Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

1. Questions to the First Minister – in the Senedd at 1:51 pm on 19 March 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 1:51, 19 March 2024

(Translated)

Questions now from the party leaders. Leader of the Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. It's a pleasure to address you, First Minister, in this, your last First Minister's questions as First Minister. For our viewers' benefit, who are watching us at home, we will have an opportunity in a later statement this afternoon to address your resignation as First Minister, and that would be the appropriate setting to make the remarks. 

First Minister, yesterday, we heard the news that Tata Steel are shutting the coking ovens at Port Talbot. This is a particularly troubling bit of news emerging from that plant, because the assurance was that these coking ovens were going to stay open until the summer at the very earliest. Ultimately, this has posed a question over the other assets, and whether they will move forward now in the closure of those assets should the coking ovens be shut on Wednesday—i.e. tomorrow. Can you inform the Chamber today whether you have, as a Government, had conversations with Tata to seek assurances around the other assets, that the timeline on which they were agreed to be wound down on that site will not now move forward by three months, and that the timetable for the other assets will stay in place? Will the Welsh Government be contributing financially to retraining opportunities and to the transition board, given that this news from yesterday has potentially moved the closure of assets on the Port Talbot site forward by three months?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:53, 19 March 2024

I thank the leader of the opposition for those important questions. I look forward to exchanges on other matters with him later in the afternoon. The news from Port Talbot is very serious and very difficult for those people who are already facing such a challenging future. The leader of the opposition asks whether we have spoken with Tata, and, of course, we have. The economy Minister met with the very senior management of the company last week, and spoke yesterday with the chief executive of Tata Steel UK.

In the end, we understand, and the trade unions understand, that if there are critical operational safety issues at stake, they have to take precedence over all of the other things with which we have such a concern. We have an assurance from the company that the closure of the ovens will not impact on the timeline of the closure of the first blast furnace; that's due to close by the end of June. Of course, we remain of the view, alongside our trade union colleagues, that the other blast furnace—blast furnace No. 4—can be preserved beyond the time that was originally identified by the company. We've made all of the efforts that we can to persuade the company of that case, whether that was in Mumbai, when my colleague Eluned Morgan was there, or through the many contacts that we've had with the company itself. 

I was pleased myself to sign off, in the last 24 hours or so, some proposals that the Minister for education has made, which will contribute to new opportunities for retraining for people who are at the plant at the moment, and for other people who live in that wider locality. So, the Welsh Government will be there. There will be money behind the plans that we have and we will be bringing those plans forward in the light of what we've learnt in the last few days.

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:55, 19 March 2024

Thank you for that very full answer, First Minister. I look forward to, hopefully, a statement coming from the education Minister about these proposals that you alluded to there and the money behind those proposals, because I'm sure that many will want to understand how that will benefit the workforce and the communities that are facing this very disappointing news that's come out in the last couple of days. 

The second thing that has dominated your First Ministership is COVID. We can look back at the Port Talbot site and the steelworks and that has run for many years, but COVID, obviously, is specific to your tenure as First Minister and the very difficult decisions that you had to take, along with other Government Ministers. We have had the COVID inquiry here in Wales for the last three weeks and there has been much information put out before the public, but with this one question I'd just like to ask you this: are we in a better position today, given your understanding of the preparedness that the Welsh Government has put in place, should we face a similar event like COVID in the coming years, from the lessons that the Government has been able to learn and hopefully resource accordingly? I appreciate that that is difficult to quantify, but I think what people will take some comfort from is if you, with your experience, can give an assurance that the Government today is better prepared to face a similar event if that were to happen in the near-to-medium future.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:57, 19 March 2024

I think I can give a very genuine assurance that, if something similar were to happen in the future, we would be better prepared. I think the globe would be better prepared, because some of those things that were so challenging during the earliest months of the COVID experience were to do with global supply chains and how we navigated our way in that way. So, I'm perfectly sure that there are lessons that have already been learnt; there will be more as a result of the inquiry and some of those will be to do with preparedness. But if we were faced with something similar, then I've no doubt at all that the system would be in a better place to respond.

I'll just make this wider point to the leader of the opposition: it's almost inherent, in a pandemic, that it won't be like what we've just experienced. The world has some incredibly sophisticated ways of identifying threats that we are aware of. There are really sophisticated and well-resourced networks to identify threats to public health of which we are aware. It's almost by definition that a pandemic in the future will be something we're not aware of—that's how it eludes all those safety nets that are already in place. So, while I am confident that if it was a similar threat we would be better prepared, we all just need to be alert to the fact that with an event of the sort that we saw in COVID there was no prior warning and none of those safety nets were effective against it, and the next threat of that sort will have some of those characteristics as well.

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:58, 19 March 2024

Finally, First Minister, this will be the last time that I rise to ask my third question of you as First Minister. We've had some interesting exchanges, some colourful exchanges and some passionate exchanges, but those exchanges, hopefully from both sides, have been heartfelt in the passion that we've put on the floor of the Senedd here in our beliefs. And whilst those beliefs might differ, obviously we hold them very close to our hearts and we project that in the way we engage at First Minister's question time. What advice, from the experience that you've had as First Minister during preparation for First Minister's questions and taking part in First Minister's questions, would you give to your successor so that that same passion and that same conviction can come over and that Parliament as a whole benefits from that?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 1:59, 19 March 2024

Thank you very much to the leader of the opposition for that question. I feel a lot for my successor in the burden of advice that people would like to come his way. Let me say, in opening, that I absolutely have never doubted the commitment that the leader of the opposition brings to the difficult job he has to do, or the motivation for the questions that he asks me when I'm here to try and provide answers.

In terms of preparation, I'd just say to my successor that it will take up, I'm afraid, hours and hours of his time, because it's unavoidable that if you come here and you can be asked a question, not simply any question on the brief you happen to hold, but any question on any part of the Welsh Government, every single weekend is a bit like preparing for finals, really, for those of you who remember that. You spend the whole weekend swotting in the hope that you've spotted the question that might come up, and very often you haven't spotted it at all.

If I had a more serious point to make for the final point the leader of the opposition made about the quality of discussion in the Parliament, if I had a hope for this forum and these questions, it would be that, just occasionally, we all focus a little bit more on generating light than generating heat. For the surprisingly large number of people who watch us at work and tune into the things that we talk about, I think that, in the end, the reason they do that is because they hope to learn something of the complexity of the debates that we face, and to go away from these discussions feeling that they are better informed about the decisions that are being made here on their behalf. Every now and then, just a bit of thought about the fact that casting a bit of light on those subjects, rather than generating heat around them I think might lead to the Parliament doing its job in the eyes of Welsh people in a way that they would really appreciate.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 2:01, 19 March 2024

(Translated)

Leader of Plaid Cymru, Rhun ap Iorwerth.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Dirprwy Lywydd. We will have an opportunity to reflect on the First Minister's time in office later on, but for now, and I know the First Minister would expect nothing else, it is business as usual.

On Friday, before the Labour leadership result, he posted the first of what I'm sure will be several goodbyes. He claimed on his Twitter post that it is the Labour Party alone—the Labour Party alone—that has a special bond with the people of Wales. Now, I'm sure it wasn't his intention, but would he advise his successor to be careful about using that kind of language for fear of sounding like Labour is taking the electorate for granted? And isn't Jeremy Miles right that trust has to be continually earned?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 2:02, 19 March 2024

I've spoken on many platforms within my own party, Llywydd, and it's been a repeated mantra of mine to people who devote their leisure hours to working for the Labour Party that we have to earn every vote that comes our way. We never take a single vote for granted. We always have to be in a continuous conversation with the Welsh electorate about what we propose to do and why, I believe, our values and the things that motivate us on this side of the Chamber are the things that chime most readily with people in Wales.

But surely, Dirprwy Lywydd, the history of politics in this Chamber is of a party that has always had, by a significant margin, the largest number of seats in the Assembly and then the Senedd, but has never governed alone. It has always been able, in different forms and with different parties, to form progressive alliances in which we are able to work together in those common causes. That's a great surprise to people beyond Wales, for whom working with another party is regarded as a failure of the system. I think we have demonstrated here that mature progressive politics puts you in a place where you do want to work with others, and I think that's been the 25-year history of devolution.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 2:04, 19 March 2024

There's one thing that the First Minister and I will look at similarly, and that's the demise of the Conservative Party on the UK level. That long demise has made it pretty clear, I think, that there will be a UK Labour Government later this year. We just need to make sure that it's held to account by a strong cohort of Plaid Cymru Members of Parliament. But what next for Wales then? The First Minister has admitted to me several times that he can't influence Keir Starmer to make a pledge on fair funding, and, no, I don't apologise for raising that issue again in this last scrutiny session. I was told by the First Minister last week that a phone call from him to Keir Starmer would be of no consequence. But we are told that his successor is closer to the Labour leader. Now, given that, does the First Minister share my deep concern that his successor hasn't been able to get that fundamental pledge over fair funding for our communities either? It makes you wonder if Starmer has any interest in continually earning support in Wales at all.

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 2:05, 19 March 2024

Just to be clear, for the record, that a contact from a Labour First Minister of Wales to the leader of the UK Labour Party will always be influential and will always be consequential. What you don't want to do is to devalue the currency of those calls by doing what the leader of Plaid Cymru suggested to me last week, that barely a day would go by when I wasn't on the phone asking Keir Starmer for something. I've always been very careful to make sure that in the many conversations I have had with the leader of the UK party, it's always been about something that is essential to the future interests of Wales, and I've always had—as I have had over this last weekend, and I know that both Jeremy Miles and Vaughan Gething will have had—very warm and engaged conversations with the leader of the UK party. Of course, funding is always part of some of those conversations. We know what the incoming Labour Government, if that is what it is to be, will inherit, but I think Gordon Brown, who has taken such a close interest in Wales in recent years, and where his report provides such an important blueprint for an incoming Labour Government, had some very interesting things to say about how financial flows through the United Kingdom might best be navigated in the future. This is a very live debate, and I'm quite sure that the Welsh Government will go on being a very positive and constructive contributor to it.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

'persistent blows will shatter the stone'.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

The reason I ask the question time and time again is because I want the First Minister to persevere, and it's because I hold the office of First Minister in such high esteem that I want our First Minister to be using his influence as much as possible.

Finally, in my last scrutiny question to the First Minister, I will ask about scrutiny, and he knows that I've been a constant critic of what I see as Welsh Government's apparent aversion to scrutiny at times. Now, scrutiny means welcoming tough questions, and it means accepting responsibility for actions. Now, for him, and I know the scourge of alcohol and the problems it causes for the NHS, it's not about blaming drunks for the unsustainability of our accident and emergency services, and for his successor, it's certainly not about accusing journalists of not being serious when they question the propriety of donations to his leadership campaign. Now, I think I'm safe in saying that several Members of his own backbenchers think that that money should be paid back; it's about putting your hands up to mistakes, as I say, and earning that trust. I ask the First Minister again today: does he think that that money should be paid back? And I know he said that he's not in the business of giving grand advice, but given that trust has become such a major issue in the handover of power from him to his successor, what advice would he give him on how to earn that trust?

Photo of Mark Drakeford Mark Drakeford Labour 2:08, 19 March 2024

Let me simply say this: I was elected to the Senedd on the same day as the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, and we've always represented parts of this great city. We were placed on the health committee together in those very early days. We have worked together when I was the health Minister and Vaughan Gething was the Deputy Minister for health. We worked together as closely as you can imagine during those difficult days of the pandemic. I have seen him at work; I know what a careful and considered person he is when it comes to making decisions. He doesn't need advice from me on all of that, and I look forward very much to supporting him and the Welsh Government from the back benches.