Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

1. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Energy and Welsh Language – in the Senedd at 1:39 pm on 5 June 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 1:39, 5 June 2024

(Translated)

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Samuel Kurtz.

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, I'm sure we all want Wales to have a strong and prosperous economy. A thriving economy means more people with jobs, enabling them to support themselves and their families. It also ensures that our public services are properly funded. For our economy to grow, we need more people in work. Employment provides stability and allows individuals to plan for their future. Unfortunately, Labour’s record here in Wales is woeful. Currently, our economic inactivity rate stands at 28 per cent. More than a quarter of our population is neither employed nor actively seeking work. This is the highest rate among the four nations and is simply unacceptable. So, while I opened in saying I’m sure all of us want Wales to have a strong and prosperous economy, why have successive Labour Governments been content with such high levels of economic inactivity?

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 1:40, 5 June 2024

Well, I actually do not accept that successive Labour Governments have been content with that, and, as he will know, given his close attention to the statistics, the pattern over the course of devolution has been a reduction in economic inactivity, and a closing of the gap between Wales and other parts of the UK. He will also know that a number of the programmes that we in Wales have used to support employability over the years, with the kind of success that I’ve just talked about, have been funded by European Union funds, which his party was happy for us not to have in the future. So, that will be a significant obstacle to us in tackling economic inactivity, and that is something that we want to do. We want to make sure that the potential of every single person in Wales to be fulfilled at work is realised. That’s why we set such store on it. I think the figures that he’s referring to are the recent Office for National Statistics figures, and he will know from previous discussions in this Chamber that the ONS itself has concerns about some of the reliability of those data taken in exclusion from other sources of data. So, it is a more complex picture. I accept his basic point. I do not accept that we haven’t got a good track record of closing the gap.

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative 1:41, 5 June 2024

Well, we’re talking about statistics. The youth unemployment rate in Wales in the year ending December 2023 was 9.4 per cent—up 1.5 percentage points. Getting people into work is vitally important, but the type of work that they do is equally crucial. I firmly believe that we should be aiming for an economy that demands a skilled and educated workforce, and one that provides opportunity for all. However, Cabinet Secretary, what does the record show after 25 years of Labour control? Welsh workers have the smallest pay packet out of all four home nations. So, not only content with having the highest levels of economic inactivity, Llywydd, this Labour Government is also content in keeping Wales’s workforce poorer. Why?

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 1:42, 5 June 2024

Well, this is bold coming from somebody who represents a party that we’ve seen collapse the UK economy on their watch as part of the UK Government. What we need in Wales—what all parts of the UK need, actually—is a Labour Government in Westminster prepared to invest in the economy right across the UK, and they’ll have a partner in us here in Wales to do that. Actually, the picture in relation to youth employment is more positive than the Member absolutely describes. He will know of the success that we’ve had through the young person’s guarantee, and his party would have done well to emulate that kind of programme across the UK.

Photo of Samuel Kurtz Samuel Kurtz Conservative 1:43, 5 June 2024

Well, we heard it quite clearly from the leader of the Labour Party yesterday that taxes will go up under a Labour Government. And it’s clear that addressing both employment levels and job quality is essential for Wales’s economic growth. However, despite this quarter of a century of Labour Governments, Wales still faces the highest economic inactivity rate and lowest pay rates among the four nations. Additionally, we have the lowest business survival rate of any UK nation, compounded by the Welsh Government’s decision to slash business rate relief from 75 per cent to 40 per cent, impacting businesses across Wales. We Welsh Conservatives see an exciting future for our economy, bringing prosperity across Wales, through initiatives like the Cardiff and Newport and the Wrexham and Flintshire investment zones, the Celtic and Anglesey free ports, and the transformative opportunity that the Celtic sea brings through floating offshore wind, and other energy projects, such as new nuclear at Wylfa and Trawsfynydd. Yet, Labour seems to be holding Wales back. So, given these persistent issues around economic inactivity, lowest pay rates and lowest business survival rates, what concrete steps will you take, as economy Minister, to improve the economy of Wales?

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 1:44, 5 June 2024

We have record levels of inflation, record levels of interest, record levels across the UK of business failure on the watch of a Conservative Government that has neglected the UK economy, and I do think the Member’s arguments would have more force if they were tethered to the facts. It is absolutely not the case that Keir Starmer has said that the tax burden will go up. The reason that isn’t the case is that under the Conservatives households are facing the highest tax levels in decades. That is the record that people in Wales will be voting against in five weeks’ time.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru

(Translated)

The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Luke Fletcher

Photo of Luke Fletcher Luke Fletcher Plaid Cymru 1:45, 5 June 2024

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, I want to follow up on yesterday's Government debate on steel and just express my disappointment that Plaid Cymru's amendments to the motion were voted down. I don't think that the Government, or the Tories for that matter, can credibly claim to want to do something about this if they won't even commit to exploring other options on the table. What Plaid Cymru have suggested is very much in the gift of Welsh Government. And as Adam Price reminded us last night, the Senedd is all that remains as a result of the general election. This place is the last line of defence. And while I appreciate his acknowledgment that it is Plaid Cymru that has been offering these solutions, it is his Government that has the resources to do the work and provide answers as to whether these potential solutions are doable. Will the Cabinet Secretary acknowledge that at least?

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour

I don't mean this impolitely—I understand the rhetorical force of the argument that the Member makes, but I think it's very important, in engaging with the unfolding situation in Tata, that we engage with what is happening on the ground and what the workforce are saying to us they regard as realistic. The arguments that were being made in the debate yesterday of a planning protection to one asset in an integrated steel facility—presumably taken into ownership by a body that didn't have a workforce to maintain it, amongst other challenges—do not feel to me to be a practical solution to the challenge that is faced by the workforce at Tata. So, that is why we have been saying—. There is a different plan, we know, and I know that his party, as do we, supports that alternative plan. The argument I was making yesterday is that we now have the prospect of a new government with a genuine commitment, backed up by funding, to a different vision for steel. It seems to me that that is the argument that we need to continue to advance, because the landscape is about to change.

The Government, as I was saying at the end of my speech yesterday, is committed to an industrial strategy that will increase the demand for steel across the UK, investment in the renewable sector, which will create further demand, investment in the grid and, crucially, specifically, a commitment to steel production. That seems to me to be the better landscape against which to make the case for a different set of decisions by Tata.

Photo of Luke Fletcher Luke Fletcher Plaid Cymru 1:47, 5 June 2024

I have to say, I was taken aback yesterday by the Cabinet Secretary's comment saying the solutions that both myself and Adam Price have championed are not grounded in reality. He's repeated that here now. But the reality as I see it is that the closures are imminent, Tata are refusing to change course, and are even looking to potentially accelerate the process in response to workers standing up for themselves, and the calls for public ownership are increasingly coming from across society—we've had the Industrial Communities Alliance. I mean, if what is being said about the UK civil service seeing nationalisation as a potential option is true, then that would be significant. Now, let's take the solution grounded in reality according to the Cabinet Secretary: wait for a UK Labour Government. Is that what the Government has banked on completely? Because that is a risky strategy in itself. And in the reality I've just set out, that doesn't bode well for that strategy.

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 1:48, 5 June 2024

The Member knows very well that any decision to take the kind of action that he's advocating in his questions, as he did yesterday, with force or with goodwill, I don't question any of that—those decisions are not decisions that it is capable for Welsh Government to take because of the scale of investment required to make a reality of that as an outcome. That is simply the reality of where power and finance lies in the balance between the UK Government and the Welsh Government. What we are doing is making the argument, given that there is a commitment for substantial additional funding directly into steel production, for a different model to be explored against that backdrop. He makes the point about the UK Government taking a different approach. That would be a matter for the UK Government. It has the powers to do that, we do not have those powers in Wales.

Photo of Luke Fletcher Luke Fletcher Plaid Cymru 1:49, 5 June 2024

I have accepted all along that Welsh Government is limited in what it can do, but that doesn't stop you calling on the UK Government to make these decisions on nationalisation, or even preservation. Now, the Government has been reluctant to do that up until this point. It seems like it's still in that position. What's really worrying is the lack of detail about how the £3 billion deal put forward by Labour—how it will actually be used. The lack of detail—. With respect, there were demands for details from us—the same can be charged at this policy. Nobody seems to be able to give detailed answers to what it means. And with the threat of Tata accelerating this closure timetable, the detail is vital. What discussions have taken place with a potential incoming Labour UK Government around that deal? I'm asking similar questions that have been posed to us. How will it work in practice? What guarantees are in place? How any investment that results in, say, a new production line would work, and whether it would be feasible. I'll be honest with you, I want to belive that a change in Government will result in a just transition and the protection of our steel industry, but so far, like many others, I am being asked to take a leap of faith.

Photo of Jeremy Miles Jeremy Miles Labour 1:50, 5 June 2024

Well, I think it would be helpful if the Member would acknowledge the fact that the level of commitment that an incoming Labour Government is promising is a step change from that which is currently on the table. [Interruption.] And I'm grateful to the Member for doing that and repeating it again here today. The funding—and there have been discussions obviously—in relation to how that is deployed is a matter that will need to be worked through together with steel production companies in the UK, but that is not something that can be done by an opposition party. The point I am making to you, and I think I've established the point, if I may say, in this discussion, is that that is a step change from the current landscape, and therefore decisions being taken today must be looked at again in the context of what would be a significantly more supportive UK Government, one that is committed genuinely both to producing steel, but also to creating the demand in the economy for more steel to be produced.