ask for match funding, I think, demonstrate our desire to be able to move beyond coronavirus in a way that recognises certain sectors have great opportunities for jobs growth, and therefore the requirement of a contribution from businesses is absolutely right if we are to ensure that we maximise opportunities for growth in those sectors that are resilient and that are able to emerge rapidly. But, equally, there are some hugely important sectors, such as tourism and hospitality, where the intervention rate will be 100 per cent because, as I've already said, businesses are simply not able to borrow any more money or are not able to invest any of their own resources in their survival and their adaptation to the new norm.

16:10

Now, I've got five Labour Members and one more opposition Member who wants to contribute, so just a minute, please. I do intend to call you all, this is an important statement, but we are pressed for time also this afternoon. Dawn Bowden.

Thank you, acting Presiding Officer. Can I thank you, Minister, for your statement and for the additional information you've given us today because I'm sure that the further grants and support that you've announced will assist a number of businesses in my constituency, many of which— particularly in the hospitality sector—have contacted me expressing serious concern about how they can continue to operate within the new local restrictions that now apply in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, however necessary these restrictions might be? So, the £60 million for businesses specifically in these areas is particularly welcome.

However, one issue that I've been considering closely is the plight of major activity attractions in my constituency, like BikePark Wales and Rock UK Summit Centre, given that the local restrictions in Merthyr Tydfil have taken away their customer base, which is primarily from out of county. You've talked about particular support for the tourist industry, so can you tell me whether any consideration is specifically being given to such businesses that provide activities predominantly either outdoors or in facilities that have very large internal spaces? For example, is it possible that some limited easing of travel restrictions could be considered to allow these businesses in the environments that I've outlined to seek some resumption of activity, or are you confident, given the additional information you've given us today, that the additional support measures that you've announced will be sufficient to get these particular businesses through the current phase of new local restrictions?

Well, can I thank Dawn Bowden for her question and say that we start from a position of prioritising public health? We have to ensure that we get the virus under control within those areas that are subject to local restrictions. That's crucially important not just to the well-being and welfare and health of people, but also to the well-being of local economies and the economies of communities that Dawn Bowden has identified.

In terms of support for activity attractions that rely on footfall from beyond their borders, we cannot, I don't think, make exceptions to the rule. It's absolutely vital that we remain consistent because businesses across all sectors, I think, could make a very, very valid case for exemptions from the rules, and once you allow one, then you open the door to others seeking exemption from local restrictions. Instead, we believe that it's more important to offer a pan-economic response, and that's what we're doing with the £60 million of funding, but equally we recognised that businesses such as activity attractions that form part of tourism and hospitality required additional support, and that is why we have a further £20 million available for businesses to be able to get through this difficult period.

But in terms of local restrictions, the support is provided on the basis of this being a short-term temporary measure to see businesses through a period of around three weeks. That is the aim for the local lockdown fund, and it's based on having learnt from places like Aberdeen and Leicester that have gone through the process of applying local restrictions and supporting businesses. We are confident that, based on successful models elsewhere, the model here in Wales will be successful in getting businesses through very, very difficult periods. 

16:15

Thank you. I think you can hear me now. Thank you very much. I think manufacturing is absolutely crucial to the well-being of our future economy, and we saw what great work was done with getting manufacturers to make PPE during the pandemic. Most recently, we had the closure of the Ford Bridgend car plant, a victim of the UK's refusal to remain in the single European market, and the American multinational has now taken its investment elsewhere in Europe; our loss, some other country's gain.

So, I want to explore your strategy for redeploying those manufacturing skills of the Ford workforce amid this upheaval. For example, as you may have heard earlier, I today tried out an e-scooter, which has the potential to eliminate 17 car journeys for every e-scooter, and is obviously a great contribution to the climate emergency, because it only uses 2 per cent of the carbon emissions of a car. But it's currently manufactured in China; it could easily be manufactured in Wales, and the sort of skills that the Ford workers have could easily be redeployed.

Equally, I know that secondary headteachers in my constituency are crying out to source bicycles for their pupils who live further afield, to enable them to avoid the risk of having to travel by bus. These are things we could be doing in Wales, so is this something that you are centrally focusing on as one of your top priorities to ensure that we have the things in Wales that are fundamental to our foundational economy?

Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for the important points that she makes about manufacturing? Manufacturing businesses employ 10 per cent of the Welsh workforce. Across the UK, the equivalent percentage is 8 per cent, and so manufacturing is more important to Wales than it is to the UK generally in terms of the value that it adds the economy. Members may be aware that I recently launched a manufacturing plan for consultation. It's out for consultation until the middle of October; I'd encourage all Members to make their thoughts and views known in regard to the plan. It contains proposed actions that directly touch on what Jenny Rathbone has outlined: a need to reskill, a need to identify new opportunities for manufacturing businesses and workers.

I can say that in terms of the closure of Ford, I was listening diligently to questions to my friend and colleague Rebecca Evans earlier. A written statement regarding the closure of the Bridgend plant was issued on 24 September, and pretty much every member of staff at that plant received support from Careers Wales, through the regional employment response team, helping them identify what their skills are and how they might be able to capture employment opportunities at other businesses—or crucially, start their own business, and a good number of people at Ford have started their own businesses.

Jenny Rathbone will be aware that a jobs and skills matching service is being operated by Working Wales and that we recently announced an additional £40 million of funding for individuals to gain the skills or to reskill in areas of activity where we know jobs will be in existence in the years to come. I think COVID has demonstrated how many of our manufacturers are able to turn their hand to new opportunities as well. We know that, for example, at the advanced manufacturing research centre, a very significant number of aerospace workers turned their hands to producing PPE, and as a result of that work, we are now stealing a march on some international manufacturers in terms of producing vital equipment for our domestic market. So within the manufacturing plan, which is out for consultation at the moment, there is a very, very significant focus on shortening supply chains and reshoring manufacturing opportunities here in Wales.

16:20

I'm grateful to the Minister for his statement this afternoon. I particularly welcome, like others, the additional £60 million of support for businesses in the areas with special restrictions at the moment, and I know that is something that will be warmly welcomed in Blaenau Gwent. Can I ask the Minister to ensure that this additional support reaches small businesses particularly, and reaches people who are self-employed? I've been contacted by a number of businesses who are really very, very worried about the future, and they need this bridge to get them through these next few months to enable them to succeed in the future. Minister, could you also confirm that this is support for businesses who already comply with all their existing regulatory and legal responsibilities? We want to see a fair recovery from COVID, and we want to ensure that we play fair with businesses who are supporting the community already, and that the economic and social contract you've spoken about remains true as part of this additional support. And finally, Minister, you and I launched the Tech Valleys initiative some three years ago now in Ebbw Vale, to help provide significant investment into the local economy there. Can you confirm that the Welsh Government remains committed to that vision that we outlined some years ago, and that the Welsh Government will continue with that investment programme, through the COVID crisis, to ensure that we are able to continue to build an economic—to ensure that the economy of Blaenau Gwent continues to have this sort of investment that we require? Thank you. 

Can I thank Alun Davies for his comments and his questions? Normally, during the course of a recession, inequalities are blown wide open, and we are working tirelessly to make sure that, as we recover from coronavirus, we narrow inequalities within our regions and across the regions. And so, investment in the Tech Valleys initiative and investment in communities that the Member serves will continue. We are determined to ensure that, as we build back better, we do so in a way that is green, that is fair and is just. Economic contracts will be developed with those businesses that are in receipt of the business development grants, and the UK Government is working on replacement support for the self-employment support scheme. We need to ensure that our support for self-employed people dovetails with anything the UK Government brings forward in the weeks to come. I have to say that businesses that break any restrictions will not benefit from public investment if they are putting public health at risk. And so, there are powers that are available to local authorities; we made them available on 14 September. If they utilise them in regard to a business that is not following the restrictions, then we would refuse support to those businesses, because, as I say, we will not be rewarding businesses that put public health at risk.

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. My entire region is in lockdown now, so they will be very grateful to hear about the £60 million you refer to. But I've got some very specific asks from the tourism sector, the first of which you've already answered. I was very grateful to you for your answer to Helen Mary Jones that these businesses won't necessarily need to comply with certain conditions. But they are called development grants, and I'd be grateful if you could confirm today that they will available for a wide range of needs, not least staff retention and overheads, because this will still be about cash flow, rather than a fundamental flaw in business plans for so many of these businesses, particularly those who've taken a second lockdown hit. But I think the differences matter as well between these organisations, and that's why I raised animal attractions as needing very specific attention when I was speaking earlier today. I don't think the ERF can fully cover the needs of animal attractions without an understanding of animal welfare and additional requirements for that.

Another issue, thereafter, is some certainty. No doubt you'll say that we need to respond to the virus, but visitor attractions are responding to the virus—they're COVID compliant or they're not open, as we were just saying now. So, what can you say to attractions who need to plan now for a COVID compliant Christmas offer, particularly as they may need to turn to the ERF in order for them to prepare for that offer?

Finally, as this is part of your department as well, can you give us a little indication about how you're promoting this message to the public—that the visitor attractions are safe and open outside lockdown areas, and even within lockdown areas residents can still visit them for their physical and mental health? Diolch.

16:25

Minister, I do realise the Member didn't hear me stop her after 1 minute and 30 seconds—

—so I do apologise to the other Members, but I was trying to indicate that that contribution was too long, especially the final point that was made. But, Minister, please answer as crisply as possible.

Thank you. With regard to tourism-related businesses, we're obviously in ongoing dialogue with the UK Government. My friend and colleague Dafydd Elis-Thomas is in very, very regular contact with counterparts in the UK Government and has been pressing the case for a tourism and hospitality-related support package from the UK Government. Business development grants will require a business to demonstrate how they have a plan to get beyond coronavirus, to survive not just the immediate challenge but to thrive in the future.

I take on board very much the points raised regarding animal welfare issues. We're in discussions across departments within the Welsh Government regarding support that's required by animal visitor attractions. But, it has to be said that through the first two phases of the economic resilience fund we were able to invest very heavily indeed in zoos and other animal attractions.

In terms of the COVID-compliant Christmas offer that the Member suggested, I think it's probably retail that needs the greatest help in this regard. When I spoke to the Welsh Retail Consortium recently, they said that their message to consumers is to buy now and don't wait until just before Christmas—pace your purchasing—and I'd very much support that message to the population of Wales.

In regard to getting the message out more widely regarding attractions that are open, of course, the Welsh Association of Visitor Attractions has an important role in this regard, in making sure that the public are aware that visitor attractions are operating in a very safe, COVID-proof way. Dafydd Elis-Thomas and I both speak with visitor attractions that have shown incredible resource in adapting to coronavirus, that are operating safely and that are enjoying good customer feedback as a consequence of the responsible actions that they've taken. We want to be able to help businesses like those through the deployment of those business development grants, which will not just offer the bridge through coronavirus but an opportunity to bounce back once we're through this pandemic.

Minister, thank you for your statement this afternoon and for the work the Welsh Government is actually doing to support our businesses throughout this pandemic. I echo the concerns of Helen Mary Jones regarding the steel sector. I listened to your answers, but I have lost confidence in the UK Government at this point in time, particularly as Project Birch seems to have come to a halt. Therefore, I ask you not just to speak to them but to actually shout out loudly and call them out on Project Birch.

In relation to phase 3 of the ERF, can you confirm that businesses that may already have applied for support can still apply for more support from this fund? For example, I have a business in my constituency that provides sound engineering for major concerts and outdoor events. Now, they've not had any business since lockdown started, and they're unlikely to have any business for the next several months. They cannot, probably, afford to include funding to support that because they've had no income in that time. Can you confirm that businesses such as that are able to get funding from this fund to ensure that they can survive? Because they offer a fantastic service to the industry and the entertainment sector, but without that support they may not be here in six months' time. 

Can I thank Dai Rees for his questions and assure him that we make the case for the Welsh steel industry every single week that we have contact with the UK Government? It's absolutely vital that support is brought forward for the steel sector and, as I said earlier, for the automotive sector, for aerospace and for aviation.

In direct regard to the question that he raised about support through the third phase of the economic resilience fund, I can confirm that businesses that had previously applied for support, whether they secured it or not, can apply for this third phase of support from the economic resilience fund, because the type of support that we're offering on this occasion is different. It's about making sure that businesses can get through local restrictions and that businesses are able to adapt to the new economy.

16:30

And to finish this statement, a final question—Mick Antoniw.

Thank you, Minister, for your statement and for the details on this funding. Can I ask very crisply in respect of the coach and tour industry—? I have hundreds of people employed in my constituency who work in this industry, and I know you're familiar with it—can you consider whether it is appropriate for some of these companies to actually be categorised as transport as opposed to tourism and hospitality, which is as much a part of their business, because not being categorised as such disqualifies them from certain benefits in terms of VAT, in terms of council tax and so on? It seems to me that that would be of considerable assistance, particularly to coach companies in my constituency.

I very much welcome the statement in respect of aviation and your comments there. Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has called for changing the law to make it unlawful for companies to fire and then rehire on lower terms and conditions. Would you support a call for that law change? And also, in terms of grants, can you ensure that companies that adopt that course of action would not qualify ethically for Welsh Government support?

I thank Mick Antoniw for his questions. We'll certainly look at categorisation of coach companies. Coach companies of course will be able to apply for and, if they meet the criteria, will be able to secure economic resilience funding through the third phase, just as they were able to secure it during the first two phases of support.

I would also echo the comments that Mick Antoniw made in regard to firing and hiring. It's essential, as I said in response to an earlier contribution, that as we look to the recovery we attempt to narrow inequalities, to enhance fair working practices, rather than allow what happens in most circumstances when there's a recession, which is that you see workers' rights being depleted, you see inequalities widen, you see those communities that were left behind before a recession left behind even further once you emerge from it. That will not happen on this occasion. We are determined to ensure that we build a fairer and a greener and a more just economy.

8. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government: Town Centres: Securing their future

We now move to item 8, which is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government on town centres—securing their future. Hannah Blythyn.

Thank you, acting Deputy Presiding Officer. I wanted to take the opportunity to update members on the £90 million transforming towns package announced in January and the written statement issued shortly before summer recess on support for our town centres to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

A sense of pride in place is at the heart of communities right across the country. Places for leisure, living, working and learning. Towns that match the needs of today whilst remaining rooted to their proud heritage. The pandemic has neither changed our commitment nor our ambition. If anything, it has reinforced and reignited it. But it has changed the circumstances and accelerated well-established trends like the growth of online sales and pressure on the retail sector.

We've also witnessed more positive changes, with a new appreciation of the green spaces and nature on our doorstep and reduced traffic, congestion and, consequently, emissions, alongside a shift towards shopping local and the rise in popularity of outdoor markets. We must lock in these positive changes. Creating green and clean communities, with improvements like the greening of public space, addressing drainage and improving air quality, is central to shaping the town centres of tomorrow.

The transforming towns green infrastructure support is enabling us to put this aspiration into action today, with 20 projects worth a total value of £9 million, like the scheme in Newtown that will redirect rainfall from high-street buildings and car parks through sustainable drainage systems and create rain gardens and landscaped areas.

The COVID-19 pandemic makes it even more important for us to put our transforming towns agenda into action now, and we are putting it into action, enabling town-centre adaptations to support current circumstances but that at the same time could offer an insight into different ways of driving footfall in the future—from outdoor seating, shelter and heating for cafes and pubs, and outdoor waiting areas for salons in Monmouthshire, to social distancing signage and adaptations in 10 Anglesey towns, to providing lighting and power for outdoor markets in Neath Port Talbot. Swansea local authority alone has received over 200 expressions of interest and has been, in their words, overwhelmed by the relief and positive feedback from local independent businesses.

The Vale of Glamorgan is targeting accessibility, active travel and green infrastructure with new cycle racks, storage, planters, seating, footway widening to create space for businesses, lighting improvements and moveable stalls. The focus is on Barry, Cowbridge, Llantwit Major and Penarth, linking with a marketing campaign, financed by our transforming towns revenue funding to aid the recovery of those town centres.

This revenue funding is being put to use by local authorities to market town centres, dial-up digital solutions, improve appearances and tackle empty properties.

We know that long-standing empty properties are a blight on our communities. That's why I've brought in an additional £15.2 million fund to ramp up enforcement and have provided a further £10 million in loan funding to support businesses to revitalise empty properties. Applications are now in for the loan funding from local authorities and the money will be allocated shortly. 

Supporting and securing the future of our towns in a way that brings benefits for our people, our places and our planet is a cross-Government priority. Whether it's the local sustainable transport fund promoting active travel solutions, support for major tourism initiatives, investment in landmark heritage projects, funding for community projects, or the local places for nature grants, towns across Wales are benefiting from cross-Government intervention.

COVID-19 means that we must be even more determined about putting into practice our town-centre-first principle, working collaboratively and in partnership both within and outside of Government. It will require a new way of working at the centre of Government. My colleagues in Welsh Government have agreed that town-centre first will be the lens through which every new idea will be considered. That is requiring new ways of working within Welsh Government and with our partners to ensure that we spot the creative opportunities to bring new economic opportunity and vibrancy back to the centre of our communities.

As well as boosting footfall and employment, town-centre locations bring environmental benefits, with opportunities for green infrastructure, both in terms of public spaces and places for reuse and repair, and co-location, reducing the reliance on long commutes and car journeys.

This Government has made clear its commitment to enabling people to work closer to home, working in a way that could improve both livelihoods and lifestyles. Co-working spaces or hubs co-located within town centres support regeneration and economic activity and underpins our town-centre-first approach. 

Over the years, as the way in which we work and live has changed, so has the way we use our town centres. To help us rise to the challenge of this change and recognising that it is not Government alone that has all the answers or a role to play, I have established the ministerial town-centre action group, with external expertise, supported by multidisciplinary regional action groups to identify and prioritise actions that will bolster our town centres in the short and long term. 

Community engagement and empowerment is central to this. This is not just about places but the people that make them, and it is only right that they shape their future. The action group will be prioritising this issue and we're also conducting a communications campaign to engage local businesses and communities and link with local authorities' marketing of their town centres.

We are all in no doubt that town centres across the UK face challenges. Here in Wales, supporting them through COVID-19 and into the future remains a priority for this Government. Our towns matter; they matter to me and they matter to people throughout Wales. They're not just centres of business and trade, important though that is, they are places that matter to us on a much more intrinsic level, places that are part of who we are and where we're from. Places that we all want to see not simply get by but come back better, reaffirming our pride in place to bring benefits for our local communities, economy and environment.

16:35

You refer to the £90 million transforming towns package announced in January and the written statement that you issued shortly before summer recess on support for our town centres to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. Your written statement on 15 July, announcing a £9 million fund, stated that £5.3 million of this was from the transforming towns programme and £3.7 million from Valleys taskforce funding. Is this, therefore, new funding or part of the £90 million already announced in January?

The UK Government has announced a £3.6 billion towns fund to support towns across England. Although most of this funding came from UK Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government departmental spending for England, which did not, therefore, generate additional Barnett consequential funding for the Welsh Government, all of the funding for the towns fund in England is drawn from pots that will generate funding for the Welsh Government. Given that the Welsh Government will therefore make its own decisions on how to spend this, will you be spending at least an equivalent sum on transforming towns in Wales?

Small towns in Wales account for almost 40 per cent of the whole population of the country. Five of the 10 most deprived areas in Wales are located within towns, including Rhyl, Wrexham and Merthyr Tydfil. A Welsh Conservative Government would therefore establish a £200 million seaside town fund and market town fund to help regenerate Wales's local communities, which would help level up investment across Wales and, critically, enable communities to decide how the fund is to be invested within their local area.

How, therefore, would you respond to the statement by FSB Cymru, the Federation of Small Businesses, that we need a new approach for our high streets, including publishing town strategies in every town, ensuring the ownership is local, and businesses, voluntary and public sectors are engaged, establishing a property register where interventions often fail with absent or unidentifiable landlords, to build a basis for engagement, and rethinking the role of business rates in towns, replicating the English relief of high-street businesses?

Your statement in July stated that the £9 million fund would complement the Welsh Government's local sustainable transport fund and make it safer and easier for people to get around their local town. You also state today that the greening of public space, addressing drainage and improving air quality are central to shaping the town centres of tomorrow. How do you therefore respond to the call by the Royal National Institute of Blind People Cymru and Guide Dogs Cymru for the Welsh Government to ensure that people with sight loss, and other disabled people, are not unfairly disadvantaged by changes to the built environment, or any other measures taken in response to coronavirus?

Your statement in July also stated the £9 million fund would complement funding to support business improvement districts' running costs for three months. A business improvement district is where local businesses—[Inaudible.]—and work together with partners to form a group to invest money and make improvements to an area. However, when I checked the Welsh Government website today, it stated that there are currently only 16 business improvement districts in Wales that could only get—[Inaudible.]—support up to March 2020, is available for each proposed business improvement district area. So, what, please, can you update us, is the current position with them?

Finally, you state today that community engagement and empowerment is central to identifying and prioritising actions that will bolster our town centres, and that the ministerial town-centre action group will be prioritising this. When I questioned you about this in January, referring to the extensive work carried out by the Carnegie Trust on the enabling state and 'Turnaround Towns', which found the future of our towns is about more than just the high street, it's also about residents' access to levers of change and their ability to influence decisions, and that communities are best placed to bring a wealth of local knowledge and collective energy to the decisions that affect them, you replied:

'One of the things we are doing as part of this package is looking in terms of how we can take forward more of a communications approach with communities, to work with them, to actually talk about the support that we're talking about and get their input'.

So, finally, what concrete measures have you therefore put in place since January to make this happen? Diolch yn fawr.

16:40

Can I thank the Member for a number of questions and points that he made in response to the statement there? I'll try my best to endeavour to cover them as fully as I can. In respect of any consequentials, the Member was right, we did not receive any additional funding, but the £90 million that we've put in to our transforming towns by far dwarfs any consequentials that we get from the UK Government, and we are very much committed to supporting our town centres, as I outlined in this statement and prior to this. And although the transforming towns is a £90 million loan, this is not the only investment that is going into our towns; there's investment from across Government, from tourism, from Local Places for Nature and from a huge amount of things, not to mention the business support that has been enabled through the economic resilience fund.

The Member referred to FSB Cymru and their report and the comments they've made, and I made clear in my statement that I don't believe Government alone has all the answers, all the suggestions, for how we rise to the challenge. And I very much welcome that FSB Cymru, along with other partners and stakeholders, are part of the ministerial action group that is helping with taking us forward in terms of, actually, how we address a number of priority challenges within Wales when it comes to our town centres. That engagement with communities is part of it, because, actually, for something to succeed, the community needs to be part of shaping that and to continue and take it forward. One of the means I'm looking to do is actually making sure that community and town councils, who are often embedded in the local communities through various roles that they play, are actually able to access and have greater influence in terms of the local authority and in accessing support for their towns themselves.

I did mention in the statement, if the Member recalls, about a communication campaign, and this would be looking at a pilot in a number of areas, in geographically spread areas right across Wales, on actually how we better pilot ways of engaging with people to not only talk about the investment that has happened, but make sure they shape any investment in the future.

The Member specifically referred to towns in north Wales such as Rhyl and Wrexham, and, to all Members, I am more than happy to supply a more detailed exhibition map in terms of what investment is going into those towns and across Wales.

16:45

I thank the Deputy Minister very much for her statement. As she says, our towns are very important to us, and I'm sure that she'd agree with me that the crisis has highlighted just how important local communities are, but that we will also be perhaps using our towns and our town centres in different ways, partly as a result of the crisis.

The Deputy Minister mentions in her statement opportunities for more local shopping, and, while I'm sure that that is the case, it's also true, for example, that many people have moved towards online shopping rather than shopping directly at all. So, I'm wondering what assessment the Deputy Minister has made or could make of the sorts of businesses that people are currently using more of in our town centres and might be persuaded to use more of as we move forward, because I think it's important that we target encouragement and support at those businesses that are most likely to be successful.

The Deputy Minister mentioned local working hubs. I was very glad to hear her mention those. I wonder if she can say a little bit more in her response to me about how that work is developing. Who does she see developing those hubs? Is that a job for local authorities, is it local co-operatives? I wonder if she has had any discussions with some of the large employers. We've seen big employers in Cardiff, for example, like Admiral and Lloyds, have their staff working from home. For some people, they'll want to continue working from home; many of them would like to work more locally. Is there a role for those big companies, potentially, in investing in that kind of local working hub in some of our Valleys towns, for example?

The Minister makes some references to re-purposing of public spaces that has already happened, but I know that she's very aware that there's a very complex regulatory regime around changing how public spaces are used, and I wonder if she can reassure us that she is working with colleagues across Government to make it easier for local authorities to make those changes, always bearing in mind, of course, the caveat that Mark Isherwood has mentioned about needing to make sure that any of those changes do not create difficulties for disabled people, or, indeed, parents with prams.

I wonder if she's given any consideration to what further might be able to be done to enable more people to actually live in our town centres. She'll be aware of the work that was done recently, in the last couple of years, by Carmarthenshire County Council, where they purchased some disused big shops in the town centre, broke them into smaller units and then converted the spaces above those shops into flats that are now used, and, of course, that means that people are in the town centre, they're using local shops when they can, using local pubs and cafes, and I wonder if the Minister would join me in congratulating Carmarthenshire for that and whether she thinks that's an approach that might be used further.

Finally, and with thanks for your indulgence, acting Presiding Officer, I wonder what further consideration the Deputy Minister and her colleagues have given to the impact of the business rates regime on, particularly, small businesses in the town centres and whether any further work needs to be done to encourage particularly new and innovative small businesses to get off the ground, some of which might be deterred by the business rates regime as it is, and whether there is further work that she and her colleagues across Government could do in that regard.