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Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 17 June 2015

The Secretary of State was asked—

EU Referendum

1. What discussions he has had in Wales on the implications for Wales of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. (900270)

As this is the first Wales Office business since the election, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome new and returning Members, especially new Welsh Members. I look forward to working with them all over the next five years in the best interests of Wales.

On the EU referendum, I have been listening to what people and businesses across Wales have to say, and what they want is a less intrusive, less costly and less burdensome membership of the EU. We intend to secure that and deliver an in/out referendum by the end of 2017.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the spectacular U-turn by the Labour party demonstrates just how out of touch it is with business and local opinion in Wales?

The Secretary of State will focus his reply on the Government’s position. A brief sentence will suffice.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The Labour party fought its entire election campaign by scaremongering about the EU referendum, showing that it was wrong on that issue, as on so many others—wrong in Gower, wrong in Cardiff North and wrong in the Vale of Clwyd.

Order. I was being very generous to the Secretary of State, but he must not abuse my generosity. I was trying to be kindly to a new Member.

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that it is important to have an objective assessment of the implications for the people of Wales of pulling out of the EU. Will he therefore commission an objective report on the issues and publish the results?

The right hon. Lady makes an extremely useful and important point. We want the people of the UK to make an evidence-led decision. It is not for the Wales Office to commission such a report, but I suspect that many other independent organisations will be looking at such evidence, and we look forward to seeing the results.

The provisions of the European Union Referendum Bill that relate to the dilution of purdah would apply no less to the Welsh Assembly Government than to Her Majesty’s Government. Will the Secretary of State please undertake to mention that to his right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe so that the people of Wales can expect a fair referendum?

I have had several discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe on issues relating to the EU referendum in Wales, and the important decision that has been taken is to avoid the referendum clashing with the Assembly elections.

I welcome the Secretary of State and his team back to the House, and I offer the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), who has been detained on urgent personal business.

Given that more than 150,000 jobs in Wales depend on our membership of the EU, can the Secretary of State say whether any members of his ministerial team belong to or support the Conservatives for Britain group? What does he have to say to sceptical Government Members about the benefits of EU membership for Wales?

I am absolutely clear: I want to approach the EU referendum campaigning for Britain to stay in a reformed EU. We have huge support from people and businesses across Wales for the Prime Minister’s strategy of seeking a less costly and less intrusive membership of the EU, and one of the most useful things we can do in this House is give him our full-throated support in those renegotiations.


2. What assessment he has made of the effects in Wales of the Government’s long-term economic plan. (900271)

The Government’s long-term economic plan is clearly working for the Welsh economy. The UK is the fastest growing nation of the G7, and Wales is the fastest growing part of the UK. Our long-term economic plan has achieved some of the highest levels of employment in our history.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Having hauled my constituency out of the hands of Labour dominance after 109 years, I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees that the general election result demonstrated clearly what we knew all along, which is that the Labour party, together with its failing chums in Cardiff Bay, was consistently on the wrong side of the economic argument.

My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. His success in Gower was one of the most remarkable across the United Kingdom. His presence here is testament to the economic success of the Conservative Government. To his credit, he has played a significant part in lobbying the Government on major infrastructure projects that will benefit his constituency, such as electrification of the Great Western main line all the way to Swansea.

Cutting the Severn bridge toll should be an integral part of any plan for the Welsh economy, because we have the highest tolls in the UK, and they hit bridge users in south Wales particularly hard. Yes, VAT will come off the toll in 2018, but that is not nearly enough. Can the Minister confirm that he will be lobbying the Secretary of State for Transport extremely hard so that we get a much fairer deal for Severn bridge users?

The hon. Lady has raised that matter on several occasions. I am sure that she was pleased to hear the Chancellor announce that VAT will no longer apply, but she is right that we need to go further. We are abolishing category 2 so that white vans and pink minibuses will pay the same price as a light vehicle, unlike the way it was left by the Labour party.

I very much welcome any rise in employment in Wales, but more than half of all households with children in Wales, many of which include people working in low-income jobs, rely on tax credits to make ends meet. What reassurance can the Minister give to those Welsh families that his Government’s long-term economic plan does not include cutting their child tax credits?

The Government’s long-term economic plan is taking people out of poverty and bringing them into work. The hon. Lady should welcome the unemployment data that were announced today, which show that more than 100,000 private sector jobs have been created in the Welsh economy. Unemployment is falling and investment is growing. I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome that.

Indeed, I did welcome that. Yet again, there were no real answers from the hon. Gentleman; perhaps he is practising to be Prime Minister. Families across Wales who are going out to work and doing their best for their children will be very worried by that answer. If he cannot give full reassurance that his Government will protect tax credits, will he at least speak up and try to stop his fellow Ministers giving a kick in the teeth to working families while passing laws to protect millionaires from tax rises?

I am surprised that the Labour party is still pursuing the wrong priorities. It is on the wrong side of public opinion. The public rightly demand that we reform welfare and incentivise people to work. That policy worked over the past five years and I hope that she will welcome its continuation over the next five years.

Welsh Government Funding

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the level of funding received by the Welsh Government. (900272)

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the level of funding received by the Welsh Government. (900274)

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the level of funding received by the Welsh Government. (900280)

I have regular discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Treasury Ministers, the First Minister and the Welsh Finance Minister on the level of funding received by the Welsh Government.

The Secretary of State may be aware that my constituency had the terrible news yesterday that Dobson & Crowther in Llangollen had gone into administration. Will he assure me that he will work with the Welsh Government on that? Does he agree that the £50 million of in-year cuts to the Welsh Government’s budget that the Chancellor has brought in are a very bad thing and that we cannot have the same thing again, because we need to be working together for the people of Wales?

We are aware of the situation in the hon. Lady’s constituency. We stay in close touch with Jobcentre Plus and the Welsh Government to find ways to support those who face uncertainty over their jobs. We have just been through an election campaign in which responsibility over finances was at the heart of the debate. The fact that she is standing here today, saying that the Welsh Government should somehow be immune from shouldering any of the responsibility for getting on top of our national finances, shows that she has learned nothing from the past five years.

Wales did not benefit from Barnett consequentials from the Olympics. Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether south Wales will benefit from HS2? If it will not, will there be a Barnett consequential?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the House. HS2 is a strategic project that will benefit the whole United Kingdom. It will benefit Wales, not least through the new hub station at Crewe, which will increase the potential for electrification in north Wales. On that basis, there is no argument for a Barnett consequential.

Does the Government’s failure to eliminate the deficit in the last Parliament not mean that Wales faces further significant cuts, which will be deeper than those we have had so far? Why should the people of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney pay for the Chancellor’s broken promises?

The hon. Gentleman risks repeating the mistakes that his colleagues made throughout the five years of the last Parliament, when they set their face against responsibility and failed to support any of the measures that we took to get on top of the national deficit. Something that they might want to learn as they review their election defeat is that people up and down the United Kingdom support financial responsibility.

12. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Welsh Government should be held more financially accountable to the Welsh taxpayer for the money they spend? Will he consider including in the anticipated Wales Bill the devolution of income tax without the unnecessary block of a referendum? (900281)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the need for the Welsh Government to assume greater responsibility for raising money, as well as just spending it. I hear his argument about the referendum, and other people are making similar arguments. However, if the Welsh Government are not up for the challenge of greater financial responsibility, any discussion about whether there should be a referendum is academic.

If money is so tight, how have the Welsh Government found millions of pounds to spend on refurbishing their offices and expanding the ministerial car fleet?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. There are many mysteries about the way in which the Welsh Government operate their finances—we could point to others. The important thing to remember is that at the general election the people of this country gave a strong mandate to this Government to get on top of our deficit and fix our national finances. It is beholden on every Department, where taxpayers’ money is spent, to play its part.

The historic underfunding of Wales is not in doubt. Has the Secretary of State given any further attention to commissioning an urgent report, by someone such as Gerald Holtham, into the precise figure of that underfunding, so that we can act accordingly?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. One of my first conversations after being reappointed as Secretary of State was to meet Gerry Holtham to talk about his analysis of Welsh funding. He agrees with me that we do not need to commission any independent new evidence. The work has been done and we need to crack on with introducing the fair funding floor. We are committed to doing that.

Both Labour and Conservative parties have cynically sought to redefine what constitutes fair funding for Wales, with both parties seeing it as a funding floor rather than putting us on an equal footing with Scotland. Will the Government join the people of Wales, 78% of whom believe that Wales should be funded to the same level per head as Scotland?

Plaid Cymru had one single theme and policy during the general election campaign: funding and seeking parity with Scotland. [Interruption.] A voice behind her asks what about the north-east of England. The trouble with seeking parity with Scotland is that one would have to start dividing up the whole pie. The important thing is that we are delivering on a fair funding floor for Wales that will correct the way the Barnett formula operates for Wales, and she should be supporting that.

Borderlands Line Rail Franchise

4. How the views of English rail passengers will be taken into account after the transfer of responsibility for the Borderlands Line rail franchise to the Welsh Government. (900273)

I have met the Under-Secretary of State for Transport to discuss aspirations to upgrade north Wales’ rail infrastructure. On the franchise, the Wales Office is working closely with the Department for Transport and the Welsh Government to agree which services will be devolved. Specific proposals will be consulted on in due course and I hope the hon. Gentleman will play his part.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He has highlighted the difficulties in implementing some of the practicalities of devolution. Will he meet me and interested bodies from both sides of the border to discuss the practicalities, and how my constituents can be best represented during this process?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question; he makes an important point. Rail passengers just want smooth services on both sides of the border. Administrative boundaries should be there to support rather than to hinder. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s involvement in any discussions.

Many Welsh passengers use railway lines, such as the Great Western line, that are under the control of the UK Government. They are concerned about suggestions that the Government are going to break up and privatise parts of Network Rail. Will the Minister rule that out?

That is, of course, a matter for the Department for Transport, but I will take no lessons from the Labour party on electrification. When the Labour party was in government it left Wales languishing with Moldova and Albania as one of only three nations in Europe without a single track of electrified railway. Some £1.5 billion has been invested in the electrification of the main line right the way through to Swansea. I would hope that the hon. Lady welcomed that.

The new franchise offers a golden opportunity for extra routes connecting north Wales with England and the Republic of Ireland. Does the Minister agree that it is important that we look at the new European structural funds, so that we can have trans-European networks going from Dublin to London, via north Wales?

The hon. Gentleman makes a constructive point. There is a need to develop a project board in north Wales that brings in the Welsh Government, potential European funding and Department for Transport support to develop the best possible, strongest case.

Air Police: Dyfed Powys

6. What plans he has for the future of air police services in the Dyfed Powys area; and if he will make a statement. (900275)

The National Police Air Service plays an important role in keeping the people of England and Wales safe. Operational capability decisions regarding the provision of police air support remain the responsibility of the strategic board.

Maps produced by NPAS show that about half of the Dyfed Powys police force area will fall within 30 minutes’ flying time from a helicopter base, despite NPAS wanting to reach 90% of the population of Wales and England within 20 minutes. Is the Minister content with this extension of response times and with the fact that parts of Dyfed Powys will still not be reachable even within the extended 30-minute timescale?

The hon. Gentleman has a strong record in scrutinising such changes—the Westminster Hall debate just last week was testimony to that—but I also pay tribute to the police and crime commissioner, who is seeking to improve cover and save money at the same time. Any money saved, of course, will create an opportunity to support more officers on the beat.

Anyone looking at the proposed NPAS division will come to the conclusion that the residents of Dyfed Powys will receive a second-class service compared with the dedicated police helicopter service currently enjoyed. Considering that the commissioner is powerless to act, will the Minister join me in calling on the Home Office to hold an urgent review of the situation in Wales, and Dyfed Powys in particular, as it is doing in the north-east of England?

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to meet the police and crime commissioner, who has said he is more than happy to meet him to discuss such issues. There is an opportunity, however, not only to save money but to improve cover. At the moment, the station he talks about operates limited hours, whereas the NPAS proposals would operate 24-hour cover and also provide access to more helicopters and added resilience.

My hon. Friend will know how rural an area Wales is, and the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) is absolutely right to raise this point, but what consideration has the Minister given to combining the Wales police force covering the hon. Gentleman’s constituency with north Wales police in order to provide a better service?

There are no proposals to merge the police forces, but co-operation between them is one way of saving money and operating a much better service. [Interruption.] The reorganisation of the helicopter service under NPAS provides the opportunity for 24-hour cover, which will be much better, as we all know that offenders do not restrict their activities to daylight hours. [Interruption.]

Order. I understand the House is in a state of high excitement and anticipation of Prime Minister’s questions, but I am sure that the people of Wales would expect us to treat their concerns seriously. Let us have a bit of order for Mr Hywel Williams.

Health Policy

7. What discussions he has had on returning control of health policy from the Welsh Government to Westminster. (900276)

I am grateful for that reply. Will the Secretary of State ignore any siren calls there might be for the repatriation of health policy? Does he agree that this is not a matter of a war with Wales or of Offa’s Dyke being the border between life and death, and will he put the responsibility where it lies—with the Labour Governments who have reorganised health and tolerated the situation in north Wales for far too long?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. The Welsh Government have full policy responsibility for health services and all the levers available to them. Full responsibility for the challenges and problems in Welsh health services lies with them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that all those looking across the River Severn enviously at the shorter waiting times and better ambulance response times under the Conservative-run NHS in England have an opportunity for change next May, when they can vote for a Conservative Government in the Welsh Assembly?

As ever, the Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee speaks truth and wisdom. It is not healthy for Wales or the Welsh Labour party for the latter always to assume it will be in power in Cardiff Bay. A non-Labour alternative to running the Assembly would do the Welsh health service the world of good.

Many constituents receive excellent cancer care from Velindre hospital. Is there not a danger when the NHS is used as a political football of diminishing the great work done in such hospitals by the fantastic professionals in the Welsh NHS?

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is referring to, but I know that the former leader of his party said he wanted to “weaponise” the NHS.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the fact that the Welsh Government are ignoring calls for the provision of a cancer drugs fund in Wales, thus putting my constituents at a severe disadvantage in comparison with those on the other side of Offa’s Dyke?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. On doorsteps throughout Wales during the election campaign, people expressed anger and frustration about their inability to gain access to the life-enhancing cancer drugs that are available to patients in England. A petition calling on the Welsh Government to introduce a cancer drugs fund has been signed by 100,000 people in Wales, and I cannot for the life of me understand why the Welsh Government are being so stubborn.

Engineering Careers

Engineers have highly adaptable skills that are valuable across the whole economy. Thanks to the priority that the Government have given to nationally significant infrastructure, there has never been a better time to work or train as an engineer in Wales, or, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom.

I am delighted to note that Renishaw is developing excellent industrial links with Wales, but does the Minister agree that we need more science, technology, engineering and maths and more STEM pupils in the pipeline, so that we can make a proper effort to generate more careers in engineering?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Renishaw, which is in his constituency, is doing exceptionally well in Wales, including, I should add, in my constituency. It is providing the higher engineering skills and investment that we are seeing across the United Kingdom and beyond.

My hon. Friend makes an important point about STEM subjects. He will welcome the establishment of the STEMNET UK-wide network of volunteer ambassadors to support STEM careers. Additional funding of £6.3 million has been provided to support the network.

Wales’s output per head amounts to 70% of the United Kingdom average, which explains why we have the lowest wages in Britain yet some of the largest cuts. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we have our fair share of investment in engineering, in order to boost productivity, boost wages, and boost family incomes for once?

I am surprised to hear that question from the hon. Gentleman. After all, it was his party that left Wales the poorest part of the United Kingdom. Since then, it has become the fastest-growing part of the United Kingdom, and the UK is the fastest-growing nation in the G7. He ought to welcome that, along with the fact that wages and gross domestic household income are growing faster in Wales than in any other part of the United Kingdom. However, we will further improve both productivity and wealth through significant infrastructure spending.

Cross-border Road Links

9. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on cross-border road links between Wales and England. (900278)

I met the Department for Transport and Highways England last week to express my concern about the delays to the A483/A55 roadworks at the Posthouse roundabout. The Government have invested £6 million in that complex scheme, which will deliver significant benefits to road users on both sides of the border. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman supports such investment to improve passenger journeys, tackle congestion and clear the way for business investment in the cross-border region.

But the Government told me in February that the work would be completed by April, by the time of the general election. That has not happened, and the Wales Office did nothing before then to get this work done. Will the Minister assure me that it will completed by 28 June?

Although the hon. Gentleman called for an improvement in the network for many years, his party did nothing in government to bring that improvement about. It was only when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the scheme as part of the pinch point programme in 2011 that action was taken to improve the network. We are now working closely with the Department for Transport.

The hon. Gentleman must be the only Member who calls for roadworks and then complains when that construction is under way.

Great Western Cities Devolution

10. What discussions he has had with the leaders of Newport, Cardiff and Bristol councils on the great western cities devolution proposal. (900279)

Last week I brought together council leaders from across the Cardiff capital region to hear their views on an emerging vision for an ambitious city deal for Cardiff that will create new economic opportunities for the wider area, including the great western cities region.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but obviously my concern is Bristol rather than Cardiff. How does he see a cross-border initiative such as this fitting in with the agenda for city regions, combined authorities and everything else that is going on?

I am clear that my priority is Cardiff and not Bristol, but having a strong Cardiff capital region supported by an ambitious city deal will provide opportunities for both cities. That represents good news for Wales and for the hon. Lady’s constituency.

I know that the Secretary of State shares my excitement about the Cardiff city deal. It has huge potential for Cardiff and it really will deliver for south Wales. Does he share my view that all parties should come together constructively to ensure that Cardiff does not miss out on this opportunity of a generation?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to him for the leadership that he has shown in driving forward a Cardiff city deal proposal. I am clear in my mind that a Cardiff city deal will work only with the Welsh Government, the UK Government, local partners and, crucially, the business community all working together.