Today’s Senedd roundup: Government rejects claim it acted as window dressing for developer
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
Here’s a round-up of this afternoon’s questions to the Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower).
Did the Welsh Government act as window dressing for Northern Powerhouse Developments?
Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) asked about the Welsh Government’s relations to the controversial developer, Gavin Woodhouse, who’s been linked to several business failures and the seemingly scrapped Afan Valley resort.
“….one way Ponzi schemes work is burnishing a positive reputation to persuade investors to part with their money. Do you accept that the Welsh Government’s public support for Mr Woodhouse played a part in burnishing his reputation? And does the Welsh Government feel any sense of reasonability to those who’ve lost money by investing in Welsh projects associated with Gavin Woodhouse?”
– Mark Reckless AM
The Finance Minister was categorical that no Welsh Government funding has been provided to Gavin Woodhouse. She rejected the picture he was trying to paint.
Minister trailing “really good budget”
The draft Welsh budget is – for the moment – due to be published on 16th December and Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) noted that as this is later than expected, would there be due consideration given to relieving some of the pressure on local government finances?
“It is clear that investing through local government can make significant savings, and can improve people’s quality of life. Investing in housing through local government can improve health, investment in social services can take pressure off the health service, and investment in sports facilities can also be very successful as a preventative tool in preventing obesity, and so on.”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth AM
The Minister said she’s been working closely across budget and believes the draft “is a really good budget” with health set to be a top priority yet again. The focus in local government has been on preventative spending to stop small problems becoming big ones – one such example being social housing, where 93% of social housing is now up to quality standards and having a knock-on positive impact on health.
Rural areas not missing out on development cash
Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) asked for an update on rural spending plans in light of a seemingly big underspend on rural development:
“I understand that only 41% of Rural Development Plan (RDP) funds for the programme period have been spent up until the end of August 2019. Perhaps you can confirm or otherwise on that. Can you update us on any discussions you’ve had with the Minister for rural affairs about how we got into this situation and how the spending situation may be improved in future?”
– Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM
The Minister did acknowledge an underspend, but it wasn’t quite as low as 41% and was closer to 45%. It compares to 42% average across EU member states (RDP is an EU-funded programme). Just under £665 million has been committed to projects until 2023, which represents around 80% of RDP funds. The 45% figure just represents what’s been spent already. It underlined how important EU funding is to rural communities.
Image by skeeze from PixabayInternational strategy delayed; call for expanded Welsh aid programme
Here’s a summary of some of this afternoon’s questions to the International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales).
Shadow International Affairs Minister, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), asked about the international strategy and when the final version would be published.
The Minister confirmed that the final version won’t be published until the new year due to the election and the possible impact on the UK Foreign Office.
Darren Millar expressed his disappointment at the length of time it’s taken to get even the draft version done despite the Minister being in post for a year. Moving on, there was a recent event held at the Senedd by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC). He listed the amount of money raised in Wales for various disasters – totalling around £5.2million.
“Minister, do you agree with me that it’s time we had a Wales for the world programme, where actually we can expand what we do, we can be more globally responsible, and we can amplify the Welsh presence in those developing nations and show some leadership, yes, on climate change, but also on alleviating poverty and responding to these sorts of situations that, very clearly, the people of Wales are passionate about?”
– Shadow International Affairs Minister, Darren Millar
The Minister acknowledged the generosity of the Welsh public but backed away from making any firm commitments. She was more concerned with making the small aid budget that is there work better, building on the strong bilateral ties Wales has withe Lesotho and Uganda.
U-turn on Welsh language sabbatical officer at Cardiff University criticised
Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) raised the matter of establishing a society for Welsh language students at Cardiff University, with a dedicated elected sabbatical officer in line with Bangor, Aberystwyth & Swansea. This was due to be in place for spring 2020, but since then there’s been a u-turn, with Cardiff Student Union saying it would have to cut provision for other groups to set it up.
The Minister said that, ultimately, the union can make its own decisions, but this was a major disappointment:
“We know that there is a decline as people leave school and they don’t have an opportunity to use their Welsh language skills, and I think it’s very important that students have an opportunity to use the Welsh language in a social capacity, and this is exactly what this student (sic) provides. I was also aware that the board of trustees in the past had committed to appointing a full-time officer in Cardiff, and I am disappointed that they have stepped away from that.”
– International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan
In a second question on the denial of Welsh-speaking rights at an Ammanford factory, the Minister said she would have discussions with the Welsh Language Commissioner on informing businesses of their responsibilities – but there was no plan to bring forward and legislation relating to the private sector.
Work stalls on “frustrating” post-Brexit trade talks
David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) asked about work on a concordat between the Welsh and UK government on future trade deals. When he was told work has been halted due to the election, he noted his disappointment, believing it was essential the Welsh Government has its input during future trade negotiations as they’ll likely impact devolved areas.
The Minister was as frustrated as he was:
“We’ve been very clear with the UK Government that it’s imperative that we are a part of any trade negotiations. The Secretary of State has agreed to establish a joint ministerial forum on trade. The problem is that every time we get going here, there’s a shift and a change in terms of personnel. So, we develop these relationships with the relevant Minister, we get a long way down the line, then we’ve had a new Prime Minister and now we’ve got a general election, so we have to start all over again. It’s a really, really frustrating situation.”
– International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan
No indication yet on possible Welsh steel job losses following Tata announcement
With news that Tata plans to cut 3,000 jobs from its European steel division by March 2021, AMs had an opportunity yesterday to quiz the Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South).
UK Government needs to step up to the plate
The Minister said two-thirds of the expected job losses will be “office-based”, but the direct implications for the Welsh steel industry were as of yet unknown.
“In terms of job losses in Wales, we will do everything that we can to support those affected, and our ReAct programme stands ready to provide assistance to workers across the Welsh Tata Steel sites, including co-ordinated support from local partners. The Welsh Government remains committed to working with the company and trade unions to secure a long-term future for steel making in Wales.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates
He added that the global steel industry continues to endure serious challenges including over-production, slowing sales and rising costs of raw materials and energy. While the Welsh Government has offered “steadfast support” for the steel industry through various investment packages, it was now time for the UK Government to do the same.
In light of that last comment, the Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), hoped that the cross-party consensus in support of steel won’t be lost during an election. He called for greater support for steel innovation to enable zero-carbon steel production and for more Welsh-sourced steel to be used in infrastructure projects.
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) raised union concerns that Tata were putting “all their eggs in one basket (merger with Thyssenkrupp, which was blocked by the EU Commission)” and given the amount of support the Welsh Government has offered for training etc. he hoped those jobs would be safe.
Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) laid the blame at EU bureaucracy, but was told that tarrifs under a “No Deal Brexit” would cause even bigger problems.
“…when the joint venture was put on hold Tata Steel’s chief financial officer said then that all options would be explored in relation to the EU business, so what were all those options? I certainly don’t know what they are. For example, has a steelworkers co-operative been thought about? In Mondragon, the biggest co-operative of its kind in the world, they do have an interest in steel, and would this not be something that we could consider here in Wales so that the steelworkers don’t feel as disenfranchised as they currently do?”
– Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West)
Causing more uncertainty for steelworkers
David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said that if 3,000 jobs are expected to go across Europe and a third of those fell on the UK, it could mean as many as 1,000 job losses and most of those would likely fall on Wales where most of Tata’s UK operations are. He compared what steelworkers have had to go through to a rollercoaster – crisis, then repreive, then another crisis.
“….it’s unlikely to know where those job losses will fall and we won’t know the implementation until 2021….is going to add more uncertainty for those families and to those steelworkers, as they’ll go into work every day thinking to themselves that there might not be a job for them in 12 months time.”
– David Rees AM
Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) said there was a sense of neglect by the UK Government for having not held a steel council meeting for 18 months; workers had to be sent a message that those who govern them support them.
There was a smidgen of positive news on the steel front.
During First Minister’s Questions, Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) said she understood there were two parties interested in buying the under-threat Orb electrical steelworks in Newport. She also welcomed Welsh Government discussions with the Community union on developing a long-term strategy for the plant.
The Health Minister (who was taking FMQs) said that while a summary proposal has been prepared for the Orb works, he expressed frustration at the lack of UK Government action.
John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East) raised the matter again and the Economy Minister added that while Tata are considering redeployment of workers, enough time is needed to develop possible takeover bids and alternatives; upgrading the Orb works into a site capable of producing steel for the electric vehicle industry is estimated to cost £30-50million.
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