Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

1. Questions to the First Minister – in the Senedd at 1:41 pm on 11 June 2024.

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Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 1:41, 11 June 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. Last week, First Minister, there was a vote on the floor of the Senedd. Various colleagues of yours and, indeed, your good self, have called it a 'gimmick', a 'stunt' and an 'odd question to ask'. But the expression of the Senedd last week didn't give you its confidence. You lost a vote of no confidence here in the Senedd. Was it a serious debate, or was it a 'gimmick', as you've been calling it all week? 

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour

I take very seriously the debate that took place last week, and the vote that came from it. I think a lot about the institution that I have been proud to fight for, to campaign for and to vote for in not just the referenda, but in subsequent elections. I regret the fact that last week we weren't able to respect the normal traditions on pairing and the conventions that allow the democracy at the ballot box to be respected. But the vote took place, and the outcome is the outcome. I now need to look at the future and what that means for the few weeks I've been the First Minister, and the way in which I want to lead my country into the future, and the need to build confidence across this Chamber and acceptance of the reality that I am stood here as the First Minister, needing to work with different people to make the institution work. For what we have done in devolution, it has required different people to work together.

Last week, we celebrated Wales becoming the second best recycling nation on earth. That is a deliberate choice we have made in the Government—partnerships within this place and outside it—for it to happen. We can be really proud of what we have done in devolution, and I certainly am. So, I am committed to behaving in a way that allows this institution to carry on meeting the needs of people in Wales, to respect the choices they make at the ballot box, and to think about all the things we can still do to make Wales an even better place for all the communities that we are privileged to represent in this place. 

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:43, 11 June 2024

First Minister, last week you went from this Chamber and gave an interview. You questioned me in that interview—the time that I took off for my illness. I was told at one point in that illness to put my affairs in order, First Minister. Your deputy also questioned that on Politics Wales and highlighted it. The chair of the Labour group went on Sharp End last night and cited my absence here as well from illness. I can tell you I was ill, and I had numerous interventions from hospital doctors and other clinicians. To go out from that debate last week and accuse me of not honouring the pairing system and then citing my own illness is the lowest of low. Now, it is a fact, First Minister, that, in confidence votes—in confidence votes—all Members would be expected to vote. There is the facility in this institution to have hybrid voting, to have proxy voting and in-person voting. And those are three options that would have been available to any Member. You have subsequently said that those two Members who were absent last week would have voted for you. Are you convinced that they would have cast their vote for you, First Minister? 

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:44, 11 June 2024

I think we need to take a step back and to reflect on some of the facts. It is a fact that, in previous confidence votes, there have been pairs. I can tell you that directly. In March last year, when the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru voted on a confidence motion against Eluned Morgan, I made clear my position in full support for the job Eluned Morgan was doing, but I did that remotely, because I was paired for the debate. I was in America, leading a trade mission. So, confidence votes do have pairs around them. That is an established convention.

On the second point, around what had happened, I was, I think, referring to the facts. The fact is that, for around about three months, we paired in every instance on every vote, and it was the right thing to do, because I accept completely that you were not well, not well enough to take part, not well enough to turn on a screen. And that's as it should be. It's exactly as it should be. But that didn't take place last week.

Now, it's not for us to have a running commentary on the two people who are not well. It's really important we think about that. That isn't just an issue for my own political group, it is an issue for us as an institution. I want those people to be able to come back, when they're well and able to do so, to be reintegrated not into just my own political grouping but actually within the institution. I think a lot about the choices I've made in trying to protect other people, in trying to make sure there's room for those people to have a route back, because I think that matters. And it's why I've been prepared to take blows and to not respond to different things that have been said, because that's part of my job in being a leader.

So, it's how I have behaved, and it's how I will behave, and I think everyone should reflect on not just what was done last week with the vote, but, actually, everything around it and the comments that were made as well. It is a responsibility for all of us. And in the future, I will want my group to carry on, where people are ill, to make sure that pairs are provided in all votes of consequence, as we have done in the past.

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:47, 11 June 2024

On the example you gave, I believe Standing Orders indicate that if you're out of the country you can't vote anyway, you can't, then, so you couldn't have voted in that vote anyway, so that's a very poor example to use.

But it is a fact that there were three different modes of voting that were available to those Members if they were incapacitated and unable to come in here. I put the question to you—[Interruption.] I put the question to you—. I appreciate the—. I forget what role you have at the moment, the Member for Swansea West. But the point I am making to you is that there are three options that were available to those Members to vote. They chose not to exercise their confidence in you, First Minister.

The issue you have here is there was a vote in this Chamber on confidence in you as First Minister. You and senior London Labour figures have chosen to tarnish this institution by saying, 'It is of no consequence; it is irrelevant.' In fact, your comments around the referendum, for example, when it comes to issues around the current UK Government—. Having two referenda for devolution should mean that there is a level of respect for not just the institution but our individual role as Members.

The previous First Minister is on the record as saying if a motion

'gets supported on the floor of the Senedd then that will be the democratic will of the Senedd itself.'

You clearly aren't taking the view of the Senedd into account when you're not respecting that vote last week. It is causing huge damage, reputational damage, to this institution. You need to act on that vote, and that's what I'm asking you today: what are you going to do to respect that vote that was taken here last week that withdrew the confidence of the Welsh Parliament from your tenure as First Minister?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:48, 11 June 2024

I go back again in saying of course I take proceedings in this place seriously. I always have done. I always have done, and I always will. I've been the First Minister for a limited period of weeks. I take seriously what was said in the debate and the fact that people cast their vote. I'm rightly concerned, I believe, in the fact that two of our Members were not able to do so. That is the point, Andrew R.T. Davies: they were not able to do so.

Actually, the commentary that runs behind it, trying to second guess how unwell those Members are, I think is deeply damaging. Again, think again on what those people are now listening to: not the opportunity to come back and be reintegrated into this Parliament when they are well enough to do so, but actually wanting to reach judgments in their name. I don't think that helps anyone, and I don't think it reflects well on the argument that you're making.

I do believe that the proceedings of this place should be respected. I do believe that the two referenda that have gone into creating the powers for this place should be respected. It's why I'm so genuinely offended by what the Conservative Secretary of State for Wales has had to say about wanting to take powers away, when the truth is he simply disagrees with the approach that we have taken. The idea that there is a general law and order reservation that allows a Conservative Minister to override the will of this place—it beggars belief that's been said, and it has been in the election campaign, in addition to the drivers Bill proposal. How can anyone come to this place and say our proceedings should be respected when that's the manifesto that you're supporting? The leader of the Welsh Conservative group supporting a proposal to take away powers from this place because you haven't won an election. Now, that can't be the way that the future of this place works; it's just can't be.

So, I will go on making the argument for the future we could have, the future I want us to have after 4 July, the future that I will be happy to argue for right up to and all the way through to the Senedd elections in 2026, a reformed Senedd that will be returned by the people of Wales, and not just the record we'll have of the next two years, but the period of devolution, and what we have done for our country in partnership with others in this place and beyond. That's what I will be doing, and I'm very proud to carry on making that case.

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru 1:51, 11 June 2024

(Translated)

Leader of Plaid Cymru, Rhun ap Iorwerth. 

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llywydd. Now, since the Senedd passed that motion of no confidence, Labour Members have sought to excuse it away, even, yes, saying that it's other Members from opposition parties who are to blame for insisting on exercising our right to vote. The pairing issue is an absolute red herring. The First Minister knows that and he needs to stop pulling the wool over people's eyes. There's only ever been one vote of no confidence in a First Minister before. That was 24 years ago and there was certainly no pairing on that day. 

Now, we've even had the Labour social media team using the party's credit card to pay for ads that imply that opposition parties should somehow never agree with one another, even though Labour and the Conservatives vote together all the time here in this Senedd, and Labour were perfectly happy to link up with the Tories on a recent no confidence issue in Scotland. He can't have it both ways. It's a pretty hollow-sounding moral crusade from the First Minister. 

Now, let's get back, shall we, to the substance of this issue? The First Minister wants a new start, but it doesn't work like that, does it? I'm sure Rishi Sunak would love to have a new start too, but I'm not going to forget 14 years of destructive Tory policies. And yes, the First Minister may want to wish away the £200,000 donation scandal, where the Welsh public clearly think he's shown such poor judgment, but he can't. But, for any kind of reset, he must first address the problem. Does an apology in any way fit in with his idea of a new start?   

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:53, 11 June 2024

So, there are, I think, three points to respond to. The first is: of course, I regret the way that the last three months have been covered and reported, and I regret the impact of the choice I made within all of the rules at the time, and I would not want either myself or any of my colleagues to have had to go through that again. I recognise that there has been real damage caused to a range of people in this place. It's why I've agreed immediately to an internal review within my own party to look at how we run our affairs. It's why I've also asked the Standards of Conduct Committee on a cross-party basis to consider the rules that should apply to all of us, regardless of which party we're in. And that is me taking seriously the position that we find ourselves in.

And I think, on your second point around pairing, pairing is not a red herring. The pairing that takes place is to maintain the democratic judgment of the public at the ballot box, and that is what pairing achieves. When you go back to 24 years ago, the arithmetic was very different in the Chamber. If pairing had taken place in the way it has done and normally does, then, actually, we'd have had a different outcome, but the vote took place and the numbers are the numbers on the day.

And I don't think it is an extraordinary thing to want to have a new start for a job that I've been in for two months, that I've been proud to not just win a leadership contest, but actually to come into this place with the support of people from across the Chamber and, indeed, within my own group. And it's important to recognise that we came together after—. Internal leadership contests are difficult, but I recognise the way that different people have come together to want the Government to work, and to want to do it in a way that is unified, not just for our party, but actually the job we have to do for the country. And within that, I know that the leader of Plaid Cymru points and claims about us regularly voting with others. Last week, the vote to take down a Welsh Labour First Minister took place. The attack on the Government that took place was a co-operation between his Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives. That's what happened. And I don't think there's any challenge in pointing that out, as we go through the heightened politics of a general election campaign and as what you might want to do in the future.

I'm interested in how this Government works and functions and delivers on the manifesto we have already been elected on, and the promises I've made, as the leader, as to how we can improve the country. That's what I'm interested in doing; it's what I'm committed to do.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 1:56, 11 June 2024

I wish the First Minister could see himself, I really, really do. And I'll read his words back to him:

'I regret the way that the last three months have been covered and reported'.

'I regret the way that the last three months have been covered and reported'.

So, it's the way this has been covered, it's the way it's been reported. I'm a former journalist, a member of the National Union of Journalists. Are you blaming journalists for this? Are you blaming opposition Members for the way that we voted in that vote last week?

What we have here is a First Minister's judgment repeatedly being called into question. We've got the donation from a convicted polluter, but then there was the issue of how a Minister was recently sacked too; one of those not here last week. It's been confirmed today that no formal leak inquiry was held before the First Minister decided to sack Hannah Blythyn. In a letter to the Public Accounts and Public Administration Committee, the Welsh Government's director of propriety and ethics also suggests that no proper investigation was held under the ministerial code either. Sacking a Minister is a serious matter, but it seems that the normal safeguards of natural justice weren't afforded to the former Deputy Minister in this instance. I think we need an independent investigation here to determine whether the First Minister did act with the required due diligence and within the rules that govern decisions of this significance. At the very least, will the First Minister explain on what evidence and on whose advice was he acting when he did sack Hannah Blythyn?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:57, 11 June 2024

One of the challenges in making choices as a leader is you have to not just think about what the right choice is, but you also have to consider that it's only you that can make the decision, and you have to consider and balance a range of different consequences. In coming to a decision, I did take advice from the Permanent Secretary about the process, to make sure I was acting within the ministerial code. Publishing evidence will actually be something that I don't think helps people involved and engaged around this, and I have always been trying to protect other people from the consequences of what takes place if unredacted information is published fully. I still think that's the right choice to make. It makes my life difficult, but it's the right thing to do, and that's what your job is as a leader. So, the redacted information has been published, the evidence, such as it is, is relatively straightforward, and that's why there wasn't a need to go through an additional process. That's the advice I took from the Permanent Secretary. I'm confident I've acted within the ministerial code and the Cabinet handbook. And if you think this is a route to helping the Member, who isn't able to take part in Senedd business at present, I think you should reflect again on where this leads and the different responsibilities we have. I do not think this is a helpful way to want to reintegrate that Member, as I wish to do so, into the active business of this place.

Photo of Rhun ap Iorwerth Rhun ap Iorwerth Plaid Cymru 1:59, 11 June 2024

Everybody's meant to reflect apart from himself, it seems. Now, I can't let this question session pass either without highlighting some troubling attitudes from Labour towards the Senedd in recent days. The First Minister, we know, is totally dismissive of the democratic view of this Senedd, as seen in that vote last week, and the contempt, frankly, from Labour's London headquarters was in full show on Sunday by Emily Thornberry—a senior member of Keir Starmer's team, would-be Attorney-General. It was as dismissive an attitude towards this Senedd and its procedures as I have ever heard, to be honest. But perhaps the most revealing interview was that given by transport Minister Ken Skates on Politics Wales. 'The priority for the Labour Welsh Government', he said, 'was to support the UK Labour election campaign.' Now, I want to get rid of the Tories more than anyone, but surely their priority in Government should always be to serve the people and communities of Wales, rather than their own electoral interests. Doesn't this make a mockery of Keir Starmer's claim to put country before party?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 2:00, 11 June 2024

No, and if you look at what we have done just since First Minister's questions last week, I've been part of the manifesto process within my party and I'm confident that we will put forward an offer that will make a significant positive difference for Wales and Britain. I'm confident that will help us to gain the confidence of the people of Wales at the ballot box on 4 July, and all of the opportunities that will open up for us.

More than that, just in this last week, I've been meeting my duties to the Government and the people of Wales, not only the announcements that we've made, but the progress we're making. So, I earlier pointed out that Wales is now the second-best recycling nation on earth: no mean achievement given where we started at the start of our devolution journey. I've done the right thing and done my duty in attending the D-day events in Normandy—a real privilege to do so and to see the extraordinary sacrifice of others. I've had the work with the British Medical Association and the health Secretary, on making sure there is an offer that all three branches of the BMA who are in dispute are recommending that offer. That is not an easy thing to do, and we've managed to do that by working through all of the noise in public, the serious work that has gone on with the health Secretary to get to that point. That will make a real difference to people in every community across Wales, if that strike action permanently comes to an end.

Yesterday, I was in Port Talbot, yet again making the case for jobs in the steel sector, not just in Port Talbot, but in Shotton, Trostre, Llanwern and Catnic in Caerphilly as well. Making the case for the company to look again at where we could be in just a few weeks' time. The reality is that those jobs do not have to go; there is a different way of getting the best deal for steel. I was proud to be there with the local Member, David Rees, proud to be there with the economy Secretary Jeremy Miles, and two Members who could be part of a future UK Labour Government.

We have responsibilities in the here and now that we're meeting, and I'm also absolutely positive and confident and make no apology for looking at what we could do for our country in just a few weeks' time with a different partnership for Wales and Britain. I believe people will vote for that partnership, and I look forward to the verdict of the people.