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Wales

Volume 536: debated on Wednesday 23 November 2011

The Secretary of State was asked—

Fuel Prices

1. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Government on the effects of fuel prices on (a) rural and (b) urban areas in Wales; and if she will make a statement. (81780)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Government on a range of issues, including the effects of fuel prices in Wales. The Government are addressing the rising cost of fuel through the abolition of the fuel tax escalator, the introduction of the fair fuel stabiliser and a cut in fuel duty announced at the Budget earlier this year.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will he impress upon the Secretary of State the need to push the Government to introduce a true fuel duty stabiliser that would trigger an annual reduction in the pump price, as the so-called fair fuel stabiliser announced in the March Budget does not go anywhere near far enough? The volatility in petrol prices means businesses cannot budget, as was noted yesterday by the Federation of Small Businesses in its submission for the autumn statement.

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I must point out to him that the tax measures we have taken have resulted in petrol prices being approximately 6p per litre lower than they would have been had that escalator not been scrapped. Even taking VAT into account, fuel prices are approximately 3p per litre lower than they would have been.

Further to that response, may I ask the Minister about a slightly different matter? What support are the UK Government providing for the use of electric cars? There are hardly any charging points all in Wales. There is not even one per constituency. What is being done to encourage that?

As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, this is the technology of the future. As he knows, provision is being rolled out in the urban areas, and I hope solutions will be found to ensure that rural users will also be able to have access to suitable charging points.

Does the Minister agree that although it would be highly desirable to reduce fuel costs, it is impossible to do so while we are running a deficit of £160 billion a year as a result of the past actions of Opposition Members?

For commuters and businesses in my constituency, high fuel prices are painful enough without the exorbitant cost of the Severn bridge tolls. If price increases follow the normal pattern, tolls will hit almost £6 per car this year. What action is the Secretary of State taking to help my constituents?

As the hon. Lady knows, the Severn bridge is privately operated. The franchise comes to an end in 2017, at which time the Government will consider their options.

Unemployment

The latest unemployment figures in Wales are disappointing and show that there is still much for both the UK Government and the Welsh Government to do. We have made it clear that while tackling the deficit remains our top priority, we are committed to creating the right conditions for the private sector to expand and grow in Wales, in order to create much-needed jobs.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Labour Welsh Government on the launch of Jobs Growth Wales, which I am told will create 4,000 jobs per year, and will she encourage her Cabinet colleagues to establish a similar scheme in this country, because our constituents are desperate for jobs?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I would congratulate any Government who tried to reduce unemployment, which blights so many families, particularly in Wales—and never more so than under the last Labour Government. However, I must say to him that the jury will be out until we see the results from that scheme.

As the Secretary of State will be aware, in my constituency hundreds of people cross the border both ways for employment. Constituents of mine work in Broughton, and people from Welsh constituencies travel the other way to Vauxhall, Essar and other major employers. Does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be some joined-up thinking with her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in order to address the challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has just raised? There is a good scheme in Wales; why not replicate it in England?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong; this is a new scheme in Wales, being introduced by the Welsh Government. I agree that the £400 million investment in the Airbus factory will secure 6,000 Welsh jobs and many jobs in the supply chain to that factory. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently opened the new North factory, which will secure employment and development in that area for a long time to come.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the inaction of the Labour Government on enterprise zones is a real concern to the business community in Wales?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of the fact that we started the enterprise zones in England at a much earlier stage than the Welsh Government, but I am pleased to welcome the fact that the Welsh Government have designated some areas in Wales as enterprise zones. I know, however, from my discussions with business and industry that they are keenly awaiting some more details on the enterprise zones, which have been very slow in coming forward.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the announcement by the BSW Timber sawmill in Newbridge-on-Wye in my constituency that it is about to create another 20 jobs, bringing Christmas cheer to those families who will benefit from that employment?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I know how hard he works in his constituency to secure jobs. I offer my congratulations and hope that the business goes from strength to strength. I think we forget in this day and age when unemployment figures are going in the wrong direction that plenty of companies are creating jobs and plenty of enterprising—

Order. May I ask the Secretary of State to face the House so that we can all hear her dulcet tones, from which we will greatly benefit? I think she has finished and we are grateful to her.

Does the Secretary of State not realise how out of touch she is? The unemployment figures in Wales are not “disappointing”, they are shocking. We have had a 20% rise in the number of women claiming jobseeker’s allowance since she came to power in May 2010, including an increase of a fifth in the number out of work for more than 12 months. Why, according to her parliamentary answers to me, has her Wales Office business advisory council not yet discussed the plight of jobless women in Wales?

The right hon. Gentleman is right to commiserate with those people who are looking for employment, but I am not going to take any lessons from him—he was part of a Labour Government under whom youth unemployment rose by more than 40% and female unemployment rose by more than 30%.

What world is she living in? We created a record number of jobs in Wales. There are 10 men on her business advisory council—why does she not appoint at least one woman to it? With the deficit rising and growth stalling, is it not also time that her Government adopted Labour’s five-point plan for growth and jobs in Wales, including a cut in VAT on home improvements to 5%, a tax break for every small firm that takes on extra workers and a £2 billion tax on bankers’ bonuses to create 100,000 new jobs? Unless she acts now, she will condemn tens of thousands of men and women in Wales to misery.

In Wales, there is an acid test of Labour’s policies. The fact is that a Labour Government are in power in Wales and, as the First Minister in Scotland said the other day:

“If Labour has the answer to economic problems and unemployment, why are unemployment and youth unemployment in Wales higher than they are in Scotland? If Labour has the magic solutions, why is it not implementing them in the one place in these islands where it is still in government?”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 17 November 2011; c. 3582.]

Youth Unemployment

3. What recent estimate she has made of the number of 16 to 24-year-olds who are unemployed in Wales. (81782)

Current levels of youth unemployment in Wales and across the UK are, of course, disappointing. We are determined to tackle that and will announce additional measures as part of phase 2 of the growth review.

That is two Ministers now who have used the word “disappointing” about unemployment. Frankly, it is a tragedy and one of the worst things about it is that a previous Conservative Government consigned constituencies such as mine and whole communities like the Rhondda to long-term mass unemployment. They are doing exactly the same now to a generation of young people. Will the Minister suggest one single thing that he personally is doing in his Department to tackle youth unemployment in Wales and in the Rhondda?

Of course youth unemployment is too high and of course, sadly, that is not a new phenomenon. In the last Parliament, youth unemployment in Wales increased by 73% and we have not heard a word of apology from the hon. Gentleman for that. We recognise the importance of the problem and that is why we have introduced the Work programme, which provides properly targeted support to young jobseekers.

Is not export-led growth one route to addressing youth unemployment? In that regard, will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate private sector business in Wales, which since the last election has seen a 31% increase in Welsh exports—double the national average and the largest increase of any part of the United Kingdom?

Yes. My hon. Friend is entirely right. The export figures for Wales were extremely encouraging, led particularly as they were by the engineering sector. In that connection, we must commend Airbus for the wonderful work it is doing in the north-east of Wales.

Inflation

4. What recent discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effects in Wales of the rate of inflation. (81783)

I have regular discussions with the Chancellor and other ministerial colleagues on a range of issues affecting Wales. I welcome the latest fall in inflation, which was published by the Office for National Statistics last week.

On this Government’s watch, average food bills have increased by 5%, putting more pressure on hard-working families. I have listened to the Secretary of State’s responses, but can she give a guarantee that she is really fighting Wales’s corner and fighting for hard-working families in Cabinet?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what I think was a question. There can be absolutely no doubt about whether I always fight Wales’s corner in Cabinet. I thought he would at least be encouraged that the Bank of England has forecast that inflation should fall rapidly over 2012. In the mean time, the Government are taking very strong action to help consumers with high costs. We all want to help households and the Government go to the last degree to do so.

Feed-in Tariff Review

5. When she next expects to meet representatives of the solar industry in Wales to discuss the feed-in tariff consultation. (81784)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is meeting representatives from the Welsh solar industry next week along with the shadow Minister for Wales to discuss concerns that businesses have about the feed-in tariff review.

The Minister will know that confidence in the solar industry has been considerably damaged by the decision on feed-in tariffs. Will he and the Secretary of State now stand up for Wales and ask the Department of Energy and Climate Change to defer the decision date for implementation of 12 December so that the consultation, which finishes on 23 December, can at least have the views of the solar industry he is meeting next week?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency interest in this regard. As he rightly says, there is a consultation going on, which ends on 23 December. Although the reference date is indeed 12 December, that is subject to consultation.

Antur Nantlle community business group in my constituency has well developed plans for a hydroelectric scheme that will benefit the environment as well as provide an income stream for the venture, but it is concerned that any future change in the tariff will undermine the financial basis of the scheme. What can the Wales Office do to ensure that this example of the big society in action is not jeopardised by the Government’s actions?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the consultation proceeding at the moment relates only to photovoltaic installations. There will be a further consultation in due course in which he will no doubt participate.

The Government’s feed-in tariff fiasco risks shattering all investor confidence in manufacturing in Wales. What will the Minister do to influence ministerial colleagues to prevent imminent job losses in the Welsh solar industry and ensure that any change to the feed-in tariff is given a long lead-in time and is set at a rate that will encourage investment and not increase unemployment?

We fully understand the difficulties that companies involved in this sector of the economy face as a consequence, but if things had been left as they were, the feed-in tariff budget would have been eaten up. There is a consultation and I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will participate in it.

Enterprise Zones

6. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Government on the cross-border economic implications of the development of enterprise zones. (81785)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and with the First Minister on various issues, including enterprise zones in Wales. It is vital that businesses investing in Wales are given the same or even better competitive advantages as businesses in places just across the border such as Bristol and Merseyside.

Given that enterprise zones not only create jobs but have a wider geographical impact on the supply chain with regard to the economy, does the Minister share my surprise at the procrastination of the Welsh Government in locating enterprise zones in Wales?

This is becoming a common theme. Although the enterprise zones have been declared by the Welsh Government, we have only a recent letter from the Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science of 22 November to Assembly Members, which says that the Department is currently working hard with colleagues in transport, planning and elsewhere to ensure that its enterprise zone policy can be delivered. We can only hope that it gets a wiggle on and gets those details out to businesses as fast as possible.

Blaenau Gwent, with high unemployment but great potential, includes an enterprise zone. I thank the Secretary of State for meeting developers who propose to build a £200 million race track there. She offered to speak to Ministers from the Treasury and from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about that infrastructure plan and capital allowances. Following those representations, will she meet me to feed back on progress?

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, and I was pleased to meet him and the business people who are thinking of investing in Blaenau Gwent. There is a lot of work to be done on the project, which is exceedingly ambitious, but as the area has been designated by the Welsh Government as an enterprise zone for the automotive industry, I hope that good progress will be made. If any help can be given, I am always happy to see what I can do, and I will certainly be pleased to feed back to the hon. Gentleman.

Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but there is a considerable hubbub in the Chamber, which is very unfair for Members asking questions and the Ministers answering them. Let us have a bit of order and some self-respect.

Does my right hon. Friend share my regret that it is almost impossible to answer the question about cross-border implications, because there are no details other than the location and sectors for the Welsh enterprise zones?

It is increasingly difficult when relying on another Government to implement a policy, but I remain optimistic because I want the message to go out that Wales is open for business. Enterprise zones will give an advantage to businesses going into these areas and create jobs, and there are good forecasts for the number of private sector jobs to be created by 2015, so I walk in hope. I encourage the Welsh Government to do everything that they can, and I stand ready to help them.

The funding available for the Bristol enterprise zone is nearly as much as the entire amount for enterprise zones for the whole of Wales. How can the Secretary of State justify supporting that alongside the tax on trade and investment in Wales that the Severn bridge toll represents? Will she resist this massive investment at the doorway of Wales that would stop inward investment into Wales?

The amount given to the Welsh Government as a consequence of what is being spent on enterprise zones in England is calculated in exactly the same way under our Government as under the previous Government. The Minister in Wales has received £10 million towards enterprise zones, but she also has a budget of nearly £15 billion at her disposal, and she can decide how she spends that. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to encourage her to look at what she can do in those enterprise zones to encourage businesses.

Inward Investment

7. What recent discussions she has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) others on the work of UK Trade and Investment in promoting inward investment in Wales. (81786)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, UK Trade and Investment and others on promoting inward investment in Wales. I have met the new chief executive of UKTI in the last month and yesterday I met the senior investment adviser for Wales as part of continuing discussions better to promote Wales to potential investors.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs recently heard from the chief executive of UKTI, but he, like our Committee, is still waiting in hope for his first meeting with the Welsh Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science. Given that surprising fact, and the fact that the Secretary of State herself has met the Committee and UKTI many times, what advice can she give the Welsh Business Minister on pushing the respect agenda and the interests of Welsh business?

My hon. Friend knows that I try to give encouragement to the Welsh Labour Minister for Business, rather than giving her advice, but I am pleased that the Welsh Affairs Committee is investigating trade and investment, and I look forward to giving evidence to the Committee next month. I continue to hold a series of meetings to see how we can assist and work with the Welsh Government to improve those figures.

But is not inward investment always a second best? Brace’s bakery, an indigenous Welsh firm with its headquarters in Crumlin, took over an inward investment company in my constituency that was about to close down. On Monday, Brace’s increased its work force by a third, so will the Secretary of State give her congratulations and support to indigenous Welsh companies, and ensure that the rest of the country enjoys the great merits of Brace’s breads and Welsh cakes?

Now the hon. Gentleman is tempting me; I always like a good Welsh cake. He should know how much I encourage indigenous Welsh companies, not least by my continuous support of the Fast Growth 50, which celebrates indigenous companies and the way they grow the economy, but he must not do down inward investment. In 2010-2011, 38 inward investment projects led to the creation of 2,444 new jobs and safeguarded another 1,100 jobs in Wales. I think that is pretty important and certainly not second best.

Economic Situation

9. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on measures to stimulate economic growth in Wales. (81788)

My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, the Welsh Government and other organisations to discuss measures that would help to stimulate economic growth in Wales.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the private sector in Wales represents far too small a share of the total Welsh economy? What steps is he taking to change that?

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I agree with him, and so do the shadow Secretary of State and the Welsh First Minister. The Government’s plan for growth aims to create the most competitive tax system in the G20 and make the UK the best place in Europe to start, finance and grow a business. That applies to Wales as much as to the rest of the country.

Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to incentivise good growth in difficult times is to invest in green jobs and the green economy? What would he say to my constituent Labour Councillor Phil White, ex-Tower colliery, who has put together proposals for investment in 1,500 homes in five of the most deprived areas of Wales using the feed-in tariff scheme by next March? This Government have cut the legs away from under that scheme, so what would the Minister say to my constituent?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman listened carefully to my previous answers on the issue. I urge him and his constituents to engage with the consultation now proceeding.

SMEs

10. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Government on support for small and medium-sized enterprises in Wales. (81789)

11. What recent discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Government on support for small and medium-sized enterprises in Wales. (81790)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Government to support Welsh businesses.

Given the importance of SMEs in the vital task of job creation in Wales and across the United Kingdom, what steps are the Government taking to reduce the burden of regulation on businesses in Wales?

My hon. Friend is correct. SMEs are the backbone of the Welsh economy and have long been so. Through our programme of reduction of regulation, we are easing the burden on SMEs and setting up new businesses. It is hoped that that will cause the sector to flourish in Wales.

Does my hon. Friend agree that rises in interest rates would be catastrophic for the prospects of SMEs in Wales, and that maintaining our low interest rates could be at risk if we were to lose our triple A rating, making it more difficult for Wales to maintain its competitive edge when it comes to exports?

Yes, my hon. Friend is entirely correct. This Government have had to take tough decisions on the economy. The fruit of that is that we have maintained our triple A rating and, as a consequence, this country is in a far better position than many of our competitors.

Small businesses in my constituency have written to me this month saying that they are going to lay people off or may face closure because of the Government’s policy on the feed-in tariff for solar. Will the Minister give a categoric assurance to the House that he will lobby the Treasury and Ministers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change to ensure that the scheme is maintained to help businesses that are doing the right thing in Wales?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my previous answers on this question. I urge him also to contribute to that consultation, and no doubt he will participate in the debate this afternoon.

It is estimated that the SME sector accounts for 90% of employment in Wales. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government about promoting this vital sector?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. As I have said, the SME sector is the backbone of the Welsh economy. We have regular discussions with the Welsh Government. In fact, I am meeting the appropriate Welsh Minister next Monday for that purpose.

Broadcasting

13. What recent discussions she has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) others on broadcasting in Wales. (81792)

I have had recent discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on a range of issues, including broadcasting in Wales. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I have also had recent discussions with the BBC Trust, the S4C Authority and independent Welsh television producers on the issue.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the head of the BBC to reconsider his savage cuts to BBC local radio so that people in Wales can continue to enjoy Welsh language broadcasting alongside people in Cornwall enjoying Cornish language broadcasting?

Order. I do not know whether the microphones are playing tricks on us or—more likely—there is just too much noise. I wanted to hear fully what the hon. Lady was saying.

I think I got my hon. Friend’s drift. I congratulate her on being a champion of the Cornish language. Like me, she will want to recognise and congratulate the BBC and S4C on reaching an agreement on the funding governance and accountability of S4C until 2017, thereby securing Welsh language broadcasting in Wales?

Anyone watching the BBC’s excellent sporting coverage this weekend might like to know that the odds on the right hon. Lady remaining Secretary of State have dropped from 8:1 to 2:1. Would she recommend that they have a flutter on that?