|Andrew R.T. Davies AS|
|Jenny Rathbone AS|
|Joyce Watson AS|
|Llyr Gruffydd AS|
|Mike Hedges AS|
|Neil Hamilton AS|
|Dean Medcraft||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Dr Christianne Glossop||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Gian Marco Currado||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|John Howells||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Keith Smyton||Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Lesley Griffiths AS||Gweinidog|
|Andrea Storer||Dirprwy Glerc|
|Elizabeth Wilkinson||Ail Glerc|
|Marc Wyn Jones||Clerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau||1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest|
|2. COVID 19: Sesiwn dystiolaeth gyda Lywodraeth Cymru||2. COVID 19: Evidence session with the Welsh Government|
|3. Papur i’w nodi||3. Paper to Note|
|4. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 (ix) i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod||4. Motion under Standing Order 17.42(ix) to resolve to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 14:00.
The committee met by video-conference.
The meeting began at 14:00.
Good afternoon. Can I welcome Members to the first virtual meeting of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee? The meeting is bilingual and the simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. Can I remind participants hearing translation, there's a slight delay between the translation ending and the next speaker coming back up to full volume? Can I remind all participants that the microphones will be controlled centrally so as not to turn them on or off individually? Note for the record: if, for any reason, I drop out of the meeting because of technical faults, will you agree that Jenny Rathbone will be temporary Chair for that time? I take that to be a 'yes'. Are there any declarations of interest? I've heard none.
That takes us on to the next item, which is an evidence session with the Welsh Government. Lesley Griffiths, the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, do you want to introduce your officials?
I have five officials with me today: John Howells, Christianne Glossop, Dean Medcraft, Keith Smyten, and Gian Marco Currado.
Thank you very much. If I could start with the first question: does the Minister accept that market prices have dropped for items such as bulk cream and cattle due to to changes caused by COVID-19-related closures? Is there anything more the Welsh Government can do to support those parts of the farming industry that are suffering financial hardship, and has anything been done regarding additional marketing of Welsh products in Wales?
Thank you, Chair. Obviously, the pandemic had a very severe impact straight away on some parts of the agricultural sector—so, dairy, for instance, was impacted immediately, with the food service collapsing straight away at the beginning of the pandemic. Clearly, there have been lots of issues around the red meat sector as well, with beef prices. Sheep, we think, is more protected at the moment. So, I'm having lots of discussions with stakeholders, as are officials as well. Lots of different fora that I attend—I'm meeting with farming unions, for instance; I attend the agriculture resilience group. I also work very closely with Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I think it's very important that all four UK countries are working closely together at this very difficult time. So, I attend a retail forum, the food-to-go forum, and, obviously, we've still met as an inter-ministerial group.
In relation to support, I have provided—. I'm looking to make an imminent announcement on support for the dairy sector. We have ensured that the economic resilience fund has helped some businesses—I appreciate for primary production, that's not possible—for businesses within the agricultural sector that have diversified, for instance, they have been able to access ERF funding. Obviously, ERF is an additional support mechanism on top of all other support that's been provided from the UK Government.
In relation to Welsh producers, I think this is where Welsh food and drink producers have really come into their own. It's really encouraging to hear so much online; produce is being packaged and sent round the UK. I myself had a package from a Welsh food producer yesterday, and she told me that, online, it's really taken off for her and she's doing really well. So, it's great, and I hope that people—. I think this is a real opportunity—you have to look for opportunities whenever we get challenges, and I think it's a real opportunity for people to look at how they shop. In the beginning when we had that panic buying in supermarkets, I think the whole issue and question around food sustainability, and the way that people have supported their local Welsh food and drink producers, is something that can continue, I hope, after the pandemic is over.
You're still on mute, Llyr. Now you're not; you're back. We can hear you now.
Okay, thank you. I think we might as well cut to the chase, then, on this, because you've touched on a potential bespoke support scheme, I presume, for the dairy sector in Wales. Clearly, it's been a call that's been made for a number of weeks now, and people have felt that maybe the Welsh Government has been slow responding to those calls. Can you tell us a bit more about what exactly you have in mind in terms of the potential scheme, what kind of timescale you have in mind? Clearly, given that the UK Government acted yesterday, you look as if you're just doing it to keep up.
Well, I don't think it's a race to announce—these things take a while, and you'll appreciate there are lots of legal matters that have to be sorted out, finance et cetera. For me, the most important thing is to get it right, to make sure it's right for our Welsh dairy sector. I don't think we've been slow at all. It's something I've been discussing, as have officials, with stakeholders over the past few weeks. The fact that DEFRA announced yesterday—for me, as I say, I don't think it's a race. What's more important is that you get this money out, you get it right—that's the most important thing—and that you then get the money out.
So, fisheries, for instance—I don't think we were the first to announce the fisheries support. I don't think we were, but we were the first to get the money out. So, the most important thing is to make sure that that support goes out. I do hope to be able to make an announcement—if I say 'imminently'. You know, I would like to make it by the end of the week—
—so it's Thursday today. That's tomorrow, yes. I would hope—I would use the word 'imminently'. What we want to do is make sure that we support those farmers who've been the most impacted. So, don't get me wrong, that work has been going on for a little while. These things do take time, but what's really important is that it's right, and that we've worked with the stakeholders to make sure it's right.
But do you not understand frustration in the sector that you could have told us this three weeks ago?
Well, of course, everybody's very frustrated about lots of things at the moment, and the uncertainty. I absolutely appreciate how difficult it is for so many. I get frustrated as well. It's really difficult, there is so much going on, and you have to appreciate these are unprecedented times and these things do take a little while. I think I've made it very clear, and certainly one of the things I was called upon was to make sure that Wales took part in the promotional campaign, which you may have seen was announced—I think that was yesterday by DEFRA, and that's been an ongoing piece of work for quite a while. But it's just important we get it right. We were always very happy to be part of that. I thought, as it affected the whole of the UK, it was really important that we did it together. I think collaboration and partnership working are probably more important than lots of things at the moment.
So, are we expecting the Welsh scheme to be quite different to the one that has been announced yesterday by DEFRA, or do you envisage the Welsh scheme being broadly similar?
I would say broadly similar. To be honest, I haven't had a chance to look in great detail at the DEFRA—but I would say broadly similar. So, we've been talking to the farming unions, listening to them and how many farmers have been severely impacted. Obviously, it goes down—there are different levels of impact, we need to look at that. We need to look at—. There are quite a few processing plants that have obviously been affected as well, and at the beginning of the pandemic—I think it was Easter weekend, it might have been the weekend before—we saw the collection not happen. We've been working really hard to make sure that that doesn't happen again. So, I was very pleased the UK Government relaxed the competition law; I think it's really important that producers are able to work together. So, a big piece of work, but I think probably broadly similar.
And are you expecting a funding consequential to Wales from the UK Government announcement or is the new scheme coming from your own funds?
Andrew. I think you want to give it 10 seconds, Andrew, before you become unmuted. I'll tell you when you're—. You're now unmuted.
I'm so pleased I'm unmuted now, I am. [Laughter.] On the declaration of interests, I'd just like it noted that I'm a partner in a farming business. I didn't get a chance to say that at the opening of the meeting. Some of the points you might touch on might, obviously, have a beneficial impact on my business.
Minister, just building on what Llyr said about the dairy support package, when you addressed the questions that I put you last month in the Senedd, you did say that you and the DEFRA Ministers were working very closely around dairy. You went on to say you have at least one or two discussions a week with the Secretary of State when it comes to dairy. Why are you playing catch-up here? I heard what you said in response to Llyr, but for many dairy farmers, hearing that announcement yesterday, who have just seen their market disappear overnight—24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours can seem like a lifetime when you're on the edge of financial ruin. So, I fail to see why this couldn't have been done simultaneously with the DEFRA announcement, just to put people's minds at ease, because people have lost a fortune in the last month because of the collapse in the service sector.
I suppose the short answer to the question is I don't think we had much of a heads-up when DEFRA were going to announce their scheme, and as I said in my answers to Llyr, I don't think being the first one is that important. What is important is being the first one to get the money out the door. On the fisheries, we weren't the first to announce, but we were the first to get money out the door. So, just because DEFRA announced yesterday doesn't mean they'll be the first to get the money out of the door. What is important is that the scheme is right and that we ensure that it's bespoke for us, and it supports the dairy farmers that have been most affected. So, I can't remember what heads-up we got that DEFRA were making the scheme, but for me, it doesn't matter. It's not that I could have rushed my scheme any more. It's got to go through all the stages that any scheme like this has to do.
You'll be aware that, right across Government, there are lots of different support schemes. We only have a finite legal capacity, for instance, and certainly before I came to committee today, I know that the lawyers were having a look at it. So, I don't want people to think it's a race, and I've said all along—certainly the farming unions know that we were working on this scheme, and I did write to George Eustice. I'm not really sure I've even had a reply to that letter, but I've spoken to George a couple of times this week, not necessarily on dairy, but in different fora, and perhaps we could have looked at doing something together, but DEFRA chose to do that, and I think it's really important that we get a bespoke scheme that's right for our farmers.
And I respect the position you've taken, Minister, and that's your call. But what I'm just trying to understand is, from the statement that you gave a month ago in Plenary, where you said you were speaking at least two to three times a week with the Ministers in DEFRA on this particular issue, I take it those discussions haven't been happening over the last week to 10 days, then—or that intensity of discussion hasn't been happening. Hence that's why Wales is lagging behind bringing your own announcement forward.
We're not lagging behind. That's what I'm trying to say. We're not lagging behind. This is not a race. The most important thing is we get the scheme right, and the sector knows that we were looking at a bespoke scheme and that's the most important thing. So, when I, four weeks ago—it seems like a lifetime ago, and four weeks ago we were certainly talking about dairy far more than we probably have this week. So, my discussions with George this week probably haven't been on dairy. It depends which forum you're in as to what you're discussing. But I think—. I'm trying to think—probably last week was when we realised that DEFRA were going to do their own, and we were then probably looking at our own as well. Scotland have been in on the conversation as well, but that's for Scotland to sort out. So, I don't think we're lagging behind, and as I say, I do hope to make a statement around the support that we're offering imminently, and I would certainly hope to do so long as the lawyers—all the t's have been crossed and the i's have been dotted. You must appreciate that we only have a certain capacity within Welsh Government for all of these things.
So, just to clarify, we're expecting an announcement now by close of play this week, which I think you indicated earlier.
What I said to Llyr was maybe I should use the word 'imminently', but I would certainly hope that we are able to do so by the end of tomorrow.
Okay. I'll leave my other questions to farmer support if I may, Chair, thank you.
I'll go on to Neil Hamilton and I'll come back to you, then, for transport. Neil.
I'd just like to pick up on what Andrew said there. Dairying is about 30 per cent of Welsh agricultural output, so it's by no means insignificant, and should be really at the top of your list of considerations, given that we knew what happened to the demand for milk immediately that all pubs and hotels and restaurants were shut down. We're not talking about huge numbers of businesses here. The NFU reckon that about 700 producers have been adversely impacted by market conditions, and of those, 170 were severely impacted. So, is your scheme going to be graduated so that it directs the greatest amount of help to those who've suffered most?
I'm not quite sure I recognise some of those figures that you said, but, yes, it will be certainly the ones, the farmers, who have been most severely impacted that we will look to to support.
Good. Okay, thank you very much. Those figures I quoted come from NFU Cymru's briefing, by the way.
I'm equally lacking in knowledge on it. Back to you, Andrew, on farm support.
Minister, could I ask you about the bespoke support that you envisage being able to bring forward for agriculture in general? Again, referring back to the statement that you made in Plenary, you talked about bespoke support for agriculture. We, from the many schemes that have come forward, as an industry, are excluded from many of those schemes because of the various criteria that is associated with them, so could you put some flesh on the bones about what this bespoke support might look like? Is it financial, or is it more advisory, and when will that support be coming forward? When will you be looking to make your announcement?
Well, the dairy support would be part of that bespoke support that I was referring to. If you go back to my statement four weeks ago, obviously we had set up the economic resilience fund and, as you said, at the time it was apparent that primary production wouldn't be able to apply for funding in the ERF. I have actually written to Ken Skates around this, and we've been having discussions across Government. As you're aware, at the moment, the ERF has been paused because of the significant number of applications it's had, but I'm awaiting a response from Ken in relation to that.
So, I suppose, at that time, it would be the dairy sector that I was looking at first. Obviously, the red meat sector, and I attended—. Just very briefly this morning, I managed to attend the Hybu Cig Cymru board meeting, and obviously there are issues around the red meat sector. So, it could be that we will need to look at something later on for that. The sheep sector, at the moment, is not so much of an issue, I'm told, but clearly we'll need to keep a close eye on that. But we need to look at all the variety of support and funds that are available, but I think what I said four weeks ago was, if they couldn't apply for any of the funding, not just Welsh Government funding but obviously the UK Government funding too, we would look at something bespoke. So, I suppose dairy is a classic example of that.
So, dairy aside, if you're a beef and sheep farmer or an arable farmer in Wales, or a market garden, you are not in line, as things stand, for any bespoke support that is imminently going to be announced by Welsh Government?
I wouldn't say 'imminently announced', no, but these are all things that we're keeping a very close watch on. So, again, there are a variety of fora that I attend and officials attend, there is a lot of monitoring going on, probably at a DEFRA level, that they share with us around these issues, and these are things that we're just keeping under observation and close watch all the time.
That is upsetting to hear, that there is no support going to be made for the other sectors in the agricultural industry, but there are two things you could do, which I've raised with you before, to give some financial certainty. One is around the modulation and making sure that that goes into the basic single payment, the 15 per cent, as some of the unions have suggested. And that's obviously within your gift and doesn't cost you any extra money, because it's money already in the pot. Secondly, it's confirmation that the basic payment would be made as early as possible this year, in October rather than December, and where the payment couldn't be made, the loan that has been operated in the last two windows would be made available again this year. Are any of those proposals ready to be confirmed, because whilst that's money not going into bank accounts straight away, it's two opportunities to give security that money would be arriving as early as possible. And neither one costs you any money.
On the first one, in relation to modulation, I'm just going to ask Dean for confirmation, but, as far as I know, we haven't had any confirmation from the UK Government that we are getting that. I think—. Is it going to be part of the comprehensive spending review, now, Dean?
Yes. So, as the Minister just said, we haven't had that confirmation, but we are pushing the Treasury to see if we can get that earlier, or whatever, and then we need to work through that as a department. But it's something we are trying to take forward.
So, that's in response to the first one. In relation to the second one, that is something that I obviously can consider. I've done it for the past two years, so we can certainly consider doing that. I don't have any objections to looking at that, but I wouldn't say it's something that we're looking at very closely at the moment, because you can imagine there are lots and lots of other things that are having to be looked at.
And can you just confirm, have you allocated the £5.2 million from the Bew review that is due to come into Wales as additional income?
Again, I don't think we've received it. No—Dean is shaking his head at me. No, we haven't received that as yet, so, no, it hasn't been allocated.
No, but it's been confirmed it's coming to you, as I understand it. Now, I'm not sure what the payment dates are but, obviously, that money, as I understand it, has been confirmed as part of the review, and the review's been accepted, has it not?
Yes, but we haven't received it yet and it hasn't been allocated.
It came up and told me to unmute; I won't do it next time. Can I just clarify some of the timelines here? You said in relation to the dairy scheme that you were probably looking at developing our own scheme last week. Well, that suggests that you certainly weren't looking at it the week before. So, could you just clarify just when you made the decision that we actually needed a scheme of that kind, and maybe instructed your team to look at it?
No, sorry; we've been looking at it for a while, but there were discussions around collaborating with DEFRA and having one with them. So, on the actual timeline, I don't know if anybody can give me an actual timeline. I mean, we've been looking at dairy sector support for probably the whole time of the pandemic, but Gian Marco's waving at me so I'll ask him a bit more about timeline. But I wrote to George Eustace about this probably four or five weeks ago, so the discussions were starting, but I'll ask Gian Marco to say a bit more about that.
Before he comes in, because maybe he'll be able to address this point as well, you also said that the farming unions were aware that you were working on this. Could you maybe tell us when they were made aware of this as well, please?
So, I remember for sure having a conversation with the NFU on Good Friday; I can remember that. How many weeks ago was that? That was the beginning of April, so—
All I was going to add, Minister, is that, obviously, because the impact on milk for us is one of the first things that we saw in the COVID crisis, we've been considering this and discussing with DEFRA pretty much since the beginning. Part of the issue has been to get the data on the May price reductions, which has only come in recently, and that's obviously feeding into the analysis that we've been able to do for the Minister and for the scheme. So, there's been an element of time needed to process the data on the price reductions as well.
Okay. Just picking up as well then, again, on the beef sector because, clearly, dairy is now looking at some sort of particular support scheme. Can I just confirm that you are still open-minded to providing financial support to the beef sector, let's say, over and above the work that's happening through Hybu Cig Cymru and others in marketing, and trying to make up the gap in the market?
So, we need to look very carefully at this, and I mentioned I think in my answer to Andrew that we're monitoring prices very closely. We're working with the other UK Government administrations. We get regular updates from HCC. It's really important to help our decision making around this that we have the most up-to-date information. Officials particularly are in very close contact with industry stakeholders. I've attended the agriculture resilience group I think three or four times. That's held weekly. So, again, hearing from stakeholders there. There's also the beef focus group that officials attend. You mentioned we've given—I think that's what you were referring to—some support to Hybu Cig Cymru, so they delivered a national consumer campaign encouraging consumers to 'make it with beef', and that's been launched.
So, of course, we are keeping a very close eye on that, particularly the carcass balance because, again, that's been a big issue. Hybu Cig Cymru mentioned that to me again this morning, because there was that, sort of—. Mince, in particular, was in great demand and, of course, with the closure of the food service sector, the high-end cuts—for want of a better word—weren't so much in demand. So, the most important thing is that we gather the information and the most up-to-date information as possible to help us make those decisions.
Sure, but the point I'm trying to get at is at what point, then—what needs to happen? Are you looking at price, or what are you looking at as a trigger point for maybe really working on and developing some sort of financial intervention?
So, obviously price is one of the things that we're looking at but, as I say, there are lots of discussions going on, and we will obviously make a decision as we go through. I mean, who knows how long this is going to last? This is the real difficulty. So, it's a bit like dairy. For instance, I can't remember which stakeholder I was talking to, and they were saying that they hoped it would be short term and that the restaurants or the cafes or the fast-food outlets would open quite quickly. Well, clearly, as the weeks have gone on, that's not happened and is not happening. So, it's really important that we assess things, because we just don't know how long this is going to last.
But assessing against which criteria, is what I was asking, really. So, you mentioned price. You haven't really given us more than that.
Sorry—I forgot that I don't have to unmute myself. Look, absolutely, as the Minister said, price is obviously very important. I think the other things we're looking at are the general market conditions, so some of the information we're getting from retailers, for instance, some of the information that we're getting through seeing the impacts of the HCC campaign. We'll have to factor all of those things in in any development or any advice that we might put to the Minister in relation to any possible intervention in the beef sector.
Okay. I have one other area, but I'm not sure whether Neil wants to come in on this particularly. Sorry, Chair.
Yes, we'll let Neil come in. You're still muted, Neil. Neil, don't do anything. They should unmute you shortly. They've unmuted you.
I'm just looking at the DEFRA press release about the scheme that was announced yesterday, and the eligibility criteria—they seem to be farmers who've lost more than 25 per cent of their income over April and May. That seems to me to be the real nexus of this. If you're giving help to people, it's got to be on the basis of the impact that the coronavirus measures have had on their business, rather than on individual ingredients and how that collapse in income came about. So, whilst I understand the point that you've just been making about price as a trigger point, it's actually impact on individual businesses that is going to be the key point to look for, isn't it, and which would guide the way in which you construct the scheme?
Well, no, that's generally. This is for the dairy sector in England. But the same principles, I would have thought, logically, should apply, because help is directed to those who have suffered the biggest falls in incomes. So, if you're fundamentally a red meat producer, rather than a dairy produce specialist, then the problems for you are just the same if you've had the same degree of collapse in that part of your production.
Yes, absolutely, and that's why we're having to keep a close watch on all aspects of the agricultural sector—well, all aspects of my portfolio—so, it's really important that we keep that—. We have the most up-to-date information, and I've described ways in which we do that in my answers to Llyr.
Thank you, Chair. You announced previously, of course, extensions to the single application forms and the Glastir small grant schemes, and those were welcome at the time. I'm not aware that you made any announcements in relation to the sustainable grant scheme—the window 6 applications—which has a closing date of the nineteenth of this month. Now, that requires submitting supporting documents and full application details. They require a five-year business plan, quotations on all the proposed capital works, detailed infrastructure reports, calculations of livestock slurry and manure production, and much of this is really impossible to gather if you can't get onto farms with other people who can provide some of that information. So, I'm just wondering whether you, therefore, intend to extend that particular deadline, and, if you are, then could you please make that announcement immediately because, clearly, people are panicking out there?
Yes. I'm not aware that I've looked at that in the last couple of weeks. But you're right that it is coming along very quickly now—19 May. So, I will certainly have a look at that by tomorrow and see what we can do in relation to that. I don't think it's actually been raised with me—
Because it is causing a lot of concern for those who wish to apply, because, clearly, they're not able to gather all the details that they need—
Okay. I think I'm due to have a discussion with one of the farming unions tomorrow, so I will certainly take their take on it as well.
Thank you. I note that, at the moment, in terms of bovine TB, of course, tests have been suspended—at least that’s what we were told—and, consequently then, cattle movement is restricted. The two things naturally flow.
And I also note that the cull that we didn't take part in has now been abandoned anyway in England. After killing tens of thousands of badgers and wasting multimillions of pounds of UK taxpayers' money, it's a completely failed project by their own admission. So, my question is this. We are in the times that we're in. We do have particular hotspots where TB, we know, is active, and Pembrokeshire is one of those, where I live. So, I know the cattle aren’t allowed to move, but we don't want to end up in a position where TB can flourish, I suppose, is my question. So, how are we going to address this going forward?
It was very important, I thought, that we continued to do TB testing. The current position is that it only happens if, in the official vet's judgment, it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. So, it is still going on. I think I'm right in saying it’s literally done on a case-by-case analysis—I'll ask Christianne to say a bit more—but no, TB testing is still going on. Christianne, could you add anything?
Am I on mute?
Okay. Sorry, I didn't allow the 10 seconds. So, this was a very difficult decision. We had farms that did not want to continue with TB testing. We had farms that were desperate to keep the TB testing going. So, we met with farmers and we met with the veterinary practices, and we agreed that where the farmer and the vet were able to conduct the risk assessment and agree that they could maintain the social distancing requirements, that the TB test could continue. But where a TB test was not able to take place—. In some instances, for example, we had an elderly farmer, a farmer who was unwell, and the test cold not continue. Then, if that test went overdue, the farm would go immediately under TB restrictions, although the financial penalties that normally accompany overdue tests, for example, the cross-compliance checks and also the influence that might have on compensation, they would be waived. So, that was the initial step we took, and only a very small number of tests have not taken place as a result of that.
Now, the next thing that happened was that vets and farmers were concerned that TB testing of calves was a very difficult thing to achieve whilst maintaining social distancing. Obviously, a calf is small, it can't be restrained in the usual facilities, and so we worked with the industry and we conducted a veterinary risk assessment on the impact of not testing calves under 180 days within the usual test. And so, as of this Monday—Monday, 4 May—it's no longer necessary for calves under 180 days to be tested at the routine herd test, but calves that are not tested would then not be eligible to be moved from the farm.
So, we're balancing the testing, the health and safety requirements, and the movement restrictions, because you're absolutely right, what we don't want to do at this point and what nobody wanted us to do was lose ground on the TB testing and the work that we've been doing. So, it's been a balance.
Thank you. I'd obviously read something and misunderstood—I thought the tests had been stopped. So, I'm glad that they haven't. Thank you.
I just wanted to raise the issue of seasonal workers, because, obviously, the NFU have made quite a lot of noise about this, and there have been some well-publicised charter flights coming in from other parts of south eastern Europe to help with, mainly, horticulture in eastern England. I just wondered if you could tell us how dependent we are on getting seasonal workers from abroad, which is obviously difficult, and how much we're able to draw on the resources of our own population.
So, horticulture isn't a huge part of our agricultural sector in Wales, it's about 1 per cent, but this has been the topic of several meetings. So, there's a forum called the ministerial inter-governmental group, which has looked at this as well as—. We've had discussions at a DEFRA level, myself and obviously Scotland and Northern Ireland. So, for us, I don't think it's been as big an issue as it's been for other parts of the UK. But what we did, we launched a new online service to match employers with job seekers looking for agricultural land or veterinary work during the COVID-19 outbreak. We commissioned it; it's being delivered by Lantra and it puts potential employees with the relevant skills and experience in touch with businesses to ensure those vacancies are filled in the coming months. It's really important that we need to support agriculture. It's not just horticulture, obviously; it's agriculture as well. But I don't think we have been so reliant on it as other countries in the UK, as I say.
Okay. And given the UK's traditional reluctance to continue to allow freedom of movement from Europe, this may be an opportunity, as well as a threat, to change the way we do things. So, I just wondered what discussions you've had with the farming unions on how we make seasonal work safe in the context of the social distancing requirements, and (b) more appealing to people, because you read that some people have applied to work on the land but have then realised that they would have to abandon their children and go and work somewhere 100 miles away, which would probably be impossible. So, I just wondered how we can take this forward to ensure that we are maximising our food production at a time when food supplies are always at risk of being disrupted.
So, I haven't had that discussion with the farming unions directly yet. I think it's something that we were going to pick up next week in our meetings, but I think it is really important, as you say, for food supply, but as I say, it's not been highlighted as a risk to me at the moment. But, clearly, we get produce from over the border and it is obviously something that's concerned the UK Government for the reasons that you've outlined, and I know they were looking at ways of perhaps—I don't know how to put this nicely. So, I think George was saying that when he was in—George Eustice—when he was in university, it was something that lots of people did in the summer holidays, and I certainly remember when I was a student picking strawberries one year to make some extra money. He was saying that perhaps we should look at promoting that. And it was interesting, I actually had some correspondence from a teacher to say they thought we should be promoting it more for young people who perhaps hadn't thought about farm work. I know if you go out to Australia and you want to stay there, something you have to do is look at farm work. So, there's lots of work going on, but it is something I will speak to the farming unions about. I mean, social distancing is obviously something that we in Wales have had tougher, if you like, regulations around. We've actually got it in legislation around reasonable measures. So, every employer will have taken that on.
Okay. But we know that even outside coronavirus epidemic times there's a shortage of people working in the food industry. Is this not an opportunity for us to acquaint more Welsh people with an enthusiasm for Welsh agriculture, particularly as (a) if you're furloughed you can still take extra work without it affecting what you're getting, and (b) the mental health of young people who are at the moment trapped indoors would probably benefit hugely both physically and mentally from doing some work on farms, if we could find the ways of doing it safely?
Yes. So, that was the purpose of doing the online service, which, I think, is going very well. I haven't got the data as to how many people, but the skills matching forms, they're really easy to complete. They can be completed online, but if people don't have access to a computer, they can use our Farming Connect service. That's one area where officials have diversified within Farming Connect. This is something that they're doing, so they can complete the online forms on behalf of somebody if they haven't got access to a computer. It's really important that we do support our agricultural and horticultural sector so that we have that protection of the supply chains, so that we can keep food in the supply chains and make sure that people are fed and that we also support our rural economy, so that was the whole reason for having this bespoke skills matching—
Okay. So, is Lantra going to be able to turn it around, given that the growing season is now?
Yes. So, it's already started. I forget—I don't know if Gian Marco knows when it was launched, but it must be at least three weeks. The weeks go so quickly, I can't keep up, but I think it must be about three weeks and I know there has been some significant matching taking place, so I think it is really important. And I think the point that you've just made around if people are furloughed they can still do this, that was certainly a message I know the UK Government were getting out, and we've done the same.
Thank you. We move on now to agricultural pollution. I know both Joyce and Andrew want to speak on it, so can I ask Joyce to come in first?
Okay. Right, yes. I know that we're in times where people are struggling. I know you've mentioned the dairy sector and packages that are going on alongside that, and the help that they need, and I support, obviously, all of that, but whilst we're in the middle of the crisis, I suppose it's really the same question as the one with TB. What we don't want to see—and so far, as far as I'm aware, we haven't seen—are incidences of pollution happening as a consequence of any inaction. So, I suppose that's the rub of my question.
So, that's in the dairy sector, but the other sector that is polluting, or has the potential to pollute, even in a worse way, is chicken production, because my understanding from things that I've read: if you get a pollution incident from chicken manure, it will stay in the watercourse and continue to pollute for a longer period, by the very nature of it, than cattle. So, I ask this question now, because whilst we might be in a position of crisis, there are still applications going forward for chicken farming, particularly in my area, and we need to be mindful of, and awake to, the possible accumulation effect of too many chicken farms being put in a very small location, and on an individual application basis, without thinking where we're going. So I suppose those are the questions that I have.
I know that you were going to bring some regulations forward on nitrate vulnerable zones. As far as I can understand, that legislation isn't coming forward at the moment, but there are no announcements on it, but I would like to know that when we are out of this current crisis, that it is your intention to carry on and pursue the NVZ legislation as it was, although I know that there have been slight amendments since the original.
Thank you, Joyce. So, I did publish the draft regulations about four weeks ago, and I did that to make sure they were transparent and available for everybody. They're only for information at the current time. I did delay a decision on whether the draft regulations will be introduced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so the draft regulations are there, and they are available on the Welsh Government website. Again, if anybody wants to put forward anything new around the regulations, we'll be very happy to receive those comments and consider them.
Unfortunately, we are still seeing agricultural pollution incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. I met with Natural Resources Wales chair and chief executive last week and we are still seeing a similar level to what we've seen—that's about three incidents a week. I can't tell you if they're dairy or poultry or whatever, I can't tell you the type of agricultural pollution at the moment, but we are still seeing incidents, unfortunately. I know that in relation to dairy, NRW did put out some advice because we're coming up to the peak now with dairy, and, unfortunately, we did see milk being poured away, and I know that NRW did put out some guidance or advice—I'm not quite sure which—around that.
I think the point you make around the numbers of applications we're seeing for poultry units increasing—I think they've increased over the last sort of three of four years since the vote to leave Europe. Because, I think, as people were looking to diversify, that was one area where we did see an increased number of applications. But I think the accumulation or the cumulative effect of it was something that was—when I was planning Minister, as well—it was certainly something that was looked at and I'm sure that Julie James is continuing to do that. So, that's the current position. We're seeing far too many incidents of agricultural pollution and the farming unions would be the first to agree with that.
Diolch, Minister, for those answers. I think I'm unmuted—yes. In your statement that you gave a month ago in Plenary, you said there'd been a spike in agricultural pollution incidents. I'm pleased to see that you've corrected that by saying that it's about three a week, which is roughly the norm at this time of year, because you drew my attention to an NRW press release, and when I contacted NRW, they couldn't point me in any direction to tell me that there'd been a spike anywhere—that they were aware of anyway.
But, what I want to get to the bottom of is when do you see these regulations being implemented, because you went on in your statement to allude to the autumn—that you were minded to bring these regulations forward. I think the words you used were, 'I would say by the autumn'. So, is it still your intention to have these regulations in place by the autumn, assuming, obviously, that we come out of the coronavirus crisis? If it is your intention to have them in place by the autumn, what consideration have you given to any capital grants that you might be able to make out of the rural development plan or other funds that you might have available? Because I understand that you've been looking at this—or, I hope that you've been looking at it with officials. Because obviously, when such regulations were brought in in Northern Ireland, extensive grants were made available.
Thirdly, whilst I accept that you've put the draft regulations on the Welsh Government website, obviously, what no-one, to date, has had sight of is the regulatory impact assessment, which is critical to understand the impact that these regulations will have on the industry. When might we be in a position to see the regulatory impact assessment and understand the real impact that these regulations, if they're brought forward, will have on the agricultural industry?
Thank you for those questions. Certainly, I will not bring them forward while we're in the current pandemic period. So, we said autumn, but there are time-specific things around the EU—I'm trying to think of the word. Somebody help me here—what's the word I’m thinking of? So, you know, the autumn would be the cut-off point when we had to do something in relation to the EU, so, that was the reason I said the autumn. But, again, we don't know when we will be out of this pandemic, and I certainly won't bring them in whilst we are in this very difficult period.
I thought it was important to get those draft regulations out—I think I said it at the time in the statement—so that everybody had access to them, because only some people had seen them, and I felt that there was a bit of misinformation out there. And, you know, you want to be transparent and so, therefore, I thought it was really important to do that. So, as you say, the draft regulations and an explanatory note were published on the Welsh Government website. I will have to send a note, Chair, as to when we'll be able to bring forward the impact assessment. I'm in discussions at the moment around that. I know one of the farming unions has written to me around that—I think it's the NFU. So, we will be discussing that at our regular meeting next week.
I hope that, now people have had the chance to look at the draft regulations, when they see the requirements they'll see that, for many people, it won't have an impact at all, but for some people, obviously, it will. And I have said all along that we will look to provide support for people who need that support to have a look at what they need to do within the regulations, but what we won't do is give funding to make sure that they come up to compliance.
And unfortunately, you'll be aware of the NRW dairy project where they are visiting farms, I think now, of the number of farms that they've been to, 62 per cent are not compliant, which I'm sure you will agree is not acceptable.
Could I just add a follow-up, Chair, if possible, please? I appreciate the point you make that you will not bring forward the regulations until the end of the coronavirus crisis, and this might almost be an impossible question to answer, but I will put it to you, because for many people, they'll be wondering: what defines the end of the coronavirus crisis?
So, I put it simply, Minister: what definition is the end of the coronavirus crisis?
That is an impossible question, isn't it, at the current time? But, what I meant was, while we're all still in—the way that we're having to operate at the moment. So, I mentioned the autumn, because that is when, as I say, we have to do something in line with the European directive, if that's the correct word. It is impossible to say, but clearly, at the current time, nobody—. I think it would just be inappropriate to bring these regulations forward at the current time—if I can add that to the note that I'm sending to the committee, please, Chair.
Very, very briefly. Thank you, Chair. You've quoted this figure of 62 per cent being non-compliant again, and last time you did that I pulled you up on the fact that it creates a narrative that 62 per cent of farmers are actually polluters, and they're not. They're non-compliant because of a form, maybe, that hasn't been filled or some sort of technical issue. So, you need to be much more clear when you bandy these figures around, because it really does create a narrative that makes farmers feel as if they're being criminalised for something that really is sometimes just an innocent oversight.
No, I wasn't saying that at all, and it gives me the opportunity to say the majority of farmers are certainly not polluters. As in every walk of life, there are good and bad, aren't there? But the majority of farmers are absolutely good and are not polluters. The 62 per cent is the percentage of farms that have been visited within this dairy project. But that has gone up significantly. I think probably the last time I gave you a figure, it probably wasn't even 50 per cent. I can't remember the last time we discussed it, but I had the figure the other day and it stuck in my mind, because I remember thinking it was quite a big increase. But, no, that's not what I'm saying at all.
Can we perhaps move on now to food? I know that both Neil and Jenny want to ask questions on this and the Government's actions. So, starting with Neil.
You can, yes. Sorry, I wasn't sure whether I was unmuted or not.
I'm obviously interested in doing what we can to alleviate the impact of the lockdown as quickly as we can. Obviously, any changes are going to have risk assessments attached to them. We don't want to take unnecessary risks and impose disproportionate burdens on the community. But there are many ways in which rural industries are very different from those that you find in urban environments—spacial considerations are obviously first and foremost here.
I've raised on more than one occasion in Plenary, for example, allowing garden centres to open and operate, because you can, with relative ease, maintain social distancing in the open air, especially as we get towards warmer and drier weather. Again, apparently, that's something that inhibits the transmission of the virus so far as we know.
So, I'm wondering what work you're doing of a general kind, not just specific to garden centres, but, to any business that is, for example, outdoors and has sufficient space to enable social distancing to take place, so that they should be right at the top of your list of businesses that will be allowed to open and operate.
Thank you. Yes. Obviously, this is not a question specifically for me—obviously, businesses and the economy doesn't sit with me—but funnily enough, just this morning, I made a plea to look at garden centres, and I think, obviously, it will be considered. But you're right, a lot of them are in the open air and are quite large, so they could perhaps run in a way that supermarkets are running with social distancing outside. So, I think garden centres are obviously something that could be looked at quite soon.
I think it's also been really difficult—I'm not saying specifically for Wales—but I remember reading yesterday in the news, there was a garden centre that had had to destroy plants and trees, which I found particularly upsetting, and particularly at the moment when people—. We heard from one of our own Members here today that people are gardening in a way that they haven't done before and having that connection with nature, the countryside and horticulture in a way that, perhaps, they haven't had time to do before, and now they've found themselves with time. So, I do think—. I mean, clearly, as we look at adjusting the lockdown measures, I think it's—. I don't like to hear the word 'relaxing' or 'easing' when so many people are still dying from COVID-19, but I think as you look to adjust the measures, then, certainly, that's an area where we can look. But I think garden centres are a particularly good example, because they're in the open air and I'm sure that they could be managed in a suitably appropriate way.
This is a prime time for garden centres and anybody in the plant trade, because seedlings grow quite quickly this time of year, and if they're on the shelves for two or three weeks, then you can't use them anymore—they've either outgrown their pots or you've gone beyond the key planting time. So, it's vitally important that we take urgent decisions in this area. I'm obviously not going to anticipate what announcement might be made in a few days' time, but it's clear that we can't go on with the whole economy in lockdown because that has repercussions that are also going to be bad for health and well-being. This isn't a zero-sum game; it's a case of weighing up the balance of advantage. We can't lock down the whole country forever, otherwise—if we took the view that, because people can get killed by motor vehicles, we should ban all motor vehicles, then we wouldn't have a modern economy and, obviously, nobody thinks along those lines.
So, I don't think that we should use the coronavirus crisis to alter our common-sense view of assessment of risk relative to the costs that are involved. Because we can't assume the kind of costs that you're having to assume at the minute for more than a relatively short period.
Obviously, public health is the most important thing, but, clearly, as the Welsh Government, the UK Government, the Scottish Government, and Northern Ireland, we review the regulations. All these things are taken into consideration, but, certainly, speaking on behalf of the Welsh Government, we listen to the science, we listen to the advice that we get from our chief medical officer, and all these things have to be taken—. And as you say, it is about pragmatism and common sense as well, but, certainly, public health has to take preference for everything. And as I say, there's still a significant number of people dying, and that's why I personally don't like to hear words like 'relaxing' or 'easing'; I think 'adjusting' the measures is the most appropriate way forward.
Just on what Neil was saying around seedlings, et cetera, if I can just make a comment: I've got a social enterprise in my constituency that sells seeds, and they've had to take on three extra staff because, again, the online buying of seeds has—well, I was going to say tripled, because they've taken on three and they had three members of staff—but they've seen a significant rise, which is obviously very encouraging. It's great for that business, and they're able to operate with the social distancing measures in place. So, I think it's good to be able to promote things like that, as well, but, clearly, all these things are looked at by Welsh Government.
Well, of course, some businesses have benefited from this; that's one of the paradoxes. But lots of businesses, of course, are in dire straits, and many garden centres, particularly the small independent traders, can't sustain losses or lockdown for more than a relatively limited period. But I wouldn't like us to think that it's only garden centres that are involved here, because there are many outdoor enterprises that operate in rural positions as well that are subject to the same kinds of problems: building suppliers, quarries, machinery part suppliers are all closed down. But in many of these businesses, they would be able to maintain appropriate social distancing. Some can't, obviously, but it's the social distancing that should be the nexus, I think, that decides whether somebody can open or not, and if you can satisfy certain general criteria, then I think we should be as flexible as we can to reflect the fact that, gradually, we will have to move back towards normality.
When this lockdown was introduced to begin with, it was justified almost entirely upon the ground that the NHS must not become overwhelmed. Well, it's been very successful in that respect; the NHS has been able to cope and we've got all these field hospitals over the country that have not been used. So, given that that is the case, surely we have to think along lines of flexibility and give greater priority to that than we would have done, say, a month ago.
I think, certainly, the Welsh Government are looking at all that. Obviously, we've come now to the 21-day review. As I say, these are not decisions specifically for me, but, obviously, I have collective responsibility and I can assure you that we take all these things into consideration, but the most important thing is that I think we've been recognised for doing things in a very calm and measured way: we listen to scientific advice, we listen to the advice of the chief medical officer. The First Minister is in extremely close contact with both the CMO and the chief scientific adviser. They attend Cabinet. It doesn't matter what question you have, we obviously are able to ask questions continually, but public health has to be the overriding concern. And you're completely correct: we prepared the NHS and the NHS has not, fortunately, at this time been overwhelmed. The field hospitals are there for if and when they're needed, and, again, it's a great opportunity, isn't it, to say 'thank you' to everybody who works in the NHS, in the social care sector and other key workers for everything they're doing for us.
Thank you. Joyce wants to come in on this point and then I think I'll go to Jenny, who is going into Government action and food retailer response.
Yes, good. You did point to, in your answer to Neil Hamilton, online success stories. That brings me to a question I've asked of a few Ministers about going forward. People may well have changed their shopping habits forever. They may decide that shopping online is the way for them tomorrow as well as yesterday. So, what are we doing through Farming Connect or any other agency that we're engaged with to help facilitate the growth in that form of business? Because, as you said in answer to an earlier question, we don't know how long this situation might be ongoing, and we don't know if we're going to have a second wave or when that might happen and what that might mean. It might be around just preceding Christmas, when lots of businesses, again, would be expecting a bonus, but they won't receive it. So, if online shopping is a growth area, then what are we doing to help those people who can't currently cope with that, to either educate them or help them to become better connected?
Thank you, Joyce, I think you're quite correct. I think a number of shops—I'm not just saying food and drink shops, I'm on about just in general—have said they're not going to reopen. As somebody who really likes to go shopping, I don't like to do everything online, I think I wouldn't change my habits, but I think you're quite right: people were starting to change their shopping habits anyway, and certainly online shopping had become a huge growth.
But going back specifically to food and drink producers, I did say a few of them have contacted me personally to say their online business has grown and they are really doing well out of it. I hope Members will have seen the press releases that my department's been putting out in support of Welsh food and drink producers. Specifically, we did a press release earlier this week where we concentrated on some farm shops. For instance, there was one that Llyr will know up in Buckley that is doing fantastic work. There's been one I've used a few times myself, because it's a great gift: it was a company up in Pwllheli that does afternoon tea in a box, and you get your bara brith and your Welsh cakes. So there's huge potential there. So, we are supporting them through. I think Cywain—that's one organisation within the department—has been supporting people with packaging and how to do it, how to do that online shopping experience. So there is a huge amount of work, and I think in some respects that has been a massive success story for Welsh food and drink producers.
There was lots of noise around supermarkets and online shopping slots, and I kept trying to say, 'It's not just about supermarkets. We've got all these amazing small food and drink producers here in Wales. Please support them.' And I suppose that's what I was alluding to at the beginning, that I think, yes, shopping habits will change, but also I think people will start to think a bit more about where their food comes from in a way that perhaps they weren't before, and about that sustainability of food. Particularly in the beginning, if we think back to the beginning of this pandemic, when we had that panic buying—I don't think that's too strong a word—people were fearful, and what we kept trying to say was, 'There's plenty of food, there's enough food to feed the nation, because of people like our farmers and our fishers, and there's plenty of food out there. People need to only buy what they need at that time, and not panic buy.' Certainly, that panic buying has gone now, and I met with the retailers yesterday, and apart from flour and yeast—I think those were the two that they highlighted as still being difficult to get on the shelves—and I think, certainly—. I assume the yeast was for breadmaking, but it could be for home brewing, I don't know. But certainly, it is difficult to get flour and yeast at the moment. But apart from that, there is plenty of food for everybody. But I do hope, going back to what you were saying about opportunities within the challenges, that people do recognise the fantastic produce we have, and that we can encourage people to do that online shopping for food and drink.
I don't want to prolong the discussion about the garden centres, but just to point out that the Horticultural Trades Association has been very slow to come forward with revised guidelines, and a lot of garden centres are already open. They are being featured on television programmes, and it seems to me that the Welsh Government is dithering in not clarifying that these are an essential part of the food supply industry. Anyway, so I'm hoping that in the next three days we get something sorted on that.
I just wanted to go back to some of the issues we covered earlier, but from the perspective of the taxpayer and the consumer. This business of Freshways instructing the farmers to put the milk down the drain seems to me a really criminal act in the context of one third of children across Wales being in poverty and needing this milk. As Freshways focuses, you know, features its pouches, I really would be interested to know whether the Welsh Government ever considered intervening in this particular market in order to rescue this milk and ensure that it gets to all those people who are currently in receipt of food parcels.
So in relation to Freshways, that happened—. Obviously we weren't aware that those collections were not being collected, and I think it happened on a Sunday night going into a Monday, so clearly we didn't have any ability to be able to do that. But certainly we have been able to tell Freshways how distressing we found that, and certainly for the farmers. You may be aware that earlier—was it earlier this year or last year—you know, with Tomlinson's Dairies, and I spoke to a farmer who was personally affected and they said it was one of the most distressing things that had happened. So, I don't think we can underestimate the impact it had. One of the reasons I was pleased to see the relaxation of competition law was the hope that that wouldn't happen again and also that processors would talk to each other a little bit more to make sure that didn't happen again.
You mentioned pouches to me. I'm trying to think when we spoke earlier this week. I spoke to you on Monday and you mentioned pouches, and I have asked officials to look at that. But, as always with these things, it's always the people who are—. As you said, you talked about the children in poverty who are the worst affected, so we certainly don't want to see that happen again, and I'm hoping now that processors can talk to each other much more that we won't see it happen again.
Okay. It's good that the competition rules have been relaxed to enable people to collaborate, because remember that this is food that we the taxpayer have paid for in advance through the basic payment scheme, and therefore it seems to me that there is a duty to ensure that food isn't wasted and—
Yes, if I can just go back to Freshways, sorry, as I say, it was just that happened, and it was just that one-off, and officials did work very hard with suppliers to take up the additional milk and divert it to other processors. But I do think—I'm not saying it will never happen again, of course I can't give you that, but I'm glad that, because we have had that relaxation of competition law, processors can do it more.
Okay, but the question is: what confidence do you have that the relaxation of the competition laws will cut through all the distribution problems that have meant that the supplies from producers have not been reaching the shops?
Well, I'm certainly hoping. Have I got confidence? Well, as much confidence as you can get. I certainly think it's a step in the right direction. I've been trying to encourage DEFRA to do it a little bit more quickly and get the legislation there, but I'm certainly hopeful it will.
Okay, but how confident are you that the supermarkets are not working to their very own way of doing things and insisting that food needs to be packaged with all their branding on, as opposed to being made available safely to people to buy? I think that eggs are another example, where trays of eggs were not made available on the shelves because of the lack of six-packs of cartons.
I haven't heard of any problems in relation to that. I'm going to ask Keith Smyton if he's heard of any issues. The only thing I did hear from one of the major retailers was that they couldn't do the pints, but they were very happy to have the bigger cartons. But that was for a very short time. I don't know, Keith, if you've got anything further to add on eggs and milk, and packaging.
Can you hear me?
Thanks, Minister. We work with all the retailer forums on a daily and weekly basis. These issues are brought up at the top level, also with the Secretary of State, George Eustice. It's the same issues across the UK, and the team's working hard, and if we do find issues of excess milk or other areas that need packaging or less packaging, we do bring it up. The retailers are listening, but it's an ongoing position. It's an ongoing piece of work for us.
Okay. One of the other things that I think people have difficulty understanding is that there's been a shortage of meat in the shops in Wales, of all places. On Easter Saturday, I know that my butcher couldn't get the carcasses he'd ordered of lamb. We're not short of lamb in Wales. So it's really how the distribution systems are not working effectively enough to maximise the opportunities here; instead, we read about the fall in prices because of obviously the disruption to other outlets.
I don't think there was any major disruption, certainly, in relation to meat. I mentioned earlier on that there'd been a significantly higher demand for mince, and I know there were a couple of supermarkets that were concerned about that and they took some mince from Poland, which did cause some consternation, and the issue was taken up with them and they said it was a one-off. As far as I know, there hasn't been a repeat of that. But in the beginning, we certainly had, and I'm trying to think when Easter was—. I suppose that perhaps was only a couple of weeks after this all began in the way it has—so there were certainly some areas. I know if you went to a supermarket past 9 o'clock, you wouldn't get milk or you wouldn't get eggs, but that's certainly settled down very quickly. As Keith said, we were having the retailer forum that DEFRA organised once a week. They've now decided to stop that, but I'm carrying on meeting on my own; I'm meeting the retailers as much as I can. So, I met them yesterday and there isn't the concern now that there was in relation to early days, if you like, but certainly there might be isolated incidents.
But I think in general, the meat supply is okay now, and certainly distribution—there haven't been issues. I always had assurance and, again, I never had any issues with rural areas getting their supply. Supermarkets went to great lengths to make sure that everybody was treated the same, and that distribution happened right across the country.
Obviously, the supermarkets have considerably increased their dominance of the food market. How big a concern is that? You know, small food retailers remain concerned that the supermarkets always get the lion's share of what's available and, obviously, it has an impact on the type of producers who are able to operate successfully, because supermarkets demand a level of uniformity and consistency across the year that makes it really difficult for smaller producers to get into the market. So, going forward, this is quite a challenging issue, and I just wondered what you think we can do about this to ensure that we've got a much better and healthier market in ensuring that we get local food supplies.
Again, you're right; obviously, at the moment people are tending to because we're—. Certainly, the advice is to shop once a week, say, if you possibly can, and I think the majority of us are doing that. So, it's easier to go to the supermarket, I think. But I have to say people are also buying locally and, again, conversations I've had with food producers are that that's happening. Certainly, vegetable shops—a lot of them are doing vegetable boxes; I've got a great one in my constituency. And, you know, we hope that it will continue after. If you see the freshness of the vegetables that are provided on your doorstep, one hopes that people will continue to do that.
Certainly, a conversation I had very early with the retailers—it was when DEFRA were still doing the weekly meetings—a Welsh food producer contacted me to say that some supermarkets were maybe rationing their produce on offer to make sure that they had the things that the customers wanted more—they perhaps wouldn't take from a small food producer. But, again, I raised it with the supermarkets involved and that very quickly was sorted out. I think it's really important that supermarkets do realise they are in a position where—. I think the first two weeks of the pandemic, it was like Christmas, and the fact that they haven't been able to prepare—. You know, they prepare for Christmas. They couldn't prepare, so I think we're incredibly fortunate that we haven't seen food shortages.
We're going to have to move on. We have less than a quarter of an hour left and we've got four different areas to cover, so apologies. Llyr.
Just one brief question, then, if I may, Chair. There were some data agreement issues, weren't there, with some of the supermarkets when those people who had been asked to shield themselves were hoping for priority access to online home deliveries? Now, my understanding is, of course, and you explained this previously, I think, in our virtual Plenary session, that those problems had been overcome, but, of course, most lately the Welsh Government has added another 21,000 names to that list. So, could you just update us as to whether those have been added seamlessly and whether those people are now also eligible for the same prioritisation?
Yes, they are, and they have been added seamlessly. I think, in fact, because I spoke to the supermarkets yesterday, the names had gone on the supermarkets' lists before some of them had had the letters, I think. It was that seamless. So, that was really impressive, and I have to say, the supermarket online slots are working very well. I asked for—. There's a bit of a time lag, obviously, with data, but, up until last weekend, I think over 45,000 online supermarket slots were for Welsh people who are shielding. So, clearly, that system is working. We have a different system; I think our system is much more streamlined, you don't have to register. In England, you did. So, again, I think that means that over a third of the people shielding have been able to access the online supermarket slots. And I think, again, it's been a great deal of work, and I'm very pleased that it's working so well now.
Thank you, Chair. Minister, obviously, the food supply chains—I've heard you talk about food security today in your evidence, and your statement yesterday talked much about food security as well. It was welcome to hear that in a Government statement. We have, over the last couple of weeks, just seen empty shelves and a pressure on the food supply chain. Can I ask, given the pressures that have been on the food supply chain over the last couple of weeks how is that situation informing your discussion and deliberations around 'Sustainable Farming and our Land', given that food security now, in fairness, has moved up the agenda, I would suggest, and the ability to produce more of our food, as has been touched on by fellow committee members, is something that many people are now focusing on?
Yes, I think you're right, and, as I said to you, I think that is an opportunity for people to start thinking about food sustainability and food security in a way. As I say, we haven't seen—. And I think we've been very fortunate—it's quite incredible, really—that we haven't seen food shortages. And, certainly, the message from me and the Welsh Government and other Governments as well is that there's plenty of food, people should just buy what they need; there's plenty of food for everybody.
Around 'Sustainable Farming and our Land', I think I've only had one meeting around that piece of work, if you like, over the past few weeks. We're looking to publish the responses. We probably have published the responses now, haven't we? I've just remembered it went out yesterday. We've published the responses to the consultation, but, clearly, I've always been very clear that food should be part of that, and nothing has changed at all. If anything, as you say, it has increased, but I've only had one discussion around that, and that was about making sure that we were able to publish the consultation responses.
But do you accept, Minister, that we are in a different zone now, given what we've gone through with coronavirus, given the pressure that people have seen first-hand of empty shelves? I take it that the food supply chain did manage to deliver, but there was some interruption, and we have a food security situation of under 60 per cent in this country, and if we are to achieve goals of producing more of our own food, should another situation like this develop in the future, then surely one of the levers, or the biggest lever that is available to your, is the 'Sustainable Farming and our Land' proposals, and they warrant a review or refresh, given what we understand on what we've just gone through.
I don't disagree with you. COVID-19 has thrown up so many challenges, and one hopes that we will learn a huge amount from it, and I think behavioural change around lots of aspects of life, but certainly the way that we buy our food and the way that we look at the food security—. So, a lot's happened on the sustainable work thread, if you like.
When you say 'a refresh' of 'Sustainable Farming and our Land', obviously nothing is set in stone, and I think that's what I was saying in my statement. Obviously, we hope to be in a position, certainly by May, which we're in now, of looking at the design of the scheme and those discussions with farmers around it. Obviously, we haven't been able to do that in the way that we would want to. So, nothing's set in stone, so I don't think it warrants a refresh. I think it needs to be part of it, and it always was. Food production was always a part of 'Sustainable Farming and our Land', but, clearly, at the moment, that piece of work is not going at pace, because of the current situation.
Specifically on our weakest area, in terms of food security, which is the fact we import half our vegetables and more than three quarters of our fruit, and I just wondered what we're doing to massively increase our fruit and veg production in order to mitigate that risk.
Well, again, I think it's something that farmers are looking at and are very aware of. Food security is something that concerns me in relation to EU transition. At the moment, the UK Government are still saying that we will be leaving at the end of December. So, if we left without a deal, then I would be even more concerned around food security, and I know that's an issue that the farming unions are also concerned about, so we certainly need to look at the amount of fruit and veg that we are producing. I mentioned earlier on that a very small part of Welsh agriculture is horticulture—about 1 per cent—so there is obviously room if farmers want to do that.
But we could become self-sustaining with 2 per cent of the land, so what action is the Welsh Government taking to really increase production this season?
This season—well, obviously, that's ongoing discussions with the farming unions. We're well into the season now, obviously, but I know it's something that we can continue to look at. But I think, as part of 'Sustainable Farming and our Land', obviously, food production is a very important aspect of that.
I just want to ask, very briefly, about rescue animals. I've seen reports from RSPCA and others about the real need in some cases to rehome pets, whatever they are—probably, principally, dogs and cats—very quickly, because when you have a loss of life, those lives, very often, have pets in their homes. So, that will create a need for somebody, somewhere to offer a home and the ability to move them on. Now, I know that most people's understanding of pets is, 'Don't handle then. They might have or be able to transmit the virus.' This is what people believe on the street. And also, thereby logically, there would be, if you like, a presumption against taking in any pets. So, I suppose my question to you is this: it's twofold, but, primarily, are people able to adopt pets at this time so that we can get that out there, and, I suppose, is it safe?
Thank you. Just yesterday, Christianne and I met with the RSPCA. They are having to rescue animals. As you say, the people who have passed away—they've had to rescue dogs. They'd had to had to rescue dogs from domestic abuse situations. So, clearly, that work is ongoing and we're very grateful that that's the case. If I can just say also, we did put out guidance and advice, but I'll ask Christianne to say a bit more. People were asking whether they could become infected with COVID-19. There's no conclusive evidence that dogs and cats can become infected or be a source of infection for the virus. So, I think it's good to be able to get that out. But I'll ask Christianne to come in to say a bit more on your questions.
Thank you, Minister. It is really important that people understand, first of all, this is a new virus and so we're all learning along the way, but there are very few reports of this infection in animals, despite a widespread expose of household pets worldwide. Farm animal species do not appear to be susceptible when experimentally challenged, so put that to one side. Ferrets appear to be the most susceptible to challenge and are likely models for vaccine research. There's been a report of an infection in mink farms in Holland, and there have been a handful of felines, particularly domestic cats—a very, very small number worldwide that have been identified as being infected. We have absolutely no evidence that infection is being transmitted from this small number of domestic pets to humans despite the fact that, as I say, a handful of them have been testing positive.
So, I think it's really important that we all know that, because, you're right, there are anecdotes worldwide of pets being abandoned because of worries around COVID-19, so we really do need to dispel those concerns. Having said that, we have published very clear guidance on our website to make sure people know what they should do about handling pets—examples of, 'If you are self-isolating and you have a dog, how do you manage that? What do you do?' But, as I say, the concerns about infection being transmitted from domestic animals to humans, there is no evidence of that at all right now.
Thank you, Chair. If I may, one around Lucy's law. Given that a lot of legislation and other bits have fallen by the wayside because of coronavirus—and we understand why that's the case, but this is a particularly pressing issue and it's not a tag Wales wants around its neck, being the puppy farming capital of the UK—. The Assembly election, as things stand, is in May of next year. Is it still your intention to have this piece of legislation in place or the regulations around it in place before the Assembly goes into dissolution?
And secondly, in relation to markets, if I may just bring in animal welfare, if the pressure does come at the peak lamb selling season because we still do not have the service sector open—the restaurants, pubs and the mass markets for red meat in particular—that potentially could create animal welfare problems. Have you given any consideration to private storage aid, which is allowed under EU rules, so that markets don't end up collapsing under the weight of stock that might present later in the season as normal marketing patterns will be out of kilter with, obviously, the markets they serve, such as the service sector?
Thank you. Certainly, in regard to Lucy's law, I think you're right—it's very important that we take that legislation through. I actually have a meeting next week around that because, clearly, we are not going to get all our legislation through, so we need to look at that. But believe me, I will be banging the drum for Lucy's law, because it's a bit like the circuses, isn't it? We always said we didn't want to become a sanctuary for circuses, and, as you say, we certainly don't want that title in relation to puppy farming. But clearly things are going to have to give. So, we need to work through that. So, I will have to update you once I've had further discussions around legislation.
In relation to markets, are you referring to livestock markets?
No. I'm talking about the markets that produce gets sold into, and, as the summer moves on, we're going to be moving into the peak lamb selling season from about the end of June onwards. If, obviously, the lockdown is still affecting the service sector, potentially in particular the lamb market could come under severe pressure. At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the EU allowed for private storage aid to be introduced as a market control mechanism to make sure there was no collapse in the red meat sector. Have you or your officials given any consideration to bringing that measure forward to stabilise markets if they come under huge pressure?
So, my understanding is that's certainly a mechanism that businesses can use.
Thank you. At that point, I think we've gone over time. So, can I thank the Minister for coming along to the meeting and can I thank her for bringing her officials? As you know probably better than me, you'll get a transcript of this to check for accuracy. Thank you very much. I found it very informative. I'm going to abuse my position as Chair to say Lucy's law is incredibly important not just to me, but to a large number of my constituents.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o weddill y cyfarfod yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(ix).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from the remainder of the meeting in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
And can I propose, in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(ix), that the committee resolves to meet in private for the remainder of the meeting? Yes. Agreement. Okay. Thank you very much. We have to wait our famous 10 seconds before we can move on to item 5.
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 15:34.
The public part of the meeting ended at 15:34.