Tuesday, 14 March 2017

FMQs: IndyRef2, Drugs & Urgent Stuff

The usual stuff was on the agenda today alongside an abnormally large number of urgent questions (a few more weeks and I never have to do this again). Once again, Leader of the House, Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan), was filling in for the First Minister.

FMQs, 14
th March 2017

Party Leaders

Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda), raised Wales' EU trade surplus, which was £700million higher in 2016 than 2015, while the UK has trade deficits with EU and non-EU markets. There's talk of leaving the EU with no deal in place, meaning resorting to WTO rules, tariffs, de-regulation and lower standards. Have the Welsh Government been properly consulted?

In a separate, but related, question Leanne brought up the possible second Scottish independence referendum, which could radically change the UK but presents opportunities for a bolder, ambitious future for Wales. What was the Welsh Government's vision?

Jane Hutt said it was important to recognise exports as well as Welsh interests being safeguarded both post-Brexit and in the Article 50 letter; the Welsh Government expect to be consulted before it's sent. It's right the constitutional future of Scotland is decided in Scotland, but she believes the UK remains better together, and Welsh Labour remain committed to both the Union and the Brexit process.

Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central), raised the issue of public drug abuse in Wrexham. He felt sympathy for people who've found themselves in that position, but the Conservatives completely reject any idea – as raised by North Wales PCC, Arfon Jones (Plaid) – that drugs should be decriminalised or even legalised (see also: Arfon Jones & Legalising Drugs). What was the Welsh Government's response? Are they re-evaluating their drugs strategy?

Jane said £4.8m is available to north Wales to address substance abuse. Clearly there needs to be a multi-agency approach from police, local authorities and the voluntary sector. When organisations have come together, they've developed an action plan for Wrexham, including clean-ups.

UKIP leader, Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales), said last week's UK budget wasn't an unqualified success. Did the Welsh Government draw any lessons on how to enact their own tax-varying powers? Did the Leader of the House also accept that lower tax rates can bring in higher revenues – as in the 1980s – raising the prospect of Wales becoming a “tax haven” within the UK?

Jane agreed that “Spreadsheet Phil” fumbled his first budget, which hit self-employed people hard. If anything, they needs to learn from Wales and none of it alters the magnitude of cuts facing us in future years.

Urgent Questions

Due to the unusual number of urgent questions, I decided not to cover any backbench questions this week. I'm sure you're all devastated.

Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) asked for a statement on the health impact of the Ffos-y-Fran opencast mine in Merthyr Tydfil, following revelations from a UN rapporteur last week (see also: The Abyss Staring Back at Wales). She was surprised the rapporteur made statements to the media without discussing with local representatives or organisations – though she would welcome an inquiry and shares concerns over post-Brexit environmental regulations.

Replying on behalf of the Welsh Government, Communities Secretary Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) told the Senedd that preliminary findings were presented on 31
st January, while the full report will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September. Issues relating to health etc. were taken into account when an environmental impact assessment was carried out in 2005. Also, he said any observations by the rapporteur were evidence-based, rejecting claims by Miller Argent they were “fake news”.

Lee Waters AM (Lab, Llanelli) wanted a statement on the failure to appoint a Welsh representative to the BBC Board. It's been widely reported the Welsh Government vetoed the UK Government's choice. He asked for an explanation of the Welsh Government's role - was it just a rubber stamp?

In a blunt statement, Minister for the Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent), told AMs he was unconvinced the person put forward would champion the needs of the Welsh people. The deliberate leaking the name was “regrettable” and an “infringement of privacy”.

It was a textbook case of, “how not to conduct inter-governmental relations”, with the UK Culture Secretary unwilling to discuss other candidates despite there being agreement they were stronger. He was unwilling to accept anyone other than the strongest possible candidate and has the right to exercise powers available to him.

In his second question, Andrew Davies AM asked for a statement on the future of the north-south air link following Citywing's liquidation last week. He supports the service, but it's the third time an operator has either gone out of business or had safety certificates withdrawn. There needs to be a full evaluation of the options to make the service commercially viable or, regrettably, consider closing it.

Economy & Infrastructure Secretary, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South), told the Senedd that a review into the future of the air service is almost finished and he expects to make an announcement after that's been properly analysed. A wide range of options are being looked at including: seating, service patterns, the type of aircraft and connectivity.

There's a rolling contract in place with Eastern Airways to run the service, and consumer protection laws/ATOL protection apply to anyone who's now out of pocket as a result of the Citywing announcement.

Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West) asked for a statement on a data security breach affecting NHS staff using radiation dose meters. Some sensitive information like national insurance numbers and birth dates have been stolen. Although some health boards have informed staff it's unclear whether all staff across Wales have been told – when will they be informed?

Health Secretary, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), said the service was being provided by third party company based in Oxfordshire and staff in England and Scotland have also been affected. The company informed Velindre NHS Trust they were subject to a cyber attack in October 2016. A written statement providing further details will be tabled later this week, while a full and thorough investigation is undertaken. He also expects affected staff to be told by the end of the week. There's a need to review the data held on staff, but NI numbers were used because they are tagged to an individual and per-person doses of radiation need to be monitored.


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