Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
Here are the highlights from this afternoon’s international affairs and culture questions.
Only 12 Welsh-medium teachers have qualified this year
Shadow Welsh Language Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), asked about plans for the Welsh Government’s internal use of the Welsh language. A Welsh language communications plan was due to be in place for 2020 across all departments but hasn’t happened yet.
International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales) hoped the strategy would be in place during November 2019.
Suzy Davies welcomed that news but didn’t understand why it’s taken so long. Moving on, she touched on the work of Welsh language partnership councils. What were they doing to aid the development of the Cymraeg 2050 policy? She then dropped a bombshell figure that only 12 Welsh-medium teachers have qualified during 2019.
The Minister said the economy was high up the agenda, but concerning teachers :
“It is a challenge to have teachers across the world currently, and I have been working very closely with the Education Minister to ensure that we can help to attract more people into a Welsh teaching course, and I do think that a lot of money has been going into it. For example, we have provided an additional £150,000 to ensure that more people undertake Welsh A-level because we know that many of those go on to teach and learn through the medium of Welsh. “– International Affairs & Welsh Language Minister, Eluned Morgan
Crises in Kurdistan and Catalonia
Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) raised the urgent matters of Turkey’s “brutal and murderous assault” on Rojava and the jailing of Catalan politicians by the Spanish courts.
She was pleased the Welsh Government have made representations regarding the Kurds and that arms sales to Turkey have been suspended by the UK; did the Welsh Government think there was a case for Turkey to be referred to the European Court of Human Rights? Would they also do more to ensure companies based in Wales that were supplying weapons or weapon parts didn’t receive Welsh Government funding in the future?
“It is unconscionable that political jailings are happening in Europe in 2019. Western countries have rightly criticised China for clamping down on protesters in Hong Kong, yet we have an EU member state sending politicians to prison for delivering a legitimate, democratic mandate. Minister, will you join Plaid Cymru – and, indeed, some of your backbenchers – in condemning Spain for their actions?”
– Delyth Jewell AM
Whilst keen to acknowledge that foreign affairs is a reserved matter for the UK Government – and they’ll have to take the lead – the Minister welcomed the UK’s actions to date. She added that she’s written to the UK Foreign Secretary to ask what representations they’ve made regarding the prison sentences handed down to the Catalan politicians.
Boosting take-up of free swimming
Following recent changes to the Welsh Government’s free swimming scheme, which will see it targeted at areas of deprivation, Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) said she’s received more correspondence on this from affected over-60s than under-16s. How would the Welsh Government and Sport Wales ensure those who most need to use the scheme – young people who haven’t learned to swim – benefit from it?
The Welsh Government will seek a collaborative approach with councils:
“The reduction in funding is a reduction specifically on a scheme that was not reaching the populations for whom it was intended. But, it certainly is our intention that the younger people should benefit from this initiative. The key to us is working with the leisure centres themselves and with the local authorities, and this is Sport Wales’s intention.”
– Deputy Minister for Culture, Tourism & Sport, Dafydd Elis-Thomas (Ind, Dwyfor Meirionnydd)
AMs start debate on the future of the Union
Yesterday afternoon, AMs had a chance to offer their opinions.
The First Minister ran through the key propositions in the report, adding that he told Boris Johnson that the Union was under greater threat than ever before, though the response to that has been “just silence”.
“We want to stimulate an urgent debate, but we do not claim to have all the answers. So what we have put forward is a set of propositions, and we want the UK Government, and of course others, to engage with them. It is the proper purpose of politics to argue out competing propositions and different views of our futures. In this document, we say, ‘Here is our version of how that future should be saved.’ To others here in Wales and in other parts of the United Kingdom, we say, ‘Please let that debate begin.’”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)
Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), said it was right to recognise that devolution was a fundamental part of the UK’s constitution. There were a “wealth of discussions” to be had on how the UK should function after Brexit and even offered his support for a needs-based funding formula.
Nonetheless, people are likely to be more concerned about the quality of public services – though he wasn’t opposed to some form of constitutional convention to set out a vision for the UK without compromising the Union itself.
Much to welcome
Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) said there was much to welcome in the report even if Plaid disagreed with the final destination of Wales’ constitutional journey. He picked out the devolution of criminal justice, fair funding and an end to parliamentary sovereignty. He suggested that Welsh Labour should embrace the spirit of popular sovereignty in the report and become a separate party – which the First Minister rejected.
Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) didn’t believe there was any chance of major constitutional reform in the UK without reforms to parliamentary sovereignty. He called for a Speaker’s Conference as the first step towards starting a wider debate.
Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) added that debates on this have been too Westminster-centric and sometimes continue to do so. He suggested that outreach work starts with Scotland and the directly-elected English mayors to encourage collaborative work.
Notes of caution
Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) found the report more convincing when it outlined the specific problems the Welsh Government have had when dealing with the UK Government, but it would be difficult to argue that the nations of the UK were truly equal:
“….the document as a whole emphasises a convention, equality, and you speak from general principles. And I think that is much harder when you consider that the UK Government and UK Parliament are not just the equivalents of the Welsh, the Scottish and the Northern Ireland institutions, but speak both for a nation, England, which constitutes over five-sixths of the population of these isles, and also for a UK Government that has all those non-devolved functions….I just wonder as to how realistic it is as an approach to demand equality from first principles….”
– Mark Reckless AM
David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) offered a note of caution on the definition of sovereignty and how it’s applied as outlined in the report:
“I do not share David’s concerns about sovereignty. Sovereignty is exercised, of course, by the cantons in Switzerland, and they do so in an effective way to ensure the self-governance of that confederation. We will, over the years, look at different models and seek inspiration from different ways of governing ourselves to ensure that we reach where we wish to be, and in doing so, we do, I hope, also unify the country.”
– Alun Davies AM
Rise in loan interest rate expected to “cause difficulty” for Welsh councils
Here’s a summary of this afternoon’s question to the Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans (Lab, Gower).
Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth), turned once again to how the Welsh Government intends to spend additional money allocated by the UK Government spending review.
The Minister repeated what she’s said in previous sessions – that the NHS was a top priority and local authorities will be towards the front of the queue too. Nick Ramsay pressed further:
“….when you tell us you’re looking to put money into social services and money into local authorities in the future, can you guarantee that there will be an even spread of that cake and that local authority budgets across Wales, in rural areas, will also get a better deal than they have in the past, so that in future, the Welsh budgets for local authorities are fairer than they have been in the past?”
– Shadow Finance Minister, Nick Ramsay AM
The Minister again repeated what’s been said by herself and others previously – if councils want their funding formula to change they’re welcome to come up with their own ideas and present them to the government.
Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) asked a question along similar lines to Nick Ramsay and got a similar answer. However, he brought up an idea from New Zealand on placing the wellbeing of the population as the main focus when drafting budgets. With Scotland looking at the idea, would the Welsh Government consider something similar, or become part of an international wellbeing network?
The Minister said she was keen to learn from other governments:
“Welsh Government is particularly keen to engage in networks and learn from others, especially now in the context of Brexit of course, because our international relationships are as important as they’ve ever been now in terms of being able to demonstrate what we are doing in Wales and the values that we have here in Wales, which I think are shared by many across the world, and in terms of also learning from others, because we certainly don’t have the monopoly on good ideas.”
– Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans
Local borrowing interest rate rise “to reign in councils”
Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) raised the matter of a recent increase in the interest rate of the public works loan board set by the UK Treasury. He believes the move was to “reign in” a number of local authorities who’ve built up large commercial property portfolios. In a Welsh context that includes Monmouthshire Council, who’ve spent a combined £28million to buy commercial properties, including the Newport Leisure Park which is outside their area.
The Minister believed that while individual councils have to justify spending decisions to their local electorates, the interest rate rise will have a general impact on local authority capital spending:
“….the interest rate changed without notice from 1.8% to 2.8% with immediate effect last week. And that does cause difficulty for local authorities in Wales, of course, because they will have to reassess all of their borrowing plans and the plans that they have for strategic investment in social housing particularly, but also in schools and other capital projects particularly in Wales.”
– Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans