The Secretary of State was asked—
Summer Budget 2015
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I congratulate the new shadow Wales team and welcome them to their places. I particularly congratulate the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), and wish her well in her new role.
The summer Budget was a one nation Budget to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom. It was a Budget to help to create a higher-wage, lower-tax, lower-welfare economy, and a Budget to reward hard work while protecting the most vulnerable in our society.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) on her very well-deserved promotion. The Budget actually cut millions from over 200,000 working families in Wales. How can the Secretary of State justify pushing even more Welsh children into poverty?
I just do not accept the right hon. Lady’s charge. We discussed this issue at length in this place yesterday, and the measures passed with a comfortable majority. The truth is that the vast majority of people in Wales will benefit financially from all the measures we are putting in place through the Budget. I never thought I would see the day when Labour Members stood up to talk down the efforts we are making to increase pay for working people across Wales.
My hon. Friend asks a really good question. What we have seen over the past five years, despite the scaremongering and Labour’s talking down of the Welsh economy, is unemployment continuing to fall. Today’s figures demonstrate once again that record numbers of people in Wales are going back to work—there is no reason to think that that will not continue—and we will achieve our long-term ambition of full employment.
The Prime Minister repeatedly promised before the election not to cut child tax credits, so will the Secretary of State explain to the 250,000 families in Wales who are losing an average of £1,000 a year, 90% of which will not be recouped by the rise in the minimum wage, just why his Conservative Government are breaking that promise? By reducing work incentives and hitting low-income families, any pretence they ever had to represent working people has been exposed as the sham it always was.
I am really surprised by the tone that the shadow Secretary of State adopts for her first question. As I said, we discussed this issue at length yesterday. We have just come through an election in which the people of this country gave a very strong mandate and endorsement to one party to carry on fixing the economy and reducing the deficit. We cannot get on top of that or achieve it without tackling our spiralling welfare costs. I thought during the election campaign that Labour Members seemed to be getting close to understanding that, but I now see that they have abandoned all hope.
We have a broken promise on child tax credits. The majority of the 250,000 families affected are in work, and the Government are deliberately choosing to push them into poverty. It is not only they who will lose out. These cuts will suck £200 million out of the Welsh economy, which is money that families, out of sheer necessity, spend directly in their local high streets. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the knock-on effects of that lost income on jobs in our communities across Wales?
Ahead of the summer Budget, we of course analysed how the measures taken together would affect people up and down the country. As I have said, eight out of 10 families will be better off as a result of the measures we are taking. The hon. Lady knows as well as I do that low pay has been a curse on the Welsh economy for far too long. I repeat the point that I never thought I would see the day when Labour Members stood up to talk down the efforts that we are making to drive up wage levels for people all across our country.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I too congratulate Labour Front Benchers on their appointments.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Greater mobility means reputable, recognisable and comparable qualifications are more important than ever. The CBI has said that employers believe that qualifications across the UK need to be directly comparable.
Is the Minister aware that if one puts the words “Wales”, “Labour”, “Education Minister” and “apology” into Google, one can read an admission from that Education Minister that Welsh Labour’s education policies have been an absolute failure? Does he agree that if we are serious about raising educational standards in Wales, we need only wait until the May Welsh Assembly elections, when instead of ditching the curriculum we can ditch the Labour Welsh Assembly Government?
In the first instance, we need to recognise the success of pupils who passed their A-levels and GCSEs in the summer. However, there is a worrying gap between the trends in Wales and England. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has said, the results speak for themselves. With free schools, academies and other reforms in England, 1 million more children are in good or outstanding schools here—sadly, those reforms have not been made in Wales.
One great success story in Wales is the growth of Welsh medium schools and the emphasis on language learning in the Welsh curriculum. We have put paid to the nonsense that people in this country have to be monolingual. How will the Minister share that success right across the nations of the UK?
There has been great success in encouraging people to learn Welsh in Wales. Of course, that should not come at the cost of any other language. It is important that we champion that success: bilingual education can work and does work. We will encourage as many people as possible to learn not only Welsh, but modern foreign languages in Wales and across the UK.
I know that the Minister, who has a coterminous boundary with me, will want to congratulate the pupils and teachers in schools in his constituency and mine who this year produced record summer results for A-level students and an improved performance at A* to C in GCSEs in English language, Welsh, maths and science. Rather than talk them down, will he congratulate those students and schools?
The hon. Gentleman either ignored the answer I gave earlier or prepared his script before he came to Question Time. I did congratulate the students who succeeded. My point was that we need more students in Wales to succeed because there is a worrying gap between the success in England and the success in Wales.
It is 12 months since the NATO summit showcased Wales to the world, and the Welsh tourism industry continues to boom. It is an essential part of the Welsh economy, attracting investment, jobs and record numbers of visitors to Wales. International visitors spent £368 million visiting Wales last year.
My hon. Friend has a point. International events play a significant role in attracting visitors, while promoting Wales and the UK to the world. The rugby world cup not only means that Wales will lift the Webb Ellis trophy; it gives us a great opportunity to sing the Welsh national anthem and the UK national anthem together.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of the importance of the NATO summit that the last Government took to Wales. That not only allowed us to promote Wales around the globe, but was an important step towards the commitment that 2% of GDP would be spent on defence.
10. Given all the Government schemes to encourage tourism in Wales, does the Minister think it is fair that people who want to visit Wales are thumped with a toll of £6.50 on the Severn bridge? What will he do to stop that tax on tourism? (901181)
I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s interest in the Severn toll, as well as that of many Members from all parties across the House. The law has been in place for decades, but the concession will end in 2017 or 2018, depending on traffic volumes. That gives us the opportunity to bring innovations to the crossing, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already made significant moves in this area.
Welcome though the trend of increasing visitor numbers is, I know that the Minister is not one to rest on his laurels. With that in mind, what discussions has he had about reducing VAT on tourism, which would boost many local economies throughout the country?
That seems to be a perennial question from Members. VAT is a matter for the Chancellor, who always keeps such matters under review, and there are currently no plans to change VAT on the tourism sector. There are great things in Wales that we can champion to encourage more tourists to Wales. The Countryside is GREAT campaign is promoted by VisitBritain and provides an excellent opportunity for that, and I look forward to the UK tourism Minister visiting Cardiff shortly to discuss the great opportunities that it offers.
Confidence in the tourism sector in my constituency is riding high, as illustrated by the £5 million refurbishment of the Llandudno Bay hotel. Does my hon. Friend agree that the only threat to confidence in that sector in Wales is the anti-business rhetoric of the Labour party?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and his constituency depends significantly on income from the tourism sector. He rightly highlights the fact that every tourism business is a business, and the changes that we have made to make this a more entrepreneurial, innovative and growth-driven economy not only help every business but have particular relevance to the tourism sector.
Next month Blaenavon world heritage site in my constituency will host the UNESCO world heritage youth summit. Will the Minister congratulate Blaenavon on that, and agree how important it is that we showcase our world heritage sites in Wales to the world?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing the House’s attention to that issue. The summit is important and I congratulate Blaenavon and wish the community well. I remember UNESCO awarding world heritage status to Blaenavon. The Welsh Government did a good job promoting the area, and the UK Government have a part to play in developing that further.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans), tourists arriving in Wales this weekend for the rugby world cup will face paying the highest toll in the UK on the Severn bridges—something that Welsh commuters and businesses face every day when they travel over those bridges. Will the Minister commit to make it a personal priority to press for a significant reduction in the toll once the concession ends, beyond the VAT reduction, and fight hard for that in government?
The hon. Lady regularly raises that issue, and the Government appreciate its importance. We have already committed to reducing VAT when the concession ends, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has gone even further because small businesses with light vans will pay the same price as cars, reducing the rate from more than £13 to closer to £5. The end of the concession provides us with an opportunity to do more, and that debate and discussion is ongoing.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new role as leader of his party. Benefit sanctions are a necessary part of a welfare system that encourages people to take up support, while being sustainable and fair. Our welfare reforms have helped thousands of people from across Wales move from inactivity into work.
I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words. Some areas of Wales have high unemployment and low economic activity, and getting a job or extra hours is not easy, or even impossible. What has he done personally, as our Secretary of State, to ensure that our people are not subject to arbitrary and unfair benefit sanctions?
I repeat that we need benefit sanctions if we are to reform the welfare system in a way that will encourage hard work and responsible decisions, but they are used as a matter of last resort. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about rurality as I am from a rural area myself, but I remind him that unemployment has fallen significantly in his constituency over the past five years, and we thoroughly expect that to continue.
Following yesterday’s decision, Welsh families will lose between £1,000 and £2,500 in tax credits every year. Is the Secretary of State confident that his constituents, and mine, are aware of that change, so that they can plan cuts to food, fuel, clothing, footwear and—dare I say it?—even travelling to work?
The hon. Gentleman paints a very negative picture. His constituency, like a great many in Wales, has suffered too long from the curse of low pay, so I thought he would welcome the fact that one of the things we are doing to transform the Welsh economy is introduce a national living wage, which will benefit thousands of families in his constituency and mine
Would the Secretary of State allow made-up quotes to be included in leaflets from the Wales Office? If not, does he think it is acceptable that the Department for Work and Pensions did just that when it made up quotes about benefits sanctions?
The information the hon. Lady refers to was used for illustrative purposes only. I think it is actually helpful to provide information based around real-life case studies so that people can understand how changes we make affect families in different circumstances.
Great Western Line
I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport. He and I share a total commitment to the electrification of the Great Western line all the way through to Swansea. Both he and the Prime Minister have been clear about the priority we all place on this strategic project.
Earlier this week, the Secretary of State told the Welsh Affairs Committee about Sir Peter Hendy’s stakeholder consultation. Are all the stakeholders committed to the project and, more importantly, did he share the UK Government’s commitment to the project with Sir Peter?
What matters above all else is our commitment, from the Prime Minister downwards, to completing the project. Opposition Members have expressed a lot of concern about the progress of the project. If they do not believe it is happening, I would encourage the hon. Lady and her colleagues to walk the length of the route, because they will see work happening right now to deliver this really important project.
14. Will the Secretary of State give a cast-iron guarantee, here and now, that in his review Sir Peter Hendy, the newly appointed chief executive of Network Rail, will not look again at stopping the electrification of the line to Cardiff and having dual fuel from Cardiff to Swansea? (901185)
I am not sure the hon. Gentleman quite knows about these issues. We are totally committed—I cannot be clearer than that—to electrifying the Great Western line all the way through to Swansea, as part of a programme of infrastructure investment bigger than anything this country has seen since the days of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Over the summer, it was reported that electrification of the Great Western line was costing four times more per mile than the UK’s last major infrastructure project, the east coast main line, which was completed in 1991. [Interruption.] One reason for the escalating costs are the compensation payments to train operators, which did not arise in the case of the east coast main line because the service was in public ownership. With the cost to the public purse now reportedly £1 billion more than projected, does the Secretary of State believe that the schedule 4 payments are justified, and does he agree that the profit-for-dividend model must be taken out of rail services? [Interruption.]
In fairness, I did not hear all of the hon. Gentleman’s question, so I will write to him about the specific issues. He is right that electrification is a really expensive way of investing in our railways, but it is the right thing to do. We have asked Sir Peter Hendy to look at all the different projects that Network Rail is juggling and report back to us this autumn with an update, but nobody in this place or outside should be in any doubt about our commitment to delivering electrification all the way through to Swansea.
Civil Service Jobs
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues on a range of issues, including civil service jobs in Wales. I appreciate that the civil service, as a major employer in Wales, contributes significantly to the Welsh economy.
With 30 years of whinging and whining from job gluttons, mostly from London, set against the huge success of the relocation of civil service jobs in Wales, when will we hear a strong clarion call from Welsh Ministers to defend jobs in the broad acres of Wales and away from polluted, overcrowded and congested London?
I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to reports about the Office for National Statistics. Sir Charlie Bean’s review is a wide-ranging report, independent of Government, into how to address future challenges to the measurement and production of economic statistics. He referred specifically to the support given by the Wales Office. I am sure that my predecessors would like me to highlight that the number of civil servants employed across the UK has fallen by 17% but in Wales by only 13%. That is a credit to my predecessors.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is talking about shifting jobs from Wrexham in north Wales to Cardiff. Will the Minister meet me to ensure that north Wales has civil service jobs and that the Tories in Wales do not sell north Wales down the river again?
I do not accept the premise of the question. The Government’s commitment to north Wales is significant. We are looking at the improvement of the railway line across north Wales, and the hon. Gentleman will be more than aware of the impact that the prison will have in north Wales. Of course we want to ensure that all the jobs are as efficient as possible. I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman on the detail of the point that he has brought to the attention of the House.
What discussions has the Minister had with the people in the civil service who are responsible for the provision of library services about the appalling decision to remove an exhibition about Israeli and Palestinian people playing football together? Does he think that the decision to remove the exhibition will bring people together and further knowledge, which is what libraries are supposed to be about?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, referring to a disgraceful decision and act by Cardiff city council ahead of a visit from Israel to Cardiff. I hope that the leaders of his party on Cardiff city council will hear and take note of his comments.
In 2011, the Labour Welsh Government announced that 5,000 jobs will be created in the Deeside enterprise zone. Four years later, fewer than 1,000 have been delivered. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that north Wales will benefit from the Mersey Dee Alliance?
These are primarily Assembly issues, and I will look into them on behalf of my hon. Friend. What I can say is that business in north Wales, as throughout the whole of Wales right now, is filled with concern and dismay about the posture of a Labour party that is increasingly anti-business, anti-British and anti-worker.
The Port Talbot steelworks in my constituency accounts for over 4,000 jobs, but it is facing crippling energy bills. Does the Secretary of State agree that urgent action is now required to help the steel industry to reduce its energy costs?
The hon. Gentleman may be aware that I was in his constituency just a fortnight ago with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise to meet Tata Steel—and we also met Celsa Steel that day—to talk about precisely the issues he raises. It is a concern. People in the steel industry are a concern for us, and we are working with the industry to provide compensation for the higher bills it faces as a result of our renewable obligations.
Does the Secretary of State not agree that the economy of Wales would be boosted by the exciting proposed spaceport at Llanbedr? What discussions has he had with his Cabinet colleagues about bringing the spaceport to Llanbedr?
The hon. Lady knows, because we discussed this on Monday, that I share her excitement and enthusiasm about the prospect of a spaceport coming to Llanbedr in her constituency. The Government are looking at various sites and various options, but I am in discussions with my colleagues at the Department for Transport about how we can secure that facility potentially for Wales.
The northern powerhouse is a fantastic opportunity for north Wales. My hon. Friend will appreciate that there is significant economic and business value in strengthening links in the region.
Will my hon. Friend say whether Welsh Ministers are engaging positively with the United Kingdom Government in pursuing the northern powerhouse agenda, or are they maintaining their customary position that nothing that happens in Cheshire is of any interest to the people of Flintshire?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I must admit that I was disappointed with the Welsh Government’s attitude to the northern powerhouse, highlighting what they said was lowly aspiration and offering only trickle-down benefits to north Wales. The reality is that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s plans for the northern powerhouse are about building a strong economy and a strong United Kingdom.
North Wales suffers from some of the poorest mobile phone coverage across the United Kingdom. If we want to have a powerhouse in north Wales and the north of England, will the Government intervene to ensure universal coverage in north Wales and make it the digital centre of the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, when he was Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, brought together a groundbreaking arrangement between mobile operators, in addition to the Telefónica deal, with the auction for the 4G communication network, that will deliver at least 95% coverage for the whole of Wales and 98% across the rest of the UK. That is in contrast to the 3G deal that was offered by the previous Labour Government, which led to less than 90% coverage across Wales.