Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

1. Questions to the First Minister – in the Senedd at 1:42 pm on 20 February 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 1:42, 20 February 2024

(Translated)

Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies. 

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I draw Members' attention to my declaration of interests on the register. First Minister, yesterday, in your press conference, you alluded to the fact that, on the sustainable farming scheme, farmers just want to be able to do whatever they want with the money and not be held to account. Is that your understanding of the anger, the frustration and the deep, deep concern that farmers have around the SFS, because I know of no farmer who doesn't expect to be held to account for the money that they receive from the taxpayer in receipt of the goods that they provide in return for the actions they take on their farm? And, indeed, every survey indicates that, for every £1 spent by the taxpayer in support of the agriculture industry, between £7 and £9 is returned in public good.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:43, 20 February 2024

Well, Llywydd, the Welsh Government is committed to going on supporting farmers and the rural economy. It's why we have sustained the total amount that we put into the basic payment scheme in full here in Wales—an enormous contrast with the way farmers have been treated in England, of course. The point I made yesterday, and I make it again today, is that the public in Wales will go on investing in farming, and the public is entitled to see a return on that investment. That is what the sustainable farming scheme is all about. At the very top of the list is the investment that we will make in sustainable food production, but, alongside that, there are other things, very important things, that farmers do today that we want to go on rewarding them for doing in the future—all those environmental stewardship things, that, in an era of climate change, take on an even greater significance. So, there is a bargain here. That is the bargain that the sustainable farming scheme represents. It's why we've had a seven-year conversation with farmers in Wales about getting that bargain right. We're in the final days of the latest consultation, and I hope that as many people as possible will take part in it, so that we can get to a final scheme that continues to invest in the future of the countryside and our farming communities, and does so in a way that delivers the return on that investment to which the public is entitled to look.

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:45, 20 February 2024

I agree with you that the public are entitled, and that's why I used those important figures of the return for the investment that the taxpayer makes. But you did go on in that press conference to say that your understanding was, 'Just do whatever farmers think they would like to do with it'—'it' being the money that the taxpayer puts in to support agriculture. And it's a really tough sell, because your own analysis talks of 5,500 job losses, a reduction of 125,000 cattle, 800,000 sheep, and a £200 million loss in economic activity in the rural economy. Those aren't my figures; those are the figures that, obviously, the Government has put forward. 

When we talk of trying to have a sustainable farming scheme that provides food security, on those sorts of numbers, clearly there is little or no weighting for food security. How on earth can farmers have confidence in the Government's position when those numbers are attached to the briefing? Can you confirm today, First Minister, that food security is a vital ingredient of these consultations that you are having at the moment and, ultimately, that food security will have equal weighting with the critical environmental gains that we want to see farmers play a part in delivering to reach net zero by 2050?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:46, 20 February 2024

First of all, to deal with the point the Member made about the financial analysis that was published, at least the Welsh Government has published a financial analysis. We learned today that the UK Government has refused to publish the financial analysis of its proposals for farming communities in England, whereas we have put those figures into the public domain. We put them into the public domain precisely in order to have an informed consultation, where we can agree proposals for the final sustainable farming scheme that will mitigate some of those risks that otherwise would have been there. Not only can I confirm to the leader of the opposition that sustainable farming is a vital ingredient in the SFS, it is the top ingredient. It is the first thing we say: that the sustainable farming scheme is designed to secure sustainable food production here in Wales. 

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:47, 20 February 2024

When you look at the figures that I've put to you, First Minister, and in particular those critical job losses and economic output losses, it is difficult for any reasonable person to come to the conclusion that the SFS, as currently constructed, will deliver that sustainable farming offer from the Welsh Government or future Welsh Governments. So, I ask you again to confirm that food security is a vital part of the proposals and that you will make sure that food security has that equal weighting with the environmental gains that, ultimately, we all want to see, and that there will be a rethink on the 10 per cent compulsory tree cover that is a demand of the current proposals that are on the table. Because that SFS document that is brought forward will devalue farms, cost jobs and devastate the ability to deliver food that the nation requires for the future. 

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:48, 20 February 2024

I think it's important that I remind the leader of the opposition why we are in the position that we are in: it's because farmers in Wales took his advice and voted to leave the European Union. That's why that is—[Interruption.] Well, there we are. Believe me, we are in the position that we are in today because we have taken back control of farming support in Wales, as we were obliged to do. If farmers in Wales were still able to have access to the funds that were available through the European Union, they would be in a very different position than they are having heard and followed his advice. I've answered many of his questions already this afternoon; I won't go over that again.

As far as tree planting is concerned, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of farms in Wales already have 10 per cent of their land under tree cover. Nobody is forced to plant trees in Wales; we were determined to offer farmers the first chance in Wales to grow the trees that we will need, because we will need thousands and thousands more trees in Wales in an era of climate change. We're committed to doing that and we're committed to offering farmers the first chance to do so. Where it is not possible, where, because of the topography of the land or other considerations, it isn't possible to reach 10 per cent, the Minister has already set out proposals so that farmers wouldn't be expected to reach that. Where farmers can, where it is reasonable to expect farmers to make a contribution to mitigating climate change, they will be rewarded for doing so in the sustainable farming scheme.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

Diolch, Llywydd. Last week came confirmation that the UK economy had entered recession. But it's not just the economy that's in reverse; the decline of vital industries in Wales and the communities that they sustain, whether that's agriculture, steel or hospitality, bears all the hallmarks of a social recession too. Steel is fighting for its life; the tractors, we know, are already on the roads; and the latest 'closed for business' sign is going up in yet another eatery in the First Minister's own constituency. I've stood here long enough now to know that the First Minister will lay blame at Westminster's door: 'It's lack of funding'. And, of course, Plaid Cymru has long argued that Wales is not funded fairly; we can certainly agree on that. But does the Labour Party agree—Keir Starmer's Labour Party? Does he agree that Wales is not fairly funded? And if he does, why isn't he still pledging to put that right, even on something as fundamentally unjust as the loss of billions of pounds of HS2 consequentials? And why is the First Minister failing to persuade him?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:52, 20 February 2024

We have this question week after week after week, in which the Member wants to ask questions of somebody who isn't in the Senedd about responsibilities that aren't exercised in the Senedd. I've said to him before that there's a place where he could ask those questions, and maybe he'd rather be there. Let him, just for a moment, ask me a question about what I'm responsible for and I'll do my best to give him an answer.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

I'll repeat the question. What is the First Minister doing to persuade the leader of the Labour Party to get to grips with fair funding for Wales? Plaid Cymru MPs will gladly hold Keir Starmer to account if Welsh Labour Ministers here are unwilling to.

The thing is that people want to know that Government is on their side. I think it's pretty clear that the Conservatives are on no-one's side but their own, and that is why I fully expect them to be thrown out of power this year. It is long, long overdue. But Plaid Cymru is ready to hold whoever is in power at Westminster to account. After the ousting of the Tories, people would then look to see if Labour is on their side. Of course, they're already doing that in Wales, and many have concluded that Labour is falling short here. And it's falling short in areas that you'd expect Labour, from their own rhetoric, to prioritise.

One of the cornerstones of the First Minister's manifesto for the Labour leadership was the promotion of equality through the real living wage, but I can tell him that two thirds of workers paid through the housing support grant, for example, are still paid less than the real living wage. Does the First Minister regret that, and when can we expect that to be put right?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:53, 20 February 2024

Selective quotation from manifestos doesn't get us very far. I've looked at Labour's manifesto; it makes no reference at all to paying the real living wage in the context that he just described. What it does make a commitment to is paying the real living wage to social care workers here in Wales. That was the single most expensive commitment in our manifesto and money has been mobilised year after year to deliver it. I am glad, every year, that there is a growing number of real living wage employers here in Wales and more people benefiting from it. I hope that that number will go on growing in the future, and I hope there will be opportunities for people in the field to which he has referred. In order to do so, you have to have the funding available. Week after week, he asks me to find more money for this and more money for that, and no doubt he's about to ask me to find more money for another purpose again; what he never ever does is tell me where that money would come from.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 1:54, 20 February 2024

I'm very surprised, I must say, that the First Minister doesn't seem to regret that those working on housing support grant projects aren't paid the real living wage. Maybe I misunderstood what Labour had promised. There's certainly a possibility of overpromising going on, but we can certainly see plenty of signs of underdelivery.

This Labour Government is failing to meet its own key performance indicators on many topics. That doesn't help when Government then sets KPIs for others to meet that are not only difficult to meet but could be detrimental to their well-being, and that's how the agriculture sector feels right now: a top-down Welsh Government telling them how to farm whilst being out of tune with what it takes to ensure productive and environmentally friendly agriculture, which is what the sector strives for.

Yesterday, we heard the First Minister telling farmers on one hand that their voice will shape the sustainable farming scheme and on the other that it's not up to them how the scheme works. Whether it's steel, whether it's hospitality or retail or it's agriculture, surely the role of the Welsh Government is to be leading a partnership, championing Welsh workers, working with them. Does the First Minister agree that if they're to show that they are on people's side, the emphasis has to be on the listening and not on the lecturing?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:56, 20 February 2024

I've heard three lectures this afternoon from the Member purporting to be questions. I am very grateful to the over 3,000 farmers who have taken part in the 10 consultation events that we have held on the latest proposals in just the last few weeks. I know there will be hundreds of others who have taken part in conversations through the farming unions. We are absolutely committed to that way of co-producing with the farming sector a way in which the very large sum of money that we are committed to sustain for the support of the agricultural community goes on being made available to them. The Minister is in continuous conversation with farming interests. I will meet others with her next week for this purpose. The reason we do it is because of our commitment to that sector and to devising here in Wales a way of rewarding farmers for the work that they do that is recognised by the rest of the Welsh public as vital to our collective futures.