The news that the Welsh Government will refuse to bail out four health boards dominated proceedings today, but the activation of Article 50 tomorrow also focused attentions.
FMQs, 28th March 2017
Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda), reiterated the Demos think-tank report findings that Wales would be hit hardest by Brexit. She called for further tax powers, controls over any future replacement for EU structural funding, as well as reassurances for EU citizens living in Wales. What consultation has taken place on the Article 50 letter and what did the First Minister expect to see in it?
The First Minister understands the letter will simply outline the UK's intention to leave; he didn't expect anything substantial. EU citizens in Wales are still concerned about their future status; he recently spoke to the Romanian ambassador who said fellow citizens are worried they may be deported. The issue of EU citizens in UK and vice versa needs to be resolved quickly. Also, he's not convinced there'll be any money to replace structural funds or even farming subsidies – which was an alarming admission all things considered.
Conservative leader, Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) raised the budget deficit projections in four health boards. The Welsh Government have “drawn a line in the sand” by saying they won't be bailed out, but he found it “unbelievable” that no services would be cut. Would the First Minister stand by those claims?
Carwyn said health boards have been told they need to remain within budget. The situation will be looked at again in June with any action taken then, including governance reviews if necessary - as in Betsi Cadwaladr health board (which is currently run directly by the Welsh Government).
Filling in for Neil Hamilton, Mark Reckless AM (UKIP, South Wales East) commended the Welsh Government's position on Severn crossing tolls. The UK Government faces several legal risks outlined in legislation if the tolls aren't scrapped, but he hoped there would be greater co-ordination between the two governments. How's that engagement going? Are the legal risks being emphasised?
The First Minister repeated that his preferred position is for control to be transferred and the tolls to be scrapped; he doesn't understand the UK Government's resistance. He believes the Severn crossings are reserved as outlined in law, but the legal points merit further investigation. He wouldn't consider (following a suggestion by Mark) “paying off” the UK Government (£2-3million a year) to scrap the tolls for as long as the bridges remained non-devolved.
Simon Thomas AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) asked what discussions the Welsh Government have had on public funds used to support Newsquest's sub-editing centre in Newport (which will close)? Will the Welsh Government reclaim the money if the grant conditions were breached and would they also consider establishing an independent media fund?
The First Minister confirmed the Welsh Government were in ongoing discussions with Newsquest. He's aware of 14 planned redundancies and, to date, grant conditions have been met but they have to continue to do so until May 2020. It's right to reclaim the money if the grant terms are breached. An independent forum for the media will also be established.
Gareth Bennett AM (UKIP, South Wales Central) asked what discussions have been held over the new Cardiff bus station? It's an issue of growing concern due to fears over lack of funding and small size. Can the Welsh Government intervene to ensure it doesn't end up a “botch job”?
The bus station is a matter for Cardiff Council, but the First Minister was updated by the council recently. The project is being led by Rightacres, with the start date delayed until discussions conclude on what the station should look like.
Eluned Morgan AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) asked what intentions there are with regard creating a single UK market post-Brexit?
The First Minister has had many discussions with the UK Government already on this. He's outlined what he thinks is needed to run a single market within the UK including a rules-based system with consent of all four administrations alongside independent adjudication.
In a second question, Simon Thomas AM asked for a(nother) statement on the projected £150million health board budget deficits. The Senedd passed a supplementary budget which gives the Welsh Government health department the money but not the health boards themselves – so there has been a bail out. Does this mean the NHS Finance Act has failed?
Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said the position was “unacceptable”, and it's right to expect health boards to improve their financial positions. However, nobody can make a judgement on the whole system based on these four health boards.
The whole UK is facing NHS funding challenges; he's been upfront about those for a number of months and it wouldn't surprise people if they'd “been paying attention”. He was clear this won't lead to any cuts to services with funding guaranteed by the Welsh Government. There are significant sums of money – wasted prescription medicines being an example – that can be found.
Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) asked for a statement on the Welsh Government's response to a large number of grass fires over the weekend (see also: Fried Cymru: The Barby of Wales). South Wales Fire Service attended 62 grass fires since last Friday with many around Rhondda Cynon Taf. How is the Welsh Government working with partner agencies to communicate the risks?
Communities Secretary, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), strongly condemned the arsonists, who endanger firefighters, wildlife and communities. He wants to take a preventative approach – successfully working with the fire service, police and Natural Resources Wales - but there's also been investment in things like hidden cameras.
The overall number of grass fires was 40% lower than the year before, but that doesn't help those affected over the weekend. “We will look for, and prosecute,” those who start fires, asking the public to use the 101 number if they have information to help track arsonists.