Mark Drakeford has launched the ‘Welsh Labour Together’ online conference with a Q&A session with members this evening. Many of the questions from attendees were understandably about the pandemic, and the First Minister explained to participants about plans being considered for a ‘circuit break’ lockdown.
But the Welsh Labour leader also covered lots of other topics, touching on the controversial internal market bill, holiday hunger and the transition to a green economy. He also described his personal support for piloting a basic income and discussed with attendees his relationship with the new UK Labour leader.
Labour in Wales organised the online Welsh Labour Together conference after its usual annual gathering was cancelled due to Covid. The party unveiled its programme of events earlier this week with virtual rallies, panel discussions and workshops running from October 15th to 23rd. Check out the full timetable here.
On the pandemic, the First Minister declared this evening that “if we don’t act now to get on top of the virus then our NHS will come under genuine threat” and said that Wales may need to be placed under a ‘circuit break’ lockdown.
He explained to Labour members the advice that his government has received from experts, and told attendees at the online meeting that the Welsh government would be making a decision on Monday as to whether it will implement the measure.
Drakeford said: “We may well need a circuit break, a couple of weeks where we really bear down. Where we go back, more or less, to the full restrictions we had back in March and April to create a break in the transmission of the virus…
“Today, I’ve had meetings with all 12 leaders of local authorities in Wales, with the Labour group, with our parliamentary Labour Party colleagues, with the social partnership council for Wales…
“There’s a lot of intensive work to do tomorrow and over the weekend, and on Monday the cabinet will meet again and we will decided whether or not this is the right course of action for Wales…
“The choice is not between staying where we are and doing a circuit breaker. Something will have to be done and at the moment a circuit breaker is what our advisers are telling us would be the most effective intervention we could make.”
His comments this evening followed an announcement by Drakeford on Wednesday that restrictions on people travelling to Wales from Covid hotpots in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland will come into place on Friday this week.
Following rejected requests from Drakeford for the UK government to stop people coming into the devolved nation from areas with high prevalences of the virus, he has said he will use devolved powers to implement the ban.
He described the clash with the UK government over restricting travel tonight as “quite a falling out with the Prime Minister”, and added it “demonstrates the tin ear that the Tories have for what matter most to people who live in Wales”.
The First Minister also talked about the tracing system in Wales, explaining to members that the Welsh government had taken the decision to establish its system as a public service, instead of outsourcing the function as has the UK government.
He set out the local health teams approach implemented in Wales and argued that “as a result… our figures are in a very, very different place” to the performance figures for the privately run test and trace system in the NHS.
He added: “That is because we have run it in that public service way, with people knowing that if they hand over their information to us, it’s not going into the records of some private, profit-making company.”
Relationship with new UK Labour leadership
Drakeford told members that of all the candidates for leader in the 2020 leadership election, Keir Starmer was the one he knew best since they had worked together when Starmer was the Shadow Brexit Secretary under Jeremy Corbyn.
The Welsh First Minister praised Starmer’s “grasp of the detail” as well as his “chess-playing way” of thinking, explaining to members present that it has been “very easy to form an effective working relationship” with the new leader.
He said: “I was always hugely impressed by his grasp of the detail and his ability, in that of a chess-playing way to think not one or two moves ahead, but to really chart where the decisions that we were being asked to make would lead us…
“It’s been very easy to form an effective working relationship with him since he became the leader, and we have very regular discussions directly between him and me, but with his office as well we have a monthly session.”
Drakeford said that the Labour leader has a “genuine interest in Wales and in the constitution of the UK”, mentioning the ‘Call Keir’ sessions that Starmer had held to talk to Welsh voters who did not vote Labour at the last general election.
Starmer proposed creating a new federal structure in the UK that would deliver a “radical devolution of power”, pledging to start a process of constitutional reform through “consultation and discussion with communities”.
Drakeford added this evening: “We work very closely together on a shared agenda… and I’m really looking forward to being out there with him as part of Welsh Labour’s campaign as we move into next year.”
A recent survey on the upcoming elections in May 2021 suggested a three-way fight for the Senedd between Labour, the Tories and Plaid Cymru. The Welsh Labour Party was shown to be polling last month at 34%.
Internal market bill
The Welsh Labour leader discussed the controversial internal market bill currently going through the House of Lords, describing how it would take control away from Wales, including particularly on food standards and animal welfare regulations.
He told members: “We are fighting the internal market bill as hard as we can. We are in the trenches in the House of Lords, if you can imagine such an ermine-clad idea, but we do have a lot of friends… who are prepared to make this case.
“I think we will win in the House of Lords. And then we will see whether this government is prepared to override not simply the refusal of the Senedd to consent to the bill, but the refusal of the House of Lords to allow it to go forward unamended.”
Drakeford said last month that the internal markets bill represents a “smash and grab” on the devolution settlement as it would take back powers that have been devolved to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland for 20 years.
The UK government also asked the devolved nations for their consent to the EU Withdrawal Act. But the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish assemblies all made clear their opposition to the Brexit bill – yet it went through regardless.
Welsh minister Jeremy Miles told LabourList last month that the bill had been “corrosive of relations within the UK”, and described how the relationship between Westminster and Cardiff had deteriorated under Boris Johnson’s premiership.
Drakeford tonight declared at the Zoom meeting tonight that Johnson is a “real threat to the UK”, and added: “The bill that he is promoting is in the vanguard of that threat, and that’s why we will be opposing it as hard as we can.”
Despite breaking international law by containing provisions to overwrite parts of the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU in January, the controversial piece of legislation completed its passage through the Commons last month.
Drakeford described how “this is such an important agenda for us” and told attendees this evening that he would be working hard to ensure that Wales is well represented at the next COP meeting in Glasgow in 2021.
Addressing first the challenge facing Wales in terms of biodiversity, the First Minister said: “Wales is such a beautiful place and on the surface everything looks fine, but under that surface we’ve seen real loss in species, in habitat…
“We are determined as a Welsh government to invest in restoring that biodiversity loss. The advice we have from the experts is, if we act now we can still recover that ground – let it go another five years, and it might simply be too late.”
The Welsh government announced in March this year that it would be investing £5m into a new scheme to create a national forest across the length and breadth of Wales by linking existing woodland with new forests, parkland and hedges.
Drakeford then turned to the importance of renewable energy in the climate crisis, but also in terms of the specific benefits new energy could bring to Wales through job creation, describing how it must be a “cornerstone” of the nation’s future.
He said: “As a nation, we were the first in and the first out of the first industrial revolution… But we have a real opportunity to be at the forefront of the next energy revolution.”
The First Minister stressed the wealth of resources that Wales possesses in relation to manufacturing renewable energy, emphasising how well endowed Wales is with the potential for wind and wave power.
He said: “We have everything we need to turn Wales into a renewable energy powerhouse for the future in which we create new technologies here in Wales that create jobs here… and allow us to export that knowledge and that development to other parts of the world.
“But we have to be serious about it. We have to put it at the top of our list of things we want to achieve in the next Senedd term… It is so important to our future and would bring jobs and prosperity to parts of Wales where that has been in short supply.”
The Institute for Welsh Affairs last year set out a ten-point plan in which Wales can meet 100% of its energy needs from renewable sources under 2035 while supporting 20,150 jobs annually by 2035.
Asked by one attendee about a basic income, Drakeford told the virtual meeting that he “personally” is in favour of piloting the idea but reminded them that it is not the leader, but Welsh Labour Party members, who make policy.
He described how he had explored the proposal when a PhD student researching the Green Shirts, a uniformed political party which had been campaigning for the ‘social dividend’ in the 1930s.
Drakeford said: “The social dividend is an early form of basic income. And I’ve been interested in it ever since. So, the pilot I think we are most likely to be able to approach and work on is a pilot for young people leaving care.”
He added: “If we were able to supplement the incomes that they have from other sources – whether that’s the benefits system or through often precarious work – and to make that up to a basic income that would be enough for people to rely upon and to live on, then I think we would learn a lot about a basic income pilot.”
Drakeford previously voiced his support for the policy idea in 2017, when he described it to the Senedd as “attractive” but also warned that politicians would have a “job” to convince the public on the merits of the policy.
At the time he also questioned whether the Welsh government had the power as a devolved authority to implement such a pilot, but said the proposal has “potential to make a significant contribution to addressing poverty and inequality”.
On the economy and the focus for Labour in Wales, the Welsh Labour leader told members tonight that the government needs to work on the “foundational economy” instead of focusing on attracting international investment.
Drakeford argued: “We’ve been a bit dazzled sometimes in Wales trying to attract inward investment, and that is very important… but international capital is foot-loose free. It comes when it suits it and leaves when it doesn’t.”
He used the example of the closure of the Ford engine plant in Bridgend, announced last year, which had been in operation for over 40 years. When the company notified its staff it would be closing, the site employed 1,644 workers.
The First Minister explained: “The foundational economy are those jobs that you can’t move out of communities. You can’t offshore caring jobs, you can’t offshore retail jobs, you can’t offshore jobs that are about producing jobs either.”
Drakeford told attendees that the Welsh government would be giving greater value to “those sorts of economic activities” in pursuing this approach to create secure and lasting jobs.
Earlier today, the Welsh Labour government announced that it would spend £11m to make sure free school meals are provided during every school holidays up to and including the Easter break in 2021.
He told attendees this evening: “This is to address food hunger and food poverty, amongst children in particular. We are the only part of the UK to have made that commitment. We’re the only part of the UK to have a ‘holiday hunger’ scheme…
“We need to be banging the drum for that decision. That £11m was hard to find, I can tell you. Rebecca Evans, our finance minister, really worked hard to find a way of putting that money together.
“So that we could tell people, those families now, that in this half term they won’t have to be going to the foodbank to find food to feed their children because free school meals will be available.”
The UK government is under pressure to extend the same support to children in England. It has said its holiday activities and food programme underlines the commitment to tackling holiday hunger.
But the programme of support in place in schools in England covers only 17 local authority areas and has not yet been extended for the autumn half-term and the Christmas holiday period.
Footballer Marcus Rashford, whose campaign forced Johnson into a U-turn on school meals for the summer holiday, has welcomed the announcement by the Welsh government today to protect “the most vulnerable children across the country”.
More than 200,000 children in England have had to skip meals because their family could not access sufficient food during lockdown, and 2.4 million children are living in food insecure households.
The Trussell Trust has forecast that there will be a 61% increase in food parcels needed between October and December, and warned that extreme poverty could double by Christmas.