FMQs: Airports, Pacers and Exam Factories

Obviously, there are a lot of Brexit-related developments this week and AMs are expected to allow a debate on the new Withdrawal Agreement later this afternoon – more on that tomorrow.

For now, it’s First Minister’s Questions.

Public ownership of airports is “normal”

Kicking things off, the Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.), wasn’t happy with the news that a loan facility for Cardiff Airport has been extended by £21.2million. It was a case of carrying on doing the same thing and expecting different results whilst redirecting money from public services.

“Since the Welsh Government purchased Cardiff Airport in 2013, it has already invested over £90 million of public money. Now, with this extra £21 million that’s twice the amount that the Government paid for it, and what have been the results? Yes, passenger numbers are increasing, but not above the 2007 levels….In its latest financial statement, the airport revealed its losses have increased to £5.71 million. Now, in my former profession, First Minister, if a business case came to me with these figures I would want to see a clear plan of how it could make its way back into profit and the viability of the business before providing further loan facilities.”
– Leader of the Opposition, Paul Davies AM

The First Minister pointed to the airport’s draft master plan and Welsh Government investment has ensured Wales retains a “vibrant asset” which is crucial to the economy of south Wales. It would help if Air Passenger Duty were devolved.

Accusing Paul Davies of “breathtaking” short-sightedness by saying this was redirecting money from public services (they’re not funded from capital loans), the First Minister added that only 14% of the world’s airports were in private ownership and some publicly-owned airports include JFK Airport, Charles de Gaulle Airport and Schipol Airport.

Off the Pace(r)?

Adam Price AM (Plaid, Carms. E. & Dinefwr) tried to dig deeper into last week’s exchanges on the future of much-loathed Pacer trains. They’re also set to be kept on longer than expected in the north of England, resulting in calls for passengers there to be compensated. Should this happen in Wales? Were there also issues with the temporary Pacer replacements?

“Now, can you confirm that Arriva ordered four to five-car Flex trains….and that Transport for Wales extended that order to nine trains? Can you confirm whether or not these electric trains with a diesel engine….actually work or not? And if they don’t, has TfW built in any penalty clauses to the deal with the supplier, Porterbrook, and is there a cancellation point that gives Transport for Wales the option of pulling the plug on that deal?”
– Adam Price AM

Compensation wasn’t on the agenda. However, the First Minister said TfW were introducing new fare structures across the rail network from January 2020 and extending concessionary fares.

The issue with the trains was a legacy from Arriva Trains Wales and safeguards have been included in contracts for new rolling stock – though it wasn’t clear from his answer whether that includes the temporary Pacer replacements. In response to a follow-up from Adam Price on improving transport links across the Valleys through a “Valleys Crossrail”, the First Minister pointed to the upgraded A465 as an example of investment in improved cross-valley links.

Exam factories

Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) turned to comments from the Future Generation Commissioner on the future of GCSEs – notably scrapping them. He thought this was an attempt to cover up the Welsh Government’s “record of failure” at GCSE level by simply scrapping the qualifications after years of “progressive policy and a lack of rigorous comparison of achievement amongst pupils, schools and UK nations”.

Any proposals regarding GCSE are subject to future consultation, but the First Minister wasn’t having any of it:

“A* grades in A-levels in Wales in the summer were the best in any part of the UK the very best, better than any part of England, better than Scotland+….I don’t regard that as a failure of our system. And his Gradgrind approach to education, that it’s simply there to factorise children through a system so they come out at the end of it, not as young people who’ve had a breadth of education….who are taught to think critically…..who are able to understand, argue and to participate in that wider way, but just have a set of qualifications, that’s not my idea of education, because I want our children to have both.”
– First Minister, Mark Drakeford (Lab, Cardiff West)

+ Scotland, of course, doesn’t use A-Levels at all.

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