Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
After being unavoidably split across two days due to technical issues yesterday, the Senedd continued it’s discussion today on whether to grant its consent to the UK Internal Market Bill.
Under a constitutional convention (a glorified gentlemen’s agreement) known as the Sewel Convention, devolved parliaments need to be asked their consent if the UK attempts to pass a law affecting devolved policy areas.
Counsel General & Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles MS (Lab, Neath), said the debate was held back until the last minute in the hopes the UK Government would see sense in the face of opposition.
While some of the amendments in the House of Lords made the Bill more palatable, they were – as expected – overturned when the Bill went back to the UK House of Commons.
The Welsh Government’s recommendation – backed by the findings of three Senedd committees (summarised here) – was for the Senedd should withhold consent.
He went on to say that the Bill neuters Welsh legislation; enables the UK Government to make financial interventions which work against the political priorities of the Senedd and doesn’t – despite claims to the contrary – increase the Senedd’s powers. If anything it takes them away, particularly concerning state aid.
Despite presenting alternative proposals based around common frameworks agreed jointly by the UK’s four governments, it was clear to the Counsel General that the motivations behind the Bill had little to do with economic concerns, but a desire to “centralise power and hobble the freedom of this Senedd to do the job it was elected to do”.
The Bill is an attack on devolution and, in his mind – and the minds of many others – will speed up the dissolution of the UK.
Shadow Brexit Minister, Darren Millar MS (Con, Clwyd West) accused opponents of trying to stifle Brexit. The Bill doesn’t centralise powers but instead provides an orderly transfer of power from Brussels whilst protecting the UK’s internal market. It also maintains current standards in a range of areas, while it was also “perfectly sensible” for state aid powers to be transferred to the UK Government.
Caroline Jones MS (Ind, South Wales West) said there had to be a sensible agreement on the free movement of goods and services within the UK; we couldn’t have a free for all where UK nation competes against UK nation.
Several members noted that the Bill at least partially overturns the 2011 referendum of law-making powers.
Alun Davies MS (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) described it as the most dishonest and destructive pieces of legislation during his time in office. He – and the Welsh Government – weren’t opposed to an internal market in principle, but there are no issues with cross-border trade and the Bill was a solution trying to find a problem. Bleakly, he said “devolution is dead” if the law reaches the statute book.
Not all Conservatives were supportive.
David Melding MS (Con, South Wales Central) described it as rush and badly thought through regarding its constitutional implications and makes the exercise of devolved powers more difficult. That said, he believed the Bill was more clumsy than malign. Perhaps the most important point was that while opposition to the Bill from the SNP is expected, opposition from a unionist Labour government shouldn’t be ignored. He confirmed he would vote against granting consent.
The Senedd voted against granting consent by 36-15.
While, in principle, the devolved parliaments withholding consent would mean the UK Government going back to the drawing board, in practice there’s no formal constitutional requirement for them to do so.
NHS in Wales under “serious pressure as Covid cases surge
Wales’ Chief Medical officer has warned the surge in COVID-19 infections across the country is putting “serious pressure” on the health service and its workers and could result in non-essential NHS services being impacted.
Infection rates are currently going up in 21 of 22 local authorities in Wales and 10 areas have weekly rates of over 400,000 per 100,000 people.
There are also almost 1,100 people with coronavirus in hospital and earlier in the week 77 patients with the virus were in critical care units.
Speaking at today’s government press briefing Dr Frank Atherton said: “We are facing a very serious situation. Coronavirus is accelerating.”
Admitting the virus is spreading faster than “we could have anticipated”, Dr Atherton added: “…there are serious pressures on our NHS across the whole of Wales, but particularly in the south and up in the valleys”.
“This is seen in our hospitals, it’s seen in our ambulance services, and it’s particularly acute in our intensive care units where staff really are working flat out to protect people and to keep them safe and to keep them alive.”
“We have in Wales taken the approach of trying to keep our non-essential services in the NHS moving, keep them active, and that does lead to pressures, “ he added.
“In fact, most people in critical care beds in Wales are not suffering from coronavirus, they’re there for other reasons.
“It may be that we will come to the point that we might have to change that policy of… being able to provide non-essential services in Wales. That’s what we did in the lockdown, the initial lockdown, in February, March.
“We haven’t reached that point, we hope not to reach that point, we want to keep non-essential services moving if we possibly can.
“But that may be something that we need to seriously think about.”
Today’s figures from Public Health Wales have confirmed 31 deaths due to COVID-19 and 2,238 new cases of the virus, the highest since the start of the pandemic.
Nine of the deaths were reported by Cardiff and Vale University Health Board and there were seven in both the Aneurin Bevan and Hywel Dda health board areas.
Cwm Taf Morgannwg and Swansea Bay health board areas reported four deaths each.
The highest number of positive tests for the virus were in Cardiff (332) followed by Rhondda Cynon Taf (234) and Newport (224).
There have been 1,534 new cases in Cardiff over the last seven days.
Neath Port Talbot has the highest infection rate over the last week, up from 632.2 yesterday to 693.6 per 100,000 people.
Merthyr Tydfil has the highest positive test proportion in Wales at 28.5% per 100,000 tests up from 27.1% yesterday
Government scientists call for Christmas to be postponed
The Welsh Government’s panel of scientific advisers has recommended that people should postpone their Christmas celebrations until later next year.
A report by the government’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) report warns that different generations meeting over the holiday is “highly likely” to help spread Covid-19 and that increased infections of older people are “likely to lead to higher deaths and hospitalisations after Christmas”.
The report also recommends that families with children should consider “pre-isolating” at home for 10 days before seeing elderly relatives and says: “”If people can avoid seeing others over the Christmas period, perhaps postponing celebrations until later next year or meeting remotely, then this is strongly advised.”
All four UK governments have agreed to ease travel restrictions between 23-27 December and gave permission for up to three households to form an exclusive “bubble” for the holiday period.
Last week, Dr Frank Atherton, the Chief Medical Officer for Wales, urged people to plan for a low-key Christmas this year and warned the easing of Covid restrictions over the holiday will lead inevitably to “an increase in cases, hospitalisations and deaths in January and February.”
Concerns remain over hospitality sector restrictions
A summary of this afternoon’s questions to Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) – dominated by current restrictions on the hospitality sector.
Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George MS (Con, Montgomery), asked for an assessment of the impact hospitality sector restrictions are having on the Welsh economy. Many businesses bent over backwards to comply with what’s been asked of them, but many smaller businesses will go to the wall if restrictions aren’t lifted over the important Christmas period.
Businesses need clarity on the current line of thinking so they can either plan to reopen and order the necessary stock, or otherwise remain closed. He also had concerns over the length of time it would take for businesses to receive support payments (said to be as late as January) as well as the one-size-fits-all national approach, which is unfair on businesses located in areas with low COVID-19 rates.
The Minister recognised the difficult position businesses find themselves in, but an “unprecedented” support package has been made available and every restriction could potentially save lives. He clarified that at least some of the support payments will be made during December with additional payments in January.
Helen Mary Jones MS (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) understood the need for public health to be put front and centre. However, many hospitality businesses couldn’t understand the reasoning behind the restrictions which were causing seeming contradictions – like continued supermarket alcohol sales whilst pub sales are banned, possibly pushing people towards house parties.
Citing another hypothetical example, how was four people meeting for lunch more dangerous than four people meeting for a pint at the end of the working day? Would consideration, therefore, be given to easing restrictions on alcohol sales rather than the current outright ban in pubs?
The Minister told members that every possible amendment to restrictions is being considered, but this will be based on advice from health experts. He would’ve hoped to have had more to say on the economic recovery strategy by now, but the emphasis should remain on emergency business support.
As for the public, we should all take personal responsibility so that we don’t put ourselves or anyone else at risk.
Government meets 100,000 apprenticeships target
Economy Minister Ken Skates has confirmed the government has achieved its target of creating 100,000 apprenticeships during this Senedd term.
New employer incentives to help recruit apprentices were recently announced as part of the Welsh Government’s £40 million jobs and skills package to support businesses and workers in recovering from the economic impacts of coronavirus and respond to the effects of the UK leaving the EU.
The apprenticeship programme in Wales is funded by Welsh Government with support from the European Social Fund and included a scheme which allows businesses to claim up to £3,000 for each new apprentice they hire under the age of 25.
Mr Skates said:” Apprenticeships are a crucial part of our economy and provide people of all ages with opportunities to learn whilst earning a wage”.