Y Pwyllgor Craffu ar Waith y Prif Weinidog

Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister

11/02/2021

Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol

Committee Members in Attendance

Ann Jones MS Y Dirprwy Lywydd, Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor
Deputy Presiding Officer, Committee Chair
Bethan Sayed MS
David Rees MS
Janet Finch-Saunders MS
Jayne Bryant MS
John Griffiths MS
Lynne Neagle MS
Mick Antoniw MS
Nick Ramsay MS
Russell George MS

Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol

Others in Attendance

Des Clifford Llywodraeth Cymru
Welsh Government
Dr Andrew Goodall Llywodraeth Cymru
Welsh Government
Mark Drakeford MS Prif Weinidog Cymru
First Minister of Wales

Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol

Senedd Officials in Attendance

Graeme Francis Clerc
Clerk
Sian Giddins Dirprwy Glerc
Deputy Clerk

Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.

The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.

Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.

Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 14:02.

The committee met by video-conference.

The meeting began at 14:02. 

1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau
1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest

Good afternoon, everybody. Can I welcome everyone to this virtual meeting of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister? In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I have determined that the public are excluded from attending this committee meeting, in order to protect public health. The meeting is, however, broadcast live on Senedd.tv, and all participants will be joining by video-conference. The meeting is bilingual, and translation is available, and a Record of Proceedings will also be published. Aside from the procedural adaptations related to conducting business remotely, all of the Standing Orders requirements remain in place.

And so, we move on to item 1 on our agenda, which is introduction, apologies and declarations of interest. I've received apologies from Dr Dai Lloyd and from Llyr Gruffydd, and, hopefully, Mike Hedges will join us remotely a little later on. So, can I ask Members do they have any declarations of interest that they wish to make? Bethan.

Just that my husband has utilised the freelancer scheme offered by the Welsh Government.

Okay. Thank you very much. And we seem to have lost Mick Antoniw. I think Mick Antoniw also had a similar declaration to make, but we'll ask him—. Ah, he's there. Mick, we seemed to have lost you. We're on declarations of interest.

I do apologise. I declare in respect of the freelancer—my son's a freelancer, so on that issue, I declare an interest.

2. Ymateb Llywodraeth Cymru i’r pandemig Covid-19 a'r adferiad
2. The Welsh Government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic and recovery

So we move on to item 2, which is an evidence session with the First Minister, and it's around the Welsh Government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery. We're delighted to have the First Minister with us, Mark Drakeford, and also to have Andrew Goodall, who is the chief executive of NHS Wales and the director general of health and social services. Can I thank you both for giving up your time? I know everybody's time is so valuable, especially dealing with the pandemic. And it's an opportunity for me to say, Mr Goodall, would you take back to all the staff our grateful thanks for all the work that the staff have been doing? And by 'staff', I mean everybody, not just front-line workers—particularly front-line workers, but also those that are helping the front-line workers to manage, to do the fantastic work that's being done. And I think that should be on the record, that we are very grateful to the NHS staff for all that they've done and all that your department are doing to assist them.

Thank you. I appreciate that. Diolch.

Okay. Thank you. So we're going to now move—. I don't know, First Minister—. We've got a lot of questions to get through, as you can well imagine, but if you wanted to make a few brief remarks. I don't know whether you want to.

14:05

No, Chair. I'm very happy to go straight to questions, given the amount of ground there is to cover. 

Okay. Well, thank you very much. So, the first set of questions, then, are around health and social care. So, Jayne—I have to look around the screen to find you. Jayne Bryant's going to set us off and start the questioning on health and social care. So, Jayne. 

Thank you, Chair, and good afternoon, First Minister. Can I start by asking you about your assessment of the roll-out of the vaccination programme and your thoughts on the challenges for the coming months ahead? 

Well, Chair, thank you very much for that. I think the vaccination programme has been a remarkable success story, given the scale at which it has had to be mobilised, the length of time that we had to make that happen, and some of the challenges that there are, with the Pfizer vaccine in particular. I'm sure that Members will have seen that we went past the 688,000 mark yesterday, and that gives me confidence that we are on track as anticipated to complete the offer of vaccination to the top four priority groups by the middle of this month. 

Thank you, First Minister. That's really good to hear. What challenges do you see ahead for the vaccination programme as well in terms of supply, in terms of managing doing first vaccinations and second vaccinations? How do you see that in the months ahead? 

Well, I think there are a number of challenges, Chair, and some of them ones we don't know about. If there were to be further variants of coronavirus, ones that are not as susceptible to the vaccine as current variants, that would be a challenge. In terms of known challenges, there's the resilience of the workforce. The people we are relying on have had the most challenging 12 months, and here we are asking them to do this enormous piece of work on our behalf, alongside everything else that they have to do. So, that has to be a challenge.

There is quite definitely, as Jayne Bryant has said, Chair, the challenge of now moving to offering second doses of the vaccine alongside first doses for the new five priority groups. Now, that is a huge logistical issue. We will be offering second doses in earnest from 22 February. But the plans are there, the programmes have been laid out, the capacity is there to do it, despite the challenge. The third challenge is undoubtedly supply, making sure that supply of the vaccine continues to be delivered to the UK and, then, on to the four Governments of the UK, in the volumes and at the speed that has been anticipated. 

Now, we know, Chair, that we are going to get less vaccine over the next few weeks than we have over the past few weeks, but that was planned for and known and is accommodated in our plans, which remain to complete the vaccination of those next five priority groups by the spring. So, without unforeseen barriers, we are confident that we will remain on track. We have seen, throughout this pandemic, that things that nobody has anticipated can happen and can have a dramatic impact very quickly. 

Thank you, First Minister. You've touched on the resilience of the workforce, and the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee report highlighted the pandemic's impact on mental health and well-being and the population level trauma resulting from the pandemic. That puts its challenges, again, on the workforce, in terms of planning for services and meeting the potential increase in demands on mental health services. What is your assessment of how services will resume and the impact of mental health on that?

Well, in terms of when health services will resume, Chair, I think there are a series of steps that we will have to think of. The first prerequisite is to continue to bear down on coronavirus itself, both because it limits what the NHS is currently able to do and because it goes on having an impact on people's mental health and well-being as well as everything else that we know coronavirus brings. We will need to have a gradual reopening of services. It's an anxiety at the moment that, as activity resumes in the health service and more broadly in the economy, the Kent variant and its transmissibility could result in a much more rapid re-circulation of the virus than we saw last summer when we were gradually reopening with just the original wild variant of coronavirus. So, we will have to, I think, be even more cautious and careful than last time and to keep a very, very close watch on how reopening—whether that caused an effect from the Kent variant that would be different to last time.

We need to return confidence to patients as well. Our emergency department numbers last December were 30 per cent down on a year ago. Partly, that is, I think, because there were people who would have gone to an accident and emergency department who could have been helped elsewhere. But it is also because when there is a great deal of coronavirus in circulation, people are fearful of coming to a hospital setting where they know that that will be inevitably part of what the hospital is having to deal with. 

Then we will have to implement the planning framework that Vaughan Gething published on 14 December, which talks about stabilisation and recovery. Staff recovery is part of that. Chair, I spent part of my morning talking to the Swansea Bay well-being in work service, which provides help to staff in the NHS to deal with the impact of coronavirus, both in their personal and their professional lives. Mental health is very much part of that. So, we'll have to invest in making sure that our staff continue to be resilient for the recovery phase as well. 

And in all of that, the impact on people's mental health and well-being is one of the great unknowns, I think, of how recovery will happen and whether, as things improve, people's low spirits, low mood, anxiety—all of those things we know are prevalent as part of the pandemic, whether that recovers quite quickly in the population as people see new opportunities coming back their way. And we will have to go on strengthening our mental health services, particularly at that preventative level—tier 0 and tier 1, as you know—to make sure there is help available for people as we emerge from the pandemic and people feel that, in facing the new challenges, which will undoubtedly be there, there's help for them when they need it.

14:10

Thank you, First Minister. And I recognise the huge impact on all of the staff at every level who've been through the pandemic, and just hearing from them about their experiences and particularly those people who started as newcomers into the NHS, in six months, they've got 10 years of experience. I'm just thinking about, in terms of workforce planning, how we look at the impact on those newcomers into the service, who've had this huge mental stress as well on them in their new jobs, but also those coming at a later stage in their careers who are perhaps thinking they've come right to the end of their tether—they've done everything they can. And I think, when the pressure perhaps wares off a little bit, they could be potentially feeling whether this is something that they are able to stay in for much longer. I'm just wondering what your thoughts are on that workforce planning that we can do now.

Well, Chair, I think all of those are realistic fears. When I was with the Swansea Bay team this morning, I heard from somebody who said that they'd worked for 20 years in this field and had never felt the need for help at any point, and when it came to the point of asking for help, they found that very difficult, because they were a help giver, not a help taker and that it was a big step for them to recognise that they needed to speak to somebody else and it was a very good story because he was able to explain how effective the help he had received had been. All of those things, I think, will be there as we recover from coronavirus.

Our workforce plans, of course, have larger numbers of doctors, nurses, other professions allied to medicine in training than ever before in our history. And, remarkably, despite the pandemic, you will have seen some of the very successful recruitment figures that we've had this year, in terms of new GPs joining the workforce here in Wales, and other parts of the profession.

One of the things that I think has been very striking in the pandemic is the way in which we have been able to deploy returning clinicians—people who had retired, but came back to help. Not so much resuming clinical activity themselves, but standing alongside younger people who are going through this for the first time and in this incredibly compressed way, and to be able just to offer them the reflections from their own career and the many, many things they would have seen over a 30-year or 40-year working life, to try to offer some support and, indeed, comfort to people who are seeing all of that for the first time and so quickly.

So, I think we've learnt positive things from the experience as well about the way in which we can help staff to build resilience, and to use that wider clinical community we have to be part of that way of providing solidarity and solace to people for whom this will have been such a demanding and gruelling year.

14:15

Thank you, First Minister. And finally from me, Chair—unpaid carers have been under a huge amount of pressure throughout this time. Many feel like they're at the end of their tether. As a health committee, we're being told that access to respite care has absolutely gotten worse through the pandemic. What further support can the Welsh Government give to unpaid carers? And how will carers be able to access respite care as soon as possible and as safely as possible?

Thank you, Chair. Respite care has been a difficult issue during the pandemic, on both the supply and the demand end of it. I met, with Julie Morgan, the Deputy Minister, a group of carers earlier last year, and they said to us they weren't willing to use respite care in the conditions of the pandemic. They were fearful of the person that they were looking after going to a different home and a different context when there was so much coronavirus in circulation that you didn't feel that you would know that everything was being done to safeguard your loved one. So, there have been people who provide respite care who haven't been able to do it, and there's been an understandable hesitation amongst carers to let their loved ones out of their sight at a time when everybody is so anxious. So, there's a lot of repair work to be done there.

The Welsh Government has invested more in carers services over the pandemic, both through the third sector and directly in our carer support fund. The finance Minister is looking carefully at the results of all the committee evidence and reports that have come in as a result of scrutiny of the draft budget, and she will be making plans for some further allocations when it comes to final budget stage, and I know that this is one of the things that she will have heard about through the work of the committee.

Okay. Janet, I could see you waving. We've got a couple of minutes, so Janet, and I think Russell, and John. But you'll have to be quick.

Okay, a quick one from me, First Minister, and good afternoon. Obviously, we're talking about the Kent variant. To date, I'm aware of one case of the South African variant, but we all know how previous variants have actually multiplied very quickly. What work is going on to understand the nature of the South African variant? And what additional measures will be taken as a result of that?

I thank the Member for that important question. There are 13 cases so far identified of the South African variant in Wales. Eleven of which have been confidently traced to travel from South Africa into the United Kingdom, then into Wales, and two cases that continue to be under investigation. We are very fortunate, Chair, to have our genomics service here in Wales. It's one of the most developed services in the world. Even across our border, their system is able to genomically sequence one out of 10 cases. We're able to do double that here in Wales, and we are mobilising that genomic sequencing service to help us to trace new variants, and particularly the variants that have come in from overseas.

If there's a very small bit of good news in relation to the South African variant, it appears to be no more aggressive than the Kent variant. So, in that sense, it is unlikely—the scientific advice I have seen says—to supplant the Kent variant, which has already established itself as the dominant variant here in Wales. Nevertheless, it is very important, in the way that Janet Finch-Saunders has said, that, whenever we come across a case of a different variant from elsewhere in the world, that we investigate every single case immediately, take all the action we need to do and mobilise our genomic sequencing service, to help us to identify whether there is any evidence of wider spread.

14:20

Thank you, Chair. First Minister, my question, really, is about public expectation of when people will—not so much receive their vaccination but understanding how the vaccination roll-out is working, particularly, as well. And what's behind my question is, in an answer to Jayne Bryant earlier, you said that there's going to be less supply of the vaccine in the coming weeks, and that's planned. So, I understand that, but my concern is that your postbag and my postbag will be full of constituents asking when they're going to receive their vaccination—and my concern is, I've had a couple of GP practices contact me, suggesting that they've got capacity, yet they're disappointed that the supply is not there. And if they are not aware of the plan that you talked about, then there's a public expectation issue. So, it's about messaging from the Welsh Government and the Welsh NHS around this point.

And finally, Chair, if I could just point out, I think Mr Goodall wanted to come in earlier on. I don't think you cottoned on.

No, no, I realise that. He wanted to come in on Jayne Bryant's point.

I couldn't see anybody. You're going to have to jump up and down or something, sorry. First Minister, do you want to answer that question of Russell's and then I'll fetch Mr Goodall in?

Thank you very much. I will, Chair, because it's a really important point. The Welsh Government will be emphasising this in our messaging over the weekend, alongside the UK Government and the Governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland, because this is the same plan for us all. We are all going to see the same rate of slowdown in access to vaccines over the next couple of weeks, partly because of the way in which the AstraZeneca vaccine has been planned over this period. We will be focusing our Pfizer vaccine supply on the second vaccination of those people in the top four priority groups who've already had their first vaccine; we will be deploying the AstraZeneca vaccine for first shots for people in the next five groups.

We will hear, I'm afraid, from people disappointed that the amount of supply they're getting is less than they've had over the last couple of weeks, because we could use more. If there was more, we could use it; there's no doubt about that. But I hope that Mr George and other Members will be able to reassure people who write to us that we remain on track to vaccinate those next five priority groups by the spring, as we indicated, and I know that the health Minister hopes to say something more definite about when in the spring we aim to complete those five groups over the next few days.

Sorry, Mr Goodall. It's fun trying to find all the tiles on here and watch people's actions, so I do apologise if I miss you. So, here you go, over to you.

No problem. It was just, really, in support of the First Minister's commentary about how we recover activities. I just want to make the point that there is a difference between the first wave and the second wave experience, in the sense that we have been able to reintroduce a breadth of activities in a very different way. So, that has meant that it's been possible, for example, to maintain a much higher level of primary care services, for example; we extended into areas like opticians and dentistry to maintain those services. Pharmacies and GPs have remained open throughout, although, of course, with a focus on urgency.

But we have also allowed some discretion by having a choices framework in place for Wales, which means that local health boards can adjust the activities that they're able to introduce in the context of the impact of the pandemic on their local services. And what we have seen, even over the course of the last couple of weeks—and, of course, we're still very much in the middle of the pandemic response—is a judgment by some of those organisations being able to restore some of those levels of activities. So, they will take the opportunity, wherever it's possible. Having said that, we do need to work on a reset and recovery plan for the NHS, and we will need to have a way of reintroducing a normal set of services as we particularly see the impact of the vaccination programme. But I would really like to emphasise, as I have done to the health committee, the importance of making sure that we don't just revert to our traditional services. We learnt so much during the pandemic response that we have a responsibility, I think, to have a transformation around our services, and make sure that we can give a really good offer to patients.

And my second point, briefly, Chair, was only to endorse what the First Minister was saying about the emotional health and support for our staff. I think we just need to keep an eye on, firstly, that—. I know, as individuals and teams, people will look after each other—that's really important in the NHS context because of everything that everyone has been through, personally and professionally. Employers, of course, have a duty to their staff to make sure that they can offer a local range of services, but at the same time, I think we've been able to show that we've been able to introduce a number of very different, nationally based services, to make sure that we have that wide range of support that is available to staff as and when they need it. And for some staff, I'm afraid that they will probably have experiences that will go on for the next two or three years as well, and we need to recognise it's a medium-term issue.

14:25

Okay. Thank you very much. I've got John Griffiths and Dai Rees—but very briefly, because we're already running a bit behind the time. So, John and then David—well, John first, and then David, and that's it, then, and then we're going to move on.

Okay. Thank you, Chair. It's about vaccination take-up, First Minister. I was at an event last week, which involved ethnic minority communities in Newport, and the point was made that there doesn't seem to be much Wales-specific information on vaccine take-up in terms of ethnicity. And without that information, people in the meeting felt they couldn't effectively direct their efforts, whether it's community outreach or messaging and communication, so there was a plea, really, for that Wales-specific information to be made available if at all possible.

Chair, I know Public Health Wales intends to publish the first in a series of monthly reports on this matter on 16 February. It will include data on age, sex, socioeconomic matters and ethnicity, and I hope that that will provide exactly the sort of information that John Griffiths has asked about, because I agree with him that there's a huge effort going on, as he will know, in those communities, to encourage people to come forward for vaccination, but hard facts will help.

Thank you, Chair. And just on that point, I met with my health board this week, and they were also concerned about the lack of take-up of members in the BAME community of the vaccination, so I think we need to do that.

And the question I'm going to ask is about care homes. The anticipation of the vaccination programme is clearly that people will be more protected, and therefore, at some point, will be more released to actually undertake more activities at some point, and one of those activities many, many families want is to be able to see their loved ones in care homes—care home visits. I know the Welsh Government's given guidelines under alert level 4, and that it's down to the care home providers to make such decisions. But will you be looking to update those guidelines, particularly in line with the vaccinations, to ensure that people can go and see their loved ones? I've got an ex-neighbour who's actually going to be 90 this year, his wife is in a care home in Porthcawl, they haven't seen each other for a year, they've gone past their silver wedding—sorry, their diamond wedding, and they're going towards their platinum. But they haven't seen each other for a year, and there are people like that around Wales who want to know when the Welsh Government are going to update their guidelines on allowing more visits in care homes if the right positions and the right measures are in place.

Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, that is a desperate set of circumstances, isn't it, and this has been one of the most acute dilemmas throughout coronavirus, both because of the circumstances that David Rees has set out, but also because we learnt back in the first wave of coronavirus about the vulnerability of care home populations to COVID-19. And keeping coronavirus out of care homes continues to be the most important thing we can do for people who live there, because once it's in there then it spreads so very fast amongst such a very vulnerable population. At various times, the Welsh Government has initiated a whole series of different initiatives, including, as you know, visitor pods. We will have over 100 of them by the end of this month and we are spending £1 million in supporting care home owners who are acquiring their own visitor pods to enable visits to take place both carefully and safely, but also in a way that respects human dignity.

Even with that, there are anywhere between 600 and 1,000 different care homes in Wales, depending on how you define them. We're encouraging people to think about lateral flow tests as part of the way in which people can prepare for making a visit. We renew our guidance very regularly. In the end, as Mr Rees has said, most care homes are private businesses, and in law, the responsibility in health and safety matters rests with the owner. While the Welsh Government can provide guidance, and incident management teams can provide advice, it is the responsible person who has to bear the legal responsibility of making those decisions. As things improve, and as vaccination is completed amongst those populations, of course, we hope that more will be possible, but it will continue, well into the rest of this year, being a very careful balancing act that will have to reflect the level of public health risk at the time.

14:30

Thank you very much. I want to move on now to education and the effects of the COVID pandemic on education. Lynne, you're going to take the bulk of these questions, I think.

Thanks, Chair, and good afternoon, First Minister. I wanted to ask first of all about the return to school. I do want to recognise how hard both you and the education Minister have been working to get children back to school. We know how crucial that is, not just for educational reasons, but because they need to be back with their friends in an environment with their peers. It was announced last week that foundation phase children would be going back after half term. How confident are you that all foundation phase children in Wales are going to be able to go back to education face to face after half term?

What the education Minister announced was a partial, phased and flexible return to education beginning with the foundation phase. I believe that a great deal has been done to make that safe for staff and for young people and to give confidence to their families. When Kirsty Williams made the announcement, we published a technical advisory group briefing note that said that the conditions were met to consider a partial and phased return to face-to-face learning in schools. The chief medical officer published a statement alongside what the education Minister said, confirming that with the R number currently below 1, we should devote the headroom to a phased return of primary school children.

We've built in flexibility to the return, which I think is absolutely right. Not every school is the same, by any means; there will be local circumstances. It's important to give people on the ground the flexibility to navigate that return. We've put extra safeguards in place, offering regular, twice-weekly lateral flow tests to all staff in childcare settings and in schools and £5 million of fresh investment through local education authorities to be able to provide better ventilation, higher grade face coverings and additional spaces that can be used for learning. So, I do think a very comprehensive package has been put together to underpin the return of learners.

Nevertheless, right through this week, we have been in further negotiations and discussions with teacher unions, and unions representing other staff, to see if there's anything more that we could do together return of learners to school. I was encouraged, Chair, when I chaired a meeting of local education authorities and all the teaching unions, that we were able to sign up to a joint commitment to use all our joint endeavours to return children to face-to-face learning. The detailed work that's going on, I hope, is being carried out in that spirit. 

14:35

Thank you, First Minister. I wanted to ask about child rights impact assessments. Both the children's commissioner and my committee have recognised that the Welsh Government has really improved in the approach to CRIA since the start of the pandemic, which was clearly an emergency situation, and that's very welcome. But before Christmas, we had a scenario where in Ceredigion all the schools were just closed very suddenly. We've had situations in other local authorities. What's your view on whether it would be beneficial, going forward, for local authorities to have to undertake a CRIA themselves, so that people can see transparently the evidence base for taking these decisions, and for there to be a real focus on children when these decisions are made? 

I thank Lynne Neagle for what she says about the way that the Welsh Government's own children's rights impact assessments have improved over the 12 months. I can assure her that whenever the Cabinet is looking at making decisions at the three-week reviews, those assessments are there on the table in front of members and are referred to regularly—always by the education Minister, as you would expect, always by Julie Morgan in her social services responsibilities, but other Ministers refer to them regularly as well. 

I certainly think it is right that local education authorities, in making the decisions they do, should account to their local populations for the reasons that lie behind them and the evidence that they've drawn on. Whether that should be in the form of a children's rights impact assessment in the way that we do it, to be frank, I haven't given that the thought that it would need. But the general principle that Lynne Neagle is pointing to—that a local education authority in coming to its decisions ought to be able to demonstrate that they've taken all that into account—well, that I think is certainly to be recommended. 

Thank you. If I can turn to remote learning, which obviously all children are participating in at the moment, apart from the ones who are considered vulnerable or key workers' children, again, I think there is a widespread recognition that things have improved since the start of the pandemic in terms of the quality of what children and young people are getting in their remote learning. There's also been a lot of investment in helping children who are digitally excluded. One of the things that the children's commissioner raised with us in our last session with her was the fact that apparently in England, the large broadband companies are providing more assistance to schools. I wondered if there was any update—I understand there have been discussions with the Government in Wales—on that. 

I'm aware of the scheme that the Department for Education in England has agreed with a number of mobile providers. It is for limited and time-bound increases to data allowances, and we are ourselves in conversations with those same providers to see that the same offer should be made—and I certainly believe it should be made—to young people in other parts of the United Kingdom. The profits that those companies make are made because there are subscribers in every nation of the UK, and when they're able to be of assistance, that help should be offered everywhere.

If I can make just one general point, though, Chair. Of course, Lynne Neagle is right; far more devices, well over 100,000 devices made available to young people, more access to Wi-Fi so that people can use them—all of that has happened as well. But even when you've got the device and even when you've got Wi-Fi, not all our young children have a context in which they are able to learn with the support around them that they receive when they are in a classroom. And that is why, despite everything we are doing, the Welsh Government's priority remains to get as many of those children back into face-to-face learning as possible, because no matter how good it is online, the context within which learning takes place really matters and matters most of all to those young people who need it the most—those vulnerable young people who I know Lynne and her committee have focused on throughout the pandemic.  

14:40

Thank you. If I can turn to qualifications, clearly, there's no good way forward, is there, for children who can't undertake their exams and who've lost lots of learning, and I think we all recognise it's a question of trying to find the best possible solution we can. I just wanted to ask about fairness in the system that's being put in place, because teacher assessments are not always fair, either, as you know, First Minister. So, I'd just like to ask, really, for your assurance that real consideration is being given to making sure that the qualifications are awarded as fairly as possible this year. 

Again, thank you for that question, which I feel very strongly about myself as well. I've chaired exam boards, I've done all the stuff on assessment in another life myself and I know just how hard you have to work to make sure that the system genuinely responds to unintentional biases that are otherwise there. We know that conventional exams favour boys over girls, for example. So, all forms of assessment have their in-built and inherent biases. What we have been able to do this time, which we weren't able to do last time because of the speed with which things were happening, is to have created a design and delivery group, chaired by Geraint Rees, a very senior former headteacher and educationalist, with a group of educationalists around him. So, although we will have centre-assessed grades, teacher-led grades, there are a series of safeguards being built in this time to try to make sure that the results are genuinely fair to our young people so that when teachers are making their assessments, they will be able to draw on some WJEC model work that they will be able to use. They will have to have had their method for awarding assessments externally assessed to make sure that it stands up to scrutiny. And there's more work being done still by the design and delivery group, but I am very keen that, when teachers have completed their in-school assessment, as well as there being forms of appeal, which there will be, there should be some peer review, that teachers outside the school should have a chance to look at the way those grades were assessed and to make sure that they would stand up to scrutiny by somebody else doing the same job in another school in Wales. I think if we build in those safety nets and safeguards, then we will have gone a long way in the circumstances we are in to make sure that the grades that are awarded are genuinely fair to young people. 

Can I just bring Mick in on this? I think Mick Antoniw has got a supplementary on qualifications. 

Yes, just a short point that I've had raised with me by students who now this summer will be the second year, or the second set, who might normally have had exams who won't be having that traditional examination system. They say their concern, actually, now, is for the following year, 2022, when effectively they'll have had two years when they've not been in exam mode and then their concern is that they would suddenly be pushed into exam mode for the third year. There are concerns that that would actually exacerbate inequality as well. So, I'm just wondering whether any thought is being given to that cohort of students who might be impacted in that particular way and what assurances they might be given.

Thought is certainly being given to the range of young people who are not directly in the firing line, if I can put it like that, in terms of sitting for qualifications this year but who will be coming forward in the next couple of years. I've had correspondence and direct discussions through some of the chances I've had to speak with young people who are in their second and third years in secondary school and whose education has been very badly disrupted. They're not sitting exams this year, but in a year or two they will be, and their fear is, a bit in the way that Mick Antoniw is saying, that the system will have reverted to the way it normally operated and won't be taking into account the fact that the lead in to those years for them has been so very badly disrupted. So, I think we are definitely alert to that. This is not an issue that, this time next year, when things have recovered strongly and children are back face-to-face learning, where we can assume that those young people for whom the last 12 months has been such a disruption will just fit back into the conventional ways of doing things. We are going to have to continue to think about how we navigate a way for them through the rest of their education in a way that positively takes into account the experience that they've been through.

14:45

We've got about five minutes, Lynne, for a couple of questions, if that's okay with you.

Yes, thank you. My next question was linked to that, really. It was linked to recovery, because there's a growing body of evidence that some children are really going to have a massive impact on their lives as a result of the disruption through COVID. I think it's really important we don't have a counsel of despair on this and we really move forward positively, but it's undoubtedly going to cost a lot of money. I just wanted to ask you: obviously, there's uncommitted resource in the budget; what assurance can you give that investing the resources that are needed to make sure that children aren't disadvantaged is going to be a top priority for you?

Well, Chair, I hope that the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee will take some heart from what we've already done, in the way that she says. I agree completely about not talking ourselves into a frame of mind that just makes us think as though this is going to defeat us, because the Welsh Government has already provided very significantly, millions and millions of pounds, to help young people to catch up from the coronavirus experience, and our local education authorities—let's pay tribute to them for a moment as well—have hired 1,000 extra members of staff to help with that during the autumn.

I recognise completely that the effect of the Kent variant, this latest wave, the extra interruption to young people's education, means we have to go beyond that because that was put together on the basis that children from the autumn would be back in school for face-to-face learning in the best way that we could, and that hasn't been possible to deliver as we had planned and hoped. So, I'm happy to recognise in front of the committee this afternoon that we will have to go beyond the investment we've already made, that that effort will have to continue for longer in terms of time, beyond where we had originally thought.

I think it is right for us to have a conversation with the sector about how this coming summer might best be used. I absolutely recognise what is said about the burden that staff have carried during coronavirus, the need to have a break from things, the fact that children themselves need recovery time. I absolutely recognise all of that, but I don't think that that should preclude us from being able to sit down together and ask what we might be able to do during those weeks of the summer holiday where we know already that, for too many young people, their education goes backwards over those six weeks, and we certainly surely would not want to see that in 2021.

Thank you. I'll leave it there, Ann, because of the time.

Thank you. Thanks very much. I think if I say to Members, if there are any more questions, I'm sure we can write them in the report that we send to the First Minister for him to give some consideration to. So, we move to economy and culture, and this will be led by Russell and then by Bethan, so over to you, Russ.

Thank you, Chair. First Minister, what do you think the Welsh Government can do to strengthen Welsh business involvement in the vaccination supply chain in a way that would also, of course, benefit the economy and jobs? And I ask that question in the context of the likelihood that there will be a need for a more regular supply of COVID-19 vaccine boosters.

Let me say, I'm not sure I've got a very good answer for the Member. Obviously, Welsh companies are already involved in the supply chain, particularly the AstraZeneca factory in Wrexham, which is a very, very important part of that company's capacity to go on providing vaccination supply and volume of vaccination, not just for Wales but for the whole of the United Kingdom. There will be other vaccines that we hope will come forward over the coming months, so there may be further opportunities for Welsh businesses who are involved in those supply chains to make a contribution. I might see if Dr Goodall has anything more detailed that he will know about the way in which Welsh businesses are involved in vaccination supply.

14:50

I can't really add much more, First Minister. Obviously, we seek to ensure that the Welsh infrastructure can be used. We have open discussions with the UK Government on some of these choices. You're right that these really are matters for the pharmaceutical companies themselves, and they will have their own mechanisms in place to deal with this, but I know it's an area that will be promoted as much as possible by us in the contacts, certainly, that we are having, where we can influence it. We do have a range of discussions going on with manufacturers and suppliers across Wales on a range of areas that we've tried to discharge through the pandemic response. PPE is one of the really good examples of that, where we were able to step up in a very different way.

And the main way, Chair, that we've been able to assist those companies in Wales is by participation in clinical trials. I know that Russell George and other Members will know that we've had very significant numbers of people in Wales who've volunteered for those trials, and that is part of a reflection of the close relationship built up particularly by our former colleague, Edwina Hart, when she was Minister for the economy—the drawing together of the health and the business worlds to make sure that where the enormous investment that the health service makes provides business opportunities for companies in Wales, we take full advantage of them.

Thank you, First Minister, for your reply. Perhaps it does sound like this is an area that could be explored more in terms of supporting those Welsh businesses for the longer term. I'm not thinking of the shorter term, but for the longer term in supporting those businesses in terms of helping them to provide booster COVID-19 vaccinations in a way that helps our economy here in Wales as well.

Moving to another point, First Minister, often you claim that the Welsh Government offer the best business package of all the UK nations, and I think what would be useful is to have analysis from the Welsh Government that backs up that claim in terms of being able to give the confidence to businesses and the public behind that claim itself. Any comparison you can provide I think would be useful, if you could share that with the committee, that the Welsh Government has undertaken to look at the business packages offered across the UK in order to support that claim. I think I particularly feel that the hospitality and retail sectors are those most needing support, particularly small businesses, and my concern is, with those two business types, hospitality and retail, that there are sector-specific funding support packages, but often the small businesses fall through the gaps. So, I appreciate Welsh Government's approach is to try and fill the gaps that the UK Government support packages are leaving, but my concern is that the Welsh Government packages themselves are leading to gaps, particularly when it comes to small businesses. The example I would give is of businesses, perhaps in retail or a cafe or hairdresser, and they cannot demonstrate when they're claiming for certain funds that they're on PAYE, they're VAT registered, because they're too small to do that. Those types of businesses, if they were situated elsewhere in the UK, would have a greater level of support, and I wonder if you could comment at all on particularly the small business sector with regard to retail and hospitality.

Yes, a number of points to make, Chair. First of all, in terms of the support for businesses in Wales, the Wales Governance Centre report published only a week or so ago confirms that the Welsh Government has invested beyond the level of consequentials that have come to us as a result of business support elsewhere in the United Kingdom. That is how we can be confident that we have a more generous scheme than is available elsewhere. We are doing some case examples that we will publish, just to show what a company in Wales would get compared to what would be available elsewhere. They're not easy to do, because the detail of the schemes available elsewhere varies in nuance as well as substance.

As far as those small companies are concerned, I think we have succeeded in putting many, many millions of pounds directly from the Welsh Government's budget into the hands of those small business owners. The dilemma in the particular cases that Mr George mentions, though, is always this, isn't it, that at the end of the day this is public money. We have to have confidence that, if somebody makes an application to us, that is an application on behalf of a bona fide busines, and that business does meet the basic qualifications that all of us would expect in order to have public money. I know it's difficult, if you're a very small business, to provide the sorts of assurances that are sometimes asked for, and we try and make them as simple and as accessible as we can, but we can't have a system in which it is simply 'Welsh Government grant—please take one', because the system would be so vulnerable to abuse and to fraud that it wouldn't stand up to scrutiny of Mr Ramsay's Public Accounts Committee, or any other committee either. So, it's a really difficult balancing act. What we try to do is to find ways in which companies can offer us the assurances that we need in the simplest way that they can. In the end, those assurances are necessary, for reasons of public probity and being able to account for all of this money once the pandemic is over.

14:55

I think, First Minister, it would be useful for you to publish those case studies and a comparison against other nations' support packages. I do appreciate it's not an entirely easy task, because of different dates and other criteria. I appreciate that, but a comparison, I think, would be useful. I absolutely take your point against fraud that you've mentioned. Of course, one way of combating that is to allow more discretionary funding. Now, you've got an element of discretionary funding in your support packages, but from what I can pick up from local authorities and businesses, your discretionary packages don't allow much discretion. I remember in my time as a county councillor, sitting on committees and looking at individual applications and making judgment calls. I would ask you, First Minister: do you think that perhaps allowing more discretion on the discretionary funds that can be assessed by local authorities is a way of supporting small businesses by allowing local authorities and local members to make those discretionary calls?

Well, even discretionary schemes have to have safeguards in them, and judgments made that public money is being spent in the right way. I think our discretionary schemes do allow local authorities to make different decisions. I answered a question on the floor of the Senedd, I think only a couple of weeks ago, where Mr George's colleague, Mark Isherwood, complained to me that different local authorities were making decisions in the discretion that we had offered them, and I tried as gently as I could to point out to him that that's what 'discretion' meant, that different local authorities would end up making different decisions because they were taking into account their own circumstances. Look, I'm always willing to look at points that committee members make, of course. I've seen examples, worked out examples. I will talk to the economy Minister about any plans to publish those, and I will ask him whether or not the discretionary fund is operating in the way that we had hoped. But as I say, even the discretionary fund will have to have rules within it that guarantee that public money is being spent in a way that stands up to examination. 

Chair, I'm very pleased to see we've been joined by a new member of the committee.

Yes, we are inclusive on this committee and it's really great to have that, and that's part of the joys of working from home, I think.

Shame he missed the education questions.

You're happy? Okay, thank you. Bethan, on culture. Do you want to come in on culture?

Ie. Diolch, Prif Weinidog. Rwyf i jest eisiau gofyn ynglŷn â'r gyllideb ar gyfer diwylliant. Dŷn ni'n deall, ers pan ddaeth y Dirprwy Weinidog i mewn i'r pwyllgor, bod hynny'n dod i ben—yng nghyd-destun COVID, wrth gwrs—ym mis Mawrth. Allwch chi roi cadarnhad inni a ydy unrhyw arian ychwanegol yn dibynnu ar beth fydd yn dod o San Steffan, neu unrhyw fath o consequential Barnett? Oherwydd mae pobl yn sector yma wedi bod allan o waith ers dros flwyddyn nawr, yn sgil y cyfyngiadau mwyaf enbyd ar y sector yma, wrth gwrs. Dwi'n deall bod arian ychwanegol wedi dod o ran gweithwyr llawrydd—a dŷn ni'n croesawu hynny—yn y dyddiau diwethaf, ond allwch chi jest esbonio ynglŷn â'r gyllideb fwy a beth yw goblygiadau hynny ar ôl mis Mawrth? Achos rwy'n siŵr bydd lot o bobl yn gwylio hwn ac eisiau gwybod beth yw'r dyfodol ariannol iddyn nhw.

Yes. Thank you, First Minister. I just want to ask about the culture budget. We understood from the  Deputy Minister when he came to committee that that was to come to an end—in the context of COVID, of course—in March. Can you give us confirmation as to whether any additional funding is dependent on what will emerge from Westminster, or any Barnett consequential? Because people in this sector, of course, have been out of work for over a year now, because of the dreadful restrictions on this sector. I do understand that additional funding has been provided for freelancers, and we welcome that announcement that was made over the past few days. But can you just expand on the wider budget and what the implications are post March? Because I'm sure that many people will be watching and wanting to know what their financial future will look like.

15:00

Diolch yn fawr i Bethan Sayed am y cwestiynau. Dwi'n cydnabod popeth mae hi'n ei ddweud am effaith coronafeirws ar y sector a dyna pam roeddwn i'n awyddus ddoe i gyhoeddi mwy o gymorth i bobl sy'n gweithio fel freelancers yn y sector sydd wedi dioddef yn ystod y pandemig heb waith, ac yn y blaen. Jest i ddangos y ffigurau i aelodau'r pwyllgor, am y flwyddyn ariannol nesaf, at bwrpasau COVID, beth sydd gyda ni fel Llywodraeth yw £766 miliwn. Mae hynny'n swnio fel ei fod yn swm mawr iawn, ond jest i ddweud, yn y flwyddyn ariannol hon, roedd £5 biliwn gyda ni at yr un pwrpasau. Rŷn ni'n gallu defnyddio'r arian sydd gyda ni mewn unrhyw ffordd rŷn ni'n cytuno, fel Llywodraeth ac fel mae'r Senedd yn ei gytuno. Bydd Rebecca Evans yn dod ymlaen gyda syniadau a sylwadau eraill yn y gyllideb derfynol i ddangos sut rŷn ni'n mynd i drio gwario'r arian sydd gyda ni yn y flwyddyn ariannol nesaf. Ond rŷn ni'n disgwyl hefyd, yng nghyllideb y Canghellor yn San Steffan ar 3 Mawrth, mwy o fanylion y tu hwnt i'r arian sydd gyda ni ar hyn o bryd. Mae'n dod atom ni drwy'r fformiwla Barnett, ond yn ein dwylo ni mae'r penderfyniadau ar sut i ddefnyddio unrhyw swm o arian sy'n dod at y Senedd.

Thank you to Bethan Sayed for those questions. I acknowledge everything that she has said about the impact of coronavirus on the sector. That's why I was eager yesterday to announce further support for those working as freelancers in this sector, which has suffered so much during the pandemic. If I could just highlight some figures to committee members, for the next financial year, in terms of COVID, what we have as a Government is £766 million. Now, that sounds like a huge figure, but just to say that, in this financial year, there was £5 billion available to us for the same ends. We can use the funds that we have in any way that we as a Government decide, with the agreement of the Senedd, of course. Rebecca Evans will be bringing forward new ideas in the final budget to demonstrate how we are going to spend the money we have in the next financial year. But we also expect, in the Chancellor's budget on 3 March, to have further details beyond the funding that we already have. It will come to us through the Barnett formula, but it's our decision as to how we use any funds coming to the Senedd.

Diolch yn fawr iawn am hynny. Byddwn ni'n cadw golwg ar y gyllideb honno.

Jest cwestiwn clou arall sydd gen i. Dŷn ni'n clywed lot gan y sector diwylliant a'r sector chwaraeon—mae'r pwyllgor wedi ffocysu ar chwaraeon tra dwi wedi bod ar gyfnod mamolaeth, so dwi'n credu ei bod yn bwysig i gydnabod hynny—bod yna ddiffyg llwybr i agor rhai o'r prosiectau hyn. Dyw theatrau ddim wedi agor, dyw'r rhelyw o chwaraeon ddim wedi gallu cael gemau mawr yma yng Nghymru, a beth maen nhw'n gofyn am yw rhyw fath o route-map ar gyfer creu'r posibiliad o ailagor eto. Dŷn ni wedi clywed gan Dafydd Elis-Thomas, sydd wedi dweud bod hwnna braidd yn amhosib oherwydd y sefyllfa sydd ohoni. Dŷn ni'n deall hynny i ryw raddau, oherwydd bod coronafeirws yn newid ac oherwydd y straenau newydd sy'n dod, ond eto i gyd, mae pobl yn y ddau sector penodol yma rili eisiau cael rhyw fath o syniad os byddan nhw'n gallu ailagor i raddau. Er enghraifft, yn Lloegr, mae tafarndai wedi ailagor pan nad oedd yna gyfnod clo ac wedi caniatáu i rai cerddorion chwarae, tra bod, er enghraifft, alcohol yn cael ei wasanaethu hefyd. Felly, oes yna ffordd i fod yn greadigol, wedyn, gyda'r rheolau, pan fydd y posibiliad yna o ailagor yn digwydd? Diolch.

Thank you very much for that. We will be keeping a close eye on that funding.

I have just one further question. We've heard a lot from the culture and the sport sector—the committee has focused on sport whilst I've been away on maternity, so I think it's important to recognise that—that there's been a lack of a pathway to opening some of the sector. Theatres haven't been able to open, stadia in Wales haven't been able to stage sporting events, and what they're asking for is some sort of route-map towards reopening. We've heard from Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who said that that's virtually impossible, because of the current situation. We understand that, to a certain extent, because coronavirus is constantly changing and because of the new variants. But people in these two sectors really want to have some sort of idea as to whether they will be able to reopen partially. For example, in England, pubs have reopened when there hasn't been a lockdown and they've allowed some musicians to play while alcohol is being served. So, is there a way to be creative with the rules, when those possibilities of reopening emerge? Thank you.

Dwi eisiau gweld yr ymateb yma yng Nghymru yn un creadigol. Mae'n anodd dros ben i roi sicrwydd i bobl. Ym mhob sector, mae pobl yn gofyn am sicrwydd: 'Pryd fydd hi'n bosib gwneud hyn?', 'Pryd fydd hwnna'n gallu ailagor?' Yr ateb yw ein bod ni'n byw mewn cyfnod mor ansicr, dŷn ni jest ddim yn gwybod beth sy'n digwydd o fis i fis. Dŷn ni ddim yn gallu rhoi sicrwydd go iawn a dweud wrth bobl, 'Bydd hwnna'n bosib erbyn y Pasg', neu beth bynnag. Yn y cynllun wnaethon ni ei gyhoeddi nôl ar 14 Rhagfyr, roedden ni'n rhoi'r lefelau ac mae'r lefelau yn dangos beth sy'n gallu digwydd ar bob lefel. So, y gobaith oedd bod hwnna yn mynd i fod yn help i'r sectorau, i ddangos ble maen nhw ar y lefelau. Pan dŷn ni yn symud o un lefel i'r llall, os mae pethau'n dal i fynd yn well drwy'r gwanwyn, wel dwi eisiau bod yn greadigol, i weld a oes posibiliadau newydd dŷn ni'n gallu eu creu, ryw ffordd, i bobl sy'n gweithio yn y maes diwylliant, ac yn y maes chwaraeon hefyd, i roi mwy o gyfleon i bobl i ddod nôl i'r gwaith. Ond bydd popeth yn dibynnu ar y cyd-destun dŷn ni'n ei wynebu ar y pryd. Mae rhai pethau yn ein dwylo ni, ond mae lot o bethau—does dim un ohonom ni yn gallu rhagweld beth sy'n gallu digwydd yng nghyd-destun coronafeirws.

I do want to see our response here in Wales being creative. It is very difficult to provide any assurances to people. In every sector, people are seeking those assurances: 'When will this be possible?', 'When can that reopen?' The answer is that we are living in a period of such great uncertainty, we simply don't know what's happening month upon month. So, we can't give people real assurances to say, 'Well, this will be possible by Easter', or whatever the date may be. In the plan that we published on 14 December, where we put the alert levels in place, those levels do demonstrate what can happen at each and every level. The hope was that that could help the various sectors, to show them where they are in terms of those alert levels. When we do move from one level to another, if things continue to improve through the spring, I do want to be creative in our response, to see whether there are new possibilities, so that we can provide pathways to people working in both culture and sport with further opportunities to return to work. But everything, of course, will depend on the context that we face at that time. There are some things in our hands, but there are many other things that not one of us can predict in terms of what will happen in the context of coronavirus.

15:05

It's more in terms, actually—I think I've jumped the gun—of hospitality businesses, so I'll come in later on that.

I would do it now, around that, because we're moving on. So, go on, do it now.

Thank you. First Minister, I've been holding a series of forums for people in the hospitality industry. I held my first one yesterday, and it was mainly for hoteliers. A big ask they have of me directly to you—. The problem that they face is the fact that, when you normally make an announcement, it can be several days before the TAC—the technical advisory cell—or indeed the frequently asked questions are then published. One thing they would like to see is that, before you make an announcement, all that's ready to go from that day. I know in the last lockdown—the firebreak one, I think it was—hoteliers were guessing. Your lockdown started at 6 o'clock on the Thursday, but they had people booked in till the Saturday, and they were saying, 'Do I have to ask those people to leave the hotel?' So, that was one: when you make an announcement, can you plan it beforehand, so that your advice is there and information ready so that they can hit the ground running?

The other thing that's been raised with me: say you decided, or it's in your mind, to reopen for Easter, they have asked, at minimum, could they have a three-week notification period. Because they've got to then ensure that their premises are okay and everything. They need to be able to advise their suppliers of what they're going to need—suppliers are asking them now, 'Are you going to need us for this coming season?' And also staff training, staff recruitment. It's a big issue for them.

And finally, an interesting question came up yesterday, which I hadn't even thought about. Locally, my businesses made themselves COVID-19 compliant at that time. And you'll be aware, First Minister, that here in Wales we've kept to the 2m distancing, so they were running on half capacity, a lot of them, because of the 2m distancing. They're telling me now, 'If we were to suddenly get an announcement that we can open, and it's in a couple of days, that wouldn't be long enough notice for us'. Will there be some new health and safety regulations needed, or can they go back to—? Do they need to spend more money, basically, because of the strength and the new variants going forward? I understand what they mean; I hope I've been able to convey that appropriately.

Thank you very much indeed. I want to distinguish, Janet, between what will happen as we move down the levels, where I think that will happen slowly and with lots of notice and with plenty of time for us to work through some of those issues together with the sector, and the way we sometimes have to do things if things are going wrong, where the advice from SAGE always is, 'Try and act fast as you can, try and do it as quickly as you can, get on top of it as fast as you can, because that means that the period of time will be shorter'. And sometimes, then, when we're making decisions very rapidly, I'm afraid, even with all the efforts that are made, sometimes the advice on some points has to follow on. But my absolute hope is that we are entering the spring in a way that things will get better. And if things get better, then there will be more time to explore that with the sector and to make sure they get the notice that they need. We were able to provide schools with the two weeks that they said they needed to make preparations, and I've heard, and I've heard from you this afternoon, that three weeks is what the hospitality industry would need, for all the reasons that have been set out. 

We have already strengthened the regulations in relation to the workplace to take account of the new variants and the fact that some of the safeguards that were there previously may not be strong enough to withstand the transmissibility of the Kent variant. I think the first thing I would probably advise people in the sector who come to you is to go and check what has already been changed and to see whether any of that is relevant to them. It does, for example, put an extra emphasis on ventilation than we did earlier in the year, because we now know that good ventilation is a real defence against coronavirus. I've not seen any advice come to me that suggests we would change the regulations specifically for the hospitality sector, but I think it would be sensible of them to look to the changed regulations for workplace safety, which were done about three weeks ago. 

15:10

Thank you very much. I want to move on. John, I think you've already asked your first question on equality and communities. So, if there's a couple there, and then I want to just bring Mick Antoniw in. He's got a couple of issues I think around the forthcoming Senedd elections. So, John, do you want to proceed with the communities sector?

Diolch. Unfortunately, First Minister, Wales is still a country that is far too unequal, and I think the pandemic has brought those inequalities and the effect of those inequalities to the fore very much. I know you and your Government would very much agree that we need to do more to address these problems. Just one initial point in terms of vaccination. What you said earlier, First Minister, about the reports that will become available, will that include vaccination uptake in terms of areas of deprivation, which I believe is the case in England? 

I believe that is the case. I'm trying to remember the advice that I was given—that it would cover age, sex, ethnicity and I think it said socioeconomic deprivation. I think that that will mean geography in the way that John Griffiths has asked. 

I think Mr Goodall was nodding there, but did you want to say anything, Mr Goodall? 

No. The First Minister was correct. 

You were nodding in agreement with the First Minister. Okay. John. 

Work by the Bevan Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, First Minister, has sought to put in basic terms what we need to do in terms of addressing poverty in Wales, and a big part of that is increasing the income of those in the poorest households and, hopefully, reducing their outgoings. We also know, of course, that with the inverse laws that apply too often to public services, sometimes those in the most deprived circumstances receive the poorest service. Are you able to say that, in principle, Welsh Government's spending will be progressive and primarily targeted at those households on the lowest incomes? 

I definitely agree that it should be progressive. In another life, I used to write learned articles on progressive universalism as the way I think we've approached things in Wales. References are available to members of the committee who wish to follow it up. [Laughter.] But what I always meant by that is that I don't believe that public services should be exclusively focused on poor people, and that is because services for poor people quickly become poor services. What I've always believed is that you need universal services, where everybody has a stake in making those services as good as they possibly can be—the articulate and the well-informed, as well as those people who struggle to get their voices heard. And then, on top of the universal service, you have an increment that is additional and extra for those who need help the most. That's what I mean by progressive. I definitely mean that spending should be skewed towards those people whose needs are greatest.

But I don't believe in primarily targeted services—means-tested services is the less kind way of describing that—because I think the risk is then that they do become residual services and services only for those people who can't manage anything better for themselves. And I think that is corrosive of social cohesion. I think the reason our health service is so highly valued is that everybody uses it. I think of a particularly uplifting moment that I had, when I went to visit my daughter in hospital on the day after she'd given birth. And there she was, in a ward with people from all walks of life, all going through the same experience, all having the same fantastic service. And I would be reluctant—well, I'd be more than reluctant, I would be opposed to the idea that what we do is we make public services only available for some people and those people get separated off from the rest of society. So, I'm with John when he talks about progressive services; I've got many more reservations about the idea that public money should be simply targeted on those who have the least. Everybody needs a stake in the best quality public services in Wales: education, health, housing—they're the things that knit us together.

15:15

Chair, if we have a little more time, perhaps I could ask a very quick follow-up question in terms of the work that Jeremy Miles is doing for Welsh Government in terms of the famous 'building back better', 'building back fairer', First Minister. In terms of the lessons from the pandemic and how it's affected the most vulnerable in society and these issues of how public spending is used, what are the emerging headlines, would you say, in terms of the lessons that Welsh Government is drawing from the exercise?

Well, I think the primary lesson is that the inequalities that we have experienced during the pandemic have been intensifications of inequalities that were there before the pandemic began. So, the people who have been the most badly affected were the people who were already at the sharp end of inequality and that's why, in Wales, our Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 commits us to a more equal Wales. Because sharply unequal societies suffer in all sorts of ways—economically, in terms of health and in terms of social cohesion as well. So, I think the big lesson of coronavirus is that it has simply drawn to the surface in a new, sharp and very visible way the underlying, the structural, inequalities that have been there for a long time.

It's 50 years last month since Julian Tudor Hart published his inverse care law article in The Lancet, and we've known about it for that 50 years and yet it remains a stubbornly difficult issue to tackle. So, I think what it says to me is that you've got to go back to the very basic things that create people's life chances in the first place, and, if you're brought up like I was, as an old-fashioned socialist, then that means economic opportunities—people's chances to be able to make the most of their talents, to make that contribution and to be fairly rewarded for it.

Okay. And, Mick, you've got a couple of questions around the Senedd elections and then I just want to raise one other issue after that.

I will be and I can be very succinct on it. I'm aware of time and we've had obviously several days of discussions in the Senedd around the elections legislation and so on. If I can just combine them together, First Minister, it's really what your current thinking is in terms of the likelihood of needing to exercise powers, what the signs are—so, can I ask for indications—when you think there might be some clarity as to possibly a final view, and what engagement you've been having with the UK Government over these, because of the overlap of election responsibilities with the police and crime commissioners. And then the final point is really just on voter registration—the importance of that and what Welsh Government is doing to actually encourage voter registration, really as a safety measure, but also as part of the democratic process.

15:20

I thank Mick Antoniw for those questions, then, Chair. If we were able to draw a straight line into the future from where we are today, then I would say to you confidently that the elections will go ahead on 6 May, because the current context is an improving one, prevalence numbers are going down, the positivity rate is going down, the impact on the health service is being drawn off, vaccination numbers are very good here in Wales. If we could project that forward in a straight-line way, then I would be confident that 6 May is deliverable. And that is absolutely this Government's preference. Moving the election is a last resort, only to be done if there is a serious threat to public health. The difficulty is that we can't be confident that something won't happen in the months between now and 6 May that could cause the election to be cast into doubt. I absolutely want the election to happen on 6 May; I absolutely don't want an election to be held in conditions where people are fearful of going to the polls.

The dilemma is this, as Mick Antoniw will know—if you think of the experience of the Republic of Ireland, at the start of December, it had the lowest rates of any country in the world. Three weeks later—three weeks—it had the highest of any country in the world. That is how fast things can change from benign to really adverse in this pandemic, and that's why I have to caveat everything I say about how confident we can be about something that is still weeks and weeks away.

I will lay a statement on or before 24 March letting the Senedd know whether or not I am going to ask the Llywydd to consider putting a proposition to the Senedd to extend this term. But I can't even rule out having to make a decision beyond that date if something unforeseen occurred that would put the election in jeopardy. So, that's why I'm grateful that the Senedd agreed to the Bill yesterday, because it gives us the necessary flexibility against the general background, Chair, that we want the election to go ahead, we want it on 6 May, we must do it in a way that is safe enough for people to feel confident to go out and cast their vote.

And then a great deal of work is going on, both in terms of registration, through the local registration officers, but also in terms of postal voting. Because probably the biggest defence there could be against people being afraid to go to a polling station, where they may think that many hundreds of other people have visited during the day, is to be able to cast their vote by post, if they would find that a safer way of doing it. That has been part of the discussions with the UK Government. They've happened regularly. They happen between Julie James for the Welsh Government, and Chloe Smith, a Minister in the Cabinet Office for the UK Government. I think that has been one of the better examples of co-operation across the United Kingdom, because Ministers with these responsibilities have met regularly to share information about the local context we are all in and to make sure that, if there are any ideas emerging anywhere else that we would be able to use to make it easier for people to take part in the process, we share those ideas and learn from one another.

Thank you. We've got one more issue that I want Nick to raise. So, Nick, I think it's the same one as we're talking about—it's the letter from the Finance Committee. So, is that what you wanted to raise? You need to unmute yourself. It might be the hard mute. That's better. It might be the hard mute on the—that James has helped you with.

Yes. Apologies for the distraction in the background. As Ann said—

—the pleasures of home working and difficulty getting babysitters now.

Briefly—I know Mike was going to raise this, but I was on the Finance Committee before when it came up. There have been some issues raised by the Finance Committee, First Minister, about the fact that there's no Minister with a specific responsibility for COVID recovery. Now, I know that COVID recovery falls under all Ministers, I suppose you could say, but I know that the Finance Committee was particularly concerned that there was no Minister that they could go to specifically to question about this, which is why it ended up in Ann Jones's inbox, as Chair of this committee. So, I just wondered if you thought there was merit in a Minister having a specific responsibility, or whether you think it's okay as it is.  

15:25

Well, Chair, in a way, it ends up as being my decision as the First Minister as to how to allocate Cabinet responsibilities. I did ask Jeremy Miles to take a lead in designing the plan for recovery that we published in October. The finance Minister made an announcement of £320 million alongside that announcement, and the detail of how that £320 million has been allocated and used will be set out in the third supplementary budget that will be published next week. So, in that sense, the Finance Committee will have an opportunity to question the finance Minister about the way in which the financial underpinning of the recovery plan has been discharged across the Government.

The reason that I didn't choose to appoint a single Minister for the implementation of the plan, Dirprwy Lywydd, is because that wouldn't reflect the way in which the Cabinet currently works. So, prior to coronavirus, the Cabinet met probably once a fortnight, on a Monday afternoon, and we would have formal papers and we would go through all of that. The Cabinet meets three times a week, and has throughout the crisis, and that's the minimum number of times in a week. There are many weeks when we've met more than three times. So, we meet every Monday, every Tuesday, every Thursday as a minimum, and that means that the collective effort to implement the eight priorities of the recovery plan is always being discussed collectively between us. The need for a co-ordinating Minister is much reduced when the Cabinet meets together in the way that we do and is able to share information between one another on the priorities that each Minister is discharging against that plan. And I think that has worked very well and has made sure that every single Minister takes a lead in their own areas for those eight priorities and that it hasn't become just one person's business to make the plan work. So, that's the rationale behind it. And, in terms of the Finance Committee's specific responsibilities, I hope they will feel that, when they see the third supplementary budget, they will have an opportunity to pursue the plan, the £320 million allocated against it, and I'm sure the finance Minister will be happy to answer questions on this aspect.

Yes. I think we just need to relay that back to the Finance Committee, Chair, and Mike and the other Members, then, can consider that. But, yes, thank you, First Minister.

Okay, thank you. That's not bad—we're only 10 minutes running over. We will break now, though, for 10 minutes. So, we'll come back at 15:40. But if Members can be ready to start at 15:40, and then we've got the second part of the meeting, which is to discuss the effects of Brexit and the European transition. So, if we break now until 15:40. Thank you.

Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 15:28 ac 15:42.

The meeting adjourned between 15:28 and 15:42.

15:40
3. Materion yn ymwneud ag ymadawiad y DU â’r Undeb Ewropeaidd
3. Issues related to the UK's withdrawal from the European Union

Okay. So, we reconvene, and the second part of our meeting is to discuss the European transition, and we're delighted that the First Minister has with him Des Clifford as the official. So, you're welcome, Mr Clifford, to the meeting, and, of course, the First Minister has come back as well. So, as I say, we're going to start on that, and David Rees is going to start the questioning on the European transition.

Thank you, Chair. Good afternoon, First Minister. As we all now know, the trade and co-operation agreement has been agreed by the UK Government—yet to be ratified by the European Parliament though; I do note that. But when the Counsel General came before the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee at the beginning on January, he indicated that the Welsh Government is still undertaking its initial analysis of the TCA and the impact upon Wales of that analysis, though he did also indicate that he expected that to become completed by the end of January. I know you've published an updated transition action plan since then, so have you now completed that analysis, and, if you have, have you identified the sectoral areas that are of greatest interest to Wales, and have you had discussions with the UK Government on those?

So, Chair, that analysis is now complete. The plan is to publish it tomorrow. The title when I last saw it was, I think, 'The new relationship with the EU: What it means for Wales'. It is not primarily a sectoral analysis, although it will, clearly, deal with the impact of leaving the European Union on particular parts of the Welsh economy. It'll deal with goods, it'll deal with services, it'll deal with the agri-food sector, and I think there will be annexes, as I recall, dealing particularly with what the future relationship means for trading goods, and separately in trade in services. It will therefore reflect all the discussions that we have had with stakeholders in Wales over recent weeks, and, as the committee can imagine, Chair, I'm sure, we have had a huge amount of feedback from road hauliers, from people in the fishing industry, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals. There's a great deal to cover in it, and we've had particular discussions with the UK Government on some aspects of that. Lesley Griffiths, our colleague, has been very much engaged in the issues to do with fisheries, and in particular the seafood industry, which is suffering enormously at the moment. It was an industry that had an assurance from the UK Government in the run-up to 31 January that the industry had been protected by the agreement. Well, we need to know how the current situation has been allowed to arise when we have people in that industry in north Wales, in particular, who are simply unable to trade, because, by the time their product leaves Wales and arrives at its destination—remember 90 per cent of its product would previously have gone to the southern Mediterranean without any hesitations or delays at all; now, when it arrives there, it's unsaleable because of the delays that have built up along the way.

So, the document will cover those sorts of issues and will report on what we are being told by those different industries, and, Chair, if it's of help, I'm happy to go into some sector-specific information if Members would find that helpful.

15:45

Thank you for that, First Minister, and I think it is important we understand sectors—you mentioned a couple of sectors, freight and seafood, and obviously I have a very keen interest in the steel sector, because of the implications of the quotas and the tariffs relating to that for Wales. But, just on the seafood agenda, we know that there's a £23 million fund allocated by the UK Government. What involvement do you have in those discussions, and have you got a clear picture of the criteria that will be used for people to be able to access that fund, particularly, as we said, the large number of Welsh seafood producers in the mussel area who are going to be suffering?

I'm afraid the answer is 'no' on both counts, Chair. We had no advance notice of the £23 million scheme, and we've had very little impact in trying to get any details out of the UK Government about how that fund will operate. What we do know is this—and this is, I'm afraid, a very bad sign—that the UK Government intend to use the  United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 powers to impose on Wales the scheme that they will devise in Whitehall. So, what should have happened—and this is what happened earlier last year—is the UK Government would have announced a fisheries scheme that they would design to meet the circumstances of the fishing industry in England; Scotland and Wales would have had a consequential of that that we could then have used in a way that would meet the needs of the particular fishing industries that we have in the devolved Governments. That's not happening in this case. There's going to be no consequential. It's going to be a scheme designed in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and DEFRA believe—I've no idea how—that they will be able to deliver the scheme right across the United Kingdom, despite the fact that fishing is devolved and that all the troops on the ground for engaging with the fishing industry in Scotland or in Wales belong to the Scottish and Welsh Governments.

But you will remember—. I know David Rees particularly will have followed this closely, but, during the debates on the internal market Bill in the House of Lords, there were consistent assurances that those were fall-back powers—'You don't need to worry about them, because they're just there in case they should happen to be needed in the future'—and here's an example of them being used within the first couple of weeks of us leaving the European Union. 

I'll leave—I'm sure my colleague Mick Antoniw will go on to raise questions on the internal market Act, so let's go back to the agreements and the TCA. There were concerns about the governance issues in relation to that and the lack of involvement of devolved nations in the negotiations. It's historical now, we know that, and we've been raising these issues many times in our committee meetings with the Counsel General, and yourself before that. But now we have a governance agenda, and how we ensure that the Act or the agreement works for all part of the United Kingdom, particularly for us in Wales, and the role that devolved Governments will have in the governance structure—have you any updates for us on where we are on the role of Welsh Government in such governance structures within the UK?

No, I really think we're not any further forward, Chair, in having any detail of that. We do raise these matters with the UK Government. It's a complex governance structure, but there will be aspects of it where devolved responsibilities are directly engaged. Fishing is just one of them, to give the example we've just been talking about. When those matters are being discussed within the structures, the governance structures, of the TCA, then devolved Governments should be part of that structure. And actually, I don't think it's difficult, and I don't think it should be controversial.

I represented Wales for a couple of years on the JMC Europe—not the JMC(EN), but the JMC Europe—which was how the UK Government created a negotiating mandate in relation to any developments happening across the European Union. It worked perfectly well. We met, we discussed the issue that was coming up at the next council, we fed in the information that we had, we made sure that the interests of Wales were understood by the UK Government, and that was taken into account then by the UK Government in drawing up its negotiating mandate. Sometimes, devolved Ministers actually led at the Council of Ministers when there were issues that were particularly relevant to a devolved Government. So, Scotland, for example, led on some of the fisheries discussions that went on while we were still in the European Union. Our former colleague Jane Davidson led for the UK on youth service issues when they were being discussed at a Council of Ministers level, because she had done a great deal of work on youth service matters here in Wales. Those arrangements were at the better end of the way in which intra-governmental discussions were discharged at UK level, and if we could recapture that and make that a model for the way in which the governance  arrangements of the TCA were put together, then I think we would be very comfortable with that.

Now, whether it is because there are so many teething problems with the TCA and the UK Government is firefighting over it all, I don't know, but it is certainly true that I don't think we are learning anything much about the detail that lies behind the complex arrangements that have been agreed. Des may do, because he may have been picking it up more at official level, Chair. If you'd like him to come in, I'm sure he would.

15:50

Thank you, Chair. Just very briefly, just in case it helps Mr Rees, we do know that there will be a partnership council that brings together both the UK Government and the EU, and then there will sit underneath that 18 separate subject committees. We won't have an interest in each of those committees, but we'll have, as the First Minister has explained, an interest in a spread of them, in things like fisheries and, potentially, aviation and trade and so on. So, that is what we are talking about.

There is, I think, a constitutional deficit here, in the way that the First Minister has described. We had a very full and active engagement in the formulation of UK negotiating priorities in respect of our membership of the European Union, and that began from 1999, virtually the first—. I think I went to the very first meeting with the First Minister's predecessor Rhodri Morgan in 1999 for the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe, and that held good right up until the moment we left. So, a similar machinery would suit us very well, and this leads actually also into a wider pattern of constitutional hiatus, because—it's probably not for this committee, necessarily, today, but the JMC, the joint ministerial council that brings together First Ministers with the Prime Minister, is also a forum that has not met for several years now. So, I think there is some catching up to be done here.

So, let me be clear, then: at the moment, we're in a situation where we have a TCA; there have been some teething problems, and I'll come on to one in a minute, in relation to the way in which things are working. The fisheries teething problem; there's been an allocation of funding, but no consultation with the devolved nations. And there is no, at this point—you may be talking, but there is no agreement as to the involvement of devolved Governments in any aspect of that Government partnership they talked about.

So, the question I ask, therefore is: this week, we've seen the general manager of Rosslare port clearly highlight the fact that he believes that we'd be better off having one port in south-west Wales and not two, and that we should be doing more frequent journeys between Rosslare and that port. So, how do we take that agenda forward, and who will we discuss that with, to ensure that these interests particularly affecting areas in Wales are not damaging our economy and damaging our local groupings and towns? Where is the accountability and where do we actually manage to raise them?

Well, I think these are very—

Before you—. Sorry, I was just going to say, First Minister, sorry, before you answer that, can I just make the point about Holyhead port, which is very important for the economy of north Wales? I think, yes, while I can understand why they're looking at that, the economy of north Wales is, as I say, very important, and it relies heavily on Holyhead being able to play its part as well. 

15:55

In terms of highlighting the important role of Holyhead, I didn't pick that up particularly because the focus was on the two in the south-west at this point in time. But Holyhead is—

Yes, I appreciate—. But I believe that there's probably enough, if we can get it right, there's enough trade and enough freight transport to be able to sustain all three. Sorry, First Minister. 

No, thank you both. Look, I think these are deeply worrying matters. Our colleague Ken Skates wrote to Grant Shapps recently setting out a series of concerns that were relayed to us by hauliers, by port authorities. We've had a reply. Chair, I'm not being unkind if I describe it to you as pure Pollyanna. There is nothing that the Secretary of State could see that was going wrong at Holyhead or in the south-west of Wales, that these are merely teething troubles and that they would all just sort themselves out and everything would be fine again. Of course, I hope that is right. When I spoke to the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Ireland, who was answering questions that afternoon on the floor of the Dáil about Holyhead, by the way, he was clear with me that his view and the view of the Irish economy is they don't want to be diverting trade south by sea to France and Spain, north to England and Scotland, because that is easier, albeit more costly and longer, than coming in through Holyhead or Fishguard or Pembroke Dock, because of the level of bureaucracy that hauliers coming in and out of those ports now face. 

Now, there are some signs that traffic is recovering at those ports, but there is a long way to go and a lot that needs to be done in order to mitigate the new barriers to trade that the trade and co-operation agreement has brought about. We are in conversation both with the UK Government, with HMRC, and with Irish interests as well—I know we've been talking recently to the CBI on the island of Ireland about the way in which we can address some of these matters together. But here we are facing the hard realities of what leaving the European Union means. Trade that, in November, flowed without any friction at all and with no need for checks, is now facing real friction and increasing checks—because remember, we're at the early stages of this. There are temporary arrangements in place that are making this easier than it will be after April and after July. There's an urgency about it, but I don't detect an urgent response at the Whitehall level, nor do I detect a genuine engagement with the seriousness of the impact that the deal is having on Wales and on major ports.

Can I ask, before Mick comes in, because I know the Chair's going to bring him in in a minute—? I'll perhaps keep on the ports theme. When we did work on the ports, one of our concerns was that we might see freight and traffic going via Northern Ireland to England rather than across to the Welsh ports, because that would come through Ireland and therefore through the EU. Now, the Northern Ireland protocol has clearly had an impact on that, and we are seeing the challenges of the Northern Ireland protocol now. Has the Welsh Government been involved in discussions on the Northern Ireland protocol? Because if it is changed, it could have major implications for the Welsh ports, because we could see more freight going from Belfast or Larne to Liverpool than actually using the Holyhead route.

Well, there's no doubt, Chair, that traffic is flowing up through Northern Ireland and then across to Liverpool and Scotland because that avoids some of the new challenges that there are coming from Dublin and into Holyhead, and traffic into south-west Wales as well. So, that has undoubtedly happened. The Prime Minister celebrated this on the floor of the House of Commons only a couple of weeks ago. He seemed to regard this as a very good result. Well, it's obviously not a good result at all for Wales.

We are engaged in some discussions on the Northern Ireland protocol. Can I just say to members of the committee that I take a cautious approach to our involvement? When I sit on the weekly meeting we now have between First Ministers and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and Michael Gove in the Cabinet Office, you become acutely aware of some of the sensitivities that lie behind that protocol on the island of Ireland, and the tensions that there are at community level as a result of the Brexit changes. And while we try and make sure that we have a voice when there is direct impact on Wales, and the ports is the key way in which that is happening, I am always very conscious of what is at stake on the island of Ireland in trying to make this protocol work.

16:00

Yes, if I could. I wanted to follow on from what the First Minister and then Des Clifford said about the—was it the partnership structure or the sub-structure that's been put in place—because previously, prior to Brexit, there was a well-recognised national structure within the European Union to take account of devolved powers as they apply to various countries. What that seemed to have meant was that Welsh farmers and Welsh fishermen, et cetera, had actually a direct voice through Welsh Government into those sub-national processes, because they were devolved areas. So, that was a very powerful voice that we had on those particular interests. In terms of the new structure that is in place, does that in any way recognise those previous sub-national arrangements? What is the actual strength or status of what our engagement might be within those sectors, and does it in any way equate to, I think, the strength of input we had on the previous sub-national arrangements? 

Well, Chair, I describe them still as a blank page. The detail that lies behind the complex arrangements is yet to be worked out. Now, we will argue for the detail being filled in in a way that does respect devolved competence. When discussions are going on about fishing in that strand, they will be talking about responsibilities that lie here in the Senedd. And that means those conversations can't happen sensibly and fully without us being there to contribute to them, and that's an even bigger issue, of course, in Scotland. The UK Government has not said that we won't be there, but nor has it said that we will be there. So, as I say, the page is blank and the detail is still to be filled in, and we certainly don't have the assurance that we had within the EU structures where the role of regional Governments in all parts of Europe was much more fleshed out and guaranteed in the working mechanisms. Now, I hope still that we will find a way of persuading the UK Government that they are better off with us in the room than out of the room, and that is a conversation we will continue to have with them. 

Okay. Anything else on this? I want to bring Lynne in on Erasmus+ briefly. We've got more points on—

Just a couple of quick points—or I'll come back to my points after Lynne, if you want to, Chair. 

I'll come back to my points after Lynne, if you want to. 

Thanks, Chair. First Minister, I know that you very much share the concerns I've expressed previously about the decision to prevent young people in the UK participating in the Erasmus+ programme, and I very much welcome the work that you're doing with the Scottish Government to explore the options for continued participation for young people from both countries. I just wanted to ask if there's any update or any progress on that, please. 

Well, I think we were very pleased at the level of support that we secured at the European Parliament for the joint statement that was made between the Welsh and the Scottish Governments. We had already formed a group of MEPs that would take a particular interest in Wales post Brexit, and I think Terry Reintke is the name of the MEP who took the lead and had 144 signatories of other MEPs in support of a proposition that Wales and Scotland should be allowed to find ways of participating in Erasmus+. 

We've had a reply from the UK Government, which is discouraging, saying that we don't have the competence to negotiate such an agreement and that they will not be prepared to do that on our behalf, and although I don't think we've heard back directly from the Commission, I imagine that puts them in a difficult position and we probably will have to recognise that. In the meantime, we go on having a series of bilateral conversations. I know I've mentioned previously to Lynne the discussions I had with the German ambassador and the possibility of bilateral arrangements there; conversations with Simon Coveney, as I said, in the Republic of Ireland, about arrangements there. We already have bilateral arrangements with other countries, through the Seren programme and the way in which we have young people studying in Harvard and Yale and Chicago and fantastic opportunities like that, so I've been talking to our education Minister about trying to bring all of that together, so that if we do find ourselves having to go it alone in the sense of having to create opportunities for young people in Wales, that we bring all the different possibilities we have together and continue to have a prospectus for Welsh young people that allows them to gain work, education, experience in other parts of the world, and where Wales goes on welcoming young people from all those countries here as well. It's one of the bleak bits of the so-called Turing scheme that it regards visits to the UK from young people elsewhere in the world as having no value to us and something we're not prepared to go on supporting. Well, what a shame. What a cast of mind that brings you to that conclusion.

16:05

No, thank you. It was just an update I wanted. Thank you.

Mick, you wanted to come back on this. And then John.

Just a very quick point on that. What would be to stop Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland forming their own corporate entity funded by the respective Governments to enter into a partnership with engagement with Erasmus to actually deliver the same product? Such a corporation would, of course, have its own legal status, and could operate completely independently of constitutional restrictions that might otherwise exist.

Well, Chair, it's always good to have advice from a good lawyer. I think the only barrier that I know of to Mick's proposition is that, at the moment, while 'third countries', as they're called, can be full participants in Erasmus+, it's always been done on the basis that the contract is with a full member state or a state—not a member state, but a state. Sub-national arrangements, as far as I know, have not hitherto been agreed for participation with Erasmus, which is why it would depend on the Commission's reaction to such a proposition, if such a legal entity were to be formed. If the UK Government were to have said that it sees no barrier to that happening—we'd be using our money for our responsibilities, we'd be sharing it with other UK Governments—if they had said, 'That's fine, go ahead, there's no barrier,' then I think that would have helped the possibility a lot. But given that their initial reaction has been pretty hostile to that idea, then I'm afraid that that would weigh with the Commission in entertaining an application to form any sub-national arrangement.

Yes. Youth work organisations, First Minister, in Wales, have issued a statement calling for continued participation in Erasmus+ and emphasising the wide nature of what has been happening in Wales, with youth services, volunteering, further education, schools and apprenticeships all being part of the programme rather than just education. Would you confirm that that's the wide picture that Wales very much wants to see and Welsh Government very much wants to see as we move forward, no matter what structural form it takes?

16:10

Absolutely, that is what we will want to see. As I know John Griffiths will know, Wales was a major beneficiary of the Erasmus programme, because we pushed the boundaries of it. We never regarded it as a university student exchange scheme, we've always had school students, further education students and, very significantly, the youth service involved in it. I, myself, have taken young people to other parts of Europe from the youth service here in Cardiff. These are young people who would never have gone abroad—never ever—in other circumstances. But the youth service, using its contacts with youth services elsewhere, was able to make those opportunities available to them because we had stretched the boundaries of what Erasmus was able to do—that's Erasmus+, isn't it.

Now, let me say, Kirsty Williams has worked so hard to try to persuade the UK Government that any replacement must have the same wide basis. We have managed to stretch the boundaries in that it does now include further education as well as higher education, but we weren't able to persuade the UK Government to allow participation by the youth service. And yet, the UK Government says that one of its main ambitions is to make sure that the new scheme operates in a way that tackles disadvantage. I just can't see it; I just cannot make those two things add up.

Okay. I'll just go for one last round with Members, I think. So, I'll start with you again, David, because you've done the bulk of this with your external affairs committee.

I wanted to ask on two areas, two questions, just quickly.

Based upon your answers on Erasmus+—an area that I would've thought would've been natural and easy for the UK Government to actually let devolved nations get involved in, because there was nothing major in it, so it's just disappointing on that. The Welsh Government has set its own priorities not just for Erasmus+ but INTERREG funding, Creative Europe and mutual recognition of qualifications and so on. What is your thinking now of where we will stand with those priorities if the UK, as the third country state, is not going to push the agenda forward on those?

Dirprwy Lywydd, when the agreement was struck with the European Union, the basis on which the Welsh Government welcomed the agreement was that it gave us a platform to build on for the future. It was always our view that the agreement itself was not the agreement we've been promised, but better an agreement than no agreement. No agreement would mean that people had walked away from the table in conditions of acrimony. At least with an agreement, you've got something that you can return to. So that is the spirit in which we hope that the UK Government will approach all of this. But the agreement is not the end of our relationship with the European Union. There are still things that we could achieve by further discussions between us, and we very much hope that the UK Government will be willing to go back into discussions. There will have to be discussions, as David Rees knows. Mr Rees referred earlier to steel, and with steel, we have a deal until June of this year—well, a quota of steel that can be exported to the European Union without tariffs. It turns out that any steel going into Northern Ireland counts towards that quota, so the quota wasn't all that it was cracked up to be, but what happens after June?

So, there are a whole series of things that people will have to come back around the table to continue to discuss. The spirit of those discussions we hope will be looking to see how we can go further than the agreement that has already been reached. And where there are things that weren't capable of being concluded, we shouldn't regard those as over and done with, nothing more we can do; let's go back and see on Creative Europe, for example, what now could be done to secure some of the benefits that we previously had in that way? If it's done in that spirit, then the Welsh Government will support that. And then there is ground that we could win back. If the UK Government regard the trade and co-operation agreement as the end of the story, then I'm afraid that we will be left, bilaterally, having to explore all of these issues. I did that with Simon Coveney in relation to the interterritorial co-operation programme that we have enjoyed with Ireland. We agreed that we would go on thinking about ways in which we could continue to invest jointly in some of that work. But, that would be outside the broader arrangements that we would have enjoyed had the UK Government been prepared to negotiate continued access into INTERREG, not just for Wales, but for other parts of the UK that are involved in other programmes. 

16:15

A final question from me, then. You have written in a very positive manner to the President of the European Commission, hoping to have a strong relationship with the European Union institutions and member nations and other regions within the European Union. Have you had an answer back yet in relation to that? And is the experience that you have had with the Erasmus+ agenda causing you concern that, even if she gives you a positive response, it is still going to be seen as a challenge because everything still has to be done through the United Kingdom Government, as the third nation state?

Well, I was keen to write to the new President because Wales has an ongoing relationship with the European Union in many ways. The structural funds programmes that we are still involved in don't end for another couple of years, so we will have direct dealings with the Commission for at least another couple of years in that way. I wanted to make sure that that was known. I wanted the President to know that our office in Brussels would continue to operate. I wanted the President to know that Wales intended to continue to play our part in a series of regional networks: the Vanguard Initiative, which we have chaired; the network in relation to lesser used European languages, which we have taken a leading part in. And, I wanted the President to know that Wales would still be an outward-looking, international nation, keen to go on co-operating positively with our closest neighbours. So, that was the purpose of the letter. I wasn't expecting a swift reply to it, because it was a letter, really, setting out own position.

Chair, I remain cheered up, when I talk to Governments of other regional legislatures in Europe, at the willingness that there is to go on having a positive relationship with Wales. Despite the difficulties of Brexit, and the way that it will have coloured some relationships, when I spoke to the President of the Basque Country recently, it could not have been more positive or cordial in relation to their wish to go on working with us. I'm due to talk to the President of Baden-Württemberg in the next couple of weeks, at their suggestion. We have a memorandum of understanding with them. It's quite a number of years now since that was signed, and they would like us to refresh it and restate it, because they want to make sure that their relationship with Wales goes on being recognised and has some vitality about it.

So, I continue to feel how lucky we are that, despite all the difficulties there have been over the last four years, where we have strong relationships at a regional level elsewhere, we have very willing partners who want to go on being positive about their relationship with us. Even if we don't get the co-operation of the UK Government at the member state and the Commission level, I still think that we'll be able to get a lot out of those regional networks and arrangements that we will continue to invest in, so that our reputation and our profile, and all of the things that we can do together on trade, on climate change, on cultural exchange, on opportunities for young people—that all of those things go on being part of what this Government values, and I think Wales values, and we find a ready echo in that from the partners that we have worked with over many years. 

We have a few minutes left. Are there Members who have got other questions? Mick.

Yes. First Minister, I won't go into detail on the Internal Market Act 2020; that's been rehearsed many times and is ongoing. But, in terms of the fact that there is an important legal challenge that's under way that might impact in terms of, I suppose, the clarity of what we may or may not be able to do with this very divisive piece of legislation, I'm just wondering if you're able to update us on any progress that's been made with regard to that and the timetable. 

16:20

Well, I think we have set out our case for judicial review. We are expecting the reply of the UK Government imminently, and no doubt they will seek to contest our case. But I remember saying on the floor of the Senedd that the Welsh Government would use every power at our disposal to challenge the way in which the Internal Market Act, as it is now, rolls back the frontiers of devolution, creates a new ragged and uncertain edge around the powers and responsibilities that we have here, up to and including legal action. I know Mick particularly will know that our pre-action letter identified two grounds of our challenge, the fact that, in our view, in an impermissible way, the Act seeks to repeal a constitutional enactment, the Government of Wales Act 2006, and that the IMA gives UK Ministers very wide and untrammelled Henry VIII powers, which would allow them to amend GOWA by the back door. Now, we think that that is not the way that—. GOWA can be amended by the UK Parliament; there is no doubt at all about that, but it must do it directly, not by giving powers that allow it to be subverted in a way that escapes scrutiny. So, as I say, we are awaiting the response of the UK Government imminently, and I anticipate it will be a 'see you in court' sort of response. 

Okay. Any other Members now, or I will draw the session to a close? Okay. So, First Minister, can I thank you very much for attending this afternoon's meeting and answering the committee's questions? As ever, you'll get a copy of the transcript to check for accuracy, and thank you for that. 

Can I say, this may be the final meeting of this committee before the Senedd elections? If the Senedd elections go ahead on 6 May, it will be the last meeting. Can I thank you because I'm no longer going to be here chairing after this meeting, so can I thank you and all your officials for the way you've engaged with the committee? And I also want to place on record my thanks to the committee members for the way that they've engaged, sometimes too long, but they have engaged with you. And, also, to put on record again the tremendous support and thanks to the clerking team and the research team that we've had the pleasure of working with over the term of this, well over the five-year term, actually, and to say thank you for that, and long may the scrutiny of the First Minister committee continue into the sixth Assembly, but with a different Chair. So, thank you ever so much for that.  

4. Papur(au) i’w nodi
4. Paper(s) to note

And, then, we have one more paper, just a paper to note, which was raised as part of the questioning to the First Minister. If we can note that paper formally, that would be helpful. 

5. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer y busnes a ganlyn:
5. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the meeting for the following business:

Cynnig:

bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).

Motion:

that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).

Cynigiwyd y cynnig.

Motion moved.

And then I intend to move the motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting, and therefore, we will meet in private to discuss the evidence session. Are Members agreed? Thank you very much, yes. 

Derbyniwyd y cynnig.

Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 16:24.

Motion agreed.

The public part of the meeting ended at 16:24.