Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
First Minister’s Questions
As you might expect, this afternoon’s First Minister’s Questions was dominated by the flooding of the last few weeks. AMs will be updated on a recent flood summit later this afternoon .
Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) wanted to drill down into the financial impact of the storms, with the cost in Rhondda Cynon Taf alone having been estimated at £180 million.
The Welsh Government has made £10 million immediately available but was the First Minister confident there was enough funding in reserve, and for organisations such as Natural Resources Wales, to deal with the rest of the damage?
The First Minister believes it’s too soon to put a figure on the costs involved, though RCT’s estimate “wasn’t unreasonable”. When turning to the recent request for UK Government flood relief, the First Minister dropped this bombshell:
“Part of the reason why we are having to ask the UK Government for assistance is because, with six weeks of this financial year left, the UK Treasury wrote to us requiring us to repay to them £100 million of financial transactions capital, and £100 million of conventional capital, before the end of this financial year (April 2020). They said that they had recalculated Barnett consequentials and that that money needed to be returned to them.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford
Emergency services and communities praised for flood reaction
Leader of the Oppostion, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) – while praising the response to the floods – wondered what lessons could be learned from them. There have been particular concerns around the coordination of responses and, in some communities, flooding may not be seen as high enough a priority as it should be.
Naturally, the First Minister didn’t draw the same conclusions. The emergency response command system worked and a new flood prevention strategy – which went out for consultation in 2019 – is due to be published “shortly”. There was also no secrecy over where and how much the Welsh Government was spending on flood prevention.
“Whenever a scheme is agreed – £44 million in the south-west recently – then we publish those schemes, and we publish the amounts of money associated with them because we are very keen that people in Wales can see how the £350 million that is being spent over this Assembly term is being used to protect them from the effects of river and coastal flooding.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)
Where responsibility lies
Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) concentrated on lines of accountability and where responsibility lies, suggesting the role of local government, Natural Resources Wales and coal authorities (with regard to coal tips) was blurred. He also suggested that asking for more money from the UK Government following a disaster showed the danger of demanding more powers and devolution.
The First Minister rejected the idea:
“As far as help from the Treasury is concerned, I think we are already acting in a way that is consistent with rules that have been established over many years. When a completely unforeseeable event happens, and it happens on a scale of the sort that we saw this weekend….and costs are commensurately high, the ability to go to the UK Treasury for help from reserves is one we’ve used before, and we’re using it again here.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford
Government recommends Senedd approves post-Brexit farming and fisheries Bills
The Fisheries Bill will set up a framework for UK fisheries after Brexit, including access to UK fishing waters, sustainability and licensing of fishing vessels. The Welsh Government will have powers concerning the sale of rights to the Welsh catch quota as well as vessel licences (including foreign vessels) within Welsh waters.
The Agriculture Bill will establish a UK replacement for the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and will mean the Welsh Government would have powers to intervene during exceptional market conditions and over the basic payment system to farmers.
The UK Government will retain control of several areas including a requirement to meet World Trade Organisation rules, regulation of fertilisers and identifying and tracking animals.
The Bill also proposes changes to the red meat levy which could benefit producers. At present the levy is collected based on which nation an abattoir is in, meaning produce from one nation can be used to fund red meat promotional material in another. The Bill proposes that the red meat levy boards redistribute the levy proceeds between themselves.
Both Legislative Consent Motions will need to be approved by the Senedd.
The UK Bills are largely temporary. The Welsh Government intends to introduce Agriculture and Fisheries bills at a later date.
Renewed demand for the independent investigation of Ministerial Code breaches
Plaid Cymru has again called for complaints under the Ministerial Code to be independently investigated after party leader, Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr), said the First Minister was able to act as “judge and jury” in such cases.
The call came after the First Minister maintained his position in a letter that the Chief Whip and Deputy Minister, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), hadn’t breached the Code when she joined a protest against a ward closure at Barry Hospital.
The ward was being closed to enable more patients to receive care at home or in a specialised centre – which is a long-standing Welsh Government policy.
The convention of cabinet collective responsibility means that if a minister is unable to agree to government policy, they have to resign. However, the First Minister argues that the Code, in this case, allowed the Chief Whip to make representations on behalf of constituents.
Adam Price said a Plaid Cymru government would “put a system in place that is fit for purpose whereby ministers suspected of breaking the ministerial code are referred for an inquiry independently of the First Minister”.
Heads of the Valleys road scheme runs £100 million overbudget
A project to dual a section of the A465 through the Clydach Gorch between Blaenau Gwent and Monmouthshire is almost £100million overbudget according to a report from the Wales Audit Office (pdf).
“This is not the first time that the Welsh Government has faced difficulties with significant cost increases and delays on road projects and lessons must be learnt for future infrastructure schemes. Despite some wider benefits being delivered and expectations about the eventual impact of the road improvement, those living and working locally are paying a higher than expected price for the ongoing delays and disruption during construction.”
– Auditor General, Adrian Crompton
Section 2 of the project between Brynmawr and Gilwern was originally estimated to cost £223.2million, but the latest figure is put at £321.1million, with the Welsh Government and Costain still in disagreement over who is liable to pay certain costs.
The section was also due to have been completed during 2020 but is now expected to run into 2021.
Chair of the Senedd’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) said: “It is no secret that the A465 Section 2 project is substantially over budget and behind schedule and it is clear that the construction work has had a significant impact on the local community.”
Review ordered into job support scheme which failed to launch twice
The Government has ordered a review of Job Support Wales – a £500 million programme to support people into work – which failed to launch for a second time.
Job Support Wales would have replaced the redundancy programme ReAct as well as Jobs Growth Wales.
A “lessons learned” exercise was undertaken after the scheme failed to originally launch. A £617 million contract to deliver Job Support Wales was finalised in December 2018 but was dropped following a legal challenge by a second bidder. This happened again in December 2019, with the contract reduced to £500million.
Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), expressed disappointment, saying: “This is unacceptable and it would be disappointing were a second lessons learnt exercise be required, but it really shouldn’t be a case of third time lucky for a procurement process – the total cost of which is unknown – for such an important programme.”