Rt. Hon. Mark Drakeford MS, First Minister
I attended the 34th meeting of the British-Irish Council which took place virtually on 6 November, and was hosted by the Scottish Government. I was accompanied by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales. The First Minister of Scotland, the Rt. Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP chaired the meeting. Other attendees included the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP; the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Brandon Lewis MP; the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Rt Hon Alister Jack MP; An Taoiseach, Micheál Martin T.D.; An Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar T.D.; and the Chief Ministers of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. Following the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive earlier this year, we welcomed the participation of the First Minister of Northern Ireland, the Rt Hon Arlene Foster MLA and the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill MLA.
It remains a source of disappointment that the Prime Minister once again failed to attend the meeting.
The theme of this meeting was Economic Recovery in the context of Covid-19. Whilst being primarily a public health crisis, the pandemic has had profound consequences for our economies, our societies and our communities. The Council had a constructive and informative discussion on the topic, sharing experience of the broadly similar challenges being faced by each administration, and the perspectives on tackling this unprecedented matter.
During the discussion I pointed out that:
- the economic impact of COVID 19 is not evenly distributed - and how the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, hitting the most vulnerable hardest. I explained that some communities have been affected more than others; either from a health perspective, as is the case for BAME communities and disabled people, or economically, especially those working in sectors such as retail, tourism, the arts or hospitality; but that the Well-being of Future Generations Act was the foundation for supporting a more equal Wales.
- whilst there is an adverse economic impact of the pandemic on young people -which is likely to carry on beyond the pandemic, through an extremely challenging fiscal and economic context - we are pushing forward initiatives for a job-led recovery.
- we recognise the importance of working towards a green economy, through a green recovery.
- all of these issues need to be at the forefront of our minds as we plan our recovery from COVID-19, within the wider context of our commitment to countering climate change and against the prospect of further economic damage caused by the end of EU transition.
The Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales set out the Welsh Government’s response to tackling the crisis:
- There has been regular and constructive dialogue and sharing experiences with the other devolved governments and the UK Government.
- The combined impact of the pandemic and exiting the EU threatens to reverse the progress we have made in reducing unemployment and economic inactivity in Wales over the last decade.
- As with all Member Administrations, the Welsh Government’s immediate response to this crisis has been to save lives and protect jobs and businesses, through an unprecedented level of spending on packages of support.
- The Welsh Government has a four pronged agenda for sustained recovery, namely, supporting and investing in:
- decarbonisation - investing in low-carbon infrastructure, renewable energy projects and sustainable homes;
- innovation, productivity, and the development of a highly skilled workforce equipped for the future;
- well-being which is without any doubt tied to our environmental, cultural and social well-being; and
- the productive potential of all communities, a fair distribution of opportunities and continuing to demand and champion fair work.
The Council’s discussion on Recent Political Developments largely focused on the UK leaving the EU, and the end of the Transition period, which in different ways remains a matter of major concern to all of the Member Administrations. In contributing to the debate, I made the following points:
- I welcomed discussion on further work to maintain and enhance relationships with the Republic of Ireland, as our nearest European neighbour.
- There continues to be real dangers to the UK’s constitutional position, highlighted by the UK Internal Market Bill, which if unchanged stood no chance of securing the legislative consent of the Senedd. The implications of such a decision not being respected by the United Kingdom Government are serious.
- Much better intergovernmental machinery is required to sustain a successful United Kingdom. I drew on the machinery which underpins the operation of the British Irish Council itself - with an independent secretariat, an agreed work programme, regularity of meetings, and a rotating chair, based on the principle of parity of participation. I stressed that it remains an essential component of our constitutional arrangements and (as agreed at the previous meeting) that there is scope to develop it further and make it a stronger part of intergovernmental relationships between the Member Administrations.
- I called for these principles and characteristics of good intergovernmental relations to be replicated and applicable to the way in which the United Kingdom itself is able to manage the political crises of coronavirus, climate change and the imminent end of the European Transition period itself.
Each Member Administration actively contributed to these valuable and important discussions. A joint Communiqué was issued after the meeting: https://www.britishirishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/communiqu%C3%A9s/Thirty%20Fourth%20Summit%20-%20Scotland%20-%2006%2011%2020.pdf
The next Council Summit will be hosted by the Northern Ireland Executive.