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Volume 591: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

Economic Rebalancing

1. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of steps taken to rebalance the economy in Wales since 2010. (907058)

The previous Government were content to allow the British economy to become dangerously imbalanced with far too much reliance on the financial sector in London and the south-east. During this time Wales became poorer and fell to the bottom of the economic league tables, but we are determined to turn that around and achieve a stronger and more geographically balanced economy through a long-term plan, which is already starting to bear real fruit for Wales.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer—and offer him belated birthday wishes.

With regard to the rural economy of Wales, I heard talk when I recently returned to St David’s university college in Llanbedr Pont Steffan of moves to reopen the Carmarthen to Aberystwyth railway line that passes through the Teifi valley. What effect does my right hon. Friend think this would have in reinvigorating the local rural economy, and might it help to rescue my alma mater from the parlous state various vice-chancellors since Lord Morris of Castle Morris have allowed it to descend to?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his good wishes. I am a believer in investment in infrastructure. I recognise the important role investment infrastructure plays as a driver of economic growth. We have discussed at previous Wales Office questions the reopening of the Aberystwyth-Carmarthen line. He will be interested to know that I will shortly meet the campaign group Traws Link Cymru to discuss the business case for reopening the line and what support we can give, if appropriate.

I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that one of the best ways of rebalancing the economy is to ensure the interface between universities and the private and public sectors, and I know he recently visited my constituency and the new Swansea university campus at Crymlyn burrows. I am also sure he would wish to join me in congratulating the leader of Neath Port Talbot county borough council, which has developed a wonderful partnership with the university, and Councillor Ali Thomas on the honorary fellowship he will receive next week at Swansea university.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I absolutely do concur with his sentiments about the role local partners have played in taking forward the bay campus development. I was there on Friday, at the hon. Gentleman’s recommendation, and it is indeed a truly fine example of partnership-working. We know that success in the 21st century will belong to those economies that can harness knowledge and innovation, and having world-class university sites is part of that.

Has my right hon. Friend noted the recently published report of South Wales chamber of commerce, which notes that confidence in the Welsh economy has been high throughout 2014 and that it looks to remain the same for 2015? Is he as pleased as I am that real business people in Wales are so enthusiastic and keen to talk up the Welsh economy, unlike the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who devoted his recent article in the Western Mail to talking it down?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question, and he is absolutely right: the sentiment among businesses in north Wales, south Wales and west Wales is very confident and optimistic, and what they tell me every week as I criss-cross Wales talking to them is in stark contrast to the message we hear from the Opposition, who regularly now talk down the Welsh economy and the efforts of Welsh business.

On the economy, how does the right hon. Gentleman respond to today’s research by the university of Oxford and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that only a fifth of claimants who have had their benefits sanctioned and then taken away have found work? Surely this will not rebalance the economy or make it stronger, let alone make it just, and it is diabolically punitive.

I have not seen that report so I am not going to get drawn into commenting on the specifics, but I have seen the latest figures for the performance of the Work programme in Wales, which should give us encouragement that we have a set of measures in place that is helping to bring down long-term unemployment.

The right hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I encourage him to look at the figures for long-term unemployment in Wales: they are coming down yet again this month, which is positive news. There is much more to be done, but the emerging picture is a very strong and positive one.

Tourism is very important to Wales, and to rural Wales in particular. It has been suggested that reducing VAT on visitor attractions and accommodation, as other EU countries have, would stimulate tourism and result in a higher tax-take. Does the Secretary of State agree with that view?

I am familiar with the VAT arguments from the tourism sector. Of course these matters are the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and he keeps them under review, but I would just point out to my hon. Friend the most recent tourism visitor figures, which showed about an 8% increase last year in international visitors coming to Wales. That has to be a good sign that the tourism sector is on the up in Wales.

12. The new year has seen another rise in the tolls on the Severn bridge, and many businesses across Wales tell me that the bridge is now becoming a barrier to business and trade. Will the Secretary of State have urgent talks with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about reducing VAT on the tolls? (907069)

The hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the burden that the increased tolls place on businesses and on visitors to Wales. We recognise that that is happening. They are, for example, a major burden on the small vans crossing the bridge. I have asked the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), to lead a body of work to look into the options for the Severn bridge, and he is having discussions with the Department for Transport. We also look forward to hearing the views of Members on both sides of the House.

Accident and Emergency Departments

2. What discussions he has had with Ministers of the Welsh Government on waiting times at A and E departments that serve patients from both sides of the England-Wales border. (907059)

My ministerial colleagues and I regularly raise concerns with the Welsh Government about the provision of health care along the England-Wales border and we are reviewing the current arrangements to ensure that they meet patients’ needs.

When my constituents in Montgomeryshire need to attend A and E, they are taken either to hospitals in England, where 87% of patients are seen within four hours, or to hospitals in Wales, where, shockingly, the figure is only 63%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government and the UK Government should work together constructively to deliver reforms to ensure that only genuine emergencies attend A and E?

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a strong and constructive point. At this time of year, the NHS is facing severe pressures across the whole of the UK, and he is right to say that there is a disparity between the outcomes in Wales and those across the border in England. It is right that we should work together to address those disparities, but Welsh Government Ministers in Cardiff should be held to account for the decisions that have led to some of the problems.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the innovative medical centre at the end of Wind street in Swansea, which treats intoxicated people on the spot, freeing up ambulances, police and accident and emergency departments? Will he inform the Secretary of State for Health in England of the success of that venture, and suggest to him that similar facilities here could help to reduce the pressures caused by the removal of walk-in centres?

I am not familiar with that facility, although I am familiar with Wind street—from what I have read, not from what I have experienced. However, we will certainly look at that project in some detail and I will raise the matter with Health Ministers.

Since we last met, the Secretary of State has warned his Cabinet colleagues to mind their language when talking about the NHS in Wales. He said:

“I want them to take care how they speak about health services in Wales…I don’t want to hear anyone talking about a second-class NHS in Wales”.

Is he therefore disappointed that the Prime Minister has overruled him in continuing to bad-mouth the Welsh NHS?

I am surprised to hear this from the hon. Gentleman. We on this side of the House are not shutting down the debate on, and scrutiny of, the performance of the NHS. We stand on the side of patients in England and in Wales, and it is quite wrong of him to act as some kind of cheerleader for the Labour party by seeking to shut down the scrutiny and the debate on the Welsh NHS.

I take it from that answer that the Secretary of State is disappointed that the Prime Minister has overruled him. I believe that the Prime Minister has done that because talking about the Welsh NHS is his favourite way of distracting people’s attention from the failings of the NHS in England. Given that there is a crisis in hospitals near the border in Telford, in Shropshire, and in Cheltenham and Gloucester, where Welsh patients are traditionally sent, is it not now time for the Secretary of State to renew his efforts to get the PM to stop talking about Offa’s Dyke as though it were a line between life and death?

On the subject of health, there are two apologies that we need to hear from the Opposition today. The first is an apology from the hon. Gentleman on behalf of the Welsh Labour party for the way in which its Ministers in Cardiff have run the Welsh NHS into the ground. The second is from the Leader of the Opposition for his disgraceful and inappropriate suggestion that the NHS should be “weaponised”.

Infrastructure Investment

3. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of infrastructure investment in Wales since 2010. (907060)

We have been ambitious in our infrastructure investment plans to address the historic underinvestment in Wales by previous Governments. We are enabling businesses in Wales to expand and explore new markets by investing in better train links, less-congested roads and faster broadband speeds.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Given the commitment to fund the northern hub in full and the ambition for HS3 to improve connectivity right across the north of England, what is his Department doing to ensure that north Wales can take full advantage of those welcome developments?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the significant infrastructure investment being made across the whole of the UK, but of course it is important that north Wales links into the rest of the UK. The fact that Crewe is the HS2 hub is important, and I look forward to hosting a transport summit in the next week or so to discuss how we best link north Wales with the rest of the UK.

13. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on investment in rail in north Wales. Will the Minister confirm that the UK Government have diverted funding previously allocated for the phase 1 and phase 2 modular rail signalling upgrade in north Wales to support investment in rail projects in south Wales? (907070)

I can categorically reject that. The UK Government are making significant investment in north Wales, at the Halton curve, and in south Wales, in the electrification of the main line right through to Swansea and in the valley lines and Vale of Glamorgan line services. I am proud of our record of electrifying railways in Wales. The previous Administration left us as one of the three nations across Europe without any electrified rail; Wales, sadly, was left with Albania and Moldova, and this Government are changing that.

Will the Minister congratulate the Welsh Government on providing funding for infrastructure investment in Rhyl? They have provided £28 million for new housing in Rhyl; £22 million for a new community hospital; £10 million for a new harbour; £25 million for a new Rhyl high school; and £12 million for flood defences. Will he also condemn the coalition Government, who have closed down Rhyl county court, Rhyl Army recruitment centre and Rhyl tax office, with the Crown post office possibly being relocated out of Rhyl?

The hon. Gentleman is somewhat selective in the data he shares. I am proud of the infrastructure investment record of this Government; he failed to mention the north Wales prison and the Halton curve, as well as the investment across the whole of Wales, not only in the north.

In recent months, I have been working with the communities of Salem, Cwmdu, Talley and Pumsaint, which have been without landline provision while waiting for damaged lines to be repaired. Communication problems have been exacerbated by a lack of mobile coverage, so will the Minister ensure that mobile not spots in Carmarthenshire benefit from the recently announced investment in mobile infrastructure?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue. Openreach and British Telecom need to get on top of replacing those lines when they fall because of adverse weather. Let me also congratulate the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the innovation he is showing in trying to close those not spots by using both private money and the mobile infrastructure plan, which will make a major difference in these areas.

Dairy Industry

The Government are very aware of the severe pressures currently facing the UK dairy sector. I have discussed the situation in Wales with my ministerial colleagues, as well as with key stakeholders, including numerous dairy farmers. There are major short-term global factors pushing down prices, and we are calling on banks, supermarkets and major processors to show flexibility and understanding at this time.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. We all understand the global challenges facing the industry, but will he urgently speak to his Department for Business, Innovation and Skills colleagues about extending the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator to the whole supply chain—to all dairy producers—and, crucially, enacting the adjudicator’s power to fine? The next review of the role is not expected until 2016, and many of our farmers will not be functioning as farmers unless we have urgent action now.

First, I commend the work my hon. Friend does on the dairy sector in Wales; he is a powerful voice on behalf of dairy farmers in his constituency and throughout Wales. We strongly support the work of the Groceries Code Adjudicator. Its jurisdiction is currently limited, but a review will take place next year. I take my hon. Friend’s point about the short-term pressures, so we look forward to receiving information and updates from him on action we can take.

As a Member representing Pembrokeshire, the Secretary of State will be well aware that the dairy industry in Wales still contributes about 10% to the whole of the UK’s production, but that since 1999 its level has fallen by 51%. Will he look at yesterday’s report by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which says exactly what the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) says: give the adjudicator greater teeth to tackle unfair pricing?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, and we are looking exactly at that report. A very severe short-term crisis faces the dairy sector at this time. Nobody pretends that expanding the role of the adjudicator will fix the global problems—big market challenges need to be addressed—but we are doing everything we can to work with the dairy industry and protect the supply base.

On the market challenges that the right hon. Gentleman refers to, what steps is he taking to urge his Government to work with the Welsh Government to implement policies we have suggested—for example, the dairy equivalent of Hybu Cig Cymru to market Welsh milk, the use of rural development funding to develop supply chains to counteract volatility, and procurement in the local Welsh sector?

The right hon. Gentleman might be surprised to hear that we do follow the policy recommendations of Plaid Cymru and I have looked at the recommendation for that new body. When huge global imbalances are putting such severe pressure on dairy farmers throughout Europe, reaching for a bureaucratic solution and setting up a new quango probably will not make that much difference, but we will look at the proposal in further detail and have that discussion.

With dairy prices at 20p a litre, First Milk collapsing last week and the discount supermarkets cutting prices day by day, it is hardly surprising that one dairy farmer goes out of business every 10 days. Does the Secretary of State agree that in addition to the efforts of the EU and national Government, we need to see far more action from the Welsh Government? There is a great deal they could do to support Welsh farmers, as well as farmers in North Wiltshire.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and make two points in response. First, First Milk did not collapse last week. It faces some pressures and there are specific impacts for dairy herds, but that co-operative is still very much functioning. Secondly, on the Welsh Government, we work constructively and co-operatively with them on agriculture issues.

The Secretary of State rightly recognises the severe crisis in the dairy industry, so with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s dairy price report criticising the grocery adjudicator’s role as too narrow and left toothless by this Government’s failure to set the level of fines that she can impose, will he now act with a sense of urgency, push for an immediate review of the adjudicator’s role and give that assurance to Welsh farmers?

I am surprised by the tone that the hon. Lady takes. Under the Government that she supported, no progress whatever was made on implementing a code of practice or an adjudicator. As a Government we have been taking forward these measures. We will look at the specific recommendations of the Select Committee report, but we will take no lessons from the Labour party on the dairy sector.

My right hon. Friend will know that independent grocers such as Spar in Tywyn in Gwynedd stock Welsh milk, which is clearly marked with y ddraig goch—the red dragon. What steps can he take to ensure that people in Wales drink Welsh milk rather than European milk, which will stimulate the market and support Welsh farmers?

My hon. Friend is right. Welsh produce is the best in the world, and when it is labelled as such it gives consumers powerful signals, which they respond to. That is one of the ways in which we have been able to boost exports of Welsh agriculture produce in the past two years, but we will look at what further steps we can take to support labelled home-grown produce.

Welfare Reform: Social Housing

5. What assessment he has made of the implications for the Government’s policies of the Auditor General for Wales’s report on “Managing the Impact of Welfare Reform Changes on Social Housing Tenants in Wales”, published in January 2015. (907062)

6. What recent estimate he has made of the number of households in Wales that have received a reduction in benefits since the introduction of the under-occupancy penalty. (907063)

7. What assessment he has made of the implications for the Government’s policies of the Auditor General for Wales’s report on “Managing the Impact of Welfare Reform Changes on Social Housing Tenants in Wales”, published in January 2015. (907064)

This Government will not shy away from the financial and social responsibility of reforming the way in which housing benefit is allocated. There are no plans to change Government policy following the report from the Auditor General for Wales. We plan to use this report to support local authorities to respond better to local needs.

As the Minister will know, there has been a large number of Government reports on the Government’s welfare policies. A Sheffield Hallam university report, for example, shows that the south Wales valleys will experience a £430 million cut in income, endangering 3,000 local jobs as a direct result of Tory welfare reforms. Is not the Minister ashamed?

The report that the right hon. Lady mentions is an important contribution to the debate, but it focuses on only one element of Government policy. It does not take into account the wider package of welfare reform—something that the previous Administration, sadly, shied away from. This Administration will not do so, because of the important need to tackle Government finances.

The 1,500 people in Flintshire who are impacted by the bedroom tax face no choice but to cut their incomes, which are already low, because there are no properties available. Will the Minister tell me how many two-bedroom and one-bedroom properties are available in Flintshire today?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point because the number of new social properties built in Wales over the past three years is, proportionately, far fewer than the number built in England over the same period. The Welsh Government have a responsibility to deliver in that area. The Wales Audit Office report also highlights the fact that 47% of tenants had no advice given to them on how better to manage the spare room subsidy and the obligations that it would bring.

Will the Minister explain why it is right to force disabled people out of a home and into a smaller property—should one exist in the first place—rip out all the adaptations that have been made to that property and, presumably, put new ones into a second property? Apart from being cruel, how can such action possibly be cost-effective?

This Government have made additional money available through the discretionary housing payment to help individuals facing difficult circumstances. Only three out of 22 local authorities in the whole of Wales—Cardiff, Caerphilly and Conwy—applied for additional discretionary housing payments. The hon. Gentleman’s local authority did not do that. Let us be clear: the roots of the removal of the spare room subsidy lie deeply in the Labour Benches, because it was a Labour Administration who took it away from the private-rented sector. We are merely extending that principle to the social-rented sector.

My own local authority runs a useful forum for local agencies to plan a response to the bedroom tax, but its work is bedevilled by a lack of certainty over central Government support through the discretionary fund. Will the Minister prevail on his colleagues to give more certainty to future funding, which would help our work?

The discretionary housing payment is completely flexible and local authorities should use their discretion to see that it is used in the best way. The Wales Audit Office report provides excellent data and highlights some authorities such as Caerphilly and Cardiff that provide excellent practice and support their tenants in meeting the obligations of the spare room subsidy. After all, it is about returning the long-term unemployed back to the workplace, as that offers them the best opportunities and the best prospects.

High-tech Sector

Wales has the potential to be a beacon of hi-tech excellence and innovation. Since 2010, thousands of new jobs have been created in the advanced manufacturing, ICT and life sciences sectors. The growth in those sectors is contributing to the rebalancing of our economy, which is so vital to future economic success.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is remarkable that half the world’s mobile phones contain wafer semi-conductor technology that has been made in Wales?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Remarkable transformations are occurring inside the Welsh economy. Much more work needs to be done, but the picture is a positive one. That view stands in stark contrast with what the Labour party would have us believe, as it consistently—week in, week out—talks down the achievements of Welsh business.

Shared Services Jobs

The Wales Office continues to hold discussions with the Ministry of Justice on the future of the Shared Services Connected Limited offices in Newport. The Justice Secretary has been clear that he would not support any proposals to offshore jobs from Newport.

The city of Newport has provided a splendid successful habitat for thousands of civil service jobs. Will the Minister renew his efforts to ensure that shared services, which were pioneered in Newport, are now strengthened and recognised as centres of excellence?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. It is quite obvious that the pooling of the expertise and experience in Newport provides the shared services facility a great opportunity to try to attract work from both the private and public sectors, and we are determined to do what we can in that area.


Incidents of religious and racial hatred are thankfully very low in Wales. But as we approach Holocaust memorial day, it is right that we look again at the efforts we are making to prevent such incidents and to say with a clear and united voice that anti-Semitism and all forms of racial and religious hatred are not compatible with the freedom values that are cherished by the people of Wales. [Interruption.]

Order. This question is about Holocaust memorial day and the scourge of anti-Semitism. The House should listen to the question and to the answer.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Jewish community across the whole of the United Kingdom is feeling under increasing threat. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the part of the United Kingdom that he is responsible for is as vigilant and as supported as every other part of the United Kingdom, so that his Jewish community can feel that it has our support?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. He is exactly right: no member of the Jewish community anywhere in the UK should have to live in fear. He may be interested to know that tomorrow I shall be meeting Rabbi Michael Rose in Cardiff, to talk about those concerns as they affect Wales.

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to remark not only upon Rabbi Michael Rose, but also upon the work done by Mr Saleem Kidwai, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Wales, who has been working so very hard in Cardiff for good community relations for many years?

My hon. Friend will also be interested to know that I am meeting the Muslim Council of Wales tomorrow. We had a remarkable and powerful demonstration of unity on the Sunday evening after the Paris attacks, when Rabbi Rose and the Muslim Council of Wales leader stood hand in hand, in unity, supporting freedom values in Wales.