|Statement by the Llywydd|
|1. Questions to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales|
|2. Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition (in respect of his European transition responsibilities)|
|3. Statement by the First Minister: Delivering the International Strategy|
|4. Topical Questions|
|5. 90-second Statements|
|Motions to elect Members to Committees|
|6. Motion to approve the Senedd Commission's Budget 2021-22|
|7. Debate on Petition P-05-1060 Allow supermarkets to sell 'non-essential' items during movement restrictions|
|8. Debate on the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee's Report on the Impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the creative industries|
|9. Debate on the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee Report: Public procurement in the primary economy|
|10. Welsh Conservatives Debate: The Armed Forces|
|11. Voting Time|
|12. Short Debate: Tackling waiting times for treatment in the Welsh NHS|
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 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
A warm 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 Chamber and others joining by video-conference. 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 set out on your agenda. I would also remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Chamber as to those joining virtually.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales, and the first question is from Mark Isherwood.
1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses in north Wales? OQ55812
The pandemic, along with the imminent end of the European Union transition period, is causing a very uncertain and worrying period for businesses across north Wales. The greatest risk, of course, to the economy is in not doing enough, soon enough, which is why our £1.7 billion package of support is the most generous anywhere in the United Kingdom.
Thank you. Last week, a survey on the impact of lockdowns on the tourism, hospitality, retail, leisure sectors and their supply chains in north Wales, conducted by North Wales Tourism with support from the North Wales Mersey Dee Business Council, was published. Carried out over four days, from 21 October, with 364 businesses responding from across the region, this found that 31 per cent would be making further staff redundancies before the end of March 2021, that 39 per cent would cease trading if there are any further national or local lockdowns before then, and that 81 per cent of respondents stated that their mental health had been negatively impacted running a business under pandemic circumstances. How do you therefore respond to their call for meaningful regional and local business engagement with you, across all sectors, before any more lockdowns come, to include the outlining of the process of entering the next new lockdowns, the evidence for the decision making, operational guidance for businesses and details of the business support available, before any lockdowns begin?
Can I thank Mark Isherwood for his supplementary question and say that we are acutely aware of the very severe effects of coronavirus not just in terms of public health, but also in terms of the mental and emotional resilience of citizens and, of course, those people in charge of businesses across the length and breadth of Wales? The survey does point to many factors that need to be addressed not just by the Welsh Government, but also, of course, by the UK Government. And in my engagement with representative organisations and businesses direct, the primary call in recent months has been for the furlough scheme to be extended through to March. That has now happened. We wish it would have happened earlier because, of course, businesses need certainty.
I can say, with regard to tourism and hospitality businesses in north Wales, that more than 1,200 micro- and small and medium-sized enterprise businesses in those sectors in north Wales have succeeded in drawing down funding from the first two phases of the economic resilience fund, and in north Wales, a further 105 businesses within tourism and hospitality have been successful in drawing down funding from the Development Bank of Wales. This points to the most comprehensive and generous package of support anywhere in the United Kingdom. Of course, the 17-day firebreak was difficult for businesses, there is no doubt about that, but it's better to have a 17-day firebreak than a four-week lockdown, which was necessitated by the UK Government delaying its actions.
I welcome the funding provided to businesses across north Wales, and in my constituency, through the various phases of the economic resilience fund. But I still see businesses who can't access support because, for example, they aren't registered for VAT or because they don't employ people through PAYE. Now, I welcome the fact that there will be a fourth phase of the ERF, but can the Minister tell us what assessment he wants to see made of those businesses, or those business sectors, who have lost out on all opportunities to access support to date? And will it be possible to change the requirements in the future so that those businesses can bid for funding from the next rounds of support available?
Can I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for his question? A number of Members have asked similar questions in recent weeks, and I can confirm that there is discretion within the third phase of the economic resilience fund, within that £200 million of lockdown business grants that are available across Wales, to enable those businesses that have fallen through the gap, so far, to get necessary support. I'm also pleased to be able to tell the Member for Ynys Môn today that, with regard to the third phase of the economic resilience fund, more than 940 awards have already been made to businesses in his constituency, supporting and securing work for more than 3,500 people. That shows the value of the latest phase of the economic resilience fund, a fund that is part of the most comprehensive and generous package of support for businesses anywhere in the UK.
Minister, coronavirus has, quite clearly, taken its toll on businesses in north-east Wales, and I have been calling on the UK Government to support the industry in this area, and their failure and slowness to react has cost jobs. Now, the Welsh Government must do all it can to continue to help. Since being elected to this Senedd, I've been a big supporter of the Heathrow logistics hub, that could be sited at Tata steelworks in Shotton, and the advanced technology research area and the Northern Gateway at Sealand. Can you update the Chamber on how the Welsh Government can support projects such as these?
Well, can I thank Jack Sargeant for raising the potential of his constituency in important sectors within the Deeside and wider Flintshire area? I can also confirm to Jack Sargeant today that more than 3,500 awards have been made to businesses as part of our £1.7 billion package of support. That's a huge reach across Flintshire in supporting businesses and working people. There are a number of exciting projects that we are leading on as well. With regard to the advanced technology research centre, we are leading a cross-Government team. That team comprises of, obviously, Welsh Government, but also the Defence Electronics and Components Agency, the UK Government and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. A hugely important programme of work is under way there regarding ATRC. We're also working with Airbus on the Wing of Tomorrow programme, and Jack Sargeant will be aware of the value of the advanced manufacturing research centre in capturing that vitally important programme of work.
I am extremely excited by the proposed logistics hub at Tata in Shotton. A master plan of the Deeside site was commissioned by my officials to support the Heathrow development, and that's now being used by Tata Steel as a prospectus to attract investment not just from Heathrow, but from a number of investors across a number of different sectors. My officials are working very closely with Tata, I can tell Jack Sargeant, to understand some of the barriers to developing such a facility, and they're also looking at how they may be able to open up a third access to the site.
And, then, finally, with regard to the Northern Gateway site, we are working towards an agreement with landowners on the Northern Gateway site, with the intention of investing key infrastructure, which will facilitate access to 200 acres of commercial development land, and those negotiations are at a very advanced stage. It's expected that this agreement will then be followed, very swiftly indeed, by private investment and employment projects, and I'm looking forward to making a very positive statement regarding that in the near future.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on support for businesses in South Wales Central in light of the coronavirus pandemic? OQ55825
Yes, of course. We're doing everything possible to support businesses across all parts of Wales. In the Vale of Glamorgan, for example, 612 microbusinesses and small and medium-sized enterprises have been awarded funding through the Wales-only economic resilience fund, securing thousands of jobs, and, of course, our £200 million-package of lockdown business grants is still open for applications.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. Obviously, regrettably, one line of support—the business development grant— was closed after 24 hours. In one message it said that it was for assessment of the bids, and the other message said that it had been fully subscribed. Can the Minister give any confidence today to the argument that this fund should be reopened, if it attracts additional funding from within Government, and that those that had applied and, sadly, had not been successful will get a second chance if the fund is reopened?
Well, I can say to Andrew R.T. Davies that we are currently assessing the applications that have been made so far. Indeed, money has already been awarded. As part of the economic resilience fund, phase 3 has already delivered more than £40 million of awards to businesses. There was a need to act with urgency in each of the phases. That includes phase 3. That's why we paused the process of the development grant applications, so that we can assess them swiftly, so that we can get money out to businesses. There's been some misunderstanding as to the purpose of the development grants. These are development grants; they are not emergency cash awards. That's the local business lockdown fund that is available to all businesses still. Of course, we will be learning from the applications that have been submitted so that we can shape a fourth phase of the economic resilience fund to business needs, and if that means developing a new form of development grant funding, then that will be made available to businesses. We are currently working on a mechanism for expressions of interest to be made through the Business Wales website. So, I would say to any business that intended to apply, 'Hold on to your applications and, importantly, hold on to all of your supporting documentary evidence as well because that could be crucially important in the weeks to come as we move from economic resilience fund phase 3 through to economic resilience fund phase 4.'
Since COVID, the Royal Mail service in the Rhondda has deteriorated dramatically. Constituents have reported examples like a first-class letter taking eight days to get from Porth to Pentre, and another six days to get from Porth to Pontypridd. People are being told to make appointments with the sorting office in Clydach if they can't wait for urgent mail. Now, this would be bad enough in normal times, but with increasing numbers of people working from home, and increasing numbers of people waiting for urgent medical appointments, this is hampering the local economy, as well as people's health. I wrote to the Royal Mail almost a month ago, asking them for improvements and for an explanation, and I'm still waiting for a reply. In the light of the problems this is causing to so many people in so many communities in the Rhondda, what can the Government do to address this issue? Can you remind the Royal Mail of their responsibilities and their duties to our communities right throughout this country?
Can I say to Leanne Wood that I'm very, very disappointed to learn about the level of service that's being offered to her constituents in the Rhondda? And, of course, whilst businesses must operate in a COVID-safe way, which can sometimes lead to delays in terms of the services that are provided, this is disappointing news, and I will make enquiries on behalf of the local Member, taking up the issue with Royal Mail. As soon as I hear back, I will be in touch.
Minister, many tens of thousands of workers in Wales are employed on a self-employed basis, or as freelancers. Many of my constituents are in that situation, and, of course, the main source of support for them has been the self-employed income support scheme. Now, can I firstly say how important to those individual businesses the cultural resilience fund has been—the freelancers fund—and many people have benefitted from that. But the main source of support is obviously UK Government support. Now, there are five million self-employed people in the UK, which leads to about probably 250,000 to 300,000 or more within Wales, which means that, literally, 50,000, 60,000, 70,000 of them will be getting no support whatsoever. Many of them are my constituents, and I've had representations from them to this effect. What more can be done to actually support the self-employed and freelancers? What representations are being made to the UK Government in respect of the self-employed income support scheme? The Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors described the fund as wasteful, misdirected and badly targeted. Do you agree with that, and do you agree that there's a need for a real new initiative to support self-employed workers within Wales?
I think there's always more that could be done in terms of being responsive and responsible. We are pressing UK Government to be more responsible and responsive to the needs of self-employed people and freelancers, to those people who continue to fall through the gaps, who have yet to receive support in the way that Mick Antoniw has identified. And, here in Wales, we have plugged many of those gaps with the creation, as has been noted already, of the culture recovery fund, the freelancer fund. The discretionary assistance fund has received additional financial support, and, of course, we've established discretionary awards for local authorities to make, amounting to £25 million, and those grants are available to sole traders, obviously subject to certain criteria. But this shows how we are stepping up, plugging gaps created by UK Government support schemes. But we continue to press the UK Government to do more to address the needs of self-employed people and freelancers.
Questions now from party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. If I can begin by returning the Minister to the third phase of the economic resilience fund—and we did, of course, have an opportunity to question him about the situation, about having to close early, last week. There is, of course, the saying that a week is a long time in politics, and I wonder if the Minister can tell us is he yet able to give us a timescale by when he expects his officials to have been able to process all those applications, to sort out, as he's already intimated in his reply to Andrew R.T. Davies, those that were, in fact, better suited to emergency support and those that are development opportunities. And does the Minister expect to be able to reopen that fund, or, given the scale of applications that he's already received, is it likely that, in fact, we'll be looking to a further tranche a little later on in the year?
So, it does certainly look as though a further tranche of support is going to be required later on in the year, and I would, rather than give an indication that the third phase would be potentially reopened, rather state that a fourth phase of the fund is going to be available to businesses. I wouldn't want to create any artificial expectations that the third phase could be reopened. There may be underspend in the development grants fund. If there is underspend in that particular fund, then we would seek to utilise it for the fourth phase. But, as I've said to Andrew R.T. Davies, I'd urge any businesses that took the time to put together applications, with all of the supporting evidence, to hold on to those applications in readiness for the expression of interest mechanism going live on the Business Wales website later this autumn.
We have, of course, already begun the process of awarding funds to businesses seeking development grants. I've already identified, I think, in committee, some really good examples of businesses that submitted successful applications. And so far, as part of the ERF phase three, a total of 14,000 awards have been made, amounting to more than £43 million. So, speed is of the essence. We're meeting the demand in terms of speedy payments of emergency cash. But of course I do recognise that demand for development grants was overwhelming, which is why we're learning as fast as we possibly can so that we can shape the next round of support according to what businesses really need.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his answer and for some of the private conversations he's had with me, and I know with spokespeople of other parties, in this regard. I wonder if he can take the opportunity to just lay out a little bit more for us the lessons learnt from the issues that arose with phase 3 intimated in his answers already with regard, for example, to an expression of interest process, which may help weed out applications that are not suitable.
And with regard to what that fourth phase might address, the Minister will be aware that I've got ongoing concern about businesses that ought to, or have to, as it were, hibernate—those businesses that simply cannot trade, or cannot trade with any kind of profit, until we have a vaccine and until we can get back to some kind of normal. And that's everything from—I know I've mentioned to him in the past things like clothing hire, live music venues, which may be able to open with socially distanced gigs, but won't be able to make any money, and certain sorts of holiday businesses. Obviously, the fact that we now have furlough will be of huge assistance to those businesses, but they do have some ongoing costs for some other things, like rent, maintenance of equipment and loan servicing. Will the Minister undertake to give some consideration with the fourth phase as to whether there should be some targeted specific help to businesses in those sectors, bearing in mind what he said before about any business that was viable in February this year, we want it to be viable and contributing to the economy in the spring of next year?
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her question and also welcome the incredibly valuable conversations that we've had during the course of the pandemic, and that we've had with other opposition spokespeople as well? Your input has been hugely important in helping to shape the Welsh Government's response to the economic crisis. And, of course, some of those sectors and sub-sectors that you've identified to date will undoubtedly bounce back quite rapidly when—hopefully—an array of vaccines are deployed. What's required in the meantime is the support to cover various other fixed costs over and above labour costs. Of course, the furlough scheme's extension is very welcome, but the point of the local lockdown business fund is to make sure that we provide emergency cash to support businesses in paying those other costs, whether it be rent, heat and so forth, and we will utilise the fourth phase of the economic resilience fund to ensure that we create that bridge from now through to the point where we know businesses—viable, good businesses—can operate successfully again.
And in terms of some of the specific support that may be considered, as part of economic resilience fund phase 3, we did provide a ring-fenced fund of £20 million for tourism and hospitality businesses. We're going to be assessing how effective that has been. There have also been other interventions in other departments, for example, the culture recovery fund, which has been important for businesses within the arts and culture sector. Again, we'll be learning lessons from those in what will be, I think, a crucially important fourth round of support for businesses to see them through to the end of the first quarter of Q1, to that point when many scientific experts are suggesting that life could return to something of a norm.
I'm grateful to the Minister for that. If I can take us in a slightly different, more medium-term direction, we were very grateful for the Minister's input to our discussions in committee this morning, and one of the areas that we touched on was the way in which—. Equality organisations have been saying to us as a committee that equality considerations, fairness, haven't always been easy to mainstream into economic development policy. There have been specific initiatives, but it's not necessarily been mainstreamed.
The Minister, I'm sure, will acknowledge that, in order to discover whether any future initiatives are working, there needs to be an effective monitoring system, but also that we don't want to make that too bureaucratic for businesses to respond to. So, can I ask the Minister this afternoon if he'll give consideration to working with partners who are experts in this field, both in terms of sex equality, race equality and thinking of the disability movements as well, to see if we can generate a simple system whereby he will be able to monitor, and therefore those of us on the appropriate committee will be able to monitor, whether his intentions with regard to mainstreaming a fair work agenda, really addressing some of the disparities between men and women in the job market, disparities between black people and people of colour—? Is it possible, and will he give consideration to creating a really robust and clear system that isn't too bureaucratic but whereby we can actually see what's happening when it comes to building back better in this regard?
Well, I really welcome the Member's question. I think it's worthy of further discussion, and I'll certainly be in touch to discuss this important proposition. I think refreshing the economic contract is hugely important—that's taking place right now, and it gives us an opportunity to look at how we can develop those monitoring systems in the most effective way. We're always open to challenge; we're always open to advice and support. That's why we've drawn in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to assess the future of regional investment. And, of course, the economic action plan was designed to drive inclusive growth, to narrow inequalities, and, at the same time, to invest or turbo-charge, if you like, the industries of tomorrow.
During the course of the pandemic, an important group that has met very regularly has been the socioeconomic black, Asian, minority ethnic COVID-19 advisory group, and, of course, we're really keen to make sure that the recommendations of that group are incorporated into the work of Welsh Government across all departments, within all portfolios, including within mine, and, crucially, the refresh of the economic contract. But, certainly, I'd very much welcome further discussions with the Member concerning the suggestion that she's made today.
Diolch, Llywydd. I have to say, Minister, you look well-suited in that particular seat in the Chamber this afternoon.
Minister, I would welcome the additional £600 million that was announced by the Chancellor last week in guaranteed consequentials to the Welsh Government, and that's, of course, on top of the £1.1 billion guaranteed earlier this year. That brings the total amount of additional funding by the UK Government to £5 billion to fight the pandemic here in Wales. Now, I realise the announcement was only last week, however can you tell me how much funding is still in the Welsh Government's coffers rather than being distributed to businesses to support them during this pandemic?
Can I thank Russell George for his question? I have to say that it rather worries me that so many Conservatives cheered when he suggested that I suit the First Minister's chair. [Laughter.]
First of all, I just want to say I don't want to be petty, I don't want to be political. At a time of national crisis, it's really important that parties set aside their differences and focus on what unites them as much as possible, focus on the common cause. So, I will start my answer by saying I very much welcome every penny that the UK Government makes available to combat the economic crisis that we face. I'm keen to work with UK Government Ministers wherever and whenever I can. I think that's what the public expects of us—to put aside partisan differences and to work in common unity.
With regard to the consequentials, I'm afraid it's probably a question best targeted at the finance Minister, and certainly I will ask her to respond to it in detail, but I can say that, in terms of the available funding for businesses, the finance Minister has already set aside £300 million of extra funding, should it be needed, and in all probability it will be. That will form the fourth phase of the economic resilience fund. And we're also looking at how we can utilise the underspend from the first phase of the economic resilience fund. Members will recall that, with the non-domestic rates related grants that were administered, there is an underspend of £35 million there, which we could repurpose, and we're looking at how we may do that. At the moment, I think we're favouring an expansion of the discretionary awards that local authorities make, because it's my view that local authorities know their areas, their communities, their businesses, extraordinarily well across Wales and therefore having that ability to invest more on a discretionary basis makes perfect sense.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. I align myself to your views as well. I think it's better that parties work together, where that can happen. It was a question I did raise last week, and perhaps you are right to say this is a question for the finance Minister, but Cardiff University has estimated more than £1 billion remains unallocated from existing Welsh Government budgets, so I'm really hoping that the Welsh Government, in terms of whether it's yourself or the finance Minister, can confirm, if this is the case, why the Welsh Government is not committing this money now to support businesses rather than holding it back. So, I appreciate part of that question is to the finance Minister, but certainly I would welcome your perspective in terms of that money that the Welsh Government has in its reserves being spent in your portfolio area. And, if you would agree with that, is this the kind of conversation that we can expect you to have with the finance Minister?
Yes, and the First Minister has been very clear that consequentials that stem from an increase in spending on business support in England will be allocated to business support in Wales. The problem that we face within Welsh Government is continued uncertainty about the funds that are available. This is a marathon as well; this will go on for many months. This will go on, in many respects, for several years. There will be the economic aftermath of the immediate crisis, and we know that there will be increased costs associated with pretty much all public services, and therefore it's right and responsible to retain some firepower for later in the autumn and for into the new year. That's why think it's vitally important that the finance Minister has put into a reserve £300 million of business development support.
Thank you for your answer. I'll perhaps move on from this point to my final point or question today. When we refer to supporting businesses, we're of course talking not so much about big businesses with mountains of reserves, we're talking about those small family firms, those small businesses, that are run by individuals. Businesses need clarity with urgency. Now, I know, Minister, you were due to make a statement on the ERF in this Chamber last week and that's now been put off til next month. From my perspective, this pandemic is damaging livelihoods and lives—I'm sure you'll agree with me in that regard. But we do need some clarity and I would like to see that funding and the next phase announced as soon as possible, because we know that people's livelihoods depend on that position.
I don't think it's entirely unfair to suggest that phase 3 of the economic resilience fund was not perhaps handled as best as it could have been, and surely—. From my perspective, if you tell businesses there is a limited fund, served on a first come, first served basis, then we shouldn't be surprised that the Government's website and Business Wales were overwhelmed within 24 hours. Now, Business Wales, of course, needs to be suitably resourced, and I do wonder what level of detail of conversations were held with them prior to the announcement to ensure that they were prepared as much as possible for the level of contact with them from small businesses. There was also some confusion from local authorities in regard to having different guidance and taking different approaches and various sets of guidance being received, so my final question, similar to Helen Mary's, but in the context I've just talked about: what lessons have you learned over the past two weeks that can be applied to the next round of funding that you are set to announce?
Can I thank Russell George for his questions? There were several questions there, all equally important, I think. Obviously, lessons will be learned from each of the phases of the economic resilience fund and from other funds that are operating in other portfolios. One of the clear lessons that we must learn from the development grant part of ERF phase 3 is to ensure that businesses are placing applications on the basis of the purpose of the fund, not in the hope of attracting funding for a different purpose. We know that there is a significant proportion of businesses applying for development grants who are actually looking for emergency cash. The emergency cash is still available through the £200 million lockdown fund that is still available. And so a very clear steer is going to be necessary in the future to ensure that businesses don't attempt to make multiple applications for emergency cash awards, and to ensure that businesses are clear in so far as what they are applying for and the criteria that need to be met as well, because there are strict criteria associated with the development grant scheme.
In terms of ERF and the statement on the recovery and reconstruction, the two are very different. ERF is the fund, which is in operation at the moment; it's still live. The £200 million part of that fund is still available to businesses, but the statement that was due to be made in the Chamber last week concerned the long-term economic reconstruction and recovery proposals from Welsh Government. It was felt, given where we were with the firebreak, given the immediate response that was necessary to support businesses through that difficult period, that a small delay in outlining the long-term ambitions for the economy was prudent and proper, and that last week the focus should have been entirely, as it rightly was, on the immediate support required for businesses.
I would agree that urgency and clarity are required at all times, and that's why we have that single point of contact for businesses, Business Wales. They were under pressure—immense pressure—during the course of the application process of the development grants being live. We are in constant dialogue with them in terms of capacity. We vary capacity according to demand, and they were obviously operating at maximum capacity when that grant fund went live. What I did not anticipate, unfortunately, were the very numerous cases of verbal abuse. That is simply unacceptable, and I'm sure every Member in this Chamber would agree that, no matter how stressed, no matter how difficult a businessperson is finding the operating environment, it's really important to show respect and courtesy to people who are helping them.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on road improvement schemes in Montgomeryshire? OQ55811
Yes, of course. Proposed pinch-point schemes in Montgomeryshire are progressing towards public consultation. We have now agreed a revised construction programme for the Dyfi bridge scheme, and I'll make an announcement on the start of work shortly.
Thank you for that, Minister. So, I did put a written question in on this last week and you did provide me with an answer, so it would be good to know when you expect to make that revised consultation programme public in terms of—. There has been some delay on the Dyfi bridge due to the pandemic, so it would be good to know when we can expect to see further progress in that regard.
And if I could also raise with you questions around the A470 trunk road at Caersws. There were traffic signals placed on the bridge—the listed bridge—in Caersws over the weekend, and I understand that's due to structural problems with the bridge, which have recently been reported. So, perhaps you could update us on what those concerns are and when potential works could take place and, ultimately, when those traffic signals could be removed. In regards to that bridge, you will recall that we met on that bridge some years ago in regards to concerns of pedestrians crossing, and the Welsh Government is taking forward a proposal for a stand-alone bridge. In my view, it would be better to have a bridge located right next to the existing bridge, but there were problems with Cadw at the time in taking that approach, but maybe this existing problem and the new bridge could now be a project that links together. So, perhaps that needs to be re-examined.
And then just a few yards away up the road there are the proposals for a roundabout at the A470 junction—
Can you bring your question to a close? You've had a good bite of this cherry this afternoon.
So, at that roundabout, we're waiting for a further consultation to take place as well, so perhaps you could update us on that as well.
I think the number of schemes that the Member has pointed to demonstrates how keen we are to invest in the Member's constituency—[Laughter.]—and how keen we are to progress those schemes at maximum pace.
With regard to the new Dyfi bridge scheme on the A487, obviously, COVID-19 has had an impact, in terms of our ability to consult with the community, but my officials have been working closely with Alun Griffiths (Contractors) Limited to agree and finalise a revised construction programme. I'll be making, as I said, a further announcement on when the construction will start very shortly, but we are incredibly keen to progress that as a matter of urgency, because it could contribute towards the recovery from coronavirus—the economic recovery, that is.
In terms of the other projects, on the A470 Caersws bridge lane restriction the Member is right that there have been concerns about the condition of the bridge, specifically the condition of the three arch masonry points that we are looking at as a matter of urgency. We've got further analysis of the structure being commissioned as a matter of urgency, and the work, once completed, will inform the need for any further safety measures and works.
The Member is right that the footbridge proposal is progressing. Welsh transport appraisal guidance stage 2 has progressed in order to provide enough information on a preferred option for public consultation. Once the outline details of the crossing have been finalised, which is expected to take until the end of this year, we'll be in a position to consult with the public. I can inform the Member that, obviously, landowners have been approached and their comments are going to be taken into account wherever applicable. Once I've got the results of the public consultation, I'll be able to consider the next steps, and an announcement will be made at that time with an indication of the programme, going forward.
Then, in terms of the roundabout as well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to write to the Member regarding the latest on the WelTAG stage 2 programme of works for the A470 Caersws roundabout.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on rail infrastructure in north Wales? OQ55838
The north Wales metro is key in delivering an integrated, improved and efficient transport system for the region. This will include the need to improve rail infrastructure, provide new stations and, of course, introduce new services.
The Minister, I'm sure, will be aware of the steps that are in the pipeline to make a bid to the UK Government's ideas fund to look at the possibility of reopening the line between Bangor and Afonwen. Now, that would, of course, complete a very important loop in terms of the north-west, and with the possible development of the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth line, that would transform the rail infrastructure in the west of Wales. But, can I ask specifically about Bangor and Afonwen, what work the Government is doing to help deliver that ambition, and what practical and in-principle support the Government can provide for that scheme?
Can I thank Llyr Huws Gruffydd for his question? Obviously, the UK Government remains in control of rail infrastructure and is responsible for investment in it here in Wales. We, obviously, would wish that we had control, but, for the time being, it's the UK Government.
We have submitted a bid to the UK Government's new ideas fund for studies into the reopening of the Gaerwen to Amlwch line, alongside complementary active travel measures. We're also progressing, through Transport for Wales, the rail innovation study, phase 1 of which is expected early next year. That study is aimed at developing potential new rail route capabilities, which would lower costs and improve operations, and that's going to cover both localised and national level service offerings.
Geographically, the study is considering—and I know the Member will be interested in multiple projects here—local connectivity between Ynys Môn, the north Wales coast and the Cambrian coast, including the key settlements of Amlwch, Bangor, Caernarfon, Porthmadog, Dolgellau, Aberystwyth, Pwllheli, Barmouth and Blaenau Ffestiniog, including, of course, the Conwy valley line. The study is also looking at connectivity between Aberystwyth, Swansea bay and Carmarthen, and also north-south connectivity between Cardiff, Swansea, Bangor and Caernarfon.
Now, the report on that study will be published once completed, and we will consider it, but it is a hugely important study that will enable us to inform UK Government future spend as it seeks to level up the UK, and, obviously, therefore, increase its infrastructure spend within Wales.
5. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact the COVID-19 pandemic is having upon businesses in South Wales West? OQ55827
Well, the Welsh Government is working with local authorities in South Wales West to deal with the immediate impact as well as plan for the recovery. Our regional teams are on standby to offer support to businesses and our Business Wales service also continues to provide support and advice to those who need it.
Thank you, Minister. The pandemic has decimated the economy of my region, and while the virus can destroy lives, the measures to control it have destroyed livelihoods, and far too many of my constituents have lost their jobs and lost their businesses. I welcome the support given by both the UK and the Welsh Government. However, it has far too often fallen short of what is needed.
One of my constituents contacted me, dismayed by the economic resilience fund phase 3 business development grants process. The company spent days preparing a business plan to accompany their application, only to find that applications had closed early. They believe—and I agree with them—that applications should be processed on merit and not who got there first. So, Minister, will you please consider adopting this approach?
Can I thank Caroline Jones for the question and the opportunity that it's given me to assure all businesses, across Wales, that all of those applications for development grant funding will be assessed on a qualitative basis, on merit, and that we will not be awarding money simply on the basis of first come, first served, but on the quality of the applications? That's why we're already rejecting a number of applications, because they were not of sufficient quality or they were not accompanied by the necessary documentation that was outlined in the criteria pages of Business Wales.
I can say that in response to the economic crisis—and this has been unprecedented—in Swansea alone more than 8,500 awards have already been made to businesses through our £1.7 billion package of support, the most generous package of support anywhere in the United Kingdom. Crucially, in regard to a point that was raised by Russell George, the majority of those awards are going to micro and SME businesses that are right at the heart of our communities and local economies. So, our intervention has been unprecedented. It's been aligned and designed to complement the UK Government's furlough and self-employment support schemes. And, of course, as we look to the future round of ERF phase 4, we will be learning from each of the first three phases, as well as from the other funds that have been operated by my colleagues.
Minister, you've answered many questions on hospitality in north Wales and elsewhere, but I'd like to remind people that hospitality exists throughout Wales, and particularly in my constituency, which serves the visitor economy very much, and especially the fantastic mountain bike trails that are in the Afan valley. Businesses such as the Afan Lodge, which cater for those visitors, have seen a dramatic reduction in their business as a result of local restrictions here in Wales, and then the national lockdown here in Wales, but now the national lockdown in England as well. They are struggling as a consequence of these restrictions, and businesses as such are going to have a difficult time over the winter months. The extension of the furlough scheme came too late for them, unfortunately, because by the time the extension was given we were halfway through our own firebreak. What can the Welsh Government do to ensure that these businesses, which were very profitable before the pandemic, can remain in operation and survive the winter to be strong enough to resume operation next year?
Well, can I thank Dai Rees for his question and recognise the value of the visitor economy to his constituency? It is very significant indeed. Right across Wales, the number of jobs that are secured within the tourism and hospitality sectors is hugely important and provides opportunities for communities to thrive. Therefore, during the period of the firebreak, we were concerned with the viability of businesses and that's why we made available £300 million of support, crucially including that £200 million of lockdown business grant support. And I can inform the Member that within Neath Port Talbot more than 1,000 awards have already been made as part of the lockdown business fund to businesses in his constituency, and that has secured 3,750 jobs—many, many of which are within the tourism and hospitality sectors.
6. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of lockdown on the north Wales economy? OQ55819
As I mentioned in response to question 1, the pandemic and, of course, the imminent end of the EU transition period is causing deep uncertainty and a worrying period for businesses across north Wales, and that's why we continue to offer the most comprehensive and generous package of support for businesses anywhere in the United Kindgdom.
Thank you, Minister. As you know, our region's economy relies heavily on tourism and the hospitality sector, as other people have said as well. Thanks to the hard work of the hospitality sector, test and trace data suggest that just 1 per cent of people who've caught COVID-19 have caught it in pubs, restaurants or cafes. So, it appears to me that pubs and restaurants are exceptionally low risk. I congratulate them on their fortitude and support during this time. Minister, will you please make the case that any further restrictions, including curfews, are based on solid evidence of transmissions? I suggest that your Government focuses its attention where it is warranted and not on businesses that really are doing everything possible to support your aims and make an honest living. Thank you.
Can I thank Mandy Jones for her question and say that I entirely agree that the fortitude and innovation and the responsibility of businesses within the tourism and hospitality sector has been quite astonishing during the course of this pandemic? We wish to support businesses in every way that we possibly can to remain viable, to get through this pandemic. Of course, the risk of transmission in a regulated space is now less than the risk within a domestic dwelling, where there is the risk of multiple households mixing. Nonetheless, there still is the risk. And during the firebreak in particular, we had to make sure that any areas of activity where there is a risk involved in transmitting the virus—that that risk was either eliminated or brought down to an absolute minimum. That's why we took action for a very short period of time. It was based on the scientific evidence from the technical advisory cell, which publishes the documents that provide the evidence to Ministers. And, of course, as we now move forward following the firebreak, those businesses that have shown responsibility are now back operating again, and we hope that that short firebreak has given us headroom to get through to the end of the year.
Minister, those businesses may be allowed to operate, but 90 per cent of their customers live in a part of the UK from which they are not allowed to leave and come into Wales. Do you accept that the travel restrictions are having such an impact, particularly on our tourism-related businesses—and any business, in fact, that relies on the visitor economy such as those in my own constituency of Clwyd West? Do you accept that they do need specific additional and extra support, over and above that which is currently provided by the economic resilience fund? You'll be aware that those businesses in that particular corner of north-east Wales not only faced the firebreak lockdown, they also faced three weeks' worth of local restrictions on top. So, that's five weeks' worth of severe restrictions, travel restrictions, that have eaten into their businesses. They need all the support that they can get, and I'm afraid that, in spite of the generosity of the Welsh Government through its economic resilience fund, that support is not yet sufficient.
Can I thank the Member for his question? The problems highlighted could've been avoided had the Prime Minister agreed to a short firebreak alongside us, just as the scientific experts were recommending. It's my view that a 17-day firebreak is far more desirable for businesses than a four-week circuit break, which is now in action in England. I regret that the Prime Minister did not see fit to action a firebreak at the same time as the First Minister in Wales. But looking forward, I am pleased that discussions are under way regarding Christmas, and I think that that's absolutely vital that we adopt a common approach across the UK.
In terms of the financial support that's available to businesses, I've already said on numerous occasions now that we are delivering the most comprehensive and generous package of support to businesses anywhere in the United Kingdom. The latest phase of the economic resilience fund has included a ring-fenced £20 million fund for businesses in tourism and hospitality. And I also recognise that, in those border areas—the sort of area that I represent—there is difficulty for businesses that rely on custom from across the border. Equally, though, they now have a captive market within Wales as well, given that the firebreak is over in Wales and people can't travel to England in order to access pubs, cafes or restaurants. And so, there is an opportunity for those venues in Wales to thrive based on Welsh custom. But, of course, moving forward, we would wish to see the UK, the devolved administrations and the UK Government agree on a common approach, and that approach must be based on the science that is presented to Ministers.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on support for hospitality businesses post firebreak? OQ55818
Yes, of course. Our current £200 million package of lockdown business grants is open for applications. Meanwhile, we're assessing applications received for our £100 million business development grants fund, which included £20 million of ring-fenced funding for tourism and hospitality businesses. That fund is intended to support businesses in developing projects for longer-term prosperity.
Minister, accommodation businesses are in utter despair in Aberconwy. The occupancy rate has collapsed to zero in some cases because it is fact that 80 per cent of trade is from England. Bearing in mind that Conwy had a local lockdown also, the reality is that businesses in Aberconwy will not have been able trade for some eight weeks by the end of England's restrictions. Seventy-five per cent of respondents to North Wales Tourism's survey did not make the sudden cut-off for ERF phase 3—that 75 per cent. What assistance does the Minister propose to support those that are now on a cliff edge? Will you provide financial grants to back tourism businesses that are experiencing a collapse in customer numbers this month? And is there any funding left over from the £20 million ring-fenced to support tourism and hospitality businesses as part of the ERF phase 3? Thank you.
Can I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for her question? I'm sure that she would agree with me that the pressure that accommodation providers are under because there is the lockdown in England is regrettable, obviously, but it's necessary. It is necessary that the virus is brought under control in England, as we have been bringing it under control in Wales, in order to secure the rest of the 2020 season for businesses and to ensure that we give the NHS the headroom to get through to the new year. We have been providing, and we will continue to provide those businesses that have been severely affected, with financial support. There's the £200 million lockdown business grants fund that is still available to businesses—those businesses that were affected not just during the firebreak but also during the period preceding that, where there were local lockdown arrangements in place. That fund is still available. I'd encourage all Members to point to that fund when businesses get in touch with them. And whilst it's highly unlikely that there will be a significant underspend in terms of the ring-fenced £20 million development grants fund, we are looking, as I said in response to previous questions, at how we can utilise a £35 million underspend from the first phase of the economic resilience fund to support businesses, and I'm keen to make sure that we give local authorities the discretion to be able to make awards to businesses using that underspend, that £35 million. That's my preference.
8. What support is available for businesses in Caerphilly affected by the firebreak lockdown and the local restrictions in place beforehand? OQ55824
Thank you. As I've said to other Members, our current £200 million package of lockdown business grants is open for applications, and £40 million has already been paid to more than 14,000 business across Wales since the firebreak was introduced.
Thank you, Minister. My signal here is absolutely appalling, so I haven't been able to follow what you've been saying up until now. So, I'm going to give you some cases that I've got and you can perhaps explain what these people can do. I've been contacted by many in the six weeks that Caerphilly was in lockdown and under restrictions—by businesses whose incomes have been severely affected. One guest house owner in Caerphilly town wasn't able to access support from phase 3 of the economic resilience fund because, he told us, Business Wales's grant eligibility checker excludes self-employed sole proprietors such as himself. A hairdresser in Bargoed who's self-employed and rents her premises—the first floor of a town-centre building—didn't receive any support earlier in the year and has not been able to obtain support from the ERF phase 3 either. These are just two businesses who've contacted me sharing their frustration at the process of applying for much-needed support from the ERF phase 3, which was fully subscribed in under 48 hours after going live. What is the Welsh Government going to do to ensure that these constituents and businesses don't fall through those gaps?
I thank Hefin David for his questions. I'll be as succinct as I possibly can be. Those businesses that are registered to pay business rates will automatically receive grants. All they need to do is update their details. If they are looking towards receiving a discretionary top-up, then they'll need to make a very short application, but those awards are automatic once a business has updated their details, for any businesses that are registered for business rates up to the value of £50,000.
And then with regard to the businesses that he pointed to—those who are self-employed or sole traders—there's also the £25 million discretionary fund that's being operated by local authorities to assist those sorts of businesses. So, again, I would point them towards the local authority in Caerphilly, who are operating the discretionary fund. It's worth saying that in terms of the support that we've been able to get to Caerphilly so far as part of the economic resilience fund phase 3, more than 1,200 awards have already been made to businesses in Caerphilly. A huge number of businesses have received funding, and an astonishing 5,000 jobs have been supported through the third phase of the economic resilience fund in Caerphilly alone up to this point. That's an astonishing figure, given that the vast majority of financial support is still to get to businesses.
The next item is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition in respect of his European transition responsibilities. The first question is from Joyce Watson.
1. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the UK Government regarding the UK's trade policy as it relates to Wales? OQ55823
I've already had an introductory meeting with the UK Minister of State for trade, Greg Hands. I plan to continue to build on the pattern of engagement that my predecessor established and will be holding regular bilateral discussions with the UK Government, including sitting on the ministerial forum for trade.
I thank you for that answer, but there are specific concerns. Last month, the UK Government rejected the amendments to the Agriculture Bill that the House of Lords had laid requiring trade deals to at least meet UK food safety standards and animal welfare standards. I've had significant representation by farmers and their groups, and also from industries like the hospitality sector, who are really, really, genuinely concerned about what that might mean for UK food standards, and also unfair competition. The concerns are that if trade deals are reached with countries that have much lower food-producing standards than we currently have—what that might mean for them. So, I'm pleased that you said that you are having meetings, but what assessment have you made about the potential of that substandard food flooding the UK, but particularly Wales, and affecting our market and the production of our food, and the impact, the knock on, for those food producers here, particularly in my constituency?
I thank the Member for that supplementary and for her continued advocacy on behalf of food producers in her region. We have made the case consistently to the UK Government in the context of the international trade negotiations about how important it is to maintain food standards in defence of our food producers here in Wales. It is, in fact, an important part, not least of the reassurance that we give to consumers in Wales and other parts of the UK, but also of the Welsh brand internationally, as we seek to take advantage of further export opportunities into the future. So, we are very concerned at any possibility of a reduction in standards and the undercutting that that would potentially entail. We must not put our producers in a position where they face unfair competition. So, I will reassure the Member that we continue to make that case to UK Government Ministers. She will also know, of course, that the threat of lower standards, possibly indirectly as a consequence of imports from other parts of the world, is one of the reasons we have been so concerned about the UK Government's proposals in the internal market Bill, which, as she will know, is pretty much designed to ensure that the lowest standards across any part of UK prevail. I know that she will share our serious concerns about the impact of that Bill and our resistance to its provisions.
Counsel General, you seem to have indicated in your answer to Joyce Watson that it is the UK Government that should be leading on trade negotiations with whatever party is engaged. In the past, you've bemoaned the fact that Wales may not be able to impose its own divergence in rules and regulations from those of the UK in general. Do you not agree that it's imperative that the UK shows a united front in these negotiations, in particular with the rules and regulations with regard to the import and export of goods and, indeed, services? And we must not forget that there have been many instances of very poor food products coming from the EU over the years.
Well, I'm sure the Member found that last comment quite hard to resist making. But I just want to be clear with the Member that our engagement with the UK Government in relation to the UK Government's negotiating position with regard to third countries, i.e. beyond the EU, has been positive. And as I mentioned in my answer to Joyce Watson, there is a pattern of engagement that we have been taking advantage of. And the reason that is so important is because it enables us as a Government, on behalf of Welsh food producers and consumers, to make the case to the UK Government for the sorts of standards that I've just been talking about in my previous answers.
The point that he makes about a united UK position—I quite agree with him that, when it comes to negotiations internationally, that is preferable, if it can be achieved. I regret, however, that the way that the negotiations with the EU have been conducted has not sought to achieve that UK-wide position. And I think, ultimately, that will have been a missed opportunity for the UK Government.
2. What contingency planning is the Welsh Government undertaking in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal being agreed? OQ55841
The 'End of Transition Action Plan 2020', which I published today, sets out the actions that the Welsh Government and partners can take to mitigate some of the challenges for Wales following the end of transition, including in the disastrous event of exiting the transition period without a trade deal.
Thank you. The risk of the UK leaving the transition period without a deal on our future relationship with the EU is very real, as acknowledged. All credible evidence suggests that there will be significant adverse economic consequences of any such abrupt and drastic change to our trading relationship within the EU. So, Minister, what assessment has the Welsh Government made of the potential damaging effect this could have on employment in Islwyn, and what mitigation is available to counter this, bearing in mind the damage the current internal market Bill proposals could have on Welsh control of Welsh spend?
I agree with the Member that all the credible evidence shows that a 'no deal' outcome will have a very, very detrimental effect on the economy, and that, over the long term—so 10 to 15 years, perhaps—that could result in incomes being around 10 per cent lower than what they would otherwise have been. And by the way, the UK Government's own analysis is broadly consistent with that picture. There would be a really significant impact on major sectors of leaving the transition period without a deal. And that would be happening, and I don't need to remind her of this, at a time when the economy is already suffering the impact of the COVID pandemic. So, in that sense, choosing to leave on that basis could not come at a worse time.
She will be aware of the economic interventions the Welsh Government has already made, either through the European transition fund or, more latterly, through the later stages of the economic resilience fund, designed to help businesses be more resilient, and be resilient as employers, into the future. And there is a broad suite of business support available on the Welsh Government's websites, which seeks to assist employers to maintain their position. And, indeed, a number of the interventions that have been brought forward in the context of COVID, around employability and job support in particular will, of course, benefit her constituents in the context of leaving the transition period without a deal as well.
Questions now from the party spokespeople, and the Conservatives' spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Diolch, Llywydd. I'd like to ask some questions in relation to your COVID recovery responsibilities, if that's okay, Minister? Since we last spoke, our entire nation and the majority of local authority areas in Wales have been in, and now left, some sort of lockdown. Can you tell us what impact those lockdowns have had on the Welsh Government's long-term COVID recovery strategy?
Well, my responsibilities in relation to COVID recovery have concluded with the publication of the action plan at the beginning of October. So, I'm very happy to refer his question on to the relevant ministerial colleague, who is able to give the answer to his question.
So, there is no COVID recovery Minister, then, at the moment? I wasn't aware that your COVID recovery responsibilities had been removed. But it's very helpful to have, at least, some confirmation of that for Members of this Senedd. I would have thought that we should have had that communicated to us well in advance of you appearing before us today.
Just in relation to the document that you did publish, then, can I ask what discussions have been had with your Cabinet colleagues in relation to the impact of COVID-19 on the reconstruction of Wales post the pandemic? Obviously, I've been very concerned, and I'm sure you have been too, to see that Wales has been seeing a rising unemployment count, which is rising more quickly than in other parts of the UK. What assessment has the Welsh Government done to determine whether that is linked to the length and severity of the local lockdowns, in conjunction with the period that we've just gone through with a national lockdown across Wales?
Well, I'm happy to repeat the point I made earlier, Llywydd. The question on the order paper will be absolutely clear in what capacity I'm answering questions today, and I direct the Member to the observations of the First Minister in relation to this in the committee appearance that he and I both made very recently.
But the point he makes, in relation to the document itself—I think the document outlines some of the significant risks that the Welsh economy faces as a consequence of COVID and anticipates significant job losses, in particular to certain cohorts of people in Wales. And that's exactly why one of the priorities in there is about ensuring the Government does all it can to ensure people stay in work, where they have work, or are best placed to get new work, when that's the route available to them. Some of that is about significant investment in jobs and employability of the sort that the economy Minister has already announced. Some of it is around stimulating the economy through initiatives that have other positive consequences in the context of COVID. So, some of the interventions around green housing and housing construction will be in that space. And that thread, I think, runs entirely through that document in a way that shows, I think, that the impact of COVID is, unfortunately, very multifaceted on our society.
It is indeed multifaceted, and I'm pleased that that document was drawn up. As you know, I had concerns about some elements that did not feature heavily in that document, particularly in relation to the absence of engagement with older people and with the Older People's Commissioner for Wales in the run-up to its publication. Can you tell me what discussions have taken place since that publication in order to reassure Members of the Senedd that the older people's commissioner and other older people's groups and stakeholders have actually been now engaged in a discussion on COVID recovery post the pandemic?
Well, as when the Member last raised the question in the Chamber, I'm afraid I refute the assumption behind his question. The document describes, in a very practical way, a set of very substantive measures, many of which will have a very beneficial impact, particularly on the lives of older people, and, indeed, the older persons' commissioner, in her correspondence with me, I believe, outlines some of those. I think certainly the commissioner, certainly the groups who've been in touch, and I would hope the Member, are much more focused about the substantive impact of that strategy than particular references within it. As he knows—he previously mentioned to me that there weren't any references to older people in the document. I'm sure he will know, by now, having had the opportunity to read the document, that that isn't the case. I've had two very productive conversations—[Interruption.]—I've had two very productive conversations with the older people's commissioner in relation to the document, and I'm sure that he will be pleased to know that their interests are very fully reflected in the document, in a way, perhaps, I don't think they are in his own policy in relation to COVID response.
Thank you, Llywydd. We just were getting around to thinking that things couldn't get any worse with the Brexit negotiations, and we get the internal market Bill, which breaks international law on Northern Ireland, as well as totally undermining devolution, and the Senedd losing powers across the board. The Bill is on its journey through Westminster at the moment, as you will know, but if your amendments as Welsh Government fail, as is expected, what will the Welsh Government's response be to the destruction of devolution, and to this latest insult to our Senedd and our nation?
Well, as Dai Lloyd knows, we have laid amendments, and the Lords have taken the lead on introducing those amendments, and I think, on the whole, all of them have been introduced in some way. And the memorandum that we've laid before the Senedd in terms of consent describes in detail our concerns in the context of the Bill. We hope that all of those will be dealt with. And if that doesn't happen, there won't be any change to the advice that we give to the Senedd to reject consent for the Bill as it's been introduced, and I do hope, and I do expect, that the UK Government won't continue with the Bill in the face of opposition from the Parliaments.
Thank you for that, Minister. Turning to issues and challenges at the end of the transition period, and we've all read the response that you have presented today in the 'End of Transition Action Plan 2020'—. Now, specifically on Brexit and Welsh ports, the port of Dublin has invested €30 million in order to develop toll facilities there. In comparison, the necessary developments are few and far between in Fishguard and Holyhead. So, why are the Brexit arrangements of the Welsh ports so far behind as compared with our Irish cousins?
The changes happening in the ports come in the wake of the decision by the UK Government to look for the kind of agreement or contract that's going to create barriers to exports and imports at our ports. Now, we've been calling on the UK Government to include us in the discussions that they've been having from the start of the year. And only very recently has that happened, although it has happened by now. But we've missed that opportunity, or that period of time. And as a Government we're eager to collaborate with the UK Government, of course, on that.
Part of the discussions focus on the infrastructure needed by the ports to deal with the checks that will be required from January in terms of the UK Government, and from July from our perspective. That's when our responsibilities as a Government will come into force, in the middle of next year. We're still waiting for clarity, with 50 days remaining before the end of the transition period. The possible locations in north Wales are limited to one or two, but there's no decision that's been made by the UK Government yet about that. So, we're still waiting for clarity on that.
This of course is having an impact on some of our responsibilities, in terms of supporting communities, and also in terms of dealing with traffic and so forth. I have raised these issues in meetings with the UK Government, including this morning, and I'm expecting to do so again in a specific meeting next week that will deal with ports here in Wales.
Thank you for that response. And I heard your words in terms of having a little less collaboration than would be desirable, not that I blame you in that context, Minister. We also know that Irish ports have been investing heavily in alternative routes for their carriers to reach the continent, avoiding UK ports, and avoiding ports such as Holyhead. So, can I ask you what assessment you as the Welsh Government have made on the impact of any reduction in traffic through Welsh ports?
Well, this is a very important question, if I may say so, and the risk of diverting trade is one that we are very concerned about as a Government. There are two major questions that we're still waiting for clarity on, stemming partly from the activity on the protocol in Northern Ireland. The first question is on goods from Northern Ireland—they can go to England and Scotland directly, without any checks. But if they come through the Republic of Ireland, they will be checked in Welsh ports. So, there is a risk there in terms of diversion. And also, on goods from the Republic of Ireland to Wales, there will be checks there, but if they go through Northern Ireland, it's likely that fewer checks will be undertaken. So, those two questions do suggest that the diversion risk is a very real one. We are still awaiting clarity and an impact assessment on that from the UK Government, and a committee is working on the impact on trade at present. We're still waiting for the results of that work.
3. What steps is the Counsel General taking to ensure that farmers are central to any future international trade agreements? OQ55817
We have been very clear with the UK Government that any future free trade agreements must not undermine our agriculture sector. Our farmers must not be undercut by unfair competition from imports that do not meet our standards on food safety, animal health and welfare or the environment.
Thank you. Of course, you'll be aware that the Prime Minister and Mrs von der Leyen have agreed to redouble efforts on the post-Brexit trade deal. Indeed, the UK-Japan comprehensive economic partnership agreement has now been signed, providing a boost for UK brands with protections for more iconic UK agricultural products, from just seven under the terms of the EU-Japan deal to over 70, including Welsh lamb. And, as you advised in the written statement on 3 November 2020, the UK Government has now signed 21 roll-over, continuity agreements so far and negotiations are ongoing with approximately 17 others. However, you have noted previously that many of these countries are small and have little trade with Wales. Now, devolved administrations have meaningful engagement with the UK Government, such as through the ministerial forum for trade. So, what steps are you taking to boost exports, especially of agricultural produce to countries with which we have an agreement so far but very little trade? Thank you.
Well, that's an important question from the Member. The reason that the trade levels are so low are because of the pattern of trade in terms of our red meat exports with the European Union, which means that 90 per cent of our lamb exports end up in the European Union, for example, and that is as a result of farmers in Wales making a perfectly rational decision to export to one of the largest markets in the world that is right on their doorstep. As I say, that's a perfectly rational economic decision. I would have thought they were probably assuming the UK Government would make perfectly rational economic decisions as well, which obviously they aren't making in this particular context. I know that she will join with me in regretting the remarks of Liz Truss, for example, which appeared to criticise Welsh farmers for putting their eggs in one basket. If Welsh farmers' interests are not protected in the context of these negotiations, that will not be their fault; it will be the fault of the UK Government.
In the context of trade agreements with other countries, we absolutely welcome any opportunity to enhance the markets available for Welsh farmers. There is no question about that. We will support food producers, we will support exporters in any way that we can, and we do that already of course. But the reality of the situation is that the contribution that those markets will make to the exports will be significantly smaller for basic economic reasons than the current level of exports to the EU. That's not to say we shouldn't pursue those opportunities—we should and we are, but I think there needs to be a sense of reality about the capacity of those agreements to replicate even a fraction of the trade that would be lost with the European Union.
Analysis from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board suggest that World Trade Organization tariffs could add anything from 38 per cent to 91 per cent to the price of British sheep meat for European buyers, as well as the non-tariff barriers for trade, which we all know. China, the world's largest importer of sheep meat, impose an ad valorem tariff of 12 per cent to 15 per cent on lamb and 23 per cent on mutton imports, but have a free trade agreement in place with both New Zealand and Australia, who are their main suppliers. Does the Counsel General share my concern regarding sheep farming if we have a 'no deal' exit from the European Union and we have to try and compete with New Zealand and Australia on price?
I thank Mike Hedges for that question. I do share his concern. The end of transition action plan that we published this morning identifies the risks that he describes in his questions to the red meat sector should we end the transition period without the kind of trade deal that he talks about. That is why it's so important to ensure that we don't find ourselves in that position, and if we should find ourselves in that position, the plan describes the sort of support that farmers in Wales are going to need, which would be very significant support. Now, some of the work that we did in terms of the contingency planning at the end of last year, when we faced the risk of leaving without any kind of agreement, will have stood us, to some extent, in good stead this year, but it is certainly the case that if we leave without a deal, the kind of scale of intervention that will be required would need significant support on a cross-UK basis.
4. What arrangements are in place to support Welsh farmers through the European transition process? OQ55828
We continue to provide guidance and financial support to farmers through Farming Connect, through the sustainable production grant and the farm business grant. We are also engaging with DEFRA and the other devolved Governments on plans for supporting the sheep sector in the event of no trade agreement with the European Union.
Do you agree with me that it is essential for the export of magnificent Welsh lamb that we have a secure market, that we know as soon as possible that that market is there and, as you have said, is mostly in the European Union? And do you fear, as I do, that if we don't get lamb up front and centre of a deal, then less efficient markets in Italy, France and Spain will be serious competitors? So far, Welsh lamb has been very competitive against them, and those local markets could well come back.
I do agree with David Melding's concern and his analysis. Welsh lamb is one of our great exports and it's exported to the European Union because there is a good market for it there. It's a near market and it's a significant scale, so protecting that export is absolutely fundamental. We've been advocating that sort of position—and I know that he knows this—for a very long time, and have identified that as one of the key risks. I was genuinely dismayed to hear the comments of the UK Government in relation to the focus that Welsh farmers have placed on the EU market. They've done that for very good economic reasons. It's a big market on the doorstep, so it makes perfect sense to do it, and they've done it exceptionally successfully. I agree with him that if the UK Government doesn't reach a deal that protects their interests, others will fill the market opportunity that that will create.
5. What is the Welsh Government's latest assessment of the chances of a trade deal with the EU? OQ55820
A deal is still possible, but both sides now need to demonstrate political movement and flexibility. But even with a deal, there will be long-term damage to the economy and we certainly cannot afford the chaos that would result from leaving transition without a deal in the middle of a global health pandemic.
The election of Joe Biden makes it less likely the UK Government can count on the backing of Donald Trump for a go-it-alone strategy, but we saw in the past how difficult it was to negotiate with the United States with the failed transatlantic trade and investment partnership deal, which took over three years and was mainly around our concern that the United States wanted to be able to take over our national health service. Today, obviously we're more concerned with the undermining of our food and animal welfare standards. But I think one of the major barriers now to any deal, it seems, with the EU-27 looks as if it's the internal market Bill, because of the state-aid elements within the internal market Bill, which should be a huge cause for concern for any of the devolved Governments and anybody who is concerned about the future state of the union. I'm sure Joe Biden will spell this out for him, particularly in relation to the Good Friday agreement. But what, if anything, can we do to persuade the UK Government to abandon this very damaging legislation, which almost guarantees 'no deal'?
I thank the Member for her supplementary, and I will take this opportunity of saying how glad I was to see that Joe Biden was elected president with such a resounding result. It's a triumph for internationalism, principle and reason. So, I am very pleased that we're having this discussion in that context.
She's absolutely right to say that the prospects of a deal with the European Union have been set back by the introduction of the internal market Bill, because it raised the question of trust. And if you're in the middle of negotiating an international agreement, then having one party signal very unequivocally that it is perfectly content to break international agreements is obviously corrosive of trust in those discussions. And I think that has had a material effect on discussions.
She will have followed, as I have, the discussions in the House of Lords, which have demonstrated a very wide and deep coalition of opposition to the Bill, for the reasons that she gives. And I think we will continue—. We have discussed with peers the approach that the Welsh Government is taking and have advocated that approach, and we will continue to do that. I think a wise Government would respond to that by amending the legislation, in a very great number of ways, by the way. And I urge the UK Government to take the opportunity of responding to such a wide and deep coalition of opposition and taking steps to amend the legislation in the way that her question suggests.
6. Will the Counsel General outline the remit of the trade policy advisory group announced in his written statement of 3 November 2020? OQ55839
Yes. The trade policy advisory group provides expert strategic advice to the Welsh Government on international trade matters and helps shape our positions in relation to free trade agreements.
Thank you for that answer, Counsel General. For a number of years, the Scottish Government have had a trade board, which was one of the commitments in their trade and investment strategy, with the aim of identifying and supporting exports to new markets, bringing together a range of expertise to advise the Scottish Government. It's clear that the Scottish Government has made great strides in understanding its export market. It feels that we are some way behind in this regard. Could you tell us what evidence you can take from Scotland and how you can develop Welsh policy so we have an equally good trade policy here and relationship with that sector?
Well, the work of the trade policy advisory group, of course, is only one of the ways in which the Welsh Government identifies opportunities to engage internationally. The First Minister is making a statement later today in relation to the international strategy more broadly. And, as I think the Member will know, we have invested significantly in supporting Welsh exporters to navigate the changes that lie ahead as a consequence of leaving the European transition period, including additional resources to give very specific, bespoke advice to exporters about managing that new landscape. And I think that very practical way of supporting our businesses and employers is one of the key areas in which we can support the economy here in Wales.
The point of TPAG, as we are calling it, it to help us exactly to identify some of those key areas that help shape our position in relation to those trade agreements. But it's part of a broad range of interventions that we have to understand the markets available to our exporters, including presence overseas, and that will become increasingly important in the years ahead, it seems to me.
7. What progress has been made in identifying the details of the shared prosperity fund? OQ55831
8. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the UK Government regarding the shared prosperity fund and its implications for Wales? OQ55836
I understand, Llywydd, that you have agreed to group this with question 8.
The UK Government has not shared any details yet of its shared prosperity fund with any of the devolved Governments, despite our attempts to engage. We expect some details to be announced during the spending review, which is, as he will know, one month before our EU funding begins to tail off.
Thank you for that answer, Counsel General, and, as you're aware, the Welsh Affairs Select Committee produced a report at the beginning of last month expressing their concern over the lack of details coming out for the shared prosperity fund. And since then, the internal market Bill has been laid and there have been clear indications that that might be a vehicle by which money from the shared prosperity fund will be used to fund infrastructure projects, completely avoiding access to the Welsh Government.
Now, there are many organisations across Wales that benefit from European funding and have employees who are dependent upon that funding. The lack of clarity at this point and stage is putting great uncertainty as to the continuation of those projects and those jobs. Would you now please urge the UK Government to actually get its act together, to actually come to the table with the detail, so that our communities and people working in those communities can have greater certainty on the future opportunities for those projects?
I thank David Rees for that question, and I think he is right to say that the internal market Bill is clearly an attempt to give the UK Government powers to deliver parts of the shared prosperity fund, which otherwise it wouldn't be able to do. Though its financial assistance powers are described as being there to work with us, but plainly are there to work around us, and so I share his concern in relation to that.
Whatever one's view, as it where, of the politics of the situation, it is clearly not acceptable that, so near to the end of the point at which we have certainty of our funding, we still don't know what the picture looks like for the period ahead. There will be programmes that will fall by the wayside, loss of talent in our various programmes and interventions that will arise as a consequence of that, which needn't have happened, and wouldn't have happened had there been greater clarity earlier and had the UK Government been clearer sooner about its commitment to the promises it's made in the past.
As he will know, there's been consistent and significant work that we have led in Wales with stakeholders right across Wales to design a framework for successor programmes. I very much hope that the work of stakeholders in all sectors in all parts of Wales will be given the credit and weight that it should by the UK Government in its reflections on this, because they do genuinely offer a very constructive way of taking those programmes forward here in Wales into the future, and I'll be formally updating Members next week, via a written statement, on the progress we've been making in relation to regional investment with our stakeholders right across Wales.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, I hear your answer to David Rees there, and further to that, can I ask—? Obviously, our further education colleges are clearly concerned with regard to the loss of EU funds. That's been an important source of funding in order to support skills delivery, which is important for all our futures. Now, without the same replacement funding, it will be increasingly difficult for colleges to support local economies. So, can I push you further in terms of asking about any progress in discussion with UK Ministers relating to the future funding of skills and apprenticeships, especially in the further education sector?
Well, I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint Dai Lloyd on that. We are waiting for clarity on these fundamental commitments in relation to successor EU funds, and I can hear the frustration in his voice, and I assure him that I share it entirely. He is right to say that a significant success that we've had in relation to using European Union funds has exactly been in the space of apprenticeships and further education, and indeed in making available to learners in a further education setting access to Erasmus+ and so on. I've met on many occasions learners in the workplace who've taken full advantage of that. We've been pressing the case with the UK Government. We hope to hear more before the spending review, and I'll be happy to update the Chamber when we do.
9. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the impact that decisions made at the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations) have on the people of Wales? OQ55829
Negotiations, preparedness, frameworks and the internal market have been the principal JMC(EN) topics—all are areas that greatly impact the people of Wales. Unfortunately, the UK Government’s inadequate commitment to co-operative working in these areas has undermined the contribution of the devolved Governments in all aspects of preparing to leave the European Union.
Well, doesn't the Counsel General see that he is not likely to get favourable response to this from the UK Government if he continues his root and branch opposition to delivering a real Brexit, in particular by supporting the EU's extraordinary demand that their legislative institutions and their court in Luxembourg should continue both to legislate for and to interpret that legislation to the disadvantage of Britain? No independent Government could ever accept such tutelage, and that's what the internal market Bill fundamentally is all about. So, if he wants to get co-operation from the UK Government and to win concessions, he's not likely to do it by continuing this atmosphere of political posturing that we've heard from him this afternoon in answer to numerous questions.
Well, we are way beyond the point at which the UK Government's response ought to be coloured by political considerations—50 days before the end of the transition period—and we seek continuously to be collaborative in working with the UK Government to prepare Wales as best we can for the end of the transition period. But I'm not going to pretend for a moment that we have a very different view about our future relationship with the European Union. That is absolutely clear, and we think the UK Government needs to change course at this point and to prioritise jobs and livelihoods. I'm going to resist the invitation in the Member's question to take up the point about the European Union's role in this set of negotiations. UK citizens are entitled to look to the UK Government to protect their interests. UK Government took back control. The UK Government's in control, and if this deal doesn't happen, or happens on a weak basis, it's on them.
The next item is the statement by the First Minister on delivering the international strategy, and I call on the First Minister to make his statement. Mark Drakeford.
Thank you, Llywydd. I welcome this opportunity today to report to the Senedd on the Welsh Government's international strategy. Our objective is to foster relationships with countries and regions across the world in order to promote exports and investment in Wales, and thus to strengthen our economy.
At the same time, we are working to raise awareness of the many strengths that we have as a country and the contribution that we can make in responding to challenges such as climate change and sustainability. This work is more important than ever as we leave the EU at the end of the year.
Llywydd, our international strategy was crafted in the Brexit context. Leaving the European Union means that we have to work even harder to sustain the profile and the reputation of Wales in the world. Now more than ever we have to do all we can to raise Wales’s international profile, grow our economy through increasing exports and attracting inward investment, and, as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 requires, establish Wales as a globally responsible nation.
No-one could have predicted what would happen just a few short weeks after our international strategy was published in January. COVID-19 started to take hold in February, and of course the pandemic has had a direct impact on the delivery of our international ambitions, but we have still made positive use of our overseas networks, staying in touch with Governments across the world and gathering vital intelligence on their approaches to tackling the virus. They worked to identify sources of personal protective equipment in the early days, when supplies were scarce. Our China offices played a key role in securing the shipment of surgical masks manufacturing equipment for a company in Cardiff that produces up to 1 million face masks per day for key workers in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom. Our Wales and Africa programme quickly issued 26 grants that focused on COVID-19 support.
We moved our international programmes online and used relationships set out in the international strategy to develop joint ambitions, not just to focus on the immediate crisis, but to build future resilience and rebuild our economies. Even in the depth of the crisis, we have held virtual and face-to-face meetings with ambassadors from Japan, Germany, the European Union, Canada and others.
Today, Llywydd, we publish four action plans derived from the international strategy, shaped by the context of the global pandemic and reflecting our engagement with friends around the world. I want to put on record my thanks to Eluned Morgan for all the work she invested in the strategy and the plans while ministerially responsible for international relations. The documents cover public diplomacy and soft power, regional relationships and networks, Wales and Africa, and our diaspora, and they are a tribute to the flair and commitment that Eluned brought to that work.
Our public diplomacy and soft power plan identifies how Wales will enhance our global profile. It sets out the global contribution we can make as a responsible nation, working internationally with partners on well-being, sustainability, youth education, culture, sport, science and the promotion of the Welsh language. It makes the links with supporting the Welsh economy, bolstering trade and tourism, as we did during last year's Rugby World Cup in Japan. Together with our Wales and Africa programme, it responds to the recent issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter campaign to promote an ethos of fairness, equality and diversity. The Wales and Africa action plan also sets out how we will work with partners in sub-Saharan Africa and here in Wales to support delivery of the UN sustainable development goals, particularly in two areas: climate change and sustainability, where we're planting 25 million trees in Uganda by 2025, and, secondly, promoting Wales as a fair nation through support for fair trade and women's empowerment.
Following the signing of a declaration of intent with the Quebec Government earlier this year, our priority regional relationships plan brings focus to building and strengthening key regional relationships, in particular with three European regions—Brittany, the Basque Country and Flanders—as well as European and international networks.
Llywydd, our international programme has moved online. This year, we will be celebrating digital Diwali for the first time. This will be a programme of events in Wales and India to celebrate the festival of lights, as well as the business, education and cultural and industrial links between our countries. Next year, we will be launching Wales in Germany 2021 to showcase the breadth of activity happening between our two countries. This is the first in a series of annual programmes focusing on our relationship with one key partner over the course of each of the next five years.
And Llywydd, there's an opportunity for the Welsh diaspora to make an important contribution to the strategy by promoting Wales's reputation on the global stage. In working with the diaspora, we will be including not just the Welsh exiles across the world, but also other people who have Welsh links and who are eager to contribute. These are the people best placed to tell the story of Wales and to disseminate that story. Our target is to recruit 0.5 million people to this work by 2025. The diaspora action plan outlines how we will capitalise on the energy of the diaspora in order to raise Wales's international profile.
Llywydd, as part of our wider approach to support the growth of Welsh businesses, we continue to build the resilience of the Welsh economy in the face of COVID-19 and EU transition by providing advice and support to Welsh exporters through our network of international trade advisers, webinars and other export support programmes. We have enhanced online support delivering virtual trade missions to markets including Singapore, Qatar and Japan, and have launched a new online export hub providing comprehensive advice for exporters. At the same time, we have continued to strengthen our understanding of where Wales has international class capability, in areas such as compound semiconductors, cyber security and the life sciences, working with stakeholders and networks to promote these Welsh assets to a global audience.
Llywydd, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of our international connections. Now, more than ever, we have to appreciate the value of an outward-facing Wales. We must support our exporters and attract investment to help our domestic economy to recover. We must use culture, sport, education and research and development to support international collaboration. Our enthusiasm for strong mutually beneficial partnerships with Africa underpins our ambitions to be a globally responsible nation. Only by working together with our international partners can we help each other to recover, rebuild and reinforce Wales's reputation as an outward-facing nation, determined to play our part in the world and to benefit, in turn, from all the richness that that provides. Llywydd, diolch yn fawr.
Can I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon? Now, today's statement refers to a number of interesting reports and actions that the Welsh Government is taking forward with partners, and as Members will be aware, there have been some developments in working with others to strengthen the Welsh Government's response to tackling COVID-19. For example, the priority regional relationships and networks action plan outlines where the Welsh Government has been sharing information with others in relation to the impact of the virus, and exploring opportunities for the recovery phase. In the short term, the Welsh Government has committed to sharing its intelligence with other regional Governments across Europe, with a particular focus on economic resilience and mitigating vulnerabilities. So, in response to today's statement, perhaps the First Minister could tell us more on what information the Welsh Government has received from other Governments so far, and how that has had an impact on the Welsh Government's decision making and policies. And can he also tell us what information the Welsh Government is sharing with other regional Governments in relation to COVID-19?
Of course, the statement makes it clear that the Welsh Government's international strategy was initially crafted in response to Brexit and developing resilience for Wales and our economy. There's a clear commitment in terms of participating in some of the same European and international networks that Wales currently participates in, and the Welsh Government make it clear that there are brokerage opportunities for European programmes. However, neither the priority regional relationships and networks action plan nor the international relations through public diplomacy and soft power action plan provide actual concrete examples of what those brokerage opportunities have actually delivered so far for Wales. So, perhaps in responding to today's statement, the First Minister will publish a list of the brokerage opportunities highlighted in these action plans, alongside a list of where those opportunities have been taken, and what that has delivered for the people of Wales.
Of course, much of the impact of Brexit will come down to on what terms Britain will leave the European Union, and so it's more important than ever that the Welsh Government and the UK Government are working together where they can in the interests of the people of Wales. Therefore, following the recent joint ministerial committee meeting last week, I'd be grateful if the First Minister could tell us a bit more about any outcomes reached from that meeting, and for a general update on current inter-governmental relations at this time, as strong inter-governmental relations will certainly be of key importance in raising Wales and the UK's international profile post Brexit.
Today's statement refers to some interesting developments in relation to diaspora engagement, and it's clear from the 2020-25 action plan that the Welsh Government is making significant efforts to develop its diaspora and envoy networks in order to promote Wales on the international stage. However, in relation to the business diaspora network and the worldwide Welsh diaspora networks mentioned in the action plan, there's little detail about the contractors tasked with taking on the networks, and as a result, it's difficult to properly evaluate any initial outcomes. Therefore, will the First Minister tell us a bit more about the contractors chosen by the Welsh Government, and the reasons for their appointments? And can the First Minister also tell us how the Welsh Government is suitably evaluating the outcomes of those networks, and how it's determining their level of success?
The Welsh Government's international strategy commits to commissioning an independent rapid review of current international health activity and existing international health infrastructure in Wales, and that review is particularly important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and informing the Welsh Government's direction of travel. So, can the First Minister provide an update on that rapid review, when it's to be conducted and when the conclusions of that review will be made publicly available?
Llywydd, today's statement refers to climate change and sustainability, and one way that we can achieve that is by addressing deforestation, which is a very significant driver of climate change and habitat loss, as well as pandemic risk. The WWF and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' 'Riskier Business' report shows that many commodities that drive deforestation in places like the Amazon are imported into Wales and used in everyday items, including food. Therefore, can the First Minister confirm whether he supports the calls of Size of Wales, WWF Cymru and RSPB Cymru for Wales to be the first deforestation-free nation? If so, can he provide an update on the work being done to achieve that goal?
In closing, Llywydd, the First Minister knows that it's my view that whereas some Government departments rightly have to consider international trends and developments, the overarching strategy for international development should continue to lie with the UK Government, with collaboration from the Welsh Government. The people of Wales are, to my mind, best served as part of a strong United Kingdom, and I hope that the First Minister will continue to advocate that working with Governments across the UK, under a joint structure, delivers the best possible outcomes for the people of Wales. Diolch.
Can I thank Paul Davies for those questions? I'll do my best to address a number of them. He asked for some examples of the way in which our contacts in other parts of the world have been of advantage to us during this pandemic. Well, I noted in my opening remarks the way in which we were able to use our contacts in China to secure very important and scarce equipment for a company here in Cardiff, which has gone on to make a major contribution in terms of PPE, not just to Wales but to the whole of the United Kingdom.
I know the Member will remember the flights that came into Cardiff Airport in the early stages of the pandemic, bringing supplies of PPE from other parts of the world. We got those supplies—we got them into Wales—because of the presence we have here on the ground. We were given a gift of some very important masks early on, when they were in very short supply, from Vietnam. We got them from Vietnam because of the visit that the education Minister made to Vietnam and the links that have developed since with that country in the education field. Because of that relationship with Wales, we were able to secure that very important supply.
More generally, through Public Health Wales and through the connections of our chief medical officer, we have had a series of discussions with other nations who've had different and, in some ways, a more successful experience of dealing with coronavirus than has been true in Europe and in this country—so, discussions with South Korea and discussions with New Zealand, for example. We're very fortunate in Public Health Wales to have a body that is very well recognised internationally as a source of expertise. In exchange, we have been able to learn from others.
Mr Davies asked about the brokerage arrangements that we have and the opportunities that have come our way as a result. Well, Llywydd, let me just focus on one of the four priority regional relationships that we set out in our documents, and that's with the Basque Country. I received, in fact, a letter today from the President of the Basque Country, inviting us to visit the Basque Country again as soon as we are able to in 2021, and to take a trade mission to the Basque Country.
The Basque Country had identified Wales as one of its top-five international priority destinations before our own documents were ever published. As a result of that, we have been able to find opportunities to work with Mondragon, the world's largest co-operative series of businesses. We will have benefited by bringing Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles, the train manufacturing company, to Newport. I visited CAF myself when I was in the Basque Country discussing taxation matters with the Basque Government. We have cyber security links with the Basque Country; we have life sciences links; we have agri-food links with the Basque Country. And we were able, Llywydd, in a completely different way, to have a discussion with Basque Government officials, earlier this autumn, about the way in which they were able to conduct their regional elections in June of this year at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, thinking ahead to our own elections in May of next year, finding ways in which we can conduct those elections in ways that protect people from the virus and still maximise people's participation.
So, I could replicate that list in relation to the other regions on which we are focusing, but I hope that it gives an indication of the way in which, when you establish these relationships, you get a very strong return indeed in terms of the opportunities that then come Wales's way, in terms of cultural exchange, in terms of economic links, and in terms of long-standing relationships.
The leader of the opposition asked about inter-governmental relations. Well, I'm not going to rehearse, this afternoon, Llywydd, the very many disappointments there have been in persuading the UK Government to set up inter-governmental relations within the United Kingdom. Let me be positive instead and say that we work very closely with the UK Government when promoting Wales abroad. We've always had a very good service from embassies abroad when Welsh Ministers are involved in meetings, trade delegations, and other ways of promoting Wales in other parts of the world. I've had the privilege, in the last two years, to represent Wales in St David's Day events in both Brussels and in Paris. On both of those occasions, we had very strong and positive engagement with the UK Government, using embassy premises and contacts in both those European capitals, and on this agenda, unlike some others, I think we can say that our efforts are there to supplement some of the things that the United Kingdom does, but also to speak up directly for Wales.
One of the things I think that the leader of the opposition would find is that businesses in Wales particularly look to the Welsh Government to do those things that help them to find markets for their products and new economic opportunities that come to people who work in Wales by promoting Wales in everything it does. When I was in Japan as part of the Rugby World Cup, there was a trade mission from Wales in Japan at the same time. We had a major event at the embassy in Tokyo, hosted by the UK ambassador, jointly with myself. We had literally hundreds of people at the reception, representing Japanese economic opportunities for Wales, and that's the way in which our international strategy sees us operating alongside those Welsh business interests.
We've underused the diaspora here in Wales, Llywydd. I don't think there's any doubt about that. I was the keynote speaker at the Belfast homecoming event in October of last year. Hundreds and hundreds of people of Irish descent, now prominent in the United States, coming home to Belfast—again, a celebration of cultural links but business opportunities. We've worked closely since with people who have helped the Northern Irish administration to make the most of its diaspora and want to take those opportunities now to do more here in Wales.
On health activity, I'm very pleased that we've been able to sign, this week, a new memorandum of understanding with the World Health Organization, again, making sure that the things that we can offer in the world are matched by the learning we take from the world in return, particularly in the field of health.
And as for deforestation, well of course the Welsh Government works very closely with the organisations that Paul Davies identified. It is through those organisations that we have developed the Mbale tree planting scheme, to which I referred in my opening remarks—10 million trees planted already in that part of Uganda. Again, I had the real privilege, before the coronavirus crisis began, of planting a tree here in Cardiff to mark that 10 millionth tree being planted in Uganda, and to see the young people with whom we are in partnership in that part of the world, the huge enthusiasm they bring to that project and the way in which their knowledge of Wales is absolutely part of their everyday experience. Llywydd, that's just one example of the work we are doing in that area. That's our contribution to the issue of climate change and deforestation. And there is more, I'm sure, that we will want to do in the future, including in the areas to which Paul Davies referred.
Can I thank the First Minister very much indeed for this statement on the delivery of the international strategy? I was going to wax lyrical about the Basque Country as well, but, in view of time, I won't say quite so much, other than to mention in passing, obviously, that the Basque language, the Irish language and the Welsh language are always in friendly rivalry as regards which one is the oldest living language in Europe. We're in friendly competition all the time; all sorts of friendly international competitions like that are to be encouraged.
Now obviously, we've discussed the international strategy previously. Can I thank Eluned Morgan for all the meetings as regards that in her previous role? Now we're moving on to delivery rather than just describing—so important in these turbulent times. So there are a couple of specific issues. As regards the Welsh approach to trade and the Cymru-Wales brand, it's good to see Welsh Government pushing the Cymru-Wales brand. Obviously, with Brexit looming, it's more important than ever that we carry out a distinctive Welsh approach to trade, which can all too often be lost within the UK Government's Invest in GREAT Britain strategy. So, can I ask what role does the First Minister see Welsh small and medium-sized enterprises playing in this international strategy for Wales?
Moving on to the Welsh diaspora and the diaspora engagement part of this strategy, this has been described, as the First Minister mentioned, as an underutilised asset. I certainly agree with that, certainly as regards the United States of America. The First Minister, I think, will know that my son and grandson live in Oklahoma, as do around 2 million people of Welsh descent. I recall when I was out in the United States last the Governor of Wisconsin state led the celebrations on St David's Day to recognise the contribution of the 40,000 residents of Wisconsin—Wisconsin only—of Welsh descent. A terrific fuss was made of all things Welsh on 1 March. Now, years ago, there were 300 Welsh language chapels in Wisconsin. Frank Lloyd Wright, the internationally renowned architect, was born and bred into a Welsh-speaking family in a rural Welsh-speaking community—not in Ceredigion like his mother, but in rural Wisconsin.
So the trick is how to turn romantic history into increased trade, using our historic links. In addition to what is mentioned in detail in the documents, twinning is one way. I've mentioned it before to Eluned Morgan, and obviously we've had many formal and informal twinning arrangements over the years, involving towns and villages, and cities, indeed, here in Wales. Now, a couple of years ago, business leaders from Oklahoma were over here and met with Eluned Morgan and myself, wanting to forge links and actually pursue twinning arrangements with Wales—Oklahoma City twinned with Cardiff, and Tulsa, the second city, twinned with Swansea. So, does the First Minister envisage Government delivery involving building on such alliances?
While we're still on the diaspora, obviously, in the documentation, specific and targeted efforts to engage with Welsh diaspora are very welcome indeed, and I recognise the work that's going on. I do find it concerning that the Welsh Government feel that they need to contract out some of the responsibilities to fulfil the business diaspora network and worldwide Welsh diaspora scheme to an external third party, though. Will the First Minister agree with me that actually taking responsibility for engaging with the Welsh diaspora under the control of the Welsh Government directly would be better, in order to attract people back to Wales to work or visit, as well as enabling them to act as ambassadors in their adopted countries? You could replicate that Belfast homecoming, perhaps.
I'll just turn to a couple of final questions, before I finish, on being a globally responsible nation. The point has already been made about deforestation, but that is vitally important. Wales's contribution to the world—. We're all internationally looking outwards. Do you intend, First Minister, to take action on deforestation and eliminate products in global supply chains that are imported into Wales and cause significant damage to the environment elsewhere, such as the deforestation linked to the production of soya meal for livestock and palm oil found in everyday supermarket items? It's not just about planting trees elsewhere; it's also about what we do with damaging products.
My final point is on the arms trade. The action plans also note that Wales aspires to become a nation of sanctuary, committed to promoting human rights, as you've said, and promoting peace and ethical trade—peace particularly on a day such as this, 11 November. In September 2019, the First Minister said he would be reviewing the Welsh Government's presence at one of the world's biggest arms fairs. So, could I ask you, First Minister, to update us on that review of your presence at arms fairs, and also inform us how you will ensure that the international strategy for Wales and the Welsh economy in general don't contribute to global conflicts or to the arms trade, which causes devastation for communities in other parts of the world?
Thank you to Dai Lloyd.
It was remiss of me not to mention the language in relation to the Basque Country, because some of our longest standing relationships with that country come from the help that Wales gave to the emerging Basque nation, after the death of Franco, in language planning. Now, in some ways, you could argue they've had more success in some aspects since in the revival of the Basque language. But I was lucky enough to make a visit to Mondrágon when I first became an Assembly Member, and when I was in Vitoria, the capital of the Basque country, I came across a group of people who I recognised from Cardiff, and they were there helping the Basque Government with language planning, drawing on our experience here in Wales. So, it is another very powerful link between us.
Dr Lloyd asked about Welsh SMEs and their role in exporting and the Cymru-Wales brand. These are very, very tough times for Welsh SMEs. They've been affected by coronavirus, and they now face the enormous new hurdles that will be put in their way as a result of leaving the European Union, particularly if we leave the European Union on the thinnest of terms or no terms at all. So, the help that we can offer those firms is even more important in that way. But their ability to trade, and to trade freely with our largest and nearest market, will have been compromised by what has taken place, and there's no denying that. Making them part of the Cymru-Wales brand is part of our effort to try and compensate them for the new barriers that are being placed in their path in terms of those trading relationships.
I thank Dr Lloyd for everything he was drawing attention to in relation to the Welsh-American experience and the way that we turn history into opportunity. I'll give one example to maybe not match but at least meet his example of Frank Lloyd Wright. Many Members here in the Senedd will know of what happened in Birmingham in Alabama back in the summer of 1963, when Dr Martin Luther King led a group of children into segregated public parks in that city, and how the Baptist church in Alabama was bombed by white separatists, killing four young black girls who were attending Sunday school. The Welsh artist John Petts raised money here in Wales, an appeal partly led by the Western Mail, to create a window in that church, a fantastic window from the people of Wales, as it says on the window.
Birmingham, Alabama was visited by our education Minister in September of last year. She visited the church. She made a gift on behalf of the people of Wales of a Welsh bible to go alongside what they call the Welsh window in that church. Very shortly afterwards, there was a ceremony, a major ceremony, at the church itself to reflect on all of that history. The head of our mission in the United States spoke from that platform that afternoon, and who did he share that platform with? Well, the other speaker at the event was no one less than the President-elect of the United States, Joe Biden. And that is how, in the way that Dr Lloyd put it, we can turn our history into opportunity. And that, I know, will be a building block in our ability to forge a relationship with the new administration in the USA.
Dai Lloyd asked about contracting out the work on the diaspora. Well, do you know, Dai, actually, the idea partly came from being at the Belfast homecoming event, because that's how they do it. They have companies there who have genuine expertise in how you build networks abroad, how you identify people of Welsh descent, how you interest them in becoming ambassadors for Wales in other parts of the world. And that's what we're trying to do. We're just trying to use expertise that others have alongside the Welsh Government, because we are starting from a different place, aren't we, than our Scottish or Irish contemporaries.
We want to do more in the deforestation area. I recognise entirely the points that Dr Lloyd made. We sometimes have to be realistic about the powers we have in the Welsh Government's own hands to take actions that can make a difference in terms of the matters that he and Paul Davies also identified this afternoon.
And finally, in terms of the arms trade, we did carry out a review. Our presence at such events will be different in the future as a result. But the term 'arms trade' is sometimes used as a bit of a spray-on term to cover a wide range of activities, some of which have a beneficial part that is played in the world, in offering security to populations that otherwise would be vulnerable to others. So, there are things that can be done that are positive and worthwhile, and there are Welsh workers who earn their living in these trades. I want the Welsh Government to be aligned with those positive purposes, and if we have a presence at trade fairs in the future, it will be to emphasise those things that can be done and would be in line with our ethical approach, and in line with the approach that we set out in the action plans that we've published today.
First Minister, firstly, can I commend the work undertaken by Eluned Morgan in developing our international strategy and the Welsh Government generally for recognising the fundamental importance of international engagement and social, cultural, economic relationships, and also in supporting the Wales for Africa programme? Those of us who have been engaged with it have seen the significant impact on the lives of many people in Uganda. And I think also about those who've engaged in a programme from Wales. The charity PONT, as you know based in Pontypridd, has played a significant role in the development of that programme, and I particularly wanted to put on record my support for the fantastic work that they do.
Can I also say that, if the last four years in the USA have shown us anything, it is how important these relations are and how important are our international institutions—the European Union, the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the international environmental networks, such as the Paris agreement and pact? The election of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States will, I think, renew some of our hopes and beliefs that it is through international engagement and a breaking down of international barriers that we will resolve some of the world's economic, environmental and social problems for the benefit of all citizens of the world.
Now, leaving the EU and the doubts over a trade deal do present, as you've said, many economic challenges. So, we therefore have to use every lever at our disposal. I wonder if you could update us on the current status of our links with the European Union and how these might develop. Engagement with the European Committee of the Regions is vitally beneficial to Wales and I know that there are negotiations on continuing those post our exit from the EU. Our membership of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe is another. And I wonder if you could perhaps update us on the current status of the Wales Office in the European Union. This is a vital facility—it's an embassy for Wales in a relationship that, although set back, nevertheless presents many future opportunities for Wales.
Will you also be leading a delegation to the US when COVID permits, to build on our profile there, but also to ensure that we maximise our engagement with American businesses, such as General Electric in Cincinnati—of course, an important business and industry in my constituency—but also to engage with the new US Government to raise the profile of Wales and also our areas of concern about a future trade deal?
I wonder if you will also consider how to boost support, when COVID allows, for our renowned cultural ambassadors—our choirs, dance and folk ensembles and bands, such as the world champion Cory Band—when they travel the world to develop a comprehensive package of support that links in with culture, political and economic agendas.
And then, finally, on the political front internationally, it is the intention in the new year, to unveil a plaque commemorating the heroic deeds of Welsh Captain Archibald Dickson, who rescued thousands of men, women and children from the fascist blockade of Alicante during the Spanish civil war. Now, Captain Dickson is commemorated there as a hero—in Alicante—but as yet is largely unrecognised in Wales. So, it is intended to hold a joint civic event in Wales, with Spain and Wales. In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, there is now a street named after Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, and I wonder if you'll consider ways of recognising these two important events, which are really a microcosm of some of the important contributions that Wales has made to the world and an indication of how much more we can do in the future. Diolch, First Minister.
Llywydd, I thank Mick Antoniw for all of those really interesting and important points. The Wales for Africa programme is, I think, one of the unsung jewels of the history of devolution. When I was health Minister, I had a series of opportunities to meet with people: both people coming from Africa to Wales to take part in events or to be trained in particular skills that they could then use in the health arena, and also to meet those fantastic people, those voluntary groups in all parts of Wales and those members of our health provision, who give their time during their leave. They work all year in the Welsh health service and they use the few weeks of leave they have to go to Africa and to take their skills and to train other people over there. It's some of the best stuff that we do, and all that voluntary effort through PONT and organisations, I'm sure, in all Members' constituencies is such a demonstration of a generosity of spirit that we see here in Wales.
Mick Antoniw makes a very important point, Llywydd, about the way in which the last four years have uncovered the vulnerability of some key international institutions that many of us had taken for granted, whether that's NATO or the World Health Organization, or the Paris climate accord. And let us hope that we can look forward to something far better than that now in the four years to come.
Wales may be leaving the European Union, but we're not leaving Europe, and all the things that Mick Antoniw said continue to be very important to people here in Wales. Llywydd, I didn't mention in my statement, but I could've done, all the international work that is done on the parliamentary side of the Senedd, and the importance of that—in the Committee of the Regions, through the parliamentary association and so on, as Mick said. Our Wales Office will remain open in Brussels. It will continue to be a vital hub for our higher education institutions when they are involved in collaborative research with other institutions in Europe. It will be a place where businesspeople can go. I spoke at a conference of cyber security businesses there myself only shortly before the coronavirus crisis hit us. It will continue to be a place where the new caucus that we are developing of parliamentarians at the European Parliament to take an interest in Wales will be able to meet and to interface with us.
In the United States, the caucus in the House of Representatives, the Welsh caucus, is being newly put together again, now that there have been fresh elections. We're very lucky to have the strong support of a number of congressmen and women. And my predecessor, Carwyn Jones, as you know, played a very active part in leading delegations to the United States, particularly around St David's Day, taking many opportunities to make sure that the diaspora we have there already have the full support of the Senedd and the Welsh Government, and cultural ambassadors, in the way that Mick Antoniw said, both in the arts, but in sport as well. What is Wales known for around the world? We're known for our cultural ambassadors, whether that's individuals or whether it's organisations like the Cory Band or the Welsh National Opera, but sport as well. Those are the things that draw the attention of the eyes of the world to Wales, and our international strategy is about maximising that to the benefit of Wales as a whole.
I look forward very much to being at the unveiling of the plaque to Captain Dickson. It's taken too long to get that to happen, but finally, with the strong support of a number of Senedd Members, myself and Mick Antoniw included, we will see that—a genuine memorial to someone who displayed in their own life all the qualities that we have been talking about and which make Wales a positive force for good in the international arena.
I thank the Minister for that statement today. I'm thrilled that the UK is on the threshold of becoming an independent sovereign nation, and I welcome the update on the strategy that will continue the journey to get Wales firmly on the world map and keep it there.
I would like to raise the issue of branding. I know that the old Welsh Development Agency brand was also seen as the brand of Wales, but I've never seen or understood what brand Wales actually looks like, since its demise. And if I don't know, how will businesses and people in the far reaches of the world know? So, my first question is: what does your strategy mean for a brand for Wales?
I do think that sport is a major key area, where we can build on our impressive reputation for excellence. But we need to be ready to grab unexpected opportunities, especially now, in post-pandemic times.
I mentioned in this Chamber a few weeks ago the likely victory of Elfyn Evans in the World Rally Championship series. This, to my mind, is one of those unexpected opportunities that need to be seized on. I did indeed get an answer from the Minister on the future for Wales Rally GB next year, but it was so non-committal, it was actually meaningless. First Minister, does your strategy allow Wales to be fleet of foot and able to react with speed to events and triumphs that may come along unexpectedly? I do appreciate the focus on Wales as a nation of creativity, innovation and technology. However, the closing down of Inner Space in Newport, an organisation set up to monopolise these very areas, does not appear to sit well with this part of the strategy. So, how will you make sure that policy decisions are joined up and meet all of your Government's own requirements, like future generations, sustainability and environment? Wales remains, for now, an integral part of the United Kingdom, and there are four Governments competing in the same space, all making, I imagine, similar claims about landscape, culture and history. How does the Welsh Government intend to work with the other UK Governments to ensure every nation gets a fair share of air time, for want of a better expression. And, alternatively, what steps are you taking to find the USP for Wales?
First Minister, I have seen the recent announcement of the envoy to the United Arab Emirates. I very much applaud this approach. It appears we have very impressive people with excellent credentials literally flying the flag for Wales. My final question, First Minister, is how will your Government assess the efficacy of your strategy? I'd be interested to know what success looks like to you and your Government at this moment in time. Thank you very much.
I thank Mandy Jones for those questions. Well, I think Wales is the brand, and that the approach we take to the Cymru-Wales brand is exactly that—to make Wales itself the brand that we use to communicate with the rest of the world. I'm happy to supply the Member with the latest material that we are using in order to do that.
I agree with what the Member said about being able to look for opportunities where they emerge. We certainly did that in relation to cycling, for example, another sport where the rise to international prominence of a Welsh winner of the Tour de France has given us new opportunities to make sure that Wales is known in that sport, and that sport in its international dimension. We've brought more cycling events here to Wales. We're talking whether there are further opportunities we may be able to use, in the way that Mandy Jones suggested, looking for those opportunities as they happen. We have to work with others, that is for sure. I referred to the Belfast homecoming; that was a collaboration that we had with a member of the—well, there was no Executive at the time, but someone who'd been a member of the Northern Ireland Executive. And we've had discussions with Scotland. For example, we have presence in some parts of the world where they don't; they equally have presence in some parts of the world where Wales doesn't have an office. We've talked about how we can use those things collaboratively to promote one another's work where that would make sense for us both.
Thank you for what you said about the envoy initiative. I think colleagues who look at the list of names will see that, while some of them are people who come from Wales, brought up in Wales, now in other parts of the world, some of them are people who are from other parts of the world but have worked here in Wales, and that sense of the diaspora is very important. We're not simply talking about people who are from Wales themselves. We are talking about people who have a fondness for Wales, an association with Wales, an interest in being able to promote Wales in other parts of the world. When I was in Tokyo for the Rugby World Cup, I met the president of Clwb Hiraeth. So, Clwb Hiraeth is a group of Japanese businesspeople who have spent part of their careers here in Wales. They're now back in Japan. The president is in his 80s and worked in Sony Bridgend 40 years ago, but the warmth of his memory of being in Wales was absolutely palpable, and his presidency of Clwb Hiraeth is an example of how we can use not just people from Wales in other parts of the world, but people in other parts of the world who have experience of being here in Wales and bring all of that to wanting to promote and work alongside us, and our envoys will be drawn—some of them will be drawn from that group as well.
I too would like to celebrate the work of Eluned Morgan and our fantastic Wales for Africa programme. So, one of Eluned's achievements was to secure a Welsh market for co-operatives of coffee growers from Mount Elgon in the Mbale region of eastern Uganda, and I'm told that 6,000 kg of their coffee is already on sale in the Fair Do's shop in your own constituency. That was why I and many others were privileged to meet Jenipher Wetaka Sambazi, who was one of those leaders of the coffee co-operatives from that area, in the Senedd in February during Fair Trade Fortnight. It seems an awful long time ago.
But she isn't just a coffee farmer, she's a community leader, as the chair of her local co-operative, and, during that visit, I spoke to her about period dignity and the campaign we were having in this country. I also gave her some reusable sanitary products, in the hope that some of the women from her community could reproduce them for sale by women in Uganda. I've since learned that another organisation that the Welsh Government is working with, Teams4U, is involved in distributing locally made reusable pads to schools in Uganda. So, I wondered if you can say a little bit more about how we could extend that work, as it's such incredibly important aspect of why girls drop out of school and one of the ways in which we can stop that happening.
Okay, but Mandy Jones was given over three minutes and I've only got one further point.
I'm not in the business of bargaining with individual Members as to how long you get to ask your question. You're already two minutes into what should have been a one-minute question.
I would sit down now, if I was you. Thank you, Jenny Rathbone. First Minister.
Well, Llywydd, I thank Jenny Rathbone for pointing to some very important parts of the Wales for Africa programme. It was a privilege to meet with Jenipher and her team when they were in the Senedd, and it is great to see coffee from the co-operative that she leads on sale now here in Cardiff. But gender equality and women's empowerment has always been an integral theme of the Wales for Africa programme. It's certainly one that Eluned Morgan took a particular interest in promoting. Hub Cymru Africa has recently received a pilot grant from the Welsh Government to continue to work with women and girls in Uganda and Lesotho. It focuses on those everyday things that make a difference in the lives of young women in that part of the world in just the way that Jenny mentioned, and the programme is always on the look out for new ways in which we can make sure that the interest that we have here in Wales is focused on gender and equality programmes in those countries. I'm sure the suggestion that Jenny has made this afternoon will be of interest to others who are involved in the programme, and I'll make sure that it's drawn to their attention.
Diolch, Llywydd. Just some words from me as chair of the Wales international cross-party group, and we've found as a group there are so many facets, as reflected by the First Minister today, to Wales's international links—sporting, cultural, humanitarian—so many links to what we might call soft power, and, of course, diaspora. I'm pleased to hear the First Minister refer to all of those. On diaspora, I was a bit jealous of our Irish cousins, looking to the new President-elect of the United States as a descendant of Irish immigrants. He might not be of Welsh descent, but he knows plenty of people who are, being from Scranton at the heart of Welsh Pennsylvania there, and I'm certainly excited about the possibilities for building ever closer ties with the United States following his election. Like so many people who push for and campaign for Welsh independence, I consider myself to be an internationalist, and, whilst we haven't quite persuaded the First Minister on that front, it is good to hear his determination today to build on those international ties that Wales has for the benefit of generations to come here in Wales.
I thank Eluned Morgan for her work as Minister for international links. The benefit of having a dedicated Minister is the time that can be allocated to that, so, in thanking her, can I just seek an assurance from the First Minister that he will be making sure that he can dedicate the time necessary to build these international links that will be so important to us in years to come as we continue to flourish as a nation?
Llywydd, thank you very much to Rhun ap Iorwerth for those comments.
And I thank him and those other members of the cross-party group for everything they do in this field as well. As we have heard this afternoon, Llywydd, there are so many facets to Wales's relationship with the world. I know we're way over time, but I'm sure we could have very profitably spent even longer exploring a whole range of things that we've touched on only this afternoon.
I do very much look forward to being able to take this agenda forward. There's never been a more important time to reinforce Wales as an outward-looking nation with a part to play in the world, and while we are, of course, sorry that Eluned has had to move to help us with another major challenge that we face in our mental health services and our response to coronavirus in that way, in taking the international responsibilities into the First Minister's office—and I was very keen to make this statement myself this afternoon—I hope that that does send a message to Members here, but to others who we have an interest in through our strategy, that international relationships and Wales in the world are at the very centre of the Welsh Government. Through my office, we are able to pull together the many different contributions that all ministerial colleagues make to this agenda to reinforce it, to underline its significance, and, as we've heard this afternoon, to make sure that we maximise the contribution that we're all able to make with all those many, many thousands of other people who have a place for Wales in their heart and are willing to speak up for us on that international stage. I hope that this afternoon's debate or discussion is a further reinforcement of our shared determination to go on doing so. Diolch yn fawr.
The next item is the topical question, which is to be answered by the Minister for Health and Social Services, and is to be asked by Andrew R.T. Davies.
1. In light of the statement on a COVID-19 vaccine by Pfizer, what discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding a roll-out strategy across Wales? TQ503
It's normally the other way round. As the Member will know from the two questions I answered last week to his colleague Nick Ramsay and the Member for Islwyn, Rhianon Passmore, the Welsh Government has been working closely for many months with the UK Government, other devolved nations, and on an all-Wales basis with key stakeholders such as Public Health Wales, health boards, trusts and local authorities on our plans to distribute a vaccine in Wales.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. Could I seek assurance from you on two fronts, and some availability of the planning to date? Yesterday, in First Minister's questions, the First Minister highlighted that the chief medical officer has been in discussions since June, and then in direct discussions with the health boards from July, about the availability and distribution of the vaccine here in Wales. Could I ask that those discussions are made available and the outcomes of those discussions are made available for Assembly Members to see, so that we can understand how prepared Wales is to make sure the logistics are in place when the vaccine becomes available? Are you confident enough to be in a position, like the UK health Secretary did yesterday in the House of Commons, to commit that, from 1 December, the Welsh NHS will be in a position, irrespective of when the vaccine will come, to be able to distribute and administer the vaccine here in Wales?
In terms of the point about when will we be ready in Wales, we have had planning scenarios so that if a vaccine—and it is still an 'if'—is available before the end of this year, then we will be able to undertake that programme here in Wales. And if that was 1 December, then we could do so. That does depend on a number of factors, though. It depends on who we'd be delivering the vaccine to, and that depends on the allocation of that and the understanding of the advice that we and every other UK nation will have had from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the expert committee that advises us on the effectiveness and prioritisation within the population for any new vaccination. It also, of course, depends on the vaccine being available in any event. Whilst the trials are promising, this is not ready and available to us. It also depends on the particular characteristics of this vaccine, which needs not just two deliveries, but requires storage at very, very low levels. So, yes, I can give the assurance that I gave last week as well, that, if we are in a position to have a vaccine delivered to us, then we can deliver it and distribute it across Wales this December.
In terms of the conversations and the range of conversations that are taking place with the chief medical officer and others, what I think would be more helpful would be if I provide a note to Members more generally, rather than a data dump, that sets out the nature of the arrangements we have. And I'd be happy to provide a written statement in the coming days to set out the nature of our planning and where we are with each of our organisations. And the Member will of course understand that those conversations do, as I said earlier, depend on the particular characteristics of each vaccine, and this one in particular, with its requirement for very low temperatures for storage.
Rhun ap Iorwerth's microphone, can that be—? Yes, here we go.
Thank you very much, and thank you for that response. We had an opportunity at health committee this morning to question members of the technical advisory cell on the next steps, but I wonder if you could tell us a little more, Minister, as to when the opportunities provided by the vaccine will be included in modelling for the likely pattern of the pandemic over coming months. This is only a development, of course. We're very pleased to hear of it, but we're a very long way from being in a situation where a vaccine will be available to be administered to people. But to date, of course, we don't know what the expected impact of the introduction of a vaccine will be on the spread of the virus in months to come. So, I wonder if there's any modelling on that, and more assurances, perhaps, if you could provide them, on the guarantee that Wales will receive at least its population share as the vaccine is distributed, whenever that may be?
Yes, I'll happily deal with the last point first, as it were, on Wales receiving its fair share. That is absolutely going to happen. So, the advance procurement of this by the UK Government, there's already agreement as to how that will be distributed and there's a clear written agreement between the nations on that, and Wales, as other UK nations, will get a Barnett population share. So, we'll get 4.78 per cent of the total stock. And it will then be our responsibility and our choice as to how that is distributed to people here in Wales.
On your first point, I think it's helpful to, again, take a step back and remind ourselves that the vaccine isn't available today, and there are many other vaccine candidates as well. So, it is possible that there could be a potential hold-up in this gaining approval by regulators, and that's really important. So, we can't yet model that in, because we don't know that it's available. And so that will be both the safety and effectiveness of their safety data—that'll have to be published—then our medicines regulator will be able to make choices and make decisions about when or if it can become available.
We'll then need to try to model in what that looks like. We'll need to have a modelled understanding of how we go about not just the delivery, but the potential impact on the population. But, again, that depends on the exact characteristics of the vaccine, which we don't yet understand. It could be possible that this vaccine is highly effective in our most at-risk groups. It's also possible that the vaccine could be less effective in the groups at most risk of the greatest harm. So, we need to know all of those things before we provide some sort of modelled evidence. What I can say though is that, as we are providing weekly briefings to the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee and also providing regular information opportunities, we'll make sure that, as we're developing that and as we have some more certainty to provide, we'll share that with Members and with the public. We're not looking to keep secret the potential impacts of a vaccine, but we all need to take account of the fact that it is still some months away before it would have an impact.
What we should not do, given all of the hard work and sacrifice we've just gone through with the firebreak, is to potentially throw that away by acting as if the vaccine is here today. Our behaviour today and for the coming weeks will determine how many of us are here to celebrate with each other at the end of this year and going into the new year. A vaccine may have an impact going into the new year, but at this point in time, it's really important to continue to behave and to continue to change our behaviour to keep each other safe, and again, as we've said many times before, to think now about what we should do to keep each other safe.
Minister, it is promising news about the Pfizer vaccine, and I hope that it does meet its potential. However, it will be some time before we can secure the nearly 6 million doses needed. Turning to the practicalities of roll-out, should this and other vaccines meet safety and efficacy standards, there have been reports in the media and GP newsletters that other GP services will be rolled back to accommodate the vaccination programme. Minister, will you assure the Welsh public that this will not happen, and that services will not be put on hold in Welsh primary care settings? Diolch.
We have yet to conclude our discussions with primary care about the delivery of any vaccine, and again it's important to remember 'any vaccine', because there are other candidates, not just the Pfizer candidate, that again, at this point in time, is not approved. And that will affect how we would deliver those vaccines, because my recollection is that this vaccine would need to be stored at below -75 degrees centigrade and there are very few facilities able to do that. You don't find facilities like that in every general practice or in every community health centre. So, we've got to think about a different model and an ability to be able to distribute the vaccine depending on its characteristics, and that will then help to determine who delivers that and where they deliver that.
So, there's a range of things to work through and we'll then have to take a balanced view. If there is a vaccine that is effective and will avoid the significant amounts of harm that we have already seen coronavirus cause, and which it could add to significantly through this winter, we need to make a balanced judgment about offering that vaccine and offering it to the public with those at-risk groups coming first, and to then understand the impact of that on other health and care services. So, that's why it's so important not to get lost in wanting to have a hard-and-fast, detailed plan now for a vaccine that we don't yet have available, and each vaccine will bring different challenges as well, of course, as different opportunities to help protect the public.
The next item is the 90-second statements, and the first statement is from Gareth Bennett.
Thank you, Llywydd. I'd like to congratulate the Wales darts team on winning the world cup of darts. In Salzburg over the weekend, Wales beat England in the final in order to win the trophy for the very first time. Therefore, congratulations Gerwyn Price from Markham near Caerphilly and Jonny Clayton from Pontyberem, near Llanelli, for playing superbly well in Austria over the weekend. Gerwyn Price used to be a rugby player before he chose to focus on darts. He is known in the darts world as 'The Ice Man', and his darts partner, Jonny Clayton, is known as 'The Ferret'. On Sunday the Ice Man and the Ferret were unbeatable, and Wales are now the world champions. Therefore, once again, congratulations to the Ice Man and the Ferret. Thank you.
This week, I'd like to highlight the particular success of Coleg Elidyr, located in Rhandirmwyn near Llandovery. This year, Coleg Elidyr has won the Tes award as the specialist provider of the year for their particular work in supporting individuals with complex learning needs.
Originally, the college was established as the Camphill community on the basis of the Karl König and Rudolf Steiner principles, with the central principle that everyone deserves respect and equal opportunity in life. The curriculum has evolved on the basis of a programme of activities that can improve well-being and secure opportunities for personal growth.
More recently, the college has expanded its provision in order to support more independence for its learners through the inclusive lives programme and skills for life. The college has been praised by Tes magazine for its varied curriculum that provides excellent results and outcomes, with a focus on citizenship, home skills, self-advocacy, key skills and digital literacy. Their process of self-evaluation and the level of consultation with learners and their families and other stakeholders were also noted as key factors in achieving the award. The opportunities for practical, direct work experience on the campus mean that students can experience a broad range of activities, from architecture to candle making. I'd like to extend warmest congratulations to Coleg Elidyr on their success and to praise them for the excellent work that is done there, working with young people.
Now we will take a short break while we allow changeovers in the Chamber.
Plenary was suspended at 16:21.
The Senedd reconvened at 16:29, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
We move on with our agenda this afternoon to a motion to elect Members to committees, and in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, I propose that the motions to elect Members to committees are grouped for debate and for voting. Can I now call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motions formally? Caroline Jones.
Motion NDM7471 Elin Jones
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects David Rowlands (Independent Alliance for Reform) as a member of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee.
Motion NDM7472 Elin Jones
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects David Rowlands (Independent Alliance for Reform) as a member of the Llywydd's Committee.
Motion NDM7473 Elin Jones
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects Mandy Jones (Independent Alliance for Reform) as a member of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee.
Motion NDM7474 Elin Jones
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects:
1. David Rowlands (Independent Alliance for Reform) as a member of the Standards of Conduct Committee.
2. Caroline Jones (Independent Alliance for Reform) as an alternate member of the Standards of Conduct Committee.
Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motions. Does any Member object? I don't see any objections, therefore in accordance with Standing Order 12.36, the motions are agreed.
Motions agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Item 6 on the agenda this afternoon is a motion to approve the Senedd Commission's budget 2021-22. I call on Suzy Davies to move the motion. Suzy.
Motion NDM7458 Suzy Davies
To propose that the Senedd, in accordance with Standing Order 20.16:
Agrees the budget of the Senedd Commission for 2021-22, as specified in Table 1 of the Senedd Commission Budget 2021-22, laid before the Senedd on 4 November 2020 and that it be incorporated in the Annual Budget Motion under Standing Order 20.26(ii).
Diolch yn fawr, Ddirprwy Lywydd. I move the Commission's budget motion for 2021-22, which is, of course, the first year of the sixth Senedd, which will apply from April next year. I ask as part of the motion that this to be incorporated into the annual budget motion.
As you will have seen from the budget document, the Commission is seeking a total budget of £62 million, nine hundred and fourteen—£62.914 million. There we are, it's probably easier to understand that way. It comprises £39.445 million for Commission services, so that's our operational budget here, £16.819 million for the remuneration board's determination, £2.6 million for election-related expenditure and £4.05 million for non-cash items, such as depreciation and pension finance costs. As a legislature, we may be small in number, but we have the same challenges and pressures as other Parliaments, and they are significant. The Commission exists to ensure that we have the tools to do our job, and I want to make it plain that the budget reflects those demands, whilst acknowledging that these are difficult economic times.
The pressure on the 2021-22 budget is significant, as I say, but we have limited the operational budget increase to 1 per cent. This has been particularly difficult with competing demands that are facing us next year, but has been possible by careful stewardship of this year's current budget, thereby reducing demand on next year's. The rise, such as it is, is due primarily to staffing costs, which are baked in as a result of a pay deal reached previously, and some existing contract obligations—and I'll come back to this in a minute—but the overriding aim has been to budget as tightly as we possibly can for a year in which public expenditure will be under great pressure. Had this not been an election year, the budget as you are used to seeing it, including the remuneration board's determination and non-cash amounts, is 2.1 per cent. However, it is an election year, so the Commission budget includes an additional line of £2.6 million of election-related costs, which means that the overall rise to the budget is 5.4 per cent.
The draft Commission budget was laid on 1 October 2020 and the Finance Committee's scrutiny session took place shortly afterwards on 5 October. It outlines the financial requirement for the first year of the sixth Senedd, as well as indicative figures for the second and third years, setting out how this budget supports the incoming Commission. And even though we've been very strict with our assumptions, we have tried to give the new Commission some flexibility within the budget to drive forward their own goals and ambitions, bearing in mind, of course, that the budget is presented in the context of a very different world to the one we were in when I was standing here this time last year.
We considered freezing the budget to challenge and validate our assumptions. Since our hands are tied with many of the staffing costs, that was virtually impossible, and as it is, a 1 per cent increase means that we're cutting back on our project fund and making some tough decisions on other operational budget lines. And we think that this is right and proper considering the expected additional pressures on public finances.
I'd like to draw your attention to two major changes between this budget and the last budget that I presented: firstly, the inclusion of that large election year budget, as I mentioned earlier, and an adjustment as a result of the IFRS 16 leases. The election in 2021 will incur additional costs, including resettlement and redundancy payments for outgoing Members and support staff, and replacing Members' ICT equipment that has reached the end of its serviceable life. And as in every election year, a separate ring-fenced budget line for these costs is clear and has been included in the budget. As I said earlier, it's set at £2.6 million, which is £100,000 more than approved for 2016. And just to reassure Members that any unused funds from that budget line will be returned to the Welsh consolidated fund.
I don't know if you remember the IFRS 16 lease issue, which is the international financial reporting standard 16 leases. This is a requirement for organisations to account for lease assets as if they owned, and the implementation was delayed from its original implementation date of 1 April 2020 due to COVID. I don't know if you remember, Members, but that meant that the impact had to be removed from the current year's Commission budget by a supplementary budget earlier this year. And while we're expected to account under this IFRS 16 from April 2021, in line with the Welsh Government, we are omitting the impact of that from the 2021-22 budget and, instead, will adjust the budget to reflect IFRS 16 by way of a supplementary budget motion during 2021, because, obviously, we're still in a period of uncertainty about how COVID will impact on us. So, once that implementation date is confirmed, then the impact can be quantified and a supplementary budget put forward. As with previous adjustments for IFRS 16, just again to reassure Members, there are no cash implications for us to consider.
I mentioned earlier that we'd spoken to the Finance Committee, and we thank them, as ever, for their scrutiny of this budget and their continued commitment to ensuring that the Senedd has adequate resources to do its work, whilst continuing to ask questions that help us drive performance and deliver excellence. This year, the committee has made eight recommendations, which we've addressed in our response, which is attached to the papers that you will have seen. Those include a request for more information on how we've responded to the COVID crisis. Obviously, we're only halfway through this current year, so there will be more information to come.
One impact we can already report on is that we have seen an increase in the amount of annual leave accrued by staff, partly because some staff have worked longer hours, including through the summer recess, when in normal times leave would have been taken. We highlighted this to the Finance Committee, and we also highlighted the fact that we're likely to need a supplementary budget for the current year to account for this additional provision, but, again, I just want to reassure Members there's no cash implication from this. The Finance Committee were keen that we provide an update on sickness absence rates and staff welfare, as, clearly, these have been very challenging times and the health and well-being of our staff are equally as important as the health and well-being of our finances. The committee also asked for an update on how we are planning project expenditure in the medium and long term.
In the meantime, I'm happy to put this budget forward on behalf of the Commission, reiterate our commitment to working in a way that's open and transparent, and to deliver the best possible value for money for the people of Wales. Diolch yn fawr, Ddirprwy Lywydd.
Thank you. I now call on the Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd. Llyr.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm pleased to be speaking in today’s debate. Over the course of this Senedd term, the Commission and chief executive have worked with the committee to produce transparent financial information, and I do hope that this effective working relationship will continue into the sixth Senedd.
The committee welcomes the news that the project to procure legislation software is progressing to the original timescale and is well within the cost originally budgeted, which is very positive. However, we are still concerned that the Commission has not provided sufficient information on the project to replace windows in Tŷ Hywel. No resolution has yet been reached on the overall funding required for replacement windows, or on the phased implementation of the project, even though this has been considered as part of the scrutiny of the annual budget since September 2018.
While the committee recognises that operational budgets may be used to meet these costs, and supports, in principle, the Commission’s decision to implement essential maintenance projects through a phased approach, the committee believes that projects of this magnitude should be subjected to public scrutiny. Therefore, I am pleased to see that the Commission has accepted our recommendation to attend an evidence session with the Finance Committee in February to help us understand how it can implement its long-term plans for projects in a phased way and how, of course, it can fund this work.
The committee welcomes the changes made to the way in which the costs of the staff supporting the commissioner for standards have been presented in this draft budget, and that follows one of the previous recommendations of the committee. However, although the committee had requested a report on the voluntary exit scheme, it is disappointed that the report was not provided in time for the annual scrutiny session, but we acknowledge that priorities have shifted due to the impact of COVID-19. While the committee recognises that cost saving was not the only purpose of the VES, the committee needs to understand how the Commission has achieved the aim that was set of delivering long-term savings, where possible.
In its response, the Commission says that all posts, aside from one, have been re-established or redistributed, and that financial savings will accrue in future as staff are recruited at lower points within the salary structure. Therefore, the Commission does not intend to provide any further detail on financial savings. It is unusual, however, to offer a VES scheme that does not lead to financial savings, and it is disappointing that a scheme of this value offers no long-term savings.
The period since March 2020 has been very challenging, as I suggested earlier, and the committee does recognise what the Commission and its staff have achieved in successfully running Senedd business, arranging for staff to work from home, and supporting staff well-being throughout the pandemic. While staff sickness and staff churn have been lower than usual on an in-year basis, we heard that there has been an overall increase in the annual leave accrued by staff—Suzy Davies mentioned this—and this does raise concerns for the committee in terms of staff well-being in particular. If the Commission does need to bring forward a supplementary budget as a result of all the annual leave that's been accrued, then the committee would expect it to assess whether there are any risks related to carrying additional costs forward into 2021-22, and to provide an update on sickness levels and other absences, specifically special leave.
The committee recognises that the Commission needed to change the focus of its engagement work very rapidly, moving away from face-to-face interactions to digital engagement in light of COVID-19, and we commend the Commission on its engagement efforts during the pandemic. However, not everyone engages digitally and the committee urges the Commission to ensure that it does not forget about the needs of those people when considering the success of digital engagement. We acknowledge that it's not only through digital means that the Commission has undertaken engagement activity, and we’ve referred to this in our report, but we do recommend that it builds on this work to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in terms of the difficulties it has caused in relation to face-to-face interaction.
Given that the digital engagement work has accelerated quickly, the Commission said that it was investing in senior staff to support the new director of communications and engagement. The evidence did not demonstrate clearly how the structure of the communications and engagement service was aligned with the aims of the voluntary exit scheme, and the committee requested more information on this, as well as additional details on how the Commission’s communication plan sets priorities, measures impact, and seeks to raise the profile of the work of committees and the Senedd. The committee is grateful for the additional information that it received from the Commission on this matter, but it did not include adequate detail about how the engagement plan is working to raise the profile of Senedd committees, and this is disappointing.
The committee supports how the Commission’s investment in building capability in the context of Brexit and the EU transition period has now been mainstreamed within the budget. That's very positive, in our opinion. The committee has previously acknowledged the work of Commission staff in responding to the work generated by Brexit, and I would like to close today by reiterating this sentiment, and by noting that Commission staff have carried out their work in 2020 under the constraints and difficult limitations that have arisen as a result of COVID-19. Thank you very much.
I just want to make two very brief points and ask three questions. I think it's important that the Commission, excluding items outside of their control set by the remuneration committee, are not treated more favourably than the public sector as a whole. This is a presentation issue, but I do not understand why we cannot receive the costs set by the remuneration committee separately to agreeing the budget of the Commission. Neither the Commission nor we as Members have control over the decisions of the remuneration committee, so all either the Commission or the Senedd can do is accept the costs and budget for them. The questions I've got are these. A number of people employed by the Commission are currently working from home. After the pandemic is over, which hopefully will be in the next financial year, what proportion of staff do you expect to continue working from home, and what are the expected monthly costs and savings? As the Commissioner knows, it is a policy of the Conservatives to freeze expenditure on the Commission's services. What work has the Commission done to calculate a budget on the proposals of the Conservative Party, and will they share the areas that would be cut in year to meet the Conservative Party proposals? Finally, the Commission quite rightly publishes the postage cost of each Member on a monthly basis, but for comparison can they publish the postage cost of each Commission cost centre on a monthly basis?
Thank you. Can I call Suzy Davies to reply to the debate?
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. And I thank Llyr and Mike as well.
I'll just start with Llyr, if that's okay. Thank you very much for acknowledging, as we do, actually, as the Finance Committee, that, by working together, we're getting an increasingly transparent presentation of the budget that's possible. We're always happy to take recommendations on how to do that better. That might be something that Mike was referring to right at the end there, but I actually missed his last question—I'll come back to that.
Yes, as I explained in my opening presentation, we've worked very hard here. We started from a zero-budget position to identify what we needed to spend money on, or what we thought that the next Commission would need to spend money on, and, as ever, a significant amount of our costs are pretty much—you know, we're already committed to them, leaving us with a minimum amount of discretion for where we can be innovative, if you like.
The point about the windows, obviously we've flagged this up with you before, and you're quite right, Llyr, there's a feasibility study that's been done on this, but regrettably, the Commissioners themselves haven't seen that yet, and as soon as we have, then obviously we'll be in a position to make the suitable reports to the Finance Committee about what they say. You're right that it's a—. The feasibility study itself is not so expensive, but the overall costs will be. But I think it's worth us bearing in mind that this is not just about getting some new windows; this is, in no small part, to do with health and safety—some of these windows are verging on the dangerous. But also, we have a commitment, as a Senedd, to work towards our sustainability goals, and it's pretty clear that the windows that we have at the moment aren't helping us do that. So, there's more than one reason for changing the windows, if you like. However, it is going to be a big expense and your comments about whether this should receive public scrutiny have certainly been noted, and obviously we'll take that back to the Commission.
The standards commissioner—yes, I think you were given apologies in the Finance Committee for that report not being ready, and we're grateful to you for acknowledging that it's effectively COVID priorities that have just bumped that down the list of things to do. But you'll definitely be receiving that.
With the long-term savings, part of what we do, in presenting the budget, certainly at the beginning of a Commission, is to try and look across the five years, but certainly the three years, and give indicative figures of what we would expect next year's budget to look like. And in-built into that is a level of looking ahead to see what savings we can make, or, sadly, as is more frequently the case, what things might actually cost. But, for example—we've been in this cycle before—we're looking ahead at the moment to some contracts coming to an end, and whether whoever takes the new contract on, or even if it's the same individuals—to see if we can make savings there.
I think you mentioned the voluntary exit scheme. I think we were pretty clear right at the beginning that that was about reshaping the workforce in order to respond to the challenges that the Commission now has, and that includes new skills being brought in. Some staff, of course, were able to be retained with different types of training. But in particular—I only mention this because you mentioned engagement a little bit later on—what that directorate now looks like and what it's trying to do is completely different from what we were doing before, and it needs the new skills to do that. All the directorates are aligned with the three strategic goals now, and they are of equal importance.
I might have missed something here, so apologies if—. Oh, yes, the committees—
Can I just ask you to think about winding up as well, please?
You're already well over.
No, no, it's fine.
Just basically, the whole principle of the engagement strategy is about the people of Wales, and, of course, the committees are part of that. If we're going to get people to engage with us, it needs to be about them, rather than what we call ourselves.
Brexit was mainstreamed—yes, that was a good point.
Mike—just if you'll allow me this last one, Dirprwy Lywydd—on the working from home, the work that's been done on this suggests that it would be possible for 30 per cent of staff to work at home. However, don't take that as a—[Inaudible.]—figure, because how that looks is an important question. You can't have just 30 per cent of people working at home and never coming in, so it would be how to accommodate that in a way that responds primarily to the running of this place in a sensible way and the well-being of our staff. Thank you.
Thank you very much. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? You're objecting? I do see an objection, therefore we will defer this vote until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Item 7 is a debate on the petition P-05-1060, 'Allow supermarkets to sell "non-essential" items during movement restrictions'. And I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Janet Finch-Saunders.
Motion NDM7460 Janet Finch-Saunders
To propose that the Senedd:
Notes the petition ‘P-05-1060 Allow supermarkets to sell "non-essential" items during lockdown’ which received more than 67,000 signatures.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. And thank you very much, on behalf of the Petitions Committee, for the opportunity to hold a debate on this petition today. I particularly want to thank the Business Committee for agreeing to schedule this debate at short notice.
This petition was submitted by Gareth Howell. It concerns the restrictions placed on the type of goods that could be sold by shops during the recent firebreak lockdown. This petition collected 67,940 signatures, making it the largest single petition that we have ever received here in the Senedd. Now, before I come to discuss the petition further, I want to briefly note the recent growth in both the numbers and size of petitions that we are now receiving. The Petitions Committee is on track to consider the same number of new petitions during 2020 than it did for the previous three and a half years of this Senedd combined. In recent months, we've also considered many of the largest petitions received since the process was established in 2007. Clearly, there are specific circumstances that have made 2020 an exceptional year in so many respects. About half of the petitions we are currently receiving relate directly or indirectly to this pandemic. However, it is also clearly the case that increasing numbers of people are engaging with the Senedd and devolved politics through the petitions process. I believe that this can only be a positive thing for our democracy.
In relation to this petition, I'm aware that questions have been asked about where some people who signed it live. So, for the record, it is important to note that 92 per cent, more than 62,000 of these signatures, were from people in Wales. The majority of signatures were also gathered over the course of a single weekend at the start of the firebreak. And, of course, because this coincided with the autumn half-term recess, it just hasn't proved possible to hold this debate during the two-week firebreak period. However, given the strength of support for the petition and the relevance of the subject matter to possible future lockdowns, we feel that it remains a worthwhile subject for discussion by the Senedd in Plenary.
The controversy over the range of goods that were able to be sold during the recent firebreak will likely be familiar to everyone watching today and, indeed, to our Members. Therefore, in the interest of time, I will leave those concerns to be outlined by other speakers. I am also not going to outline any views from the Petitions Committee on this issue as, due to the timescales involved, the merits or otherwise of the petition, and the Welsh Government's approach, have not yet been discussed in our usual committee meeting setting. The committee has simply agreed to refer the petition for a debate in this forum as the most appropriate way of airing the issues it raises. As I referred to earlier, whilst I am sure it is the hope of everyone here today that we will be able to control this terrible virus without any further lockdowns, none of us knows exactly what the future will hold. As such, we need to ensure that measures that must be taken to limit the spread of the virus are proportionate and that the reasoning behind them is trusted and, indeed, understood by the people of Wales.
I am sure that a range of views on the specific measures covered by this petition will be heard during the debate today. Indeed, that is the very purpose behind this debate. It is also the purpose behind providing the petitions process and a mechanism through which the Welsh public can raise issues here in our Senedd. I look forward, Deputy Presiding Officer, to listening to the rest of the contributions made this afternoon. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you. Huw Irranca-Davies.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. We're in a slightly odd position here today. We're debating a petition, as we've just been told, that arose primarily on one weekend on a small but very controversial aspect of a 17-day firebreak that was designed to protect our NHS and to save lives, and which the early indications suggest has indeed had a dampening effect on the spiralling increases in the rise of coronavirus. We're debating a petition that covered a 17-day period, a 17-day period that is now over and that was pretty definitely and obviously going to be over by the time it would be debated. But here we are. So, let's debate it, as it does raise some very important issues, and let's look at this in context.
In my area, covered by the Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, I know, as does my colleague the Conservative shadow health spokesman, who has railed against the firebreak measures in their entirety in true Trumpian style, and he has sat in on the same Cwm Taf briefings and listened and heard, though never challenged what he heard from those on the front line of our health service, that in the final week of the firebreak, out of six available intensive care COVID beds in the Royal Glamorgan, six were occupied, out of 10 intensive COVID beds in Prince Charles, nine were occupied, and of four at Princess of Wales, two were occupied, or that 69 of the 84 non-intensive COVID beds in the Royal Glam were taken, 97 of the 120 in Prince Charles, 110 of the 115 in the Princess of Wales. And this is the context in which the attacks on the firebreak were being mounted by the Conservative Party and by the Brexit Party, UKIP and assorted others, as well as massive interventions online from outside of the borders of Wales—let alone the people who signed the petition, those attacks from outside. It is curious how much of this was excited and whipped up by London-centric anti-Labour media. I don't complain about that, I just note it as a fact. People complaining about this policy from outside Wales, mocking Wales, indeed, whilst Boris Johnson's Government dithered and delayed until finally compelled by unarguable science to enter a much delayed four-week lockdown that, because of the delay and the result of increasing COVID there, may well have unnecessarily cost lives in England.
At one point, the Conservative health spokesman in Wales, the former leader of the Welsh Conservatives, in the midst of a stream of diatribes against the firebreak supported by the Welsh Conservatives' social media account, actually described the measures as a 'socialist's wet dream'. Now, I assume these splenetic utterances are sanctioned by the leader of the Conservatives in Wales, Paul Davies. I politely ask Andrew R.T. Davies and Paul Davies to reflect on their approach to this and to their constructive opposition generally in times of a national public health crisis. Is this sort of language and approach from frontbench spokespersons unbecoming and undignified? Do you know, I really don't care? It's up to the individual Members. Is it wise? Not if it undermines public confidence in science-based measures to tackle coronavirus, which it definitely does. Is it hypocritical? Well, only if it is in direct contravention of the very policy supported by the Conservatives as part of a UK-wide set of measures to save lives. So, as Boris Johnson belatedly imposed the four-week lockdown in England, including a ban on the sale of non-essential goods from shops that are allowed to stay open, I ask the Conservative frontbench whether their UK leader and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom can now be described as in any way being in the midst of a 'socialist's wet dream', in the words of the former Conservative leader in Wales.
But let me be clear, as a backbench Member of this Senedd, I know that lessons will be learnt about the clarity of communication and the implementation of the detail of the firebreak by Welsh Government. Children's clothes, by the way, could be sold, urgent items could be accessed. And I look forward, by the way, to future meetings with the Wales Retail Consortium to explore their approach to this and how they and their members might work more effectively with the medical and scientific advice during a public health emergency, with guidance and legislation aimed to protect lives and control the spread of the disease.
But let me close, Deputy Presiding Officer, by reflecting on an interesting remembrance event I attended this morning. The vicar who led the service noted that whilst our soldiers in the first world war faced sniper bullets and mortar bombs whilst huddling in shell holes, we faced 17 days without shopping for non-essential consumer goods when there was a public health emergency raging. I ask Members to consider that. Thank you.
I'm grateful to contribute briefly to this today. I'm not a member of the committee, but I, like many Senedd Members, received many queries over that two-week firebreak, certainly during the first week of it, regarding the ban on supermarkets selling non-essential goods, so I speak from that point of view. I can certainly say, in response to Huw Irranca-Davies, that over that period I certainly wasn't a Member who used any sort of inflammatory language, and I certainly didn't talk about the position of the UK Government either, during that time. As a Member of this Senedd, I received more queries from constituents on this than anything else over the last several months, and I think we do need to recognise that, aside from the politics of this, which I think have been thrown around from both sides, actually, to a certain extent—I think, besides all that, there was an issue here that should be dealt with.
I'll be frank—I think that, at the start of this, this started out as a well-meaning attempt by the Welsh Government to create an even playing field and to make sure that small shops weren't suffering compared with supermarkets. Now, whether or not that happened in practice, I think a review will reveal that. I suspect that what actually happened is that the big beneficiaries of this process were the online consumers, the Amazons of this world and the like. That was my concern, and that was certainly the concern of constituents who contacted me.
Huw Irranca-Davies, you're right to say that, of course, this was a short period of time, and we're in the odd position now of discussing it in the lee, in the period following it. That said, of course, we may be looking at another lockdown, or firebreak as we call it here, in the new year; I hope that that isn't necessary, but we may be. So, I think what we need to do moving forward is to reassure our constituents that the steps that were taken during that firebreak—and many of them I support and think were going in the right direction—but to reassure our constituents that these measures are necessary. Yes, we are in an unusual position, yes, we do need to all pull together and make sure we combat the pandemic, but we also have to carry the public with us. I think the UK Government also are facing these challenges and struggles in carrying the public with them on the lockdown that they're engaged in, and, certainly in the future, if we have future lockdowns here, it's going to be difficult for us to fully reassure people that these measures are necessary. Let's all work together to make sure that that happens.
I'm glad that this has been discussed today, and I want to see a review to make sure that, in the future—. The term 'non-essential goods', for instance—I think that 'convenience goods' wasn't mentioned at all, and yet retailers understand what is meant by 'convenience goods'. I think that that was missing from the argument early on, so let's all work together to combat this pandemic.
Just a few comments from me on this. It's always good to see so much engagement with the Senedd, and I congratulate the petitioner in that sense. In terms of this petition, I think the fact that so many people did sign it shows that this is an issue that did generate genuine interest. It became a national debate. It's also evidence that Welsh Government failed to do what they needed to do to ensure that (1) their policy intentions were clear, and that communication around this was effective. I said that previously, at the start of the firebreak period—I could see what the Government was trying to do in terms of this policy on essential goods only, and I understood why the Conservatives pursued the issue of protecting smaller retailers, but I thought that something had gone seriously wrong in the way that this was done. The Government did respond then with some clarity. We see the problem in the wording of the petition:
'We do not agree for example that parents should be barred from buying clothes for their children during lockdown while out shopping.'
Ministers then said, 'Listen, if somebody really needs something, of course they can buy clothes for their children'. That kind of message was needed before this, and clarity as well on how that would happen, rather than putting the pressure on shop workers. So, there are lessons, I hope, that have been learned from that. But we have to say this as well: the attitude of the Conservatives was very insulting throughout all of this.
I think the Conservatives just forgot, as they so often do, that dealing with this pandemic is actually quite a serious matter. I've been critical of Government—very critical of Government at times— during this pandemic. I've tried to do it in a pretty constructive way. Just looking at Andrew R.T. Davies's Twitter feed, talking about the 'barmy ban', the 'ludicrous, insane lockdown', 'lockdown madness', referring to 'trolley cops', that fake news about the sale of sanitary products—I'm afraid none of that aged well, did it, for the Welsh Conservatives, given the almost identical rules on supermarkets and the lockdown, twice as long, which the Conservatives themselves introduced in England just days later. Now, I know that you are inspired by the world's most-celebrated runner up, Donald Trump, and trying to replicate him in any way you can, but it's not a good look to be seen to be scaremongering for such blatant right-wing populist reasons at a time of national crisis.
I've got just a few things to say in this debate. Firstly, I think it is important that Government recognises the difficulties that sometimes its policies create. I met a number of people who simply did not understand and were not prepared for the reality of the policy that had been announced a week earlier and weren't ready or prepared, in the messages they'd received from Government, to understand what this meant for them and what it meant for their own community.
Now, we know that the policy itself was actually very popular. Polling has told us that the policy of the firebreak and the policy approach, the policy framework taken by the Welsh Government, was very popular, but I think there was a feeling that people didn't understand the rationale for this particular element of it. It wasn't explained sufficiently well by Government, and the people therefore did not understand why this was happening in their local supermarket and how that then had an impact on the wider public health message. So, I think there are issues there where Government needs to learn.
But I also think we need to be very clear about this as well, because supermarkets also have a responsibility to play their part in all of this. For too long, supermarkets have exploited a near monopoly position in the marketplace. All of us know, and know of, smaller producers and suppliers who have seen supermarkets abuse their market position. And that has been a constant theme of policy, and Huw Irranca, as a former agriculture Minister, will know how, for many, many years, smaller producers and suppliers have been abused by supermarkets. And we also know that supermarkets in some ways sought to actively undermine this policy, rather than to support it. And I think we need to be very clear with supermarkets there, because they either were unable to manage a new regulation, which raises significant questions about their management, or they didn't want to. And I suspect it's the latter, and I suspect that they also—it was a case of putting their profits before the people and the customers they serve. And I think we need to be very clear about those actions of supermarkets.
Thirdly, and finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, I also echo the words of Rhun ap Iorwerth and Huw Irranca-Davies. It was refreshing to listen to Nick Ramsay, contributing to the debate this afternoon from an intelligent and rational position that puts the people that he represents in Monmouthshire first. We did not hear enough of that, and we have not heard enough of that. Whilst Conservative leaders in Wales were being abusive on social media, whipping up a storm on social media, what they were really doing was undermining a critical public health message. A week later, their policy in England collapsed. It completely collapsed, with the humiliation of the Prime Minister being forced onto television to announce a change in policy, with the timing dictated by Strictly Come Dancing and not by the needs of the people he's supposed to represent—a humiliating climbdown from a Prime Minister out of control of the situation.
And it is important that we recognise what happened there, because people were deliberately misled, were deliberately misinformed, and were deliberately driven in a direction of undermining public health by the Conservatives and their friends on the far right, all of whom contributed towards creating a situation where people that I represent, and people that Nick represents just down the road in Monmouthshire, did not and were not able to understand what the policy actually was. And I notice that those same people are today silent on the situation in England—nothing to say. All the special interest groups that Huw Irranca-Davies described from London now have nothing to say about what is happening in their own supermarkets—nothing to say about the failure of policy in England; nothing to say about their ability to drive this policy across the border. So, we need, certainly, to ensure that we're all able to learn lessons from this, but one of them has to be for Conservative politicians, whether in the Conservative Party or just fellow travellers on the far right—it's time you got out of the gutter and put people first, put public health first, and partisan advantage second. Thank you.
Can I call on the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths?
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Last month, with coronavirus rising and spreading rapidly in every part of Wales, and acting on the clear advice of our medical and scientific advisers, the Welsh Government introduced a 17-day firebreak to help bring coronavirus under control, prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed and, ultimately, save lives.
The consensus was, in order to regain control of the virus, the best way for this to be achieved was by people staying home as much as possible. The aim of the restrictions was to reduce the numbers of people going out, the amount of unnecessary travel, and the time that people spent when they were shopping. It was necessary to close all leisure and non-essential retail, and Members will be aware that similar policies have been pursued in other parts of the UK and other countries, as we've just heard from several contributions. Because the Welsh Government acted quickly and decisively, we've been able to limit the firebreak to 17 days, which is considerably shorter than that of our neighbour.
Shops were allowed to remain open—that included supermarkets and other food retailers, pharmacies, banks and post offices—and the approach required large multiple retailers to stop selling non-essential items. The regulations and guidance enabled items essential for a person's welfare or the welfare of a vulnerable person—and that did include children—to be sold, including necessities such as children's clothing.
It is a matter of regret that there was some initial confusion, and Members have referred to the fact that we do need to learn lessons, and I absolutely agree with that, and the feedback I've had from the retail sector was that it's really important to engage earlier around these regulations. But protecting public health has to be done quickly at times, and we don't always have the luxury of time to do that.
I also think matters weren't helped by images that were circulated on social media that caused distress when it appeared that certain products were not available. So, I really want to be clear that many of these problems occurred due to uncontrollable factors. One of them was that there had been a robbery that forced closure of a supermarket aisle, and then people maliciously were moving in-shop signage to deliberately cause confusion, and I think it's a real shame that a thoughtless minority sought entertainment through causing alarm and distress to others. But I am grateful that the overwhelming majority of the public were calm, they were understanding, and they continued to show concern for others.
In the days immediately before the firebreak, and throughout it, the Welsh Government engaged extensively with trade organisations and with a wide range of individual retailers to explain the regulations and the action that they were required to take. We published guidance for retailers and we answered queries from them. This enabled them to take a pragmatic approach to managing their shops, and I was very pleased to be able to agree a joint statement with them that stressed the critical issue of staff safety. One of the worst features, I think, of COVID-19 has been an increase in anti-social behaviour by retail customers towards each other and, especially, towards retail staff. I have previously written to the Home Office about this subject, and I've also written to all Wales's police forces, seeking their strong support for retailers in addressing this problem. I'd like to put again on record the Welsh Government's thanks to the retail sector and their many employees across Wales for managing a difficult situation very well. They faced significant challenges, and they worked hard to make those changes quickly.
Now the firebreak is over, it's really important that we sustain the gains that we've made in fighting COVID-19. The public are being urged to continue to avoid unnecessary travel and crowded spaces, and in most circumstances, the absolute maximum number of people who can gather together is four. That is a maximum, it's not a target, and the smaller the number of people who gather, obviously, the lower the risk. Through taking these commonsense steps, everyone can help keep Wales safe, protect our NHS, and, of course, protect ourselves and our loved ones. The firebreak has been a tough experience for many, many people, and we do have to learn lessons. I also accept that this petition was the biggest one ever accepted, but I think that's because COVID-19 is the biggest challenge that we've faced for many, many years. Thank you.
Thank you. I have no indication that Members requested to make any interventions, therefore I'll call on Janet Finch-Saunders to reply to the debate.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and thank you to the Minister for responding to this debate and to Members for their contributions. Sadly, the time remaining does not allow me to refer back to your contributions individually, however, in concluding today's debate, I wish once again to thank the petitioner and all the others who have contacted our committee about this matter. This debate has enabled some important issues to be raised and I hope the points raised today will be able to contribute in some form to future decision making. We will return to consider this petition at a future meeting of our committee, when we seek the reflections of the petitioner on the points that have been made. Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr iawn.