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House of Commons Hansard
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04 March 2015
Volume 593

The Secretary of State was asked—

Labour Market Trends

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1. What assessment he has made of trends in labour market statistics in Wales since 2010. [907768]

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I would like to take this opportunity, in the last Welsh Question Time before the general election, to pay tribute to the Welsh Members who have announced their intention to stand down. All eight right hon. and hon. Members have served their constituencies with distinction and played a vital role in making the case for Wales, as I know they will continue to do outside this House. We wish them all the very best.

Across the UK there have never been more people in work. In Wales there are 41,000 more people in work since the election, but we recognise that the job is not yet done, which is why we must stick to our long-term economic plan, which is starting to bear fruit for Wales.

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May I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s comments on the departing Members?

In my constituency unemployment has fallen by 27% year on year, and it has fallen by over 40% since the height of the recession, a situation that is replicated across Wales. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the small businesses the length and breadth of Wales that have contributed to the jobs-based recovery, and will he assure me that the policies put in place by this Government will continue if he remains in post after 7 May?

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I absolutely agree that it is businesses across Wales, and particularly in north Wales, that are leading the economic recovery, creating the jobs that are making such a difference to the lives of families up and down Wales. What puts that at greatest risk is the prospect of a Labour Government with no vision or plan for the Welsh economy.

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The unemployment figures in my constituency have been coming down for the past 15 years, with the exception of the recession years between 2008 and 2012, but many of those jobs are zero hours, part time and for agency workers. I have written to the Secretary of State about the prospect of between 200 and 300 jobs being lost at 2 Sisters. Will he meet me and a delegation from the company, because it is important to the Welsh and UK food industries?

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I absolutely will meet the hon. Gentleman, who knows that I take a great interest in job prospects in Ynys Môn, and we will look into the situation in more detail. I caution him against peddling a gross caricature of the Welsh economy, because less than 3% of Welsh workers are on contracts that could be described as zero hours. Opposition Members are quite wrong to peddle this gross caricature of what is a business-led recovery that is bearing fruit.

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The Secretary of State will be aware that the Welsh Government have nationalised Cardiff airport. What discussions has he had with the Welsh Government to ensure that they do all they can to keep employment rates high?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. He knows that I meet Welsh Government Ministers frequently to discuss how we can secure the economic recovery for Wales, because it is a shared enterprise across the two Administrations: they know the efforts that we have made to create a strong foundation for a business-led recovery in Wales, and we need them to play their part in helping to bring unemployment down across Wales.

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May I begin by wishing you a belated happy St David’s day, Mr Speaker, and all Members of the House and by adding my thanks to all the Welsh Members of all parties who are retiring, but particularly my right hon. Friends the Members for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and for Neath (Mr Hain), both distinguished former Secretaries of State who have served Wales extremely well?

We have heard an impressive array of statistics from the Secretary of State this morning, but will he set aside the spin for one moment and tell us what has really happened to the jobs market in Wales on his watch? How many of those new Tory jobs in Wales are on zero-hours contracts and pay a pittance in wages?

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Let us remind ourselves of what we inherited in 2010. Under the previous Labour Government, unemployment across Wales had increased by 80%, youth unemployment had increased by 75% and, worst of all, long-term unemployment had increased by more than 150%. That is a scandalous record on jobs in Wales. I am proud to be part of a coalition Government who have created the right foundations for a business-led recovery to turn that around.

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I think workers in Wales are heartily sick of this Tory propaganda. The truth is that of the 100,000 new jobs in Wales, as the Office for National Statistics said last week, 90,000 are zero-hours contracts paying, on average, £300 less per week than full-time jobs. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies said this morning, the average family incomes of workers in Wales have declined under this Government. Why does the Secretary of State not say the one thing he can to workers from Pwllheli to Pembrokeshire that would give them hope: vote Labour?

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If the hon. Gentleman thinks that is any kind of boon for the Welsh economy, I point him to the opinion poll conducted by BBC Wales which this morning shows that a majority of voters across Wales, even in the Labour heartlands—from Rhondda to Cynon Valley, from Caerphilly to Pontypridd—prefer my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to remain as leader rather than the Leader of the Opposition.

EU Membership

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2. What recent discussions he has had with business representatives in Wales on the importance of membership of the EU to the Welsh economy. [907769]

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Membership of the European Union’s single market is good for businesses in Wales. However, businesses tell me that the burdens and costs imposed by the European Union are making it harder for them to grow. This Government are determined to renegotiate our membership with the European Union to get a better deal for Wales and for UK businesses, and to put that to the people.

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How many tens of thousands of jobs in Wales does the Minister think would be at risk if the UK left the EU?

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A renegotiated European Union provides greater opportunities for businesses in Wales. I know that the hon. Gentleman shows great interest in Airbus, which says:

“Regardless of which decision the UK will make, we are strongly committed to our operations in the UK”.

The British Chambers of Commerce also supports that position. I am absolutely confident that the growth in Wales will contribute to more jobs and provide more of the certainty that people want.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the issue of British membership of the EU is indeed of concern to the people of Wales, who have not had their say on the issue for 40 years? Does he further agree that the only way they will get that say is with the return of a Conservative Government, because Labour will not give it to them?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot pretend that this debate is not happening. We need to make the arguments for what the CBI wants—a reformed European Union of which the UK is a part.

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I am intrigued. The Minister said earlier that businesses had told him various anti-EU things. Can he name a single business across the length and breadth of Wales—north, south, east or west—that has told him it would like Wales to leave the EU?

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I am happy to point to the survey by the British Chambers of Commerce which showed that 77% of businesses support a referendum on EU membership, and said:

“British businesses remain determined to see a recalibrated relationship between the UK and the rest of the European Union, with more powers exercised from Westminster rather than Brussels.”

I hope that the hon. Lady supports that comment from the British Chambers of Commerce.

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Does the Minister agree that businesses do not always speak with one voice on this issue? While big businesses are often the most able to cope with the bureaucracy sent to us from Brussels and might want to stay within the European Union, very often small businesses do not?

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My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. Many of the people who are scaremongering now are the same people who wanted to join the euro all those years ago. It is this party that stands up for the British economy and stands up for businesses, exactly as the British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI and Airbus say in the quotes I have given.

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13. [907780] In 1998, I was successful in persuading my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) to accept Denbighshire and Conwy into the bid for objective 1 European funding. In that time, Denbighshire has had a quarter of a billion pounds of private sector and public sector funding from Europe. If Britain pulls out of the EU, my constituency and my county will lose £100 million over the next seven years. What does the Minister feel about that?

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May I remind the hon. Gentleman that European structural funds are aimed at the poorest parts of Europe? It is no mark of celebration to say that his constituency succeeded in winning that money. This Government have a long-term economic plan to turn the economy around for the longer term rather than depending on the grants and handouts for which he makes the case. He also needs to be reminded that that is our money coming back with conditions attached.

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Does the Minister agree that the reforms that the CBI and others are recommending for the single market, and for the European Union in general, are absolutely right for Wales and absolutely right for Britain, and that that should be a consideration for the referendum?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Opposition Members talk about some sort of so-called uncertainty, but that so-called uncertainty has given us the fastest-growing economy in the G7 and has made Wales the fastest-growing part of the United Kingdom, which we should be celebrating and marking.

Tourism

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3. When he last met representatives of the tourism sector in Wales; and if he will make a statement. [907770]

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Wales Office Ministers regularly meet representatives of the tourism industry in Wales. Wales is a fantastic holiday destination, and this Government will continue to do all they can to promote Wales at home and abroad.

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We are indeed fortunate in that people the world over want to visit the wonderful country of Wales—I and, I am sure, the Minister are very proud of the country—but more should be done in terms of tourism and the Welsh economy. What discussions has he or his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had with colleagues to implement a 5% VAT rate for the tourism sector, which would bring 5,500 extra jobs to Wales?

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With permission, Mr Speaker, a gaf i dalu teyrnged i’r Aelod gwir anrhydeddus? I would like to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his service in this House over many years, and for the way in which he has led his party here.

VAT levels for business are of course set by the Treasury. The right hon. Gentleman rightly points to the importance to the Welsh economy of tourism, which makes up almost 15% of the work force. That is why I am delighted that the number of international visits last year increased by 7.5%, or 26,000 visits.

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Diolch i’r Gweinidog am ei eiriau caeredig. I will help Hansard with the spelling later.

In terms of competitive disadvantage, 24 EU states already have a reduced rate of VAT on tourism. In addition, the economic study by Professor Adam Blake, using the Treasury’s own modelling technique, showed that a cut in tourism VAT would increase GDP by £4 billion per annum.

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A strong tourism sector needs a strong economy. Wales is the fastest-growing part of the United Kingdom, which creates a greater opportunity to attract tourists from not only the UK but beyond. VisitBritain is launching the Countryside is Great campaign, from which I know the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency is set to benefit.

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The Minister is right to highlight the successes of the Welsh tourism industry. Will he reflect on the benefits of a cut in VAT for rural economies, particularly those in west Wales—the constituency of the Secretary of State and Ceredigion, Powys and Dwyfor Meirionnydd? They would really benefit because they are incredibly fragile economies.

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VAT rates are a matter for the Treasury, but the hon. Gentleman will be able to make such points in the forthcoming Treasury debate. We need to ensure that Wales gets its fair share of VisitBritain, and the Countryside is Great campaign provides a great opportunity for his constituency and large parts of Wales to ensure that Wales is promoted internationally as well as within the United Kingdom.

Severn Barrage

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4. What assessment he has made of the potential benefits to south Wales of the Severn barrage. [907771]

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We have made it clear that we remain open to considering any well developed and privately funded proposals that come forward for harnessing the tidal range resource in the Severn estuary. The right hon. Gentleman’s tenacity on this and a great number of other subjects will of course be greatly missed when he leaves this place. I look forward to meeting him next week to talk further about the Severn barrage project.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State. Is he aware that the company now taking forward the Severn barrage—exclusively for any form of renewable energy—requires no consumer subsidy through a contract for difference? That could be a game changer for the Government.

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I thank my Welsh Labour colleagues for their comradeship, especially during my two years as a Welsh Minister and seven years as Secretary of State for Wales? We can be proud that we established a Welsh Assembly, and it has been a privilege to serve.

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I thank the former Secretary of State for his question. As I said, I look forward to talking to him in more detail about the project, and to understanding how the proposal might have changed since he and his associates last presented the ideas to various Committees. Let me add that I am proud to be part of a Government who believe in major infrastructure investment, and who are delivering strategic infrastructure investment in Wales the likes of which we have never seen before.

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As a lifelong advocate of the Severn barrage, I think that we must now reluctantly admit that the time for the barrage has gone and that there is a better alternative in the form of lagoons at Newport, Cardiff and Swansea. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He is aware of my enthusiasm for the lagoons project. That is why the Wales Office worked hard to secure the inclusion of the lagoon proposal for Swansea bay in the national infrastructure plan. There is a planning process in place and we need to respect that, but I am proud to be part of a Government who are working constructively and positively with the developers to take the project forward.

Jobs Growth Wales

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5. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Welsh Government on the role of Jobs Growth Wales in tackling youth unemployment in Wales. [907772]

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8. What discussions he has had with Ministers in the Welsh Government on the role of Jobs Growth Wales in tackling youth unemployment in Wales. [907775]

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I am proud of the efforts of this Government that have seen youth unemployment in Wales fall by 46% over the course of this Parliament. I have discussed with the Welsh Government the support that is available to help people into work to ensure that there is a coherent and joined-up approach in Wales.

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Jobs Growth Wales has created 12,000 job opportunities for young people across Wales. Why will the UK Government not replicate it?

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The Jobs Growth Wales scheme has been popular with employers—it is a wage subsidy, so of course employers like it. It is important to recognise that Jobs Growth Wales is for people who are so-called job-ready. An independent evaluation by Ipsos MORI, which was commissioned by the Welsh Government, found that 73% of people who found work through Jobs Growth Wales would have found work anyway. That raises questions about whether it is a good use of taxpayers’ money.

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Jobs Growth Wales has created more than 400 jobs for young people in Blaenau Gwent. However, people need to be able to get to the jobs market on the coast in Cardiff and Newport. Given that the funding is now agreed, when will the valley lines electrification be completed?

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I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has referred to the valleys electrification project. It was a great achievement of this Government, along with the Welsh Government, to secure a deal to deliver electrification not just of the great western line to Swansea but, crucially, through to the valleys communities as well. We look forward to work starting on that project, subject to the Welsh Government agreeing the details, in 2018-19.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just Jobs Growth Wales but the coalition Government’s long-term economic plan that has delivered the unprecedented falls in youth unemployment, and that the binary choice that will be presented to the people of Wales on 7 May is between jobs, growth and prosperity and debt, deficit and dole queues?

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As ever, the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee is exactly right. He expresses the situation perfectly. What puts at risk all the great progress we have made in cutting long-term and youth unemployment across Wales is the prospect of a Labour Government who have no plan and no vision for the Welsh economy.

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11. Will my right hon. Friend note that in my constituency unemployment has fallen by more than 30% since my election? Will he take every opportunity to remind the electorate and the House of something that has been true throughout the 23 years since I was first elected to the House, which is that every Labour Government have left office with unemployment higher than when they came to office? [907778]

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My hon. Friend should take pride in his record. On his watch, the falls in unemployment in Cardiff North have been truly impressive over the past five years. I know that Craig Williams, our excellent Conservative candidate in Cardiff North, will carry on the good work through all the excellent contacts he has with businesses across the city.

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Given the 80% success rate of the Labour Welsh Government’s Jobs Growth Wales programme and the Secretary of State’s new-found enthusiasm for devolution, why did he not include in his St David’s day announcement the devolution of the Work programme, which, under his Government, gets only a miserable 10% of clients into work in Wales and is clearly failing people in Wales?

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I thank the hon. Lady for that question. The crucial point is that the Work programme was brought forward by the coalition Government—the UK Government—and has helped more than 17,000 people in Wales who had been unemployed for the longest periods. Let us not forget how complacent the previous Labour Government were about long-term unemployment in Wales: the rate of long-term unemployment increased by more than 160% on their watch.

Cross-Border Health Care

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6. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Minister for Health on cross-border health care provision. [907773]

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Wales Office Ministers hold regular discussions with Ministers in the Welsh Government on a range of issues, including the provision of health care services along the England and Wales border. We will continue to review current arrangements to ensure that they meet patients’ needs on both sides of the border.

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A major problem facing rural Wales is difficulty in attracting GPs to come to work in Wales, and one reason for that is the bureaucracy involved in GPs having to go through a process of specific Welsh registration. Will the Minister work with the Welsh Government and the Department of Health to bring forward a common registration programme for Wales and England?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. We want the greatest flexibility in the NHS work force across the whole United Kingdom. The regulatory burden and bureaucracy involved is unacceptable, and the Department of Health and Welsh Government are working together with the support of the Wales Office to put that right.

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Many health services for my constituents are delivered from England by specialist hospitals. Why do the Secretary of State and the Minister want to take away the voice of MPs from Wales to speak up on behalf of their constituents and look after their interests?

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I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s premise. Welsh MPs will still be here fighting for their constituents and ensuring the best care for them, be it on the Welsh or English side of the border. That is what we will be elected for.

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Rural GP practices are at particular risk, as shown by the proposed closure of the Llanwrtyd GP surgery, and patients will have nowhere to go. Will the Minister make representations not only to the Royal College of General Practitioners but to the Wales Deanery, to encourage more GPs?

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That is a matter for the Welsh Government, but I will happily raise that point. The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) underlines the fact that flexibility would create greater opportunity to try to fill those gaps.

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Will the Minister concede that one of the main problems with the health service in Wales is underfunding, on which the new announcement on further devolution has signally failed to deliver?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about funding, and there have been many debates in the Chamber about the funding of the NHS in England and in Wales. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) once said, Aneurin Bevan would turn in his grave if he thought that a Welsh Labour Government were cutting the NHS budget while a Conservative Government in Westminster were growing the NHS budget.

National Police Air Service (Dyfed Powys)

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7. What discussions he has had with the National Police Air Service on the provision of helicopter services within Dyfed Powys police force area. [907774]

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As a police-led initiative, it is for the National Police Air Service Strategic Board to develop the operating and financial models to meet the needs of all forces throughout Wales and England.

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The Dyfed Powys helicopter base at Pembrey is a state-of-the-art facility that opened only in 2010, at a cost of £2 million to the residents of the force area. Last month the newly created National Police Air Service reneged on an agreement made only last November to preserve that base. Dedicated helicopter capacity is vital to policing in the Dyfed Powys area. On Monday, for example, the helicopter saved the life of an injured man at the LNG facility in Pembrokeshire, transporting him to Heath in Cardiff. Will the Minister raise that issue with the Home Secretary and NPAS, and will he meet me to discuss the concerns of the people of west Wales?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I pay tribute to the police and crime commissioner, Chris Salmon, for his work on that. He has an agreement in place that extends access to the helicopter service from 12 to 24 hours, with an 85% priority recall within 20 minutes. That is delivering more for less money. [Interruption.]

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Order. There is a lot of noise in the Chamber. Let us have some order for the Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons, Mr Graham Allen.

Income Tax Assignment

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9. What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister on income tax assignment to Wales being carried out on the same basis as applies in Scotland. [907776]

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I have regular discussions with the First Minister on holding a referendum on the devolution of income tax to the National Assembly for Wales, as provided for in the Wales Act 2014. Following our commitment to a funding floor for Wales there is no reason for the First Minister not to call a referendum in the next Parliament.

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Does the Minister accept that Scotland has now set a precedent on income tax assignment that can meet the base load of its expenditure? Will he continue his work to ensure that Wales also has income tax assigned? Will he talk to his colleagues in England to ensure that they understand that the basis of devolution in England must be financial independence by income tax assignment, too?

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I am a bit surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s question, because the Government have worked really hard to deliver a devolution package for Wales that strengthens and clarifies, and makes devolution fairer for Wales. The negative response from Welsh Labour in Cardiff in recent days speaks more about the divisions between Labour in Westminster and in Cardiff. He really should speak to his own colleagues.