Politics

Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth: 'We should all be worried about the demonising of migrants'

The Plaid Cymru leader answers our questions on the green transition, Housing First and poverty ahead of polling day

Rhun ap Iorwerth, leader of Plaid Cymru, speaks at an event

Rhun ap Iorwerth, leader of Plaid Cymru, says politicians need to remember migrants are people

Plaid Cymru leader Rhun ap Iorwerth says the Labour Party is so eager to gain power it is compromising on its supposed principles.

Speaking to the Big Issue ahead of next week’s general election, ap Iorwerth said centrist political parties like Labour are emulating far-right rhetoric around immigration and UK borders, saying it’s something “we should all be worried about”.

He also spoke about Port Talbot steelworks and the green transition, Plaid Cymru being the only party with a Housing First pledge, and what he’d do if he saw a parent shoplifting baby formula.

The Big Issue spoke to Rhun ap Iorwerth as part of our party leader interviews, getting answers on poverty and beyond. Here’s what he had to say.

BIG ISSUE: More than 10,000 Big Issue readers have demanded an end to poverty by backing our Big Issue Blueprint for Change. Will you commit to investing in people affected by poverty so we can end poverty once and for all?

RHUN AP IORWERTH: I think we all as politicians have to be committed to ending poverty. It has to be an essential goal of what we’re trying to do. Unless bringing everybody out of poverty is the aim, we’re in the wrong job. I’ve been talking today in the Senedd about the goals we need to be setting ourselves in terms of child poverty in particular. This is at the core of what we do. We have to be signed up to that.

If you came across a parent in the shop who was shoplifting baby formula to feed their child what would you do?

I’d like to think that I would offer to buy that for them. It is terrible that people find themselves in a situation where they think that the only option they have would be to take something that I have no doubt they would much rather be able to pay for.

How will you work to make sure steel workers who are going to lose their jobs in Port Talbot, and others like them whose livelihoods are being lost as green transition accelerates, will be reskilled to avoid falling into poverty? 

Port Talbot to us is the clearest manifestation of the need for a just transition. In our manifesto for this election we propose setting up a transition commissioner role so somebody is actually focused on delivering that just transition. We can talk about it but sometimes words can be quite cheap. If you mean it you have to put a bit of meat on it. 

Port Talbot has found itself at a cliff edge and what’s sad is that it wasn’t a cliff edge we didn’t know about. The government should have been putting measures in place to prepare us for this point. Of course we need to transform a carbon and energy intensive steel industry into something that is cleaner for the future. But we have to do that in a way that also protects and promotes the interests of the community that is built around that steelworks. We have proposed taking the boldest of decisions, which would be nationalising steel in order to make sure the government is in a position where it can be that safety net for the steel industry. 

Not just the workers who are central to our consideration but the strategic future of being able to produce primary steel in the UK. And by being in that position we can make that multi-billion pound investment then in hydrogen steel. There are all sorts of innovations. But we’ve got to have those levers in our hands. Government sadly has found itself impotent. Yes, it is offering some hundreds of millions of pounds – a significant amount of money in many contexts – but in terms of the strategic future of having steelmaking capacity it’s a small amount of money. 

BIGISSUE: On the climate crisis, what have you made of a lack of debate and scrutiny of the main parties’ pledges around it during this election campaign?

RHUN AP IORWERTH: There was some scrutiny of Labour’s pledges early on around their decision to pull back on their significant investment in our green future. That is a matter of regret for all of us – that the incoming government decided to not make this as serious a priority as they were making it when being in power wasn’t quite as close to their grasp as it is now. 

Sadly we’ve seen that in Labour, sadly we’ve seen the Conservatives playing culture wars with the environment in recent years. It’s one of those issues where to as great an extent as possible you have to put party politics aside. It’s a matter of regret that there hasn’t been much talk on the environment. Plaid Cymru has actually been criticised by some for being too ambitious in our net zero targets. I understand why people are critical because government inaction so far makes what we’d like to see happening feel unachievable. But I firmly believe we have to set stringent targets, such is the scale of the emergency we face.

You are the only party to mention Housing First in your manifesto. Tell us about that.

It’s something we’ve talked about probably for most of my time in the Senedd over the past 10 years – about Housing First does work and brings us results. We saw in Covid what zero tolerance to homelessness can do – that should be the aim always. I firmly believe it’s by helping people to make changes in their lives that we start resolving problems and it is much easier to do that, surely, when they have the roof over their heads rather than fighting to make that a goal. 

You also pledge to fight for rent controls – how will you pressure the government to bring that in?

We’ve been working with the government on the white paper on housing in Wales. We’ve seen the pain people have gone through in the private rental sector in recent years and, somehow, we have to reign in the large increases in rental that has made renting a home unaffordable for so many people. 

It’s always a balance because we don’t want to drive landlords out of the sector either. The private rental sector is very important and without it we would really struggle. But we have to find that balance of formulating policy to control the levels of rent.

Onto a topic that has dominated this election campaign – immigration. You are one of only parties to mention the need for safe routes – why is that?

I believe in controlling borders – every country controls its borders in different ways. We have to recognise that many problems we have in the unsustainability of the way [our] immigration system works is in the lack of investment in proper processes, which if in place absolutely will lead to people going through assessments and potentially being sent home if they don’t reach thresholds and it’s safe for them to be returned. 

So this isn’t Plaid Cymru not identifying we have an issue on the borders of the UK, but what we’ve been very clear about is people as humans, and the demonising of people is something that worries me deeply. History tells us that the othering of immigrants in this way we’re seeing currently – yes by the far-right, but emulated more and more by parties that would like to be considered towards the centre ground of politics – is something we should all be worried about. 

We need safe routes so people aren’t dying in boats on the Channel. It’s so glib to whittle down to three words – ‘stop the boats’ – a problem that is much more serious than that. The fact we left the EU makes it more difficult for the UK to deal with, in terms of our relationship with European partners. We also have to talk positively about bringing people into sectors where we need them – hospitality in my neck of the woods. Health and social care is another. Having that honest debate and taking the heat out of it is something that’s very important, while recognising that people absolutely do have concerns about the pressures more people coming into the UK might be putting on services. But let’s put that in the context of loss of public spending which has heaped pressures on those services as well.

Are you disappointed at how Labour is, as you say, emulating the far-right rhetoric on immigration?

Labour are so eager to gain power that they appear to be compromising on principles that parties like Labour should be speaking up for. Brexit is another example. I worked with Labour members in Welsh government on putting forward proposals post-Brexit which said let’s stay in the customs union and single market. Now Labour won’t even talk about that because they fear it’s too toxic and potentially damaging. Well, somebody’s got to be making the case for that closer relationship with the EU in order to protect trade and our economy. I’m more than happy to make those calls.

Another thing you have backed is a universal basic income (UBI), which has already been trialled for care leavers in Wales. Why is that?

UBI is one of those innovations we need to look into more. It appears to me to be something we absolutely need to understand the benefits of, and the drawbacks. 

The trial in Wales was very, very limited, aimed at a core of people who were leaving care. It was terrible to hear some of the negative comments about money being gifted to freeloaders. This was supporting some of our absolutely most vulnerable people. The programme was maybe too small to assess how it would work in the general population but it’s an innovation the government should be pushing more and more on to see what the benefits are. 

It’s one of those things people can’t get their head around but if you’d explained to people what furlough was four years ago people wouldn’t understand it. Providing money for people at a basic level so they can spend that and recycle it within an economy is worth supporting as part of a fight against poverty.

Big Issue vendor questions for the Plaid Cymru leader

BIG ISSUE: The NHS is a mess, housing is a mess – where do we start to fix them? Paddi, Waterstones, Sauchiehall St, Glasgow

RHUN AP IORWERTH: You cannot solve them by pretending you can carry on making deep cuts in public spending that both the Conservatives and Labour are wedded to. Spending cuts have an impact on people’s lives and yes we have to be cleverer in the way we run the NHS but we also need to make sure public spending is at an adequate level, which is why we propose more taxation on those with the broadest shoulders.

The same would be true for housing. We have made housing a real priority both homelessness and community, where the loss of housing – second homes for example – are a major issue. You have to make sure investment goes into sorting those issues as well as innovative and bold policy ideas too.

What will you do to create employment opportunities for homeless people and when? Cristian, Morningside, Edinburgh

The first thing is about creating economic opportunities and jobs for everybody and recognising the contribution that somebody who is homeless today can make tomorrow. 

Surely, it could be useful to have specific employment streams in place through the government’s usual agencies that are specifically targeted at bringing people who are homeless into the job market to give them hope. In my constituency really good work is done through Môn CF, and they work with some of the most vulnerable people to bring them into the workforce.

When was the last time you bought a Big Issue. What did you like about it? Paul Logan, Oxford Circus, London

I haven’t bought a Big Issue for a while but there used to be vendors near where I walk from the Senedd to my flat. I’ve bought it regularly over the years. My problem with any magazine is finding the time to read it. The Big Issue means something to us – I remember when it came out in my 20s thinking: ‘Wow this is innovative, this is giving people a real opportunity to provide themselves with an income’ – but also creating a platform on which we can talk about homelessness, and that’s what strikes me always.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? Get in touch and tell us moreBig Issue exists to give homeless and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy of the magazine or get the app from the App Store or Google Play.

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