Welsh Conservatives Debate: COVID-19 & the Economy

Janet Finch-Saunders MS, Member for Aberconwy: Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. COVID-19 is a health emergency. It is also an economic emergency. The number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits in Wales has almost doubled to 103,869 in April. That is 6.8 per cent of the Welsh workforce, worse than the UK average of 5.8 per cent. Aberconwy has not avoided this crisis. In fact, we have been seriously hit from all directions. And, as you know, whilst tourism has an estimated worth of more than £3 billion to the Welsh economy, the economic benefit here in Conwy is £900 million.

The stark situation facing us is supported by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, which found that Conwy is the top area of Wales and one of the top 20 areas in the UK where the highest percentage of jobs are at risk. The reality is that we could lose 13,000 jobs and this is hardly news. I wrote to the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales about the crisis on 1 May and subsequently undertook a virtual meeting. However, I see no action on any proposals that a strategy must be put together to help Conwy. You have the powers, you have the levers; we just need your will.

Now, I am not alone in being extremely grateful to the UK Conservative Government for the immense financial support it has provided to you as a Government to support our businesses. The coronavirus job retention scheme is protecting 316,500 livelihoods in Wales, including 7,200 in Aberconwy. The self-employed income support scheme is providing support for 102,000 people in Wales and is worth £273 million to those who are self-employed, £6.3 million of that coming to Aberconwy.

For the UK Government's efforts to support Wales and Aberconwy to have the best possible outcome, the Welsh Government needs to enable the economic dragon to roar again. In fact, 77 per cent of respondents support the statement that the Welsh Government should develop a new economic recovery plan for Wales that puts supporting small and medium-sized businesses and business investment at the heart of their recovery plans. 

As I've already proven, there is need for Aberconwy but also for the whole of Wales. The Centre for Towns report found that 28 per cent of employees in coastal towns are in sectors covered by the shutdown. Wales is the worst-performing area of the UK with regard to its economic well-being, with a score of -0.77. And we have a higher proportion of workers employed in industries most affected by lockdown measures compared to both England and Northern Ireland. I am therefore shocked that, despite the UK Government providing the Welsh Government with over £2.2 billion to combat COVID-19, the supplementary budget has only allocated £1.81 billion-worth of consequentials.

So, I ask: where is the rest of this money? You should be doing more to establish a COVID community recovery fund to provide targeted economic support. You should be amending the economic resilience fund so that businesses that continue to fall through the net can put a case forward for discretionary assistance. You should be urgently allowing bed and breakfasts that pay council tax to access grant support, and you must create business rate-free zones where all businesses will be free from paying business rates for up to three years. You should scrap business rates for businesses under £15,000 outside of the BRF zones. You must provide clear guidance to the tourist sector as to how accommodation can safely reopen, and it can. 

You should be responding positively to calls by our business leaders here in north Wales for a £700,000 ignition fund to help reignite the region's economy. The ignition fund proposal is fascinating as it could see freelancers, the self-employed and micro businesses work together to develop and offer new products and services, as well as help to accelerate new major capital investments here in north Wales. Clearly, you can act to help the economy without having to pursue Plaid Cymru's suggestion of devolving further fiscal powers. I implore you, Minister, to carefully consider our proposal, and the ignition fund, which would see support reach communities that have been most adversely affected by this COVID-19 crisis. Diolch yn fawr.