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Wales

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2012

The Secretary of State was asked—

Police and Crime Commissioners

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on preparations for elected police and crime commissioners in Wales. (122185)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the dedication and professionalism of Dyfed-Powys police and all the other agencies involved in the search for April Jones, who went missing on 1 October. I am sure that the whole House will join me in praising them for their continued work to find April and in praising the support shown by so many of the people of Machynlleth for her family.

The Wales Office and the Home Office have been working closely with the Welsh Government and partners to make the police and crime commissioner reforms a success in Wales. Considerable progress has been achieved through the Wales Transition Board.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new job. Will he let us know how much printing the second set of ballot papers for the police commissioner elections in Wales will cost the Home Office?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her welcome. As the House will know, the order for the bilingual version of the forms was laid on 15 October, and it is hoped that the process will be completed by 30 October. On the question of cost, I shall write to her.

A serious potential problem has been averted over the preparation of voting papers in the Welsh language. Will the Secretary of State engage with the Welsh Language Commissioner to ensure that the commitment to bilingualism in Wales is fully respected in all non-devolved areas, where the problem arose?

Yes, the Wales Office is committed fully to the Welsh language and its support, not only in the devolved areas but in the un-devolved ones. I am pleased to report that my office is working closely with the Welsh Language Commissioner, and indeed it is proposed that an official of the commissioner will be embedded in the Wales Office.

I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a great proponent of the Welsh language, but I urge him to ensure that in all aspects and in all avenues of work within the Palace of Westminster the Welsh language is given the respect it so rightly deserves. I hope that this type of thing is not going to happen again.

The hon. Lady has identified a problem that needs to be resolved, in that the Welsh Language Commissioner is, of course, a position that was created by the Welsh Assembly. It is important that in the non-devolved areas sufficient support should be given to the Welsh language, and I am pleased to report that my office is prepared and anxious to undertake that duty.

Steel Industry

I have had regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on issues that affect Wales, including the future of the steel industry.

I thank the Minister for his reply. May I warmly congratulate him and his colleague on their new positions, which I believe were as a consequence of their apprenticeships on the Welsh Affairs Committee?

Tata Steel is a major investor and employer in my constituency. Nearly £250 million has been invested recently in the steel plant at Port Talbot, which is strongly supported by the Welsh Government, the local council, the local trade unions and the local management. This is a strong regional partnership, so what will the Wales Office do to assist the steel industry in these challenging times? Will the Secretary of State speak to the Business Secretary, his Cabinet colleague, to address the issue of a level playing field in energy costs? Will he visit the steelworks in my constituency at the earliest opportunity?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his kind remarks. One of the most enjoyable parts of my first term in Parliament was serving under his chairmanship on the Welsh Affairs Committee.

The Government absolutely recognise the strategic importance of Tata Steel as an inward investor into Wales, and the Wales Office has close links with the company. I will certainly speak to the Business Secretary about what more we can do to support Tata’s inward investment. We do recognise that particular issue associated with energy costs. That is why we have made £250 million available for intensive energy users, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman and industries in Wales will be making representations about how they can benefit from that money.

As my mother comes from Aberavon, I understand only too well the importance of the steel industry and I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberavon (Dr Francis) on asking his question. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree, however, that the great news we have received today that employment in Wales is up by 40,000 and unemployment down by 7,000 is a good start?

The labour market statistics for Wales were particularly good today. Unemployment and worklessness are down and overall employment levels are up. There are great reasons for optimism, but there is no reason to be complacent.

Respect Agenda

3. What steps he plans to take to promote the Prime Minister’s respect agenda in dealings between the UK Government and the Welsh Government. (122187)

I am committed to working with the Welsh Government to deliver economic growth in Wales. I do not intend that political differences should stand in the way of such co-operative working in the interests of Wales.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and his hon. Friend the Minister—llongyfarchiadau, as we say in Wales. When the Prime Minister promised a respect agenda, did he mean trying to block Welsh Assembly legislation, unilaterally abolishing wage protection for agricultural workers in Wales and tearing up a cross-border GCSE exam system without consultation? If that is the case, can he even spell the word respect? It is R. E. S. P. E. C. T., by the way.

As we say in Wales, diolch am y llongyfarchiadau. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this Government are fully committed to the respect agenda. We are working closely with the Welsh Government and I am very pleased with the relationship I am cultivating with Carwyn Jones, the First Minister.

Would both Ministers, whom I warmly congratulate, agree with me that parch, as we say in Monmouthshire, is something that works in both directions, and that the refusal of Welsh Assembly Ministers to appear before Select Committees shows a disgraceful lack of respect not only to this House but to those of us who were put in it by the people of Wales?

The word “parch” means respect and I agree that parch is a process that works in two directions. I am very hopeful that a new relationship will be cultivated not only between the two Governments but between Parliament and the Assembly.

I welcome the Secretary of State to the job and although I wish his predecessor all the best, may I say how good it is to have a Welsh MP as Secretary of State for Wales again, but why on earth is he referring the first two laws passed by the Welsh Assembly under the Government of Wales Act 2006 to the Attorney-General? The provision I included in that Act was not to allow the Secretary of State to block Welsh legislation but primarily to deal with any cross-border issues, which I cannot see apply in these cases. Why is he interfering in this anti-devolution manner?

I echo the tribute the right hon. Gentleman pays to my predecessor, who was an excellent Secretary of State. As for the references to the Supreme Court, as he knows these matters are set out in the Government of Wales Act, for which he was responsible. The reference of the first Welsh Bill—that is, the Local Government Byelaws (Wales) Bill—to the Supreme Court should not be regarded as disrespectful or hostile in any sense. It is simply an administrative procedure to clear up the issue of competence and that is it.

I add my words of support to those of the Secretary of State for Dyfed-Powys police and the community of Machynlleth as they live through the awful events of recent weeks. I also warmly congratulate the Secretary of State and his deputy and welcome them to their new role. The Opposition are thrilled that the Prime Minister finally found a Welsh MP to take on the post.

In fairness, the Secretary of State’s predecessor, with whom I did not always agree, has found a new spirit of candour in recent weeks since she left the job and has admitted, for example, that his Government have lost all reputation for competence. On this question of respect, will he continue in this spirit of openness and clear up the question of his attitude to devolution? Will he tell us straightforwardly—does he think that devolution has been good for Wales?

I do not think I can carry on accepting all these welcomes; it is far too much for me—[Interruption.] I am sure they will soon come to an end. I feel strongly that devolution is developing, and that as the Assembly and the Assembly Government mature as institutions they could be very good for Wales indeed. That is why I and my office are determined to work closely with them to assist in doing our best for Wales with them.

Mr Speaker, you will forgive me if I think that the Secretary of State’s view that the Assembly “could” be good for Wales is hardly a ringing endorsement of the devolution settlement that was so decisively supported by the Welsh people. Are not his view that the devolution settlement has “damaged our constitution” and his deputy’s view that it is “constitutional vandalism” what they really think and where they really have disrespect for devolution? Is not the truth that the right hon. Gentleman cannot speak for modern Wales—devolved Wales—but we on this side of the House can and will?

When I used the word “could”, my intention was to point out that under the Labour Assembly Government, coupled with 10 years-plus of Labour Government here in London, Wales has been the poorest part of the United Kingdom. I believe that a lot more could be done to make Wales a happier place to live, and for that purpose it is necessary for us in the Wales Office to work closely with the Welsh Assembly Government. I am willing to do that; I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support me.

Enterprise Zones

I am strongly committed to working with the Welsh Government to encourage private sector investment and growth in Wales, including promoting enterprise zones in Wales.

Is it not important to have a much closer working relationship between the Governments in London and in Cardiff in respect of enterprise zones, so that we can make faster progress in creating jobs and wealth in Wales?

My hon. Friend is exactly right: it is vital that the two Governments—the UK Government and the Welsh Government in Cardiff—work together on a range of issues, not least the success of enterprise zones. I am committed to doing that, and I look forward very much to my first meeting with the Welsh business Minister, Edwina Hart, which is to take place shortly.

The Minister will be aware that having the Bristol enterprise zone alongside the tolls on the gateway to the south Wales economy is a major impediment to inward investment and growth. Will he therefore ask Treasury colleagues to commission a study to see whether a reduction in the tolls would be more than compensated for by an increase in income tax resulting from new jobs created by inward investment?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is to discuss tolls on the Severn bridge with our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport this afternoon. No decisions have been made beyond 2018, when the current concession ends. Clearly there is a lot to discuss in relation to how we maximise the benefits of inward investment in Wales.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the objectives of the Cardiff Central enterprise zone are much more likely to be realised now that the coalition Government have granted £11 million to the city of Cardiff to make it one of the most digitally connected cities in the world?

My hon. Friend is exactly right: the £11.7 million that we have made available to Cardiff to support its development as a superconnected city will make it one of the most digitally advanced cities in the United Kingdom, and we look forward to that helping to leverage new business investment into the city.

I very much welcome the Minister’s positive words about the Welsh Assembly Government’s work with enterprise zones and, indeed, full co-operation on measures to help the economy, but will he join me in congratulating Welsh Assembly Government Ministers on creating 1,700 youth jobs in the past six months, in an effort to tackle the scourge of underlying youth unemployment in Wales? Will he tell his Cabinet and Front-Bench colleagues how Wales is leading the way in this and that they should never have got rid of the future jobs fund?

I thank the shadow Minister for that question. I welcome any new jobs being created that will tackle long-term youth unemployment in Wales. I am just disappointed that she has not welcomed today’s news that unemployment has fallen in Wales, employment is up and worklessness is down.

12. Enterprise zones are a fantastic success in England, but their success in Wales has been somewhat limited. Enhanced capital allowances can play a significant part in attracting inward investment to enterprise zones, so is my hon. Friend somewhat disappointed and dismayed that the Welsh Government have not sought to communicate with the Treasury about where they would like to bring this tax advantage in Wales? (122197)

The discussions about the use of enhanced capital allowances in conjunction with other forms of regional aid are continuing with colleagues in the Treasury, but we look forward very much to seeing specific proposals from Welsh Ministers on how they envisage enterprise zones developing in Wales.

The most enterprising company in my constituency, Biotec Services International, is being prevented from developing because it cannot get export licences for growth hormones from the Home Office. I have written to the Home Office. Will the Minister take an interest in this matter so that this unique Welsh company does not lose its opportunity to grow and develop for Wales?

I am concerned to hear that from the hon. Lady. I note that she has written to the relevant Minister, but if she would like to write to me as well, I will certainly look into the matter and see that she gets all her questions answered.

Inward Investment

I am working with UK Trade and Investment, ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Government to improve levels of inward investment into Wales. In fact, I am meeting the chief executive of UKTI later today.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the scrapping of the Welsh Development Agency has had a negative effect on inward investment into Wales, as highlighted recently by the Welsh Affairs Committee?

It is true that under the Welsh Development Agency, Wales was regularly the most important destination for inward investment, but I support both Governments working closely together to continue to attract inward investment into Wales.

I warmly associate myself and my colleagues with the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks regarding Dyfed-Powys police and all the emergency services which are looking for little April Jones. I also congratulate the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary on their appointments.

What assessment has the right hon. Gentleman made of the loss to Wales of inward investment since the disappearance of the Welsh Development Agency brand? Who has the last word on inward investment—this Government or the Government in Wales?

It is clear, as the right hon. Gentleman says, that Wales needs a strong brand in order to promote itself around the world. It is clear also that although economic development is devolved to the Assembly Government, it needs to have the leverage that it will get from UKTI. That is why I am encouraging the Welsh Government to work closely with UKTI.

What discussions have the UK Government had with the Welsh Government about the establishment of a dedicated trade promotion agency, either sitting within the Welsh Government or as a private sector vehicle, as recommended by the Welsh Affairs Committee back in February?

I have regular discussions with the Welsh Government about inward investment, and I hope the Welsh Minister for Business is giving consideration to that.

Academic research and development and its commercialisation are key ingredients in inward investment. I am heartened that the Secretary of State is meeting UKTI later today. Will he impress on it at that meeting the excellent work that is being undertaken in Bangor, Glyndwr university, Aberystwyth and Swansea? We have a good message to sell and we need UKTI to help us to sell it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: Welsh universities do have a good tale to tell. I would like to single out Swansea university and its science campus, which it is developing closely with British and international industry.

Disability Employment Ltd of Stoke wants to inwardly invest in Wrexham to put disabled workers sacked by this Government back to work. Will the Secretary of State come to Wrexham a week on Friday to meet disabled workers from Remploy to explain to them why the Government will not support that company?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government’s policy on Remploy is to provide supported jobs in mainstream employment. I have had discussions with him previously about the issue. I am entirely happy to have further discussions with him if he requires. As to Friday, I cannot make any commitments as I do not have my diary. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. Let’s have a bit of order for Karl MᶜCartney.

Ofqual

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education and others on the role of Ofqual in Wales. (122190)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales has regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Education. For clarity, Ofqual is the independent regulator of qualifications in England. It is the Welsh Government who regulate qualifications in Wales.

Does the Minister share my concern that a dangerous precedent is set when Ministers take it upon themselves to mark exam papers?

My hon. Friend makes his point. Much has been said about that and I do not want to add to it today, other than to say that it was unfortunate that the Welsh Government acted unilaterally on the matter. The key point is the ongoing review of qualifications in Wales and the proposals from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for new qualifications at 16 in England. It is important that parents and pupils in Wales have confidence that their qualifications will be respected and robust, and that they will be able to take them to institutions and employers in England, where they will be respected.

Investment

7. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues and others about foreign direct investment in Wales. (122191)

I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about attracting foreign direct investment to Wales. I was delighted that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, during his visit to Turkey earlier this month, announced that a Turkish steel company is to open a new factory in Cardiff.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for those comments. Does he agree that UK Trade and Investment’s global presence through our embassies and high commissions provides a huge opportunity to ensure direct foreign investment in Wales?

UKTI has global reach, with its officials embedded in every British mission around the world, and I am delighted that it is seconding two officials to the Welsh Government.

The Secretary of State will know that one reason foreign companies do not invest in west Wales is the over-burdensome planning restrictions. Will he use his influence in the Welsh Assembly to sweep away those obstacles?

I am sure that my hon. Friend was pleased to hear that the Welsh Government have designated an enterprise zone in Milford Haven. Planning is indeed extremely important for the development of enterprise zones. It is being streamlined in England and I very much hope that the Welsh Government will follow suit.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new post—perhaps he is overwhelmed by the welcome he has had thus far. Will he encourage Ministers to look at improving infrastructure in Wales, particularly port infrastructure, on which enterprise zones such as the one in Anglesey rely? He has passed the buck to the Welsh Assembly in the past. Will he now fight within Government so that we have a level playing field with English ports?

Ports are an undevolved area. I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that I regard Holyhead port as an important anchor of Anglesey’s economy and hope shortly to visit Captain Wyn Parry there.

The proposed motor sport investment in Ebbw Vale could be an employment game-changer for Blaenau Gwent. Variable investment allowances are being sought by the international development. I urge the Secretary of State to get the Treasury on board now for a fair tax treatment to help deliver the project.

Enhanced capital allowances are an extremely important element of enterprise zones. They have already been granted in the case of the Deeside enterprise zone and we are urging the Welsh Government to make appropriate representations to HM Treasury so that they can be extended to other enterprise zones, such as the one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

Housing Benefit

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of reductions in housing benefit in Wales. (122192)

Information on the expected impact in Wales and across Great Britain of our housing benefit reforms is set out in the impact assessments. We are taking urgent steps to manage housing benefit expenditure, providing a fairer and more sustainable scheme by ensuring people who receive it have to make the same choices about housing as people who do not.

Will the Minister please explain why 17-year-old Shanika Roberts, who faces being made homeless because of this Government’s cuts to housing benefit, should move in with her friend?

Some £21 billion is currently spent on housing benefit, and the figure will go up without the reforms we are putting in place. I ask the hon. Gentleman this: what is fair about 100,000 people in Wales languishing on waiting lists, often in cramped accommodation, while others live in houses with empty rooms that are larger than they need?

In view of the fact that £8.7 billion is spent on benefits in Wales every year, and nearly £1 in every £8 of that—£1 billion—is spent on housing benefit alone, is the taxpayer not entitled to expect value for money?

The taxpayer is absolutely entitled to expect value for money, and I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate the fruits of our welfare reforms coming through in Wales, as borne out by today’s labour market statistics.

Rail Infrastructure

10. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on capital investment in rail infrastructure in Wales; and if he will make a statement. (122194)

I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about a range of transport issues that affect Wales, including the importance of investing in rail infrastructure in Wales.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer and warmly congratulate him on his new position. I also congratulate him and his predecessor on the electrification of the south Wales railway network, which the Labour party failed to achieve in 13 years. Will he join me in calling on the Department for Transport to look at the possibilities for new signalling on the north Wales main line?

I met representatives of Network Rail earlier this month to discuss their plans for the rail network in Wales, including the re-signalling programme. The north Wales main line is due to be re-signalled commencing in 2015 as part of the Wales route modernisation programme.

14. How much of the £9.4 billion that is going to be spent on rail infrastructure to 2019 will be spent in north Wales? (122199)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to hear that I am already holding discussions with the Welsh Government and local authorities in north Wales with a view to exploring the possibility of electrifying the north Wales railway line—105 miles, and an enormous economic benefit for north Wales.

I welcome the announcement of extra capital expenditure, but will the Secretary of State work with the Welsh Assembly to make sure that Welsh civil engineering companies help in competing for contracts for this work?

Yes; this is an issue that has been identified recently. I am sure that the Welsh Government are aware of the problem and that they will address it.