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Wales

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

The Welsh Cavalry

1. What discussions she has had with her ministerial colleagues on the future of the 1st The Queen's Dragoon Guards, the Welsh cavalry. (113163)

Before I answer the question, I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to the 10 British servicemen who have been killed in action since our last session of Welsh questions, including five who were from, or attached to, the 1st Battalion The Royal Welsh. They were courageous and talented soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of our nation, and we will always remember them.

The Army is conducting a study of its future force structure. The outcome of the study will be announced once decisions have been made. Until then, it is not possible to comment on which specific units may be affected.

May I urge my right hon. Friend, on behalf of the numerous constituents who have written to me about the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, to work closely with her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence to try to ensure that this superb regiment is retained?

I have stressed that the continuation of a strong military presence in Wales is of great importance both to the local communities and to the country as a whole. I proudly display at the entrance to Gwydyr House the emblem of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards, which celebrates the bravery and commitment of our armed forces in Wales on behalf of Queen and country. I will continue to give every support to our Welsh regiments, including the QDG.

The feet-dragging by the Ministry of Defence over the future of the Welsh cavalry is deeply damaging to its morale. Will the Secretary of State strongly urge Defence Ministers to keep it?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that I have fully supported the Welsh cavalry—the QDG. I will take no lessons from a party which, in restructuring the Army, consigned more than 600 years of military tradition in Wales to the history books when it abolished the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales to form the Royal Welsh. I, certainly, will continuously press the Welsh regiments’ case at the highest level, and the hon. Gentleman should take comfort from that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that abolishing the QDG would be almost as bad as abolishing, for example, the Welsh Guards? Will she impress on her Cabinet colleagues the central importance of the regimental system to the morale and effectiveness of the British Army as a whole?

My distinguished hon. Friend has himself served in the armed forces, and I agree with him entirely. On 2 June I attended the home-coming parade and the reception in Cardiff for the Queen’s Dragoon Guards as part of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations, and I know that the morale of units that are so closely associated with Wales needs to continue.

May I first associate myself with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the sacrifice made by all the Welsh men and women who fought for this country? They should never be forgotten in the House or in the country.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State could bring herself to comment on the worrying rumours that, while the Welsh cavalry may well be saved following a campaign across the House, the price that we may pay for that is the loss of one of the battalions of the Royal Welsh, with its 700 jobs in Wales?

Let me just remind the House that the last Labour Government left the MOD budget with a £38 billion black hole, and that it has been brought back into balance for the first time in a generation by this Government. I assure the hon. Gentleman—who is a Johnny-come-lately to this campaign—that I will continue to give my undiluted support to our Welsh regiments, but, as I have said, no decisions have yet been made. There is a great deal of speculation, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should make people feel so insecure.

Despite the bluster, the Secretary of State’s silence on the fate of the Royal Welsh will have been heard throughout the armed forces, including those in Afghanistan, where the 1st Battalion is currently serving. Does she not agree that it will be a truly pyrrhic victory for the QDG if a cap badge is saved in Wales but we lose a battalion with several hundred jobs?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but let me repeat that no decisions have been made. Let me also repeat that I will take no lessons from a party that got rid of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and the Royal Regiment of Wales. I can take advice from much better people than the hon. Gentleman.

I, too, urge the Secretary of State to make any representations necessary to keep the Royal Welsh, because it recruits very well in its traditional recruitment areas and any loss of a battalion would limit the opportunities for young Welsh people to join an infantry regiment.

I thank my hon. Friend for those remarks. As he knows, there is huge affection for all these regiments. Since the moment I was appointed as Secretary of State for Wales, I have made it my business to visit as many parts of the Army services in Wales as possible, and I continue to support the regiments. This issue is also important as we are seeking to recruit people into the reserves and the Territorial Army. These brigades are a great recruiting sergeant, and long may they continue. Certainly, I will always make that case, although the decision does not rest with this office.

Order. The Secretary of State is not conducting a private conversation. If she would be good enough to look in the direction of the House, we might hear her, for which we would all be deeply obliged.

Manufacturing and Engineering

2. What assessment she has made of the importance of supply chains to manufacturing and engineering in Wales. (113165)

The Government recognise the high importance of supply chains to the manufacturing and engineering sectors in Wales, both of which are significant components of the Welsh economy.

Does the Minister agree that small and medium-sized enterprises are a key part of the economy, both in Wales and England, and that the Government are absolutely right to focus on making sure they are attached to these supply chains, to develop their products and services further?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to highlight the mutual dependence of supply chains that emanate in England and Welsh manufacturing industry, and vice versa. In fact, Airbus accounts indirectly for about 135,000 jobs. The Welsh Government, to whom economic development is devolved, should be keen to foster those supply chains and, for that purpose, should be working very closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

On Friday, I visited the Orb works in Newport, which, thanks to a very large investment in the supply chain by Tata, is now producing world-class electrical steel, which is good news for the work force and for manufacturing in Newport. Steelmakers in Wales are still experiencing a subdued market, however, as yesterday’s news showed, so what more are the Government doing to help steelmaking in Wales?

The Government are very closely engaged with the steelmaking industry via UK Trade and Investment, and I would reiterate the point that, given the news we heard yesterday, it is extremely important that the Welsh Assembly Government should work closely with UKTI to foster that industry.

Does the Minister agree that one of the major challenges facing the Welsh economy is the deficit in exports generated in Wales and imported goods and services from other states, as well as from within the UK? What discussions is the Minister having with Cabinet colleagues and the Welsh Government to expand and diversify the Welsh export base—in particular in manufacturing, once a great strength of the Welsh economy?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to point that out. Over the next few weeks there will be an enormous opportunity for Welsh industry in the shape of the British business embassy, which exporters and importers from all over the world will be attending. I understand that the Welsh Assembly Government are now engaging, albeit tentatively, with that embassy, but I urge them to do more.

Economy

4. What recent assessment she has made of the economy in Wales; and if she will make a statement. (113167)

I have regular discussions with Welsh Government Ministers about the prospects of the Welsh economy and the need for closer working to help create the right environment for jobs, growth and prosperity.

Youth unemployment in my constituency has gone up by 16% in the last year—not helped by the Government’s scrapping of the future jobs fund. Is it not time that the Welsh Secretary took lessons from the Welsh Government and emulated their jobs growth scheme, started in April, with the aim of creating 4,000 jobs?

I agree that if there are lessons to be learned from the Welsh Government, we must learn them, but the hon. Lady must remember that unemployment is a matter for both the UK Government and the Welsh Government, and under the last Labour Government youth unemployment in Wales rose by 73% over the Parliament.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of figures from the Office for National Statistics and the AA showing that more than £16 million could be injected into the Welsh economy this year alone because Labour’s 3p August rise in fuel duty has now been scrapped?

Yes; my hon. Friend knows that the Government have shown that they have listened and are willing to help motorists further with their cost of living by acting at a time when the pump prices are still at historic highs and deferring the increase to January. I pay tribute to him, as he has of course played a great part in the campaign and has, in part, brought about this change by the Government, which will be welcomed throughout Wales, by businesses and families alike.

The Secretary of State talks about creating the right environment, and I agree with her on that. She will also recognise that in north-east Wales, Cheshire and the Wirral there is a common travel-to-work area. Will she put her support behind the campaign to improve and upgrade the Wrexham to Bidston line, as that would help to service that travel-to-work area and create the right environment?

The hon. Gentleman and I used to serve on the Select Committee on Science and Technology together, and I know that he is a constant champion for improving the travel arrangements in and around his area of the country. I have always supported the Wrexham to Bidston line, but I have always prioritised the electrification of the valleys lines and of course that unfinished business of getting the electrification down to Swansea. The electrification of the Wrexham to Bidston line would be close behind that.

Tourism is a crucial sector in the Welsh economy, not least in mid-Wales and Ceredigion. The contrast between the procession of the Olympic torch and the floods that we suffered in Ceredigion could not be any starker. I am appreciative of the Secretary of State’s visit to Ceredigion last week. Will she reiterate the message that the county council gave her, which was that Ceredigion is very much open for business?

I was delighted to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to visit his constituency and look at the aftermath of the floods. It is when the media have left that it gets most difficult for the people who have been affected. I was impressed by the way in which that community has got itself back on its feet, and it certainly is open for business. If anyone is reading the record of or listening to these questions, they should know that his constituency of Ceredigion is one of the best places to take a holiday and that it really is open for business.

How is the mobility of Welsh labour improved if young people who are leaving the family home, getting on their bikes and taking low-paid work elsewhere are prevented from paying for their housing costs by the Government’s policy?

The hon. Gentleman and I share the same concern about youth unemployment. The unemployment rate in Wales remains unacceptably high at 9%, but I would have thought that he welcomed the fall in unemployment in Wales for the fourth month in a row. It means that the economy is moving in the right direction for many of the members of the work force who are still looking for work.

Has my right hon. Friend considered the economic impact of having different corporation tax regimes on either side of the English-Welsh border, especially since, as we have heard, there is a single economic sub-region in Cheshire and north-east Wales?

There is huge concern among the businesses that I have talked to about any prospect of changes in the corporation tax rate across the border between England and Wales. As my hon. Friend will know, that relates to the purpose of the Silk commission, which I established and which is looking particularly at the areas of taxation and accountability. I hope that it will report later this year and we will be able to see its recommendations.

Hard-pressed households across Wales will certainly welcome the Chancellor’s latest U-turn on the proposed August increase in fuel duty, but with Office for National Statistics figures today showing that borrowing is rocketing because this Government have created a double-dip recession, will the Secretary of State speak up for struggling businesses in Wales and the 130,000 people still looking for work, and ask the Chancellor to do a U-turn on his economic plans?

I welcome the new Opposition Front-Bench team. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), who stepped down from the Front Bench last month and will be greatly missed. I welcomed the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), the shadow Secretary of State, during the Welsh Grand Committee, but I would like to do so again.

I say to the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that, in addition to the support we have already announced, the decision that has been made to cut the fuel duty and scrap the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, thus ensuring that fuel duty is frozen for 21 months, will help businesses and families in Wales. I am very surprised that she did not rise to the Dispatch Box to welcome that.

I thank the Secretary of State for that, but we do have quite a lot of questions to get through.

Welsh Assembly (Elections)

6. What discussions she has had with Welsh Government Ministers and Assembly Members on the Green Paper on future electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales; and if she will make a statement. (113170)

I published the Green Paper on future electoral arrangements on 21 May. I have spoken to all four party leaders in the Assembly, including the First Minister, about the Green Paper.

The First Minister of Wales says that the Prime Minister said to him that he would not take forward changes to the Assembly voting system without the consent of the Assembly. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is the UK Government’s position?

The hon. Gentleman would have had the opportunity to discuss that at the Welsh Grand Committee on Monday at 11.30 am, but I understand that Labour objected to the relevant motion yesterday. I now know that that is because Labour MPs have a problem getting up in the morning and getting to work by 11.30 on a Monday—[Interruption.] I have therefore decided to cancel the Welsh Grand Committee and Labour now has the opportunity to call a debate in its own time.

The Prime Minister has met the First Minister on a number of occasions and I believe that that matter, among others, was discussed. I am not aware of any firm commitments made by the Prime Minister.

Welsh Identity

7. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and others on promoting the Welsh identity. (113171)

My right hon. Friend and I have frequent discussions with ministerial colleagues and others on promoting and capitalising on Wales’ unique identity as a constituent nation of the United Kingdom.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Nothing promotes the Welsh identity better than the wonderfully rousing national anthem “Land of My Fathers,” but it is an affront to the people of Wales when the England team wrongly use the United Kingdom’s national anthem when they play. Does the Minister agree that England should emulate Wales, be clear on the difference between England and the United Kingdom, and introduce a rousing national anthem of our own?

As a Welshman, I feel rather chary about intruding on English matters such as an English national anthem. As a Welshman, I sing “God Save the Queen” just as enthusiastically and just as badly as I sing “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau”.

Does the Minister agree that as well as Welsh Members of Parliament we are British Members of Parliament and that as Welsh Members of Parliament we should be able to speak and vote on matters that affect our constituents, even those that affect our constituents from over the border? In my case, that includes hospitals, business, transport, defence and other matters.

The right hon. Gentleman appears to be referring to the West Lothian question, on which, as he knows, there is a commission. It would be refreshing if Labour Members wished to debate such matters in Grand Committee rather than running scared.

House Building

8. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and others on the residential construction industry in Wales. (113172)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and others on a range of issues, including the construction industry in Wales. I have written to the Welsh Government offering to facilitate discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government to explore the possible extension of the NewBuy scheme to Wales.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the approach to planning and building regulations being adopted by the Labour Welsh Government is having an adverse effect on the construction industry in Wales?

In Wales, an increasingly onerous planning and building regulations system is developing. Both planning and building regulations are key to the development of new housing and, at a time when England is relaxing that regime, the Welsh Assembly Government are making it more oppressive.

I am rather disappointed that there will be no Welsh Grand Committee on Monday; I do not know whether it is to do with alarm clocks or whatever else. There will be plenty of other opportunities for debating such matters on the Floor of the House in due course and that could have been a good first debate.

The construction industry employs 100,000 people in Wales. Will the Minister please make representations so that renovations are not subject to VAT? The problem is that new build is not subject to it but renovations are, and the vast majority of renovations are carried out by small and medium-sized firms.

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about the Grand Committee and I agree with him entirely. My information tells me that it is the onerous planning and building regulations regime that is the biggest deterrent to new house building in Wales.

I understand that the Welsh Government and the Treasury are currently discussing the whole issue of the Barnett formula and the housing revenue account subsidy scheme. That has been done away with in England, and never existed in Scotland or Northern Ireland. It cost Wales £73 million last year—money that could have been put to good use repairing council homes. Will he please further these discussions?

The Welsh Assembly Government are doing considerably better in financial terms under this Government than many other spending Departments, and the right hon. Gentleman should take that into account.

Regional pay affects local economies in the poorest regions of Wales. Does the Minister agree that construction workers and construction firms in north-west Wales, in Cemaes bay and Colwyn bay, should be paid the same as those in Torbay and Buckinghamshire, as should teachers in those areas?

Increasingly, Welsh house builders are leaving Wales to build in England, and it is good that firms such as Watkin Jones, which the hon. Gentleman will know, at least are keeping local employees. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. Let us have a bit of order for Mr David Rutley.

Broadband

9. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Government on improving broadband infrastructure in Wales. (113173)

My right hon. Friend has regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, Welsh Government Ministers and other interested parties on improving broadband infrastructure in Wales.

Superfast broadband is an important priority in Macclesfield in our rural communities, just as it is in towns and villages across Wales. Is my hon. Friend disappointed that the Labour Welsh Government still have not announced the preferred bidder for the next-generation broadband for Wales project despite having promised to do so in December last year?

Yes, the Welsh Assembly Government have been given double the expected Barnett consequential in order to deliver broadband infrastructure in Wales. I am reliably informed that an announcement will be made this summer.

I think the hon. Gentleman had better speak to his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly Government, who will shortly be allotting the contract for broadband in Wales.

Human Trafficking Commissioner

10. What discussions she has had with the First Minister on the effectiveness in Wales of the Human Trafficking Commissioner. (113174)

Combating human trafficking is a key priority for the Government, and we fully recognise the importance of tackling the issue in Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not discussed this issue with the First Minister, although she has met the anti-human trafficking co-ordinator for Wales. [Interruption.]

Order. These are extremely serious matters. I think people would expect us to treat them with some seriousness and to listen to Mr Peter Bone.

I thank the Minister for his response. The Prime Minister is leading Europe in the fight against human trafficking, but could we not learn something in England by adopting the Welsh idea of having an English commissioner against human trafficking?

The principal reason that Wales has an anti-human trafficking co-ordinator is that, while policing and justice are undevolved, such issues as child care are devolved. It therefore makes sense for there to be a co-ordinator in Wales. In England, where there is no such issue of devolution, the question does not arise.

Devolution

11. What recent progress has been made by the commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons. (113175)

Would the Secretary of State like to tell the House what evidence she has given to the commission?

So far I have not been asked to give any evidence to the commission, but I understand that there will be a long discussion about the issue. I know that my hon. Friend is especially keen to give evidence and to provide information to the commission, and I am sure that she will have that opportunity.

On devolution, does the Secretary of State agree that any fundamental change to the voting system for the Assembly must at least have broad inter-party consensus and the agreement of the Welsh Government to avoid another referendum, because the system was endorsed by the 1997 referendum?

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber when I paid tribute to him, but I hope that he will read the Hansard report. We will miss him on the Front Bench.

The legislation governing any changes to the electoral voting system for the Assembly was put in place by a Labour Government. The power clearly remains here. Had the intention been different, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would have changed the situation himself through the Government of Wales Act 2006.