11. Short Debate: Navigating Wales's Brain Drain: Challenges and Solutions

– in the Senedd at 6:34 pm on 27 September 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:34, 27 September 2023

(Translated)

We have one remaining item of business, which is the short debate. And I call on Luke Fletcher to speak on the topic that he has chosen. 

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

If Members can leave the Chamber quietly—we haven't concluded business as yet—and I'll ask Luke Fletcher to start his short debate. 

Photo of Luke Fletcher Luke Fletcher Plaid Cymru

Diolch, Llywydd. And I've agreed to give a minute of time to Adam Price, Peredur Owen Griffiths and Sam Kurtz as well. I think it's very difficult to deny that younger people are today worse off than their parents and grandparents were at the same point in their lives, and there are a number of reasons for this. It's too expensive to buy a house. On average, it takes 19 years to save for a deposit today, compared to just three years in the 1980s. Rent is unaffordable for many, especially for those of us working in the ever-increasing gig economy, where job insecurity, workplace conditions and benefits are non-existent. Higher education now comes with a price tag, leading to graduates with £50,000 of debt and few job prospects in their chosen fields. And of course, the 2008 recession, the pandemic and now the cost-of-living crisis are hitting, and have hit jobs predominantly occupied by the under-30s. So, it's no wonder that people are looking for a better life elsewhere.

Photo of Luke Fletcher Luke Fletcher Plaid Cymru 6:35, 27 September 2023

But the migration of young people out of our communities and out of Wales has been a long-standing problem and one that countless policy makers before me have attempted to grapple with. I've mentioned here before a policy document published 52 years ago in 1971, 'A Strategy for Rural Wales'. In that document, the need to address the out-migration of young people from rural Wales was discussed. Fast forward to within my lifetime, in 2017, Adam Price raised his concerns. At the time, Wales was tenth out of the 12 UK regions in terms of the extent of graduate loss—something I know he wants to touch on in this debate. We see that illustrated now in the estimated 75 per cent of medical students in Wales crossing the border to work in England, rather than stay in Wales. We see it with the targeted ads at not just Welsh students, but students across the UK, by the Australian and New Zealand Governments promoting the life you could potentially have there. And to be fair, you can't blame people for looking at Australia as a potential place to go—you could do a shift in your chosen sector and at the end of it, within 10 minutes, you can be on the beach with a bottle of beer in your hand and the sun beating down. I was looking to go to New Zealand myself at one point, and I'm sure there are plenty of people here who wish I had, but seeing what it had to offer was enough to entice me to at least start the immigration process. Evidently, I never completed it.

Now, at this point, I think it's important to highlight the gap in data that we have when it comes to mapping the migration of young people. We rely on the once-a-decade census, NHS patient data and graduate surveys to give us a picture of who moves and where to. And there is even less learner destination data or research telling us why they move. Whilst data does exist for internal migration, which shows that we are, roughly, losing, on average, 23,000 young people a year to the rest of the UK, no data exists for external migration to the rest of the world, nor for local authority to local authority migration. If we are to even begin to resolve this issue, then we need the data so as to understand the trends.

Now, there are a number of things we can do to at least begin to stem migration, and I will caveat this by saying that I don't think we will stop people from migrating altogether, and I will touch on that a bit later. The Scottish Government commissioned work into researching the factors that influence migration and there are a number of recommendations that we can learn from there, especially given that migration figures are seemingly reversing in Scotland. The ones I think will be of interest to us are financial in the first instance, and Gerry Holtham has also touched on the need for financial incentives in an article he wrote for the Institute of Welsh Affairs. Holtham set out some recommendations that I think need to be explored by Government further: for example, tertiary education at Welsh colleges and universities should be free of all fees for students who remain and work in Wales for five years after graduation; half of the fees should be forgiven after three years; any young person under 30 moving to Wales to take up a job should get a full rebate of their first year's Welsh income tax up to a ceiling, but the rebate to be credited and paid over three years if they remain employed in Wales; and existing student debt would be commuted for young people starting a business in Wales and a dedicated fund and mentoring service set up for them.

Llywydd, I mentioned earlier that I don't think we can stem the flow of young people out of Wales or from our rural communities entirely, so I'll come back to this. The reality for many is that they either want to escape their parents, they want more independence, or they simply want to live in an area where there's more going on and more opportunities. And in those cases, the bright lights of cities are always hard to resist. Whilst procrastinating when I was in the process of writing this speech, I was scrolling through social media, like a lot of us probably do when we're procrastinating, and it actually dawned on me that my timeline was full of people living outside of Wales. I started to note the numbers and I can name roughly 20 people alone who no longer live in Wales from my friendship groups. Some were in Australia, some in New Zealand, some in America and some across the border in England. Now, on a purely selfish basis, that's pretty good for me. I can potentially find some accommodation when I go to visit these places, but it definitely gives me a reason to visit these places as well. These are talented people that have so far been lost to our economy, but they aren't lost for ever. So, a question we also must ask ourselves is: how do we encourage people to come back home?

Photo of Luke Fletcher Luke Fletcher Plaid Cymru 6:40, 27 September 2023

Plaid Cymru have set out the need for a strategy highlighting tai, gwaith, iaith as the potential building blocks for one. Let's explore this further. Let's start with tai, housing. The average house price currently sits at nine to 10 times average earnings. The last time houses were as expensive was in the year 1876, nearly 150 years ago. This, of course, is an average for the UK as a whole. That figure changes, for the worse, when you look at some of the second home hotspots across Wales. So, a key part of not just encouraging people back, but keeping them here as well, is to first make sure they can afford to come back or stay in the first instance. Now, there is a lot being done via the co-operation agreement to address the plight of second homes, but we need to step up the game further through mass social housing building projects as one way to begin to reduce house prices, as well as looking at rent caps for renters.

Turning to gwaith, it's fairly straightforward: there need to be well-paying jobs with good workplace conditions. How do we do this? Well, I think there are two particular points we should explore. Firstly, the role of the development bank in investing in homegrown ideas and developing sectors of the economy, which not only includes investing in Welsh small and medium-sized enterprises and entrepreneurs, but seriously investing in the co-operative economy at scale. I want to see large-scale co-operative projects that not only match what's happened through Mondragon in the Basque Country, but go further again. I think there's a very clear narrative to take here that can be appealing to young people. Why not set up a co-operative with your mates and Welsh Government will back you?

Secondly, and I think this reflects the importance of the point I made earlier in relation to learner destination data, we need to massively improve how we keep in touch with people who have moved from Wales to elsewhere. I think the story that shows the potential of this for me was the news during the summer of Rocket Science games, the company that has worked on Fortnite and Call of Duty, setting up its European headquarters here in Cardiff. Their co-founder is a boy from Bridgend who dreamt of working in the gaming sector. He left Wales because the sector doesn't exist to the level he wanted to go to; now he's come back. There are a large number of people who have done the same.

Now, I'm not advocating that we go into a huge foreign direct investment drive. What I think would be far more beneficial and sustainable is for the Government to contact those who have left Wales to gain experiences in sectors either that don't exist here or where sectorial expertise is lacking, where they've made it to the top of their field, and encourage them to come back through saying to them, 'You've gained world-class experience. Why don't you bring that experience back? Set up your own firm here in Wales, and we'll back you; in turn, we'll get the money back through shares in the company you set up on our terms.' An entrepreneurial state in action, I would argue, and a plan that will bring sectoral expertise where we don't have it and help build our economy in a sustainable way.

Finally, and to be fair, anecdotally, of the people I know who are returning home, it seems to me that the main reason for the return is a desire to raise a family: 'We'll come home and benefit from the, hopefully, free childcare that family members can support us with.' Now, we shouldn't underestimate the power of family when it comes to encouraging people back to Wales. Of course, again, through the co-operation agreement, we are implementing policies in this area. But the cornerstone of any strategy must put childcare and education at its heart, which means large-scale investment to make Wales a place where people desperately want to raise their family.

That, of course, comes alongside promoting a cultural offer. Like New Zealand and Australia, we have much to shout about here as well: stunning beaches and green spaces, a rich history of song, literature and art. Gerry Holham poses a question in one of his articles that I think sums up what I'm trying to get at here: we advertise Wales to business, why not to people as well?

Dirprwy Lywydd, in the time—Llywydd, even—I have had, I've tried to cover off—apologies, Llywydd, at the demotion there. I've tried to cover off a lot in this debate. I look forward to continuing the debate beyond this short debate and I look forward to the Minister's response.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 6:45, 27 September 2023

(Translated)

Thank you, Luke Fletcher, for bringing forward this very important debate, and for the whole host of creative ideas that he has summarised in his speech. You, Llywydd, will remember Llwybro, a scheme that was implemented by Menter a Busnes, a company that I worked for, funded by the Development Board for Rural Wales, which you worked for. Sometimes, we have to go back in order to find ideas for the future.

I want to focus very briefly on the dimension, as Luke said, related to graduates and the way that we have student support policy at present that doesn't provide any incentive for people to remain or return. And truth be told, huge sums are being spent by the Welsh Government, at a time when we understand that money is very tight, that supports students to leave Wales in increasing numbers. According to the most recent figures by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which collates these statistics, 51.4 per cent now of undergraduates from north Wales leave Wales, and 44.5 per cent is the figure in mid Wales. Of course, the implication of this is not just that they study outwith Wales, they don't return; they work outwith Wales.

The figures are clear: if you study in England, and you come from Wales, then 60 per cent of those remain in England to work. In Wales, seven times the number that leave remain. It's clear, and that's why, just to summarise, it's very interesting to see that there is concern regarding this question in Scotland, and they’re doing far, far better than us. In terms of graduates, only 13 per cent of all graduates in Scotland work outwith Scotland. The corresponding figure for Wales is 31 per cent, which is one of the largest figures for any nation worldwide.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru 6:47, 27 September 2023

(Translated)

Thank you to Luke for bringing this important debate forward today. And as one of those persons that you mentioned, Adam, who left Wales to study for a degree—I went to university in Sheffield and studied a degree in engineering, control systems engineering as it happens—I went there, I enjoyed myself, but I also got a good degree. I made many friends, but I left there with a degree in engineering that I could then use. I was very fortunate to be able to return to Wales and I wanted to come back, but I was offered a graduate role in Wales, which meant that I was able to return. I could then bring back the skills that I'd acquired at university and could use those skills in our communities here.

Photo of Peredur Owen Griffiths Peredur Owen Griffiths Plaid Cymru 6:48, 27 September 2023

I realise that not everybody wishes to return to Wales after their degree, but I'd like this Government to place more emphasis on ensuring that there are more quality jobs for those people to come back to. Similarly, I'd like this Government to ensure that the conditions are in place for entrepreneurs to come back to Wales as well, by making Wales a more attractive place to set up a company—as you said, Luke—to make a company and to thrive. It would create much-needed jobs and contribute significantly to the Welsh economy. Minister, I'd like to hear in your response if you could share that ambition for attracting people back to Wales and to build our economy. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative 6:49, 27 September 2023

(Translated)

Thank you to Luke for the opportunity to speak in this short debate.

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative

You're absolutely right, and there's a lot that I agree with, Luke, in your assessment of the situation here in Wales at the moment, and it's not only those who are the 'brain drain'—I remember hearing that phrase when I was in school, and so it's not a new phenomenon—but it's also those people who are leaving rural Wales and going to the more urban parts of Wales. We see that in my constituency as well; Swansea and Cardiff being a bit more of a hub for younger people to move towards from rural communities.

So, what I want to do in this minute is just to take the opportunity to ask the Minister if he would be willing to sit with me, given that my cross-party group on rural growth is due to launch its inquiry that it has been conducting with regards to the rural economy and rural productivity—if you would be willing to meet with me and perhaps even say a few words regarding the rural economy at the launch event on 15 November.

I know that the rural economy is a bit of an untapped resource here in Wales as an opportunity for driving prosperity forward, and with that prosperity comes the opportunity to keep people in rural parts of Wales as well. Like you, Luke, I pretty much split 50:50 between my friends who stayed local in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and those who continue to live further afield. I would have much rathered it if we had all come home and had the opportunities that I had, so that’s what I’d like to sit down with the Minister to have a discussion around and hopefully hear him speak at the cross-party launch as well. Diolch, Llywydd.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:51, 27 September 2023

(Translated)

The Minister for Economy now to contribute to this debate, Vaughan Gething.

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour

Diolch, Llywydd, and thank you to Luke for the debate, for the topic he's chosen, and for the contributions we've heard across the Chamber.

I should say that my ambition is a simple one: I want to see more jobs and better jobs across Wales; I want opportunities for businesses to start up and to grow and I want to see a continued level of foreign direct investment; I want larger companies and I want companies right across our economy. You’d expect me to say that and mention the different types. As a Labour and Co-operative Party member, I’m very keen to see more co-operative development and there are opportunities for them as we not just meet our manifesto pledge to double the size of worker-owned businesses, but renormalise co-operatives in a whole range of different sectors.

And part of what I wanted to do in resetting and refocusing the economic mission, when I took on this post, was to have an external view on where we are, what Wales looks like and where are the opportunities. That’s why we’ve commissioned Jonathan Portes to do some work, to get an honest appraisal of where we are—and he already had, not just an external perspective, but some familiarity with Wales, having done some work here already—and to be really clear about the ambition for young people to be able to plan a successful future here.

There is always going to be a challenge about why people will want to move, and, to be fair, Luke Fletcher mentioned this and recognised some of this. For young people who can go away to study and do different things, there are powerful reasons for them to want to do that, regardless of the financial incentives or support systems. I grew up in a part of the world where I didn’t want to stay to study. And my story is interesting. I grew up in south-west England; my father, who had come from—. He was born in Ogmore-by-Sea and grew up in Torfaen, and he then went away to university. He then went away to Zambia to work. He met my mother; I’m the result of that union. He wanted to come back to Wales. He eventually came back to Wales when he retired. So, Wales has always been part of our story, and I’m very pleased to be here and it’s where my family is growing up.

There are different stories about how we end up in different parts of life. What I think we want to try to do is to deliberately give people an opportunity to see the positivity of staying in Wales: if you go away to study, to do something different, to work, there's the opportunity to come back and to be successful. And not to see it as a point of national service—that you must come back regardless of opportunities. There’s a really good reason for you to want to come back. And also, as a net importer of graduates, to give people who are part of our story during a period of their study—and the student experience in almost all of our higher education institutions is a really positive one—good reasons to want to stay, wherever they’ve come from: to want to stay and to recognise that they're going to be part of the future of the country.

And actually, that is recognised by a range of people who are already looking to invest here. And I was really pleased to hear the recognition of Rocket Science. I had met the Welsh co-founder of that business on a couple of different occasions. We had talked about the work that our team of officials were already doing to look at opportunities for them to have their European headquarters here. But it was more than just the emotional pull of Wales—it was what’s on offer. And some of that is the offer from the UK itself about the environment to run your business. But on the additional support we can provide and what makes Wales interesting, he had a particular perspective on that. He was also looking at some of the figures on where we were, and, actually, the number of graduates we produce in areas that interest them is a good reason why they have chosen to come here as well. It isn’t just a choice based on sentiment—there’s actually evidence that underpins that. There are more people looking to do that as well in economic growth opportunity areas. Whether it’s renewables, semiconductors, fintech or cyber, what our higher education system provides is actually really attractive for a range of businesses to want to come here, for people to then see that there is a successful future that you can have. 

We shouldn't, though, lose sight of the fact that, as well as those established and growing areas where there are lots of start-ups, lots of people will still look for public service opportunities. When I was the health Minister and we started the 'Train. Work. Live.' campaign, not everyone was entirely positive about whether it would succeed or not, but actually focusing on the different parts of people's lives—the quality of training, your respect at work, doing a job where people value what you're doing, but also the quality of life you can have, where you live and the things you can do. And we recognised that then, and it's the same for public service careers as well as private service careers, the different offer we have. 

And in Wales, we actually have a really good offer, I think. You've already talked about some of the leisure opportunities, but there's more to it than that as well. And, internationally, distinct areas within larger states, nations within nations, like the Basque Country, have made their difference a point of uniqueness that is really interesting to people and to companies and that's part of what they positively offer. And that is definitely what I do when I go around different parts of not just the UK, but the wider world. And I've seen that not just in meeting Rocket Science, but when I was in Birmingham Alabama—and it's Birmingham, not Birmingham in that part of the world—where they were celebrating and recognising their history with part of Wales, but they were also interested in the ongoing part, the cultural offer; the kinship, but also the economic opportunities to do more as well. And us being different within the UK, a nation within a nation, is something that really interests other parts of the world.

Our challenge always is picking up on what Luke, Peredur, Adam and, indeed, Sam have pointed out, it's the ability to do as much of that as possible as successfully as possible. And that means we need to choose where we deploy our resources—the people we have, the money we have and the offer we make to people to be part of our story.

And I do see that as very much as what we need to do in both rural and urban Wales as well. Having everyone move from rural Wales into larger towns and cities will not give us the future we want in the country. But that does mean that, for young people to stay in a rural community, there need to be work opportunities, the opportunity to have a good life that's there. And actually it's one of the opportunities in the post-COVID world, where hybrid working is now more realistic. If we can deliver more of our digital infrastructure then, actually, the opportunity not to have to think about commuting to a single centre five days a week opens up different opportunities to live in and to gain all the benefits that can come from living in rural parts of Wales, as well as wanting to see rural development opportunities. I know the Member and I disagree on a nuclear future for Wales, but I actually think that can be a part of making sure people have a future within their local community. It's part of the reason I'm interested in Gilestone Farm and the potential proposals around that, where actually you'll give people an opportunity to live and work in a rural part of Wales as opposed to thinking you've got to move out to be able to move on.

I'm also, within that, looking at what different parts of the world have done, including Scotland—what they've done to give incentives to graduates to want to stay or to want to come back to start up and run their businesses. And I think part of this is how we project ourselves. There are challenges, yes; of course there are significant challenges and I'd never try to run away from those. I spend a good deal of time in this Chamber and, indeed, in other settings as well talking about the nature and the scale of those challenges, but there are still opportunities for the Wales we can be and want to be in the future. So, I think I'm realistic about the challenges and the scale of some of them as well. I want to carry on having that conversation, and indeed I'm expecting a formal invitation from Sam Kurtz that he's kindly set out here in the Chamber, and a continuing conversation with Members on different benches about how we look to try to do that. But I want to be positive and optimistic about what we can do.

Even in the times we will face in the year ahead and more, we will still have opportunities to make a difference. Some of those are within the co-operation agreement; there are others within the sectors I've mentioned and more. And I want people to see, in a range of areas, you can make choices and have a really good life that is economically successful in a country that is not just small, but is brilliant and has opportunities for more of us to say, 'Wales has a great story to tell.' We want the rest of the world to recognise that and be part of it. 

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 6:59, 27 September 2023

(Translated)

I thank the Minister and I thank Members for their work today. That brings today's proceedings to a close.

(Translated)

The meeting ended at 18:59.