Senedd roundup: Minister calls for talks with UK government over freeport plans
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
Finance Minister Rebecca Evans has called for the UK government to fully engage with the Welsh government over plans to establish freeports from next year.
Last weekend the Sunday Telegraph reported that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak wants to create 10 new freeports around the UK to boost the economy following Brexit.
The bidding process for locations to become freeports will be announced in the autumn budget, with successful sites confirmed by the spring.
There is speculation that several sites in Wales could be seeking inclusion in the scheme.
The freeports will be designated as legally outside the UK’s customs territory, meaning goods would not incur national tariffs or import VAT.
Speaking at Tuesday’s press briefing the minister said there are “lots of unanswered questions” over the UK government’s plans but added she is “absolutely willing to engage” with UK ministers on the matter.
“It’s one of those issues and areas where we really need the UK government to be properly and fully engaging with us,” Ms Evans said.
“This is a reserved matter but the implications for us could be very significant here in Wales.
“We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where freeports lead to any lowering of environmental standards, of labour market standards for example.
“We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where tax breaks make other companies or Welsh firms uncompetitive.
“And we certainly don’t want to find ourselves in a position where economic activity is displaced as a result of those freeports as well.”
Two more deaths from coronavirus have been reported by Public Health Wales on Tuesday, increasing the total number of deaths to 1,543.
There were also 21 new cases confirmed, taking the number of infections since the start of the outbreak to 16,836. On Monday 4,379 tests for the virus were carried out.
Tories want immediate introduction of face masks rule
The Welsh Conservatives have welcomed the announcement that wearing face masks will become compulsory on public transport in Wales from 27 July but have called for their immediate introduction and for the wearing of face coverings to be compulsory in more public settings.
At Monday’s coronavirus press briefing First Minister Mark Drakeford said three-layer face coverings must be worn on public transport, including taxis, and masks should also be worn in other situations where 2m social distancing was not possible.
Shadow Covid Recovery Minister Darren Millar MS also asked for the government to publish the scientific evidence that supports delaying the introduction of the measures for two weeks
“The First Minister and his Cabinet must produce the scientific evidence – if it exists – to justify introducing them two weeks from now rather than with immediate effect and why only on public transport,” he said.
“Lockdown is being eased, life is returning to a ‘new normal’, but we must still take every precaution to avoid a second wave of cases, and making wearing face masks mandatory from today may go some way to achieving this – but only if brought in now.”
Yesterday the UK Government announced that wearing a face covering in shops and supermarkets in England is to become mandatory from 24 July.
Those who fail to comply with the new rules will face a fine of up to £100.
Transport for Wales has announced that groundworks for the South Wales Metro system will start on 3rd August 2020.
Work will concentrate on the lines north of Radyr and is set to take place overnight between Thursdays and Sundays on-off until May 2021. The lines are set to be converted to run tram-trains – including electrification and signalling works – with a new depot currently under construction at Taffs Well.
Transport for Wales Chief Executive, James Price, said: “We hope that the people of South Wales and our neighbours living near our railway lines will be excited by the opportunities the South Wales Metro will bring. I also want to assure them that whilst we have a lot of work to do, we’ll do all we can to minimise disruption caused by the work we’ll be undertaking and that we’ll regularly update them about the progress we’re making as work continues.”
Arts sector to be consulted over £59 million support package
Mark Drakeford has confirmed the arts sector in Wales will be consulted on how to spend a £59m support grant.
The money is Wales’ allocation of a £1.57bn coronavirus support package for the arts and culture sector announced by the UK government last week
The First Minister said the Welsh Government would “plan and then publish, rather than publish than plan”.
“It is better we say things publicly when we’ve agreed with the people who are most directly affected what it is, we intend to do,” he added.
The sector in Wales has suffered huge losses after being forced to close following the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Nick Capaldi, chief executive of the Arts Council of Wales, told BBC Radio Wales the funding was “an absolute lifeline”.
“We were facing the imminent collapse of a whole sector of our cultural and creative economy,” he added.
The support package will also see Scotland receive £97m and £33m will be allocated to support the sector in Northern Ireland.
New guidance released as schools prepare to fully reopen in September
Last week, the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), announced that schools will open to all students at the start of the 2020-21 academic year on 1st September 2020 – though there will be some exceptions, such as children who have received a shielding letter.
Schools recently reopened to a third of students at a time following their closure in March due to coronavirus pandemic lockdown restrictions.
As part of the plans, students will be placed into contact groups of up to 30 pupils who will generally be kept apart from other groups unless it’s completely unavoidable (i.e. school transport). Fines for non-attendance will effectively be suspended for the first half-term of the new school year and kept under review. However, all children who are otherwise able to attend school (i.e. not required to shield for medical reasons, no symptoms of Covid-19) will be expected to go, with any concerns discussed with staff.
Schools will be expected to take measures such as introducing one-way systems, continued social distancing between members of staff and improved hand and surface hygiene.
The Minister said: “Every decision we have made has been backed by the latest available scientific and medical guidance. Thanks to Wales’s cautious and careful approach, Covid-19’s presence in our communities is declining. In the expectation that this will continue, the advice to me is that schools can plan to open in September, with all pupils present.”
Information Commissioner orders publication of mental health unit report
The Information Commissioner’s Office has ruled that a report into standards of care at the Hergest mental health ward at Ysbyty Gwynedd should be published in full.
The original report was published in 2015 but was heavily redacted. Betsi Cadwaladr health board refused to grant a Freedom of Information request to publish the unredacted report, but the Commissioner has overturned that decision on appeal.
A separate inquiry into the Tawel Fan ward at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd found a catalogue of failures, which resulted in the health board being placed into special measures – a state that it remains in as of July 2020.
Darren Millar MS (Con, Clwyd West) said: “The public have a right to know whether there were earlier indicators of problems in the management and leadership of mental health services in north Wales and whether scandals such as Tawel Fan could have been avoided.”
Llyr Gruffydd MS (Plaid, North Wales) said: “There was an opportunity seven years ago to learn from this report but, unfortunately, it didn’t happen. It has been a difficult and emotional battle, with the health board trying to stop the publication of the report at every step.”
The Commissioner has given Betsi Cadwaladr Health Board 30 days to appeal their decision.