Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

1. Questions to the First Minister – in the Senedd at 1:46 pm on 18 June 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 1:46, 18 June 2024

(Translated)

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

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, I've looked at the national Labour manifesto—it keeps insomniacs awake, I might add—but it doesn't have any commitments in it to the electrification of the north Wales line. Why can you not find one single word about electrification of the north Wales line? [Interruption.]

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 1:47, 18 June 2024

Before the First Minister answers, everyone has an opportunity to ask their questions, they should be able to have the opportunity to ask them in silence, and the First Minister should have an opportunity to respond in silence. So, please, all Members, I know it's election time, but please give credit to the individuals who are speaking.

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour

Actually, on rail reform, there are clear commitments to invest in the future of rail services. What we saw before the election was an uncosted pledge to invest a sum of money in north Wales with no plan attached to it. I look forward to working with a Government that will seriously take into account the way that we run rail services here in Wales, our ambitions for improvement in the future, and when it makes spending pledges, they'll be real—not illusory pledges before an election they do not expect to win, but actually what we can do here in Wales and as part of what we expect to do on devolving responsibility in a range of areas, with the funding to meet those responsibilities. I look forward to the launch of the Welsh manifesto. I'll look forward to seeing the verdict of the public when it comes to 4 July, and then a very different partnership, I hope, between two Labour Governments working for Wales and Britain together.

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:48, 18 June 2024

Clearly, you could not give a commitment about electrification of the north Wales line there. Your omission and your inability to do that was evident for all to see. In our manifesto, we have committed to electrify the north Wales line, we have committed to Barnett consequentials for the cancelled phase of HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester. That is in the manifesto, First Minister—[Interruption.]

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour

Andrew, two seconds, please. Andrew R.T. Davies, as the leader of the Conservatives, should not have to shout. Therefore, please give him the opportunity to ask his questions. As I said to everyone, I'm fully aware there's an election going on, but there's not an election going on in this institution at this point in time. So please give him the opportunity to be heard.

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:49, 18 June 2024

This is very off-putting, Deputy Presiding Officer. Thank you very much for reprimanding the Members. In all seriousness, First Minister, that is a project that economically could be transformational for north Wales, yet your manifesto is silent on that investment. Why have the Labour Government here in Cardiff Bay, the Labour group, failed to argue for Barnett consequentials for the cancelling of the Birmingham to Manchester line, and ultimately failed to secure a manifesto commitment to electrify that north Wales line? Is it because you don't care about north Wales?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour

I think the Conservative record is an interesting one. The cancellation of electrification between Cardiff and Swansea was a Conservative breach of a clear manifesto pledge, and now there's a claim that there is somehow a commitment to north Wales. Not a single penny has been spent, and it's not surprising, because there is no plan to invest in. We're interested in having an investment programme not just for north Wales, but across south and west Wales too, to build on the work we have already undertaken. Eight hundred million pounds has been invested through Transport for Wales. It is now the most reliable network here in Wales. The real challenge we have is actually about the unreliability of Network Rail.

When you look at what we are prepared to do, I expect we will invest more in rail services across north Wales. I also expect, if we have a UK Labour Government, we'll have a Government that actually respects devolution and doesn't set out in its manifesto to attack it. The manifesto that your candidates are standing on, that you are supporting, contains a direct attack on devolution—not just the drivers Bill, but also the pledge to undo the work that this Senedd voted for in an Act that is now in place, led by the then finance Minister, of course, to undo the Tory trade union Act here in Wales. Your pledge is to attack workers' rights and devolution yet again. When people look at who Wales is better off with, the party of devolution or the party that's attacking it, I'm very clear they will make their choices at the ballot box, and I look forward to their verdict.

Photo of Andrew RT Davies Andrew RT Davies Conservative 1:51, 18 June 2024

You don't half talk a load of cobblers, First Minister. First Minister, a manifesto is about a pledge that the party puts before the people. A simple commitment that you could make via the manifesto would be to commit to the electrification of the north Wales line. You haven't managed to secure that, because you have little or no influence with your colleagues in Westminster. It is a fact that that transformational project would open up the opportunities that the north Wales economy is crying out for. Why are you so marginalised by your colleagues in Westminster? Anyone only had to look at Jo Stevens's comments yesterday to see that you will be a marginal figure the other side of the election if, God forbid, Labour win it, and I hope they don't. But you could today redouble your efforts and give the residents of north Wales and the businesses of north Wales a commitment that at least you would stand on the Welsh Government's commitment to electrify that line, even if your Westminster colleagues won't, and the voters in north Wales will see this and realise that it's because you don't care about north Wales.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 1:52, 18 June 2024

Before you answer, First Minister, I'm sure the leader of the opposition would reflect upon the opening statement in the last question, and I'm sure he'll appreciate that it was probably not the language that we would use in this Chamber. 

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour

As Taylor Swift might say, you need to calm down. When you look at where we are and what we have delivered, I think you'll find that there is a Welsh Labour leader who is far from a marginalised figure. Look at the manifesto we have: the commitments will make a real difference to Wales. Look at the employment support devolution and the funding support that will come here to Wales in the manifesto; the strengthening of Sewel; the council of nations and regions where the Prime Minister will regularly meet with First Ministers across the country; the fact that we will restore decision making over structural funds here, where they belong. And more than that too: on Lords reform, on a Hillsborough law, on a Windrush commissioner—that matters to lots of our constituents—and finding out the truth of Orgreave. All of these things matter to us here.

When we compare who is and isn't a marginalised figure, I go back to the first photo opportunity where the Prime Minister didn't know which teams were in the Euros tournament, and the handlers in his party decided it would work better for the Conservatives if they sat Rishi Sunak next to a man who isn't even going to vote Conservative and poor old Andrew was in the background with his arms folded. I'm very clear about the influence that I have within my party. I'm very clear that when we set out plans to invest in rail infrastructure, they will be real and they'll be delivered. I look forward to the verdict of voters in north Wales. After the election, I'll be very happy to have this conversation again with him about how the voting public feel about the Conservatives and their record, and whether change is needed for us to turn the pages on the chaos that he has defended for more than 14 years.

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 1:54, 18 June 2024

(Translated)

On behalf of Plaid Cymru, Heledd Fychan.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Not a day goes by without it becoming clear that Welsh Labour's HQ is firmly based in London. In her S4C interview last night, Labour's would-be Welsh secretary, Jo Stevens, was wrong on both fact and principle. She was wrong to say that high-speed rail in England isn't being built, and wrong not to support the principle that Wales should get its fair share of spending when Welsh taxpayers' money is spent on transport projects in England. The interview displayed a patronising and contemptuous attitude towards Wales and devolution, so there's no difference in attitude whichever party is in No. 10. In his previous role as economy Minister, the First Minister, when referring to HS2, said, 'There's never been a fair share of this project. There's always been a fiction that this is an England-and-Wales project.' So who should we now believe, and who speaks for Labour in Wales—Keir Starmer's chosen spokesperson for Wales or the First Minister?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:55, 18 June 2024

It's very simple—I'm the directly elected leader of Welsh Labour. I don't think that's very complicated. And when you look at what we have in our manifesto, we're clear about restoring the decision making over structural funds. That's what will happen. When we were part of the European Union, of course, there was a strategic Europe-wide framework. We then made all the choices within that. That's what restoration means.

When you look at where else we go in terms of the agenda we have, I think if you look at the manifesto you'll see a great deal of positivity for Wales from the party that helped to create devolution, that had the manifesto pledge, that led an individual campaign within our party, and took part in a cross-party campaign. If you then compare that directly with the Tories, you will recognise that the drivers Bill is an assault on devolution and recognise that the attempt to try to repeal the trade union Act we passed in this a place is an assault on devolution and workers’ rights. The contrast could not be clearer. The path for devolution looks at direct pledges to engage and take devolution further forward. The funding for employment support is a clear example of that, and there's more that I believe we can and will do.

I look forward to having the opportunity to work with a UK Labour Government that is serious about taking devolution forward, serious about tackling the cost-of-living crisis, and that recognises that, without a long-term plan, we’ll be forever stuck in a cycle of Conservative chaos. I believe people in Wales will vote for that optimistic and positive vision.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 1:57, 18 June 2024

In presuming from your response that you didn't actually see Jo Stevens’s interview, or perhaps that you know that she won't be the Secretary of State for Wales, because, certainly, we heard from Jo Stevens a point-blank refusal to right the wrong on HS2—no plan, no intention, no interest. Why should anyone believe that a UK Labour Government will deliver for Wales?

Because it's not just HS2 that's an issue. What about justice? We've had countless reports: the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd's commission on justice, and Gordon Brown's commission on the UK’s future. All are in-depth, comprehensive analyses, all going further than the UK Labour manifesto published last week. We can only imagine what they will be thinking having heard Jo Stevens refer to the issue as 'tinkering around with structures and systems'. How dismissive. 

The lack of ambition on display in Labour’s manifesto, using woolly words like 'explore' or 'consider', leaves the reader wondering if the First Minister and his Cabinet colleagues were consulted on any of its content. Can the First Minister outline to the Senedd today what role did he play in the manifesto, and explain why his influence on his London bosses is so minimal?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 1:58, 18 June 2024

Yet again, Plaid Cymru run a fiction when they say that there is no influence from Welsh Labour in the UK party, and a fiction that somehow we should be disappointed with a UK Labour Government that has not been elected. If you look at the manifesto itself, it sets out a range of areas that take devolution forward, not just from my presence at the manifesto meeting itself, but over the months and the weeks that have led up to that. Look at where we have got to on the devolution of employment support funding. Look at the restoration of decision making over structural funds. There's the fact there will be a proper council of nations and regions. There's the strengthening of Sewel. And, yes, we will consider and take forward youth justice and probation.

I am confident that we will secure progress on those areas. I believe the direct engagement we will have, not just with what I hope will be a Welsh Labour Secretary of State for Wales, but with Secretaries of State across a range of departments, will show the difference we can make with two Labour Governments working together, and, crucially, the commitment to update the outdated fiscal framework. That will make a real difference to our ability to take forward the tools to do the job here in terms of devolution. Devolution will move forward with a UK Labour Government, with the commitments in the UK Labour manifesto.

Photo of Heledd Fychan Heledd Fychan Plaid Cymru 1:59, 18 June 2024

Perhaps you saw a draft that wasn't published that had all these commitments in them, because, obviously, I haven't seen that version, and neither have the people of Wales. I haven't seen anything about a HS2 consequential, no devolution of policing and justice. So, let's look at the issue of structural funds, because language is important here, First Minister, and we didn't see that commitment there. It was extremely woolly, and we need to see that those aren't hollow words from you, because point me to the manifesto commitment here. It seems to us, very clearly, that Westminster will continue to control Wales's post-Brexit cash—a power grab straight from the Tory playbook. I ask you again: did you see Jo Stevens's interview, because, certainly, she is at odds completely with what you have said to us today? What we know from his acceptance of a £200,000 donation is that the First Minister is easily swayed, but we had expected him to secure the interests of Wales in Labour's manifesto. Why has that been impossible for him?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 2:00, 18 June 2024

Again, let's go back to the wording in the manifesto:

'Labour will restore decision-making'

—not 'think', not 'consider'—

'over the allocation of structural funds'.

It could not be clearer. That is a manifesto pledge that was secured some time ago, and it's in the manifesto now. The council of the nations and regions is in the manifesto; the strengthening of Sewel, in the manifesto; the devolution of employment support funding, in the manifesto; the work to take forward the consideration of youth justice and probation, in the manifesto, and I am confident we will secure the end results; updating the fiscal framework, in the manifesto. I recognise that Plaid Cymru are obsessed about internal Labour politics. When it comes to what the public will vote for, I believe the public will vote for a manifesto that delivers for Wales and Britain—a new partnership to change the failure of the last 14 years, where this Welsh Labour Government can work in partnership with a UK Labour Government, with more powers for us to do the job here in Wales and a partnership that can work for Wales and Britain.