This afternoon saw the final FMQs before an extended Easter recess, which will no doubt be taken up by local election campaigning.
Before the meeting, AMs paid tribute to Claire Clancy - the first Chief Executive and Clerk to the Assembly Commission - who's retiring this week after 10 years. The First Minister said Claire's legacy will be overseeing the Senedd's transformation from an “ad hoc body into a pillar of Wales' democracy” and maintaining public openness despite heightened security concerns.
FMQs, 4th April 2017
Conservative leader, Andrew Davies AM (Con, South Wales Central) turned attentions to the sacking of the Chair and Vice-Chair of Sport Wales. The (now former) Chair was appointed after being told he was entering a toxic environment. Allegations – submitted in a letter to James Price (a senior civil servant) - surrounding Sport Wales require answers, so how will they be taken forward and investigated?
The First Minister accepted Sport Wales faced “great difficulties” and an independent review is continuing. The Welsh Government backs the decision to sack the Chair and Vice-Chair. It was clear there was a “clash of cultures” between them and the board which couldn't continue and required action.
Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood AM (Plaid, Rhondda), raised concerns over proposed job losses at the University of South Wales and Trinity St Davids University. Rising costs and demographic challenges faced both, but they play a major role in local economies – particularly the Treforest campus. She was told many of those affected would be managers, but unions now believe cuts could apply to all staff. What did the Welsh Government know about this beforehand?
The First Minister hasn't seen any explanations, but was aware of the situation. He believes it's due to a drop in applications by foreign students, with a fall of 8% in EU students alone last year. Fewer students means less money for staff and he hadn't seen anything on this scale since he attended university in the 1980s. More money has been provided to universities and there are also schemes like Ser Cymru, but Wales still needs to be seen as an attractive option to foreign students.
UKIP leader, Neil Hamilton AM (UKIP, Mid & West Wales) believed the EU was using Gibraltar as a bargaining chip to get a better deal on Brexit. The question of sovereignty was settled by referendum when Gibraltarians overwhelmingly chose to remain British. Would the First Minister write to the Spanish Prime Minister and Gibraltar's Chief Minister supporting Gibraltar's right to self-determination?
Carwyn believes it's important negotiations start as soon as possible. However, he decried some of the reporting on Gibraltar as “hysterical” saying Spain had, in fact, remained quiet on the issue and are more concerned about Gibraltar's tax-haven status. It was absolutely clear Gibraltarians want to remain British, but they voted equally overwhelmingly to remain in the EU. It's important the border remains open and he'll meet the Chief Minister in the next few weeks.
Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth) requested a statement on investment in Welsh road infrastructure. The Welsh Government's original Newport bypass proposal included “de-motorwaying” the existing Magor-Castleton section. Is that still their intention even though it could have a negative impact on journey times itself?
There's a projected Welsh Government spend of £700million across Wales in addition to funding for the proposed M4 Newport bypass. The Welsh Government also have a “pinch point scheme” to deal with problems on the north-south A470, and will encourage provision of walking/cycling routes alongside new road schemes. He wouldn't comment on the ongoing public inquiry, but all evidence will be considered before a final recommendation.
In a second question, Leanne Wood AM asked for an update on the work of the valleys task force. The valleys are desperate for higher wages and investment, with long commutes “a joke” - citing two cancelled trains in the Rhondda this morning. How will the Cardiff city region's actions match the rhetoric?
The First Minister said the taskforce has met four times, and an outline delivery plan will be published in July, shaped by feedback from public engagement events - which have been attended by ministers. Transport is key and that's why the Metro's important, providing more frequent rail services and interconnecting buses. This is to enure the valleys aren't seen as “distant” from Cardiff for investors as much as providing faster commutes for valleys residents.
Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) asked what actions the Welsh Government were taking to support access to high street banks? Natwest recently announced closures around south Wales, including Ystrad Mynach. This was done without consultation, which he condemned. How can Welsh Government ensure the Post Office can retain those services? (See also: Senedd Spanks The Banks).
The First Minister reminded the chamber that banking is non-devolved and decisions on closures are the responsibility for banks themselves; he's been told to expect more closures. He knows patronage of banks in Bridgend town centre has fallen as people change banking methods, such as online (Co-op recently announced they'll close their Bridgend branch).
If you can access banking services through Post Offices, then it's not only good for customers but will ensure Post Offices have a future too. Having said that, banks should think of every alternative before closure, which should be a “final option”.