Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

1. Questions to the First Minister – in the Senedd at 1:47 pm on 14 May 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 1:47, 14 May 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, Presiding Officer. Could I first of all identify with your opening remarks about Owen John Thomas and his commitment to this Welsh Parliament, and obviously to public service throughout his whole life? I extend the Conservatives' condolences to his family at this very difficult time for them as well.

First Minister, the residents around the landfill site at Withyhedge are really having a nightmare of a situation inflicted on them. The smells, the odours, are unbearable for residents in this part of west Wales. They've now had two public health warnings, one in March and one as recently as Friday, about the stench and the impact that could have on public health in the area. It's not unreasonable to ask the question, as many residents have, and as my colleague for the constituency Paul Davies has: why are they having to put up with this awful situation that seems to be going on for ever and a day? Can you answer that simple question, so that they can have confidence that there will be action taken to address the appalling environment that they're having to bring their children up in and live and breathe every day?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:49, 14 May 2024

I think it's important that improvement action is taken to resolve the issue. I've had the same conversations with regional Members in my own group about making sure that action is taken, indeed, the issues that Paul Davies will have raised as well.

So, the advice from Public Health Wales that was issued in March is the same as has been recently issued about how to take measures whilst the issue is still unresolved. My understanding is that NRW are taking action to both monitor and to require improvement, and the key point here is that the operator meets those requirements. Equally, I understand they've installed monitoring equipment that NRW then take the readings from to see if they're actually taking the steps they're required to do. So, it's what I'd expect of any operator. The regulatory requirements are there, in place, for exactly this reason, and that's why NRW need to keep on making sure that action is taken and that they then communicate with the public about whether that action has been met. 

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:50, 14 May 2024

I'm sure you'll want to put it on the record, First Minister, that you do have a conflict of interest, because the owner of this landfill site is David Neal of Dauson Environmental Group. And that is the issue here. It is all well and good putting monitoring services in there, but two deadlines, as I said in my opening remarks, have been missed; today is another deadline, as I understand it, that has been set to see improvement in that particular area.

Regrettably, I have spoken to people over the last 10 days, and one individual said that, at 6.30 in the morning, the smell was so strong, they were on all fours throwing their guts up. Those were their words. And last Friday, I was talking to another resident of the area who said that he's actually had people not come in to work, to work on his farm, because the smell is so atrocious there. Now, it's all well and good you saying that monitoring measures have been put in place, but this has been going on now for many months, and it looks as if it could continue for many months more. That isn't acceptable. Would you want that on your doorstep in Penarth, because if it's not good enough for you, why is it good enough for the people in west Wales to have to put up with?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:51, 14 May 2024

I think there are a number of different points that are being made there. I've been clear about where I can and can't act and where there's a conflict of interest. I haven't taken any action in this instance. I was responding to the Member's question about what's happening by making it very clear that NRW, as the regulator, need to take the required action. I'm not aware that a single member of the Government has attempted to influence the action of NRW; it is for them to undertake the required action to ensure that improvement is delivered, and that's the very clear position of the whole Government.

I wouldn't expect any community to simply tolerate what is happening. That's why action needs to be taken. That's why it needs to be led by the regulator, to be clear about when requirement is undertaken and what will happen, whether that required action is undertaken to time or not. That's the important point here. There's no moving away from required improvement, and I expect the regulator to act as it should do in this and any other instance, regardless of the operator. 

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:52, 14 May 2024

No declaration, First Minister. Any other Member would have to make that declaration. On the third question, in your answer, I hope you will make that declaration, because that's going to the core of what many people in the locality perceive as influence and making sure that things aren't remediated as quickly as possible. That tip needs to shut. It has been run very badly, and residents are being affected in their everyday lives. That is just not good enough. I wouldn't tolerate it on my doorstep, and I certainly wouldn't tolerate it in my electoral area, and I'd be putting in all the possible support I could for residents to try to make sure that they had this situation addressed.

Will you send a clear message that the Welsh Government will deal with this, will work with the regulator and the local authority to make sure that this is brought to a conclusion in a timely manner, and that residents will not feel as if they're in some environmental vortex that is dragging them down and making their lives a misery? Give that commitment and send that message if you would today, so that the residents can have hope. 

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:53, 14 May 2024

I think it's important to address the two points. The first is that, if I'm conflicted out, then I can't answer the question. And, actually, my record, which has been updated and is available, from Dauson, that's clear and it's on the public record. There's no lack of clarity or honesty about that. 

The second point, after being clear about the declaration, is that I don't think that it does prevent me from setting out that the Government's position is that the issue needs to be resolved properly in accordance with the requirements of the regulator, and of course as soon as possible. As I said in answer to your second question, it would not be acceptable in any community in the country for the issue not to be resolved, whether it's in my constituency or a different part of the country. That's why I say again that the regulator, NRW, needs to act to make sure that improvement is undertaken and that they have the assurance that that has been completed. That's my very clear expectation.

If the regulator wants to talk to the Government, they can of course speak to the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs, but they would not need to come to me, and if they did, I would have to tell them that I cannot undertake any action in this matter. But I can set out the overall position on what the Government expects in any instance where action is required by NRW or any other regulator.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 1:55, 14 May 2024

(Translated)

Leader of Plaid Cymru, Rhun ap Iorwerth.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

Thank you, and I echo the words of the Presiding Officer in paying tribute to Owen John Thomas, a real friend and campaigner for his community and for Welshness and the Welsh language in the capital city. And as we extend our sympathies to his loved ones and family today, we remember his contribution to Plaid Cymru and to the future of Wales.

There is a saying in Welsh, 'gorau arf, arf dysg'—an education is the best weapon—and it’s so true that raising educational standards has to be one of the main tools used in Wales as we try to bring more prosperity to our nation. And we see in recent days how much the higher education sector has lost the ability to be in the vanguard in that regard: Aberystwyth is facing losing up to 200 jobs in trying to make savings of £15 million; the vice chancellor in Cardiff is talking about a £35 million deficit in the budget for this year. It’s a critical situation, and we’re the only nation in the UK that is moving backwards in terms of student participation in higher education. There are hundreds of jobs under threat, our economy is under threat. Can the First Minister tell us what discussions the Welsh Government is having in terms of reprioritising resources in order to offer a package to get our universities through this particular storm?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:56, 14 May 2024

I want to start by just noting Owen John Thomas’s contribution—O.J., as I knew him when I was a researcher in the first year of the National Assembly, as it then was. I always found him kind and courteous in my dealings with him, and I wish him and his family well.

On your point around higher education, we have of course taken a range of steps in the last budget around funding, and there’s a separate point about that that I think is beyond funding, because I don’t think that participation is simply about the level of fees. However, we have taken the difficult decision to actually permit higher education to undertake fee increases to try to generate further income for the sector. There is a need to consider the amount of resource that can go into higher education, together with every other part of our public realm.

HE institutions are independent institutions, but they do receive funding from the public purse because of the wider impact of what they provide. They’re also, of course, coping with the reality that they’ve lost a significant chunk of income in the way that former EU funds were then repurposed and centralised in the UK Government, and higher education was deliberately designed out of access to those funds. That has meant, as we’ve discussed before, that high-quality research jobs have been lost to Welsh institutions, and that is part of the financial challenge that they now face.

You’ll be hearing later on this afternoon from the education Secretary about priorities for education, and I know that post-16 participation is something that we are keen to see further progress made on, and that is in all forms of post-16 participation, higher and further education, as well as people going into the world of work. To get that right, we’ve actually got to look further into the system and earlier on. It is both the change that takes place at the top of primary school and also what people’s aspirations are for the future, and whether we're getting more of our young people to undertake post-16 education, with all of the opportunities it can provide for them and indeed the country.

Our economic mission and the opportunities we have from renewable energy and the new economy that we can create will rely on the skills that people will need, which they will need to acquire from both further and higher education. So, we're clear that we do want to see participation rates turned around and increase. You'll hear more, not just today, but in the next two years and beyond about how we will seek to do that.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 1:58, 14 May 2024

I agree with much of that description of the situation, though I would expect more of an urgent response to the crisis that we are facing. One element that the First Minister referred to, falling numbers of international students, certainly has had a significant impact on university finances, and a further threat comes from the Tories' attitude towards immigration. But despite myths peddled by the Tory right, the Migration Advisory Committee concluded today that there is no evidence of widespread abuse of the UK's graduate visa route. They think the graduate visa entitlement allowing international students to work for two or three years after graduating should remain in place. Obviously, that was welcomed by the sector today, as abolishing the graduate visa would spell financial disaster for Welsh universities. But the sector remains concerned that the Tories will cherry-pick elements of the report to satisfy the appetite of its right wing. Can the First Minister assure the Senedd that he will demand a guarantee from his party leader that any move by the Tories to end the graduate visa scheme would be reversed by Labour if it forms a Government, or better still, can he give a guarantee today?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 2:00, 14 May 2024

I just want to go back to the starting point on action to be taken. The education Secretary has a statement to this Chamber later today, and I expect there'll be not just comments but questions around post-16 participation, so I'm not here to spike the statement that is about to be delivered this afternoon. I'm sure the education Secretary wouldn't thank me if I attempted to do so.

On your broader point, though, about graduate visas, I think it is good news that there is evidence today, clear evidence, that there is no real picture of graduate visas being abused. I would like to see the UK Government taking account of that evidence and moving back from the path that it has set out upon. This is both an issue about the financial picture for higher education across the UK, not just in here Wales, but the model that actually is undercutting how institutions are able to run, to balance their books. But, more than that, I go back to my own experience as an Aberystwyth alumni—it's where, of course, I met the Llywydd when I was still a member of the Aberystwyth higher education community. It's not just the money; I went to university with 80 different nationalities. It is part of the learning experience, not just what takes place in a lecture hall or a seminar room. Meeting and greeting and being part of a community within an international sphere is part of that learning experience we should not surrender. So, yes, I of course want to see that carry on. I expect you'll see positive news on this and a number of other fronts in the future UK Labour manifesto. I'm very clear that the evidence there is no abuse should lead to a change in Government policy. And finally, with regard to what Esther McVey says, this is an example of where real common sense would lead to a welcome change in Government policy.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 2:01, 14 May 2024

So, it's crossing fingers and hoping for the best. The bottom line is we can't allow the future of higher education in Wales to be at the mercy of Westminster, be that a Tory Government or, dare I say it, a Labour Government with Natalie Elphicke so warmly welcomed into its ranks. Professor Paul Boyle, chair of Universities Wales, warned the Welsh Affairs Committee last month that

'the impact of any changes to the Graduate Route will be magnified in Wales, as international student growth in Wales has not matched that of the UK'.

Our late colleague Steffan Lewis was always a champion of promoting Wales to the world, and he said back in 2017 that it's a matter of great regret that Westminister policies have damaged our reputation here as a destination for international students. He was reflecting then on the recommendations by an all-party group at Westminster that there'd be real benefits to devolving elements of immigration policy. I agree with Steffan that devolving student visas could benefit Welsh universities and our economy. Goodness knows we need a boost now. So, does the First Minister agree with Steffan and myself, or would he rather let the Tories in Westminster decide?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 2:03, 14 May 2024

I think whenever you talk about devolution, you need to be clear about the financial consequences. We've had painful experience of Tory Governments devolving responsibilities and reducing budgets. The council tax benefit scheme was a perfect example: devolution with a 10 per cent budget cut and the pressure that put on the rest of our services and our ability to support the economy. So, I'm always interested in a conversation about where powers best lie and to make sure we have the resource to be able to exercise those powers effectively.

I think the broader point here is that there could and should be a positive offer from the UK for international higher education, but also for home-grown students as well: the learning environment that they go into, how it's funded and the opportunities in the wider world of work that it provides. That's what I'm interested in, and I'm very proud of the work that I have done and other Ministers have done in promoting Wales in the wider world. Our higher and further education is a big part of that. When I was in India recently, I was on the cusp of a trade mission, and we actually had one of our larger further education colleges there. It's still a high-value offer, and, in fact, Indian students are the highest by proportion group of students that come into higher and further education in Wales. So, it is still a real success story.

I believe we can have a Government in the UK that doesn't seek to trash our reputation, that keeps its word and wants to have a different set of relationships with the wider world that will benefit Wales and Britain. We already do that, and I see that work myself. I believe that in the future we can persuade the people of Wales to vote for that as well. I believe two Labour Governments working together for Wales and Britain will improve life here and give us the tools to do the job and have real and reliable partners in the UK Government. I'll be proud to go out and make that case to the people of Wales in the coming months whenever that election comes.